Ah, holidays. Endless days of sunshine, long lazy, walks, exploring new places, romantic dinners at the end of energetic days, sleeping blissful nights knowing the work alarm will not go off at 5:30 AM. As I flipped through the guest book full of helpful holiday suggestions from previous tenants in our little Skye self- catering cottage, I noted the dark entry of one teenager, “If your parents suggest climbing the Quiraing, say no.”
The Quiraing, on the Trotternish Peninsula (the name alone is worth rolling around your mouth for awhile), is what’s left after some extraordinary shifting between basalt and lava during the Jurassic Age. Its towers and pinnacles have sheltered herds, thieves, and locals from marauders for at least 1000 years and contributed to a whole genre of ghostly tales. Its most notable towers include the aptly named Prison and Needle. These shapes and hills are infamous throughout the Isle of Skye, repeated in paintings, postcards, photos and souvenir teacups. Touted as Britain’s “most spectacular landslides” all the guides say it is a tourist must-see. Most (regrettably) regard it as an afternoon’s walk, an outing for the whole family.
In my holiday laziness, I said, “Oh sure” when Tom suggested a Quiraing outing, neatly forgetting that teenager’s portentous advice. So of course Tom marked a half day’s Quiraing walk for us, studying his map (which marks it as an A/A+ climb which means the opposite of easy) directing me, the driver/sucker, across beautiful Skye on a bright sunny day. I turned right and left and drove us across and down and over. Eventually we came to a sign that said turn left and go up, so we did. The road grew narrower and steeper and still we went up. We passed a Scottish graveyard half way up, laid out perfectly on the hillside, everyone in neat orderly rows. This serves as a spill- over car park for Quiraing visitors, but is, understandably, “not available during funerals.” As we pulled into the upper car park and looked at the mountainous pile before us, the sensible me yearned to say no, but the rebellious me dutifully donned shoes, fleece and raincoat as the sun had, quite suddenly, fled.
Reassuringly, there were lots of other people there. A popular spot, it included an ice cream van, and, impossibly, several tour busses, which nonchalantly navigated that hairpin single-track ascent and drove on through, pausing only for photo snaps through the bus windows. Children skipped along gaily, dogs strained at leashes, backpacked babies looked balefully out at their world.
Once shod, rain-coated and walking- sticked, I looked more closely at the gentle path these happy climbers were emerging from, and again up at the “hill” directly before us. Here’s what I was insanely thinking, “If THAT path is so easy, why not take a short cut?” I love short cuts, especially if they mean cutting off lots of uphill. One big uphill is better than many small ones in my book, as long as you don’t have to run. Look—a couple pranced down the very hill we considered climbing. Tom pointed out that the couple might have a combined age of 38 and were deeply and suspiciously coated in mud. Hopping from hummock to hummock they arrived far ahead of any of the proper path adherents. I also love going downhill, preferring of course to roll through grassy meadows on dry, soft welcoming hills, arriving at the bottom a bit dizzy, but absolutely one with the stars, the sky, the universe. Let’s go!
Tom, a sign lover and path follower, also loves me. He wanted me to love this walk. He looked up the hill and back at the sign that said, This Way. The wind picked up and the clouds closed in. Tom gazed at the family of five who emerged from the right way and back at the couple who had just reached the car park from the wrong way. So what’s a little mud?
We strode up until we hit the gorse and then we went separate ways for a while, mostly following nettled sheep paths. Gorse scratches, and nettles sting. Plus, a fundamental truth of this United Kingdom: Where There are Many Sheep, There is Much Sheep Shit.Every step was a big one. For a while it was fun--exhausting, but fun, because when you go straight up, especially if you have already driven straight up to get where you are starting from, the views just get better and better. The car park becomes the eensy weensy car park; the hills across the way become visible in a new and magnificent sort of yodely way. Stopping to breathe while pretending to admire the view becomes a very good idea. I imagined us as wee, adventurous specks on the hillside if viewed from below, and rather liked the idea. “Look up there Pa! Those people way are climbing straight up! Can we do that Pa? Please?”
We had been climbing for a while but no summit. Mysteriously, from down below it looked like maybe a fifteen- minute scramble, but forty-five minutes on, there was no “top” to be seen. It dawned on us that there might BE no top, that this might be one of those hills that just toys with you, keeping you climbing as it leans to unattainable. Parts of Scotland are like this, the hills rolling towards the sea, making it easy to visualize the earth as round. Worse still, there was no path to be seen, and the reason the leaping couple were so muddy became abundantly clear. Tom remarked that he had read in his guide to the Quiraing that it is home to an abundant supply of “turgid bog”, which was what we seemed to be mired in. Springy in pleasant places, most of it was tussocks of earth disguised as grass sticking up innocently between deep, wet mud. Freshwater springs were abundant, all earth around them wet. Each step was a chance, and sometimes the dice rolled against us as we found our shoes squelching into watery bog. We were dry up top and dismally wet below. The wind whipped past our heads and the clouds grew darker. There was no path, no summit, and no other climbers. My feet were cold, my legs a little shaky and I really wished I had a hat or a pair of sharp scissors because my hair was constantly getting blown into my mouth.
The sheep didn’t seem to mind. They grazed unperturbed by angle, height, bog or the lack of anything particularly succulent to nibble on. We passed whole flocks on the lower slopes but on the higher ground we met only outcasts. Following their own mysterious paths, they gave us long measured looks, holding their pose for minutes on end, perhaps imagining that they, fluffy white wool bearers, were invisible. We did, (for real), pass a hairy black sheep, well mostly black—she had spots, and was all on her own, knowing full well that she did not fit in anywhere. I, puffing away in my bright blue supposedly
Tom and I stopped to have a “lively confab”. This was of course all my impetuous fault, I could hardly pin it on him, so instead I took it out on geology. What kind of stupid mountain just keeps rolling away? This thing kept tricking us, making it look like there are only another 66 steps and until the top and then you take 41 more steps and the same thing happens all over again, a new faux “top” appearing enticingly within reach. Where were the pointy bits? The whole reason we had come was to see the pointy bits. What was this, some kind of mapmakers’ joke? This country was so casual about just letting people wander off (I conveniently forgot about the sign I saw again on our eventual return to the car park that does explicitly says not to wander off). Did Tom suppose there might be quaking bog hidden in turgid bog? How would we know if we stepped in one? I reviewed what I recalled about saving someone who has fallen through the ice (lie on your stomach and extend a long stick) and shared this informatively with Tom, just in case my next step was my last. He in turn, reminded me that if you sink in mud, don’t struggle, just stand still and await rescue. Having thoroughly alarmed each other, we glumly surveyed the territory around us. Although we were still in the late Scottish summer when the sun stays high for hours, it looked like four p.m. on a winter’s day. What if (drum roll) we were still there when dark fell?
We were long past going back, but had no idea where going on should be. This was wild, open country bounded only by sea and cliff. Tom and I were now taking completely different routes, each of us eager not to step in the bog we just saw the other one wade in to.
Way, way off in the squinty distance, we saw an indication of intentional human interference, a fence in the absolute middle of nowhere, and walked for it, squishing our sodden way around a mini loch before reaching a gate that had been a long time bolted. By now, we wondered if, having broken all rules for safe climbing in Scotland (dress for all weather possibilities, bring a torch, have a good map, bring food, leave a note of your intended route on your car windscreen blah, blah, blah) we may have been really, really dumb. Where were all the weekend hikers? The happy families? The sky pulled in closer and darker and it began to feel more than a little weird—and plenty scary. Surreptiously I checked to see if I had my mobile phone with me, was 911 universal? Nope. I wondered aloud if perhaps we should go back and find that black sheep, tie a note around her neck, smack her bottom and command her to, “Go get help Lassie! Tell them Timmy is in the bog!” Tom looked amusedly at me like I was at the hysteria phase which comes after three weeks drifting in a small boat at sea, and reminded me that we were only three hours into our hike.
The gate led to more moor, more bog. BUT we also spied a cairn—a pile of rocks that can signify a summit where each climber has victoriously left a stone-- or a marked grave. I thought this was hopeful. Tom looked dubiously at me, but wisely said nothing. We headed squelchingly for the cairn, just a field away and although it might also be a burial site, it was definitely a summit. We were quite relieved to know that others had passed this way before us, dead or alive. The cairn had a marker indicating direction and we took a picture of ourselves both in celebration and perhaps to allow our poor potentially orphaned offspring to have a last picture of their parents taken just before they disappeared, leaving only a relatively new Canon 35mm digital single lens reflex camera loaded with pictures of bog as testament to their having passed this way. We were weary, windblown and knee- sore but incredibly pumped by having found an indication of rightness. It was dry here and the views off to the east were fantastic. We saw other huge hills and the glittering sea. The sun shone over there and the light glowed invitingly, but we headed towards gathering storm.
Steering towards what was a most welcome, well -worn path, we passed a group of hearty, backpacked young men headed right. We of course, coming from nowhere, went left, heading down through rock and what was now mud as the skies opened and poured. We glumly made room for a family going up, the six year old making short shrift of the scree-laden, foot- twisting trail, everyone else happily laughing and talking as if they were having a pleasant day out at Country File Expo. As we took a sharp right and turned down what appeared to be a vertical rock- lined toboggan chute, an unsuitably dressed trio of Italian women emerged, and in lilting English asked if this was the way to the top. We informed them most assuredly that it was and the map-free, tra la group, climbed lightly past us, swinging designer handbags, carrying umbrellas, having a lark. We had reached the real trail where hikers can walk across the top of the Quiraing and descend down a comfortable grassy slope (behind us) or take the long, rocky, slippery, narrow, muddy, creepy, dismal way around and see the secrets of the Quiraing up close. That, said Tom, happily peering into his map, was us.
Again abhorring the path most taken, we descended down an eroded gorge made from cascading water, a thousand years of human footsteps and perhaps those of some athletic cows. We slowly hand held our way down rock to rock, and at some inevitable point Tom did twist his foot, so with that out of the way (better he than me, said I charitably, knowing that he’d whine less) we arrived at the long landslip valley, that led to what we had come all this way to see.
This was truly a walk through another world. We picked our way over a lunar path, which while on ostensibly level ground, required close attention to footing. Tom bravely winced every now and then while I encouragingly told him that the best thing for a sore ankle is to walk it off. The valley is more of a canyon and it was easy to imagine the rains funnelled down that rocky chute, turning our trail into a rushing arroyo. But the sun brightened a bit, sending a soft greenish light through grey cloud. The valley stretched ahead and behind us, the dark cliffs rising sheer to our right. There was no one there but us. Not a bird, a deer, a human, a sheep, a cow, a midge, but there was a feeling of others that sent chills up my back. It wasn’t a nice feeling and I walked more quickly, no longer content with sauntering in my own time. It was a very, very long valley and as the path rose along its side, edging upward, it felt treacherous and frightening.
Incredibly, someone, at sometime, built stone fences here. The Prison, the fortress of stone rising sharply beside and above us, is itself not visible from down the mountain, so a clan could hide a whole herd here and be unseen by rustlers, the huge rocks rearing upward, keeping the secret pastures away from any peering eye. However, I could see it, and although it is fascinating in a terrible way, I just wanted to move on, even though I kept looking back, risking a wrong step. I had never seen anything like this. Tom silently walked on.
The trail grew ever narrower, and became harder work. Ever conscious that one wrong step would be very consequential, I grew increasingly cranky. This is exactly the kind of place where you expect to see little piles of human bones, spat out by the fire-breathing dragon waiting around the next rise. Climbing even higher on to an even narrower, screeful path, I forgot all about blaming the earth and took it out on Tom, maps, guide books and the ever helpful ladies at the Skye Tourist Information Centre safely back in Portree who having suggested this walk, were probably thinking just about now what they should order for tonight’s meal from the Chinese Takeaway across the street.
It wasn’t even scenic, just eerie, like the valleys leading into kudzu -choked lost Tibetan temples, the kind adventurers enthusiastically discover, but never leave….
I wanted down, so illogically I went up. Climbing up a path (stupid) that might lead to a better path (it didn’t) dropped me yards beyond Tom, who, knowing better than to engage me in conversation, simply walked on. In retaliation I sat on a big rock, which was surrounded by millions of smaller rocks (it is possible that all the rocks in the world were there) and called to Tom that I was sitting here forever and some other loud not nice things, the way you sometimes do when you are stressed and tired and you are dead certain there is no one within a million miles who can hear you. Tom had conveniently rounded the corner escaping my echoes, and I was alone. Or I thought I was alone. Rocks skittered and slid alarmingly behind me and I looked back for the dragon but it was a runner who burst up the trail, leaping past me (with the requisite British apology for sharing even this enormous space of, “Sorry”) and gone.
Energised and embarrassed, I quickly caught up to Tom (by sliding down a scree-hill) and we navigated the last hair -raising mile which had us clinging to rock faces as we crossed a waterfall, crawled up a sheer incline, jumped a ravine and eventually emerged onto the Right Way, where small children cavorted and the sun was shining and the car park, much emptier now, was a beacon of joy.
Trying to look casual, and law abiding, we calmly de-booted, de- raincoated and took great gulps of Scottish Highland bottled water. Heading back down the single track, we made for the Flodigarry Hotel a few miles down the ro
ad for a more bracing drink. The Flodigarry adjoins THE Flora McDonald’s (rebel Jacobite of Skye boat song) home cottage and its terrace has a fabulous outlook on the sea and fields. A young, baseball-hatted (NY Yankees, arrggh, but Tom didn’t hurt him) American man was sitting on the terrace reading Wuthering Heights. We got drinks, admired the view as the sun dipped and left, slowly taking the scenic route through beauteous Uig, until, making a side trip to the Faerie Glen, and wanting my camera to take snaps of any local faeries, I realized that I had left my backpack at the Flodigarry. Tom said nothing, but uttered that incredibly annoying, Ï am so understanding but really this is too muchdeep sigh thing he does. We drove ALL the way back, taking the “shortcut” over the road - through –the- moor that goes through the Quiraing car park which was empty except for the kind of hippy bus that probably brought people who were meaningfully interacting with the sunset, back down the sheer hairpin turn, back to the Flodigarry terrace, retrieved the backpack which was Right Where I Left It and DID THE WHOLE DRIVE ALL OVER AGAIN, only this time we went all the way home. I, despite having steered the car through all this without actually hitting anything or anyone, apologized for two weeks.
The weirdest thing is that I can’t get the image of those strange Quiraing rocks out of my mind. While we were still on Skye, I looked for them in the distance whenever we had a view, even though we were most often on the other side of the island. I saw them in other rock formations, in dreams; I looked back at the island as long as I could see them when we finally sailed away towards Lewis and Harris. I still see them in my mind’s eye and, somehow, despite the long walk, yearn for them in a kind of bizarre Close Encounters of a Third Kindway.