An Overdue Trip to Skye

With the February break over visitors numbers have dipped and, fortunately for me, I’ve been free to not only to get all my work done but also grab back some days off I’ve been owed. The stars aligned enough that both Mary and I were off on Wednesday and thus we decided to make the most of it by heading over to Skye for the day. This week has been unbelievably warm and mild (although record-setting hot winters are not exactly anything to be cheery about) and so there would be no better chance to see Skye when it was quiet. Shamefully, there are huge swaths of Skye I have never stopped at and the two of us have barely touched the place since last year. The aim was to head north, past Kilmuir and knock a few long overdue sights of the list (and get a few snaps of the Jimny on the road of course).

I just couldn’t resist one last snap as we left.

First stop was the Quiraing, which is always an essential stop if you’re out with the car on Skye. During the summer it can be completely unbearable, but it was nicely quiet (or quiet compared to the always-full carpark at the Storr) and the weather was stunning. Very hazy, with a slight chill in the air but stunning as always. Mary snapped this great panorama and a few other shots as I parked up on the corner:

The wee Jimny ran just fine, and she certainly looks the part out in the wilds. I really want some better all-terrain tyres for her though, which I think will make her looks that bit more capable. After that brief photo shoot, however, we raced back down the hill and started up North towards Kilmuir. We spotted a few nice houses and sights along the way, namely the house from Grand Designs a few years ago that I’d never actually seen in the flesh. But what really got my attention was a particularly interesting building perched on the top of a hill. At first, I thought it was an old croft house, but at the base of the hill by the road was a suspiciously world-war concrete build which I figure must have been connected to the interesting block on the hill. We pulled up and decided to have a little explore:

This is actually an HDR Lightroom merge of 3 exposures. Worked well!

When I came home I got up and did a quick map search on Canmore and found it’s actually the remains of the “Kendrom Chain Home Low Radar Station”, an ex-WW2 Radar outpost that I’d never actually heard of. Via Canmore:

It was linked to the nearby RAF camp at Kilmaluag and the Army camp (Cameron Highlanders) at Balmacqueen. Concrete bases of other structures are evident nearby as well as at the bottom of the hill leading up to the Station. During the war the station brought an influx of considerable numbers of service personnel into a very rural, lightly populated Gaelic-speaking area.

Really interesting site that gave me some very Raasay-Iron-Ore-Mine vibes. It also gave me some excellent views over towards the Quiraing, and out over The Minch, where I spotted the Stacan Gobhlach sea stacks that could give those up on Orkney or at Duncansby Head a run for their money:

After that interesting stop, we weren’t long on the road before we were stopping again! This time at a place I’d been long aware of- Duntulum Castle. This once grand castle is, in my opinion, the second or third best castle on Skye & Raasay (and it’s a tough contest).

Viewed from the bottom of the hill, it’s hard now to imagine how impressive Duntulum would have been on the headland.

A book a return to time and time again is the fantastic work of Roger Miket and David L. Roberts in their comprehensive The Mediaeval Castles of Skye and Lochalsh. Their introduction to Duntulum is perfect, and reminds me in many ways of a description of Brochel Castle:

“Nature could hardly have fashioned a situation more fitting for a castle than Duntulum. The great finger of olivine basalt which juts out into the Minch is fringed with irregular precipices fall 30m into the sea below. In its heydey as a home of the MacDonald Chiefs it must have appeared a noble structure and symbol of Macdonald Strength.”

Unfortunately, the castle has significantly degraded in the past century, and photos taken in the 1800s show a much more complete structure than what we see now:

Probably one of the most remarkable accounts is from that of Thomas Pennant, who drew a sketch of the castle in 1771 (by then unused and in disrepair) and actually recorded the account of an old man who remembered it during its heyday:

“The outline of the chiefs galley is drawn upon the window of a room. The staircase is close by and was built outside the wall of the building, ascending what now looks a mere buttress over an archway, and leading to an upper chamber- possibly communicating with all the chambers of that upper story. Two large windows now in ruins, one in the former banquetting halls and one looking northwards over the little bay, were lookout posts, a man was always stationed at each and cannon protruded below. As already stated at high tide formerly the sea cut of the building from the mainland, so that is an island castle; and a bridge which spanned this arm of the ocean was raised ever night and let down only during the day in times of peace. The underground room, now filled up, were lofty and spacious; while a wide corridor ran between them, at the end of which lay the dungeons. A vaulted room, which was under a tower that has fallen within the last year, was the kitchen.”

Amazingly, this outline of the galley described by a window was actually there until the 1990s, when the window eventually fell into the sea. But I’ll bet those large vaulted rooms and basement dungeons are still there, relatively intact and just waiting for excavation.

Some detail on the beautiful cliff face under the castle
The best feature in Duntulum: a complete basement! The remains of the old kitchen basement.
Stitched panorama. Like the view, but a few photos didn’t focus and ruined the effect slightly.

I’ll return at some point with the drone and get better pictures and survey of the site. I could probably have risked it that day, but the wind was a bit unpredictable and because I didn’t know the area very well I decided to leave it be. It was a real highlight of the day though. After that, we jumped back into the truck and headed further north, stopping quickly at another historical site- the old Kilmuir graveyard. Here can be found a couple of things, most notably the monument to Flora MacDonald, who famously helped Bonnie Prince Charlie to escape after his defeat a Culloden. Originally from South Uist- I’ve in fact visited her home near the old temple out there- she died on Skye and is commemorated with this ridiculously large cross:

Admittedly, I know less of Flora MacDonald and the history of the escape as that time period isn’t as much of my expertise. Something, or someone I do know more about however is that of a certain ‘Scottish King’ also found in the graveyard. He’s tucked behind an old stone building:

The apparent story is that this is the grave of Angus Martin. According to tradition (and the information board at the graveyard) “This slab, depicting a mailed figure, once marked the grave of an early Scottish king, but was stolen by Angus to be placed in due course over his own grave. He is reputed to have carried it up on his back from the shore.” Martin Martin’s ‘A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland” from the actually mentions the slab and the apparent history of it in detail, which I think is where most of the story has spawned from.

I’ve heard this story of the ‘stolen slab carried on his own back’ a few times here and there, but the few books I’ve read on the subject have thrown some doubt on the story. It seems more likely that the slab was probably a MacDonald clan slab and was deliberately removed from Iona after the MacDonalds lost claim over the islands (or when their power was in decline around there). It was probably taken to Skye purposefully so it could be used by Martin-MacDonald family on Skye (where it remains to this day) as a sort of continuation of traditions. For one, there seemed to be no fuss kicked up about him stealing this slab, which seems odd, and maybe makes it more likely it was a deliberate, agreed upon move and what’s more, going to the trouble of stealing a random slab, which could have belonged to a different clan (imagine being entombed under a burial slab to the MacLeans for eternity! I’m sure a Martin/Macdonald couldn’t imagine anything worse) doesn’t seem to be very in-keeping with that we know of burial traditions around that time.

An impressive guy all the same.

Now decidedly hungry after WW2 ruins, castle crawling and grave digging, we raced over to Uig, just in time to catch sight of my old workplace pulled in to disgorge some vehicles, before heading back to Portree for a bit of shopping and some food at Aros. All that and we were back home on Raasay for 4.45pm. Cracking stuff.

A great day all in all, and a few places I haven’t seen in years ticked off the list. Neist Point next, then the Fairy Pools, then perhaps a trip to my favourite site Rubh An Dunain. Ah, Skye, how I missed you. I’ll certainly be avoiding you come summer.

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