End of the affair – how I fell out of love with the Isle of Skye

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Sunset on the first evening, following a day of rain and storms.

After 20 years, my love affair with Skye has, I think, now ended. It is not the island, and it is not the people, it is the crowds.

I arrived in pouring rain, which isn’t unusual for anything on the western most side of Scotland, and the next day, with it forecast to be in for the whole day, took a trip into Portree for supplies.

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A short circular walk from Portree take you to views of Dun Caan, past the memorials for the Nicolson/McNeacail clan, but sadly it is cut short at this point due to a landslip.

Skye has become a victim of its own success, attracting over 60,000 visitors for the August bank holiday weekend alone (according to a resident).  The roads, mainly single track with passing places, just cannot cope. Even if the visitors knew how to drive on them…and too many don’t. Without the docking cruise ships, even with just the coaches, the line for the only ladies toilets stretched for over 60 people and part way around the town. When finally you could get a seat, as it were, the result was barely tolerable, and a long way from pleasant. But at least Portree has toilets…

The third day, my second full day on the island, and looking slightly at slightly more promising weather, I set off the most northerly point on Skye – Rubha Hunish on the Trotternish peninsula. After getting my boots nearly sucked off my feet in the boggy terrain following the lines of walkers to ever nook and cranny, I had wished for my wellies! I also wished it hadn’t rained for days beforehand, and quite a few less people.

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The Lookout; ex-Coastguard station and now Mountain Bothy Association open shelter.
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Looking out The Lookout towards the Outer Hebrides in the rain.
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Now that Trotternish is blessed with 4G (albeit intermittent and only recent acquisition), I wonder if the landline phone still works?
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Rubha Hunish points towards the Uists, with views also of the bottom of the Isle of Harris, and on a clear day, potentially, the Isle of Lewis.
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The fireplace that isn’t, and the interesting book collection (a bible, a German philosopher, and a guidebook to Fungi to mention just three).

The walk is an out and back, which means retracing your steps and trying to keep your boots about you when all about you are losing theirs…

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The Northern end of the Trotternish ridge.

…takes you past a cleared village, and on to meet a sheep sank at the “main” road.

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Sheep station, or sank, by the start/end of the walk.
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The main road from the carpark, and the reminder of a time now gone when red phone boxes were needed, and a passing place would illicit a courteous wave.

Just along the road a bit further is the Skye Museum of Island Life – a collection of Blackhouses showing the islands way of life through the ages.

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Blackhouse
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The reconstruction within this Blackhouse shows how up to ten people, including children, would share a space with box beds. It was quiet, warm, and felt comforting and safe, as the wind was howling again from the north, blowing rain into the face when outside.
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A 150 year old loom which was still being used up until the mid 1950s – Skye residents are still multifaceted with many doing more than one job to provide and income. This is true of most island residents throughout the Scottish isles.
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Replica shop in another Blackhouse.

I was particularly moved by a series of letters from Johnnie dating back to WWI and on display in the final Blackhouse. There was one about him shipping out with his chums to France, and another thanking his sister for her parcel, which had reached him at the front. He said she could put in some tinned Salmon, or Sardines, next time if she felt inclined.

Sadly, Johnnie would never receive the second parcel as the third piece of paper on show is the notification from Kitchener’s war office. Johnnie had been Killed in Action just three days after writing his letter to his sister.

………………………

The next day, the weather forecast was terrible so I decided to explore nearby Camas Mor. Just a few minutes drive from the accommodation it was a lovely bay, small harbour, and was well served by a parking area with bins, two bench seat and tables, and a magnificent view. I would have been perfect it here had been a toilet, but as the residents of Skye will tell you, the Council is not inclined to providing (m)any facilities.

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Camas Mor
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Looking towards the Hebrides again, this time from near Camas Mor.

It proved to actually be the best weather day of the entire trip! Sadly, by the time I realised it wasn’t going to get better it was too late.

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The Lily at Camas Mor.

The day was not wasted, although the birds were nowhere to be seen, and the hoped for wildlife of seals, dolphins, and even whales, never appeared either: Just three Cormorants and a few assorted gulls to show for the hours of patient watching, plus some photos too, of course.

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Hand of God?

Driving back a slightly different route, following the grid pattern of small roads, took me past a derelict church which still had some sections of plaster and painted murals covering the remains of the walls.

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Lovaig Bay and the “Coral” Beaches – made from small shells and calcified seaweed.

The final day of the trip and I was desperate for a walk which wouldn’t be a quagmire, after the days of continual rain. I headed, along with a hundred or more other people (and I don’t exaggerate here) towards Dunvegan. Passing by the castle I hoped the beaches would be quieter and on arriving there was a space or two in the car park. By the time I had walked the 4 miles to the far end of the bay and back I was nearly boxed in by some bad parking to the front, a tree to the rear, and unable to open the passenger door for the inconsiderate parking of the neighbour. Almost every car in the place had a ’17’ plate and a sticker on the fuel filler cap reminding the driver what to fill it up with. According to the residents I spoke to, almost every car you see between 7am and 7pm is a hire car. Or a camper van…

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Waves at Lovaig Bay.

My dog ran into the waves, got soaked right over, and came out grinning (Staffordshire Bull Terriers not only have the ability to ‘smile’ but also seem to have very good comic timing and a well judged sense of humour. My first one used to go and sit on the lino’ in the hall when he wanted to fart because it made it much louder…no kidding).

When I got my current squeeze, he was terrified of everything and that including the sea. Now, four years later, he can’t wait to get his paws wet. Watching his shear joy and exuberance of running into the waves made the whole trip, and even the bad weather worth it, but I am sure there were less people in Edinburgh during the Fringe than there was on the Isle of Skye last week.

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The End
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3 Days of Skye – Day 2 (part 2)

You join me again after breakfast.

The sun is out, the sky is blue, etc etc. This is boring. I want thunderstorms, or at least some dramatic clouds, some interesting lighting, and maybe potential downpours with deep blue threatening skies. Completely unlike my fellow hotel guests, who couldn’t be more delighted (I heard them at breakfast) at the wonderful, unseasonal, sunny weather. It appears that many of them are already out (but I wasn’t last to breakfast).

Breakfast done, and I have the OS Map (number 408 if the fancy takes you) spread out across the whole of my single bed. I am pondering what I can photograph, in chocolate box sunny weather.

Well, I have tried the ‘interesting’ shortcut road to Staffin, so why not take the long way round?

I often take the long way around to everything, it’s a bit like travel dithering (see part 1).

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Map with kind permission from isleofskye.com

The light and the sky is boring, but the landscape isn’t, so let’s make the best of it. I saw a Photographic guidebook to Skye in Portree yesterday. I didn’t buy it. I wanted to call it the Honeypot Guide, in my mind. What could be worse than showing you all the places you don’t want to go because everyone, and their dog, is now going there. That’s my theory anyway. Of course, you need to bag those shots I guess, of the famous bits (and there are many), but at least don’t stand in a row next to ten other people doing just that!

(If you think I am exaggerating, there were ten people, nine with tripods, all set up next to other in a neat little row, by the Slig’ bridge, in the really bad light, in mid-week, in mid-February)…

I head off towards Flodingarry, for no other reason than I like the name.

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Totternish Ridge at Flodingarry

Thinking I have the place to myself, I am happy pottering about, when I am then succeeded by another photographer, and a chap who may well have been a paid guide. I wonder if it was the chap who wrote the book?

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Croft hut near Flodingarry, Isle of Skye

Still cold, but not so windy, I can now get the tripod up without relying on some weighty anchorage now. I wandered around for a while looking at angles, but needed a pee (too much tea) so headed off again fairly quickly once the other chap arrived.

Had an ‘Outlander’ moment, or at least I guess it’s in Outlander, or something like it, purely due to the number of people staring at it. I’m not sure why it’s Falls, plural, I could only see the one, but never mind.

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Kilt Rock & Mealt Falls

The sun was high up by now and so the contrast was difficult again. I would imagine after some decent rain the waterfall is even more impressive. Evidently, if the tide is out, there are dinosaur footprints to be seen. The tide wasn’t out, and to be honest, it wasn’t that impressive. Having said that, I didn’t think much of Stonehenge (I prefer Avebury).

From there I found myself heading towards Portree again, and I toyed with the idea of the Storr, but I figured it would be heaving with people, and I wouldn’t get the effect I wanted due to the (continuing) chocolate box sky. It’s Skye, in February, it isn’t supposed to let you leave your coat in the car and wander about in a fleece, moaning about the nice weather!

I ate my chocolate mini-rolls and drunk my sports drink (my staple daytime diet on photoshoots) whilst consulting the map again. Back round the top, back the way I have come. It may sound silly, but sometimes facing the other way you see things you wouldn’t have seen the first time. That is why I don’t mind out and back walks, it saves constantly spinning around to check you’re not missing a great view.

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Duntelm Castle, or what’s left of it

Duntelm Castle is slowly disappearing into the sea with various storms. One tower collapsed completely in 1990, and every winter will probably claim more until there is nothing much left above ground level. Originally an Iron Age fortified site, the current castle, if you can call the ruins that are left a castle, was already a ruin by 1880, but is thought to date from the 15th and 16th Centuries when it belonged to the MacDonalds of Sleat.  They abandoned it in around 1730, in favour of their nearby house, and then not much later again, their castle at Armadale at the other end of Skye. The MacDonalds appear to have held either end of Skye with the MacLeods having the bit in the middle. That can’t have been easy. Those guys have a serious history of not getting along.

Incidentally, the film Highlander was historically wrong, the MacLeods didn’t hold the castle in the film (Eilean Donan), the MacRae’s did, and still do, and it’s not on the side of Glenfinnan either. The MacLeod’s also, technically, own the Cuillin, as it is part of their estate.

For the second time on this trip I wished for a wider angled lens. I miss nothing about my Nikon set up aside from my Tokina 12-24mm zoom . I would like the Fujifilm 12-24mm zoom 10-24mm but I would like it with weather sealing for the price they’re asking. There is a rumour that a weather sealed 8-16mm might be on the way, and that really would be a nice piece of kit.

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Traditional Croft houses reconstructed at the Museum of Island Life (closed during my visit)

On my outward journey I had passed these traditional croft houses, reconstructed I think, at the Skye Museum of Island Life (closed for winter, including the toilets, sadly). I stopped this time around. This is also just down from the graveyard which holds the remains and memorial to Flora Macdonald, she of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s fame.

Flora was born on South Uist (accessible by taking the ferry from Uig) in 1722. She died at the nearby Kingsburgh house in 1790. When Charlie’ was escaping Scotland, following his defeat in the 1746 uprising which was ended at Culloden, she allowed him to join her party, dressed him as her maid Betty Burke, and enabled his escape. I have always wondered if Charlie was very feminine and rather pretty or if Betty was, well, not the most attractive lady in the world…

She, Flora that is, was later held prisoner in the Tower of London, before being pardoned in 1747. She later married Allan Macdonald of Kingsburgh and they both emigrated to America in 1774. After Allan was captured during the American Revolutionary War, fighting for the British, she returned alone to Scotland in 1779. Allan later rejoined her. The memorial to Flora, and many members of the family, is situated in Kilmuir graveyard just along from the croft houses. It’s a huge Celtic cross decorated with knotwork. I didn’t photograph it, as I always feel a bit off photographing peoples graves.

Funnily enough, after visiting the reconstruction, I then took some turns off towards the various piers and smaller townships on the way back to Uig, and came across some of these types of houses, having been partially modernised, and still very much in use today. Restricted by a fence, and with smoke from the muirburn going on around them, I got the best shot that I could get.

One or more of these muirburns had got out of control a wee bit the night before, and even made the BBC News. Spectacular as it was, serious in its threat, it was nothing on the events unfolding on the other side of the world at Christchurch, New Zealand. My thoughts go out to those who have lost their homes, and especially the family of the person who has lost their life.

Although I had been out shooting on and off since before sunrise, I wasn’t done yet. As the sun made its way down to the horizon again, the clouds had started to build in the west. The forecast for tomorrow could potentially produce some interesting skies and I was hopeful for a good day of photography on the return journey home. I had originally planned to extend my trip to Glencoe, or stopping overnight as I passed back through Torridon, but the forecast for a dull, wet, Thursday and even wetter Friday, and that meant I was planning on going home (a long way around) for the end of Day 3.

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Sunset from above Uig,looking West to Waternish

*A single life had been reported at the time of writing.

Join me for the final day of my trip HERE

3 Days of Skye – Day 1

As I live in the Moray coast, any trip to the Isle of Skye results in a choice of routes through the Highlands, and with check-in at the hotel in Uig not anticipated until at least 4pm, I had spent a couple of days working out the most photographically productive route.

With snow on the tops, and a promise that there might be some lower down, it was a calculated risk to take the longest route possible through Torridon where I hoped to photograph mighty Liathach.

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Liathach, meaning ‘the Grey One’

The weather was almost perfect, clouds with plenty of movement, and breaks for the sun to come through and highlight areas of the landscape. Almost perfect; of course lots of movement actually means that it was also blowing a hoolie so much that you could be taking off your feet by the gusts and the windchill was well, well, below freezing.

Armed with the new Fujifilm XT-2 I was delighted to have the luxury of dual card slots, so I was shooting RAW files to Slot 1, and in-camera jpegs to Slot 2. This would provide a back-up and also access to immediate files en-route for posting to my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, hopefully from the hotel, without having to try and process raw files on an 11″ MacBook Air monitor. Whilst compact and handy, the screen is too small for proper editing.

Although I really liked the convenience of this idea, and of having the reassurance of a back-up image, the raw files still carry noticeably more detail and, to me, an improved dynamic range. I am impressed with the quality of the in-camera jpegs, but sometimes you don’t have the time to adjust all the settings, or want to review a decision later when you come to use the images, and raw will always give you the options to change things that would degrade the image if you did it with the jpeg. Shooting in jpeg is rather like shooting film, you get what you shot, which is no bad discipline and I am all for getting it right at the time, but then if digital gives you an advantage of being able to change your mind later…then why not use it? I might shoot in colour and then decide to print in B&W or vice-versa. I might want to tweak the white balance, and I might need to rescue areas that fell outside of the dynamic range of the in-camera processing. Get it as right as possible at the time of shooting, but allow yourself the latter options in processing, just as you did with film/darkroom processes.

The clouds popped on and off the top of the wind blasted snow topped mountain, every few moments, for me. Judging by the number of cars in the parking areas, there were some seriously hardy souls climbing today (probably on their hands and knees if the wind was anything to go by).

I had taken the Ullapool road (A835) from north of Inverness, turning just after Garve towards Achnasheen, then towards Kinlochewe, taking the turn for Shieldaig (A896). This route took me just shy of the village of Torridon itself.

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Torridon village nestles against the shores of Upper Loch Torridon

The wind kept up it’s ferociousness, which meant hanging my Lowepro Whistler BP350AW camera bag from the hook on the column of my Gitzo Mountaineer, and certainly not extending any more height than absolutely necessary.

Although the Gitzo extends to be taller than I am, I don’t like shooting even at my 5′ 4″ standing height anyway. The loss of the reflections on the water, again due to the wind, were the only disappointment.

I stopped at the Lochcarron Golf Club & Tea Room, known as the Tee-Off cafe, which was one of the few things open in my journey at this time of year. Not only was the lemon drizzle cake to die for, but the tea was served in a generous two cup pot, and the view was just spectacular. I whole heartedly recommend it!

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Five Sisters of Kintail – Winter Whites

Cresting the top of the A890 from Lochcarron to where it joins the main A87 heading for Kyle of Lochalsh and the Skye bridge, you are suddenly presented with the Five Sisters of Kintail, on this occasion in their wonderful winter whites.

After many different attempts to get the best final image, I have settled on the new Fujifilm ACROS setting to bring out the shape of the Sisters. Even this required me to burn in the Sisters whilst holding back the centre ground hill.

From the generous viewpoint it is a drop down and into the Kyle of Lochalsh. This is where you really feel like you’re almost there as Skye appears before you. Of course, Skye is a large island and so unless you’re staying in Broadford or Kyleakin then you’ll probably have another hour, at least, to go on your journey.

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Map courtesy of IsleofSkye.com

The, no longer quite so controversial, Skye bridge takes you from the Kyle of Lochalsh to the north of the township of Kyleakin. By now it was around 1pm and I wanted to photograph the Cuillin mountain range from Sligachan, before taking the road into Portree (Skye’s ‘capital’). The “Slig” as it is commonly abbreviated to, is a famous hotel situated aside the road which also has a campsite, both were closed. I have only been there once, when it was open, and the midges were so bad I didn’t get out the car! In winter, the midges are not a problem as it’s too cold, and frequently far too windy.

The sun was the problem on this occasion because, it was of course in the wrong place, and I was presented with a bright cloudless (and therefore boring) blue sky, masses of contrast, plus I would be shooting into directly into the sun. I noted a need to re-time my return journey, if possible, and carried on to Portree.

Stopping to visit the town centre and a stretch of the legs, I was surprised to see several buildings closed, but heartened to see refurbishments taking place. There was also a lot more ‘tourist’ orientated shops than I remembered. I found a newsagents to get a drink, and admired some very nice (£35) hand painted mugs in another shop as I wandered about. I admired them through the window only, it should be said. You’d nae want to use them at that price!

The main road from Portree to Uig is a delight compared to many islands (Arran, I am looking at you here). Reaching Uig, just as the school delivered out the double figure age kids, I had a little time to visit the Fairy Glen slightly inland of the port township. I don’t know if the Fairies have anything to do with it, but a lot of kids around the same age seem to live up in the glen because they were happily wandering about the paths making their ways home.

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Fairy Glen, Uig, Isle of Skye

I had been intrigued by the photos that I had seen of the landscape here, and I was not disappointed. The top peninsular, is Totternish, and if you have been around or just viewed pictures of the Totternish ridge then the Fairy Glen is very familiar, but on a considerably reduced scale. As the sun was going down behind the mountain, there wasn’t much time for wandering about and I didn’t get to visit the waterfall.

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Fairy Glen, Uig, Isle of Skye and the road through it

The sun was dipping fast, and the light was about to go. The temperature, which had been approaching double figures, was dropping like a stone with it. Back on with the hat, gloves, duvet jacket, and wishing for some thermal underwear again. I make a hasty retreat by the last of the light back to Uig (pronounced “oo’ig” by the way).

It was time to sample the delights of my hotel, and plan Day 2.

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Uig harbour from my hotel window.

To read about Day 2, click HERE