John White: In search of Skye’s lesser known treasures

Rubha Hunish, picture CC/PoetheusFotos

By John White

Although permitted a short drive for exercise during lockdown, we have mainly explored our immediate local space, often walking and cycling from the front door.

Having got out of the habit of making journeys by car, in the final days before the guidelines changed we were still rediscovering forgotten places, and last week we circumnavigated Loch Chalum Chille.

We also amassed a final five miles for our total of Skye’s the Limit challenge, only being a mere 6000 miles behind the ‘Stormyhill Stragglers’ winning total..!

The slightly incongruous looking area of marsh and reed on one hand dominates the Kilmuir landscape, and yet on the other lies unnoticed, as from most aspects it foregrounds the Minch and the Western Isles, and sits beneath a big sky.

Incongruous also because it is unnaturally flat, a swathe between Monkstadt, Linicro and Bornaskitaig, not an expanse of water, but confusingly, referred to erroneously as ‘the loch’ by most folk in Kilmuir.

The loch was drained in the 18th century, land reclamation to provide extra grazing and to enable the planting of corn, and also as a job creation scheme.

A mini Suez

Herringbone patterned drains were hewn joining a main central drain, almost the width of a canal, lined with blocks of stone.

It was major civil engineering and construction, as well as simple ditch digging.

A mini Suez or Corinth and as it nears Camas Mor, it must be a cutting 30ft deep.

As the work was undertaken, various artefacts and items were discovered.

The “Kilmuir chess piece?”

Two dugout log canoe type boats, a bronze horse riding spur, and an ornate carved bone chess piece.

These found their way to museums, where the boats were lost. But the spur and chess piece are still on display in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

A number of years ago I took a notion to see if our chess piece could perhaps, like the more famous Lewis chessmen, be referred with provenance as the ‘Kilmuir Chess Piece’ rather than just an object ’found in north Skye’.

Perhaps one day it could even be ‘brought home’ and displayed close to where it was found.

Lost and found

The museum curator was very accommodating, and even personally showed us the display when we visited, but needed more proof of its provenance before changing the label.

We were told a lot of these artefacts were bought and sold, lost and found, and even though it made the “Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities of Scotland” (Volume 3 1857), corroboration would be needed.

Perhaps we could find a letter or diary entry from the era noting its discovery.

Also problematic was that in 1782 when it was presented to the museum, Lord Macdonald described it as “being the handle of a Highland dirk” and I believe there is still some debate as to what it actually might be.

As yet I have not delved into the collections of the Clan Donald archives in search of a letter or more evidence, but the “Kilmuir Chessman or Knife Handle” perhaps doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Tick-box tourism

While walking around the loch we photographed all the wild flowers to send to my sister in law, a botanist who is shielding and unable to leave her home.

It is handy having an expert in the family who can name them all at a glance, and it will help pass her time.

We found a huge number of different varieties, from tiny white Tormentil, delicate carpets of orchids, to stately purple foxgloves adorning the broken-down walls of the monastery on the island.

Clach Chragaisgean is a large stone, unusually situated at the edge of the loch.

The size of a small house, I am not sure of how or why it should be there.

One theory is that the giant Fionn used it as a fishing weight, another is that one of his warriors lobbed it at a poor girl caught stealing milk from his cows.

It could just be an ‘erratic’ moved there by glacial activity but sometimes a more rational huge river of ice seems as fantastical as the evidence of any super-human mythical being.

I was always struck in recent years – when the endless river of cars was flowing past our house, in search of the social media inspired top attractions – by how much people were missing.

To drive round Skye in a day, leaping out at a defined number of tick list beauty spots for a quick walk and a selfie seems perhaps even disingenuous.

The dreaded ‘one nighters’ booking in for barely more than a sleep.

On investigation during a brief meet and greet, they would inform us: “We are going to drive round to the Qui…rang, is that how you pronounce it? Past the Storr, and then to Neist Point and the Fairy Pools before seeing Loch Ness and staying in Inverness tonight (or even Edinburgh!)”

My heart always sank, and I would make humble suggestions that spending more time at one or other destination, driving less, might be preferable.

Slowing down

But who am I to curate an experience, and assume that slowing down be a more appropriate way to enjoy Skye.

Rubha Hunis, having not yet made a magazine cover, will never compete with Neist Point in tourism aspirations, and you have to walk further to get there….

I have always assumed that there is a shared experience mentality. We must visit the places visited by everyone else, because they must be the best.

We can also talk and compare notes and images with our fellow travellers. I have done the same in Bali and India, but I have to confess my fondest memories have often been on lesser known routes when we have come across places by chance.

There is a temptation to judge and perhaps criticise, but does it matter, as long as they spend money?

Back in the day when Skye was full, if people stayed any longer than two days the village halls would have to become emergency hostels, or we could rent out the hen house on Airbnb.

But as post lockdown bookings start to come in, we have decided to stop allowing people to come for one night, partly to aid the new normal Covid cleaning regime, but also to begin to try and advertise and practise ‘slow tourism’.

Whether people need information about their chosen destination is debateable.

I am not a lover of interpretation panels as a way of slowing people down. Information is now so accessible and universally available, it seems unnecessary to nail it to a signboard with a list of funders and agency logos, and after a few years of west coast winters and the odd marking from bored youths, they always end up looking sad before they are removed.

It is not for us to dictate how visitors recreate, and how we help visitors (and locals alike) to see as well as look is a conundrum.

We call them tourist sights, which perhaps promotes the two dimensional.

The wind on the face, bare feet in the burn is as much as an experience as curated knowledge of an area.

Whether knowing about chess pieces, flowers, geological mythology and history adds necessary value to an experience, can be debated.

But the slowing down of travel surely has to be beneficial.