‘I’ve only been to England twice, I’ve been to Germany more often. London, that’s like a foreign country, but yet it makes all the decisions that affect our lives.’ – Kieran, Skye.
With a furtive thrill, last night I pitched camp in the arena of the Highland Games at Portree, Skye. The surrounding views of the harbour, verdant forests and Black Cuillin mountains in the distance are quite a spectacular and rousing image to start the day, and the Lump itself, as it’s known here, is totally deserted.
I could return in a few weeks’ time to watch, with thousands of others, brawny Highlanders toss the caber and fling various weights across the field. There would be bands of local pipe-players competing to perform the most stirring rendition of the Bonny Banks o’ Loch Lomond, with the descendents of the local clans of MacLeod and MacDonald showing off their tartans and symbols. There’d be sailing, and dancing, and… masses of tourists.
Escaping the crowds on Skye is pretty difficult, but that’s not to suggest that some kind of authenticity might be scraped out and saved beneath the superficialities. The Highland games happen across Scotland and are, like Shetland’s Up Helly Aa, a Victorian construction, taking some vague aspects of local traditions and transforming them into a sanitised tourist attraction. Queen Victoria’s move up to Balmoral in 1862 kicked off the Highlands craze, and what remains of the local clans is nothing compared to their customs, power and communal pride before the fall-out of Culloden. So this event is all about tourism. Gladly, this morning, I’ve got it all to myself.
That is, until a dog-walker comes, eyes me friendlily, and lets his dogs enjoy their own competitions in the centre of the amphitheatre. I head into Portree and spy a bakery in the main square, flanked by scarecrows and signs appealing to everyone’s unique individuality. Inside Mackenzie’s bakery are the best chocolate flapjacks money can buy. I stock up on these goodies and pack some veggie bridies (like pasties) for lunch. This fresh-baked produce is just infinitely superior to the fodder I’ve been living off from mass supermarkets. Local bakeries, I’ll be seeking you out again.
I head out of sunny Portree and follow the road south, passing a forest to my right which gives way to a statue of an eagle, and a curious looking place called the Aros centre. I pop in to find out more.
Whilst wandering inside, a simple conversation with a local woman flares up into a fascinating insight into local life and frustrations. She begins with a sigh,
‘Skye is heavily dependent on tourism. That’s fine. But for us, who live here, the problem is when house prices go up. Near mine, a woman is selling her house for £300 000. That’s English prices!’
People from ‘down south’, a phrase that can incorporate here the south of Scotland as much as everything south of the border, are buying up houses on Skye in greater numbers. To be fair, and as I share, it’s a problem across the country. A minority of people in the south-east of England have profited from property speculation and rising house prices, and some have used the proceeds to buy second homes ‘away from it all’. The problem is what the effects they unwittingly bring with them.
‘It’s difficult for the young, they go away to college or university and they get skills, well there’s nothing home for them. So they stay away.’
Parts of Skye are starting to become colonies of English settlers. Glendale in particular is mentioned a couple of times during the day as a ‘mini England’, and Waternish is another name I hear. The lady draws me a map of where she lives. On one side is her family, who have lived in the same settlement for some time (she inherited her grandmother’s house, otherwise she’d struggle to afford one). On the other are a group of newcomers from various parts of England. I get the impression that relations between locals and newcomers are frosty.
I ask her about the extent of Gaelic speaking on Skye.
‘I have a bit of Gaelic. You’re likely to hear it, especially with the older generation. Go into a pub, the two old men in the corner with their dram or pint. It started to die out when I was young. But it’s coming back now! A lot of the young can speak it. He (gesturing to a young man on a distant info desk) is the owner’s son, he and his dad speak to each other in Gaelic all the time. The boss speaks to the handyman just in garlic too, he’s from Lewis. I speak to my friends in Gaelic, the ones who know how much I can speak.’
The language is alive here, despite attempts over many generations to stamp it out. But it’s rare one will overhear it, unless one asks people, or seeks it out. It’s a tongue spoken privately, with a degree of confidence not just that the listener will understand it, but that they’ll be aware and respect any potential limits in ability. It’s a more intimate and personable tongue, one that varies in dialects and phrases across the islands.
Staff are being taught Gaelic on a weekly basis at the Aros centre, and I wonder if anyone has envisioned having signs purely in Gaelic, in the future? If more young people are being taught it, it seems conceivable. She laughs at the kinds of questions tourists would ask. Google translate has no Gaelic option, I later discover. She’s not putting her children through a Gaelic school simply as the nearest is too far away, but they’re having lessons and thriving.
I’ve always been welcomed and had such warm and friendly hospitality in Scotland. I recognise and respect that the cultures of the Scottish people have been marginalised for centuries. The Hanoverian royal family and the English lairds who took over the lands of the clans would’ve been happy for the Highlands’ customs, language and people to all disappear from the earth. Their precarious histories mean that Scots ought to be angry, and indeed angrier, about their culture being eroded by rich outsiders who seek only to capitalise from it.
The Aros centre itself is a versatile venue, with a cinema, live music, restaurant, shop and exhibition. As I watch the morning sun filter through the trees, an odd conversation bubbles up in earshot.
‘Attacking a disabled man and hitting him on the ground, it’s just not on.’
I leave Portree on this mordant note. Heading south, the weather is quite perfect. To my right are the majestic Black Cuillin mountains, the signature sight of rocky Skye. Each gently peaks, like the ground down molars of a gargantuan dinosaur. The pleasure of the morning casts light on the days’, months’, and years’ previous worries of mine.
‘All we fear is fear itself’ sang Aaron Neville in New Orleans’ funk classic ‘Hercules’. Travelling alone for the first time, I’ve discovered that I have the capability to get by, and indeed, enjoy myself, on the most basic of resources and resilience. The pessimism and cynicism that I wore in the city like an outer garment seems inappropriate now, based as it was on a kind of winners-losers approach to social situations that weighed each time on caution and the higher probability of egoism or misfortune. But countless encounters on the road put pay to that negative assessment of human nature. If on an individual scale, people have been more kind, cooperative and inspired than I would’ve dared imagine, what about for a collective scale, for the kind of democracy that’s never existed, that would be too idealistic or naïve?
Some kind of line divides Skye north to south, but I know not where. I cross by the Talisker distillery turning where coaches and motorhomes glut the road like slugs close to salad. To the north were Clan MacLeod, with their base at Dunvegan. To the south, clan MacDonald with their base on Sleat in the south, my destination. Local feuding between the two escalated over the 15th and 16th centuries into the most gruesome of wars. MacDonalds and MacLeods were massacred in their hundreds in their various places of worship, and consequent famines led to locals having to survive from eating cats and dogs during the 1590s.
There’s not much more detail on this in the tourist brochures – a museum to the follies and misery of war could be located in any part of the world – but various glossy leaflets point me over to the castle. I choose to skip it, but I can’t help recognising the sheer wealth and riches that the later MacLeod chiefs enjoyed compared to the abject poverty of their clan members. After Culloden lifted them of clan responsibilities, chiefs like the MacLeods went off to London to fritter the profits of their estates and left their people to worsened destitution.
Chris in Edinburgh tells me that there’s a poem written in the late 19th century by ‘An Clarsair Dall’ (the blind harper) Roderick Morrison (Ruaraidh Mac Mhuirich), called “Oran do Mhac Leòid Dhùn Bheagain” (song to MacLeod of Dunvegan). Morrison sings of the halls once being full of music and poetry now being empty save for echoes of the past, the earlier MacLeods being great patrons of Gaelic tradition. When the land was later cleared by the MacLeod chiefs for the sake of economic profit, locals in Skye were forced to barren crofts on the coast or scraping kelp up from the shores – backbreaking work. More recently, John MacLeod once tried to sell the Cuillin mountains on Skye back in 2000 to pay for his ancestral home. It’s a similar story of flogging clan heritage for personal gain. The mountains would have been again cleared, and all those that live and work on them losing their livelihoods. The clearances could continue. How does it remain acceptable for a person to own the land?
I think we should be wary about endorsing too heartily the benevolence of Highland chiefs. What makes the history of the Highland clans special, to my mind, is their sense of collective responsibility to the land, once communally shared and farmed amongst them. That belongs to the people. Other customs make me smile too: marriages used to have a one year trial period, called ‘hand-fasting’. If it didn’t work out amongst couples, it could easily be dissolved; if the year succeeded, the marriage became formal. But the Jacobite uprising is one defined as much by clan greed and a foolish scheme to restore an absolutist monarchy in England as it is by noble tragedies at Culloden or elsewhere. Human nature reveals again and again that single individuals cannot be trusted with such power over others. The MacLeods are today millionaires, educated at Eton, as Scottish as the Made In China tartan tosh flogged in Edinburgh or Loch Ness. The tourist traps of Skye and the pastiche of a Highland games are their welcome legacy.
Stewing on the mind’s inner fat, elated by the breathtaking mountain vistas and aided by the flat roads, I reach Broadford (with the very different name of Leathann in Gaelic). It’s a small village with a string of shops tending to the passing tourist trade. A small market square with a food van looks intriguing and I wander in. A shack houses the belongings and ephemera of a full life lived well. Objects like a Victorian family photograph and clothes dryer tell more stories than most of the pap 1980s novels on the shelves. A woman pops her head in, unrealistically hopeful that a passer-by might want to pay money for something here. She’s an estate agent most of the time, and tells me, with some great sales patter, that Broadford has recently been voted the best place to live in Scotland. But who is moving here?
‘Are you looking to move here?’
Well, give me a few hundred thousand…
She’s a local, and tells me that Glendale is nicknamed ‘little England’ for the density of obvious southerners. I get the impression that the English settlers here are following a tried-and-tested model developed in the United States, West Indies, India, and more recently the south of France, and Spain, of doing absolutely nothing to integrate themselves in the local culture and understand it, all the while defending a highly ignorant misunderstanding of Englishness based on xenophobia, mediocre European lager, and Jeremy Clarkson. A curse on these people.
‘At the school plays, you don’t hear a home accent.’
‘Home, what do you mean?’
‘Skye, a Skye accent.’
‘You mean the kids too, they’re not from Skye?’
‘Yeah, their parents have moved them up. Ninety percent of the homes I sell are to people from down south.’
‘But how does that affect people here?’
‘There’s two ways you can look at it. They’ve got money and people want to sell their homes for the highest price. Then work here doesn’t pay the wages you’d need to get a place. So…?’
‘Well… I guess you’ve just got to inherit a place from your recent deceased grandma?’
She tells me of the ‘generation gap’ in Gaelic too, so that many of these islanders aged from their late 20s to early 60s lack a mother tongue.
I’m intrigued by it all. I wander by the other stalls then head into the Dunollie hotel bar for some water for my flasks, and beer for my soul. The feller behind the bar is from Manchester and is just here for the summer, like so many barkeeps across the Hebrides. ‘I’ll move again after’, he smiles, enjoying this uncertain adventure.
I leave Broadford and take a road south towards Sleat, once home of bloodthirsty MacDonalds. The landscape immediately transforms. Baked in the hot afternoon heat, the wide open expanses, lacking tree or much vegetation at all, jagged rocks burnt bronze, the path is exciting and inhospitable. Cycle to collapse. There’s no pausing in such barrenness. But a few miles later, pretty coastline appears and verdant little woods appear besides pretty bays. Skye is full of surprises.
After a few miles I reach a plethora of tasteful new buildings and school signs in Gaelic. I’m approaching my next destination, and one that will become one of the most fascinating of this journey: Sabhal mor Ostaig.
It takes a little practice to pronounce it (sa-val mor os-taig, I think), but Sabhal mor Ostaig is a higher education college that’s taught the Gaelic language, and the wider history and literature of the Gaelic-speaking Highlands, since its inception back in 1973. I’ve arranged to meet Kieran who works here to find out more about the place and take a look round.
Its history is intriguing. Before I visit, I find out online that the land and idea for the college came from financier and Gaelic activist Iain Noble. He’d recently been to the Faroe Islands, and was inspired by the ways islanders had struggled to assert their own identity through their distinctive language. He saw an opportunity for the Scottish highlands to rediscover and reaffirm its own roots, at a time where Welsh and Irish nationalism was prominent, yet where this lost generation of Scottish people had lost all connection with their language.
‘When I asked the Faroese, I was amazed when they all replied that things began to happen when they decided to be Faroese and stop being Danish. This sparked the whole thing off. It gave them a sort of self-respect… I am convinced that through the revival of the language there came a pride in identity and all else followed.’
Noble’s plan began with a wee barn, and today has become a college with campuses across the isles. It’s grown massively through the need to establish a Gaelic media (like BBC Alba), alongside Gaelic-literate business folk and public sector workers. A new settlement of affordable homes is being built at Kilbeg and the bulldozers rumble in the distance. As I wander into the pretty modern campus, I’m given a warm welcome at the reception, despite the obvious lack of Gaelic, and Kieran comes to meet me.
We wander through the extensive library archive of Gaelic literature, and Kieran tells me about the place. Sharing my experiences and conversations, he shares his worry about a ‘lost generation’, and a frustration that some from the south of Scotland fail to realise the importance of the Gaelic tongue. Kieran feels that in places like Glasgow and Edinburgh there’s still a common negative opinion that ‘Gaelic should be allowed to die out’.
‘I’m just as much a Scotsman as they’, he says, reminding me of the worries about the SNP centralising power in the Lowlands. Though Gaelic is itself as old as English in Scotland, at least through the influence of nearby Northumbria, ‘it should be considered equal’.
We drift out onto a beautiful view from the south-east of Skye, over Loch Houm towards the mainland. Parents talk together in Gaelic, relieved of burdensome children by the college’s nursery and enjoying a parent’s away weekend. There’s some great views of the Knoydart pensinsula from here, a place once cleared by a rapacious landowner. ‘The good thing about there is everyone’s a newcomer’. The island’s now under community ownership, and now boasts a two-yearly music festival and Britain’s most remote pub, all connected by the most occasional of ferries and a seventeen mile track. Communities are regrowing. Indeed two thirds of the Western Isles are, I’m told, now under community land ownership, ‘retaken from absentee landlords who never visited the place’.
At another point on the mainland he points to where gamekeepers live, and I compare it to Highlands, where problems caused by English landowners remain, taking away land from local people. Kieran thinks everyone should have equal right to live on Skye, but excessive prices in the south have meant that newcomers can easily buy out locals. I fear that this laid-back attitude has been the detriment of established communities in other parts, and I point this out. Couldn’t there be some kind of restriction, demanding a certain amount of minimum years’ residence? Kieran admits that he and his partner had wanted to buy a house nearby – both are of course local – but a man from Sydney, Australia, won. He’s rarely been seen since.
Scottish independence is often on the ends of people’s tongues. Kieran is very much for it, but as a wandering Englishman, he’s curious for my view. I admit, I’m very much for Scottish independence, as I am for the relative independence of every region of the British isles. I seek a settlement where residents of the regions have control over the decisions that affect their lives. We agree that social democracy is a distant but better compromise than the quotidian corruption and deceit of current politics, at least in its Westminster form. The fiery chat has me opening up, and I can’t help sharing with Kieran, and to you all, my other thought.
‘Don’t judge the majority of people in England based on these rich settlers, second-home owners and tourists. Many people I’ve met, I know, are skint, underemployed, and just as fed up with the government as you are.’
‘We’ve got a sense of our identity, it’s coming back. So has Wales, but what about England? All there is is the St. George’s flag…’
‘A symbol of xenophobia and intolerance’.
The lack of collective belonging in England is an ugly boil that’s starting to fester. The popularity of UKIP, and the Conservatives, is just one testament to it. A sour mood of parochialism and fear is in the air. ‘In Scotland, we only have a small Conservative vote. When UKIP got a seat here, there was outrage!’
Whilst Scotland has, to a degree, paid for a heavily London-centric regime for the last few decades, there’s some consolation in that its people have largely retained their support for social democratic institutions like free education, affordable healthcare and a general liberalism in politics. Further south, advertisers have been more effective in turning discontent into mutual resentment.
‘I’ve only been to England twice, I’ve been to Germany more often. London feels like a foreign country here, but it makes all the decisions that affect our lives. Scandinavia’s a more realistic model for us. Even if the oil runs out…’
‘But will it? New gas and oil is being found in the North Sea. New reserves are being found in old fields. How much evidence is there behind this point?’
I admit, it must seem strange to read an Englishman out-arguing a proud Gaelic-speaking Scot for independence. Kieran laughs, and shares an inspiring thought, one which, to my mind, seems the most reliable prognosis in a confused public forum.
‘When I was younger, a Scottish parliament was unthinkable. Then later, an SNP majority was unthinkable. Even a No majority, on the smallest of lines, would make a huge difference. It would force Westminster to grant the maximum devolutionary powers.’
It’s the same in the north east, Cornwall and Wales. Whilst the earlier regional assemblies fizzled out, I wonder if some new energy would burn for self-government to a greater extent elsewhere. The possibility of a federation of autonomous states is there, rather than London sucking the life out of the country through property speculation.
‘All the wealth is in London. When there’s a recession, London can weather it. London can weather ten recessions. It’s the rest of the country that’s been made dependent on London that suffers.’
The conversation must come to an end – Kieran does work here after all, and can’t spend all day talking about the Gaelic tongue and politics. So I visit the old barn where a group of young people are rehearsing on bagpipes and drums, their teacher telling them off in gentle tones for the odd mistake. I enter the college and overhear classes where the neat mellow Gaelic is being spoken, a very gentle and most beautiful language to hear. The late afternoon is warm and still, and this is a very pleasant place to pass the time.
Just south is Armadale, a small harbour village with beautiful views of Loch Houm. There’s very little in the village itself though, beyond a couple of tourist shops. A young feller in the ferry terminal suggests I get over to Mallaig if I’m seeking good company and fine pubs, and I take his tip. At the jetty I meet Michael, a young cyclist I’d seen on the road earlier that day. He’s very sun burnt but is loving the ride through the Hebrides. On the deck, we trade our tales and the trajectories of our lives. He’s just a masters at Cambridge and plans to start a PhD in glaciology. Our mutual fields are mutually baffling, but conversation flows free.
We arrive at Mallaig, a very pretty harbour town, and the largest settlement I’ve seen since Portree. There are bustling pubs, a tourist centre that doubles up as a popular ice cream shop, and a tea-room with a hostel. I’m alive with a desire to stay out and enjoy myself, but being very behind with my writing, I decide to check in and lock myself into a few hours writing. Fatigue kicks in and I struggle to do anything more than eat my dinner, warm and full of nutritious vegetables for a change. At around 1am I throw the towel in and find my bed, just one in a huge dorm of snoring Chinese tourists.