S C O T L A N D : D A Y 7
AUGUST 25 (Friday) -- Kyle of Lochalsh
Friday morning, and we set off on the car ferry to Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye. Our first point of interest was described to us as "Saucy Mary's Castle." Saucy Mary was awarded that sobriquet by the locals for a revenue-enhancement scheme she devised a few centuries back, in which she had stretched across the narrow channel separating Skye from the mainland some kind of chain. Ships wishing to pass through the strait (rather than go all the way around Skye) had no other recourse but to help Saucy Mary defray the costs of her castle. Eventually, though, this arrangement proved to be unacceptable to the locals, and Saucy Mary was evicted without ceremony.
Once off the ferry, we drove across Skye's northwestern rim, craning our heads around each corner for the next view of the rough and jumbled landscape of the island. By mid-morning we had reached our goal for that day: Dunvegan Castle, the home for over seven centuries of the Chiefs of the Clan MacLeod.
A program on The Learning Channel (The Great Castles of Europe) had prepared me for the inside of the castle and some of its history, but I received a great surprise at the extensiveness of the gardens outside the castle. Ann and I went for a walk and could not believe the profusion of flowers and trees, some of which seemed as though they would be more at home in a tropical setting. (These remarkable gardens had been expanded by a remarkable woman--the previous chief of the clan, Dame Flora MacLeod. For you trivia buffs out there, Dame Flora was the last person to be born at Number 10 Downing Street, the residence of Britain's Prime Ministers.)
The castle alone would have been worth the visit, though. I took a short side trip of my own, down the steep and narrow rocky pathway that led to the iron "sea-gate" which for many years was the only entrance into the castle. Standing by one of the cannons mounted atop the parapet surrounding the courtyard, I could look out over the sea-gate to the tiny islands dotting the salty water beyond the castle. It was easy to imagine generations of MacLeods scanning the waves for invaders, or waiting in more peaceful times for the fishing boats to return with their day's harvest from the sea.
The interior of the castle was considerably more refined in most places. (Parts of the castle had been left unfinished to allow guests to see what the old castle had been like--including the grim dungeon, which was essentially a hole in the stony floor from which I doubt many prisoners ever returned.) Portraits of eminent MacLeods warmed the walls, and the family rooms featured great tables of rich wood with vessels of sparkling silver resting on crisp white cloth.
And in the trophy room were some of the items I'd only heard about: the lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie's hair (about whom more anon); the bagpipes of the MacCrimmons, the most famous family of Scottish pipers; and one of the prizes of the MacLeods, the Fairy Flag.
There is a wealth of legend attached to this ancient banner, now faded and tattered. An early MacLeod is said to have taken for his wife one of the Sidh (pronounced "Shee"), the fairy people, who bore him a son which she wrapped in her shawl as she returned to her people. This cloak was taken as a banner of the MacLeods. It was said to have special powers, that it could be used in battle three times to call upon the warriors of the Sidh to grant victory to the Clan MacLeod... and the legend goes on to say it has been used twice already. Doubts there may be about the efficacy of this power, but the tattered nature of the Fairy Flag attests to the belief of the MacLeods, who over the years have clipped off tiny pieces to be carried as a shield by clan members during times of war. In this century, MacLeods who served in WWII as airmen wore replicas of it under their jackets, and it is still the custom to wrap each newborn heir in the Fairy Flag for luck.
The Fairy Flag now hangs in a place of honor on a wall of the castle, where visitors can look past it through the windows, beyond the rocks and the waves, and out onto the world in which members of the ancient MacLeod clan still roam.
This portrait of the clan didn't suffer too much in my eyes when I found myself downstairs in the castle's gift shop, which was cluttered with the usual tourist bric-a-brac. When the young woman running the register had a problem with a credit card, the handsome kilted man I'd seen prowling the corridors appeared. Quickly, he engaged in battle with the balky credit card reader.
Of course it was The MacLeod himself--the Chief of the entire clan worldwide--and his daughter.
I couldn't help but think how ironic this was. Dunvegan and the lands for miles around had been earned by men who were enthusiastic and skillful splitters of skulls. Now here was their proud descendant, standing tall in his plaid as though ready at a moment to carry on the family tradition... humbled by a wayward computer.
Information Age myths and legends just aren't as inspiring as the older kind.
Somewhere around this time, Tricia expressed an interest in seeing whales. As the "itinerary guy," I felt a little bad at not having known this beforehand so I could have planned something to help include her interests during her visit. So when a bit of exploration on my part turned up a boat tour of the islands surrounding Dunvegan Castle near which (as the sign read) "whales are occasionally seen," I rounded up Tricia, Gin and Bill and nagged them into the boat for the tour. (I think they just went along to humor me, but for the most part they seemed to enjoy themselves.)
We didn't see any whales, but several of the small islands--no more than lumps of rock twenty paces across--were temporarily home to large numbers of seals. I have been to zoos, and I've seen animals in nature, but I can't recall ever seeing any animals as utterly lazy as these appeared to be. We got fairly close to several islands, at which one or two of the seals managed to raise their heads and stare at us vacantly, but their most strenuous activity was to grunt and roll over. Definitely a part of Scotland that rarely makes it into the tourist brochures.
Eventually we were on our way again. I rode with Bill, Gin and Tricia to the town of Portree, where I augmented my still-damp wardrobe with a shirt I bought at the Skye Wool Mill. And of course I found a book store--this one had all four volumes of perhaps the finest collection of Scottish folk tales ever assembled; how was I supposed to pass up such an opportunity?
Meanwhile the others took a swing east to see Kilt Rock (so-called because it looks like... a kilt!) (Well, what did you expect?)Kilt Rock on Skye Kilt Rock close-up
At one point as I was driving, Tricia and I found ourselves in the middle of a rather heated session of bantering. When I finally managed to land one telling blow, from the corner of my eye I could see Tricia's jaw drop in stunned surprise. In the middle of my smug moment of self-congratulation, she reached out and pinched the inner part of my upper left arm as hard as she could. Somehow I managed to keep the car on the road, but I made a mental note that this was not a woman to annoy unnecessarily.
Then it was back to the hotel. (We took the ferry again; the bridge over which there had been more arguing than traffic was still incomplete at the time of our visit). Then to sleep, while the two ferries plied their way back and forth between the mainland and Skye all through the night.
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