Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hitching Skye (Written 3 June 2008)

Yesterday was my birthday, and it was a marvelous day. I had decided to head over to the Isle of Skye, which both Mika and I had wanted to visit the first time we were in Scotland in 2001, but hadn’t made it that far north.

Woke up early in the morning to walk Maddie with Hamish, again the greenery, the open sea loch, and the picturesque boats taking my breath away. After a quick breakfast Hamish took me to the bus stop down in Kyle of Lochalsh, but the next buses headed over to Skye were about 2 hours later. I jumped out on the road, stuck my thumb out, and the first car going by stopped, and I jumped in.

He was a computing professor at the Gaelic College in Sleat, which is at the southern end of the Isle of Skye. He was going to Broadford to the co-op there (one of the larger British supermarket chains) and agreed to take me as far as there. He mentioned that at the college in Sleat he had a half Japanese, half Swiss student who was currently studying Gaelic. He had also had a previous student go teach English in Japan.

When we arrived in Broadford he directed me to the next best hitching spot on the road and wished me luck. I waited about 10 minutes at this next place, until a woman headed all the way up to Portree, my destination, pulled over.

She was from the suburbs of Edinburgh but had moved to Skye about 20 years ago, and after 15 years on Skye moved back to Edinburgh for family reasons, but her and her partner found that they just couldn't stay away – they've been back on Skye with their two daughters for about 18 months now.

We started talking about the English having holiday homes on Skye and how it’s affecting the local economies and property prices; of course, shooting them up and making it difficult for normal working-class Scots to be able to afford buying a house. She was lucky enough that her partner and her had bought houses 20 years ago, and sold them for profit, so that they were still able to buy a decent sized house on Skye. However, she feared for her daughters, who are currently aged 8 and 20 months. By the time they’re adults, even if both they and their partners have good jobs, it may be unrealistic for them to be able to buy even a small flat. I was quite engaged in our conversation, as well as captivated by the view of the Cuillins – the Cuillins are the mountain range on Skye, a mesmerizing, dramatic landscape with steep slopes and high pinnacles, bizarre because the elevation isn’t high but there are no trees on the tops of the mountains…it was also the first time since I had arrived in Scotland that it wasn’t bright sunshine; instead it was cloudy and overcast, adding an ominous, mysterious look to the hills.

Before I knew it, we were in the main car park in Portree and we headed our separate ways. Jan and Hamish had told me of a worthwhile walk just outside Portree, starting at the Cuillin Hills Hotel, and at the tourist info they suggested the same walk, so off I went. Given that it was a walk starting at a hotel, and it was only about an hour long, I wasn't setting my expectations high; the rewards were fantastic. A narrow gravel path wound through woodland and emerged with views over the sea; on one side you could see the colorful pier of Portree, and on the other, the sea as far as you could see. Dramatic vibrant green cliffs led out to the open blue, and the hills were dotted with giant granite boulders covered in lichens and tall wild grasses. Eventually the walk led through sheep paddocks with asymmetrical yet somehow balanced stone fences dividing the livestock.

Around this time Bryn, an Australian I had met on the train from Inverness to Plockton, called so we decided to meet in Portree. I mentioned I had been interested in going to the Isle of Rassay, so we decided to try and get down to Sconser. However, we had to have our fish and chips lunch first, sitting on the Portree pier, legs hanging over the edge, seagulls circling above, hoping for scraps.

Just seconds after we got to the side of the road, a man with a mustache and sunglasses pulled over, saying he was only going 3 miles down the road but we were welcome to go with him as far. Why not, right, so we jumped in. I don't remember what the impetus was but he instantly started complaining about the fuel prices on Skye – 1.35 pound per liter – which makes that about 2.75 USD per liter – so Americans, that’s 11 USD a gallon – compare that to the 4 USD Californians are complaining about! (Not saying you shouldn't be complaining, just remarking, wow, some people are paying a lot more!)

Anyway, we got to talking about all the environmental issues surrounding the island currently, and indeed there were many.

The landfill on the island has been filled to capacity, so now there are trucks coming over from eastern Scotland on the mainland to take out the trash, so they are driving hundreds of miles transporting rubbish.

Public transport is abysmal and very expensive (5 GBP, or 10 USD, for a 30-40 minute bus ride), and some routes like Portree to Uig, only run twice a day. This of course means you’ve got to be wealthy enough to have your own vehicle and pay to fill it up, or you’re forced to hitch. Or, you just don't come to the island.

Scotland seems to naturally be gifted for exploring alternative energy sources such as hydropower and wind power. However, there has been public uproar about putting up wind turbines on Skye because it would ruin the natural beauty and landscape. However, this gentleman who picked us up (and we were only with him for 3 miles! Imagine the pace of his talking : ) ) argues that a windmill can be taken apart quickly, whereas nuclear power stations which are the alternative that are likely to be constructed instead, are a definite eyesore, bad for the environment, and much more permanent than wind stations.

So he took us to a good turnout on the main road, a gorgeous spot with good scenery all around. Lucky for us that it was as such, because we waited nearly an hour for our next lift. By this time, the sun was fully out and not a cloud was to be seen. We debated whether going to Sconser and over to Rassay was still realistic for me, since I needed to get back to the mainland that night. We decided perhaps we should go down to Sleat.

Finally a young English girl (from near Birmingham) picked us up – she works at a hotel in Portree and it was one of her days off so she was going on a drive around the island. She was able to take us as far as Sligachan, which was not much further but at least was further south of where we were. She had been on Skye, working, for about three years now, and loved it. We talked about the high tourist season, which normally runs from Eastern through September, but Easter was so early this year that the real peak tourist kick hadn’t started until just a few weeks ago.

When we arrived in Sligachan, Bryn and I decided to check out some clearly marked walking trails. The scenery was phenomenal, and there was a campervan parking area, with lots of tents up. The Cuillin Mountains are in perfect view there, and you can hop about on the rocks and swampy area to get a good look up close.

We headed back to the main road and waited for just a few minutes until a fancy SUV pulled up. Different to our previous rides, this was a fancy, swanky car with a well-groomed couple inside (not saying any of the previous rides were grotty or shabby, but well…these two were just a bit different). They were a couple that lived just outside of London but had a holiday home in Avymoor, over on the Scottish mainland. They were just on Skye for a couple days. They love Scotland and Skye, and love coming up here several times a year to get away from the hustle and bustle of England, or London rather, and really enjoy the scenery and nature.

They took us to the turnoff towards Sleat in Broadford, since they were headed back to the mainland to stay in their holiday home. I guess Bryn and I (or I did, in fact) scrapped the Rassay idea for time and logistical purposes, since boats are quite regular but not THAT regular – and then the English girl who took us to Sligachan said Sleat was definitely worth a look, as it was called the Gardens of Skye. It’s considered to be the greenest part of Skye.

Anyway, here we were on the road turning down to Sleat, and a couple looked directly at us but the woman made some strange hand motion and left, and then they seemed to be slowing down, then reversing, then stopping again…we thought they weren’t stopping for us but they seemed to be moving things around in the car so we jogged up to them, and indeed they were taking us.

They were originally from New Zealand but had been living in Brisbane for the past 12 years. They were on their genealogy pilgrimage to Scotland, trying to find out where their grandparents had come from decades ago when they crossed the Pacific. A really interesting couple who had lived in 6 countries in the Pacific, including Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and this was the first time they had been north of the Equator. They were loving it, though the wife half-jokingly mentioned that there seemed to be too much distance between coffee and pubs on the island.

The drive down to Armadale, on the southern tip of the peninsula that is Sleat, was indeed lovely, with lots of bright green deciduous vegetation that seemed quite varied, leading right down to the rocky coastline. At Armadale we went our separate ways and Bryn and I decided to do some of the walks fittingly called the Armadale Walks. We did a combination of the blue and red trails, which took us several miles through paddocks, hills, woods with plenty of fantastic moss and gnarly trees, and close to sheep. We emerged on a stretch of pebbly beach, had a mini-picnic, and stuck our thumbs out again.

An elderly Welsh couple picked us up quickly, and they didn't know where they were going. They had just arrived on the ferry from Mallaig, which arrives in Armadale, and were just driving around and looking at things until they would check in at a Bed and Breakfast. They were interested in doing the small scenic loop drive on Sleat and Bryn and I jumped at the opportunity to tag along for this.

This road, and the part around Sligachan, would definitely rate as my highest in Skye. The road to Ord and Torskavaig is hilly, winds through farmland and from the high vantage point the views across the bay are breathtaking. The green green green of the place…

Afterwards, we drove up to the junction for the main road, the A87, and the couple took Bryn towards Portree, and I jumped out. I walked down the road a few hundred meters to a good spot to wait for a lift, and a few minutes later a man who I would say was the stereotypical Scotsman, jet white hair (does this term exist?) muscular with sailor tattoos on both forearms, bright green eyes and defined features, stopped. He said in a thick Scottish accent, “holiday?” which I understood to be some variation of “how old are ye?” and it was a great icebreaker as I was slightly surprised. It turned out that I was in the presence of Joe Brown, who knows Jan because he plays the fiddle, teaches the fiddle, and is also in charge of culling deer. He was a lovely man and though we weren’t going far, had a great talk about the differences between Japan and Scotland and he was very interested to hear about the landscape in Japan. He dropped me off at the Kyle of Lochalsh bus terminal, where Hamish had dropped me off 8 hours before.

Jan arrived just a few minutes later, and all was well. A giant curry feast with lentil curry, potato and spinach curry, eggplant curry, mushroom curry, and chicken curry, with naan and chapatti and rice, and I was off to bed.

What I loved most about my day hitchhiking around Skye was the variety of people I met, who were all real people with completely different backgrounds and perspectives and it made it entirely worthwhile listening to their situations and how things are changing and have been, and continue to be affected, by tourism and climate change and globalization. And of course, that just by the way the rides worked out, my route and itinerary on the island would shift and change and be set on new courses.

1 comment:

bella.calamitas said...

this sounds heavenly. hell of a birthday, love. : )