Bad weather on the Isle of Skye used to put the ferry out of action on regular occasions, leaving the island’s residents stranded and cut off. Any electrical power failures would throw the island back to the Stone Age. Many a night was spent trying to toast bread over the fire, with candlelight (if you were lucky) your only way to navigate your own house. A long metal instrument was required for the toast or else one’s hands would melt with the heat. Days could go by with this situation and burnt hands were all too common.
Kyleakin, everybody used to travel through there and the shops were busy. It was a great meeting point for locals and one would meet with people one hadn’t seen for ages. The craic was always good at Kyleakin, certainly everyone was in good mood getting off the island. Why? Because back then with no bridge, for sure, Donald felt a lot more isolated and cut off from the world. Every trip over that ferry was a “holiday”. No longer, Kyleakin is the forgotten port on Skye. There was no doubt about it, the ferry was far more fun than crossing the bridge. There were some right funny characters working on the ferry and that’s the thing. Sure, everybody agrees, Skye has magical scenery but more importantly, it has magical people that are the life and soul of the place. Living here is unique.
It’s a small place and a big place both at the same time. Big in the fact it’s 72 miles by 45 miles at its longest and broadest and you can go years without seeing someone that you know well and went to school with. Small in the fact that if anything happens to that person, good or bad, you will hear about it 30 minutes later. Skye is a truly amazing and unique community. If one is born and raised here and moves away, there is a part of one that always misses it. The amount of familiar faces you see just can’t be compared to city living. Everyone on the Isle of Skye knows 1000’s of people and this starts at primary school, maybe not at drinking buddy level, but that’s irrelevant. One’s brain gets used to seeing familiar faces. There is a massive community on Skye of people who all know each other and this puts Skye in a rare position in the world today. Is this why Skye is such a magical place? Is this the real secret? Donald thinks so.
Yes, the scenery is truly wonderful, everybody knows that but maybe what the residents don’t realise is Skye’s unique place in the world today, one that makes this place special, special to anyone fortunate enough to live here and special for everyone visiting. The people here are as warm and as accommodating as anywhere on earth, partly due to our isolated past and the need to see strange faces. When one grows up in a sea of faces one is familiar with, strangers are always fascinating. The people of Skye love visitors, probably more than visitors realise. It’s ingrained into the people of Skye’s psyche.
In 1995, the internet didn’t exist on the Isle of Skye, it was firmly in the analogue zone. The way of life was completely different to what it is now. There were visitors but in minuscule numbers compared to today. Skye just wasn’t that accessible with the ferry. Most people left after school searching for employment and this had gone on for decades. The population was decreasing and the island was getting old. But boy, were there some real characters who ran around. Everyone had a nickname, most were in Gaelic and these folk were storytellers.
Nobody will make you laugh louder than a person from the Isle of Skye with its native tongue, the Gaelic. But you have to understand the Gaelic. Gaelic was the language spoken out in the streets by many and you would hear it everywhere and the drinking culture was big. Massively big. From Thursday 5pm to Saturday night closing time the pubs were busy. One couldn’t move for empty pints. Fights were common. There were cliques and territory and there was serious male rivalry. Sometimes very bitter rivalry which was carried out on the fields on Saturdays. Many an unchallenged assault took place on the football and shinty fields of Skye, “I was going for the ball ref” must have been the most commonly used term by a player on a Saturday afternoon as yet another player writhed in agony flat out on the pitch.
There are serious challenges to knowing a lot of people living on an island, challenges that few are aware of unless living in that situation. We’ve all seen the Big Brother house on TV, well imagine that on a far bigger scale and you can imagine what can happen living on an island like Skye. The internet revolution has undoubtedly changed world culture and the Isle of Skye is no different.
The pubs have mostly been converted to restaurants now, the pool tables and the Monday night pool league consigned to the history books, the last darts ever thrown have been thrown, the dart boards long ago sold on eBay, the public drinking culture has evaporated. The fights have stopped. The world has changed, not just the Isle of Skye but here, it was a bigger transformation than most.
“There’s no doubt about it, if you really want to see everywhere on the Isle of Skye, you need to come here by tractor” says Donald, “sure, taking the car is great and certainly beats the bus hands down any day, but nothing will get you up the Cuilins quite like a tractor. And it certainly saves a lot of huffing and puffing whilst heading up to the Old Man of Storr, it’s blinking steep that, but at least you can see where you are going now. I remember the old days where the walk up was surrounded by thick forestry trees.
It was the most bizarre sight seeing walk anywhere in the world, you were in the middle of trees until you actually got to the top. You needed a compass and it was like orienteering or whatever you call it, I’ve got satnav so I don’t bother with that compass rubbish, well, the truth is, I cant read it, it keeps moving about, it can go wrong here the compass anyway, it’s the rocks see, magnetic. Aye, it was like that for 50 years until the trees matured enough to get cut down for cash. To be honest, I’m just waiting on them to get replaced, makes sense. Without a word of lie, trees are just great for the environment. Sorry, it’s your name, it’s got me right off on a tangent there.
“Well, that’s the thing, Skye is a big place, people seem to think they can go round the island in a day but that’s just not possible, a day is just not long enough. You could do the North End Loop, as we locals call it. You start off in Portree square and head to Staffin passing the Old Man of Storr and then round the coast to Uig and then back to Portree. I’m not sure who currently holds the record for it. On two wheels it’s definitely Lamont Fraser, nobody was as fast as him. Totally ironic that he drowned in the bath after the records he set in the 80’s on his Yamaha RD350. And I think it might be Drew Balloney from Glen Hinisdale who’s got the quickest car time, he’s a cheating so and so though so I’m not sure if we believe him, we reckon he went over The Bealach and The Quiraing shortcut to Uig, it’s about 9 miles shorter if you are in a hurry. Going by our calculations, he had to be averaging 95mph all the way round, which is darn tricky around the Duntulm Castle area, especially if the bear is kicking about.
One escaped from the bear circus down the central belt decades ago now, Hercules his name was, never been found since, his owner Andy Restler came up looking for him but went back empty handed, we reckon its living wild up there and there’s been reports of him appearing on the road at crazy times, normally jumps out from the side of the ditch and tries to get into your car. He just doesn’t want to take the bus back down by the looks of things, I don’t blame him to be honest with you, he’s probably a smoker. Ach, back then it was fun, the cops had slow cars, do you remember the Allegro? You could leave them for dead. No chance nowadays though with these BMW’s they’ve got. Bring back the Allegro, that’s what I say.
What the tourists don’t realise is that for us locals, we know these roads like the back of our peat soiled hands, most of us were on the road driving at 14, well heck, who was going to walk 18 miles to see a pal after school, there was no internet back then, some say there’s no internet now.
Alternatively the day trippers can do the West Coast Loop as we locals call it. You leave Portree square and head for Dunvegan, a lot of people love the castle there and without a word of a lie, it’s one of the world’s best castles. I say that through gritted teeth however, the castle is the Headquarters of our old foes, The Clan MacLeod. We never used to get along at all in the old days, always fighting over sheep, cows, hens and fishing rights. This went on for centuries until the Coop came along with a supermarket.
After the castle, you can take a off shoot to the Neist Point lighthouse which is about a 30 minute drive away. On a good day, you can see the Outer Hebrides, on a bad day you can’t even see the lighthouse from the car park with its lights on. You will meet lots of other cars here though and it’s a single track road with passing places, so if you can’t reverse the car, I’d be wary of coming this way. There is a nice new car park there so a lot more room than there used to be. After that it’s back to the loop and a pit stop at the Talisker Distillery, it’s an amazing place that, especially if you like Whisky. I’m tee total myself, don’t touch a drop of alcohol but I could smell it all day long that whisky they make in there, the fumes alone are enough for me to start talking. If you are down the South end, I would recommend a drive down to Elgol, it’s lovely down there and then a drive down to Ardvaser, where you pass through the ‘Garden of Skye’, and where the Calmac ferry can take you to Mallaig and a short drive or train back to Fort William via the “HP” shortcut, well I used to call it the Glenfinnan Viaduct but that’s a right mouthful. Aye he’s a nice lad HP, good pal of mine. I met him when he was over in Skye. I said to him, “listen HP, I’m working on this new top secret project of mine just now so don’t mention that you were here ok”. He said “don’t worry Donald, I’ll just say I took the train from Fort William to Mallaig, I won’t mention Skye at all but surely folk would figure out I wasn’t just going to Mallaig Donald, they are bound to figure out I was coming to Skye here to see you”. Something tells me that we got away with it.
“Och aye, absolutely, if it was me coming here, I would come for at least 3 weeks just so I wouldn’t miss anything, so the day trippers, well, they don’t see much and they’ve got no chance of getting a shot of my tractor.”
“Absolutely, it’s a new venture I’m starting – “Donald’s Tractor Jaunts” and visitors can drive my tractor about a field for 15 minutes at a time. I don’t know what Fergie is going to say about it, he can be a right grump and I’ve not asked him yet.”
“I took the tractor to the top of MacLeods tables one day, wow, that was special, I could just about see Campbeltown, I said to myself, this is as far as I’m going. I’m a MacDonald see, Donald MacDonald, which in the old days meant Donald, son of Donald. Mac is Gaelic for Son. I know, I know, my parents weren’t the most original thinkers but our names had tradition and ran for generations upon generations. We can trace the name Donald in our family back to 1215 and the great Chief Somerled, yes of Somerled Square, Portree fame. Think he was the only one to tell the Roman Empire to do one. Aye, the Romans couldn’t conquer the Isle of Skye, they probably would have, if the bridge had been there. Thankfully they didn’t or else they would have put a toll on the bridge. Hang on a second, there was a toll on the bridge for a long while. There were demonstrations by a lot of locals for years to remove the toll, it was robbery, no doubt about it, we and everybody else were paying ferry prices to cross the bridge. I felt like a puppet for years digging my hands into my sporran and handing over that fiver. Tourists used to drive up to the toll and turn around without coming onto Skye at all. I didn’t blame them, they had to pay to get off as well. We felt like we were living in a zoo but nobody cared. Eventually the tolls were taken off after damaging the economy for long enough and without a word of lie, we haven’t looked back since. Skye has been a lot busier than its ever been but all these reports of being full are just complete nonsense, made up stories trying to sensationalise the place. Ach, there’s no such thing as bad publicity as they say and you just can’t keep a good place down, just ask Amsterdam or Barcelona.
Anywhere I can’t see a wind turbine has become a bit special for me too. They cause me so much pain seeing them in distress living here. They should not have been allowed to come and live here on Skye, the conditions are just too rough for them all the year round. It’s wind these poor creatures are after, not rain. I’ve been talking to them and they are starting to get rheumatoid arthritis, every one of them, pain and swelling in their joints. I’m planning a documentary with them so the world can see how much pain they are in up here. One of them went to Amsterdam on a recent break, he felt right at home there. What a tailback he caused on the A82 though, took up the whole road, Police escort and everything. He’s some size is Farquhar. Pure class winging it to Amsterdam with a Police escort all the way.
A lot of the beauty spots here have single track roads leading to them. I could give you loads of fabulous locations but then I would get blamed for causing traffic jams. For goodness sake, I’m like, you never been through Birmingham on the M6 in a tractor? That’s what I call a traffic jam. That’s what I was saying, if you take your tractor then you just go off road and dodge any traffic jam, it’s what the smart locals drive up this way. The really smart ones have invested in electric tractors, there’s a charging point down at the Bayfield Car Park, but you can’t hear these ruddy things coming so you got to be really careful, basically just no jaywalking in Portree which seems all the rage these days, some folk think Wentworth Street is a pedestrian zone, which it’s not…..yet. York Drive would be really busy then.
“That’s because it is, Portree is the English translation of the Gaelic word Port Righ which means, Port of the King. Now don’t get smart and ask me which King came here by boat, it was a long time ago. The rumours round here are that bad, it was probably someone who lost a ring and a goat and by the following day, it was definitely a King arrived by boat. There’s apparently a place in America named after York Drive here in Portree so maybe the King ended up there too, well go on then ask me which king it was”
“King James the fifth in 1540 arrived with a fleet of battleships, scared the locals to death, they had only seen fishing boats up until that point. He was wanting the MacDonald clan to back him up for some fight he was waging. We weren’t having any of it, we were too busy fighting with the MacLeods over the fishing rights for Knott harbour. Aye we used to call Portree, Kiltaraglen, much prefer Portree, less syllables. It was Tam Telford who built Portree harbour and all the main roads. They call him Thomas online but he was Tam to us locals back in the day.”
“Aye, never feed a seagull. It will follow you around for the rest of your trip, drop its dinner on your car, swoop in grabbing chips out of your hands, all sorts. They are a real menace especially down at the piers but they don’t bother us locals, they know who we are and we never feed them. Well we don’t have to, the tourists are always feeding them. You know, so don’t give us bad press when they hijack your rented car and you lose your deposit, you have been warned.
And the sheep. They’ve been on skye for centuries so their folklore never involved serious collisions with cars, so they have zero road sense. They are really into springing surprises and jumping onto the road from nowhere. A lot of them are really stubborn, they just won’t budge and they just love a good staring match. It’s only because they don’t know you so don’t take offence, they will know you the second time they see you. Not a lot of people know this but all sheep have photographic memories but it’s black and white for them, a bit like the televisions we grew up watching. If you blare your horn trying to shift them, they are likely to head butt your car, especially if it’s clean and shiny, they see themselves in the reflection, think it’s another sheep moving in on their grass and basically start a fight with your car. If you see one with it’s head down eating grass, just absolutely plough on with your foot to the floor. Nothing will stop them from eating once they start so no worries about them jumping out then.”
“I don’t know, I don’t read guide books about the Isle of Skye.”
“Well, it’s like this, the population has split into 2 segments, the indigenous people of around 10,000 and the AirBnB population which is around 35,000 on a busy night. Nobody can rent any accommodation here long term anymore, people are throwing their parents into old folks homes just so they can let out their bedroom full time. I’ve heard of hens being evicted from old hen houses which are now AirBnB establishments.”
“Well, without a word of a lie, there are definitely things that can be improved. We could do with toilets dotted about the place, like a McDonalds drive through except you have to get out of the car. You know, big red and yellow neon lights flashing “Donald’s Welcome Break”. I could even start a franchise and export it worldwide, I would call it “Donalds”, without the apostrophe. Alternatively, folk can just do what the locals do and that is knock on the nearest doorbell and tell them you are absolutely bursting. The people on Skye are very friendly and accommodating, especially if you are needing the toilet. You don’t even need to bring your own toilet roll. Chances are though, you will ring the doorbell of an Airbnb establishment and there’s nobody home. There’s a lot of trees and bushes on the Isle of Skye now anyway, especially at the road side, not like the old days where you had to hide behind the tractor.”
“Distance, keep your distance from the car in front. Too often myself and Fergie come up behind around 15 cars all following a camper van, bumper to bumper. It’s like the hokey-cokey on 4 wheels, except I’m certainly not singing along. I keep looking for the 30mph signs but I’m not seeing any. I’m saying to myself, this camper van, he’s in no hurry so why doesn’t he pull over and give someone else a shot of being the pace car. You can overtake up here and the roads are good with plenty straights, and the speed limit is actually 60mph unless you are in a 30mph pedestrian zone. If you are on a single track road and a car comes up behind you, pull over and let them past. You could be holding up a voluntary fire rescue member who is racing to the local fire station, you will just think they are insane, so please be aware when driving and always check your mirrors.”
Got to watch out on a Tuesday evening in Summer too because half of Wentworth Street is closed for the pipe band which means you got to take a chance going down the lane. Chances are, the road is blocked, someone in picking up a Chinese takeway. So expect delays there in Summertime, wintertime too until February for a month, clears then for some reason. Alternatively, you could park the car up and watch the Isle of Skye pipe band every Tuesday, they are totally ace and always draw a good crowd. Prepare to end up on YouTube though or photo bombing selfies judging by the amount of phones in the air I’ve spotted at these weekly events.”
“Och, I’m all over the place most of the week helping the neighbours doing jobs with Fergie but you will always find me in church on the Sabbath praying to God for a good tourist season, we don’t have much here since the crofting and fishing died a death. We are thankful to have been blessed with such great people coming here from all over the world, we love them all and try to make them feel as welcome as possible”
“Och well, it will be the one with the orange tractor parked outside.”
“Hang on Gavin, I’ve got a question for you. I’ve been hearing a lot about this new tractor that’s on the go but I’ve never seen one in the flesh and I have no idea who manufactures it. It’s called the Chelsea Tractor. It’s got us totally flummoxed up here, Fergie’s never heard of the darn thing and he’s ancient. He’s probably worried I’m going to trade him in”
“Ach, dash it, I was thinking it might have been the old Ford 3000 making a comeback”
Well Donald, it’s been great talking to you and thanks for all the useful advice you have given us here. Your website is sure to help a lot of tourists and I’m definitely wanting a drive of the tractor before I go.”
"Without a word of a lie, it's been a pleasure chatting with you Gavin."
"Em, it's Gareth, Donald, Gareth Pickingtree"
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