Wanderer at Large: Scottish Islands

A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.

Sponsored by Your London Tours.

This autumn, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.

Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.

In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.

This week, northern Scotland including the Highlands and islands.

Speed bonnie boat… over the sea to Skye.”

Scottish Islands
The Scottish Islands are a delight to visit, especially in the summer, among them Arran, Barra, Bute, Coll, Islay, Jura, Lewis & Harris, Mull, Rum, Shetlands, Tiree and North & South Uist. But the two that feature in this section are the particularly fascinating Skye and Orkney.

The island of Skye sits off the western coast of Scotland, about 50 miles in length, 25 miles in breadth at its widest, with a 350-mile coastline. Skye means the Island of Mist or Cloud Island. As you approach the island by sea, the dark Cuillin Mountains loom out of those mists. They are named after Ulster mythical giant Cuchulain. The immense range has had a major influence of artistic culture, particularly on the sublime cult of Romanticism. Stop at Sligachan on the A863 to admire the scenery. Skye is also known as the Land of the Fairies, and there are a number of examples of this name being used here, such as the Fairy Pools, the Fairy Bridge and the Fairy Flag.

Very little is known about the people here from ancient times. Historic records show it was conquered and settled by Norwegian Vikings in the 1100s and retaken by Alexander III on behalf of the Scots after the Battle of Largs in 1263. During the medieval period it became a main base of both the MacDonald and the MacLeod clans, and there was constant strife between them. The MacDonalds tended to be fiercely independent and rebellious, the MacLeods were generally loyalist, and were allied to the Campbells, the MacDonalds’ hated rivals. In 1578, the MacDonalds were accused of setting fire to a church where the McLeods were worshipping.

Skye entered popular British consciousness in 1770, when the writer Samuel Johnson made a well-documented visit with his diarist friend Boswell. In 1845, it recorded its highest population of around 23,000. However, it was then heavily impacted by the Potato Famine. Many left for good, including the majority of the MacLeod families. Life became so tough on the island that it almost became deserted, but in 1882, the crofters of Skye fought a legal battle against the Clearances and won a landmark court case, ensuring continual human habitation to this day. Now the population is about 6,000, rising to 10,000 with the tourist trade in summer.

On the northern edge of Skye you will find the grave of Flora MacDonald. She was the 24-year-old daughter of a local MacDonald clan militiaman. She famously helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape government forces after the Jacobite defeat at Culloden. She apparently helped disguise him as a maid, Betty Burke, and rowed him to Skye. From this tale come the words to the song: “Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing, onward the sailors cry. Carry the lad that’s born to be king over the sea to Skye.” Flora was captured and imprisoned for her part in the Young Pretender’s escape. After her release she went to America. However, she returned to Skye and was buried at Kilmuir cemetery in 1790. Nearby is a monument to the designer Alexander McQueen (1969-2010). His ashes are scattered near his mother’s grave who died 10 days before him.

Dunvegan Castle is the spiritual and ancestral home of the MacLeod clan. In 1625, the clan chief was knighted here for his loyal service by King James VI. The castle was originally built in the 1260s, after Alexander III’s victory at the Battle of Largs. It underwent a ‘Romantic’ restoration in the 19th century, but is still in use today, making it the oldest inhabited castle in Scotland. Visitors should look out for an original mediaeval dungeon, the Fairy Flag (given by the ‘Fairy Godmother’ to the MacLeod clan to unfurl in times of trouble), and a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hair. The Young Pretender had given the lock as a gift to Flora MacDonald for helping him to escape. In 1746, the loyalist MacLeods hunted down and captured Flora which is how the lock came to be in their possession

There are many welcoming places of hospitality on Skye, including the Three Chimneys at Colbost, the Stein Inn at Waternish and the Ullinish Country Lodge at Struan, where Samuel Johnson stayed while on his travels through Scotland. There are plenty of opportunities for a wee tipple, too. The Franco-Scottish based liqueur Drambuie apparently originated on Skye by virtue of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Apparently, he gave the recipe to the MacKinnon family who passed it on to the owners of the Broadford Hotel. A visit to the Talisker Distillery at Carbost will give you the opportunity to try a whisky that is peaty in taste. Meanwhile, craft gin and vodka is produced at the Isle of Skye Distillers in Portree.

Over the past few decades, the Orkney islands have become the place to visit for those who like to be more in touch with Britain’s ancient past. The interest initially stemmed from the rediscovery of a Neolithic settlement which was exposed after a storm in 1850. Since that time, archaeologists have been flocking to the islands with deep fascination. There are plenty of sites to visit, including the Skara Brae settlement, Maeshowe passage tomb, the Ness of Brodgar, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness.

For many years, the experts believed that this Neolithic culture had moved from south to north, partly based on the evidence of the more creatively advanced carved stone circles of northern France. However, recent critical thinking has turned those theories upside down. Indeed, quite literally, as experts now say the civilisation was moving south to north, so we should actually turn the map of Britain around fully 180 degrees. The main evidence for this is that the Orkney architecture is from in excess of 3000BC, pre-dating other Neolithic sites such as Stonehenge by at least 500 years. Heavier stones were used too and on a larger scale. With this in mind, perhaps the Orkney excavations can tell us more about the ‘later’ Neolithic rituals. We are told that the people here wielded an important influence over the rest of Britain. It is now thought that the grooved-ware pottery found throughout Britain and Northern France dating from this period originated in Orkney. Also, the study of the relatively well-preserved Skara Brae settlement helps us in the study of other similar settlements such as Durrington Walls near Stonehenge or South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. For example, the orientation of the houses seems to be significant. In particular, the north-easterly corner of the home (the dark side) seem to have been for sleeping and rituals focused on the dead.

But there are still many questions to be answered: is the Ness of Brodgar a temple complex? Is the Ring of Brodgar a place of the dead? Are the Stones of Stenness a place of the living? Is there a processional route between Brodgar and Stenness (experts are currently excavating the space directly between two stone circles). Also, is there a unifying factor linking all the sites, possibly an astronomical connection?

The ancient Orkney civilisation and culture was probably in existence for 1,000 years, but over by 2,300BC. So, what happened? Experts say it was possibly the discovery that tin and copper combined to make a new metal, bronze, and that changed everything. It meant a new social order, a new economy, and ultimately new beliefs. The Orkney people, for centuries Britain’s leading social influencers, now got left behind.

Anyhow, if you’re into this kind of stuff, Orkney is fascinating. Just fascinating.

Scottish Islands: lose yourself in the mists of time.

Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.

For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com

*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:

  1. London
  2. Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
  3. Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
  4. Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
  5. Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
  6. South coast (Hants/Dorset)
  7. Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
  8. South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
  9. Wales (north & south)
  10. Welsh Borders (Worcestershire/Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
  11. Western Midlands (Brum/Warks/Staffs)
  12. Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland)
  13. Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
  14. East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
  15. Yorks (all ridings)
  16. North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
  17. North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
  18. Southern Scotland (Lowlands/Midlands)
  19. Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
  20. Ireland (Northern/Southern)

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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