bert timmermans saskia van der loo
Talking about a bad start... when Julie dropped us off in Calligarry (a bit past Armadale) at about 9:30, it was pouring down like hell and it steadily got worse as we climbed to the interior of the Sleat peninsula. No path available, we tried aiming for Cnoc an Sgúmain, only to find out that we couldn't see anything beyond 10m. At that point you start wondering what you'll be doing in this country when the whole of September proves to turn out just like that. Anyway, the compass and the map finally got us to the foot of the small hill which we correctly diagnosed as Sgúmain. Once on the top, the rain ceased, the clouds lifted and we'd had pretty much the bulk of rain we would get on Skye altogether, although we didn't know that. Some deer shot away over a nearby hill and the wind blew over the browngreen land. Far away loomed some of the Cuillins in the dense cloudblanket, but gradually blue spots started to appear in the west and we finally set eyes on the utter solemn beauty of Gleann Meadhonach (picture) with Loch a'Ghlinne and Coille Dalavil (Dalavil Wood) conspiring to fill the mind with one word: good.
Peat, moor, bog, whatever, is extremely wet. Its capacity to absorb water is, however, limited. Which means that, as soon as it starts raining, the land floods. (After having walked in hellish rain along the shores of Lough Corrib in Ireland, we encountered a local who made us acquainted with the saying "Where's the deepest point of Lough Corrib? On the land!") Therefore, valleys might look lovely, but remember that everything that divinely glistens in the sunlight is h²o. So you have to pick one way to reach the spot where you want to cross the river and you'd better stick to that plan, since moving around on the valley floor is as next to impossible as it can get (especially when a barbed wire fence in the prime of its life unexpectedly pops up in the midst of a place where you would have thought it impossible to raise anything at all). Due to a minor flaw in the description of the walk, we ended up 500m east of what is supposed to be the best spot to cross the burn. Combined with the huge rainfall just before, it came down to wading knee-deep through it, effectively destroying any waterproofness our waxed & sprayed boots might still have had at that point, and making sure we'd have wet boots in the next two days as well. I know that it's always better to remove your boots and wade through barefoot, or put on your shoes without the socks, or carry plastic bags with you if you're really a smartass, but intelligence comes only in quanta sometimes. It takes about 5 nanoseconds to forget about all this though, when you look upon the valley and the waterlily-covered, treelined splendour of the lake (picture - I know there's too much sky, but I'm sky-obsessed and Fuji throwaway panoramic apparatuses suck).
Dalavil tells the Tale
Dalavil wood is an astonishing grove. Unphotographable as a whole and with way too much of a sanctuary about it to even make an attempt to do so. The sound is of silent nature, the silverwatershore is first lined with pine, followed by gigantic birches (tree-nymphs!), and higher up whitestemmed beeches catching the western seasaltwind. It is one of the last spots of old wood still remaining in Skye.
As one probably knows, most of the typical Scottish landscape was shaped by humans. Between 5000 and 3000 BC the stoneageman started to cut down the first trees, partly to make room for agrarian settlements, which became more numerous over the ages - yes, these areas were once relatively densely populated! Around 700 BC the climate suddenly changed to colder and wetter, or, as it is known now in the world, Scottish, leading to de development of that other typical Scot: turf. Settlements focused on the fewer fertile grounds which were reallocated to different farmers each year, as the Clan system became the backbone of Highland life and society. As the agricultural communities boomed, the supply of trees began to sink, but most of the ancient woodland remained intact (see also; and here). A big bummer however was waiting the people and the land, following the defeat of the Jacobites at the (tourist trumpet) Battle of Culloden in 1746, which must be on of the most disastrous events in Scottish history. Wearing of tartan and weapons was forbidden, but, more dramatically, the Clan system was abolished and with it Highland society as it was basically wrapped up and shoveled down the drain. In replacement came crofter communities, and the need for charcoal made the tree supply sink well below the demand, leading to vast areas entirely devoid of a single tree (take a look at Harris) and a wet dream for landscape photographers. Not that this is unique - almost the whole of Northwestern Europe used to be covered with dense and vast forests. Now we go to the Amazon rainforest telling those Indians they should leave their trees alone - good one. Add some creative economics, since sheep became more profitable to the landlords than the people on their land (who were now no longer connected to them through the Clan) and most of the communities, like Dalavil were 'cleared' starting 1750 and especially vicious in the latter part of the 19th century, ie burned to the ground and erased from existence in most cases (the Isle of Rum, for example, was cleared of all its inhabitans). The clearances (look here for a stunning account; though a more nuanced account is here) eventually ended, but evil was done (the potato famine didn't help either, plus hardly any historic event has a single cause), so the land knew a veritable 200-year exodus - to the big cities, England, and overseas. To top it off, once the sheep became less profitable, tourism had its way as the Victorians saw the marvelous holiday and hunting opportunities combined with a landscape corresponding to the romantic essence of... the romantic essence or whatever. It's easier to shoot deer without trees roaming about the place, so the barren landscape remained a fact. In Skye, population went from 23,000 in 1840 to a mere 7,300 in 1970 - which has risen again to 12,000 over the last three decades.
Pondering all this, we finally got to the west coast of Sleat at Inver Dalavil and there the mind really opened up (picture).
Although sometimes strenuous, there's a lot to be said for pathless walking, like the "to boldly go where no man has gone before"-feeling, which is, of course, partly an illusion. But you can't beat the most splendid of all sensations - the absolute solitude, miles behind and miles ahead: nothing. Hardly a single piece of proof of human existence. Then the absurd thought strikes you that it's so utterly crazy that all this marvelous scenery has been put here for no one in particular - and you're granted the opportunity to lay a humble eye upon it all. You're just so used to everything having a purpose or being used for some sort of goal, that the mere fact of seeing a completely useless but absolutely stunning piece of grand earth makes your mind flipflop inside out. As it stood, a long stretch of splendid cliffy coastline covered in blanketbog awaited us, but who would mind, even in squelchy boots, with a view like this:
The weather was splendid and we got good views of the roundtopped Red Cuillins, with just the start of the Black Cuillin range on the left of the picture. The wind was blowing persistently, but the cliffs presented no problems, although after a while you get tired of going inland every time you have to negotiate a burn that has cut itself a steep gully through the cliff top. The sea was of a blue deeper than even imagination can fathom on a remorseful day.
In the end it proved to be a bit arduous with wet feet, especially on a first day, to make it all the way to Ord or even to Tokavaig with its castle. By the time we arrived in the lovely peaceful village of Tarskavaig at about 16:30 (picture), the final stretch of tarmac had done its feetkilling and I was all too glad to phone Peter to pick us up (picture). Waiting for Peter, we realised our first day lay behind us - the weather had been great, we'd seen some marvelous serene spots, and in little more than 48 hours, the idea of ever having been anywhere else had ceased to exist altogether; but tea and a hot bath had developed from a serious need into an acute craving.
A warm meal, a slice of whisky pudding, and a couple of Guinnesses at Toravaig Hotel were all that stood between us an the good night's rest, dreaming of one thing: ne-ver again to doubt the usefulness of these nylon leg protectors you put on over your shoes. O yes, and Peter was right: you do need a bath after a walk - if possible, never do with just the shower.
on the second day we walked from Ord to Drumfearn, along the south shore of Loch Eishort
weather on this day (midnight before the walk) : 850hPa temperature / pressure