I was in a faraway land, the rays of the morning sun bathing me oh so softly. I stood by the burn that April day, the sound of the gushing water in my ears, and chirped out ‘howdy munchkins’ to the startled sheep. The whole flock started and stared for a few seconds at the intrusion. If their baa could have been translated into humanspeak, it would surely have run along the lines of, ‘Look ye, a streenger’, the Scottish burr coming through strong. They are Highlanders too, you know. Just a more fleecy variety, but I bet if we had a conversation they would let me know that they are passionate about the land too. They live off it. Literally.
The moorland heather had yet to shake off its brown winter coat, turn that hue of purple which enchants the eye. Dry stone walls ran along the gorge and burn, keeping it all in. The remnants of a simple crofting life. Our cottage was part of a croft sprawled over 17 acres of grassland. The ruins of a crofter’s cottage and some outbuildings sat nearby.
The word ‘croft’ is a part of the landscape of Skye. Simply put, it is land fenced off by regulations – and it is a legacy of the troubled past of the Highlands. A clutch of stories – quilted with heartache, aspiration, pride, defeat, devastation – revolve around it. And they are not myths or products of the imagination, mind you. In the late 17th century, in a standoff between the Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths, the latter had a thumping win. The Roman Catholic Stuart king, James VII (of England and Ireland) and II (of Scotland), was deposed by his daughter Mary II and her Protestant Dutch husband, William III.
The Hanoverians sat upon the throne, and with that, the Jacobites came to the fore. The single-minded aim of their rebellions was to restore the Scottish Stuart kings to their ‘divine right’. Who cared about the writ of the Parliament? Not this devout lot who got their names from the Renaissance Latin word Jacobus for James. Thus, the supporters of James.
Now in Scottish Gaelic – which is sprinkled all over the isle – they have a word called cuimhnich. It means ‘remember’. The Skye folk remember. The entrance of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the grandson of the exiled James. This young man was deemed The Young Pretender, his father having been titled The Old Pretender to the throne. In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie arrived in Scotland and rallied an army around him to take on the king’s forces, and a year later, lost all at the historic Battle of Culloden but his life.
On the Waternish peninsula, where we were, the Bonnie Prince had been rowed over the waters, for refuge, by a brave young woman. Flora MacDonald is the famous daughter of the isle. She is straight out of the novels of Walter Scott where the feisty heroine makes you sit up and take notice. Though it must have been the other way around. Scott would have been inspired by her story when he set about writing his historical novels. It is reality, after all, that provides the best fodder for the imagination.
The Bonnie Prince fled to France but in his wake left devastation. His supporters, fierce clansmen, were decimated by the Cumberland Redcoats. Their graves lie in Culloden, marked by grave stones, grouped under the broad umbrella of their clan names.
The disbanded clansmen were hunted out. There was mayhem on the isle. Houses, boats and whole villages burnt. No wonder the Duke of Cumberland, the son of the reigning King George II, was nicknamed The Butcher as he went about systematically after the culture and language of the Highlanders. They were stripped of their tartans, the usage of Scottish Gaelic and their estates were annexed by the Crown.
Outsiders were made landlords of these estates. They rented out the infertile lands as crofts to tenants, formerly clansmen, chucked the rest from the land, driving them into small villages where they had to make their livelihood from fishing. This is also when there were mass immigrations of Scottish farmers to faraway lands – Australia, New Zealand and Nova Scotia.
So you see there is great heartache lodged into that beautiful landscape. You can hear the haunting strain in the ‘Skye Boat Song’, a Scottish folk number which derives the words from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem.
“Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.”
You must have heard it in Outlander.
We sat in the conservatory in the mornings, before setting out for our drives, and soaked up the view which was one for the books. The eye tumbled over the green squares and strips patchworking the length and breadth of the hills and rolled into the sea loch. Beyond the gentle dip of the slope lay the headland preceded by a cluster of stone-washed cottages. In the evenings, we would sit outside the cottage with glasses of wine, by the sea, then lay back on the cold grass and stare at the stars as they popped up in the evening sky, one by one.