The rain is a constant. Indeed, it is as meaningless to say, “It is raining” as to say, “I am breathing”, but if I strive for optimism, I would observe that in my view across the harbour at Portree it is raining less than it was.
But for now, I am warm and ensconced in a tearoom.
My talk to the Skye Historical Society went down well, though they proved a most knowledgeable lot and several had noted minor deviations or omissions in MacGregor’s works. This included that perennial favourite, the “road” along the east shore of the Trotternish that MacGregor created to bring Lord MacDonald within sight of Staffin Bay and so to meet with Beathan Somerled. It was, for them, a road too far, but historians and writers view things quite differently. I was assured that following publication of the Anniversary Edition of Acts of the Servant they would invite me back for a second talk, which I accepted on condition of fairer weather.
Yesterday, the Reverend John McClaggart’s kind offer notwithstanding, I took the post-bus around the Trotternish. This service combines delivery of the mails with a local bus service and thus I saw much that one might miss from the main road. The sheer profusion of tiny hamlets scattered along the shore must date right back to the boom of the kelp trade in the 1820s and I dare say the number of abandoned houses is testament to its steep and terminal decline. The low cloud and persistent rain restricted my view of the mountains, but the colourful natives made up for it. I did not stop at Staffin Bay, since there is little beside a café to delay one if the weather is bad, but did spend some hours at the Museum of Island Life at Kilmuir which is almost directly opposite Staffin Bay but on the west side of the peninsula. This excellent museum, you may find here: though your visit will be sadly bereft of the sweet wind and burning peat: I really do recommend it should you be on Skye any time soon.
It is normally closed at this time of year, but I had rung ahead and after carefully explaining my connection to MacGregor, discovered that the person I was speaking to had attended my talk the day before! Thus, I was met on arrival by Adam Moffat, the curator, and given a personal guided tour of the various properties. It is quite extraordinary what they have done here. The period modelled is a little later than MacGregor’s time, but really the only clue to this are the frequent storm lanterns – rush lights, cruise lamps burning fish oil, and candles being the sole illumination in the 1860s – and I did feel that at any moment Beathan Somerled might walk in through the door.
Naturally, I asked after a bookshop and found they kept a modest supply: mostly guidebooks to other attractions on the island, but a few academic works as well – one of which is now lying beside my buttered toast – and, to my gratification, MacGregor’s Acts of the Servant and the third volume in the series: Devices and Executions. On mentioning the missing second volume, Works of the Master, Adam gave a grumble and explained it was stolen the previous season.
Adam Moffat then drove me the few miles to Uig (where he lives) and there I watched the departure of Cruddy’s ferry service to the Outer Islands. Alas, Cruddy’s sponsorship of Bard of Tweeddale does not bring with it any freedom of travel on their service or I might have been tempted aboard and delayed my return to Wiltshire. However, needs must and with an hour spare before return of the postbus I enjoyed a quayside hostelry. Perhaps it was the obscurity of the season marking me out as no ordinary tourist, or that several of those on the bus had now seen me twice in one day, but several engaged me in friendly conversation and I nearly felt quite at home among them.
There is, so I am told, the prospect of cloud tomorrow, but little rain, and I intend to fulfil an ambition: an ascent into the heart of the mysterious Quiraing, or Round Pen. This strange and forbidding cluster of rock spires and crags looms above Staffin Bay and is quite as impressive a work of nature as the towers of York Cathedral are of man. It is also the setting for a major scene in Works of the Master and I have always wished to compare reality with MacGregor’s dramatic and terrifying description. I have my boots and my waterproofs, but though I shall have a map, I confess to possessing little natural sense of direction.
Wish me well…