Geologically, the Quiraing is the result of an immense landslip dating from the end of the last ice-age. Ever since, this great mass of rock fractured from the spine of the Trotternish Peninsula has moved inexorably toward the sea, creating a dramatic assembly of spires, towers and walls of rock that defy the senses. Though imperceptible to the eye, the rate of movement can be judged by the frequent repairs and undulations along the road at its base.
‘Quiraing’, so I am informed by the owner of the Staffin Guesthouse, the one-time Staffin Inn that appears in volumen primus of Acts of the Servant, approximately translates as ‘Pillared Fortress’, which seems appropriate. Among the pillars are several with their own names, such as The Prison, a towering mass of stone evocative of a castle keep complete with turrets, and The Needle, a jagged one-hundred and twenty foot spire. At the centre of the Quiraing, and perhaps most extraordinary of all, is a steep-sided miniature plateau named The Table. Perfectly level and grass covered it was used once to hide cattle during clan wars and more recently has hosted games of Scottish hockey, or ‘shinty’. Winding between the pillars of rock are chasms filled with boulders and scree which make ascending into the Quiraing not for the faint-hearted.
For such a remarkable setting there is very little in the way of folklore associated with the Quiraing. By comparison, Glastonbury Tor is a mere hillock yet it has attracted famous legends from King Arthur to Joseph of Arimathea. No doubt it is the Quiraing’s remoteness – at the end of a peninsula on an island on the far west coast of Scotland – alongside so many other scenic splendours on Skye, which prevented it acquiring significant legend. The only tale I can find concerns a milk-white cow said to graze on the grassy Table at dawn on Mid-summer’s day and who would only yield milk to a virgin maiden over sixteen years of age.
Her milk was said to taste exactly as the drinker wished and never soured and for many decades the cow appeared once a year and was milked by the fairest virgin maiden of the surrounding parishes. It all ended badly when a tinker up from Glasgow heard the tale while selling his wares in Portree and lay in wait on Midsummer night to claim the milk for himself. After ravishing the maiden and leaving her for dead on the slopes, he disguised himself with a wig and climbed into the Quiraing. There he found the cow but as soon as he tried to milk her she caught him on her horns and tossed him into Staffin Bay where he drowned. The maiden recovered but the cow never appeared again. Exactly which year this was no one can say. In some accounts it was in the time of King James the First of Scotland and in others it was ‘before my father drew breath’ but all agree the tinker was a Glaswegian.
A year ago I was invited to Skye to give a talk on MacGregor to the historical society in Portree and of course I could not resist a trip to Staffin Bay to see Bheathain’s home. I stayed at the Staffin Guesthouse and from there headed out intending for the Quiraing. I confess, my best walking days are two decades behind me and the October weather was not kind. Nevertheless, I started at ten in the morning and made it to the heart of the Quiraing not long after lunchtime, for which I had sandwiches and a flask of coffee laced with a little something to warm the spirit. The Quiraing was as spectacular as I imagined but when I tried to leave a ferocious sheep refused to let me pass whichever route I attempted, up or down. The evil creature kept me for an hour or more in miserable weather until by luck the sun burst through the cloud whereon the sheep immediately lost interest and wandered off. I made my escape and arrived back at the guesthouse just before dark. Frustratingly, my camera malfunctioned, no doubt from the rain, and none of my photographs came out.