A Storied Landscape
I’ve written a couple posts about the Isle of Skye in Scotland now, and I think it’s time for a disclaimer: You don’t go to the Isle of Skye to be entertained. You go there to be awed.
In other words: Just looking at stuff should be enough.
The Isle of Skye is sparsely populated. However, number of people on the island balloons in summer, when the weather is good for hiking. The mountains on the Isle of Skye are world-renowned for being home to some of the most difficult scrambling paths in the world. (Scrambling: difficult hiking that occasionally requires you to go on all fours so you don’t fall down the chasm of doom.)
If you look in any guidebook, all the major points of interest on the Isle of Skye are natural wonders. And if you actually go to the Isle of Skye and put your phone down for about three seconds and look around, you’ll see why.
One of my favorite things about the Isle of Skye is that the natural landscape is imbued with stories. Not only do they have beautiful landscapes that go on for miles, every single one has a story. And as befits a landscape that is as surreal as Skye’s, most of those stories have to do with the things beyond our ken. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at one of them.
The Cuillins (koo-lins) are a series of mountains that run through the heart of the Isle of Skye. Most people know about them for their trails for hiking and scrambling (an extreme form of hiking). People come from all over Europe to go hiking in these mountains, which are generally considered Britain’s only true mountains. If you come to the Isle of Skye by car from the mainland, you’ll see these mountains as you head north to Portree.
Really, you won’t be able to miss them.
There are two types of Cuillin. The Black Cuillins are so called because they’re – surprise! – black in color. The Red Cuillins are so called because they’re – even bigger surprise! – red in color. The sister mountain ranges sit across the River Sligachan from each other, staring each other down. The Black Cuillins are bigger and craggier than the Red Cuillins, which are more newbie-hiker-friendly.
In the Beginning…
Like with so many other peoples, the people of Skye have a story about how the Cuillins came to be. Long ago, a woman called Cailleach Bhur came to the Isle of Skye from far in the north. Her name means Hag of the Ridges, which is a a poetic, if pejorative, name for winter.
She was a right mean old hag, and she’d spread her white washing out all over the island to dry. (In other words, she made it snow.) The people had no way of getting rid of her. Even the forces of nature had to team up with each other to oust her from her abode on the island.
Now, Spring was in love with a fair maiden, and she loved him back. The only problem was, Cailleach Bhur held the maid in thrall and made her to help with her washing. Spring fought and fought with the old hag, but could get nowhere. Finally, he appealed to the Sun for help.
The Sun shot down his fire upon Cailleach Bhur, forcing the ground to rise up around her. She escaped from the island, but the landscape was forever marked with the memory of the fight she’d had with the Sun. Thus, the Cuillins.
There’s another story about a really cool woman named Skiach.
According to legend, it’s from her that the Isle of Skye takes its name. (Others say that it comes from a Norse word for cloudy, but that’s not as good of a story.) Skiach was a warrior woman. No man could vanquish her. She set up a school at her home in the Cuillins, and taught others the art of fighting.
One day, a rather haughty young man from the mainland came to find Skiach and challenge her to a fight. He was the best fighter in Scotland, or so he thought. He was going to beat this woman who was challenging his title. So, pick a fight with her he did.
The fight lasted for a day and a night. And then another day and another night. Neither one could gain the upper hand. But before you write off Skiach for not being able to vanquish this man, remember that women aren’t supposed to know how to fight at all, let alone on par with men. At the end of the second night, they called the fight a draw, and agreed to come to each other’s aid whenever their help was needed.
So it came to pass that Scotland’s most powerful man made an alliance with Scotland’s most powerful woman, together as equals.
After Skiach died, legend has it that a monster moved into her mountain home. So, maybe Nessie has a friend hanging out in the Cuillins, just waiting for her to come over for a playdate.
Visitng the Cuillins
Getting there: If you’re planning to stay on Skye for a while, you’ll be able to get to the Cuillins. There are a number of walking, hiking, and scrambling paths through the mountains. Check out this website for more information about the routes and how to find them.
Good to know:
- As with any other mountain trails, wear appropriate footwear and have a map with you.
- The Cuillins have a reputation for being treacherous. Rescue services pull people out of the range every season. Even experienced hikers occasionally fall into trouble there. Make sure you choose a hiking path that is appropriate for your experience level, and that you pay attention to what you’re doing.
- The summer is the high season, and the Isle of Skye gets mobbed with tourists. If you prefer a quieter hike, consider late spring or early autumn for your trek.