Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Day 19 - Skye Ferry, Neist Point, Skye Weavers and Silver and The Three Chimneys

We’re late getting away today. It’s 11 am before we’re on the road. Having had to think about yesterday to complete my report this morning, I’m not in the most upbeat of moods. The weather is still wet and the mountains are obscured by rain but we’re keen to get a proper look at the place and blow the cobwebs out, so we hit the road our fail-proof mood lifter. First things first I really want to go take a look at Eilean Donan Castle, just from the outside, seeing as it’s such a famous landmark.  I also would like to check out the Skye Ferry, so a loop makes sense.
As we head out I’m really curious to see the scenery from the car compared to the bus yesterday and whether it will make any real difference to our experience of Skye in the rain. Hubby’s reporting a need to get some fuel. We’re a living breathing comedy sketch as we make completely bewildering wrong turns for no apparent reasons other than, well it’s us and that’s what we do, we’re famous for it… we go back and forth across the Skye Bridge. The cloud is hanging very low and we’re virtually blind as we head up to the crest of the crossing. All we can see is the little village down on the side of the loch immediately next to the bridge.
Along the way we venture down into Kyleakin proper for a look around. The loch is quiet and still. There’s a fine mist of rain and clouds hanging low creating a pensive atmosphere and a fresh salty tang in the air. It’s beautiful and I’m glad to get out of the car for some photos, exhilarated by the crisp chill in the air.  The rain increases encouraging a retreat to the car and in any case with our late departure we should get on with it.
With the petrol tank now at explorer level, we retrace steps from yesterday for a short while before we make the turn to Kylerhea. The rain deepens the colours on the hillsides and vegetation with a moist sheen. In this area on the hillsides the heather is flowering beautifully. I haven’t managed to get a photo of the strange lumpiness of the ground everywhere. Pointy little hillocks are scattered fairly closely and they do look for all the world like some alternative civilisation has constructed little dwellings. It makes me think of the “little people”. Perhaps they are responsible.
Our route is along the usual one lane road with passing places but there’s some interesting terrain so the driving is fun. The wet weather has created some pretty little cascades here and there. Misty rain drifts across. It’s all very moody and atmospheric. We’re really enjoying the drive. “Oh, slow!” I cry as an unbeatable photo opportunity appears ahead.  I love these strange little pictures that the undulations or turns in a road occasionally provide.
Once again I’m surprised by the reality of the terrain that I have been familiar with only in two dimensions. To get to Kylerhea we need to pass around the mountain and down the incline to the water. We pass the sign to the wildlife viewing hide. Bicker over nothing as we turn around and venture back, slowly pass people heading up on foot and park next to the cars of people who’ve arrived before us. I’m getting myself together and I notice some specks floating in the air. At first I thought they looked like tiny snow particles defying gravity in the breeze. The light is hitting them in an entrancing way. Then slowly I realise that it cannot be snow at this time of year, no matter how chilly it is by our temperate zone standards. Perhaps it is dust. You know that way that motes of dust float in a sunbeam?  Then the penny drops. Holy crap that’s a cloud of midges banging on my window anxious to get at us!!  We have the Smidge but the walk down that track looks long enough to be painful for Hubby’s foot as well as time consuming, we’ve missed high tide and we’re not that over-endowed with time today. Forget it. Let’s just go down to the ferry. Hubby needs no persuading.
The ferry is really cool. One of our fellow tourists yesterday mentioned that the deck of the ferry is on a turntable. It’s the most extraordinary thing. I find car ferries great fun at any time but this unusual style of turntable ferry is great to experience. To take a decent photo I really am obliged to get out of the car. There’s a couple on a motorbike on this crossing and they’re putting their helmets on. As I hop out the car they say, clearly for my benefit, “Midges!” Then they slam their visors shut. Nice of them to warn me. I close the car door quickly and I’m reasonably OK. Hubby shelters in place. The midges don’t seem to bother me overly much. I like to imagine it might be the Scottish part of my DNA helping me out but that’s probably a silly flight of fancy. I take the photos I need and hop back in the car. No worries.
It’s only a very short crossing and in no time the turntable is rotating once more to line us up for disembarking. Such fun.  We climb up away from the water in search of Glenelg.
Glenelg is in a beautifully wooded area. The soil must be better and deeper here because the trees appear to be thriving. I wind my window down excitedly as we come across a flock of sheep on the road. They are fairytale sheep, all snowy white with sweet little faces. Some are grazing delicious looking slender grass under the trees by the road.  We creep along slowly and they decide they’ll take off ahead of us, their undocked tails spinning around like a cute woolly wind-up toy as they trot along. We slow down further trying to avoid any possibility of stressing the gorgeous creatures.
Glenelg itself is equally charming. What a delightful spot. The Glenelg Inn looks brilliant as well of course and I note to Hubby the high tariff imposed for staying here. We stay just long enough to enjoy seeing the place and try to capture photos that do it some sort of rough justice.
Onward we go. Winding down the window occasionally pays off as we travel through pine forest of luxuriant, drooping tipped conifers. Breath deep.  We’re teased with snatches of water views before we regain sea level as we round Loch Duich.  It’s absolutely still and the white of Kintail Lodge is reflected in mirror water.  Along the A87 we pass a long string of B&Bs. Running these establishments must be a huge industry in the UK. A man wearing a midge net over his head as he works on a roof prompts conversation about midge nets for sale at the Inverewe Gardens and the workers there that were also wearing extensive netted midge protection. I hadn’t noticed.   I do notice the pretty layers of flowering plants by the roadside. Flowering heather, little purple balls of scabious, so pretty here and everywhere around. We drive into rain and the visibility drops again and then lifts as we pass into a clearer patch.
Gasp! There it is! Wow! It’s awesome! We pull over in the parking places provided along the loch, stalking the best views of this famous biscuit tin castle. Eilean Donan Castle is far exceeding my expectations. We turn into the parking area for castle visitors. This joint has a large carpark and is absolutely crawling with people. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised given it’s iconic status. They’re never in the photos you see of the castle online which always appears so splendidly isolated.  The light is all wrong, but I get the best images I can as I feel the tug of desire to have a look inside.  I briefly consider whether we should ditch other planned activities today and go in.  Eilean Donan Castle is one impressive sight sitting there by the Loch and it has inspired a flash of personal insight. I just don’t like ruins. Especially ruins of things that were clearly magnificent at some point in the past. I find them really sad, frustrating places. I invariably wander around wondering what they would be like if someone restored them. Well here’s an example of exactly that, right in front of me.  Still, on balance, given what we’ve seen already and my desire to have a bit more of a chance to see something of Skye in a context other than the tour yesterday, I’ve got my sights pretty firmly set on Neist Point and a few things down in that direction. We’ll stick to the plan. Hubby’s found a car space and is walking over. We chat and admire the castle for a few minutes and head then go back to the car and head on. Neist Point or bust.
The Cuillins are still enveloped in cloud as we pass the three arch bridge and pub at Sligachan. Apparently there’s a view of the Red Cuillins up behind the bridge that we stopped for but failed to see yesterday. We fail to see them again today. Not to worry. Now I can do it from the cosy dryness of the car I decide to photograph the celebrity bridge. It was pretty funny yesterday when we stopped here to note that this is the only three arch bridge on the island. Anyone want to get out in the rain for a photo? Expectant pause. Umm… well… no offence but… um… not really, no….. Anyone? You sure? … Um yeah… no, we’ll all stay put thanks. Oh. OK. We'll head back then.
We’re well along the way when we decide that perhaps the first thing we’d better do is find the Three Chimneys and program it in the TomTom so we don’t have issues later.  Luckily it’s on our way and we find it without much bother just from my memory of roughly where it is despite the inadequate levels of detail in the trip manifesto. That's right the 60 odd pages isn't detailed enough. Haha. I’d not really anticipated having so little data access on our phones here, or for that matter, signal on our phones for any purpose really.
We stop at parking places here and there along our way. I'm trying to do justice to the scenery for my journal but easily framed "glamour shots" often pass more quickly than my reflexes can cope with in stretches of road where we can't stop. Occasionally though I find a frame I really like and that I feel will help me recall the lovely scenes we pass along the way. This one was a stop dead moment as I turned to walk along to change angles on the outward view from this spot.
Conditions remain consistently damp for most of our drive. I’m becoming better at recognising the “lazy beds” here and there as we drive along, but they are hard to miss in some places and they scream a memorial to the harsh lives and toil of generations past. Those who perished and those who survived either by weathering the storm or emigrating. The population of Skye, we’ve been told is even now only half it was before the clearances and “emigration fever” and about half of the present population are English folk who’ve moved or retired up here. Mind you I don’t know how reliable those stats are. As we round Loch Mor, my now practiced is drawn away from an appreciation of the dramatic promontory facing the sea to the  stripes of the lazy beds scarring the hillside. Ghosts of those hardy people who, in my mind's eye,  I see huddled over, bracing themselves against rain laden wind as they tend the precious crops. Gone. So many, forced away from their native country.
Neist Point is really busy too. And it’s very cold and windy as well. Not raining though so that’s a plus. We don our warm things and hop out for a look. Lots of people are making the walk down over the cliff and in the direction of the point. Wow. It looks a long way and it’s a steep descent down a long flight of stairs. We can’t see the lighthouse from where we are but I’ve read that a short walk will give you views of it. No way Hubby’s going down that cliff but I have lighthouse fever and I’m determined to give it a go. My fitness has improved a lot over the time we’ve been in Scotland. It had to. There’s just so many stairs and hills to climb in order to see things.  I head off on my own saying I’ll just go as far as I have to, see the lighthouse and then turn back.
The howling wind eases as I descend the stairs and gain the protection of the cliff. I pass some young blokes who are heading up, fingers crooked under the gills of some decent sized fish they’ve caught. Naturally, now I’m committed to the walk I figure a toilet stop somewhere civilised might have been a good thing before heading out here to the wilds. This adds a little spice to the challenge of completing the walk.  Too much information I know, but a tip for others: stop somewhere in Dunvegan or somewhere, there’s no facilities at Neist Point.
As we had hoped, the conditions are brighter down at this part of the island. The visibility isn’t fantastic but I can see some islands out in the distance. The sea is not particularly rough, but the wind near picks you up and carries you away in places where you feel the full brunt of it. My mind is thrown to the Silver Darlings and the night the fishermen spent at sea, blown beyond the outer Hebrides by a storm in unfamiliar waters. How terrifying that would be. I’ve been watching a silhouette of a couple of people up on the high cliffs of the point. I hope they are further away from the edge than they look from here.
As I get closer the lazy beds across the green fields become obvious. The lazy beds were where the people built up the soil or peat creating drainage channels between and more depth for plant roots over the rock. Sheep are now grazing where once humans toiled to grow potatoes and other food crops. These must be incredibly sure footed sheep. I wonder how many plunge off these steep hillsides to their deaths.
I round the corner and bam, there is the lighthouse. Dejection to discover that it’s still a long way off. I look at my watch and note all the many reasons why we need to make haste from here. I bag my trophy shots and turn to head back. Feeling very thoughtful and sombre.  
As I regain the flat, open part of the path the wind whistles in the powerlines overhead. Electricity and automation have replaced the hardy lighthouse keepers. Walking towards the cliff and the climb back up I contemplate the dry stone wall that stretches across the field not that far from the bottom of the cliffs. Huge amount of effort in that and I am wondering what the point of it is here. Then I think, we’ll it’s somewhere to put the rocks. Each of those heavy stones has been extracted from the green pastures and laboriously relocated to this long stone work of art. Who lived here? Was there a croft? I see no sign of any stone cottage or such. Ah, was this field tended by the lighthouse keepers and their wives? 
I take a break from the climb up the stairs to have a better look at the hoist lying abandoned and decaying on a slab.  In the shattered hut nearby, visitors have shoved all manner of rubbish. Too lazy to carry their litter back and dispose of it “thoughtfully”. What a contrast to the many signs of hard yakka all over this site.
On reaching the top, Hubby is waiting excitedly for me but I request a few minutes without chat while I make a few notes about my thoughts here before I forget. This has been a fabulous stop and I’ve got so much out of doing the half hour walk out to the lighthouse viewpoint, not least satisfaction at my improved fitness both physical and mental as I rose to the challenge of just biting the bullet and heading down over that cliff.
Hubby has also spent his time productively. He headed up over the rocky hillock to the right, looking for somewhere to pee. No easy feat he reports. It took him about 10 minutes battling the wind and in the end he found a toilet. Not an official toilet mind you, this is one where many other desperate people have avoided or responded to accidents out of sight of the crowd. There’s tissues and even undies scattered at the unsanctioned toilet site. I’m not that desperate. I resolve to hang on. They really need to just provide a proper toilet here somewhere. 
We sink into the warmth of the car and head away. As we retrace out steps back from Neist Point, I can see plots of "lazy beds" as we did on the way in, but now, I spot more. There's some over there as well. I point for Hubby. So sad.
I check the manifesto to see what time Skye Weavers shuts. 6 pm. Excellent. We passed their sign on the way out. We’ll go straight there. No worries making the turn at the sign prominently placed by the road with encouraging opening hours provided. 
We’re creeping along a gravel road. As we start to wonder where the hell we’re going a further sign is provided… then another … and another, keep coming you’re not lost...
Eventually we’re pulling up in a small parking area by someone’s house and a sign that says, we're just a short walk down the hill... Ok.... some small sheds are helpfully labelled as to their purpose, such as “Shop”. There’s some people in the closest shed, Hubby’s gone ahead to the shop but just as I’m wondering what I should be doing a voice from inside sings out in a friendly way to come on in.  I step in reticently and find a bicycle powered loom. The weaver is talking to a couple who’ve been here before and for my benefit he explains how the loom works and offers me a turn. No need to offer that twice. I’m SO up for this. I climb up and start to peddle. Not too fast… well… a bit faster than that… maybe we need to adjust the seat position for you. Right another go. Seat’s still not quite right but whatever... it’s definitely fun to try it. I give way and the other lady has a go. She hasn’t tried it before either. It’s a useful visitor bonding experience really and we laugh and chat.  Next we head to the other parts of the workings and hear about winding the yarn onto a huge wheel which in turn is then transferred to the large yarn roll that gets threaded onto the loom. Much of this stuff was either built by the weaver himself with help and advice from other artisan weavers or bought from mills elsewhere second hand. It’s all very interesting. We have a discussion on the source of the wool and the plan to try to get set up for processing the local wool rather than have to buy wool in. There’s challenges in this and indeed in the progressive rebuilding of a once thriving cottage industry. I am just SO pleased that this is happening and that once again artisan weavers are a feature of this country and these islands. It’s simply brilliant and a great visitor experience is provided here at Skye Weavers too.  Our visit, without rushing, has taken us about 40 minutes.
We pull over for a look at a little memorial to find out what it's about. It doesn't look like a war memorial. It turns out to be a memorial to the Glendale Land Leaguers and the Glendale Martyrs: those from the local community to who stood up and fought for land rights aka land reform in the 1880s. This is a hugely significant site and a little digging online afterwards reveals it is still a site of pilgrimage for the Glendale diaspora. 

Next stop, I wonder if we’ll get there in time. Just. We have 10 minutes until closing. We pop in to have a look at Skye Silver. This place flies the union jack, not the Scottish saltire. It’s noticeable. Everywhere we’ve gone the saltire is around fluttering on landmarks large and small, on the sides of buildings, or displayed in windows perhaps with a large YES.  I think I know which way the people running this business voted in the referendum too.  Anyway, Skye Silver we are told on entry, only stocks items designed specifically for them, we won’t find them anywhere else. Noted. It’s only a small showroom but they have some lovely things. 
It’s now about time we made our way to The Three Chimneys. Our timing has worked out well. We’re a little early, but others seem to be inside. We tidy ourselves up a bit, braving the biting wind to change coats etc. We go in with a sense of great expectation. We are greeted by a friendly lady in the professional style one would expect in a restaurant in this fame and price bracket. We always tend to dine fairly early. There’s only one other couple here so far. The other couple is over in the far corner table. This couple need a name because they feature heavily in our dinner tonight. Hmm. Let’s just call them the “Snowbirds”. We didn’t realise tonight’s entertainment was going to be people watching, or listening as the case may be. This is an activity that is foisted upon us by the Snowbirds. They are loud. Impressively loud. They are also equally self-satisfied and they want the whole restaurant to know it. Who they are, where they live (between countries following the summer), how much they travel, what he does for a living, where she was born and raised.. I’m getting to know them fairly well considering I’m half a restaurant away. I pity the poor people at the table next door who become the target for dinner conversation from Snowbirds I and 2. Pretty much their whole dinner is hijacked by this guy. Can you just imagine, head out for a special meal with your spouse and daughter somewhere as high end as The Three Chimneys and cop this bloke next door. Oh, but that’s just the peasant in me coming to the fore. This place isn’t “special” to the Snowbirds, this is just par for the course when you’re as successful and wealthy as they. They stay here every year and ate here last night too. This is just the local bistro for them. Claws in. Slap. Honestly the man is so loud we cannot hear each other speak or hear the description of our meals as they are brought to us. After a while not wanting to resort to shouting at each other to be heard, I take to writing Hubby little notes in my notebook.  Sighs.  Rolls eyes.
So, the food and the drink is fabulous. People like me who rarely drink and don’t like fizz are well catered to in the drinks list. They have gone to some trouble to source special offerings and I decide to try the Apple and Sea Buckthorn juice. Hand pressed and picked from wild sea buckthorn which are little orange fruits shown on the tag around the neck of the bottle. Oh my! That is so refreshing and delicious and quite a new flavour for me.
Our delightful little amuse bouche begin to arrive. Choux with duck liver pate; mackerel picked and daintily rolled in cucumber; Isle of Mull Cheddar foam and a little wafer.
Among a parade of fabulous flavours and artistic presentations, the dish that really beat all comers was my starter of pork belly with pickled mussels. The balance of flavours was nothing short of superb.  Truly a memorable dish.
Forced to look around rather than talk to each other due to the volume of Snowbird 1, I notice that the elderly couple across the way are making all sorts of demands on the kitchen and blending the different menus and having other combinations.  Eventually, having small appetites they finish the meal and the lady comes over to ask me was I writing notes in my journal? "Yes" I say for brevity's sake. She keeps a journal too and she’s encouraged by my note taking that she’s going to do the same in future. She seems like a nice lady.
The tables next to us have progressively filled. Both English couples of different ages and they too start up a conversation between tables within polite limits of content and duration…just enough to enable each to place the other on the wealth and status pecking order: Where do you live, what do you do for a living, you know sort of thing.  After a while I notice the man in the next table is turning around expressively to look at Snowbird 1. Oh yes, I forgot to mention, this young couple is just the latest on that table. An earlier couple had sat down and then asked to be moved. They’ve scored a seat down in the other section of the restaurant.
Eventually the Snowbirds depart. The trio resume their own private conversation. One of the middle aged and upper middle class accented English couple on one of our nearby tables exclaims “Oh Thank God, finally we can hear ourselves think!”  Wow, well that’s saying it, but here here! There’s a general flutter of relief across multiple tables and the volume in the restaurant is suddenly normal. Surely you must think I’m exaggerating in this tale. I promise you I’m not.
So, back to normal high end dining conditions a couple come in and take the place of the elderly couple directly behind Hubby, so I can’t help but see and hear some things in the now quiet restaurant.  Our hostess shows this new couple, who look like they are in their 30s, to their table and as he sits down, without making eye contact and almost choking on the plum in his mouth, the man asks her “So, were are YOU from?” clearly responding to her accent. She replies that originally she’s from … um… somewhere in South America, I don’t recall the specific country. Our young master of the universe notes same without any particular response and continues the process of sitting down. There’s no further chat! He’s a walking stereotype. As a visitor I can laugh, but honestly, who says that? Seriously. He may as well have come out with “So, what’s a dirty foreigner doing hosting this restaurant.” Haha. I couldn’t work in that job. I’d have just said. “Glendale” or whatever her home residence on Skye is. Make him explain himself to get the information. What a cock. Our evening has proven entertaining in ways I never anticipated. I dare say we proved entertaining to others as well and made any number of little social faux pas tasting each other’s meals and photographing the superb artistry placed before us at regular intervals.  Oh yes, probably not done I know but hey, we’re paying too and this food is special and deserves its memorials, the Three Chimneys can clearly tolerate all manner of gauche behaviours. Wink.
Well, my apologies, but I’ve left our copy of the menu in the car carefully stowed to avoid damage. We’ll frame that for the high ceilinged wall in our kitchen. If you really want all the gory detail, just let me know and I’ll update this post!
We’re greedy for dessert. One of the staff waiting our table is a lovely (and pretty) young Scottish lass and she’s being nicely friendly. She asks us what we chose for dessert and I tell her and ask her what her favourite of the items on the menu is. The Marmalade Pudding. It’s been on the menu here for 30 years. Oh. Bugger. I forgot about that. Clearly we’ll have to order a second round of dessert. This causes some consternation from the waiter when we tell him. Clearly this isn’t generally done either. Haha but once we get across what we’re actually requesting in this clear departure from the expected tempo of our dining, it’s fine of course.  There is one surprise though. Hubby ordered the chocolate dessert that had all sorts of techniques and presentations and that was predictably delicious. I ordered the cheesecake and I really have to say… It think it was a bit busy with all sorts of little add ons including little rolls of cucumber, berries, sorbet, biscuit etc.  Actually I think cheesecake needs to be treated like chocolate. It’s rich and indulgent. That’s what we love about it. Well done (like the salted caramel version at Red Skye) it doesn’t need the palate refreshed. I try combinations but in the end I eat the frills and save the rest of the cheesecake as one unadulterated indulgence.
The marmalade pudding arrives with two sets of cutlery. We share it. It is very rich and moist and light and yet dense and jammy with quite an intense marmalade flavour. The texture is the best thing about it.  It’s also hot of course and just the thing in preparation for heading out into the cold. The custard is flavoured with hmm, Drambuie I think it was, not too strong and a nice offset to the intensity of the pudding.
Ah yes.. who won?  I did. Easily. That world beater pork belly starter was mine. Hubby wasn’t coming back after that one!

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