The roads on the Isle of Skye are my kind of road… narrow, winding and green. I was loving driving around the island, but when presented with an even narrower road that climbs a steep hill and throws in a hairpin bend or two, the only thing to do is to take it.
The road led us up the headland above Uig, and we were already eyeing up possible parking spots. Any accommodation we had found for the night online was exorbitantly expensive… there was no way we would pay over a week’s wages for a night’s lodging, even if we could… and so far, we had seen no ‘vacancy’ signs either. Skye seemed to be closed on Mondays; for a holiday destination, this did seem rather odd.
Following the headland, we had magnificent views across the sea to the neighbouring isles whenever there was a break in the mist. We had not gone far, though, before I spotted a sign and pulled into a car-park. Kilvaxter souterrain, it said, and we’d had such a wonderful experience at Carn Euny on our trip to Cornwall, that we really did have to stop. Unfortunately, the rain was pelting down and there were people… we do prefer to have the ancient sites to ourselves where possible. We still had a few bits in the cooler for second breakfast, so we nibbled and watched as the latest visitors spent several minutes getting kitted out with professional-looking gear.
We had seen one ill-equipped family make the visit in just a matter of minutes as the rains came down with a vengeance, diving back to the car with soggy children. We gave the next couple ten minutes… they had donned full walking and rain gear after all. They even had an umbrella. We shouldn’t take bets on things like that, I know, but you can tell the genuinely interested from the casual tourist a mile off. And anyway, we were wrong… they only lasted five minutes. Either there was very little to see or it didn’t speak to them at all.
We, however, were immediately intrigued. The site had only been discovered in 2000, by a gentleman called Phillip James, when one of the lintels collapsed, revealing the underground void. Local people had excavated and restored the site with help and funding from various bodies. This living link to the ancient history of the community and its ancestors seems indefinably right.
The site consists of a hut circle and souterrain… an underground passageway. There is no clear explanation for these chambers… the most common theory, at least for the simple ones, is that they were used for food storage, although some, like Carn Euny, may have had ritual uses for their chambers too. Another theory is that they were a place of refuge in case of attack, but this seems ludicrous to me… unless the entrances were far enough away from the settlement and well enough hidden, they would be no safe place at all. No-one really knows, though the passages would undoubtedly have served as storage space, whatever else their purpose. They date from the late Iron Age, around two thousand years ago, and according to the information board, there are at least twenty of them on Skye alone. So much for our ‘three ancient sites’… not that we registered that at the time. We just thought it was odd that it hadn’t been included by our usual sources…
The hut circle is clearly marked, with many of the base stones remaining, but the souterrain is the most exciting part of the site. The entrance, recessed into the sloping ground, would have been covered by a wattle door made of woven branches. The passage is very low… the doorway around three feet high, the passage less than two and a half feet wide and over fifty-five feet long. It is pitch black inside and there is no lighting. But, mobile phones have torches… not that we would have used the battery thus had we known what lay ahead…
Stuart couldn’t get inside very far without light and bent double, especially as the tunnel was deeply flooded. Hobbits are better suited to such ventures, so, hitching up my flowing skirts and grateful that I’d donned the wellies, in I went. To the left, stabilised by modern sandbags, was a small alcove-passage, raised above the ground. In front of me, the tunnel roof rose and fell, while the pool of muddy water got deeper and deeper.
The silence within was complete and quite eerie… breath echoed and the dripping water beat out an arcane rhythm as I went deeper into the womb of earth. Above me, massive stone lintels held the roof in place… a quite extraordinary bit of construction. The camera flash refused to work, although it should have done so. The only light was the meagre glow from the phone. Within just a few feet of the entrance, I could have been miles from the surface. And I loved it… until, that is, the pool of water got so deep it was at the top of my boots and threatening ingress. I beat a reluctant retreat, disappointed not to have reached the end, but between the uneven, stepped floor and the pool that hid it, retreat was the only sensible option.
How can you fail to be moved by a place like this? It is not some grand temple or massive monument, but a bit of domestic architecture that has survived for two thousand years. Ordinary people, like you and me, once lived, laughed, struggled and loved here. The construction of this safe place, whatever its purpose, must have been of vital importance to them for them to have done such amazing and back-breaking work… and it stands as a testament to their lives still today, preserved now by the very people who may be their descendants.
The rain that had paused to allow us to explore began again as we made our way back to the car, wondering what else we might find as we drove the island roads… and hoping that lunch and a bed for the night would be amongst them.