The single-track road was narrow and every few miles we would have to pull over into a passing space to let another vehicle through. And that was as busy as it got. To the left was the coast, with endless views of the sea and the blue smudge of distant islands. To our right, Skye revealed its constantly changing landscape as we drove through empty countryside dotted with the occasional house. We were pulled up short by a stone standing beside the road… though whether it was an erratic, an old gate post or something more interesting was impossible to say. Nowhere seems to mention the thing, in spite of its size, so we assume it is not an ancient artefact. Except that stone, by its very nature, is ancient and perhaps it still had something to say.
It had stopped us by the Museum of Island Life. The car park was busy and as we were not in tourist mode, we did not go inside. It was, however, good to see the old Black Houses, even from the road. Hunkered low against the gales and with their thatch weighted down by stones, these are a survival from earlier times, built with whatever materials were to hand and free locally… including, on an island with few trees, the timbers from wrecked shipping that washed up on the shore.
We had still not found a place to stay for the night, nor had we any better luck finding food. Although the A855 is undoubtedly a tourist route around the island, part of its beauty is that neither the road nor the settlements along it are particularly forthcoming with amenities. Rain poured down in torrents making driving tiring and we really did need to find coffee and somewhere to replenish our supplies.
We passed the sign for Kilt Rock, where the Mealt waterfall plummets into the sea down the basalt cliffs. And then, the rain stopped and the sun came out. A busy layby was marked ‘viewpoint’ and I pulled the car over so we could stretch our legs… and in the unstated hope of a tea-van.
Neither tea nor coffee were to be had, but refreshment of another nature was plentiful. Beneath us, Lealt Falls roared, pouring whisky coloured water into the gorge that leads to the sea.
The viewpoint, a platform jutting out above the gorge, was crowded, with tour buses unloading their passengers for a quick look at the waterfall, but it was worth the unaccustomed bustle just for the vantage point and the sight of a Highland tour guide in full dress, shepherding his flock, with his plaid billowing in the breeze.
We walked on to the end of the gorge, following the flow to where it became one with the sea. Strange, gnarled faces looked out across the water on one side of the bay. There is a real sense of presence and watchfulness here, and we were both feeling the effects of being within a landscape where the magic is never far from the surface.
On the other side of the bay, tall pinnacles seemed to gaze across the waves, looking very like the Moai, the stone watchers of Rapa Nui.
Below us, the ruins of the old diatomite works testified to a defunct industry. Diatomite, a whitish, clay-like substance, was used for many things, from insulation to paints and polishes, to the production of dynamite.
It was mined at a spot high above the falls and, to begin with, carried to the shore in baskets, before a man-powered railway was installed. Much of the machinery used at this spot came from Germany and, after the outbreak of war, it is rumoured that the connection with Germany continued with U-boats using the area to take on fresh water.
Had we felt like tackling the walk around the tricky shore, we might have visited another site that abounds with rumours… An Eaglais Bhrèige, a rock that has been hollowed by the waves to resemble a church… but where rather darker rituals are said to have taken place, involving the sacrifice of cats to summon oracular demons.
As it was, the clouds were once more gathering over the distant hills and we were pretty sure that rain would not be far away. We could just about see the needle of stone known as the Old Man of Storr, outlined against the crest of a ridge and watched as he gathered in the rain clouds, ready to wring them over us should we stray from our allotted path…whatever that was to be. We were heading his way and about to become a little better acquainted…