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Warrior queens, fairies and feuding clans: exploring legends on Scotland's Isle of Skye

For centuries, colourful tales have shaped the lives of those who call Scotland’s ‘Misty Isle’ home, and are still deeply intertwined with its soul-stirring landscapes.

Photographs By Daniel Alford
Published 9 Feb 2021, 08:00 GMT, Updated 4 Oct 2021, 15:06 BST
The Old Man of Storr against an ominous autumn sky. The dramatic rock formation is the ...

The Old Man of Storr against an ominous autumn sky. The dramatic rock formation is the result of an ancient landslide, though is said to be the remains of a perished giant.

Photograph by Daniel Alford

I’m standing at the drawbridge to the ‘Fortress of Shadows’. The forbidding, 12th-century castle clings to the hillside for dear life, its crumbling walls tracing a broken line against the sky. 

Across Loch Eishort, the dark peaks of the Cuillin mountains run across the horizon like a row of crumpled witches’ hats, snagging clouds as they pass. There’s barely another soul in sight, the land haunted by little more than the wind ruffling the long, golden grass. 

Tucked away from the world, it’s clear to me why Scáthach chose this spot to found her impenetrable college of martial combat. Promising warriors would come from far and wide to train in warfare and sorcery here, I’m told, and to learn in secret from perhaps the greatest warrior the Celtic realms have ever known. At least, that’s how her legend goes. 

“It’s difficult to separate mythology and history on Skye,” says guide Ciaran Stormonth, as we squelch our way back inland across the boggy ground. “I’m sure there probably was a woman called Scáthach, but how much is true? We just don’t know.” 

Ciaran, from tour operator McKinlay Kidd, tells me about Cú Chulainn, another hero of local lore, who travelled across the water from Ireland to Skye to learn from Scáthach. Historical accounts are scarce; it’s only through centuries of spoken stories that we can muse on what might have happened behind the ramparts.  

What is certain, however, is that Dunscaith Castle — to give it its official name — had a chequered past, passing between Clans Macdonald and Macleod before finally being abandoned sometime in the 1600s. But what ultimately happened to the powerful warrior queen Scáthach remains a mystery; the lack of any known tomb only adds to her mystique. Legend has it that she’ll return when the world needs her most. I can’t help but think, as I rub a blob of hand gel between my palms, that a homecoming is somewhat overdue.   

Shaped like a raven’s wing spreading into the Sea of the Hebrides, Skye is a theatre of natural drama, where legends like Scáthach’s have played out for centuries. It’s a suitable setting for tales of warriors and witches, given the brooding mountains, moorland, tumbling waterfalls and loch-frayed coasts that hint at a violent, elemental past. Indeed, the weather on Scotland’s second-largest island is equally as dramatic as its landscapes, changing at a moment’s notice like the whims of a god. After all, it didn’t earn the nickname ‘Misty Isle’ for nothing. 

But for now, at least, the gods are on our side. Beneath an unseasonably blue September sky, we follow a narrow road on the southerly Sleat peninsula, past pebbly streams and mossy thickets of oak, as vacuous sheep chew grass at the roadside. 

“Celtic nations have a rich heritage of storytelling,” says Ciaran, his T-shirt an ethereal white flash against the earthy landscape. “Take fairies — they’ve been used for centuries as a way of explaining strange things that people didn’t understand, such as illnesses. True or not, it was a way of hiding the dangers of the world.”

We stop beside a small, silent loch. Rather than having a connection with fairies (or the more archaic ‘faeries’, as they’re often spelt here), this is one of countless Highland waters associated with kelpies, the shape-shifting demon horses said to claim children’s souls by dragging them down into the depths. “Whenever I’d see a lone horse as a child, it’d always give me the chills,” says Ciaran, smirking. “The moral of the story is to stay away from other folks’ livestock.” 

Further along, in the small coastal township of Tarskavaig, we cross a bull’s paddock — careful not to get too close, of course — and admire the shoreline from above. The village grew with the rise of kelp farming, which reached its peak here in the late 18th century. But as demand dwindled, land-owning clan chiefs sought to bring in more profitable business, such as crofting. To make room, people were evicted and their houses burnt down, with many ultimately migrating in what came to be known as the Highland Clearances.

Seumas, Seumas and Sandy — three generations of the Mackinnon family. Their company, Misty Isle Boat Trips, takes passengers across the water from Elgol to the fabled Loch Coruisk.

Photograph by Daniel Alford

People still live in Tarskavaig today, but across Loch Eishort, the ruined cottages of the abandoned village of Suisnish stand forlornly against the hills. They’re a bleak reminder of this tragic chapter in Scottish history, and of a fate that befell hundreds of villages across the Highlands. “There’s so little documentation about a lot of the Clearances that sometimes myths seem to have more weight than history here,” says Ciaran. 

The tale of this land, and our afternoon’s ramble, reaches a poignant conclusion at the now-ruined Armadale Castle, once the seat of the Clan Macdonald chief. These days, however, the estate belongs to the Clan Donald Lands Trust, set up by members of the Macdonald family across the world to safeguard their ancestral land. Remarkably, history has come full circle for those among them who can trace their line back to those same cleared villages of Sleat. On Skye, it seems, legends and facts can be as fantastical as each other.

Blood & water 

With a sigh, Garth Duncan shakes his head. “Nobody really knows what these symbols mean. One theory is that they’re maps, but really, we can’t be sure.”

At Duncan House, tucked away off the road to the village of Elgol, the craftsman is showing me his ornate Celtic jewellery: brooches, crests and rings adorned with intricate, twisting patterns. Though originally from the US, where he was first inspired to take up silverwork, Garth permanently relocated to Skye two decades ago — a move driven by old family ties. “I’ve Scottish heritage on my father’s side,” he explains, “although I never used to be interested by it. But then I looked into it and realised I wanted to keep these ancient traditions alive. Suddenly, I started creating these artifacts and had to keep outdoing myself.”

Along with his son Gareth, he works on commissions from all over the world. A selection of their wares is laid out like a mystical treasure trove: suits of armour, elaborate staffs, rings set with jewels and Skye marble, and knives with handles carved from 5,000-year-old bog oak. History and landscape fused masterfully into one. 

“I can’t imagine being anywhere else now,” says Garth wistfully. “And I like being up here, out of the way — I hear all the gossip from Elgol without having to be there.”  

I head to the tiny harbour of Elgol, where lobster pots are lined expectantly along the quay, to meet another father-son duo. I’ve not joined Sandy and Seumas Mackinnon for gossip, but to accompany the pair on one of the family-run Misty Isle Boat Trips to secluded Loch Coruisk. Hidden away across the water, the loch is most quickly reached by boat and — given that the alternative is a 10-mile hike from Elgol, involving a rocky scramble known as the ‘Bad Step’ — it’s arguably the easiest route, too. 

With binoculars in hand, flame-haired Seumas points out seals and gannets en route. “Look, there, quickly!” he cries, nodding to a pair of minke whales, whose fleeting appearance draws gasps from the boat. Sightings of the cetaceans are never guaranteed, he says, although the same could be said for some of the waters’ more fantastical residents. “They say there’s an ùruisg at Loch Coruisk,” says Sandy as we moor up near the loch. “A half-man, half-goat that brings bad luck. If he finds you, don’t lead him back here — I don’t want anything to do with him.” 

If it’s my attention the ùruisg wants, then he has Loch Coruisk to compete with. The lake is captivating: at once dramatic and serene — a silent, dark mirror into which the rough, bare peaks of the Cuillin are reflected with almost digital clarity. Boulders sit alone in the landscape like paperweights, and the faint cries of sea eagles echo around the hills. It’s so wildly atmospheric that Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott felt compelled to commit it to paper in his 1814 poem The Lord of the Isles, writing ‘Rarely human eye has known a scene so stern as that dread lake.’ Poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, however, was less lucky, having failed to glimpse much but a ‘thick wool-white fog’ when he visited some 30 years later. 

Sandy’s father, Seumas, began running trips to Loch Coruisk in 1967, and no family knows the area better. It comes from a deep connection to this corner of Skye, one that goes back generations; the Mackinnons can even trace their roots back to John Mackinnon, who helped hide a fugitive Bonnie Prince Charlie here in 1746. “I lived in Devon for a time but I eventually came back,” says Sandy. “I just love being here; there’s a real pull to Skye.” 

He isn’t the only one to have answered its siren song. I also have Mackinnon blood on my mother’s side, and have long felt drawn to the place my forebears once roamed. But whether or not they helped the runaway royal is another question. “Because of the clan system that used to exist,” says Sandy, “I think there’s definitely still a sense of belonging, here, with your people.”

On the road back to Broadford, I stop at the ruined Cill Chriosd. The roof of the 16th-century church has fallen away and moss and grass choke its remaining four walls. But one gravestone catches my attention: an unmistakable Celtic cross with its distinctive knotwork, standing tall against the darkening sky. There are Mackinnons buried here, too, their pious epitaphs faded with age. I think of Sandy and his clan — and my ancestors, too — and admire it all with newfound curiosity. 

Read more: Capturing the atmosphere of Scotland's most majestic glen

A pair of rams ramble along a roadside. With a long history of crofting, Skye is home to a healthy population of hardy sheep, who roam a wild landscape of heather and moss.

Photograph by Daniel Alford

Language of the land 

In her wood-panelled office on the Eilean Iarmain estate, Lady Lucilla Noble pours drams of the estate’s Poit Dhubh whisky. She’s immaculate in sage-green tweed, sharing stories of the estate’s heritage as a fire crackles behind her. “This spot used to be a hive of activity in the 19th century,” she says. “News arriving from the mainland, hellos, farewells — a lot of human emotion.”

As we look out of the window to the estate’s quiet harbour, it’s hard to imagine its days as a bustling port. The construction of the Skye Bridge in 1995 meant access to the mainland no longer relied solely on ferry crossings, though many visitors still opt to sail ‘over the sea’ to Skye from Mallaig. After coming so far north on the Caledonian Sleeper — the famed, winding Highland train journey, which begins in London — a voyage across the water only bolsters my impression of the island’s solitude. 

This evening, though, the Eilean Iarmain estate is peaceful: warm light glows from the windows of white cottages, and fishing boats bob quietly in the water. It’s put Lucilla in the mood for reminiscing. 

“My husband was a strange man, I suppose,” she explains with a grin, topping up the whiskies. “A winning combination of whacky humour and a kind heart.” 

Among his many entrepreneurial ventures, one of the late Sir Iain Noble’s longstanding passions was Scottish Gaelic culture. To help preserve and promote it, he founded a Gaelic-speaking college here on Skye, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, and opened Hotel Eilean Iarmain here on the estate, where the emphasis is firmly on Scotland’s Celtic tongue. 

“He used to have a swear box,” Lucilla laughs, “so that every time somebody spoke English they’d have to put in a pound.”  

Skye is one of the last remaining bastions of Gaelic in Scotland, which counts 60,000 native speakers today, and while its fate is uncertain — the number of speakers dwindled by 30% between 1981 and 2001 — the language is nevertheless deeply etched into island life.  

“You see Gaelic everywhere on Skye,” says Lucilla. “Not just the road signs, but in the names of mountains, islands and burns, too. People have a reaction to landscapes, and so place names are a way of introducing them to Gaelic.” 

One person who is well-versed in Skye’s landscapes is Eilean Iarmain’s gamekeeper. Clad in full Highland garb, deerstalker and all, Scott Mackenzie has a varied role, including conserving Sleat’s ancient woodland and managing the local deer population. And with rutting season edging closer, our eyes — and ears — are open for red stags. “The colder the weather, the better the rut,” says Scott, as we tramp across the heather. It’s cold, but not cold enough; the hills and forests are quiet for now. 

Having managed the 23,000-acre estate for the best part of a decade, Scott has a unique perspective on the island. “Tourism has changed things here,” he says. “More and more people are visiting Skye than ever before, but many just come for a day or two. We want them to stay longer, and to travel more slowly; there’s enough here for a week if you take your time.”  

In a period when people are hankering after a world beyond their living room, Scotland’s wild islands have come to epitomise a sort of socially distanced immersion in nature. But, as Scott puts it, “Skye isn’t the barren wilderness people think it is; it’s a vibrant place that’s always evolving.”

Read more: How to spend a weekend in Fort William and Glencoe

Scott Mackenzie, Eilean Iarmain estate's gamekeeper, keeps watch for rutting stags.

Photograph by Daniel Alford

The hand of time is evident on my final walk, on Trotternish, Skye’s northernmost peninsula. Cutting across the land like a fracture along a bone is the Quiraing: the rocky remains of massive, ancient landslides. Still today, it’s one of the most geologically active parts of the UK, slowly collapsing beneath layers of volcanic basalt — the roads around it even need annual repairs due to the area’s gradual subsidence. But there are traces of a primitive past all over Trotternish: at nearby Staffin, I amble along the beach at low tide, on the lookout for 165-million-year-old dinosaur footprints, while Mealt Falls gushes over a sheer cliff and into the sea with end-of-the-earth drama. 

But most intriguing of all is the Old Man of Storr, a striking rock formation said to be the remains of a perished giant. After leaving Scott, I hike up its slopes, over skull-white stumps of felled pine trees, while the sea glimmers on the horizon in the shifting light. It’s silent, apart from a thin, cold wind that steals the ragged breaths of fellow hikers — not even the crows flitting about the outcrops dare to make a noise. 

Up ahead is Needle Rock: a lone finger of crumbling basalt protruding from the earth. Air rattles in my windpipe as I dirty my hands scrambling up to its base, scree scattering underfoot. Before long, the wizened, rocky flanks of the Old Man loom like the walls of a cathedral, cloaking the scene in shadows. I have the urge to keep climbing, but instead I sit for a while, taking in this spectacular accident of nature. It’s almost spiritual in its silence.

Skye seems like a memory up here, far enough away to feel like a myth in itself. Above, clouds pierced with sunbeams cruise across the sky. Then, as quickly as I had noticed them appear, they scud away on the wind, like enemies fleeing a warrior queen. 

Essentials


Getting there & around
The Caledonian Sleeper train departs London Euston six evenings a week and arrives in either Fort William or Inverness the next morning. From there, it’s a two-and-a-half- to three-hour drive via the A87. Classic rooms start at £170, based on two sharing. 
A number of UK airlines fly direct to Inverness, the nearest airport. A car is essential, with rental companies on the mainland.  

When to go
Winters often hover around freezing, with some roads closed in bad weather and some tourist facilities limited. June through to September sees balmy highs of around 16C. Accommodation books up well in advance for summer. 

More info
visitscotland.com 

Where to stay
The Three Chimneys and The House Over-by (for the north of the island). 
Eilean Iarmain Hotel (for the south of the island). 

How to do it
McKinlay Kidd offers the Luxury Skye and Highlands by Sleeper tour from £1,775 per person (based on two sharing). It includes return club-class sleeper travel and four nights’ accommodation in four- and five-star hotels, rail and ferry travel, transfers, and guided tours of Perthshire, Skye and Inverness. 

Published in the March 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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