Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland
Section VIII. The Western Isles and Cantyre
E. Skye—Cave of Strathaird, Coruishk, Glen Sligachan

The most prominent objects of attraction in Skye. Skye Marble, 1.—Strathaird's Cave, 2.—Sail to Scavaig; Bay of Scavaig and Loch Coruishk; Bruce's Encounter, 3.—Glen Sligachan; The Saddle; Haunts of the Peer; comparison with Glencoe; The Cuchullins; Pass of Ilartie Corrie, 4.—General Remarks on Skye; Kelp; The Caschrome; Farming; Quern, 5.—Dwellings, 6.—Press of the Islanders; Hospitality; Women's Apparel; Oruaments,7.—Population; Croft System; Poverty and recent distress; Change in the Condition of the Highland peasantry in progress, 8.

1. The Spar cave, Scavaig, and Coruishk, Glen Sligachan, and the Cuchullins, are the objects which chiefly induce the stranger, except he be a geologist, to visit Skye. The attention of travellcrs has hitherto been chiefly directed to the Spar Cave and Coruishk, and Glen Sligachan is comparatively but little known ; though it will be found equally worthy of observation. As all three can he comprehended in one—a long day's excursion—we recommend tourists to arrange their plans so as to combine this last scene with the others, as it can be compared only to Glencoe; but may be said, like Coruishk, in some points to surpass that celebrated spot in the very characters for which it is supposed unrivalled in this country.

In proceeding to view these objects from Armadale or Isle Oronsay, it is necessary to ride across to Gillean (which can be done in about two hours), or any other point on the opposite coast of Sleat, where a boat can always be procured. If we wish to visit them from Broadford, we cross through Strath to Kilbride, a distance of five miles, and there take boat. In Strath there are quarries of marble, which were worked for a short time, but are now greatly neglected. The marble is chiefly of a light grey colour, of which a very fine mantle-piece is to be seen at Armadale; but some blocks are found as pure and close-grained as the finest statuary marble. IIad Armadale Castle been built of masses from these quarries, which it could have been at no great additional expense, Skye might boast of one of the greatest architectural curiosities in Scotland. It may be proper to add, that Strathaird's cave can be approached from Sconser or Glen Sligachan, and that a boat can be procured at some huts, about a mile to the west of the cave. Coming from Kilbride, we pass the house of Mr. M`Allister of Strathaird.

2. Of the objects before us, this cave first demands attention. It occurs on the north side of Loch Slapin, on the west coast of Skye, and occupies the further extremity of a Iong, straight, deep, and narrow excavation, which the sea has made in the face of a high and perpendicular range of cliffs, such as are so common in the Orkney Islands, and there technically termed Ghoes. As the sea often dashes with violence into this narrow recess, the approach is, at times, difficult. On first entering, the cave has the appearance of an ordinary fissure, gradually widening as we advance; but we soon come to an inclined plane of rock, covered with a beautiful white and hard calcareous deposit, the walls on each side being also encrusted with a coating of the same substance. The inclination of this plane is pretty steep; and the surface, from its glistening appearance, seems so slippery, that one hesitates before attempting to climb it. It is sufficiently rough and granular, however, to admit of safe footing; and having surmounted this little acclivity, we are ushered into a lofty chamber, lined from top to bottom by, and paved with, translucent and white stalactite. The surface of the floor is unequal, and the further extremity of the gallery is occupied by a deep and clear well. On the inner side of this well the rock has assumed a fanciful and gigantic resemblance to a human figure, which, in its robes of pure white, may be regarded as the guardian genius of this beauteous sparry grotto. Not many years ago, large stalactites hung from the roof, and there were even some pillars extending from the floor to the ceiling; these have, however, been unfortunately destroyed, and the cave has not altogether recovered from the effects of the injudicious introduction of tar torches, instead of candles, which are generally used.

3. From Strathaird to Coruishk is a long sail round the projecting headland of Aird. In the western horizon are seen the islands of Rum, Muck, and Eig, and, more near, a small island called Soa.

The Bay of Scavaig, into which Loch Coruishk discharges itself, is a scene of almost unexampled grandeur; and, being less confined than the latter, presents an interesting difference of character. It is flanked by stupendous shivered mountains of bare rock, which shoot up abruptly from the bosom of the sea. They are of a singularly dark and metallic aspect, being composed of the mineral called hyperstein. On the left are three shattered peaks :—Garbshen, or "the shouting-mountain," Scuir-nan-Eig, "the notched peak," and Scuir Dhu, "the black peak;" and on the opposite side is a similar and very high hill, called Scuir-nan-Stree, "the hill of dispute," or "the debateablo land." A little island at the base of Scuir-nan-Stree is styled Eilan-nan-Lice, "the island of the slippery step," from a dangerous pass in the face of the rock, which makes it imprudent in a stranger to visit these scenes by land.

The river which falls into Scavaig Bay is not above 250 yards in length. Ascending its rocky channel, we suddenly find ourselves on the margin of a fresh-water lake. Loch Coruishk is a narrow lake, about two miles in length, from the edge of which, on all sides, rise naked, lofty, and precipitous mountains, of the same dark, barren, hyperstein rock, and furrowed with numerous hollows, or corries. A few rocky islets, partially covered with dwarf mountain-ash and long grass, afford a secure nestling-place to flocks of sea-gulls, which are the only living creatures to be seen, unless a stray goat be descried among the recesses of this wilderness, where they are

become as wild and uncontrolled as on Robinson Crusoe's island of Juan Fernandez. An inclined, rugged, and irregular platform of sharp-surfaced naked rock, with detached rocky masses, and a stunted sward interspersed, immediately encircles the waters of the lake, and enhances its sterile desolation, except at the upper extremity, where it gives place to a grassy plain of refreshing verdure, where the red deer oft times resort.

We are now treading on classic ground. It was here the Bruce encountered Cormac Doil; and the scenes around have been celebrated by the gifted pen of our great poet and novelist. Perhaps few of his vivid descriptive passages are more felicitous than the following:

"The wildest glen, but this, can show
Some touch of Nature's genial glow;
On high Benmore green mosses grow,
And heathbells bud in deep Glencroe,
And copse on Cruchan-Ben;
But here—above, around, below,
On mountain or in glen,
Nor tree, nor shrub, nor pant, nor flower,
Nor aught of vegetative power,
The weary eye may ken.
For all is rock at random thrown;
Black waves, bare rocks, and banks of stone,
As if were here denied
The Summer sun, the Spring's sweet dew,
That clothe with many a varied hue
The bleakest mountain side."

These lines by no means exaggerate the barren grandeur of Coruishk; indeed, it is impossible to do justice to this rude scene. The grisly acclivities rise so abruptly, and encompass so closely the dark and narrow lake, that, but for the reflection of the sunbeam, its shores might almost be said to be veiled in eternal night; while, frequently, dense vapours, curling round the circling rocks, bestow an indistinctness of form and outline the eye of Superstition might quail to contemplate. The remoteness of this solitude, and the gloomy silence that reigns, and the savage forms that surround it, impress a solemn seriousness on the mind. Few, indeed, finding themselves on the shores of Coruishk, can, with reason, refuse to exclaim with the Bruce

A scene so wild, so rude as this,
Yet so sublime in barrenness,
Ne'er did my wandering footsteps press,
Where'er I happ'd to roam."
-   Lord of the Isles, canto iii.

4. Glen Sligachan terminates in a bay adjoining Scavaig to the south, whence it stretches across the Island to Loch Sligachan. A farm-house at the west end of the glen, called Camusunary, (Mr. Mac-Rae), is the only dwelling-place to be seen along the shores of this remote region, where its white walls, its freestone window-lintels, its slates, and green door, are viewed with the agreeable surprise one feels at unexpectedly meeting old friends. Mr. Mac-Rae's boat is, of course, the only one to be had; and, as his shepherds are seldom at hand to man her, it is imprudent in the traveller to pass through Glen Sligachan on his way to Coruishk. He should proceed to it by boat, from Sleat or Kilbride, and reserve Glen Sligachan for the latter part of his day's excursion. We would warn him, however, that he will take three or four hours to walk to the inn at the other end of the glen, (eight miles distant). The bottom of the valley is very uneven, and quite pathless, excepting the track which has been worn by the few ponies which pass the way: the burns, also, are numerous, and after rain swell very suddenly, and sometimes to a considerable depth.

The extreme breadth of the valley, between the precipitous parts of the mountains, may be about a mile; in some places they approach within a few hundred yards of each other. A river runs out at either end, fed by numerous torrents, which channel the sides of the mountains. The western one, and the river Scavaig, abound with salmon. On either side of the rivers is a tract of broken, sloping, rocky moorland, out of which the mountains tower up on very abrupt acclivities. They are chiefly composed of the same black-looking hyperstein rock which surrounds Coruishk; and are almost equally destitute of vegetation, except some of the declivities, which are tinted with patches of verdure. Near Camusunary are two small lakes, Loch-nan-Aanan, "the lake of fords," and Loch-na-Creich, "the lake of the wooded valley," a name certainly not applicable to its present condition, but which, with the appearance of some stumps of trees among the moss, prove this, like many other parts of the Highlands, to have been once covered with wood. The first mountain on the west, next Camusunary, is Scuir-nanStree, already noticed as dividing the glen from Coruishk; and opposite it is Blaven, (Blath Rhein), a long, sharply-ridged, and pointed mountain, not properly one of the Cuchullin group, but of the same distinctive character. One ascent of this latter mountain is peculiarly hazardous, as, at a part called "The Saddle," the top of the ridge is for two yards scarcely above a foot in breadth. We have met with shepherds who have crossed this dangerous pass ; to them the steepest hills in the neighbourhood are accessible, but they declared some of the pinnacles to be so needle-peaked, that a man could hardly venture to stand on the top of one of them.

The next mountain to Blaven, is Ruadhstach; and the lofty and perpendicular one beyond it is Marscodh. Both are favou- rite haunts of the red deer, who may generally be descried browsing about the summit. Among the singular assemblage of pinnacles on the west side, above Sligachan, are Basader and Scuir-nan-gillean, the highest of that extensive and peculiar series of mountains included in the general term, Cuchullin, several of which, with Blaven, and others on the south of the glen, exceed 3200 feet in altitude. On the rough sides of Glen Sligachan are reared large flocks of goats.

The mountains of this wild glen are considerably higher, and not less savage than those of Glencoe. The two contrast in that the gigantic barriers of Glencoe are more perpendicular, and hem in the glen more closely—meeting the eye at times, especially in the descent from King's-house, in close proximity, challenging emotion by their impassable and threatening front; while in Glen Sligachan, the character is that of a vast display of dark, naked rock, which, if it lose in impressiveness, from being less absolutely precipitous, and also in being further removed from the spectator, compensates by comprehending the full expanse of the mountain acclivities, from base to summit, in continuous sheeted masses of naked sterility, on a scale rarely to be witnessed, and assuming in the mountain outlines very marked, and even fantastic features: The scenery of the Cuchullins is rendered the more effective from the mountains springing almost from the sea level : thus presenting elevations as striking as inland mountain countries of much greater actual altitude. In traversing the solitudes, too, we feel a constant, and almost painful consciousness, that no other form of mortal mould exists within their desert precincts. A solemn silence generally prevails, but is often and suddenly interrupted by the strife of the elements. The streams become quickly swollen, rendering the progress of the wayfaring stranger not it little hazardous; while fierce and fitful gusts issue from the bosom of the Cuchullins. The heaven-kissing peaks of this strange group never fail to attract a portion of the vapours, which, rising from the Atlantic, are constantly floating eastward to water the continent of Europe; and fancy is kept on the stretch, to find resemblances for the quick succession of fantastic appearances which the spirits of the air are working on the weather-beaten brow of these hills of song.

Instead of being conveyed to Camusunary, and proceeding from thence along Glen Sligachan, the latter may be reached across a wild pass, called Hartie Corrie, which traverses the Cuchullins, and gives the advantage of, in going, a grand mountain ravine, while it leads into Glen Sligachan at a point where the most imposing view is presented of the Cuchullins. Let not the view-hunter, however, select this mode of approach to Coruishk. The fatigue of the walk helps to blunt the appreciation of its characteristics, and the previous familiarity with scenes of gloomy grandeur, tends to, perhaps, a degree of disappointment of the expectations entertained. The first impression, indeed, looking down upon Coruishk from the high hill which separates it from Hartie Corrie, is perhaps one rather of savage beauty, though unquestionably to adopt a bold image—"beauty reposing in the lap of terror."

5. In concluding our remarks on Skye, we may observe, that black cattle, sheep, and kelp form its chief riches. For the sale of the former, two or three markets are held annually at Portree. Kelp is formed by burning sea-ware, previously dried in the sun, in small circular and oblong pits, attended by men to rake the crackling ingredients. The smoke of these pits spreads during the summer months in dense volumes round the shores, and diffuses a disagreeable pungent odour. This alkaline substance, as is well known, is chiefly used in the manufacture of glass. The best kind is made from the seaweed cut from the rock, which is generally done every third year; that made from the drift-ware is naturally more impure. During the late war, kelp yielded above 20 per ton. Now, from the introduction of Spanish barilla, and other causes, the price scarcely averages a fourth of that sum. It may be conceived that it is, or at least lately was, a chief source of the revenue of the west coast and Orkney proprietors, from the circumstance of Clanranald's estate having some years produced 1500 tons of this article. We trust that the alleged valuable properties of the recently discovered alkali, called kelpina, may restore to kelp, as some anticipate, a portion of its former value. The climate of this island is exceedingly damp: the farmers, in consequence, are all provided with wattled barns, having lateral openings, closed only by twigs and boughs of trees, where they are able to dry part at least of their scanty crops in the most rainy seasons. In husbandry, the caschrome, or ancient crooked spade, is a good deal used by the poor; it is a clumsy substitute for a plough, with which an active man will sometimes prepare about a fourth of an acre in a day ; and is certainly of advantage in the cultivation of their miserable crofts, which are frequently altogether scarcely equal in value to the purchase price of a plough. The casclarome is formed either of a stout obtusely angled knee of wood, or two pieces bound together with iron: the upper limb or handle is four or five feet long; the lower about two and a half feet, and shod at the point with a sharp flat piece of iron, which is driven into the soil by means of a lateral wooden peg projecting from the angle, on which the right foot acts. The rest of the farming of the cottars is of a piece with this. Harrowing is performed with a rake, or light harrow with wooden teeth, drawn by a man or woman—for the women put their hands to many a piece of drudgery not allotted to them elsewhere—or this implement is sometimes drawn by a horse, to whose tail it is attached by a straw rope. The people of all classes are extremely partial to drying their grain in iron pots over the fire, before being converted into meal; and till a recent period the whole sheaf was passed through the fire to the entire sacrifice of the straw. No rotation of crops is observed except from potatoes to oats, and from oats to potatoes; and a series of oat crops is often taken till the land is run out, when it is allowed to rest for another term of years useless under weeds. Among the larger tacksmen regular rotation and many improvements are observed, but the dampness of the climate, notwithstanding the accompanying mildness of temperature, is unfavourable to agriculture. The Cheviot sheep are now common.

The quern, or handmill, is to be found in some of the remote districts of Skye. It consists of two flat stones, about twenty inches in diameter, selected for their hardness and grittiness. Across the central hole in the upper stone, is a piece of wood, with a small tapering hollow, which fits a wooden pivot on the lower stone. Placing the finger, or a stick, in a hole sunk for that purpose, close to the exterior edge of the upper stone, it is with the greatest facility made to revolve with the desired velocity; and the whole machine being placed on a sheet, or sheepskin, the grain gradually poured in at the hole in the upper stone, is speedily ground into meal, which falls out at the circumference between the two stones. This seems to have been the first grinding instrument in all countries, and is evidently that alluded to in Scripture:—"Two women shall be grinding at the mill" (that is, one feeding and the other turning it), "the one shall be taken, and the other left."

6. The dwellings of the poorer Hebrideans generally are extremely mean and comfortless. They consist of three apartments, of which the first is appropriated to the cattle, and the access to the whole is through the byre, the door being at the end; and this byre being only cleaned out twice a-year, the consequent filth requires no comment. The apartments are separated by low partitions of stone, board, or wattle-work. In the centre is the sitting-room—the fireplace in the middle of the floor, and the smoke pervading all parts, there being only an outlet in the roof. A rough table, one or two stools, an arm-chair of plaited straw, reserved for the exclusive use of the goodwife, occasionally a rude sofa-bench for four or five persons, and a chair or two, but as frequently mere stones, covered with turf, for seats; and in the innermost, the sleeping-apartment, a couple of bedsteads, filled with heather, ferns, or straw, comprise the bulk of the furniture. The walls are of stone, generally double, the vacancy being crammed with earth. They are at times, particularly in the Long Island, seven or eight feet thick, and form a ledge on the outside, on which a couple of sheep can graze abreast, or two persons might walk round the roof, which is supported by a few rough undressed couples. A single small window, often without glass, is all there is for light. The soot-saturated thatch is commonly removed every year, to serve as manure for the potatoes. The fare of the peasantry is chiefly potatoes, with fish, shell-fish, milk, and a little meal, but little or no animal food.

7. The dress of the Islesmen has always differed from that of the mainland Highlanders. The kilt, which, no doubt, is now falling into general disuse, is not to be met with in Skye, and it seems never to have been worn here. At present, the ordinary fashion of short coats and trousers of coarse cloth universally prevails. From their frequent boating, one would expect to find the dress of the Skyemen adapted to the seafaring life; but even a cut-away jacket is seldom to be seen. The people have none of those distinctive marks which at once betray the occupation of those curious tribes—the fishermen of the east coasts. Indeed, except during the herring season, these islanders seldom trouble their heads about fishing, unless it be to catch a few rock-cod, lythes, and cuddies, for the use of their families; and even this duty ordinarily devolves on the younger urchins. Various efforts have been made to extend the deep-sea fishing, but, unless under the immediate stimulus of individual enter-prize, it does not seem to make sensible progress—except in the Lewis, where the quantity of cod and ling taken is now very considerable—while the more uncertain fruits, and more fitful labour, of the herring fishery finds general favour in all parts of the Highlands and Islands. It is strange that constant exposure to the sea-breeze does not teach the general use, in the Isles, of the small felt bonnet, or some substitute for the common hat, which is generally worn. The west coast Highlanders or Islesmen, when they make their appearance in any of the towns of the east coast, may almost be detected by their hats, from the picturesque shapelessness and amphibious consistency which their head-gear speedily acquires from steeping in the Atlantic mists. The Orkney boatmen, who are more constantly on the water, understand these things better, and by their comfortable southwesters—a glazed, or leathern skull-cap, shaped like that of an Edinburgh carter, with a broad flap hanging down behind to protect the neck—give proof of their experienced wisdom. Such a thing as a straw bonnet is rarely to be found among all the female peasantry of Skye, or of the Islands in general. The lasses go bareheaded, trusting to the attraction of the emblematic snood; matrons bedizen themselves with the varieties of the venerable and simple mutch, curtch, and toy; and the clothing of the female population of Skye is hence generally coarse and mean in the extreme. No comfortable cloak of "guid blue cloath," which many of the east coast Highland wives have added to their wardrobes, is to be seen. The old women throw a dirty breachdam, resembling a blanket, over their shoulders: the others have seldom anything to vary their simple gowns of dark blue or brown stuff.

An air of squalid penury, too, soon settles about them; and in middle age their prematurely-pinched, care and penury-worn features, are far from engaging ! Kindly feelings and affections, however, live under this unpromising exterior. The people of Skye and the adjacent islands, and west coast of the adjoining counties, are of short stature, firmly knit, active, and more mercurial than the central Highlanders. Such generalizing observations must of course not be strictly interpreted. The gentry of these parts are wonderfully numerous. They are exceedingly hospitable; and the Southron will, perhaps, be astonished to find in their houses all the comforts and elegancies of life. The ladies are characterized, for the most part, by fair complexions, tall, slender forms, and blue eyes, indicative of their northern origin. The peasant women are remarkable for their industry, at least in spinning; for they are always to be seen with the old rock and distaff in their hands, whether walking or seated by their hearths, or at their cottage doors. A brooch of pewter, brass, copper, or silver, used by the old women to fasten their blanket-plaids in front, is almost the only ornament indulged in. It is often preserved with much care, and handed down from mother to daughter as a valuable family relic.

8. The population, as of the other Hebrides, is very redundant, owing to the system of small crofts, which, becoming subdivided, are too small for the support of a family—a pernicious system, to which the kindly feelings and the cupidity of landlords and tacksmen have been alike tempted: for, while it is painful to the most ordinary sensibility to dispossess the people, the high nominal rents increasing according to the minuteness of subdivision, occasionally may have subserved a purpose, and thus led to the same result as the disinterested and benevolent feelings which, in general, prompt to the perpetuation of the mistaken system. Now the pressure of the recent Poor Laws has alarmed Highland proprietors, and, of late, precipitated more frequent occasional summary ejectments, and compulsory emigration. Unfortunately it too often happens that their own embarrassed or straightened circumstances stand in the way of those gradual changes which humanity and sound policy dictate. The failure of the potatoe crop, occasioning an excessive degree of distress, where, as in the Highlands and Islands, it had been a staple source of sustenance, has contributed to hasten on a general change in the condition of the Highland peasantry. Much difference of opinion prevails as to the best system for their permanent welfare, as to size of croft and other details; and public attention is kept so much alive on the subject, that though many of the poor Highlanders must needs be subjected to many a bitter pang in their present transition state; and no people endure the ills of life, and the pinching poverty of their lot, with so much of unrepining and quiet endurance, it cannot be doubted that eventual and permanent amelioration must be the result; and it is to be hoped that all persons immediately concerned will act under an increasing sense of responsibility towards those committed by providence in subordination to them. The young men in Skye and other islands go to the south in summer to seek work, and return in winter: the young women for a shorter time in harvest. A large portion of the middle-aged resort to the herring fishing on the cast coast, during June, July, and August—a migratory character which is not favourable to morals or religious principle.

Return to our Online Books Page  |  Return to our Travel Section


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus