I’m standing on one of the most beautiful and dramatic spots on Skye – which given the stiff competition offered around the island is saying something. Across the waters of Loch Slapin to the west loom the serrated peaks of the Black Cuillin ridge to the west, while the more rounded hills of the Red Cuillins around the bay are to the north. Over the deeper water, and outlined by the afternoon sun, stands the island of Rum, while around me on the headland of Suisnish, the banks of the glens are cloaked in heather. Along the three-mile walk it took me to get here, I was accompanied by gulls coasting with the strong south-west winds and at one point saw an eagle being mobbed by hooded crows at the top of a crag.
The headland of Suisnish is an idyllic and wild place. But it is also an elegiac one. There is a sad and tragic history underlying this beautiful landscape. Underneath the heather that stretches away, like a face beneath the sheet, one can still make out the old ridges of the “runrig” system when the land was parcelled out in strips for the villagers who once lived here. Closer to the shore are all that remains of their houses. For the deserted village of Suisnish is one of the most poignant memorials to the Highland clearances of the 19th century, when villagers had to leave their homes to make way for sheep.
In 1852 Lord MacDonald’s factor, a man called Ballingall, arrived here with his team of what euphemistically were called “ground officers”. The crofters were “asked” to leave the village that their ancestors had lived in for generations. If necessary, they were forcibly evicted and their houses destroyed. One of the more hypocritical reasons given for this destruction was that their landlord, Lord MacDonald, was doing it out of piety because the villagers were too far from any church. It is very difficult not to feel both anger and sadness at the plight of these Highland communities faced with eviction in the middle of winter.
One curious question seldom mentioned when discussing this most emotive of subjects is why local landlords should have suddenly developed such a passion for sheep so late in the 19th century. The answer lies in the accidental discovery that it had always been believed that sheep would never survive the harsh winters of the Highlands, but it was found there was in fact one breed – the cheviot – that could.
Today, only one modern house stands on the headland, built originally, one imagines, for a shepherd to keep control of the sheep that still roam here. On my return journey I see the carcass of one being mauled by a murder of hooded crows. The birds are also incomers, as a few decades ago their range did not extend as far as Skye.
This has never been a static landscape. Most of the misfortunes suffered in the Highlands and islands seemed to occur with peculiar force in Sleat, a peninsula on the south of the island. The 19th-century kelping industry, which processed seaweed, did well for a while, with a consequent growth in population because it was so labour-intensive, but then suffered a huge setback when the chemicals derived from seaweed were found to be more easily obtained elsewhere. From one year to the next, the bottom dropped out of the market. Then potato blight here, as in Ireland, wreaked havoc. And in the 20th century, the decline of the herring industry affected it badly.
But help and a certain amount of prosperity for Sleat have come from an unexpected corner. In the late 1970s, Sir Iain Noble, a banker from Edinburgh, arrived with a goal: to create Scotland’s first Gaelic college and to reinvigorate the community with a renewed sense of purpose. His mission was made more quixotic by the fact that he had not been brought up to speak Gaelic himself, and at first he met some resistance from locals suspicious as ever of any incomer, particularly one from a patrician background.
Noble arrived at a time when Sleat was at a low ebb. “After dark, there wasn’t a single light on in any of the houses,” said his widow Lucilla, whom I met at the hotel of Eilean Iarmain at Isleornsay, where Noble also set up his own whisky blending business so that he could stock bottles with Gaelic labels – and drink a fair amount of it himself. He had a reputation as a bon vivant and storyteller, and his wake after he died in 2010 was a lock-in at the bar that lasted from the Friday evening to the Monday morning.
Gaelic in the 1970s was still a divisive subject. “People might speak it in the home, but not on the bus. There was a sense of shame about it,” Lucilla said. Although Noble ended up attracting considerable support for his college across the parties, from the Conservatives to the SNP, politicians were initially unsure about its virtues. His National Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, reversed that and gave a sense of confidence and entrepreneurship to many of the crofters who lived nearby.
Beginning with just a handful of students, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig has expanded considerably over the years, from the original seven who came when it opened in 1983 to the 500 full-time and 1,000 part-time students it gets annually today. It has also now started a programme to offer affordable housing, a problem on an island where visitors have started to inflate house prices.
In Tarskavaig, the small vibrant crofting community on the north coast of Sleat, half the population speak Gaelic, a proportion far higher than in most areas in Scotland. One welcome by-product of the Gaelic college is the installation of fibre broadband around the peninsula, making rural businesses far more viable.
I first stayed in Tarskavaig almost 20 years ago, and it’s a place I have kept returning to for its sense of wild isolation and what is thought to be the best view of all of the Cuillin mountains across Gauscavaig bay. You reach it by a fabulously small and winding road that delivers you from the other side of the Sleat peninsula. At nearby Tokavaig are the romantic and ruined remains of the “fortress of shadows”, Dunscaith Castle, the principal seat of the MacDonalds in the 15th century.
Because the college has been so successful in helping the promotion of rural businesses, the ratio between tourism and life seems a healthy one; there are plenty of visitors but not in an overwhelming way. The community centre at An Crùbh (the Hub), built just a few years ago, is a triumph of light airy architecture. Its cafe sells cullen skink – a thick soup typically made of smoked haddock, potatoes and onions – and a powerfully full Scottish breakfast, best undertaken if you’ve walked several miles to get there. Other rural businesses that have started up since the college established itself include a distillery at Torabhaig and several art galleries and architects’ practices, as well as some specifically Gaelic projects such as Faclair na Gàidhlig, which is compiling a Gaelic historical dictionary.
Sleat is sometimes described as the garden of Skye, with more woods than elsewhere on the island and a fine array of birds and wildlife. While I was staying on the shore near Tarskavaig, I could swim each morning with great northern divers ducking around me and the odd seal coming to check how anybody could be so foolhardy as to dunk themselves in such cold water. A heron stalked over the shingle and one evening, driving back over the headland, I caught the unmistakable silhouette of a hen harrier flying ahead of me in the lights.
Although difficult to restock the woodland, given the presence of so many deer, there have been attempts to bring in more rowan, birch, oak, holly and hazel; somewhat counterintuitively, Nature Scotland refuses to put in any Scots pine on the grounds that, however well it would grow, it is not indigenous.
But for all the regeneration, it is difficult not to forget the deserted villages like Suisnish. As Lucilla told me as we nursed a Gaelic whisky, when she goes there she tries to close her eyes and imagine what it must have been like, and of how hard that is “when there is no sound of their voices or of children laughing”.
Their buildings may have been demolished but at least their language and some of their inheritance is still being preserved. The great Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean, one of the first supporters of the Gaelic college, wrote in Hallaig (translated by Seamus Heaney) of the ghosts of village girls returning from Suisnish, “still lightsome and unheartbroken, / Their stories only beginning”.
Way to go
Take the train to Kyle of Lochalsh, and local buses such as the 917 over the bridge to Skye and on to Portree, or travel by bus direct from Inverness to Skye. Or take the train to Mallaig and ferry to Armadale, although the service has recently been intermittent.
Eilean Iarmain, the hotel revived by Sir Iain Noble in Isleornsay, which has an excellent restaurant, bar and distillery, has doubles from £85 B&B. Àird a’ Bhàsair, formerly the Ardvasar hotel, one of the oldest inns on Skye, and the only one within walking distance of the Mallaig to Armadale ferry, has doubles from £75 B&B.