The Isle of Skye & The Search That Never Ends

A Tour of Kilt Rock, MacLeod’s Tables, Three Chimney's Restaurant & Neist Point

Mention Scotland and, for many, the image of a kilt-clad Mel Gibson is immediately evoked. While few countries are more closely identified with their national dress, I found that the thread that binds the fabric of life for the Scottish people I met is the land itself.

A profound appreciation for that affinity washed over me on the Isle of Skye as I stood atop 180-foot heights, enveloped in spray from a spring-fed waterfall tumbling over the precipice to the sparkling waters of the Atlantic below. In the whipping wind on the very edge of the Trotternish Peninsula, I felt exhilarated and giddy, as though I was soaring above the brink of Time itself.

 The stunning cliff face of Kilt Rock. Photo: Meg Pier

The stunning cliff face of Kilt Rock. Photo: Meg Pier

My guide Rob brought me back down to earth, pointing out the striations in the cliff face stretching out below us. He told me that we were standing on Kilt Rock, named for the impression of pleats created by the vertical columns of basalt over horizontal strips of grey and white oolite. Rob explained that the tight formation of pillars lined up in a precise row inspired the tartan pattern worn by clan members from Skye.

 My guide, Rob, sporting a kilt on Kilt Rock. Photo: Meg Pier

My guide, Rob, sporting a kilt on Kilt Rock. Photo: Meg Pier

Rob gave me my first lesson in Highland dress, telling me that the distinctive look legions know today from Braveheart came into being only in the nineteenth century. Originally the attire was a single piece of woven wool completely encircling the body and tied at various points, including with a brooch at the shoulder. Even the socks of that era were made of the same material and attached loosely to the legs.

According to the Scottish Register of Tartans, there are 6,424 official tartans in existence. Rob was in fact sporting a kilt of his own, wearing a pattern specially commissioned by the Scottish Tour Guide Association two years ago and manufactured by Kinloch Anderson, kilt makers to the Royal Family. The STGA tartan is designed to incorporate the colors of the Scottish flag – blue and white – together with the green of the Scottish landscape and a gold hue signifying a royal heritage.

I came face-to-face with an imposing aristocratic presence when Rob and I rounded the next bend in the road. Ahead of us, two massive flat-topped hills presided over the landscape, which Rob told me were known as MacLeod’s Tables.

“According to legend, the Chief of Clan MacLeod was invited to a banquet by King James V in Edinburgh–a routine evening that did not impress the chief greatly,” Rob said. “He decided to show the King what a real banquet was like and invited him to a sumptuous feast held on the lower of the two flat-topped mountains, known as Healabhal Mhor. Clansmen stood round the edge of the plateau holding torches–what a sight it must have been! History does not tell us whether James V wore thermal underwear or not – because he surely would have needed it!”

I later learned of an older legend associated with the imposing mounds, relating to St. Columba, a Gaelic Irish monk who spread Christianity across Scotland during medieval times. It’s said that when Columba arrived on Skye, the hills had pointed summits, but when the saint was not offered hospitality by the locals, divine intervention led to the leveling of the hilltops, providing Columba with a bed and table.

 The picturesque MacLeod’s Tables. Photo: Meg Pier

The picturesque MacLeod’s Tables. Photo: Meg Pier

 Local's View of the Landscape: Three Chimneys Co-Owner Extols the Virtues of Skye

Prominent Skye resident Shirley Spear provided a more scientific — but poetic–description of the terrain.

“The island is a geologist’s paradise, a treasure box of rocks and minerals from many ages and some of the best examples in the British Isles of specific geological events,” she said. “There are examples of some of the oldest rocks on the planet dating back many, many millions of years. The dramatic landscape that we enjoy now was shaped and formed by a myriad number of significant geological ‘shake-ups,’ the results of which can be clearly distinguished within this one tiny, but remarkable, part of the world.”

“The geological landscape has influenced the distribution of plants and animals throughout the island too,” she continued. “Events over millions of years have been fundamental in creating the varied natural history of today’s unforgettable, living landscape.”

Shirley offered a 10,000-foot view of the place she calls home.

 A geologist's landscape shared with the sheep. Photo: Meg Pier

A geologist's landscape shared with the sheep. Photo: Meg Pier

“The Isle of Skye is a surprisingly large island. Shaped like a giant bird soaring from the northwest coast of Scotland, it is protected from the wide open seas of the Atlantic Ocean by the Outer Hebrides and The Minch. Skye has many miles of deeply indented, rocky coastline. The Sounds of Sleat and Raasay and several deep sea lochs, such as Loch Dunvegan, surround sheer cliffs, jagged mountains, and volcanic rock stacks. Heather-clad hills and grassy moors, steep glens, hidden lochans, tumbling waterfalls, rivers and sparkling mountain burns – all of these things make up the beauty of Skye. Woodland walks, wayside wild flowers, birds of all kinds, wildlife on land and sea – these beautiful sights and sounds complete the magic that captures many hearts and soothes the souls of visitors from all over Scotland and far around the world.”

“The weather on the Isle of Skye is usually pleasant and mild, even in winter. The worst weather usually brings gales and heavy rain, but these storms create some of the most dramatic, visual scenes as waves crash upon the rocks and clouds scud across the sky. Sometimes visitors claim to have experienced every kind of weather in just one day! The changing weather patterns produce wonderful cloud formations and fantastic rainbows, plus a rare clarity of light beloved by the many artists who live and work here. It rarely snows, although snow can be seen on the mountain peaks well into May and June. Whatever the weather, or the time of day, the outlook ranges from heavenly calm, to wild and dramatic, from sunrise to sunset, moonlit nights and starry skies.”

 The Three Chimneys Restaurant is a staple on the Isle of Skye. Photo: Meg Pier

The Three Chimneys Restaurant is a staple on the Isle of Skye. Photo: Meg Pier

Shirley and her husband Eddie have run The Three Chimneys Restaurant on Skye for almost 30 years. The establishment is housed within the bare stone walls of an original crofter’s cottage built about 120 years ago. A croft is a small Highland farm, traditionally run by one family. Shirley became renowned for her use of Skye’s fresh seafood and seasonal local produce. The Spears have accrued a string of awards, beginning with the Scottish Restaurant of the Year Award in 1990.

Shirley reeled off the bounty that Skye affords her clients:

“Prime white fish and shellfish of every kind sparkling fresh from the cold, clear waters that surround Skye’s rocky shore; a wonderful selection of vegetables, salad leaves, herbs, mushrooms and soft fruits from the island’s working crofts and gardens; Skye lamb and Highlander beef reared and naturally grazed in the island’s glens, as well as wild venison from the high hills; these are all regular features on the weekly changing menu.”

From the foot of The Three Chimneys’ driveway, I admired the view of Dunvegan Castle standing sentinel on the opposite shore of a shimmering loch. Seat of the Clan MacLeod, it is the oldest inhabited castle in Scotland. From a distance, its appearance is that of a fortress but on closer inspection its features are more in keeping with its status as a family residence, with Georgian sash windows and Victorian embellishments. Rob told me that while today it is approached by a bridge over a ravine that once formed a dry moat, in days of old the only way in was from the sea through a water gate on to the rocks.

 Dunvegan Castle standing magically across the water. Photo: Meg Pier

Dunvegan Castle standing magically across the water. Photo: Meg Pier

Rob and I left The Three Chimneys, making our way on the one-lane B884 road, over a hill and through a lush green glen dappled with the white cloud-like shapes of lounging sheep. Following the narrow winding road down a steep hill to its very end, we reached a grassy plateau. Off to the left, majestic crags rose proudly from surprisingly still, serene waters glinting in the bright sunlight. The cliffs here are among the highest in Europe and home to sea eagles. Ahead, a large hill loomed, its heft obscuring what lay beyond it.

“Now, Meg, this will actually be a bit of a walk,” Rob said.

“I’m ready!” I chirped, hoping my enthusiasm would outshine my trepidation at the unknown landscape on the other side of the hill.

However, there was no way I could possibly have been ready for the spectacular display that greeted me once I had chugged up the slope. I gasped with delight–while simultaneously panting from the short hike — which sent me into a series of sputtering snorts and hiccups and then, finally, laughter at myself, ever the epitome of grace.

The Story Behind Neist Point Lighthouse

Sprawling out grandly in front of me was a massive headland that gradually narrowed to a swath of land capped with an immense triangular mound, at the tip of which perched the Neist Point Lighthouse. A steep and seeming-endless set of stairs zigged and zagged down the emerald expanse and amongst grazing sheep, streams of scree and an ancient stone wall.

The lighthouse, first lit in 1909, was designed by David Alan Stevenson, cousin of famed writer Robert Louis Stevenson. The Scottish author of beloved books such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came from a long line of lighthouse engineers.

In addition to his cousin David, Robert’s father Thomas was a leading lighthouse engineer; Thomas’s own father and his cousin Alan were also among those in the business. It appeared Robert would follow in their footsteps — in 1867, he entered the University of Edinburgh to study engineering. Each year during vacations, Stevenson travelled to inspect the family’s engineering works — to Anstruther and Wick in 1868, with his father on his official tour of Orkney and Shetland islands lighthouses in 1869, and for three weeks to the island of Erraid in 1870.

Robert enjoyed the travels more for the material they gave for his writing than for any engineering interest. Throughout his childhood, he had compulsively written stories. His father was proud of this interest; he too had written stories in his spare time until his own father found them and told him to “give up such nonsense and mind your business.” In 1871 Robert told his father of his decision to pursue a life of letters rather than engineering; the elder Stevenson is said to have been “wonderfully resigned” to his son’s choice.

 The beautiful landscape of ancient walls and lighthouses. Photo: Meg Pier.

The beautiful landscape of ancient walls and lighthouses. Photo: Meg Pier.

Slowly making my way down the steep stairs, I reflected on my mother’s reaction four years earlier when I decided to forego a business career to follow my heart’s desire. Fittingly, her response came in the form of a book, “Firstlight,” a collection of the early inspirational writings of Sue Monk Kidd. On the title page she had written “To help you on the search that never ends. Read pages 71–72 every day. Love, Mommala”

That passage from “Firstlight” is as meaningful to me today as it was then:

I got my Bachelor’s Degree in nursing and worked nine years — even taught nursing in college — before I stopped and said to myself, “This is not who I am. I am not really a nurse inside. I am a writer.” By that time the cement had hardened and I had some jackhammer work to do, breaking up the old identity embedded within and releasing a new self. I had continued with nursing not because it was a noble profession that stirred my deep gladness, but because I did not want to risk upsetting others’ — not to mention my own — ingrained notion of who I was. I wanted to please. I wanted to protect myself from the uncertainty of starting over. In such ways our consciousness becomes centered in the outer roles and masks we wear, rather than in the True Self within.

I had to struggle to pull myself from the Collective They. At various times I have lived out of narrowly prescribed identities that I accepted and internalized from the Collective: dutiful and submissive wife, ever-sacrificing mother, armored career woman, perfectionist, pleaser, performer, good little girl who never colored outside the lines drawn for her. Sometimes I was so busy being tuned in to outside ideas, expectations and demands, I failed to hear the unique music in my soul. I forfeited my ability to listen creatively to my deepest self, to my own God within. I was wearing the name “They.”

When I wear this name I am limited in my ability to relate to others in a genuinely compassionate way. I am separated from them by the masks that keep me from being real with them. Stuck in the Collective They, I am more apt to relate out of my ego needs, from the subtleties of my false selves and from the mandates and demands placed on me from others, rather than the love born in my own heart.

Having descended into the deep green valley below, I now began my ascent upward, pausing every few feet to catch my breath, inhale the sweet sea air and absorb with awe the astounding beauty in which I was enveloped. Again, I thought of my mother, tethered to an oxygen machine for the breath of life, and I gave a prayer of thanks for the encouragement and freedom to roam on my search that never ends.