(It’s Independence Day. That’s not what this blog post is about. If you’re looking for something topical, consider checking out Yahoo! News or The New Yorker. I bet John Cassidy has something interesting to say about it.)

Above the Scottish harbor town of Portree on a wooded hill known as The Lump stands what looks like an ancient watchtower, gazing blindly past the shoulders of the mountains to the Sound of Raasay. Within the tower, an iron staircase spirals up to a platform that, when the mist has cleared, provides a clear view straight out to that farther island. The dark stones of the tower have been scribbled with the usual record of human passage: initials, cryptic allusions, sex. The view, with the fishing boats kneeling at their tethers and the slopes of the mountains cutting toward the water, each more ambiguous than the last, is beautiful.

I asked Bill about it the next day. He said it was built by one Alexander MacLeod in the 1830s. He was a local physician who thought Portree could become a resort town like those cropping up along the English coasts, and he drew up grand plans for bathing huts and health spas to accommodate the coming throngs. The tower seems to have been the first and only move he made in the direction of that vision. They call it MacLeod’s Folly.

For centuries, the economy of the Isle of Skye was built around crofting and fishing. Oil, as testified by the tanks at the end of Portree pier, became important more recently. Skye is also one of the centers of Scots Gaelic studies, home to what claims to be the only all-Gaelic university in Scotland. I didn’t hear any Gaelic in Portree, maybe because it was drowned out by the farrago of French, German, Chinese, and Yankee English spoken by the tourists that pour unceasingly from the charter buses sagging their way through the town square. Shops selling Harris Tweed and 5ML bottles of whisky stand beside the Post Office and the local pensioners’ center. The town now has two Indian restaurants and a visitor’s bureau, and the BnBs are legion. Our own hosts were from Wales and Northern Ireland. MacLeod’s vision, minus the swimming, has been realized.

On our first night there, we flitted from pub to pub looking for a place to watch the US play Ghana in the World Cup. Our search eventually brought us to The Camanachd, which our host Charlotte had described as “one of our seedier pubs, the kind that people fall out of late on a Saturday night,” a selling point if we ever heard one. That and the others were full.

When we got there, the game was about an hour and a half from starting. Having ordered our drinks in hand (a cider and a terrible pint of something by a Scottish brewery that shall remain nameless; it’s a general principle that in Britain, the pubs are more responsible for the quality of the draught than the brewers, but that’s a topic for another day) we gravitated toward the pool table. Two Scots around our age were at the table, so we took a seat in the big leather couch against the wall and watched the pre-game commentary while they played out their game. They finished and yielded the table to us. I fished around in my wallet through the hexagonal and two-color coins whose values I had forgotten in the four years since our last visit and tried to match them to  the coin slot. Mystified, I asked the guys how much it was, and they told me. I said I’d have to go to the bar to change my coins when Duncan (I learned his name later) put the money in my hand. When I tried to pay him back, he said, “It’s only 50p” and sat down with his lager.

Elizabeth destroyed me our first game. I changed a pound and we played again, and this time, my shots started landing.

“She’s giving you a chance now,” Iain, the wiry one with spiked hair, called out.

“That’s nice of her,” I said and missed.

After the game, I offered my remaining coin to Duncan, and when he tried to turn it down, I set it on the table and headed for the bathroom. Through the wall I could hear Elizabeth’s voice mingling with his and was pleased to see them playing when I got back. It was a total rout. I saw her get two chances to shoot. Bank shots, caroms, cross shots, shots I can’t describe––he was elegant, and the closer, when he skipped the cue ball over one of Elizabeth’s yellows to knock the eight into the side pocket, banished all doubt. We were in the presence of some kind of billiards demigod.

We laid down our cues and started talking. They lived in Portree, fishermen. Their quarry: “langoustines,” which they caught with nets.

In a Skye summer, it’s broad daylight by 5 a.m., and their shifts lasted seventeen hours. They’d be up by two or three the next morning, they said. Ten days on, four off. Their catch is bought by restaurateurs in France and Spain and eaten in those countries, Iain noted, by British vacationers. In the winter, they have very little work. All in all, a tough existence.

Skye has to be one of the most beautiful and astounding places on earth. Its weird stickleback spires and eagle-haunted crags are the product of ancient violence, landslips, lava floes, gnashing glaciers. One early 20th-century visitor described its central range, The Cuillin, as the Ride of the Valkyries frozen in stone. Sheep are everywhere, and the mist moves fast and low over hills of intense green. Even the names, if you can find someone who can pronounce them, are strange and lovely: Talisker, Fionn Choire, Waternish.

“What’s it like living here?” I asked.

“Pure shite,” Iain said. “I’m not going to mince words.”

“What do you do to get away?”

“Go to the pub,” he said. “Or sleep. I wish I was smart like you. I would have gone to school and gotten out of here.”

He said it like a joke.

Iain and Duncan left before we did, but not before Iain told us who to talk to at the distillery if we wanted to score a free bottle of whisky (and gave us his thoughts on sleeping with girls who use fake tanner, which were hilarious but unsuitable for a Calvin-affiliated blog). The US beat Ghana, and we walked back up to Bosville Terrace and our bed and breakfast. From the road we could see the boats anchored in the harbor and the shape of Ben Tianavaig beyond, hovering over the water like a planet.

In the morning, Charlotte cooked us a breakfast of sausage, tomatoes, bacon, and beans, and we talked to the two Mormon couples from Texas who were staying there too. We tried one of the Indian restaurants that night and hiked the Quiraing the next day.

We didn’t see Iain and Duncan again, and on Thursday morning we left for the Lake District. If we could do it over, we would have spent more time on the island. The place is inexhaustible. I think about Iain and Duncan wearing rubber raincoats and smoking cigarettes on a boat somewhere between Neist Point and Benbecula and I wonder what it means that a place I may never see again and which has become so precious to me is a place they may never have the chance to leave.

1 Comment

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    I spent a week hiking around Skye, and you described the place perfectly. The Portree harbor and the Old Man of the Skorr still often find themselves as my desktop background. But I went there in the early spring, before the tourists came, and I also saw a lot of the loneliness you mentioned. I met one woman who, in the span of a two-minute conversation, admitted that she constantly struggled with boredom. Her son had moved to England several years earlier, and she lived alone. She could not afford to move. Another man told me that although he enjoyed walking and thought Skye was one of the world’s most scenic places, he had already hiked all of it, and it had lost its ability to surprise him. A lonely, beautiful place. I think it’s captured a part of me, too.

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