End of the road to Skye
From "Sliced Bread" by Rosemary Phillips
I booked a seat on an overnight coach from London to Glasgow where I changed to continue the journey to northern Scotland. The coach wound its way through breathtaking glens and heather-covered highlands, around the waters of Loch Lomond and eventually arrived in Fort William. What I saw was a small town swarming with tourists and full of souvenir shops which reminded me too much of Gananoque, "Gateway to the Thousand Islands" in Canada where I had gone to high school. So I walked across the road to the train station, bought a ticket to the end of the line and got on the next train.
In 1973 the end of the line and the end of the road to the Isle of Skye was Mallaig, a small fishing village. When the train finally stop I gathered my pack sack and shoulder bag, disembarked and headed to the station's exit. I breathed a sigh of relief at completing the journey and looked forward to a few quiet days of roaming around. But first I needed a place to stay and sleep.
There were no crowds like in Fort William, just a few travellers who all seemed to know where they were going. I stood still for a while to absorb the surroundings, the evening sky, the cliffs, the surging sea, the green rolling hills above the cliffs and the fishermen's cottages clinging to the slopes. Some cottages were gray stone, one level and quite small with smoke spiralling out of the chimneys. Others were new council houses, two storey row housing which looked quite out of place with its red brick walls. The smell of the sea was revitalizing. Fishing boats bobbed up and down in the little port and seagulls circled around looking for free food.
I had no idea where to go, so I headed for the Tourist Information booth. It was closed. I asked a few people on the street for directions to a local hotel. There was only one and it was full. "You'll have to start walking up the hill and knock on doors," I was told.
This was definitely a new idea for me, not one that I relished, but if I wanted somewhere to sleep I had to walk on. At the first house I came to I was told that all accommodation had been filled but I might have better luck three houses further up. Not so. Their last couch had just been taken.
"Try the MacDonald's up the road in the council houses," suggested the lady who stood in the doorway.
I was really exhausted. It had been a long twenty-hours of sleepless travel. I trudged on up the hill and opened the garden gate in front of the MacDonald home, walked slowly up the concrete pathway between colourful flower beds and knocked on the door. A tall elderly man opened the door, stared at me quizzically, then smiled.
"Is this the MacDonald residence?" I asked.
"Och, it is," the man replied. "And what can I do for you?"
"The lady down the road suggested you might have a spare bed or couch that I could sleep on."
Mr. MacDonald looked me over quite carefully then asked, "Who are you? Where are you from? And where are you going?"
"I'm from London, at the moment," I said in my best attempt at reverting back to my English accent. "I've come to get some peace and quiet and to see the beauty of Scotland."
He asked me to wait for a minute, closed the door, went into the house, then returned shortly, opened the door again and said, "Yes, you'll do."
He beckoned me in then continued, "We do have just one more bedroom left and you are more than welcome to use it. The rate is two-pound-fifty per night with breakfast included."
I was led to a small bedroom with a window overlooking the road along the cliff. Mr. MacDonald left me to settle in and as he closed the door behind him he said, "When you're ready come and join us for tea and biscuits by the fire."
I hastily unpacked my few belongings and freshened myself up, then went into the living room. It was cozy sitting with the MacDonalds in front of a blazing fire, sipping on tea and feasting on biscuits. Before long my head started to droop and I struggled to keep my eyes open. I excused myself from the fireplace, withdrew to the bedroom, changed into my nightie and crawled between fresh clean sheets. Within seconds I drifted off into much needed sleep.
Early the next morning I awoke to the sounds of sheep bleating on the hills nearby. There was a knock on the door and Mr. MacDonald entered carrying a huge tray full of goodies for breakfast; porridge, bacon and eggs, orange juice, toast with jam, and a pot of tea – breakfast in bed, Scottish style! While I ate my breakfast I watched wild sheep as they roamed past the window.
When I was finished I put the tray to one side, got dressed and quietly made my way out of the house along the cliffs to a perch overlooking the Isle of Skye. I sat on the edge of the cliff and allowed my mind to drift away. I wrote some poetry and made a few drawings in my sketchbook. It seemed far more meaningful to sit alongside cliff birds and mountain sheep and listen to the waters below while looking towards Skye, rather than being on the island itself to mill with all the tourists. The romantic part of me visualized the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Skye Boat Song. I sang out loud and joined the seagull chorus.
At noon I returned to Mallaig and took a train south for two stops to view a Highland Games. A large stage had been set up in a field where men in kilts were throwing the caber. Pipers could be heard tuning up behind hillocks as they prepared for competition and kilts swished up and down as dancers rehearsed their fling. I propped myself up against a bank of grass and watched the show as one by one each competitor played or danced on the stage in the bright afternoon sun.
At about five o'clock I headed back to the station but not before stopping in at a small shop to purchase a couple of buns and a tin of sardines. I sat on a rock near the platform and while I ate my meagre dinner a couple came up to chat and while we waited for the train we talked about many things. I learned about the frustration of the many Scots who were unable to find work and about a possible underground movement to publicly protest the situation.
During the train ride back to Mallaig the couple invited me to continue the conversation over sausages and eggs by the fire in their uncle's old fisherman's cottage on the cliffs. I couldn't resist such an offer. That evening we sat around a wonderful old stone fireplace as flames licked up the chimney and filled the small cottage with a beautiful warm glow. At about nine o'clock I realized Mr. and Mrs. MacDonald would be wondering where I was, so I bid my hosts a thankful good-bye and walked further up the cliffs to the MacDonald house.
"Come on in for tea and biscuits by the fire," said Mr. MacDonald as he greeted me at the door. "We wondered where you had got to."
I settled into a soft chair, sipped on tea and excitedly told the McDonalds of my adventures that day. There was a pause, then Mr. MacDonald began his tale.
"Last year we had a young lass staying in the same room that you're in. Well, after a day or so she just disappeared and left all her bags behind. We weren't worried. We knew she'd be back to get her belongings before too long. A week later she came and knocked on the door, so we invited her in for tea and biscuits by the fire."
At this point Mrs. MacDonald passed me a plate loaded with biscuits. I helped myself then settled back into my chair again as Mr. MacDonald continued his story.
"Well, when this young lass had seated herself by the fire I asked her where she had been and she said, 'I went off to the Isle of Skye to find myself.' "
Mr. MacDonald stopped for a moment as he took a few sips of tea. He shook his head, paused, then began again. "I said to her, 'But lass, you're with your self all the time?'"
He took a few more sips from his cup, leaned forward, reached for the teapot and asked, "Care for another cup of tea?"