Thursday, 16 October 2008 Over the sea to Skye today (or across the bridge, at least). My plan is to climb Ben Tianavaig--
a hill, really, 413 meters--just south of Portree. It was recommended to me by Onefortheditch, a member of the Whisky Magazine forums. I stop
at the Co-op in Broadford for fuel, cheaper than in Kyle of Lochalsh or anywhere else nearby on the mainland. Stepping inside the shop, I
find that it has been completely refurbished and expanded since last I was here, and is now a well-stocked full-service grocery. I confess
I'm a little bit disappointed. The new shop is without doubt a great improvement for locals and tourists alike, but the Highland charm of the
old premises has been lost. In the ten years that I've been traipsing around Scotland, I've seen a good deal of modernization and improvement.
Some things are easy to feel good about, such as the growing number of small breweries producing real ale, and licensed premises serving it.
Some are mixed blessings, such as the proliferation of wi-fi hotspots that make the remote corners of the country a little less remote. Some,
like the modern Co-op, make everyday life a little easier, at the apparent cost of making special places seem just a little bit more like
everywhere else. My friends know that I was first drawn to visit Scotland by the movie Local Hero, in which MacIntyre, a hustling
junior executive in a Texas oil firm, is virtually cut off from the modern world, trying to do business in a tiny northwestern village where
even the regular phone service is dodgy. The film was made in 1983, before the advent of the world-wide web or even widespread cellphone
service, and it plays almost as a period piece now. At that, it's obviously a somewhat contrived and romanticized Scotland that is presented.
Tourists like me who wander the Highlands in search of the Local Hero experience must necessarily delude themselves a bit, wilfully or
otherwise. We get our moments--the interlude that Win (Harry) and I experienced in the shop on Sanday, in Orkney, stands out in my mind. But
more and more the modern world spreads its blanket of homogeneity over the country, making the search for Scotland, real or imagined, that
little bit more difficult. There are now about a hundred McDonald's restaurants--McDonald's!--in Scotland, none, thankfully, in the
Highland home of clan MacDonald, northwest of the Great Glen. It's a little easier out here to squint your eyes and imagine yourself in
MacIntyre's Furness, even if the charming former herring port you're staying in is now full of holiday cottages owned by English incomers,
themselves looking for a piece of Furness or Hamish Macbeth's
Lochdubh. Furness, after all, was a dying place, its residents all too keen to sell out to Knox Oil & Gas and move on. The Knox deal may have
fallen through, but it seems that many of the folks, all too many, have succeeded in clearing out, anyway. The obvious irony is that we who
wish to immerse ourselves in such places expunge them bit by bit, or at least alter them irrevocably, simply by being here. Odd, isn't
it, that in movies like Local Hero and Waking Ned Devine, there are never any tourists passing through.
The exodus from the countryside is nothing new, of course; the herring port, Plockton, itself was established in the wake of the Clearances, an attempt to force displaced crofters to learn a new way to make a living. The herring fishery collapsed when the fish's migratory patterns changed for reasons we don't fully understand. If even the herring go off in search of greener pastures (so to speak!), how can we expect any sort of permanence? The only place where an entire way of life can be completely preserved is in a museum diorama. Change is the only constant, and everything is relative. No doubt an old-timer like my Dales friend, Fremmie, would smirk at my lament, as I roll comfortably into town on modern paved roads in my rental car. It's a bit disingenuous, isn't it, to wish an entire landscape to remain perpetually twenty years behind the times, purely for my amusement? If the city folk wish to move to the village, and the village folk to the city, is not the exchange a fair one? The conundrum for me lies in wondering whether the place makes the people, or the people make the place. It's a two-way street, I guess, and as time passes, the traffic inevitably changes.
Two miles short of Portree, I turn down the side road to the village of Camastianavaig. Actually, I'm not quite sure this modest clump of houses can properly be called a village. I park down by the beach, such as it is, and look for a trail up the hill. Cutting up through a sheep pen, I see two lads up above, tromping steadily from my left to my right; so there it is. It's a relatively easy climb from there, with a spectacular view at the top, overlooking Portree, the Storr, Raasay, Applecross, and the Cuillins. It's a fine day, with the occasional passing shower; I manage to find a rock to hunker down behind while waiting for such to pass. I watch a small cruise ship, the Hebridean Princess, approach Portree. I saw it in Plockton harbor early this morning, and have seen it there in years past. Looks like a nice trip.
It's very windy at the summit, so I don't linger too long. On the way down, I follow the trail past the point at which I'd joined it, expecting to emerge lower in the village, not far from the car. The trail becomes rather unclear, however, and I have to do a little bushwhacking. I haven't seen another soul since spotting those two walkers.
Browse around Portree for a while. I really want to like this, the largest town in Skye, but for some reason I've never been able to warm up to it. Its one saving grace for me was a music shop specializing in folk and trad, but that seems to have closed. There's another less specialized shop, though, and there I buy a cd by the Shetland fiddler, Aly Bain, and the Swedish multi-instrumentalist, Ale Möller.
Session night in the Plockton Inn--always look forward to that, but it's very crowded this evening. There was a funeral today, former owner of the Plockton Hotel, a popular local character. Lots of people came in from out of town, and I saw them gathered in the Hotel, still in their funeral clothes, as I made my way to the Inn. Now in casual dress, they've filled up the Inn, and it's more of a homecoming party than anything. I can barely hear the musicians. I sit quietly in the corner with my book, and, perhaps ironically, escape into Inspector Rebus' Edinburgh.