A SUMMER IN SKYE
by Alexander Smith
Numerous current editions demonstrate the lasting popularity of this title. Smith’s fascinating observations on life and times show how difficult and uncomfortable travelling was in the Highlands in the 19th century, by coach, post horse and especially the short sea crossings to the islands not served by steamers.
His first attempt at crossing to Skye from Jean-Town, now Loch Carron, was ended by the weather at Plockton. He describes hallucinations that most overtired yachtsmen have experienced. A friend took him by cart to Kyle of Loch Alsh from where he took the ferry to Kyleakin, a leaky open boat under oars, his person and baggage soaked by rain, spray and bilge water.
Smith eventually reached his host’s house on the shore of Loch Eishort and wrote a wonderful description of travelling to Lochs Scavaig and Coruisk by open boat under sail and oar.
His return trip from Portree on the paddle steamer Clasman is of particular interest to the West Coast yachtsman as the ship went into Arisaig. The twisting rock bound channel into Arisaig seems narrow enough when seen from a small yacht.
Early editions of the title send one off on a tangent examining the prints that illustrate them. The N.R. Mitchell & Co. Edinburgh, 1880 edition(1), has a most attractive view looking down Loch Eishort to the Coolins as its frontispiece. Its pastel shades give the impression of an aquatint but examination with a hand lens reveals it to be a mezzotint, a determination complicated by additional engraving of the plate(2). The W.P. Nimmo, Hay, & Mitchell, Edinburgh 1912 edition(3) has numerous illustrations by John Blair. These are heavily inked mezzotints reproducing oil paintings, many lovely sea loch scenes with backdrops of mountains with no additional engraving. They have been trimmed so one doesn’t see the edge of the printing, removing clues to the number of plates used, and, on the verso, edge embossing by the pressure of the plates.
Here are some extracts of his travels afloat. Perhaps they will tempt acquiring the full text, for this material, like so much of the writing on the West Coast, is a fascinating accompaniment to cruising these waters.
Kyleakin The Cullins
First attempt at crossing to Skye, under oar and sail (Pages 82-86)
Late in the afternoon we reached Jean-Town, on the shores of Loch Carron. ‘Tis a tarry, scaly village, with a most ancient and fish like smell. The inhabitants have suffered a sea-change. The men stride about in leather fishing-boots, the women sit at the open doors at work with the bait-baskets. Two or three boats are moored at the stone-heaped pier. Brown, idle nets, stretched on high poles along the beach flap in the winds. We had tea at the primeval inn, and on intimating to the landlord that we wished to proceed to Broadford, he went off to engage a boat and crew. In a short time an old sea-dog, red with the keen breeze, and redolent of the fishy brine, entered the apartment with the information that everything was ready. We embarked at once, a sail was hoisted, and on the vacillating puff of evening we dropped gently down the loch. There was something in the dead silence of the scene and the easy motion of the boat that affected one. Weary with travel, worn out with want of sleep, yet, at the same time, far from drowsy with every faculty and sense rather in a condition of wide and intense wakefulness, everything around became invested with a singular and frightful feeling. Why, I know not, for I have no second experience of the kind; but on this occasion, to my overstrained vision, every object became instinct with a hideous and multitudinous life. The clouds congealed into faces and human forms. Figures started out upon me from the mountain-sides. The rugged surfaces, seamed with torrent lines, grew into monstrous figures, and arms with clutching figures. The sweet and gracious shows of nature became, under the magic of lassitude, a phantasmagoria hateful and abominable. Fatigue changed the world for me as the microscope changes a dew drop-when the jewel, pure from the womb of morning, becomes a world swarming with unutterable life-a battle-field of unknown existences. As the aspects of things grew in distinct in the fading light, the possession lost its pain; but the sublimity of ones illusion will be memorable. For a barrier of mountains standing high above the glimmering lower world, distinct and purple against a “daffodil sky”, seemed the profile of a gigantic man stretched on a bier, and the features, in their sad imperial beauty, seemed those of the first Napoleon. Wonderful that mountain-monument, as we floated seaward into distance-the figure sculpted by earthquake, and fiery deluges sleeping up there, high above the din and strife of earth, robed in solemn purple, its background the yellow of the evening sky!
About ten we passed the rocky portals of the loch on the last sigh of evening, and stood for the open sea. The wind came only in intermitting puffs, and the boatmen took to the oars. The transparent autumn night fell upon us; the mainland was gathering in gloom behind, and before us rocky islands glimmered on the level deep. To the chorus of a Gaelic song of remarkable length and monotony the crew plied their oars, and every plash awoke the lightning of the main. The sea was filled with elfin fire. I hung over the stern, and watched our brilliant wake seething up into a kind of pale emerald, and rushing away into the darkness. The coast on our left had lost form and outline, withdrawing itself into an indistinguishable mass of gloom, when suddenly the lights of a village broke clear upon it like a bank of glow-worms. I enquired its name and was answered “Plockton.” In half an hour the scattered lights became massed into one; soon that died out in the distance. Eleven o’clock! Like one man the rowers pull. The air is chill on the ocean’s face, and we wrap ourselves more closely in our cloaks. There is something uncomfortable in the utter silence and loneliness of the hour-in the phosphorescent sea, with its ghostly splendours. The boat-men too, have ceased singing. Would that I were taking my ease with McIan! [Smith’s host on Skye] Suddenly a strange sighing sound is heard behind. One of the crew springs up, hauls down the sail, and the next moment the squall is upon us. The boatmen hang on their oars, and you hear the rushing rain. Whew! How it hisses down on us, crushing everything in its passion. The long dim stretch of coast, the dark islands, are in a moment shut out; the world shrinks to a circumference of twenty yards; and within that space the sea is churned into a pale illumination-a light of misty gold. In a moment we are wet to the skin. The boatmen have shipped their oars, drawn their jacket collars over their ears, and there we lie at midnight shelterless to the thick his of the rain. But it has spent itself at last, and a few stars are again twinkling in the blue. It is plain our fellows are somewhat tired of the voyage. They cannot depend upon a wind; it will either be a puff, dying as soon as it is born, or a squall roaring down on the sea, through long funnels of the glens; and to pull all away is a dreary affair. The matter is laid before us-the voices of the crew are loud for our return. They will put us ashore at Plockton-they will take us across in the morning. A cloud has again blotted the stars and we consent. Our course is altered, the oars are pulled with redoubled vigour; soon the long dim line of coast rises before us, but the lights have burned out now, and the Plocktonians are asleep. On we go; the boat shoots into a “midnight cove,” and we leap out on masses of slippery seaweed. The craft is safely moored. Two of the men seize our luggage, and we go stumbling over rocks, until the road is reached.
Crossing to Skye – Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin by rowing boat (Pages 91-93)
(NB Smith refers to Kyle of Lochalsh as Kyleakin. Given the misery of his crossing we can forgive the error.)
The ferry is a narrow passage between the mainland and Skye; the current is powerful there, difficult to pull against on gusty days; and the ferrymen are loath to make the attempt unless well remunerated. When we arrived, we found four passengers waiting to cross; and as their appearance gave prospect of insufficient supply of coin, they were left sitting on the bleak windy rocks until some others should come up. It was as easy to pull across for ten shillings as for two! One was a girl, who had been in service in the south, had taken ill there, and was on her way home to some wretched turf hut on the hillside, in all likelihood to die; the second a little cheery Irishwoman, with a basket of paper ornaments, with the gaudy colours and ingenious devices of which she hoped to tickle aesthetic sensibilities, and open the purse of the Gael. The third and fourth were men, apparently laborious ones; but the younger informed me he was a schoolmaster, and it came out accidentally in conversation that his schoolhouse was a turf-cabin, his writing-table a trunk, on which his pupils wrote by turns. Imagination sees his young kilted friends kneeling on the clay floor, laboriously forming pot-hooks there, and squinting horribly the while. The ferrymen began to bestir themselves when we came up; and in a short time the boat was ready, and the party embarked. The craft was crank, and leaked abominably, but there was no help; and our bags were deposited in the bottom. The schoolmaster worked an oar in lieu of payment. The little Irishwoman, with her precious basket, sat high in the bow, the labourer and sick girl behind us at the stern. With a strong pull of the oars we shot out into the seething water. In a moment the Irishwoman is brought out in keen relief against a cloud of spray; but, nothing daunted, she laughs out merrily, and seems to consider a ducking the funniest thing in the world. In another, I receive a slap in the face from a gush of blue water, and emerge, half-blinded, and soaked from top to toe. Ugh, this sea–waltz is getting far from pleasant. The leak is increasing fast, and our carpet-bags are well nigh afloat in the working bilge. We are all drenched now. The girl is sick, and Fellowes is assisting her from his brandy-flask. The little Irishwoman, erst so cheery and gay, with spirits that turned every circumstance into a quip and crank, has sunk in a heap at the bow; her basket is exposed, and the ornaments, shaped by patient fingers out of coloured papers, are shapeless now; the looped rosettes ruined; her stock in trade, pulp-a misfortune great to her as a defeat to an army, or a famine to a kingdom. But we are half-way across, and a little ahead the water is comparatively smooth. The boatmen pull with greater ease; the uncomfortable sensation in the pit of the stomach is redressed; the white lips of the girl begin to redden somewhat; and the bunch forward stirs itself, and exhibits signs of life. Fellowes bought up the contents of her basket; and a contribution of two and sixpence from myself made the widow’s heart sing for joy. On landing, our luggage is conveyed in a cart to the inn, and waits our arrival there. Meanwhile we warm our chilled limbs with a caulker of Glenlivet. “Blessings be with it and eternal praise.” How fine the spirit melts into the wandering blood, like “a purer light in light!” How soft the benignant fire streams through the labyrinthine veins, from brain to toe! The sea is checkmated; the heart beats with a fuller throb; and the impending rheumatism flies afar. When we reached the inn, we seized our luggage, in the hope of procuring dry garments. Alas! When I went up-stairs, mine might have been the carpet-bag of a merman; it was wet to the innermost core.
Loch Coruisk Portree
Visit to Loch Coruisk by rowing boat from Loch Eishort – spelt Eishart by Smith (Pages 122-134)
A visit to Loch Coruisk had for some little time been meditated; and in the evening of the day on which the otter was slain* the boat was dragged from its shed down towards the sea, launched, and brought round to the rude pier, where it was moored for the night. We went to bed early, for we were to rise with the sun. We got up, breakfasted, and went down to the pier where two or three sturdy fellows were putting oars and rowlocks to rights, tumbling in huge stones for ballast, and carefully stowing away a couple of guns and a basket of provisions. In about an hour we were fairly afloat; the broad-backed fellows bent to their oars, and soon the house began to dwindle in the distance, the irregular winding shores to gather into compact masses, and the white cliffs, which we knew to be a couple of miles inland, to come strangely forward, and to overhang the house and surrounding strips of pasturage and clumps of birchwood. On a fine morning there is not in the whole wide world a prettier sheet of water than Loch Eishart. Everything about it is wild, beautiful, and lonely. You drink a strange and unfamiliar air. You seem to be sailing out of the nineteenth century away back into the ninth. You are delighted, and there is no remembered delight with which you can compare the feeling. Over the loch the Cuchullins rise crested with tumult of golden mists; the shores are green behind; and away out, towards the horizon, the Island of Rum-ten miles long at the least-shoots up from a flat sea like a pointed flame. It is a granite mass, you know, firm as the foundations of the world; but as you gaze the magic of morning light makes it a glorious apparition-a mere crimson film or shadow, so intangible in appearance you might almost suppose it to exist on sufferance, and that a breath could blow it away. Between Rum, fifteen miles out yonder, and the shores drawing together and darkening behind, with the white cliffs coming forward to stare after us, the sea is smooth, and flushed with more varied hues than ever lived on the changing opal-dim azures, tender pinks, sleek emeralds. It is one sheet of mother-of-pearl. The hills are silent. The voice of man has not yet awoke on the heathery slopes. But the sea, literally clad with birds, is vociferous. They make plenty of noise at work, these fellows. Darkly the cormorant shoots across our track. The air is filled with a confused medley of sweet, melancholy, and querulous notes. As we proceed, a quick head ducks; a troop of birds sinks suddenly to reappear far behind, or perhaps strips off the surface of the water, taking wing with a shrill cry of complaint. Occasionally, too, a porpoise, or “fish that hugest swims the ocean stream,” heaves itself slowly out of the element, its wet sides flashing for a moment in sunlight, and then heeling lazily over, sinks with never a ripple. As we approach the Strathaird coast, McIan sat high in the bow smoking, and covering with his gun every now and again some bird which came wheeling near, while the boatmen joked, and sang snatches of many chorused songs. As the coast behind became gradually indistinct, the coast in front grew bolder and bolder. You let your hand over the side of the boat and play listlessly with the water. You are lapped in a dream of other days. Your heart is chanting ancient verses and sagas. The northern sea wind that filled the sails of the Vikings, and lifted their locks of tarnished gold, is playing in your hair. And when the keel grates on the pebbles at Kilmaree you are brought back to your proper century and self-for by that sign you know your voyage is over for the present, and the way to Coruisk is across the steep hill in front.
On reaching Camasunary:
..........., we reached the farm-house, which, with the exception of a read-headed damsel, who thrust her head out of a barn to stare, seemed utterly deserted, and bent our steps towards the shore of the loch. Rough grass bordered a crescent of yellow sand, and on the rough grass a boat lay on its side, its pitchy seams blistering in the early sunshine. Of this boat we immediately took possession, dragged it down to the sea margin, got in our guns and provisions, tumbled in stones for ballast, procured oars, and pushed off. We had to round the great hill which, from the other side of the valley, we had seen breaking down into the sea; and as we sailed and looked up, sheep were feeding on the green shelves, and every now and again a white smoke of sea-birds burst out clangorously from the black precipices. Slowly rounding the rock buttress, which on stormy days the Atlantic fillips with its spray, another headland, darker still and drearier, drew slowly out to sea, and in a quarter of an hour we had passed from the main ocean into Loch Scavaig, and every pull of the oars revealed another ridge of the Cuchullins. Between these mountain ramparts we sailed, silent as a boatful of souls being conveyed to Norse hades. The Cuchullins were entirely visible now; and the sight midway up Loch Scavaig is more impressive even than when you stand on the ruined shore of Loch Coruisk itself-for the reason, perhaps, that, sailing midway, the mountain forms have a startling unexpectedness, while by the time you have pulled the whole way up, you have had time to master them to some extent, and familiarity has begun to dull the impression. In half an hour or so we disembarked on a rude platform of rock, and stepped out on the very spot on which, according to Sir Walter, the Bruce landed;
“Where a wild stream with headlong shock
Comes brawling down a bed of rock
To mingle with the main.”
Picking your steps carefully over huge boulder and slippery stone, you come upon the most savage scene of desolation in Britain. Conceive a large lake filled with dark green water, girt with torn and shattered precipices; the bases of which are strewn with ruin since an earthquake passed that way, and whose summits jag the sky with grisly splinter and peak. There is no motion here save the white vapour steaming from the abyss. The utter silence weighs like a burden upon you; you feel an intruder in the place. The hills seem to possess some secret; to brood over some unutterable idea which you can never know. You cannot feel comfortable in Loch Coruisk, and the discomfort arises in a degree from the feeling that you are outside of everything-that the thunder-splitten peaks have a life with which you cannot intermeddle. The dumb monsters sadden and perplex. Standing there, you are impressed with the idea that the mountains are silent because they are listening so intently. And the mountains are listening, else why do they echo our voices in such a wonderful way? Shout here like an Achilles in the trenches. Listen! The hill opposite takes up your words, and repeats them to one after another, and curiously tries them over with the gravity of a raven. Immediately after, you hear a multitude of skyey voices.
“Methinks that there are spirits among the peaks.”
How strangely the clear strong tones are repeated by these granite precipices! Who could conceive that Horror had so sweet a voice! Fainter and more musical they grow; fainter, sweeter, and more remote, until at last they come on your ear as if from the blank of the sky itself. McIan fired his gun, and it reverberated into a whole battle of Waterloo. We kept the hills busy with shouts and the firing of guns, and then McIan led us to a convenient place for lunching. As we trudge along something lifts itself off a rock-‘tis an eagle. See how grandly the noble creature soars away. What sweep of wings! What a lord of the air! And if you cast up your eyes you will see his brother hanging like a speck beneath the sun. Under McIan’s guidance, we reached the lunching place, unpacked our basket, devoured our bread and cold mutton, drank our bottled beer, and then lighted our pipes and smoked-in the strangest presence. Thereafter we bundled up our things, shouldered our guns, and marched in the track of ancient Earthquake towards our boat. Embarked once again, and sailing between the rocky portals of Loch Scavaig, I said, “I would not spend a day in that solitude for the world. I should go mad before evening.”
“Nonsense,” said McIan. “Sportsmen erect tents at Coruisk, and stay there by the week-capital trout, too, are to be had in the loch. The photographer, with his camera and chemicals, is almost always here, and the hills sit steadily for their portraits. It’s as well you have seen Coruisk before its glory departed. Your friend, the Landlord, talks of mooring a floating hotel at the head of Loch Scavaig full of sleeping apartments, the best of meats and drinks, and a brass band to perform the newest operatic tunes on the summer evenings. At the clangour of the brass the last eagle will take his flight for Harris.”
“The Tourist comes, and poetry flies before him as the red man flies before the white. His tweeds will make the secret top of Sinai commonplace some day.”
In due time we reach Camasunary, and drew the boat up on the rough grass beyond the yellow sand. The house looked deserted as we passed. Our friend of the morning we saw seated on a rock, smoking, and gazing up Glen Sligachan, still looking out for the appearance of his messenger from Broadford. At our shout he turned his head and waved his hand. We then climbed the hill and descended on kilmaree. It was evening now, and as we pulled homeward across the rosy frith, I sat in the bow and watched the monstrous bulk of Blaavin, and the wild fringe of the Cuchullins bronzed by sunset. McIan steered, and the rowers, as they bent to their work, sang melancholy Gaelic songs. It was eleven at night by the time we got across, and the hills we had left were yet cutting, with dull purple, a pale yellow sky; for in summer in these northern latitudes there is no proper night, only a mysterious twilight of an hour and a sparkle of short lived stars.
* They had hunted and killed an otter for sport as was the custom until well into the 20th century because they eat salmon. A terrier dog got its foot badly bitten in the process.
View from McIan's house on Loch Eishort Castle Maoil Kyleakin
Arisaig (Pages 484-486)
A lovely transparent autumn night arched above us, a young moon and single star by her side, when we reached Arisaig. By this time the ladies had retired, and those of the gentlemen who remained on deck were wrapped in plaids, each shadowy figure brought out more keenly by the red tip of a cigar. The entrance into Arisaig is difficult, and the Clansman was put on half steam. The gentlemen were requested to leave the hurricane-deck, and there the captain stationed himself, while a couple of men were sent to the bows, and three or four stationed at the wheel. Slowly the large vessel moved onward, with low black reefs of rocks on either side, like smears of dark colour, but perfectly soft and tender in outline; and every here and there we could see the dark top of a rock peering out of the dim sea like a beaver’s head. From these shadowy reefs, as the vessel moved on, the sea-birds were awaked from their slumbers, and strangely sweet, and liquid as flute-notes, were their cries and signals of alarm. Every now and again, too, with a sort of weary sigh, a big wave came heaving in, and broke over the dark reefs in cataracts of ghostly silver; and in the watery trouble and movement that followed, the moon became a well of moving light, and the star a quivering sword-blade. The captain stood alone on the hurricane deck, the passengers leaned against the bulwarks watching rock and sea, and listening to the call and re-call of disturbed mews, when suddenly there was a muffled shout from the outlook at the bows, the captain shouted “Port! Port! Hard!” and away went the wheel spinning, the stalwart fellows toiling at the spokes, and the ship slowly falling off. After a little while there was another noise at the bows, the captain shouted “Starboard!” and the wheel was rapidly reversed. We were now well up the difficult channel; and looking back we could see a perfect intricacy of reefs and dim single rocks behind, and a fading belt of pallor wandering amongst them, which told of the track of the ship-a dreadful place to be driven upon on a stormy night, when the whole coast would be like the mouth of a wounded bear-black tusks and churning foam. After a while a low line of coast was visible, then a light broke upon it; and after a few impatient turns of the paddles we beheld a dozen boats approaching, with lights at their bows. These were the Arisaig boats, laden with cargo. At sight of them the captain left the hurricane deck, and the anchor went away with a thundering chain, the passengers went to bed, and between asleep and awake, I could hear half the night the trampling of feet, the sound of voices, and the jolt of steam-cranes, as the Arisaig goods were being hoisted on deck and stowed away.
1. A Summer in Skye, Alexander Smith, Edinburgh, N.R. Mitchell & Co, 1880.
2. Identifying Prints, Bamber Gascoigne, Thames and Hudson 1986, reprinted 1998, ISBN 0-500-23454-X.
2. A Summer in Skye, Alexander Smith, with introduction by W. Forbes Gray, illustrations in colour by John Blair, Edinburgh, W.P. Nimmo, Hay & Mitchell, 1912.
22 October 2014