Buoyed on by a ghoulish fascination, Dave Cauldwell embarks on a 9-day, untracked, solo trek through the ghost towns on the Isle of Skye in northern Scotland
A bitter wind scythes across the loch and into the coastal hamlet of Boreraig, blowing chimney smoke towards a pack of policemen whose footsteps crisp through fresh snow. The leader of the ensemble, Lord MacDonald, knows that most of the men in the hamlet will be away working on the railroads. He knows there’ll be little manpower to resist what’s about to unfurl.
MacDonald smashes down the door of the first house he reaches. An elderly woman, defiant in the face of her perpetrators, refuses to budge from her bed. She’s dragged from the house and is left clinging to her blanket, shivering in the snow. MacDonald’s gang proceeds to violently evict everyone in the village with systematic malevolence. Three shepherds, the only men left in the village, run from their flocks summonsed from the hills by the commotion. A skirmish ensues but the shepherds are quickly overpowered, placed in irons and dragged away. They can only watch as their houses are boarded up and their loved ones are left to fend off the chill of a highland winter.
Except for the penal colony ruins in Tasmania – most of which have been destroyed – Australia has few ruins with such gruesome history. The ruins in Boreraig on the Isle of Skye are in relatively good condition, and so to indulge my penchant for dark historical deeds and in the faint hope I may see a ghost in the ruins, I’m spending nine days hiking and wild camping from north to south through an untracked, rugged landscape – hiking roughly 140km through a series of rubble-strewn ghost towns whose only tenants nowadays are sheep. My trip will end in Boreraig a night before the summer solstice.
The evictions in Boreraig in 1853 weren’t an isolated occurrence. It was a period when the Scottish clan system was collapsing and financially crippled landowners saw an opportunity to restore their fortunes by replacing tenants with sheep. Men like MacDonald were employed to clear out entire villages all over the Isle of Skye (and Scotland) using whatever means possible. Many evictees died of starvation and exposure; those who survived relied on parish relief and the charity of others. The three shepherds who tried to defend their town were dragged 48km to Portree, Skye’s capital. Although they were acquitted of assaulting police officers and returned to Boreraig to reclaim their houses, their victory was short-lived. MacDonald returned three months later when the men were away and Boreraig has lain in ruins ever since.
My journey begins at the northernmost tip of the island, Rubna Hunish, a stretch of coast with vast columns of tessellating rock that rise from the ocean like gigantic organ pipes. I walk along the edge of an escarpment that overlooks the Clearance village of Erisco. All that remains are several piles of rocks. Highland cows with floppy folk singer fringes stare at me as I splat over boggy ground. There’s no waymarked route so it’s a case of plotting a path of least squelch.
With the ocean stretching in front of me and Skye’s green and rolling expanse behind, I’m a mere dot in this mystical landscape – not the only dot, for there’s a smattering of white houses bunched distantly against a backdrop of towering bluffs. This marks the beginning of the Trotternish Ridge, a 35km plus series of undulating peaks and steep scarp slopes formed by the overlying weight of lava flows millions of years ago. It’s the longest continuous landslip in Britain and has 2400m of ascent along with some knee-buckling descents. I’ll be getting well acquainted with this ridge tomorrow.
Dusky mist smothers the Quiraing, my entrance point to the Trotternish Ridge. There are some incredibly shaped rocks here. There’s the Prison, a pyramidal peak reminiscent of a mediaeval keep; the Needle, a 37m pinnacle popular with rock-climbers; and the Table, an elevated plateau hidden amongst the pillars and believed to have been used to conceal cattle from Viking raiders.
I’m standing by a windswept loch looking for a campsite amidst the heather. It’s bumpy and hilly everywhere. I end up camping on a patch of dirt on top of shrub roots. Birdsong echoes eerily across the loch. Lonely tweets usher me into a dreamless sleep.
Skye’s geographical location means that during summer months there’s 20 hours of light each day. It’s bright at 4am and my body is keen to rise with the sun. I weave through the Quiraing, a landscape that would have Peter Jackson planning his next trilogy; I keep expecting mischievous imps to jump out from behind rocks and poke out their tongues. The ground falls steeply beside me, running down to lush green knolls punctuated by lochs before rising back up to form the wavy spine of the Trotternish Ridge. After sliding down scree slopes, I perch on a peak and eat two scotch eggs for breakfast.
I’m not sure whether it’s exhaustion or the fact I’ve just eaten an entire block of 85 per cent cacao chocolate, but the psychedelic flashes in the corner of my eyes are a little concerning. Kaleidoscopic colours flit if I move my head too quickly. I’m deliriously dizzy, somewhat faint and have been rapidly engulfed in the midst of a white out. I have to stop every 50m to take a compass reading and ensure that I don’t tumble off a cliff edge.
Eventually the mist lifts and a vast plain filled with peat hags comes into being. I dart down a steep hill, sidestepping tussocks and slumping in a heap at the bottom. It’s taken me 11 hours to cover 24km. I’m at the foot of the Storr, the highest peak on the Trotternish at 719m, and decide to make camp in a bealach (pass) at the base of the peak. From the summit of Storr I spy the Sanctuary, a fascinating series of peculiar pinnacles. The most famous of these is Bod an Stòir, which, literally translated, means ‘the penis of Storr’; it’s more widely known as the Old Man of Storr. It’s impressively erect for an old man’s todger and balances on its perch like megalithic menhir.
Jagged rocks tower and impose as I descend into the Sanctuary. There are boulders everywhere, a sign of recent landslips. I leave the penis behind and track south to Portree, passing the Braes – another place infamous for violence. The village there had already been cleared when landowners barred crofters from grazing their sheep, even though the crofters offered to pay more rent. When they grazed their stock regardless (some refusing to pay any rent at all), Lord MacDonald was on the case once more. He deployed 50 policemen to arrest the crofters. They hurled missiles at the incoming coppers who retaliated with baton blows. In the aftermath, 400 marines were called in to maintain peace. The uprising sparked land reforms that fixed fair rents and gave crofters security of tenure.
It may be peaceful around here nowadays, but I’m presently engaged in battle. Midges are everywhere, rapacious and relentless in their pursuit of my blood. The moment I stand still they besiege every facial orifice, targeting my ears and eyelids in particular. Individual bites don’t hurt, but the cumulative effect of dozens of bites at once is enough to drive me berserk. I’ve been reduced to my former acne-riddled teenage self; red dots cover my face and I look as though I’ve got Midgenpox. I tie a scarf around my face. They fly into my eyes. I open my mouth to swear and they fly in. They even fly into my food; whenever I put my spoon to my mouth there’s at least one kamikaze midge drowning in my muesli. The only way to negate the swarm is to move or else face into the wind. I seek out exposed campsites in my desperation to escape. Consistent wind gusts ping out the odd tent peg or three and there are times when I wonder if I might be blown off the hillside, but anything is better than sharing my site with midges.
I’ve been walking for a week when I pitch up on a gorgeous ridge overlooking Loch Coriusk, which sparkles in the sunshine 300m below. I spin around, awed by the panorama. To the east I have the domed sandstone peaks of the Red Cuillin Mountains. To the north is the bog-riddled plain of Glen Sligachan. To the south, Loch Scavaig’s aqueous sheen extends to the horizon. And to the west are the serrated peaks of the Black Cuillin, touted by mountaineers and hikers as Britain’s most stunning range. Best not to take a compass up on the Black Cuillin ridge however, as a property in the rock causes the compass needle to spin uncontrollably.
Spinning rotor blades circle above my head. I’m clinging to a rock and watch as a helicopter flies close to the peak I’m attempting to summit. I’m heading straight into the guts of the Black Cuillin range. It’s in the opposite direction to where I’m supposed to be walking, but curiosity has forced me to take a detour; I want to see my compass needle go stir crazy.
But there’s a problem. I’ve negotiated a series of ever steepening crags, yanking myself up by using a combination of desperate vegetation lunges and rock holds, but before me is a bone-breaking gap that plummets over 100m below. The Black Cuillin attracts a reasonable number of diehard ridge walkers each year and there are tracked routes up to certain peaks, but I’m approaching this traverse from the south, the back door, so to speak. People with any semblance of sense approach this particular section from the north. My summit mission is going to end here unless I take a leap of faith, one that requires a decent run-up.
I look across at the helicopter, which is hovering over a seriously serrated and impenetrable looking peak. A man shimmies out of the helicopter on a rope. He’s lost instantly against the darkened backdrop of the mountains. I look down at the gaping drop; I can’t see the bottom because the angle is too acute. My adventurous streak implores me to leap, but the ledge is lower on the other side and getting back would be dangerous because I’d have to leap up and hope that I clasp onto the ledge. The invasive chopping of rotor blades scythes through any notions I’m entertaining about taking a leap, so I track back down the mountain.
The helicopter leaves and I’m isolated again. Patches of cloud leave dark Dalmatian blotches on distant hills and a lone birdcall echoes throughout the glen below. I canter steeply down a hill, 300m into a valley where I eat baked beans, tuna and crackers by a cascading waterfall. My simple meal tastes as if a Michelin-star chef has prepared it. Hooves clop on rock and 11 deer trot over the landscape. They disappear over the lip of a hill and out of sight. The sun arcs behind the Black Cuillins towards its midnight descent. Frogs leap around tiny tarns bustling with beguiling flowers. Lochs catch waning sunbeams and the ribbed slopes of Bla Bheinn are tinged gold with the setting sun. An aeroplane flies overhead and I ask myself: Who’s closer to heaven, the plane or me?
Rain renders the horizon a fuzzy grey as I skirt the shores of Loch Scavaig, boulder hopping and darting between shrubs. Progress is relatively easy until I encounter a large slab of rock known locally as the Bad Step. It rises 15m above the water and has a narrow niche etched into its side. There’s no way around it; the only way forward is to slowly inch across the niche, which is just wide enough to accommodate my foot.
I mount the Bad Step, straddling the niche because my pack is too bulky for me to stand upright. The rock is cold against my crotch as I shuffle along. The descent culminates in a small cave opening where my pack scuffs against the rock and I temporarily lose my balance. I clutch onto a hold, my heart pumping hard at the thought of falling into the drink. I can hear the chugging of a boat behind me and it’s not until I rather ungracefully dismount the Bad Step that I turn around to see a boat of tourists staring at me. Apart from the odd lone hiker, I haven’t seen anyone out here in the last week, so seeing a group of camera-toting folks is a little jarring. Even so, I decide to give them a shot for their scrapbooks and so stand with my arms on my backpack straps looking out across the loch, the classic catalogue pose. Cameras click and I laugh at my stupidity, and at the fact these tourists would want to snap a picture of a hairy hiker whose face is covered in red midge bites.
Hiking through Skye has been like tramping through a fairytale. I’ve drunk from waterfalls, explored caves filled with red and green furry rocks that look like they’ve dropped from outer space, and I’ve seen faces of spirits in the mountains. And as I scramble up a scree gully near the summit of Bla Bheinn, it’s like I’m nearing the entrance of a wicked wizard’s castle. This howling wind could be his vindictive laughter, this sideways rain an evil spell and the swirling mist his ghost minions. I’ve aborted my summit attempt because my hands have gone numb and I’m having trouble gripping rocks. I’m disorientated, standing at a fork in the gully and unable to discern which way I scrambled up. One route culminates in a sheer drop off the side of the mountain; the other leads to an exposed, narrow ridge and boulder field and back to relative safety. After a few minutes of deliberation my hands begin tingling so I opt for the left-hand gully. The cloud finally parts and to my relief the ridge appears.
I’ve been wet for a couple of days but it’s still a surprise when water rushes over the top of my gaiters. This is punishment for taking a shortcut, a route that looked innocuous but is turning out to be a splosh-fest. Having descended 900m from Bla Bheinn, I find myself wading along the shoreline of Loch Slapin. Kelp wraps around my ankles and constantly trips me over. Seagulls jeer as I flounder through the water.
Rain pervades the south coast as I walk through the Clearance town of Suishnish, hugging sheer cliffs before Boreraig comes into view. Scores of sheep populate the hillsides and areas around the ruins. Stinging nettles circle the perimeter of most with foxgloves adding a splash of bright pink. There’s sheep shit everywhere and finding a turd free place to camp is proving to be a challenge. In the end I find a spot within the grounds of a ruin; for the first time in eight days I’m sleeping on flat ground. There’s a distinct lack of excrement inside the ruin. The sheep haven’t eaten the grass in here either. My mind jumps to fantastical conclusions, conjuring a spectral caretaker that scares away sheep.
Dusk envelops the ruins of Boreraig. I retire to my tent when darkness eventually encroaches. I’m nodding off to sleep when a clapping noise startles me. For a second I discern what appear to be human voices. I stop breathing and listen. Silence. No other indicators of ghosts lurking within ruins, not unless the sudden chill inside my sleeping bag is the presence of an invisible bedfellow…