Last September, my friend Lucy and I spent spent a few days on the Trotternish Peninsula on the Isle of Skye. We were lucky enough to be shown around by Angus Murray and his partner Janet; Angus works for Druim nan Linntean, Skye Ecomuseum – a ‘museum without walls’ in the crofting community of Staffin. Lucy and I came home to Argyll energised and grounded; we called this ‘the Staffin effect’ which continued to reverberate – emotionally and imaginatively – throughout our long wet winter.
The Staffin effect was a combination of inspiring and lively company, thoughtful conversation, and of walking, being and exploring in an extraordinary landscape.
John O’Donohue, the late Irish poet, priest and philosopher, describes his home landscape of the Burren region in Ireland, and its limestone forms, as ‘waiting like a huge wild invitation to extend your imagination’ and as having ‘an ancient kind of conversation between the ocean and the stone.’ The landscape of the Trotternish Peninsula, with its Jurassic cliffs reaching from the Old Man of Storr to the Quiraing, its pinnacles and dykes and green-grazed hollows, crofting townships and moors, is a very different landscape to that of the Burren’s, but one where your imagination is also invited to let loose; the surreal shapes of the landforms, the winds carrying the scent of more and sea, and the communities both past and present, all kindle the imagination, the emotions and the senses.
What a place.
I’d been a tiny bit reticent about going to this north west corner of Skye as it’s so popular with visitors, but DUIM is doing very fine work in sensitively managing tourism: signage that informs on culture and geography and that blends with the landscape; visitor facilities that are as unobtrusive as possible, using vernacular corrugated iron cladding, following contour lines and being mindful of skylines. Even in the most popular visitor attractions, if you do want to get away from other people you never have to step far off the
beaten track to find quiet, and paths mostly only followed by sheep. There is space for everyone, and room to breathe, to dream, to think.
From the heights of the Storr and the Quiraing the land slopes down to the coast, through cleared townships and feannagan, through wild honeysuckle and hazel trees, to where conversations are occurring between sea and rock; at low tide fossils reveal themselves in all their sea-shone splendour. Famously there are fossilised dinosaur footprints along this coastline, and fossilised dinosaur bones have been found there. Easy to spot are the myriads of Belemnites – dynamic powerful shapes – and the elegant curves and swirls of ammonites, (believed locally at one time to be tups’ horns in the rocks). The coastline is dramatic, moody, beautiful, and fizzing with fossils. Lucy and I, Angus and Janet, sealed our sea-conversations with a Sunday morning swim with wild swimming group ‘Staffin Seals’, an experience that gave us a deeper sense of the vibrant and welcoming community living in and around Staffin.
I was so smitten that I visited the Trotternish peninsula again in February with two other friends. It was an invigorating week of strong winds that never let up. On the Quiraing we were completely alone except for a buffeted minibus of Japanese tourists, who laughed and tumbled their way to the viewpoint, bare legs glowing, face masks trying their best to break away. Then we had the Quiraing to ourselves, ourselves and the sheep who were good markers of where the sheltered spots were, and the ravens who were calling their intimate, pebbly, courting conversations, who peeled off the cliffs like blue-black shards. Our thoughts turned to the war stirring in Ukraine, and in the shelter of rocks we drank tea and counted our blessings, our hearts aching for peoples’ suffering, wishing for the world to pause, step out of the furore, take a breath, to imagine a different future and new ways of being. John O’Donohue suggests that landscape is just as much alive as us humans, but in a different form. This was easy to believe, as we sheltered there in a world of
ancient lava flow, our hearts full of gratitude – for our own safety and for this place – as ravens dazzled us with their courtship displays, and the wind silenced us, and our imaginations turned somersaults.