Making his way to the Scottish Isle of Skye, Zack Cahill exercises his right to roam.
“European railways were built for the war effort, you see. So they’re straight, efficient, orderly. Whereas, ours were built by a hodgepodge of Victorian industrialists. They carved the country up between them and laid the tracks wherever they could get the rights.”
This is the man in the booth adjacent to mine. A gent in his sixties, dressed for golf, drawing pictures in the air with great whirling motions. He’s talking to his friend really, but I’m happy to soak up his potted history of the Scottish landscape that’s gliding past our carriage windows. A few millennia ago, a glacier was kind enough to carve this valley out for us. Today the Strathconon Mountains are russet and ochre, carpeted by pine trees, the peaks exposed like the golfer’s bald head. The Loch is a calm, flawless mirror. As the men go on, laughing and arguing like a Scottish Statler and Waldorf, London completely dissolves into the past and I start to relax.
A week ago I’d been sent a YouTube link of mountain biker Danny MacAskill, perched on his bike atop a lethally sharp mountain. With superhuman control, he bounced across this insane landscape – a moving oil painting of burbling rivers and jagged cliffs – before rolling to a stop at a beach and gazing into the sunset. The soundtrack was a lilting Scottish refrain, sung by a woman I wished was my grandmother. “Jesus. I’m going there!” I replied. ‘There’ turned out to be the Isle of Skye, so that’s where I’m heading.
I arrive at my hotel and immediately go for a walk in the hills. I stomp through the woods, aggressively seeking serenity, get a bit lost, briefly entertain visions of going mad and feral, emerging months later covered in heather and midge bites. Then I spot the hotel again. This is why I need a guide.
I meet him the next day: Mitchell, the Skye Ghillie. I spot him the moment I emerge from my room, a neat, fit-looking man in galoshes and braces – arms crossed, exuding confidence and capability. I immediately identify Mitchell as a wrangler of reality, a man who knows how the physical world works. I’ve always admired people like this because I am not one of them.
Traditionally, ghillies acted as attendants on fishing, hunting or deer-stalking expeditions. Mitchell offers all of the above, tailored for the specific needs of Skye’s booming tourist trade. “There’s plenty of deer,” he says. “I’ll take people up to see them, spend hours sometimes waiting quietly for the right shot. Trouble is, folk just come with their cameras now.” Then, with a sigh, “no one wants to shoot anything anymore.”
He tells me ghillies were once deployed for military purposes in parts of the empire. “Why?” I ask. “Because,” he says, starting the engine, “if you can stalk a deer, you can stalk a human.” And with that, we’re off.
The Tao of Mitchell No. 1 – “There are no trespassing laws in Scotland. Instead, we have the ‘Right to Roam.’”
We start with a hike to see an eagle. It is immediately apparent that Skye is drenched in history. Mitchell’s steady narration brings the rolling hills to life, conjuring warring clans, errant princes who couldn’t keep it in their pants and mad cattle raiders swarming over the horizon. Here’s where Bonny Prince Charlie fled in a boat, never to return. Here’s where the last Viking battle was fought, leading to the rise of the clans. All of this is delivered in visceral detail. In the end, we don’t actually see the eagle we’re supposedly tracking, but it doesn’t really matter, I’m utterly transfixed, transported. “
A lot of terrible things happened here,” says Mitchell, brooding darkly, “and now I’m going to add to it.” And with that, he nips behind a tree to pee.
The Tao of Mitchell No. 2 – “Fish have only two jobs: Make baby fish, and don’t get eaten. They’re very good at both.”
Next is fly-fishing. A few pointers from Mitchell and I’m left to my own devices while he gets a fire going. Fishing is every bit as Zen as they would have you believe. A slow, metronomic kind of absorption falls over you. Casting, waiting, watching for the faintest ripple of movement. In the end, I catch nothing, so we hike down to the mouth of the river and take some mussels from the sea. We cook and eat them on the beach, for all I know the same one Danny MacAskill ended up on. We drink coffee and lie in the sun as conversation slows to an amiable crawl.
Me: “What do you think of Ray Mears?” Mitchell: “Hero.” Me: “What about Bear Grylls?” Mitchell: “Shite.”
“Mitchell’s steady narration brings the rolling hills to life, conjuring warring clans, errant Princes and mad cattle raiders swarming over the horizon.”
The Tao of Mitchell No. 3 – “The Celts were the only ones mad enough to settle in places like this. ‘What’s the weather like over there? Crap? Let’s go!’” But the weather behaves for Mitchell and it’s still warm and sunny as I say farewell and head back to the hotel for a whisky in its warm little hug of a bar.
The next day I’m due to go climbing. I open my curtains to sheets of horizontal rain. When my instructor Matt tells me the climb is off, my heart does a little backflip. A day of reading and sipping wine by the fire as rain lashes at the windows sounds just about perfect. “But don’t worry,” says Matt, “we’re going to go coasteering.”
An hour later I’m putting on a wetsuit in a car park. I stare at the icy water, the gunmetal grey sky and the huge waves breaking on the rocks and think of that cozy little bar longingly. You can imagine my surprise when coasteering turns out to be the best fun I’ve had in a long, long time. It’s essentially a mad mix of climbing, swimming, diving and taunting death. You pick a section of coastline and work your way around it, scrambling over rocks, jumping off cliffs and swimming through caves.
I’m positively toasty and feel like a superhero trussed up in my wet suit and protective gear, an impression that’s enhanced when I hurl myself off a ten-foot cliff into the choppy sea and emerge heroically to cheers from my team. Afterwards, Matt and I visit a café in a spectacular house by the coast. A striking, angular piece of sustainable architecture with a turf roof that blends into the surroundings, it sits low on the hillside at the island’s northern tip. We dip great hunks of crusty bread into thick vegetable soup and chat between mouthfuls.
“What made you come to Skye?” he asks. “There’s this video,” I say, “have you heard of a guy called Danny MacAskill?” “Aye, I was his guide for the video.”
You hear a lot about the Scottish national character: tightness, gruffness, melancholy – I experienced none of it. My impression is of a culture of finding satisfaction in the simple things. No eagle? Who cares, check out that view. No fish? Here are some mussels. Weather too crap for climbing? Then we’ll hurl ourselves boldly into the freezing ocean… and it will be brilliant. I hope to take a little of that attitude home with me. I could do with it. We all could.