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Over the sea to Skye

Karen Thorburn

Since re-locating to the Highlands six years ago, I’ve made hundreds of journeys up and down the A9 and the Highland Main Line, to keep up with family and friends in Perth and Edinburgh, and to honour work commitments in the Central Belt. I nearly always tackle the journey in one go, setting the cruise control if travelling by car, or loading up my laptop on the train, focused on getting to my destination with as few interruptions as possible.

As I mentioned in my last article, setting aside free time for myself has become something of a challenge over the last couple of years. I’m trying to build in more ‘me time’ on a daily basis to address this imbalance. With this in mind, I detoured through Newtonmore and Kingussie on my most recent drive north and enjoyed a flask of coffee overlooking Ruthven Barracks; a landmark I’ve passed hundreds of times but had never previously taken the time to visit. The result? A more memorable car journey; a welcome break from the monotony of the A9; and inspiration for one of the themes in this article.

Kessock Bridge, Black Isle, 1991

Pausing for a coffee break at Kingussie last week prompted me to reflect on changes to the communities between Perth and Inverness following the completion of the ‘new’ A9 in the 1970s and ’80s, and the bypassing of small towns and villages along its route. Clearly, destinations such as Aviemore and Pitlochry have continued to thrive, but I can’t help but wonder about less frequented places.

With new roads come new bridges. Living on the Black Isle, my husband and I are dependent on the Kessock Bridge for quick and uninterrupted access to the Highland capital of Inverness. The bridge opened a few years before I was born but I’m always fascinated by the way of life that must have existed before its construction, when ferries operated between North and South Kessock, and when the Black Isle peninsula surely must have felt like an island. Other bridges throughout the Highlands pique my interest too, such as those at Ballachulish and Kylesku; communities where the construction of a bridge marked the end of one era and the beginning of another.

Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, Kyle of Lochalsh, 1995

One bridge whose construction I can recall is the Skye Bridge. In the summer of 1995, my family ventured north for a caravan holiday at Balmacara and Portree, as construction on this crossing, linking mainland Scotland and the Isle of Skye via Kyle of Lochalsh and Kyleakin, was approaching completion. With this example, I don’t have to speculate. I can remember the ferries operating to and fro across Loch Alsh. Nowadays, when travelling, I’m grateful for Skye’s accessibility. I always get a thrill when driving over the bridge, cresting its arch and momentarily taking my eyes off the road to glance at the view northwards to the Skye Cuillin, and the distinctive flat peaked summit of Dùn Caan on the neighbouring island of Raasay. I’ve even had the pleasure of sailing beneath the bridge a few times.

The opening of the bridge in 1995, and the subsequent scrapping of the controversial tolls in 2004, has undoubtedly boosted the economy of Skye but, in my opinion, this has come at a price. There was something magical about the ferries, now replaced with deserted slipways and silence, save for the hum of traffic crossing the bridge. In the same way that I’ve lost out on new experiences by not detouring from the A9 on my way to and from the Highlands, maybe we’re all missing out on our journeys to and from Skye; time to pause, stretch our legs and savour the moment before leaving the mainland or island. Of course, sailing over the sea to Skye is still possible via Glenelg or Mallaig, and highly recommended.

Skye Bridge and Eilean Bàn

If you’ve been following my writing, you’ll know that I lost my dad to cancer just over a year ago. In recent months, I’ve been reading about and reflecting on grief, trying to make some sense of the journey I’m on. One of the themes I’ve uncovered and experienced first-hand is how grief can make a person return to their roots. I take comfort from perusing old family photographs and feel an intense longing to return to the places I visited when I was growing up, not to mention the sense of freedom I took for granted back then. I’ve always been content to be in my own company. However, nowadays, more than at any other stage in my life, I crave peace and quiet, and quality time alone.

Kyleakin Lighthouse, Eilean Bàn

Despite living in the most sparsely populated region in the UK, finding solitude can sometimes be a challenge. The Highlands have become noticeably busier during my lifetime. Inverness is one of Europe’s fastest growing cities; there has been a growing trend towards ‘staycations’ in recent years, with more Scots holidaying in Scotland; and, over the past four years, the creation of the North Coast 500 route has resulted in a tourism boom in Inverness-shire, Ross and Cromarty, Caithness and Sutherland, attracting visitors from around the world. Skye too has become something of a mecca, and locations such as the Old Man of Storr, Neist Point and the Fairy Pools are now so accessible and so popular that, for me, their appeal is lost during the ever-lengthening tourist season. Whilst I’m delighted to see others appreciating the places that have inspired me since childhood, I find myself having to probe a little deeper into the landscape to experience isolation.

Sometimes even the smallest of detours can reap huge rewards. One hidden gem I’ve uncovered on my recent travels is Eilean Bàn, the island linking the two sections of the Skye Bridge. Whilst exploring this six-acre island on a sunny afternoon last year, I was able to ‘tune out’ the rumble of traffic overhead and immerse myself in the idyllic surroundings: a quirky wildlife hide overlooking the shoreline; the modest 21 metre high Kyleakin Lighthouse; and the old lightkeepers’ cottages. One of the cottages is a museum to former resident, author and naturalist Gavin Maxwell, who owned the buildings in the 1960’s, after leaving Sandaig (between Glenelg and Arnisdale), immortalised as Camusfeàrna in the best-selling book, ‘Ring of Bright Water’. As I followed in the footsteps of Gavin Maxwell around Eilean Bàn, I was constantly aware of the juxtaposition between the busy modern trunk road overhead and the unchanged peaceful surroundings beneath it.

A tiny island in Loch Alsh is a world away from Kingussie and Newtonmore in the landlocked Cairngorms National Park, yet both these recent experiences serve as gentle reminders to enjoy the journey and perhaps be less focused on the destination; a metaphor for life itself. People talk about ‘moving on’ but, for me, that isn’t an option. I’m mapping a way forward by building a bridge between my old life and my new one, always carrying memories of a lost world very close to my heart.

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