We always turn on Radio Gael when driving around the Isle of Skye. The soft sounds of Gaelic tug at ancient language memory while the music sets the mood for a trip through this savagely beautiful land. Can I hear shades of my Irish great aunts or my Scottish mother in law’s mother talking to me through these mists? Can music evoke melancholy and joy simultaneously? Will my grandchildren recognise these sounds or connect to these places in the same way? I rake over the same old thoughts when travelling through these Celtic lands.
We follow the single track to Elgol: it’s narrow, meandering and at times slightly threatening and takes you through the dark, alarming mountains that rise nearby, the Black Cuillins. Two small tourist boats await at the end of the road- the only way to visit Loch Coruisk. The boat trip, although a bit primitive, is worth it. The photos below take in some of the sights along the way. So close to Skye and the Scottish Highlands yet out of this world.
Today, dear reader, we will be travelling by car to the remote north-west of the Isle of Skye, to my favourite restaurant of all time. Come along and tell me what you enjoy the most.
The Three Chimneys Restaurant has always been famous and deservedly so. It is situated nearby a Loch in Corbost near Dunvegan, in an area that is surrounded by cliffs, green wet hills, sheep and distant white stone houses. Despite its rural location, it is well-known and popular so a booking was made many months in advance.
Inside the metre thick stone walls, even at lunchtime, the lighting is moody and dark, and a small candle glows in the nearby fireplace. A beautiful smiling woman who looks uncannily like Geillis Duncan brings bread. Her eyes sparkle, and her sweet sounding Scottish accent is beguiling, while the breads take me back in time. Freshly made each day, there are three different types- seeded, dark and oat coloured. They are soft and evocatively celtic, and come with different butters, one containing salty sea flecks of dulce seaweed. More arrives without question.
More courses arrive, mysterious little bowls of land and sea, brought by the amber haired Geillis. For me, a Peat Smoked Haddock Ravioli, leeks, a quail egg with Smoked Sea Dashi, the latter poured at the table by a chef’s assistant, transports me to another heaven.
For main course, we choose beautiful seafood caught from that Loch just outside the window. For me, a roasted Salmon with fennel, Sconser scallop and lemongrass, and for him, the Three Chimneys Seafood Platter, consisting of West Coast Chowder, Dunvegan Dressed Crab & Langoustines, Sconser Scallop, Loch Harport Oyster, Lemon Mayonnaise and Bridget Glendale Salad.
Some things never change. Shirley’s signature dish, the Three Chimney’s Marmalade Pudding with Drambuie custard, is still available. We first tried this in 2000 and even though I vowed to make it at home, I never did. It was time to try it again. The weather in the Isle of Skye goes very well with an old-fashioned pudding, a traditional ending to a modern Scottish meal.
As I wandered out to the bathroom, I noticed three long hooded capes hanging on pegs. Simple in style and made from Harris Tweed in muted tones, I’ve been dreaming about those Hebridean capes ever since. I wonder if I’ll return to the beautiful stone buildings of Corbost, the Lochs and the green hills, the sheep on roads, the superb but invisible attention, and the glorious food of Three Chimneys, and to Skye, my beloved Skye.
The Three Chimneys has been named UK Restaurant of the Year for 2018. It won a similar award when we visited in the year 2000. Booking well in advance is essential. https://www.threechimneys.co.uk/
For many years, I’ve dreamt about returning to Elgol, a remote village near the black Cuillins on the Isle of Skye. During a previous visit 17 years ago, Elgol became a fantasy village promising isolation, a place to write that novel or master the fiddle. During a recent return visit, this time for a longer look around and a boat trip across the sea from Elgol to Loch Coruisk, I finally put that fantasy to rest.
The road to Elgol is a single lane narrow road with plenty of passing places: it can still be quite alarming during the high tourist season. Most side roads off the main route are similar: the combination of distracting scenery, concentrating on the hairpin bends and tourists who are unused to driving on the left hand side, makes for an ‘interesting’ journey at times. There are, fortunately, many wider verges for the obligatory photo snap.
There’s not much in Elgol itself, just extraordinary beauty. Most visitors come to take a boat across the water to walk around Loch Coruisk. Two companies run boats which leave from the small harbour in Elgol. If you go in August, expect to book your place as these trips are popular. The trip takes around 30 minutes each way and includes 1½ hours stopover on the island for exploration. One boat has some covering for inclement weather, the other, run by Misty Boat Tours, the one we chose, has none. Be ready to get drenched en route if you choose the latter. There’s no shelter on the island, except for a small bothy used and paid for by trekkers, and no toilets or trees! The boat you travel on departs once you have disembarked. This is a journey for those who are happy to experience the wild and are prepared to rough it.
If you don’t like walking on rocks and boggy grass, you would be better taking the tour minus the stopover. Grass and bog are an ever-present feature of walking in Skye, requiring waterproof walking shoes, waterproof jackets and a sense of adventure. The rocks, fortunately, are not slippery when wet, making walking up steep surfaces quite safe. Wild beauty comes at a price.
One of the most common complaints of the traveller is the dearth of vegetables served along the way in any type of eatery, cafe, restaurant or pub. Despite veggies being in vogue, we don’t see many on the plate, other than a token salad or a potato, the latter usually in the form of the dreaded chip. After 6 weeks on the road, we were longing for our own apartment or little house, just to be able to cook a pile of vegetables, a soup or vegetable bake, as well as catch up on some washing. It’s rather ironic really, that these simple domestic tasks become so overwhelmingly desirable when you no longer have them.
Our first pot of soup, a leek and potato soup, seemed fitting for our little kitchen in Aberystwyth, Wales. Our York apartment, a spacious Ikea fitted out place in a converted office building, provided the means to cook, but as we were also visiting friends that week, we had little chance to use it. My dear friend JA made some wonderful salads and dishes loaded with veggies from her Lottie ( affectionate English name for an allotment garden), the most memorable dish being her Summer Pudding, filled with plump, ripe blackberries picked from verges, along with raspberries and blueberries cured inside a mold of organic white bread. Ecstasy. There’s an art to making these carmine concoctions that taste like berry velvet.
Now that we’re in Skye, our little stone cottage by the sea has enabled some real cooking to take place. But first, before driving across to the island, we did a big veggie shop in Inverness. Vegetables are much cheaper in Britain than Australia, so long as you stick to seasonal ingredients that are locally grown. My big bag of vegetables, including a cute Wonky cabbage, cost very little, necessitating a few little add ons, such as box of raspberries, some odd looking flat peaches, French butter, lovely cheeses, some Scottish and others a bit too French, and of course, a bottle of single malt whisky. All in the name of keeping up with the locals, of course. Or as the late Angus Grant, fiddle player from Shooglenifty would say, in the only words I have ever heard him sing, ‘Suck that mother down,’ during his live solo on the tune ‘Whisky Kiss.’
Wonky vegetables are NQR shaped produce, an idea that has also taking off in Australia. We don’t need perfectly shaped vegetables thankyou, and we definitely don’t need them wrapped in plastic. Most of my bargain veggies came pre -wrapped or bagged in acres of plastic. I’m wondering if the ‘War on Waste’ campaign is happening in Britain and Scotland. The other aspect I found unusual about the local supermarkets was the volume of pre-prepared foods. You name it, it’s available, pre-cooked and ready to ding. Fish cakes, fish pie ingredients, including the sauce, pre-cooked mussels, all sorts of meals, mash, even mashed swede. I’m not sure that Jamie Oliver has made much impression on the English diet.
I was hoping to find a farmer’s market on Skye to supplement these goods. It turns out that farmers markets are quite rare, but then given the climate, I can understand why. We found one at Glendale in the north-west of Skye, a longish drive. We arrived early to find 7 stalls huddled together against the wind: one lady had a pile of fresh organic chicken carcasses for stock, another chap had one small bag of rainbow chard and black kale, nearby was the cucumber specialist, with two kinds on offer, on another table were a few carrots and apples and further down a lady with some sticky buns. And in the midst of all this I found the lady from Tinctoria, a specialist hand spinner and dyer from these parts. She has been hand dyeing since the 1980s and grows her own herbs to make the most extraordinary colours. Needless to say, I wanted them all.
My vegetable stash is lasting well. In my Skye kitchen I’ve made lentil and vegetable soups, swede, onion and Orkney cheddar bake, pan scorched green beans with garlic and lemon, ( loving the very skinny beans here), caramelised whole shallots in olive oil, butter and beetroot glaze, Cullen Skink full of undyed smoked haddock, pasta with veggies, mushroom risotto, cauliflower cheese and loads of salads. My cooking has taken on a distinctive Scottish style- the view outside my kitchen window, the rain and the ever-changing Skye light having a profound effect on my cooking and pastimes. It’s odd, given my gypsy tendencies, how homely and settled I feel here.
Fat Raspberries, sweet and seasonal, lead to the obvious choice of dessert- Cranachan- except that I was rather heavy-handed with the single malt and the toasted oats. It ended up more like an alcoholic breakfast. Mr T has promised to pick some neglected black berries along the verges, down near Maelrubha’s well; before we leave this special place, I’ll try to make a more restrained blackberry version.
I could go on and on about the wonders of Skye and how inspired I feel here, but I’ll save it for another time, another ramble into the mist. The media file below depicts views from our cottage. It’s hard to stay sane around such ever shifting beauty.
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Every evening in the gloaming, this lone chook comes down to the beach to graze on the machair and dig about in the seaweed. And then she wanders back home. I want her eggs.
I’ve thought long and hard about how to write about Skye, and about that young girl, Marion, who left here during the clearances 180 years ago, and the voices that I hear down by the stream of Maelrubha, the Irish red-headed bald monk who came to preach to the Picts in 671 and the healing water of his well. And about the Norwegian Viking princess who was buried, along with her servants, on top of a stark mull in the Cuillins, and of the warrior queen, Scáthach the Shadow, who lived in the Dunscaith castle on the edge of wild sea at Toravaig in Sleat. Legendary figures surround me, they seem to live and breathe.
I am struggling in my search for superlatives: none will do. My English language doesn’t fit this place: it’s too modern and limited and fails to describe what I see. Older words portray these land forms and features, some of them still in use today and if we say them aloud, we might hear our ancestors speak. This is a land of heather and bracken, of cairns, crags and tors, forges, braes, straths and burns. The colours of tartan are spread across rock cuttings and moors, colours mixed by rain and light: heather with burnt orange bracken and oat, scree with mustard seaweed drying at low tide, lichen on birch, black slate and rowan berry. Sometimes the heather is dun, sometimes purple and pink. These are the colours of hand dyed wool woven into the plaid of old.
When it rains, which is often, the Isle of Skye weeps from every cranny. In the mountains it floods with tears as waterfalls rip and carve great channels through these bald hills. The roadside verges gently seep. Black rock faces flash wet glint, the burns and creeks darkly rush. Tread lightly on the sodden machair, that deceptive verdant sponge by the sea, now solid grass, now quagmire, now submerged. The sun appears in the late afternoon, a watery limpid glow that seeks out new colours of the evening. Rocky crags, hidden by morning mist, appear as if a new day. And then in late summer, that mystic light returns as the gloaming beckons, inviting exploration before the tide and the night come rushing in.
From Breakish on Skye. Skye fills me with yearning. More words will come.
Mr Tranquillo’s post on Skye is here. His great grandmother, Marion Grant, left Breakish on Skye as a young child during the Clearances, travelling to Australia and eventually marrying Alexander McKenzie from Ullapool in the Highlands. Their children never returned to Skye, but all their grandchildren and some of their great-grandchildren have. Speed Bonny Boat.
Lists of English words with Scottish Gaelic origin.