I’ve often wondered how I would cope in an emergency — be it terrorist attack, natural disaster or alien invasion. Would I step up to the plate, undaunted by the task before me, or lie down and play dead in the vein hope that the shooter/lion/zombie in pursuit might leave me be and chase after fresher fare?
I found out on Wednesday when esteemed film critic, faithful travel companion and designated driver Paul fell down a hill. We were on Skye, admiring a standing stone on a small hillock overlooking the town of Dunvegan, almost at the end of the two churches walk, when he lost his footing and landed badly on his left leg.
Considering that we had less than a year ago walked ninety-six miles through the Scottish Highlands, we had foreseen little difficulty in a 45 minute jaunt through some woods; but severe weather conditions marked by horizontal hail and punishing winds turned what would otherwise have been an amiable stroll into a treacherous ordeal. Looking back, we never should have left the car.
There was something about the noise he made, the pained expression on his face and the awkward way in which he supported himself afterwards that told me it was serious. At first I thought he had injured his back and that we — erstwhile mountain men — were going to die of exposure on a measly incline five hundred yards from one of the island’s larger settlements. He would bleed out or go into shock or catch hypothermia or something and I would fret myself to death watching.
Instead, his leg had taken the worst of it. I remembered that I had paracetamol in my pocket and handed over a couple of pills, relief giving way to reason as I attempted to formulate some sort of plan. Write HELP in the snow and wait for assistance? Run down to the village and ask an adult to take over? When he managed to stand, however, we decided to hobble for his life. We had passed a small police station on the way in, and would seek information, hot drinks and a ride to the nearest hospital within. We would live.
It was slow-going, obviously painful work as we made our way first to the ruins of St Mary’s Church for a much-needed lean and then to the A850 back into town. At least, it was when Paul wasn’t sliding down on his backside in a surreal show of delight, which I immediately misdiagnosed as delirium. I would tell the nurse at the A&E about this, I thought, along with the excitable “Weeeee” that went with it. Eventually, we sighted the police station around the corner, and limped over to the door. Our salvation surely awaited.
Locked. No answer. Empty. Though a police car still sat in the driveway there wasn’t the slightest response from within when I rang the doorbell — first politely and then aggressively. Huddling in the doorway for some semblance of shelter, I took the non-emergency number off of an information display, cursed our terrible luck, and started dialling. I was quickly redirected to NHS24, who over the next hour quizzed me and then Paul on his symptoms and our general situation. The phone call became increasingly less fraught as I ruled out protrusions, deformities or even bruising.
We were told that there was a hospital in Broadford and a minor injuries clinic in Portree, but that we weren’t to drive. I was placed on hold while she attempted to make the necessary arrangements, only to be told that she could not provide a taxi number and that, anyway, the clinic in Portree wasn’t currently manned. Leaving Paul to speak with a nurse she had tracked down, I set off in search of ice with which to soothe the wound. Although unable to help, one B&B owner suggested that there was a health centre a few miles up the road that might have gel packs. I set off on foot.
Having been advised that Paul should be seen in the next four hours, I gave myself a few moments along the way to pause and appreciate the scenery. First blinded by hail and then blindsided by disaster, I’d not really noticed just how spectacular the view from Dunvegan was — overlooking as it does both MacLeod’s Tables and Loch Dunvegan. We hadn’t even been on Skye for 24 hours at that point; arriving by nightfall and taking our time over breakfast, this was really the first either of us had seen of the Isle. It was sensational. I took many, many pictures.
Minutes later Paul pulled up in the car, having been told by the NHS that, oh, come to think of it, there was a medical facility just down the road. He felt safe to drive such a short distance, and moments later we were sitting in the waiting room while the receptionist arranged for Paul to be seen as a temporary patient. Naturally, at this point the winds died down and the sun came out, presumably affording even greater vistas with an increased visibility that might have revealed the formidable Cullin mountain range somewhere in the distance. Still, it was nice to be warm and safe — the kind staff at Dunvegan medical practice having immediately put our minds at ease.
We made it back to the hotel — the idyllic if slightly idiosyncratic Skeabost Country House — and while Paul iced his injured leg (thanks again to our endlessly accommodating concierge) and dosed up on prescription drugs I set off on a path along the Snizort River in the hope of seeing a little more of the island before sundown. The hail had resumed, this time in tandem with rain and snow, but I made it to the hamlet of Kensaleyre just in time to catch a glimpse of Loch Eyre in the afternoon sun between cycles of sleet. Satisfied that I had seen at least some of Skye that day, I returned to the hotel for dinner and — tired after a long day’s lifesaving — an early night.
Unfortunately, while far from life-threatening, Paul’s discomfort was debilitating — and was undiminished on Thursday. He faced an arduous and at this point plain ambitious 224 mile drive back to Glasgow the following day, with weather conditions looking about as unfavourable as his physical ones, and regretfully decided to rest up while he could. Having done all I could think of, and after offering to restock on over the counter painkillers while in town, I caught the noon bus to Portree — the largest town on the island. Having apparently blown itself out overnight, the storm was nowhere to be seen as I made my way up to the main road.
We had passed through Portree the previous morning on our way to Dunvegan, but only to stock up on supplies at one of Skye’s many, many Co-ops, where we queued behind a surprising number of locals looking to buy alcohol literally the moment it was legal to do so (which in Scotland is after 10am on a weekday). Portree, however, had much more to offer than 2for1 on wine, and though entering its limits with the feeling that I had compromised on the otter haven or coral beach I was soon convinced that I had made the right decision. Portree was amazing.
I wanted to do the Scorrybreac Circuit, but gave myself an hour beforehand to explore the town centre, harbour and bay, and to buy a pack of paracetamol for Paul. Located, inevitably, on Loch Portree, the town at low tide overlooked a spectacular array of pebble-dash estuaries to compliment its rocky outcrops and near panoramic views of craggy cliff-faces. Loch Portree is almost fjord-like, and feels about as removed from the fishing villages of east-coast Scotland as it is possible to get without actually travelling to Scandinavia. It’s glassy surface, broken only by bobbing fishing boats, was almost perfectly serene, incongruously so against the drama of the headland reflected in it.
I followed the Staffin road over the harbour and along the peninsula, transitioning from road to gravel path at a boathouse belonging to Portree Sailing Club. It soon left the shore and climbed up the lower levels of Ben Chracaig, first to a small memorial and viewing platform — looking out over the harbour to Ben Tianavaig and the Isle of Raasay –and then along a precarious elevated path carved in places out of the cliff. Still a little shaken by the previous day’s events, and with the already blinding sun reflected unrelentingly in the glassy loch, I proceeded with increased caution as I navigated the boulders, puddles and snowdrifts that lined the way.
The guide book teased white-tailed eagles, seals and dolphins, but strain as I might I couldn’t see anything of interest moving either above or below the water. There was life on the loch, however, with fishermen heading out to a salmon farm dwarfed by Rhuba na h-Airde Glaise — an eminence which played with perspective and left me kneeling in a mixture of exaltation and existential angst. In addition to the sheer size and scale of it, the fact that it was powdered in snow only added to the immensity and impressiveness. Luckily, I could only imagine what it would have looked like reflected in the loch. I left with most of my sanity intact.
Though the route required me to, I couldn’t quite turn my back on the scene before me, and as the track zig-zagged up into the foothills I turned at every opportunity to enjoy a slightly new perspective on the spectacle — and scan for dolphins. Determined to return to the coast at the earliest opportunity, I took a detour at Torvaig but was forced to turn back when large storm clouds formed in the distance. Thankfully it never came to anything, and I was able to enjoy unimpeded views of the Cullins as I made my way back to Portree for coffee and carrot cake at Granary Restaurant and Coffeeshop before my bus back to the hotel.
Naturally, Paul was disappointed that he had been unable to accompany me to Portree, and though not wanting to rub it in I couldn’t completely conceal my enthusiasm for the place when I met him for dinner at our usual table in the Blue Lounge. The next morning then, before leaving Skye, I returned with him to the harbour to take photos within hobbling distance of the car. Little did we know, however, that as incredible as the views of the mountains opposite were — particularly as low-lying fog obscured their true height — they were to pale in comparison with the scenery awaiting us on our journey to the Skye Crossing.
As aforementioned, we had arrived on Skye in the evening — by ferry from Mallaig — and had therefore found our way to Skeabost in the dark. Although blind to the forbidding beauty of the Cullins, we had nevertheless been aware of their presence as we passed by. Although not conscious of it at the time, we had completed that part of the journey in silence, with respect and reverence, as if for fear of waking sleeping giants. The darkness, and the fog that reinforced it, seemed almost pregnant with their power. And by day it’s really no surprise — they’re positively Lovecraftian. We had reached the mountains of madness.
As a passenger, I spent the entire return journey lost in the landscape. While nothing quite lived up to the awesomeness of the Cullins, the scenery leaving the bridge was still awe-inspiring. We stopped at Eilean Donan, the most photographed castle in Scotland; we followed Shiel River through the snow-laden highlands, where we passed more deer than cars; and we drove through Clen Coe, where we were overtaken by a Hawk jet as it thundered through overhead. We made pit-stops at Kings House Hotel and The Green Welly Stop, landmarks from the West Highland Way that were rendered almost unrecogniseable by the snow. Even Fort William benefitted from the wintry weather and its powers of concealment.
It was an unforgettable few days, for reasons both good and bad. And while Paul might remember the trip slightly different than I do, having spent a sizeable chunk of it in the hotel room, he can hopefully take some solace in the fact that he was present for many of the best bits: Glenfinnan Viaduct on the way there, Portree in the morning sun, and the Cullins, Glen Coe and Kingshouse on the way back — not to mention that he saw deer and eagles galore. He should also rest assured that he overcame great physical difficulty while still remaining excellent company, in no way spoiling the trip or undermining my enjoyment of it. We were never going to see all Skye had to offer in three days. We only saw what we could.
And anyway, we can’t all be heroes.