Romance, history, drama, myth, legend, betrayal … Skye has it all. In my heart’s map of Skye, three places shine out with bright bloody ribbons of fantasy and mystery.
First, a fairy tale. According to family legend, there is a flag entrusted to the Clan MacLeod by the fairies. How the flag was given to the family varies in the telling — in some stories, a fairy hears the heir crying in his nursery, and brings him the flag to wrap him in warmth and sings him a song, which for hundreds of years after was sung to all the sons of the family to sooth them to sleep. It is the Taladh na mna Sithe, The Fairy’s Lullaby:
Behold my child, limbed like the kid or fawn, smiting the horses, seizing the accoutrements of the shod horses, the spirited steeds. My little child.
Oh that I could see thy cattle fold, high up on the mountain side; a green, shaggy jacket about thy two white shoulders, with a linen shirt. My little child.
Oh that I could behold thy team of horses; men following them; serving women returning home and the Catanaich sowing the corn.
Oh tender hero whom my womb did bring forth, who did swallow from my breast, who on my knee wast reared.
My child it is, my armful of yew, merry and plump, my bulrush, my flesh and eggs, that will soon be speaking. Last year thou wast beneath my girdle, plant of fertility! and this year fair and playful on my shoulder, thou wilt be going round the homestead.
Oh let me not hear of thy being wounded. Grey do thou become duly. May thy nose grow sharp ere the close of thy day.
Oh! not of Clan Kenneth art thou! Oh! not of Clan Conn. Descendant of a race more esteemed; that of the Clan Leod of swords and armour, whose fathers’ native land was Lochlann.
The flag is one of the heirlooms of the clan, and is on display in the castle — but no photos allowed! The photo on wikipedia does it no justice whatsoever — it’s a pale gold with dots of red embroidery, and gives an impression of delicacy and age.
In another version of the gifting, a clan chief (possibly the fourth chief, Iain Ciar, although I kind of hope not as he sounds like a terrible person) fell in love with a fairy princess and went away with her into fairy land. After twenty years, he remembered his mortal obligations and had to leave his fairy wife behind to return to his clan. They said goodbye on the Fairy Bridge a few miles away from Dunvegan, where she gave him the flag which has the power to preserve the clan in moments of despair three times. We visited the bridge one late afternoon as the sky was misting:
We parked above and walked down to the river bank. The musical trickling of the water and the sighing of the wind through the grasses were the only sounds.
View through the bridge. I can believe this is a fairy portal, can’t you?
From on top of the bridge, the view seen by the ancient chief, as his fairy wife faded back to her dreamland.
The Fairy Bridge is at the base of the Waternish peninsula. Following the road to the tip of the peninsula, you come to a striking cemetery at the end of the world, and the ruins of the Trumpan church.
In 1578, in retaliation for an equally brutal massacre perpetrated by the MacLeods several years earlier, a large group of MacDonalds snuck to the peninsula by boat, barricaded the worshippers in this church — most of whom were MacLeods — and burned them alive.
Here is the stooping door to enter the church. It is the only way in or out, and was blocked and barricaded shut, surrounded by MacDonalds screaming for revenge and murder. Inside, the congregation was trapped, mothers, fathers, children and all.
Of all the worshippers, only one escaped to raise the alarm and tell the tale, a young girl small enough to wriggle through this single window, while her family screamed and burned behind her. Standing in the slanting sun, I felt my shadow was made of the ghosts of those families.
Small offerings are still left at Trumpan church. This reminded me of the small bowl at Odda’s Chapel. How strange we humans are.
After walking through ghosts, letting the wind wipe our eyes here at the end of the earth was a relief. The bloody history of clan warfare in Scotland is less fairy tale, more nightmare.
The history of human habitation on Skye goes back thousands of years — and there have probably been fairy stories and warfare since the beginning. Some of the earliest inhabitants built round stone structures called brochs, which can be found all over the island. We visited one large broch, called Dun Beag, in fairly good repair — for being a couple thousand years old. Just a fifteen minute drive down from Dunvegan, look carefully for the signs and pull off the road — then start walking uphill.
It’s a gentle enough hill, past sheep and ground that manages to be muddy and rocky at the same time. Attackers would not have enjoyed this climb. Once at the top, you see the broch, which would have housed a large family or otherwise allied group focused on mutual protection and prosperity.
The foundation walls are very thick, strong enough to support a tall multi-story structure. (Perhaps four stories high!)
There were even interior stairs built into the broch.
And from the walls, a commanding view of the countryside. The history, purpose, and even the people who built and lived in the brochs is still a matter for scholarly speculation — but they are a uniquely Scottish form of building, and suggest a unique and advanced social structure in place thousands of years ago.
Fairies, bloody revenge, mysteries of human history — and a sky stretching beyond the end of the earth. Is it any wonder I left a piece of my heart wrapped in those bright ribbons on Skye?