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Fri 25 September 2020
24 Apr 2008: A welcome jaunt over the sea to Skye
24 April 2008
A welcome jaunt over the sea to SkyeA welcome jaunt over the sea to Skye

This article was published by John MacLeod in his Daily Mail column, April 24 2008, and is reproduced here with his kind permission.

As the Grangemouth refinery teeters on the brink of shutdown, panic-buying and desperate queues besiege every other Scottish filling station.

Diesel now retails at £1.33 a litre in the Uists and a terrified cousin cancels a plan to borrow my ancient little dog, lest she use up precious fuel coming to collect it.

But it is the first true, balmy, scented day of spring an almost a relief to have a tankful of fuel for that most familiar run from Edinburgh to the Outer Isles, by way of the M9, Callander and Crianlarich, Glencoe and Lochaber, from the ominous flares of Grangemouth past the snowy heights of Ben Nevis.

We forget, sometimes, just how affirming and pleasant a good drive can be. Preferring the Harris to the Stornaway crossing, I have various options for getting to Skye - the pleasant drive to Mallaig and its ferry, or the more tedious run to Kyle of Lochalsh and what is now a toll-free Skye bridge.

But the bridge is boring and, having endured the latest set of protracted prodigious roadworks on the Mallaig highway for last weeks southern sprint, I elect at Glenshiel to take the scenic route over Mam Ratagan to Glenelg and the little ferry at Kylerhea.

Granted the time and inclination, this detour through Tolkienesque terrain, by a steep, winding and exciting road, affords a real sense of entering the mystic West.

By forest and dark, rushing burn, by knots of shy primrose and the blue haze of forget-me-not, by birches clouding in the first budding of spring and by mighty, Wagnerian pines, the road up Mam Ratagan climbs and climbs.

Traffic is sparse and , as the trees clear, one of the most magnificent mountain prospects in Europe opens about me. At the summit, ample car parking allows you to stop and drink in a vista of peak, glen and summit. Loch Duich and Loch Alsh glitter below, with a dozen peaks surging into the Highland sky.

The descent into Glenelg (which is not only a village but a palindrome) acquires even more skill than the first, dizzying climb, but it is a pleasant, pastoral place at the foot of a great, fertile strath. So I follow the road to the right, up and down, by twist and turn, and finally take the last hairpin bend down to the sturdy slip by the boiling, restless tide of Kylerhea.

While it may not be the most convenient, Kylerhea ferry is the oldest and quickest passage to the Isle of Skye, the straits being only 300 years wide and with very strong eight-knot currents. A little seasonal car ferry has run here since 1934.

It has never made anyone rich, and it is now in the second year of community ownership. After initial anxiety - once tolls disappeared from the bridge at Kyleakin - it seems to be doing rather well. And the sturdy little Glenachulish, built for the Ballachulish run in 1969, is the last of the quaint turntable craft once ubiquitous in the west Highlands.

One does not come by Kylerhea for speed. One comes for the experience: a taste of an old unhurried way of Highland life, and the beauty of gaunt mountain and swirling sea, the plop of an otter and the distant, curious stare of the odd passing seal.

The Glenachulish always seems to be over on the Skye side when I arrive, she will sit there for ages, on a contented chog-chog-chog of diesel, her vehicle deck thrown over the Kylerhea slip like a friendly elbow.

But she will come eventually, surging over the sea, trembling and rocking for a minute or two, where the current is strongest, until she shakes it off and glides in to greet the latest tourist.

But something new has materialised by the Glenelg jetty - a miniature lighthouse, its doors flung open, friendy signs pinned up in greeting. Stiff and parched from the drive, I amble over to investigate.

In fact, it is an ex-lighthouse recast as a coffee-bar. A fat Thermos of best ground, and another of boiling water, huggle inside with a selection if biscuits (to say nothing of car stickers, leaflets and minor souvenirs).

More remarkably, it is unattended. Coffee costs £1.20 and I leave the fee in an 'honesty box' - a Tupperware vessel, at first not easily found. It is such a gesture of trust, of civility, I could weep.

The coffee is both fresh and delicious. I perch on a convenient boulder to enjoy it and entertain friendly collie who is nosing around the slip. Thre is a venerable tradition of a jolly sheepdog on the Kylerhea ferry and this year, in fact, there are two, for another will bound off the Glenachulish 20 minutes later to supervise the ropes.

Tourist standards generally in Scotland remain woefully low. Fortunately, this is not such a place. This is the Kylerhea ferry, on a balmy April afternoon in 2008. It is self-evidently an enterprise of quiet, human decency - and I am glad.

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