The Isles of the Blest (Skye)

Helen was the last baby born in the Hospital on the Isle of Skye before they closed the maternity ward. And Helen is a young woman now.   She’s our cabdriver on Skye.  Today, expectant mothers now have to drive three hours to Inverness to deliver babies.  (Skye has a bridge to the mainland.)  With consolidation of rural healthcare in Britain’s National Health Service a lot of medical things that used to happen on Skye now happen on “the mainland” of Scotland.  Maternity closed, then surgery, now the local hospital is more like a clinic.  This sounds familiar.  It’s the plight of rural health care in Alaska.

Another similarity is the debate over farmed salmon only their debate came out differently than ours.  As we sailed into Skye, along some beautiful bright green coastline coastline, we see round salmon pens.  Helen doesn’t like them, they put small fishermen out of business.   “It’s all big business, they’re putting the wee fishermen out of work.”  Her uncle was one of them.  She is not the only one with doubts about salmon farming.  Earlier in the day we took a wildlife cruise on a small boat and the operator said that there had an outbreak of lice in the pens.  He claims that the salmon farmers are using rats to control the lice.  “They eat the lice.”  I don’t quite understand how this works, do they set the rats in the water with the fish?

We are in the Hebrides, “The Isles of the Blest” in Stan Rogers’ song “Giant.”  The “Isles of the Blest” of “the fortunate isles” are also mentioned in Greek Mythlogy.  And while these are fair green islands, they do not meet the description of the Greek Elysian Fields.  But they do seem like islands that can give rise to the giant Fingal.   Songs make me want me to travel places.

I always look for similarities with Sitka when I visit other islands.  While Skye has many fewer trees, it is green and often rainy, although today was partly cloudy with bits of sun.  Skye is at about the same latitude as Sitka, 57 degrees North.  It’s tide range, from spring to neap is a few feet larger than ours.  Skye considers itself isolated but unlike Sitka you can drive off the island on a bridge and daily buses can take you to Inverness and Glasgow.  But like Sitka its local buses don’t run on Sundays.

Which is how we met Helen.  We had wanted to take the bus around parts of the island but being Sunday, we couldn’t.  We didn’t want to book another Holland America tour and all the taxies on the island were booked, each and every one — booked by shipmates long before we landed.  So, we got off the ship, wandered around Portee, the “wee village,” the main town on Sky and then walked back down to the harbor and found a skipper taking people out wildlife watching.  We chose to go out on a boat named “Stardust II,” not wanting to chance a ride on “Brigadoon.”  We couldn’t afford to get back 100 years late.  We would miss the last tender to Prinsendam.

Our goal was to spot the rare sea eagle.  It is the closest cousin to the American Bald Eagle, but has about a 2-foot wider wingspan.  It has a white tail but no white head.  In flight I could not tell the difference between their eagle and ours, except we have far more of them.  Portee has one breeding pair, and they are excited about the birds’ return and the new chick.  It is on the highly endangered list.  The skipper threw out a fish to try to entice the eagle to swoop by but the bird was not interested. 

But we did run into a pod of dolphins that played around the boat for a while.  Finally, the skipper took us to a haul out for harbor seals.  Seeing Skye from a small boat is the right way to appreciate the island.

As we got off the boat, we saw a man unloading his catch of crab.  Later Helen asked us if he was loading them into a red van.  He was, she said “Oh that would by my uncle on the boat and my cousin driving the van.”

We found Helen because there were no buses.  After the wildlife watch we walked up to the tourist center and asked them if any of the cabs were free, we figured some of our cruise mates who booked cabs for the morning would run out of steam by noon.  We were right.  Louise in the tourist office called Helen, she had two hours free before another booking, a standing Sunday order, so and we were off.  I asked Helen if it was her cab.  “No, it’s my aunts.  My cousin and I are the drivers.”  It turns out Helen is related to everyone on Skye.

We drove north along the east coast of Trotternish Peninsula through lush green countryside stopping at waterfalls, scenic overlooks with rock formations “See that one looks like an old man.” Or “that one looks like a kilt.”  Skye people have vivid imaginations.  But if that one rock formation were a kilt it would have to be for a giant.

We passed through several villages.  Unlike the villages around Sitka you can reach these in a cab, or if it wasn’t Sunday on a bus.  “This village has a nice tea shop but it’s closed on Sunday, the people are very religious.”  The road was filled with day trippers out of Portee and camper vans from “the mainland.” Aside from fishing Skye’s economy is based on tourism, like Sitka’s, and on sheep raising, much unlike Sitka’s.  I guess there are no bears here.

But like Sitka locals are sometimes annoyed by the cruise ship folk.  On our two-hour ride with Helen she kept getting a call from the same lady, a local, needing a cab.  “No, I’m on a tour now, perhaps in two and a half hours.” Ten minutes later, “I’m still on the tour, and after that I have a booking.”  She called 5 times while we were in the cab.  “I’m sorry, as I said, I’m on a tour, have you tried Brian?  No, I can’t look up his number for you now, I’m driving.”   Helen said the woman also called while we were out of the cab taking a “wee look” at “the kilt” rock formations.  As we got into town the woman called again. “I’m almost back, but as I told you I’m booked at the end of this tour.  Can we make it 3:30?”  Clearly the local woman did not like tourists taking up “her” cab.

Helen dropped us in the town square where there was some Sunday afternoon fiddle playing.  We got an ice cream cone at a place Helen recommended and got back to the square just as the musicians packing up.

Isle of Skye

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