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Until 1540, Portree was known as Kiltaraglen. In that year, James V anchored his fleet in the landlocked harbour, and exacted homage from the dissident chiefs. Suitably impressed by this display of military muscle, they did a spot of forelock-tugging and swiftly changed the name of the place to Port an Righ, the King’s Harbour, and Portree it has remained. As befits a mini-capital, Portree has a healthy conceit of itself. Shopkeepers in the tiny main street have been known to refer to customers from the outlying districts as being ‘in from the country’.
Portree lies at the base of the matchless peninsula of Trotternish, which is bisected by the ridged spine of the Storr range and the Quiraing. On the eastern flank, one of Skye’s best-known landmarks, the Old Man of Storr, rises 160 feet high from its seemingly precarious perch on the rim of a corrie.
Seen from the little township of Rigg, this weird rock formation assumes the shape of a huge, cowled figure with a tiny head, doomed to face forever north. When the mist smokes around the Strorr, the Old Man and his grotesquely shaped henchmen acquire the illusion of movement, like ancient trolls suddenly come to life.
Further north, where the line of hills inclines to the west, the cone-shaped peak of Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh Ruaidh, the Hill of the Red Fox, is easily recognizable. The hollow below the hill formed by the drained bed of Loch Cuithir was the unlikely scene of industrial activity in the two decatdes before the First World War, and enjoyed a brief resurrection in the 1950s.
The hidden Table Rock, high among the crags of the Quiraing, was the most popular tourist attraction of all in Victorian days; a constant stream of carriages taking the road from Uig across the hill to Staffin.
More opulent Victorians arrived in Staffin Bay by steam yacht. Whilst servants hefted the picnic hampers, indomitable Cictorian gentlewomen, triumphing over tight corseting and petticoats, toiled up the track to the Needle Rock.
The enormous pinnacle of the Needle Rock screens the entrance to the Table; a smooth stretch of emerald-green turn enclosed by bare rock walls. Clefts in the rock on the eastward side give an aerial view of the little township of Digg far below and the tremendous sweep of the Trotternish coast ranged against the Minch.
The Great North Road, after nearing Rubha Hunish – the most northerly point on the island – dips south, passing close to the storm-swept ridge where the ruins of Duntulm Castle stare forlornly out to sea. The last occupant of this ancient seat of the MacDonalds of the Isles was Domhnull a’ Chogaidh.
The road runs through the croftlands of Kilmuir, corkscrews down to the headland-guarded sweep of Uig Bay, and takes a long detour by way of Loch Snizort before swinging west to Vaternish and Duirinish.
Dunvegan lies between the two peninsulas, and owes its fame to the presence of what is reputed to be the oldest inhabited castle in the British Isles. The dungeon is all that remains of the original fortress. The present building reflects the nineteenth-century taste for ornate, Scots baronial clutter.
Visitors flock to Dunvegan from every corner of the British Isles and every part of the world. The vastly improved Kyle car-ferries disgorge tens of thousands of cars every summer at Kyleakin. But despite such a colossal annual influx, absolute peace can be found once the roads are left for the moors and hills. Too much peace perhaps, as in the little glen of Lorgill; the glen of the deer’s cry.
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