Whenever during the past couple of years that my wife Denise or I told someone, indeed anyone resident on Skye of our intention to move up to the island, we were met with the same response. That being a knowing, even pitying look and a single inquiry: 'Ah, but have you done a winter yet?'
Now that we are actually here full-time, the subject of our impending first full winter on Skye remains the staple of the majority of our interactions. Why just this week I found it cropping up in a conversation I was having with someone of an otherwise entirely positive and well-meaning bent. Apropos of nothing we had been talking about to that point, I was informed that my inaugural Season of Doom [or at least words to that effect] had in fact already begun. 'And we'll no be out the other side till next April,' was the conclusion to this forebode-some statement, 'and that's if we're lucky.'
We are, of course, right now still in the midst of September. And at the precise time that this exchange took place, most of the rest of the country was basking in and/or enduring some of the hottest temperatures ever recorded in Britain. But then, on Skye that very morning dark, ominous clouds had settled low over the island and an ill wind soon blew in - these were 'blowy' conditions in local parlance; or 'Hurricane Rob Roy' to a lily-liver-ed Englishman such as me. And then the rain came. The mere word rain, in fact, does not in any way accurately convey the deluge that assailed us for the next couple of hours.Suffice to say, it was of the same awesome nature and elemental force as the one that had Noah reaching for his hammer and nails.
It was then that I grasped a single, salient point which is this: winter does not mess around on Skye. Or indeed hang about. Quite simply, for us this year there will be no gentle transition through the russet colouring of autumn. But rather an abrupt, 'move directly to Go' race towards frigid bleakness and a wild unpredictability that will make the act of opening the curtains each morning a nerve-jangling experience and one pregnant with possibilities.
As recently as last November, Storm Abigail tore into Skye from the Atlantic and for several consecutive days blew out pretty much all of the island's electricity supply. Schools were closed, local businesses rendered impotent and people from the more remote areas, which is most everywhere, had to be bused into the capital Portree for hot meals and a shower.
Upon hearing of this last act, I felt the comfort of a warm inner glow. It is wondrous to me that an entire community should rally around in such a way in the face of adversity. And then again, and from a perspective shaped exclusively by naked self-interest, I found it utterly re-assuring. For should the same fate or one similar befall these parts any time soon, then my wife, children and I will still be able to depend upon certain creature comforts without the expectation - and it would be a forlorn one indeed - of me 'going Grylls'.
In these initial weeks I have as well acquired other welcome snippets of information and learning. For instance, and thanks to our young son Tom's twice-weekly lessons at school, I now know that 'Am faod mi a dhol dhan ttaigh-bheag?' is the Gaelic for: 'Can I go to the toilet?' Potentially life-saving knowledge in a future tempest, no. But a blinder to be able to pull out of one's back pocket during a keenly contested game of Trivial Pursuit: Hebridean Edition.
Speaking of all things Hebridean, may I also draw your attention to the unfettered delights to be had from a daily study of the sightings board to be found here: http://www.whaledolphintrust.co.uk
Right now, I cannot think of too many things that are more pleasurable, or thrilling than being able to follow the progress of an Orca, Minke Whale or 'Unidentified Baleen Species' north from Bara to Uist and on to Lewis, giddy all the time with the anticipation of one or other then tracking west towards Skye and uninterrupted passage through the Sound of Rasaay. The Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust is obviously the preserve of very good souls.
I have now also come to appreciate the spectacle of Shinty. A sport unique to the Scottish Highlands, there appears to be a Shinty pitch in every town, village and settlement in the region, no matter how small or forbidding the terrain. Our youngest Charlie has just started to play Shinty at school and has been in raptures about it. This is not wholly surprising since in total Shinty seems to this uninformed observer to be a combination of the best bits of hockey, football, British Bulldog and the sort of school playground set-to around which kids traditionally gather and shout, 'Fight! Fight!'
To further Charlie's appreciation of his new pastime, and since one of his school pal's dad's was turning out, the other weekend we trooped off to see Skye's second XI take on Fort William. Shinty is played at a ferocious pace, the ball sped from one end of the pitch to the other with great skill. Often, players clout it overhead and with the narrow ends of their sticks. Doing so in such a maelstrom I can only approximate to having to thread the eye of a needle whilst being repeatedly punched in the face.
We enjoyed ourselves tremendously. Charlie's wee friend's dad less so, since his Skye team were vanquished 3-2 in a white/bare-knuckle contest. Furthermore, he was unable to play much part in the unfolding drama. Ten minutes into the first half and in a typically juddering clash with his direct opponent, he had his collar bone snapped and had to be rushed off to hospital. Fearing the sight of this might have upset Charlie, I turned to put a comforting fatherly arm around his shoulder only to find that he was already re-enacting the offending tackle with near-psychotic glee. Clearly, the Shinty force is strong in this one.
For me, though, the most pleasing development of late has been the extent to which the words of my good friend Neil are being daily borne out. As at the very last minute I vacillated over the wisdom of our imminent move north, Neil it was who gave me counsel. Sagely, he pointed out that it was entirely natural to be struck by a form of terror when one arrived at the metaphorical edge of a cliff, but that my fears would subside no sooner had I steeled myself and jumped. It is Neil's words that I have come back to on the many good days that we have been blessed with so far.
And a good day here can be founded on the turn of a corner that then allows the aspect of an expanse of deep blue ocean. Or, as was the case two evenings ago, a brace of Sea Eagles soaring like aerial barn doors between the twin peaks that flank the entrance to Portree's natural harbour. At such times, it is all but impossible not to slip into a state of grace and feel fully at one with the world around and about. Or, put another way, to start spouting hippy-dippy-sounding babble.
I went into just such a reverie on another afternoon last week and when Denise and I were visiting an existing house similar in siting, scale and make-up to the one that we are due to have built. There we were, wrapped within the womb of a single-storey, Larch-clad home perched upon a hill that loms over the picturesque town of Staffin on the island's east coast. Two floor-to-ceiling windows running the length of the building allowed us to drink in the view; rugged green, yellow and brown-hued moorland dotted with snug white dwellings; a cobalt Atlantic ebbing to all points of the horizon. The sun even peeked out from behind porridge-grey clouds and the overall effect was glorious, spell-binding, like a first kiss.
Afterwards, we drove back down the hill and to here:http://skyepiecafe.co.uk/ - one of the many treasures that we have already discovered. The good news is that the Pie Cafe is open till November at least. And as I sat there, tucking into a curried lentil creation so divine I could have bathed in it, my abiding thought was this: come on then winter, do your worst...
This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:
The Peatbog Faeries - Tom in the Front. And for more on Skye's finest go to: www.peatbogfaeries.com/