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Sconemac's - Skye, In Olden Days

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Scottish History and Culture

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Scottish History and Culture & &

Story of Ancient Skye

by Sconemac

"another page in my book"


Another of my Series on the Celtic Isles -
Nance (Scone)

There must be many who have found themselves in a place where the beauty of their surroundings gave cause to wonder not just the beauty but also the mystery of who lived here. The Isle of Skye is one such place. Skye is dominated by the Cuillin mountains, for many it is a forbidding place from which it is quickly departed. Yet, for me, and I am sure many, the famous quote "Skye is not a place but an intoxication". If you feel this way, your are among the people who love the beauty of the island dominated by the Cullins. Many of us love to walk arund and thru the Cullins, it is a wonderful hill climbing trip as well as beautiful. The island itself conveys all that the island has to offer. Skye is the largest island in the Hebrides, with many unique qualities, and to try to describe it all would take a book. Because I have not the the time for the book at present, I will hope my article will suffice. I do believe the Isle's beauty will require more than one trip.

Skye is the Hero's Isle, abounding in tales of famous characters like Cuchulainn, the hound of Ulster, Finn and his warrior band the Fianna and perhaps most well known of them all - Sgathach (pronounced Sky-ah), the warrior woman who once reigned supreme on the isle which still carries her name. The name of Skye comes from the Gaelic and translates as the 'Winged' isle. Naturally, Sgathach means winged and it can also mean shield. The island was also known as the 'Land of Shadows', and its poetical name which is still used today is 'Eilean a'Cheo', translated as the Isle of Mist.

The Isle of Mist does not simply apply to the weather qualities of the island! The mist, in all Celtic namings, represents an in-between point where journeying between this world and the Otherworld may become possible. As Cuchulainn discovered, any youth who wished to prove their adulthood had to undertake such a journey before they would even be considered worthy of simply being trained by one as great as Queen Sathach, far less being armed as a warrior by her. Cuchulainn did prove that he was worthy and earned his title of 'Chief of the Isle of Mist', but only after he had encountered and overcome many dangers on his journey to the gates of Dun Sgathaich in the south of Skye.


It is Sleat in southern Skye that is considered the land of Cuchulainn and it is here that tales of his exploits are strong. The south of Skye is similar to the south of Ireland in that it is considered to be inhabited by the Older race, who some call Iberians. In Sleat, the Old ones did not go underground like they did in the rest of Skye and for this reason there are no stories of the Sidhe from this area, nor are there any Sidhe mounds to be found. Today there is still a sense of separation between the north and the south of Skye, often reasoned as being due to the difference in blood!

Not far from Dun Sgathach which is now known as Dun Scaith, lies a place called the Wood of Torkavaig. This wood was once an ancient grove named in the Gaelic "Doir'an Druidhean" the grove of Druids. There is a tale which tells of an ancient one rising from nearby Loch an Doirenach, taking the form of a horse and walking to the sacred grove of the Druids, always to be killed with a silver knife. Perhaps this area of Skye had strong associations with the horse, like the people of Kintyre, or in this, the land of the old ones, it is the memory of the way in which the choosing of a new chief was carried out.

A little way away from the grove are the two burial mounds of Inveraulavaig where it is said that 'the great ones of the dun' are buried. As was the practise of the time, not far from this area is the site of an old church. However, Skye seems to have been more fortunate than other places in Scotland in that the churches were built to the side of or a little distance away from the ancient sites rather than on the top. Respect for the old ways remained for a greater length of time on the islands. Beside this particular church there once lay a well of healing and a stone of healing. Unfortunately the well is now dried up but the stone remains.


Heading northward in Skye we come to an area known as the Strath which covers Elgol, Strathaird and Kilbride. The Strath too has its unusual qualities. It is a place that is not considered to be either of the north or south of Skye. The south of Skye has come to mean Sleat of which the Strath is not a part and many of its qualities do not fit in with the qualities of the north. Even in recent times when the north of the island was dominated by the MacLeods and the south by the MacDonalds, the Strath belonged to the McKinnons. This in-between point of the Strath dates far back in the history of Skye. Of all the places on the island, it is the Strath that has the greatest concentration of ancient sites and several stone circles still remain. Like elsewhere on the island, churches are to be found close by and many of their graveyards contain prehistoric stones which are well worth spending time at.

One thing the Strath does have in common with the north of the island is its associations with the Sidhe. It is said that at a place such as Aant Sithe, on a clear moonlight night, the Sidhe can be seen dancing and that those who approach the place with an open mind could catch the music of the Sidhe echoing from the mound. Aant Sidhe is an unusual ancient site, at the centre stands a large stone which now looks like a broken tooth. This stone is surrounded by a ring of stone now overgrown and from this like rays of the sun, run causeways or walls, down the hill and away from the mound.

At the ruins of the old Kilbride church lie the remains of a stone circle and in the new church of Torran stands the impressive Clach na h'Annait, the Stone of Annait, rising some seven feet from the ground with Tobar na h'Annait - the Well of Annait close by. These solitary stones of Annait are found in numerous places throughout Scotland, often on lonely open moorland. If a well is not close by, a small hollow can often be found in the stone for holding water. Annait, like Ioua, is considered to be one of the oldest names for the Goddess.

Beside this ancient stone and the church of Kilbride, dedicated to the Goddess of poetry, smithcraft and healing, once lay Tigh-nan-Druinich, the House of the Craftsmen. This place was once a round, stone house built partially under-ground. The people who lived there were of small stature and preferred solitude and the times of darkness. They were, however, famed as crafts people, producing work of a quality unknown elsewhere on the island.

Approaching Loch Slapin we come to an area of the Strath that has some of the qualities of Sleat in that we find reference to Cuchulainn. A few miles past the Dunach burn we find Clacha Fhuarrain, the Well Stone. This extremely large stone is said to have been deposited there by one of Cuchulainn's companions whilst practising the shot putt! Past Kilmane we come to a stone circle where the old system of justice was carried out. The name now given to the circle is Na Clachan Breithach which means the lying or false stones. However, if we pay heed to the tales we find that they were originally known as the Stones of Wisdom and that they were able to tell of the future as well as show the way of justice between two people.


Heading northwards, we begin to travel the areas of Skye that abound in tales of the Sidhe and their dealings with human-kind. Many of the Septs (families) of the old clans were said to be favoured by the Sidhe, whilst others, through their actions, made themselves hated.

One family favoured by the Sidhe were the MacLeods of Gesto. This came about when one of the MacLeods prevented his men from using the stones from nearby Dun Taimh to build a new byre. Dun Taimh had become a Sithean or fairy dwelling. The Sidhe, on hearing what he had done, showed their gratitude by presenting him with fifty snow white cattle from the sea to occupy the new byre. From these cattle of the Sidhe were bred the pure white Highland cattle of Gesto. Although this herd is no longer to be found on Skye, it is said that some are still to be found in Argyll.

Nearly all the ancient Duns or forts, of which there are many, are said to have been built by the Sidhe of Skye in a single night, particularly those around the coast land in northern Skye. When you think of the many battles that Skye has come through over the centuries, as well as the clan feuding, it must have been reassuring to the people of each of the Duns to know that they had the support and protection of the Sidhe of the land to aid them in times of trouble. Keeping a friendly association with the Sidhe and a knowledge of their coming and going was certainly important to the people of the island. Many places where the music of the Sidhe could be heard such as the mound near the hotel in Broadford and the routes they use to travel back and forth were carefully recorded in memory and passed down through the generations, which is something many of us appreciate today.

In Kilmartin, the choosing of the site of the old graveyard is a tale in itself. Initially, plans were made to site the graveyard on the old burial ground but every time the work was started the men would return in the morning to find all their work undone and their tools moved to a different area. This sequence of events continued for some time until the men decided to find out who was playing such a joke on them. It was then that they realised that the burial ground was being protected by the Sidhe and seeing that the tools were always moved to the same spot, they chose that as the new site for what is now the old Kilmartin graveyard.

Another tale tells us of the consequences of not maintaining good relations with the Sidhe. At one time the people of Borve decided that the Sidhe who inhabited Dun Borve were becoming too much of a nuisance and so contrived to get rid of them. This they managed to achieve by creating a commotion and convincing the Sidhe that the Dun was on fire. However, when the Sidhe realised that they had been tricked, they left the district entirely and the area suffered greatly until it was no longer the thriving place it once was.


As well as tales of the Sidhe, the island has several stories concerning shape shifters like those of 'Airidh mo dunach', the shieling of misfortune. These shape shifters took the form of cats. One night when a young lad was left alone, seven large cats came into the shieling and sat themselves by the fire, talking. Before leaving, the cats took all the goodness out of the milk and butter leaving only the look of it. When the young girls of the shieling returned, the young lad tried to tell them of what had happened but they refused to listen. By the next morning all seven girls were dead.

The people of the Waternish peninsula are also known as 'the cats' - na Caits - and in that area is a cairn, the centre of which is crowned by a long sharp stone somewhat resembling a huge claw. This cairn is known as The Cats Cairn. There are tales too in Waternish of women who could change their form into that of cats, in this case, into large black cats.

Of all the areas of Skye, it is Waternish that is the most forbidding. It was the last refuge for the wolves in Skye and even the folktales of the area are full of horror and gloom. This is perhaps due more to the fact that it is an area strongly imbued with Calvinism which is so is approving of the lighter side of life and views the heritage of the past, such as we are discussing, as something to be despised. There is lso a 'Teampuill-na-Annait' or Temple of Annait in Waternish, so perhaps there was a time when the hidden heart of life here was more joyful.


>I would like to mention something of the exploits of the Fianna on Skye. Of all the folk tales and hero tales it is those of Finn and the Fianna which are perhaps the most widespread. Skye, which was once covered with a sizeable area of Caledonian forest, was a favourite hunting ground of the Fianna. Although, from some of the tales you get the impression that the island was somewhat over hunted by them. One such time when they could not find any deer, Conan decided to search the hills while the rest of the Fianna waited hungrily by the cooking pot on the shore at Kensaleyre. The two standing stones which are still to be found there are said to be the stands for Finn's cooking pot although the pot remained empty on this occasion. There is also Suidh Finn or Finn's seat outside Portree where traditionally Finn sat to direct the Fianna's deer hunts in the Strath!

Final mention should go however to another woman of the Isle, for wherever heroes may travel it is most often after or for the cause of a woman. In this instance though they may wish to never catch up with her, for the other Lady of the Isle is the Cailleach Bhur or Bheira (pronounced Vera). Cailleach Bhur is the hag of winter who stays on the isle while she is washing her clothes in the Corryvreckan. It is said that there is no good weather in Skye while she is there. However, when she washes and puts on her plaid, it is said she becomes the fairest maid of the land, well worth the risk for any would be young hero whilst the maids are following Finn or Cuchulainn!

Presented by Nance
Author, Poet,
source material: H.Skimming 1996 (material she gave me)
Carmichael, and O'Gradys Silva




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