The sun, the earth, love, friends,
our very breath are parts of the banquet.
—Rebecca H. Davis, 1831–1910
Mention Scotland and, for many, the image of a kilt-clad Mel Gibson is immediately evoked. While few countries are more closely identified with their national dress, I found that the thread that binds the fabric of life for the Scottish people I met is the land itself.
A profound appreciation for that affinity washed over me on the Isle of Skye as I stood atop 180-foot heights, enveloped in spray from a spring-fed waterfall tumbling over the precipice to the sparkling waters of the Atlantic below. In the whipping wind on the very edge of the Trotternish Peninsula, I felt exhilarated and giddy, as though I was soaring above the brink of Time itself.
My guide Rob brought me back down to earth, pointing out the striations in the cliff face stretching out below us. He told me that we were standing on Kilt Rock, named for the impression of pleats created by the vertical columns of basalt over horizontal strips of grey and white oolite. Rob explained that the tight formation of pillars lined up in a precise row inspired the tartan pattern worn by clan members from Skye.
Rob gave me my first lesson in Highland dress, telling me that the distinctive look legions know today from Braveheart came into being only in the nineteenth century. Originally the attire was a single piece of woven wool completely encircling the body and tied at various points, including with a brooch at the shoulder. Even the socks of that era were made of the same material and attached loosely to the legs.
According to the Scottish Register of Tartans, there are 6,424 official tartans in existence. Rob was in fact sporting a kilt of his own, wearing a pattern specially commissioned by the Scottish Tour Guide Association two years ago and manufactured by Kinloch Anderson, kilt makers to the Royal Family. The STGA tartan is designed to incorporate the colors of the Scottish flag – blue and white – together with the green of the Scottish landscape and a gold hue signifying a royal heritage.
I came face-to-face with an imposing aristocratic presence when Rob and I rounded the next bend in the road. Ahead of us, two massive flat-topped hills presided over the landscape, which Rob told me were known as MacLeod’s Tables.
“According to legend, the Chief of Clan MacLeod was invited to a banquet by King James V in Edinburgh–a routine evening that did not impress the chief greatly,” Rob said. “He decided to show the King what a real banquet was like and invited him to a sumptuous feast held on the lower of the two flat-topped mountains, known as Healabhal Mhor. Clansmen stood round the edge of the plateau holding torches–what a sight it must have been! History does not tell us whether James V wore thermal underwear or not – because he surely would have needed it!”
I later learned of an older legend associated with the imposing mounds, relating to St. Columba, a Gaelic Irish monk who spread Christianity across Scotland during medieval times. It’s said that when Columba arrived on Skye, the hills had pointed summits, but when the saint was not offered hospitality by the locals, divine intervention led to the leveling of the hilltops, providing Columba with a bed and table.
Prominent Skye resident Shirley Spear provided a more scientific — but poetic–description of the terrain.
“The island is a geologist’s paradise, a treasure box of rocks and minerals from many ages and some of the best examples in the British Isles of specific geological events,” she said. “There are examples of some of the oldest rocks on the planet dating back many, many millions of years. The dramatic landscape that we enjoy now was shaped and formed by a myriad number of significant geological ‘shake-ups,’ the results of which can be clearly distinguished within this one tiny, but remarkable, part of the world.”
“The geological landscape has influenced the distribution of plants and animals throughout the island too,” she continued. “Events over millions of years have been fundamental in creating the varied natural history of today’s unforgettable, living landscape.”
Shirley offered a 10,000-foot view of the place she calls home.
“The Isle of Skye is a surprisingly large island. Shaped like a giant bird soaring from the northwest coast of Scotland, it is protected from the wide open seas of the Atlantic Ocean by the Outer Hebrides and The Minch. Skye has many miles of deeply indented, rocky coastline. The Sounds of Sleat and Raasay and several deep sea lochs, such as Loch Dunvegan, surround sheer cliffs, jagged mountains, and volcanic rock stacks. Heather-clad hills and grassy moors, steep glens, hidden lochans, tumbling waterfalls, rivers and sparkling mountain burns – all of these things make up the beauty of Skye. Woodland walks, wayside wild flowers, birds of all kinds, wildlife on land and sea – these beautiful sights and sounds complete the magic that captures many hearts and soothes the souls of visitors from all over Scotland and far around the world.”
“The weather on the Isle of Skye is usually pleasant and mild, even in winter. The worst weather usually brings gales and heavy rain, but these storms create some of the most dramatic, visual scenes as waves crash upon the rocks and clouds scud across the sky. Sometimes visitors claim to have experienced every kind of weather in just one day! The changing weather patterns produce wonderful cloud formations and fantastic rainbows, plus a rare clarity of light beloved by the many artists who live and work here. It rarely snows, although snow can be seen on the mountain peaks well into May and June. Whatever the weather, or the time of day, the outlook ranges from heavenly calm, to wild and dramatic, from sunrise to sunset, moonlit nights and starry skies.”