There’s an old Scottish legend that tells the story of a giant who was buried in the earth and his thumb can still be seen today; if the legend is to be believed then it means that the Old Man of Storr in Scotland’s Isle of Skye is, indeed, that thumb. Giants feature quite frequently in Scottish folklore; myths and legends surround the country that I call home - no more so than in the Highlands.
Myths and legends can be elaborate stories that we use to scare each other as kids or ways in which we allow our imaginations to be let off their sane leashes. But what if that giant really did exist? If he really did exist then it would be correct for me to say that I climbed a giant’s thumb this month. That sounds so much more impressive than saying I went on a 4 hour hike, so yeah… in my story, the giant did exist and I climbed that giant’s big old thumb!
March 7th 2017. My Californian friend, Sarah, was in Scotland for the first time and I wanted to show her as much of the Caledonian land as I could. Shamefully, I had never taken the 5.5 hour drive to the Isle of Skye before, so now seemed like an opportunity for us both to tick it off our ‘places I’ve been’ lists.
To say a place is magical is mockingly cliche but Skye is one of those places that really is magical in the truest sense of the word; otherworldly landscapes, temperamental weather, dinosaur footprints, and mythical stories all help to create this Island of history where the air feels different and you get to feel like you’re just a bit closer to life’s meaning.
The Quiraing has become a famous hotspot for landscape photographers and tourists to take images of epic sunrises and sunsets. Of course, the day that we went it was during a storm. Horizontal rain, gale force winds and sinking mud beneath our feet. I drove to the highest point that you can take a car and couldn’t open my driver’s door - I’m not exaggerating, I put my full weight on the door but it wouldn’t open due to the strength of the winds outside. We were in completely open space, I won’t lie - it was kinda scary. We both climbed out the passenger door and were faced with breath-taking winds, I mean literally, I could hardly breathe. I ran over the muddy marshland to the edge of the cliff that we were on and had my first ‘almost heart attack’ of the trip when the wind lifted me from the marshland and put me in the air - did I mention I was on a cliff edge? I quickly decided that I didn’t want to end up like that giant just yet and made a swift 180 to run back towards the car. Sarah and I took some photos at a safer distance from the edge and were able to lean-back while the wind held us up - naturally when you feel like you’re King of the world, we loudly shouted “woohoo” into the unfolding landscape and took the obligatory selfie.
Later on back at the B&B, our host advised us that many people get stuck on the Quiraing when the weather is that bad and need airlifted back down. I nervously laughed and now realised what the ‘Keep walking, keep helicopters in the air’ stickers on the Quiraing meant.
The Old Man of Storr (or “The Old Man at the Store”, as Sarah thought it was called) was where we encountered our next near death experience. The hike took us around 4 hours in total, partly due to us veering off-course and partly because we were stopping to take photographs of the stunning landscapes surrounding us and really just to enjoy what felt like a different planet. The full hike was around 5 miles and I could feel my recently underused muscles aching, it was almost inevitable that I would have the pulled thigh muscle for the descent - perfect. The ascent on the Storr is pretty steep and the land soon turns to mud and uneven ground. Sarah and I detoured to reach the main pinnacle (the giant’s thumb) and were soon faced with snow covered rocky ground where we had to scramble. I felt unprepared for this kind of hike but kept going because I had the mission in mind to reach the pinnacle. The wind began to pick up and we were exposed to it; with every gust we could feel ourselves being pushed. Sarah sat down, I pondered and decided that ‘nope’ we shouldn’t continue. I think we were around 50-100 yards away but there was no clear path and the risk level was too high. Later, we spoke to a couple of people who informed us that it’s a risky scramble and the weather conditions made it unsafe. Having this confirmation made me feel a bit better about turning back but, of course for any hiker, the disappointment lingers.
We continued our hike to the cliff edge. Again, we had to stop 100 yards from the cliff edge because the wind was just too strong. It was pushing against us and I wouldn’t want to imagine what could have happened had it done that while we were at the edge. While pondering what to do, one of the RAF’s typhoon jets flew over us; it’s roar pierced through us and it was really low, so low it felt like we could touch it. We took a couple of quick photos of it. Sarah’s face was fantastically funny when she first heard the jet, unfamiliar with their training in the Highlands - she panicked; those things are loud!
Have you ever read Scottish folklore? You should. It’s quite interesting. Along with giants, fairies tend to appear a lot in Scottish legends. I don’t mean nice little Tinkerbell-esque fairies; these ones are mean and trick people. And so the story goes:
A man who walked up the Storr every evening with his small wife found one day that they had grown too old and his wife could no longer climb to the top to join him. The fairy folk who had watched them go up every evening, offered the old man the chance to always have his wife with him wherever he went. The old man accepted the offer but the fairy folk tricked them and turned them both into pillars of rock, ensuring that they would indeed always be together.
It fascinates me that, whether you believe these stories or not, they still have the power to enchant us; they allow our minds to think about things that surely can’t be real?
We were en route back to our B&B on our second day in Skye when I decided that it was too early to call it a day and felt that we should keep the faith that the weather would perk up - it had been pretty miserable thus far.
I drove us to Fairy Glen, an area in Skye with haphazard cone-shaped hills and rocky peaks that look like ruins - one of which has inexplicably been called ‘Castle Ewen’ (it’s not a castle and is a natural formation). We were faced with little definition in the skies and minimal light but the experience always come first and the photography second so we were happy to just enjoying our hike and view the awe-inspiring landscapes that surrounded us. As if by magic (remember this is a magical place?) the sun showed it’s face for 20 minutes and blessed us with stunning rays of light that completely changed the look and feel of the whole landscape - cameras at the ready! There is a ritual at Fairy Glen to walk in the spirals laid out by rocks and drop a silver coin in the middle for luck, when you’re somewhere as mysterious as Skye, you follow these ‘rules’ and so we completed the ritual with a Spanish group that we met along the way. I’ve since been told that some locals don’t like these rock-formed spirals, so I apologise to them.
On our way back from Fairy Glen, we were presented with an epic sunset; the perfect ending to an emotive trip.
Thank you to my good friend Sarah for all of the laughs and for making my first journey to Skye a memorable one - we were definitely Skye High!
Myth, legend, and folklore; landscapes that make you feel inferior, views that take your breath away, and weather that no one can predict. This is magical. This is the Isle of Skye.
Until we meet again… (if you’ve read the folklore about the priest and the devil, you’ll understand).
Check out some of the photos from this trip here.