Last week, I pointed out that every place in the Isle of Skye has a story attached to it (this could be said to be true of the entirety of Scotland, but we’ll leave that for now). This is true not only of the small hills – like in the Fairy Glen – or of solitary rocks – like the Old Man of Storr. It’s also true for some of the most imposing of Skye’s landscapes: The Cuillins.
The Cuillins (koo-lins) are a series of mountains that run through the heart of the Isle of Skye. Most people know about them for their trails for hiking and scrambling (an extreme form of hiking that requires hikers to hold on with their hands for dear life as their feet inch their way along a six-inch-wide path overlooking the chasm of doom). People come from all over Europe to go hiking in these mountains, which are generally considered Britain’s only true mountains. If you come to the Isle of Skye by car from the mainland, you’ll see these mountains as you head north to Portree. Really, you won’t be able to miss them.
There are two types of Cuillin. The Black Cuillins are so called because they’re – surprise! – black in color. The Red Cuillins are so called because they’re – even bigger surprise! – red in color. The sister mountain ranges sit across the River Sligachan from each other, staring each other down. The Black Cuillins are bigger and craggier than the Red Cuillins, which are more newbie-hiker-friendly.
Like with so many other peoples, the people of Skye have a story about how the Cuillins came to be. Long ago, Cailleach Bhur (Hag of the Ridges; a poetic, if pejorative, name for winter) came to the Isle of Skye from far in the north. She was a right mean old hag, and she’d spread her white washing out all over the island to dry (in other words, she made it snow). The people had no way of getting rid of her, and even the forces of nature had to team up with each other to oust her from her abode on the island.
Spring was in love with a fair maiden, and she loved him back. The only problem was, Cailleach Bhur held her prisoner and made her to help with her washing. Spring fought and fought with the old hag, but could get nowhere. Finally, he appealed to the Sun for help. The Sun shot down his fire upon Cailleach Bhur, forcing the ground to rise up around her. She escaped from the island, but the landscape was forever marked with the memory of the fight she’d had with the Sun: The Cuillins.
There’s another story about a really cool woman named Skiach. According to one legend, it was from her that the Isle of Skye took its name (others say that it comes from a Norse word for ‘cloudy,’ but that’s not as good of a story). Now, Skiach was a warrior woman. No man could vanquish her. She set up a school at her home in the Cuillins, and taught others the art of fighting.
One day, a rather haughty young man from the mainland came to find Skiach and challenge her to a fight. He was the best fighter in Scotland (or so he thought), and he was going to beat this woman who was challenging his title. So, pick a fight with her he did.
The fight lasted for a day and a night, and another day and another night. Neither one could gain the upper hand. But before you write off Skiach for not being able to vanquish this man, remember that women aren’t supposed to know how to fight at all, let alone on par with men. At the end of the second night, they called the fight a draw, and agreed to come to each other’s aid whenever their help was needed. So it came to pass that Scotland’s most powerful man made an alliance with Scotland’s most powerful woman, together as equals.
After Skiach died, legend has it that a monster moved into her mountain home. So, maybe Nessie has a friend hanging out in the Cuillins, just waiting for her to come over for a playdate.