Search for a Name (The McNicols of Skye)
Trip Start May 23, 2004
17Trip End Ongoing
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Where I stayed
As all good adventures should, my journey began with a teary au revoir to a beautiful girl, Janine, in Manchester (she had to return to Aus for work), followed by a train to magnificent Edinburgh and then the Scottish City Link bus for the long hall to the Isle of Skye
Arriving at Skye with no accomodation and few clues I decided to jump off the bus at Kyaelaken, just on the Skye side of the bridge from mainland Scotland, where I knew there were three hostels. Here my search for my ancestors met its first trial, I had stumbled upon the modern version of Skyes Faerie Glade where time has no meaning and no mortal man can leave, the lounge and fireplace of Skye Backpackers Hostel. My one to two nights extended daily as I made more friends, drank more Isle of Skye Scotch and spent long nights soaking up the fire warmed atmosphere.
Eventually some friends leaving for a highland games at beautiful Loch Carron (about 20mins from the Skye bridge by train) dragged me back to the outside world. A day of bagpipe music, atheletics, highland dancers and the highlight of the legendary strong man events culminating in the tossing of the caber reminded me of my quest and I summoned my will and left Skye Backpackers.
The bus from Kyaelaken to Broadford dutifully arrived and dropped me off on time, however the Broadford to Portree bus failed completely to arrive (this would not be the last time during my stay on Skye). It seems that despite the timetable posted on the bus stop, and available from all the tourist offices, the bus is about as real as the Faeries. It is lucky that it is relatively easy to hitch on Skye and a good Scotsman from Glascow picked me up and proceded to ask many questions in an accent I simply couldn't understand
The following day in Portree I awoke to another day of rain and headed to the Portree tourist office. They gave me some more information left by the Clan and sent me to the McNicol Clan lands at the north end of Portree. This windswept but wildly beautiful hill (open to the public) was recently purchased by the Clan and is topped by the ruin of Scorrybreac House, the old centre of the McNicols on Skye. An exciting experience for me I returned twice and felt a strange connection to the place. However, dissapointingly this was a dead end in my search for information on the roots and glory of the Clan McNicol. I knew little more than before, that we had been a small clan stuck helplessly between the McClouds and the McDonalds in their endless wars for Skye. No castles, no power, just a windwept house on a hill that was reputed for its hospitality! Nice, but not what I was seaching for, where did they come from before the nice house on a hill? I rang the clan secretary in Edinburgh but he was away and his wife couldn´t help. I decided that the only way forward was to relax and wait for a sign from my ancestors. The local pub and a few tennants ales with a new Irish friend called Art seemed the perfect place.
Luck was working for me however, and I did not wait long for a sign, after returning from the pub Art and I decided we should finish the last beer I had in the fridge and the hostel owner came in to chat. I told him of my goals and he said that he'd been working in a town in the North of Skye called Flodigarry that was a Nicholson town, and also had a hostel with a magnificent view over the ocean to the Western Highlands of Scotland.
My faith in always finishing that last beer and my trust in fate restored, I headed North for two magic nights at Flodigarry Hostel and a great day hike along the volcanic hills of the Quirang with some commanding views of Skye (Good day hike info for this and other hikes is available in Portree tourist office) but dissapointingly no further useful answers to my enquiries
However, as in all travel adventures, chance worked again in my favour in quite an unexpected fashion. A new message came to me from my ancestors through a German called Jochen who told me tales of another land to the west, the Isles of Lewis and Harris in the outer Hebrides. The romance of deviating even further from the Edinburgh, Kyaleaken, Loch Ness tourist circuit was too much and I decided to head west to a place I am embarrased to admit I had never heard of till this moment.
I returned again to Portree and then took the early bus to Uist in the North of Skye to catch the ferry west to Trabert, the small capital of the windswept Isle of Harris in the Hebrides (check out www.visithebrides.com for more information). Arriving in Tarbert it was a three hour walk to the hostel I had selected in the tiny villiage of Rhenigidale (Click here for info on Rhenigidale Hostel). There is a hostel in Tarbert but something was pointing me to Rhenigidale and I couldn´t be ignoring signs at this late stage in my search. The path lead over a mountain pass and then down, up and down again past some very beautiful coast and moutain scenery for about 10kms as the crow flies. It very quickly started to rain and blow, hard. The path turned into a stream and I rapidly discovered the advantages a crow flying has over a tired backpacker in the rain with three days worth of food in his pack
In about four hours I arrived drenched and tired in Rhenigidale to find the hostal abandoned save for an elderly English traveller with a white beard offering me a cup of tea. This was now getting far too much like a mythical quest! However, the tea was most welcome and we quickly made friends. The simple and friendly hostel warden came before long (I half expected a dwarf or faerie but he was from all outside signs firmly homosapien) and took great pleasure in showing me how to light a coal fire properly. My wet clothes were soon sizzling as I sat in the warmth with a second cup of tea and a book on the Hebrides my new English friend had lent me. I flicked through the interesting pages until something special caught my eye, it was a history of the Clan McNicol! I paused in disbelief, and then read on. As I read I discovered that my ancestors had been sired by a Norse Gaelic tribe called Nikael back when Viking kingdoms ruled the Hebrides, later this Clan had changed names to McNeakal, a gaelic version of the name and had ruled the Northern Hebrides, and even had a castle! Over time their dominance was lost as the McClouds from Skye came to power and eventualy married into dominance over the McNicols. I believe the castle was later destroyed in a war between the McClouds and the Scottish throne. The McNicols then spread out over the McCloud lands of Skye and the Hebrides for a few centuries before they were scattered over the world during the highland clearaces in the ninteenth century.
I was suprised and ecstatic, in this unlikely meeting in this lonely hostel, I had found what I´d been looking for, and now had the chance to see the lands of my ancestors. A few days exploring the wild and beautiful Hebrides topped off a great adventure of self discovery in wildest Scotland.
The final chapter ends again in the pub in Portree. I was enjoying a pint or two with some new Swedish friends. After I told them my story one guy said meaningfully, `yeah, you do look kind of Norse´. I guess that means it must all be true!