A WHAT tide?

Yesterday I woke up early and had a lovely home-cooked breakfast consisting of orange juice, tea, fruit salad with yogurt, cereal, brown toast with butter and homemade jam, black pudding, sunny-side-up egg, bacon, mushrooms, and a boiled tomato. About halfway through a lovely Spanish couple joined me — both architects from Barcelona — and we had a nice chat.

As soon as I finished breakfast I left, because I had to catch the low tide in order to explore Spar Cave, a sea cave on the southern part of Skye.

After close to an hour of driving on single-track roads, dodging sheep and lorries, I arrived at the abandoned house given as a landmark and pulled off onto a grassy patch on the side of the road. Then I proceeded to follow the rest of the directions given by hillwalkers…

So, here’s the thing in Scotland. In the first place, it’s perfectly legal to go walking across someone’s property. Absolutely fine, and as my riding guide explained “It’s a right – it doesn’t matter if the landowner likes it or not. If they get upset about it, they’re in the wrong. But hardly anyone gets upset, really only people who have moved here from elsewhere. But we do try to make ourselves useful, and not to make pests of ourselves… just leave things as you found them, and for me, if I notice a broken fence or something, I tell the farmer.”

So that’s great.

But there’s this other thing here, that’s actually quite refreshing — it’s sort of a culture of personal responsibility. So, like, you can basically go wherever you want, whenever you want, but the landowner also has no responsibility to maintain paths or whatever. Or fence off the edges of cliffs. Or put up ‘trail closed’ signs when there’s been a washout. Basically, you’re on your own, and if you do something stupid and get yourself into trouble, well, you probably deserved it and maybe you should be more careful next time. You certainly aren’t going to be suing anyone because you decided to walk out on a slippery unfenced jetty in the dark and fell in the ocean. Just, you know, don’t be an idiot.

Now, I love this. I really do. But it can be a bit of a culture shock for a coddled American to go hiking (hillwalking) in Scotland. And, newsflash, the Scots are tougher than we are. At least, the ones that go hillwalking are. For example…

The hillwalking directions to Spar Cave go something like this:

Go through the gate, past the ruined stone barn and down the path to the beach. It’s a little muddy and slippery in spots. Once you get to the beach, go around to the left, clambering over a few rocks, until you reach the canyon. It’s very close. Then go up into the cave (the one on the left). Bring a torch. It’s muddy at first, then steep but the stone is grippy and not slippery. Be sure to go back before the tide comes in.

The Americanized version goes a bit more like this:

Go through the gate and past the ruined stone barn. There are sheep! You’re in a sheep field! Take a picture!

Ok. Anyway. Head down toward the beach. There are multiple paths in view, mostly due to the sheep, so pick the one that goes most toward the water. Slide down a wet grassy hill. Now you’re all damp. Good job. Oh, and that was the wrong fork in the path, so drag yourself back up via handfulls of grass.

Try again. The correct path this time! Slide down a muddy slope instead of grass. Now you’re wet AND muddy! Good job! And now there’s a tree down across the path. No worries, climb on over. Now walk along the super narrow muddy bit with a sheer drop. This seems safe.

Ok! You’re on the beach! ‘Now go around to the left, clambering over a few rocks.’ Wait. Holy shit. It’s like a giant was playing Jenga in here with boulders. And they’re wet. Um…. Ok. This is fine. They’re nice ragged rocks so they aren’t very slippery, and there’s lots of bits to grab onto. Don’t grab that bit, though, it’s sharp. Too late. Now you’re wet and muddy and a little bloody! Good job!

Ok. Made it around the corner and past the first, unmentioned slit in the rocks that doesn’t count as a canyon, then around the next corner, and have now definitively found the canyon. Problem: the canyon is fuller of water than it is supposed to be, given that low tide is in fifteen minutes. Um. Maybe the water will fall really quickly over those fifteen minutes? Because it looks like it needs to drop about eighteen inches to make this work. Well. The rock is striated horizontally in a series of undercut ledges along the side, and it’s ragged and not slippery. At the outside it’s much like stairs, but as you go further in it becomes sheer. So it’s sort of like a ladder, and it’s really only about five feet in from where the rock goes vertical to where the water stops, and about eight feet down. So.

Maybe you could just sort of climb down it, like a ladder, and then over a few feet and then you’d be on the ground in the canyon! But. There’s no one else here. Part of the appeal was that not many people come here. So if you try this and fuck it up, maybe you’ll have a broken leg or crack your head and no one will find you and the tide will be coming in soon. That would be a terrible thing to do to the people who care about you. But cave!!!! But…. personal safety. OK OK FINE.

Turn back. Go back about halfway to the corner, and down the ‘steps’ to the water level. Spend a good three minutes considering taking off your boots and socks and leaving them there on the rock, and wading in instead. It’s not THAT deep and not very far. It’s all rocks covered with seaweed, though, so it would be hard to keep your footing. There’s a pretty good chance you’d fall in. That wouldn’t be so bad, your luggage is in the car so you could fall in, explore the cave, wade back out, and then dry off and change… it’s probably not THAT cold. You’d be fine. It’s only the North Atlantic or whatever.

The only hesitation now is that you’ve brought your shoulder bag, because you’re carrying flashlights and snacks and a poncho and your phone/camera… and it also has your passport and your wallet and most importantly it has your phone and so it would be really unfortunate if you fell in the ocean with this bag. You could leave it on the rocks, but what if someone did come along and they stole it? And how will you carry the important cave supplies without it?

At this point someone DOES come along! A very nice couple speaking German with very little English asks you how to get in, assuming that you’ve been in and are on your way out. You explain the problem, mostly with charades. “Ah.” they say. Then head off ahead of you, and proceed to do the ladder/crab-climb that you’d ruled out as too risky. Now it’s fine, though, because now there are three of you! If one falls in the other two can drag them to higher ground, and one can stay and perform first aid while the other goes for help. Totally safe now! You happily tag along, and after a few more scrapes and bruises, all three of you are standing triumphantly in the canyon. You head into the cave. It’s nice that you brought a backup flashlight, because they only have one and it is DARK in there. You give them your spare so that each of you has a personal light, and go exploring. It’s great fun! You take turns photographing one another, and at the top, they’re very accomodating of your request for a minute of total darkness and silence. It’s amazing. Caves are rad. Especially giant caves in remote, inaccessible areas where you can be mostly alone and not have to deal with packs of tourists, roped-off wooden walkways, and shouting children. Hurrah!

On your way out, a bit ahead of the German couple, a fisherman is rowing past and sees you coming out. As you climb back up the ladder he rows in, and stops to have a chat:
“Are ye alright there, lass?”
“Oh, yes! Thanks.”
“No bother, no bother… I saw ye comin’ out and it looked like ye might have a wee bit o’ difficulty, so I thought I’d come check. Lotsa people hurt themselves here on the rocks, I did once, too. The coast guard has to send helicopters sometimes. Be careful, now!”

It turned out that he owns the B&B just up the road, where I’d tried to stay (it was already booked), and had been out since 6am catching fish for dinner. He was super nice and we all chatted for a bit before I left. He also explained the trouble with the tide — apparently this was an unusually slack tide, and didn’t come in or go out as far. Normal low tides are several feet lower! So at least it wasn’t just me — it was really unusually difficult to access the canyon on that particular day!


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