Travel: Isle of Mists yields its secrets

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The Independent Culture
SKYE, in the Celtic tongue, translates as the Isle of Mists. But mist is the mildest of euphemisms for the myriad forms and vast quantities of water that drench the island. Crossing over on an evening ferry from Kyle of Lochalsh on the Scottish mainland, low clouds were merely sputtering into the wind. Once on the island, the rain turned hard and fierce, quickly swelling the streams into surging torrents.

Walking on Skye, it is hard to believe that water can take so many shapes. Here, a bubbling spring in the mountainside, breaking out of the bright turf; below, its water pouring into an eroded scar of loose earth and stones. There, a steep but sodden hillside, a slithery grey-green slime covering the lifeless peat. And there again, waterfalls by the hundred: some powerful and thundering, others tall and slender, white wisps weaving down the giddy rockfaces.

But I had come to Skye more for its wildlife than for its waterfalls: the windswept mountains are home to thousands of red deer and some 30 pairs of golden eagles, while the rocky, deeply indented coastline and offshore islands shelter 200 otters, making it an otter stronghold of European importance. Seals, dolphins, basking sharks and even the occasional whale can be seen in the surrounding waters.

My guides were two urban fugitives from south of the border, Paul and Grace Yoxon, who run 'Wild Explorer' holidays from the Skye Environmental Centre. The centre is a large croft house by the sea, with a new conservatory offering fine views over Broadford Bay. An outhouse has been converted into an office and environmental museum, and a Portakabin serves as rescue centre for injured animals.

Despite the previous night's storm, our first day at large was clear and sunny: perfect for a trip to Boreraig, a ruined village by the sea on Loch Eishort that lies two hours walk away from any road. Led by Grace, our small party approached from the west along an undulating coastal path under towering sea cliffs.

The treeless landscape provides good feeding grounds for golden eagles. As we walked, a dark shadow circled the sky high above Boreraig, its 6ft wings spread wide as it soared on the thermal currents. An angry raven immediately flew towards it, swooping and diving to protect its nest. The eagle was joined by its mate, but the raven kept up the attack, its agility giving it an unexpected advantage over its huge but unwieldy enemies. Growing tired of the dogfight, they headed off along the cliffs in search of more peaceful prospects.

The otters were harder to see. These shy creatures have a remarkable ability to conceal themselves among the rocks and seaweed and the only signs of their presence were 'spraint' sites. As territorial animals, otters leave their spraint, or droppings, on particular spots; the repeated deposits build up small, fertile mounds that stand out like bristling, green warts on the drab face of the moorland.

Poring over the spraint, sampling its distinctive odour and even identifying the pulverised crabshells, fishbones and feathers that make it up is all very well, but it is no substitute for the live animals, who were proving highly elusive. Finally Grace noticed a small movement a few hundred feet out at sea, well within the range of our binoculars - a young otter at play. For about five minutes we watched it dive and frolic in the gentle waves, before it disappeared on the far side of a small island.

The presence of otters along a coastline, Paul explained that evening, is something rather special. They need fresh water pools in which to wash off the salt that builds up on their fur. They need a shelving coastline for easy passage between land and sea, with rock shelters for concealment. They need an ample, pollution-free food supply of fish, crustaceans and birds. And adult females need holts - large, permanent hides among the rocks - for the protection of their cubs.

This makes the best otter habitat something quite rare, and protected as such under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Yet the Skye road bridge - now under construction between the island and mainland - and its access roads are being blasted across more than a mile of prime otter coastline, including the 'otter island' of Eilean Bhan, where Gavin Maxwell, author of Ring of Bright Water, lived out his last years. This, naturally, has triggered outrage among environmentalists, although soundings in the Claymore Arms suggested that local people's opposition to the bridge has more to do with the anticipated pounds 6- pounds 8 toll.

The rest of the week took us exploring other parts of Skye, with further sightings of eagles and otters. And we spent a day walking on the nearby Isle of Raasay, whose spectacular east coast, wooded and precipitous, makes a perfect hunting ground for the peregrine falcons that skim over the treetops. But the wet, blustery weather kept us confined to the van rather more than one would have chosen.

Skye's wealth of prehistoric remains, many of them in windswept, waterlogged locations, has led climatologists to surmise that the island's weather was not always as it is now. At the height of the Iron Age culture over 2,000 years ago, Skye seems to have been a rich island of high woods and ample game, enjoying a climate more like that of southern England today; and before 3000BC it appears to have been warmer still. Trudging homewards, leaning into a dense, horizontal downpour, that past was somehow hard to imagine.

Skye Environmental Centre, Broadford, Isle of Skye IV49 9AQ. Tel: 0471 822487.

(Photograph omitted)