An Account of my Recent Trip to the Isle of Skye...

...Including an Encounter with the Fantastic

The day before I had been driving too fast up the west coast of Scotland, past Oban, past Loch Linnhe, past Fort William, throwing my borrowed car up and down over hills which shone green and violet in the sun. I should have been listening to Rod Stewart instead of Radio 1, joyously singing along in his affected Scottish-American accent- there’s the purple heather! There’s the wild mountain thyme! This is the land of glorious mullets and freedom! In spite of the shortbread tins and bagpipes, the Burns Nights and the Hollywood history, in spite of Walter Scott and Billy Connolly, in spite of Gaelic programming and the Clearances and rough-hewn Highlanders making suicidal charges against lines of men with guns, in spite of all this I was still surprised by the scale and beauty. Awe and wonder. Driving along single lane roads past mountains with names I can’t pronounce I was stunned. And then bored. And then stunned again.

That night I had pulled up in a B&B in a small village called Arisaig, planning to take the ferry from Mallaig over to Skye when it became light. In my room there was an A4 booklet, a local history pamphlet prepared by children from a nearby primary school. It was stuffed with grisly legends, all of which involved somewhere a grey dog, some howling, and somebody being eaten, usually by a grey dog. I slept uneasily. Breakfast was a slightly worrying experience as the little old lady who ran the house brought out plate after plate of greasy stuff, subtly suggesting she might turn violent if her gifts of food were not appreciated. My hunger saved me- she had a blue mole on her lower lip which could only portend evil. When I stepped out into the day the sun was again bright and warm, provoking me to start grasping for superlatives- beautiful, glorious, wonderful…

I’d never driven a car onto a ferry before. It involves delicate precision and obeying gruff men who look like they hate you. It is a test of skill which must be accomplished seriously and without looking like you are trying too hard. Only then will you earn the respect of the crew, who will reward you by not running a nail along your car. Once on the ferry I amused myself by watching the water dance at the side of the boat. It left a slowly dissolving tail as I chugged over the sea to Armadale, surrounded by European backpackers and diminutive middle-aged American ladies wearing ethnic hats.

Disembarking proved much more easy. Once on Skye O pointed the car north and sped off down a single lane track. These roads, with their frequent twists and not so frequent bulges used for passing oncoming traffic, were still new to me and felt dangerous. Rounding bends can put you in the path of a rowdy scofflaw in a sports car, pelting along as if chased by black demons, but you can also find sheep, which scatter themselves across the road with free abandon, oblivious to the high-speed metal boxes which constantly threaten to squash them. The day before, when approaching Portnaluchaig, I had driven past a sheep standing half on the road, stock-still, grimly staring at me. No wonder Highlanders are superstitious. The road on Skye was more friendly, fringing the east coast and passing forests and castles, even a college teaching Gaelic at Teangue.

I turned off the main road at the tourist centre of Broadford, down a thin road. At the end of it was Elgol, a small town famed as the most attractive place on the island. To my right were the Cuillin Hills, large like everything in the north of Scotland, curved around the horizon like a giant’s arm. Up ahead I could see a small ruined church, flanked by a few parked cars on one side and an irregular graveyard on the other. It seemed nice. I pulled over and stopped the engine, leaving it ticking as if in anticipation. Inside the church it was narrow and damp. The roof was completely gone and a tree had rooted itself in one of the corners. On one wall a placard outlined what little history anyone knew of the place.

"It must have been dark in these things."

I turned with a start. A large man with an American accent had placed himself behind me. He was wearing a cotton angler’s hat and a peach T-shirt, dangerously stretched over his stomach. I nodded assent. He turned away from me towards a sound, floating out from the far wall. Low and rhythmic, soft, barely audible.

"Say, What’s that?" he asked.

"I don’t know."

We walked closer to the sound. It seemed to be emerging from underneath a rock at the foot of the wall.

"It’s a mystery," said my companion. "I don’t know what it is."

It was louder now, and filled the church. A faintly human sound, as if someone had recorded a singer reaching a high-note and used devious technology to stretch it out for longer than it was possible to hold naturally. The American was becoming excited now.

"It’s a mystery. A mystery. It’s behind this rock…"

Before I knew what he was doing he had crouched low and shaken his fingers under the rock.

"No!…" I said.

But it was too late. He lifted it, and fell back.

A scream announced it. Light flooded from the floor, from where the rock had been, but light with substance, light like water, pouring around the church, around the floor, around us. I staggered back until I could feel the other side of the church behind me, shielding my eyes with my arm. Beneath us the ground had begun to shudder, in time with the pulses of the sound, which now roared and came from everywhere. I shut my eyes.

After a few seconds the noise began to subside. I waited a few more seconds. A few more. I opened my eyes. Once more I was filled with awe and wonder.

I front of me, floating a few inches above where the rock had been, was a figure, a tall man, looking at me, smiling.
"It’s an angel. An angel," said the American tourist, who had fallen to his knees and bowed his head.

An angel? Behind the glare of the light were two feathered wings. It suddenly seemed natural that the man in front of me was an angel. Of course he was an angel. He had wings. An angel?

The air suddenly felt heavy. The figure breathed in, and spoke.

"You do not kneel?"

The voice was deep and confident, but also ghostly and light, as if two twins were chiming the same words in unison.

"You do not kneel?" he repeated, this time louder, leaving what felt like an echo behind.

The American had now started weeping. The figure slowly withdrew his smile, and once more began to speak.

"Ah, it’s you. Modern Man. I should have recognised you from your posture. Deracinated. Incredulous. Pathetic. You come to these places as voyeurs, trying to gather back some of the humanity you have lost in your choking cities. A past, a culture, a home- all by proxy- you desire, safe and without consequence, capturable in a picture frame. Charade you are."

I knew what I had to do.

"Nobody," I replied, "calls me deracinated."

I reached behind my back and closed my fingers around the gun I had nestled in the waistband of my jeans.

"Suck my willy you angel motherfucker!" I yelled, pulling a bullet into the chamber and firing towards the light.

The angel leapt out of the way; the bullet clipped through the feathers of one of his wings. He rolled twice on the floor. When he came to a stop I realised he had something in his hands. It was a shotgun.

"God is love," he growled through gritted teeth, "and love hurts!"

My reactions were only just quick enough. I threw myself through a window, collapsing on the grass verge outside just as the shotgun fired, peppering the wall behind me with deadly metal. A gravestone provided cover as I tried to figure out my next move. The angel had stepped out of the church and was looking for me, sweeping the shotgun left and right.

"Come on. Come out from where you’re hiding. You’ll go to heaven. I promise."

He had his back turned, which gave me time to take aim. I fired; the recoil felt reassuring. The bullet caught the angel in the shoulder, causing him to spin, to fall, to drop the gun. I took my chance and ran for the car.

I clambered inside and steadied my hand to put the key in the ignition. The engine gave a satisfying roar and the wheels threw up stones as they span into life. I hoped I’d be fast enough. I wasn’t.

Up ahead I could see the angel, clumsily flapping his wings, obviously feeling the cold love of the bullets. He was ahead of me on the road, eyes turned towards me with a burning malice. I didn’t think twice. Ramming the gearstick into second I floored the accelerator. The space between us shrank to nothing. At the last moment I could see in the angel’s eyes’ a terrible fear. The car slammed into him, knocking him forward, leaving him lying on the road, immobile. Slowly I manoeuvred the car until the wheels were in line with the angel’s head and I rolled over the top. There was a crunch, like the sound of someone biting into an apple. I looked into the rear-view mirror. It was over.

A good trip then, and I would recommend Skye to anyone who was thinking about going. But watch out for the sheep. And the angels.

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