“Slow down, don’t speak and don’t look it in the eye” whispers ghillie Mitchell Partridge. We gingerly approach the beast, its breeze block of a skull lifting from the grass buffet. Beside it are big bellied charges. As we encroach, they emit booming complaints, amplified in this amphitheatre of hills. “That was interesting” I remark when considerably clear of the hardy grazers. “Now you know why I ask guests to avoid wearing bright clothes” he responds, unshaken.
Before being medically discharged, Partridge (43) served in the 1st RAF regiment, re-badging as a marine. “Ah,” I venture, “perils of war.” “Nothing so heroic” he sighs. “Tore my ligaments catching my leg down a rabbit hole with 100lbs on my back. It took 12 months of physio to straighten my foot which turned inwards.” Does he miss service? “Everyday. But if I’d continued I probably wouldn’t be doing this.”
Intrigued by the prospect of a walk wilder than London’s streets, I’ve come to Skye, largest and most Northerly Island in the Inner Hebrides. But my expectations were temporarily shattered. Rather than a rugged, muddied army green Land Rover, Partridge collected me in a civilian Vauxhall. “I used to have one” he says, “but it was slow and, considering petrol’s price on the island, too thirsty.”
We weave roads from Kinloch Lodge, highland seat of Clan Donald, towards the 12,500acre Kingsburgh Estate. Partridge gestures to virgin snow whitewashing the cap of the red and black cuillin. “I do 17-mile walks there” he says. “One couple’s dog got so knackered they had to carry it in their rucksack.”
As a mobile RBS bank cuts our path, Partridge explains how one of God’s more impressive erections once sprouted the island. “A super volcano measured five miles across.” I ask how Partridge knows this. “Geologists date lava flows. Skye’s one big shifting mass of rocks and peat. A Mecca for rock lovers. I see them out with chisels.” Partridge pauses. “I’m more interested in living things.”
Beyond bulls, I wonder what life we’ll behold today. Partridge gestures to a mossy mound. “See that hillock shaped like a boob? We might be lucky and find some otter spraint on it.” He lowers to look at drying faeces. “Smell it!” he insists. “It doesn’t smell that bad unlike mink’s poo which stinks!” Sure enough, the aroma’s okay, redolent of fresh fish, oats and even stewed green tea.
“Look closely and you can see a scale from a salmon which survived spawning.” But it didn’t survive this otter. When I ask what sort of mentality this mammal has, Partridge grins. “I’ve had moments with otters, Doug. Once, one popped up two feet away from me. We looked eachother in the eyes; a meeting of predators. I’m sure he was thinking, ‘what the hell is that?’But ultimately animals just want to go about their business peacefully.”
Close by, Partridge unravels a glistening tangle of racing green seaweed. “You can eat the new growth. It’s full of iron and natural sugars. But first you must soak it to extract the salt.”
So from where did Partridge get his love of nature? “I grew up on green belt in Halesowen (West Midlands). My mother was Welsh and my father Irish. He showed me Northern Ireland’s salmon river which I used to fish with a cane and hook.” But does he consider himself Scottish now? “Yes” he says as a teal flies over. I last saw one on the plate at Bayswater’s Café Anglais brasserie. Perhaps reading my thoughts Partridge talks of eco tourism. “Many guests prefer to shoot with a camera then a shotgun. But I always bring a pan and white wine when we go fishing.”
Single file, we trace a barbed fence, passing a sturdy but unoccupied heron’s nest. At our feet is a petrified lava flow leading to black shore. “The first time I saw anything like that was on a film about Japan’s Pacific islands where marines landed on completely black sand with rising sulphur.” In the distance I trace the ruins of 15th century castle, Uisdein (Hugh’s Castle). “It’s close to where Flora Macdonald, known for her rescue of Bonnie Prince Charlie, reputedly died” says Partridge.
It’s a remarkably beautiful day. “But there’s no such thing as bad weather,” says Partridge. “It can be like something out of Macbeth and that’s dramatic.” Annoyingly, an oyster catcher drenches us with wails like tinnitus, threatening to evacuate its bowels. “He’s giving us a hell of a telling off” says Partridge, “and there’s a crow starting on a kestrel.” We walk on, skirting washed up lobster creels, an old Wellie and handsome driftwood. Our boots make a muffled sound against smoothed stones.
At boulders textured with thousands of baby barnacles we peer into rockpools. “This is a survivalists’ garden of Eden. Fancy a limpet?” I nod and he withdraws an impressive blade, deftly unpeeling tenacious deep shelled specimens. Meanwhile I scoop handfuls of whelks.
Partridge fires up an army issue stove, carved with his name. The ingredients for our elegant elevenses simmer for three minutes. Although butter and pepper could enhance the taste, the limpets are good: saline and nutty with little trace of the anticipated obnoxiously leatherette like texture. Extracted with a safety pin, whelks are blissfully sweet.
Between mouthfuls I ask Partridge what were the oddest things he’s ever eaten. “Worms” he recalls, “dried on rocks in the sun then crumbled as seasoning. And live woodlice. Until you get on with it, six legs grip your tongue.” I grimace and ask what they were like. “Chicken, of course!” Presuming these were eaten as an emergency measure, I’m surprised to hear Partridge’s explanation. “I just ate them to scare my niece.”
Binoculars raised, we scan the sea where a solitary seal stays static despite considerable tide. Only when a tornado rips away the peace does it disappear. “It’s a GR4, and there’s its wing,” surveys Partridge, pointing to the second aircraft. “Probably not on a shout.” I ask for an explanation. “During the cold war Russians would encroach from the north and our boys scramble to meet them. But today it’s just a nice day to fly. You’ve got to keep your hours up.”
Moving on, I bend down to pick up a dry sheeps’ skull beside stone remains of a crofter’s shack. It feels incredibly light. “During the Highland Clearances, half of Skye’s population was ethnically cleansed to make way for sheep” Partridge explains. “Shipped to the Americas by clan chiefs. The population was 20,000 once. Now it’s only 10,000.” He quotes author, John Prebble: “The Duke of Sutherland was personally told, ‘Since you have preferred sheep to men, let sheep defend you.”’
A little further on Partridge spies fox dung woven with wool. “They’re nature’s undertakers and rare here. Seeing one could earn 20 points.” Apparently Partridge’s guests often compete for sightings of fauna. A seal gets 10, as does an otter, deer, peregrine falcon, white tailed eagle and golden eagle. But the ubiquitous seagull earns only two.
We head inland and shore turns to bog. I inadvertently plunge my boot into a glistening abyss. “Stick to sheep tracks and you, like them, will keep your feet dry” says Partridge. “And walk on the centre of reeds where the ground’s always firmest there.” He’s right. “Nobody told me that. I just got wet a lot before. You learn more by looking down. There are a couple of grown over springs. If you fall into one, it’s Good Night Vienna!”
One thing’s thankfully missing from the glorious day. Fortunately Scotland’s 28 species of midges are dormant in winter. “Did you know only females bite?” inquires Partridge as we edge towards a transparent stream. “There’s got to be a joke in that” I venture. Overall, Partridge appears heartened by insect life. “Good for fishing the trout who’ll bite them.” Gesturing to a sheltered, shadowed, calm kink, he explains this is where the ultimately lazy brown trout hang out.
In search of illusive sleek otters, nemesis to fly fisherman on account of their greater skill, Partridge shows me tracks. “Otters whistle in the wild” he says, listening expectantly. “I’ve seen five youngster otters here whose mother was teaching them to swim. Taking their first step in life.” He adds: “my partner does wild swimming. She’d jump in now. Goes in even when my dog wouldn’t!”
It is midday. We head inland to Glenhinnisdal. Conversation turns to peaty Talisker, Skye’s single malt whisky distillery. I explain how brilliantly I think it works with mature Cheddar. But Partridge has his own preference. “I like tying flys with a bottle besides me. I wish they gave islanders a discount.”
A gate refuses to budge so we scale it. Partridge tells me about the richness of orchids come March then offers me a Mars bar for energy. “I get through 10 a week” he says. We pause at more picaresque ruins against the dusty backdrop of Trotternish ridge. “This is called the Chaplain’s pass.” Within what was once a church is a cracked altar enveloped in lichen. “He’d come here to convert Catholics to Presbyterianism using King John’s Bible. ‘Divide and conquer.’”
Reaching into a mossy clump resembling Hornby foliage, Partridge extols its virtues. “It’s sphagnum moss, dry on top but in an emergency, you can sip moisture from its roots. It’s also a mild anaesthetic and nature’s loo roll. Once used as sanitary wear too…”
Despite talk of intimate areas, I yearn lunch. We choose a spot beside a waterfall. On this black pool, the high sun’s reflections make water resemble mercury. As I bite into my Michelin star grade smoked salmon sandwich prepared by Marcello Tully of Kinloch Lodge, Partridge fires up the stove once more to brew tea with this spring’s water. The result, stirred with a 1940 dated German FS set (fork spoon) is soft, creamy and persistent. “But it’s just Tetley” laughs Partridge on hearing my praise. Our world is still. “If I’d a shotgun to make a noise, that would get nature moving” says Partridge, keen to see wildlife.
A juvenile golden eagle suddenly swoons. “Get down and it’ll come back,” hush shouts Partridge, eyes gleaming. And so it returns, its sharp, clipped wings casually allowing it to hold position. “I knew it would because of the thermals,” says Partridge. The sighting’s crowned the day. But aside from nature’s overt, flirtatious flashes of brilliance, can it get lonely living with the island’s seclusion? “You get stir crazy in winter, which you need to be wary of” cautions Partridge.
We meander back to base. “The chaplain must really believe in God if you’re going to walk this every Sunday” assesses Partridge. “Some people claim they’re fit, like the hip replacement octogenarian who came in deck shoes,” he chuckles. “Then there were the pensioners who chose one of the stormiest days Skye has seen. They slipped and slid in sleet and snow. Fortunately they had hysterics.”
The day began with sea and continued with mountains. We return to Kinloch Lodge via Portree, Skye’s largest town (population 939). At the harbour a dribble of tourists attempt entry into closed cafés, breath condensing. ‘The “bongleys” come from Easter’ asserts Partridge. “You get to know the flavours. Those are French. No make-up. Beauty comes from within.” Now he glances towards locals whom he knows. “They’re ‘jakeys’ and have booze in their carrier bags which they’re racing home to drink.”
Skye’s wildlife, it seems, isn’t limited to mountains, burns, lochs and beaches…
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