Brian Cheung


Thoughts, photos and anecdotes from my travels through Norway, Scotland and Finland.

Benevolent Strangers

I've just come back from a night out in middle-of-nowhere Portnalong, where the complete lack of wifi/phone reception was more than made up for by all the wonderful strangers I met and the weird unplanned night that ensued. Gather 'round as I recount the story

In a way, these 5 nights in Skye were a last minute solution to a gap in my plans that needed filling. My itinerary across the isle has really been governed by whatever hostels I could find last minute, as Skye seems both more popular with tourists and less built up with infrastructure, which I don't mind at all. As much as I love Reykjavík, parts of the city feel like they've given themselves over completely to the tourism industry with more souvenir shops, hotels and hotels-under-construction than you can throw a dead puffin at. It definitely feels like a certain amount of natural charm got bulldozed to make way for the 5th or 6th Hilton.

Anyway, I digress. I found myself booked into the punny Skyewalker Hostel (complete with a vague Star Wars theme running throughout) in Portnalong last night because it had good reviews and seemed the only place with a spare vacancy. I took a bus back to Portree in time to hop on the after school bus leaving from Portree High bound for Fiscavaig.

For supposed 'insurance reasons' the hostel completely closes between 11 and 3 to do a full top-to-bottom clean which although frustrating for early arrivals, at least ensures the hostel is spotless and much more welcoming than any of the other dirty city hostels that I've set foot in in years past. I was only about 40 minutes early so was told to wait it out in the geodesic dome out the back, which acts as a common area during cleaning hours and otherwise. 

There I met a travelling pack of 10 retirees from Kent who were cycling/driving through the Western Isles. They were a friendly jovial bunch, and offered me a sandwich and some shortbread while they politely inquired about what the hell I was doing out here. The lot of them honestly looked like they should have just booked themselves onto a cruise liner, so I was pretty impressed that they had decided instead to tackle a self-guided cycling tour. 

After the late lunch with the cyclists, I checked in and settled down with a book and made friends with Cassandra - one of 4 Seattle girls doing a brief Europe trip (she'll come up later in the story). Not knowing anything about the area, and without much mobility, I decided to trek to the nearby-ish Talisker Bay. The guy at the desk highly recommended it, and the clouds had begun to part so I thought I'd walk there in time to see a (hopefully) spectacular sunset. The walk to the bay was roughly 5 and a half miles and took just short of 2 hours to reach. The first half followed a winding road towards Fiscavaig, and the second half went across a muddy/swampy/puddly path overrun with sheep. I just about managed to get through without accidentally landing knee deep in mud, but I knew that coming back would be an absolute nightmare in pitch darkness. 

Unfortunately the sunset ended up being pretty average, although at least the rain didn't threaten a return, and the sea cliffs and crescent-shaped beach were stunning regardless. I was reminded a lot of the Lofoten beaches I had trekked to back in July, which now seem like they happened a lifetime ago! I took way too many photos, despite the fading light, and before I knew it I was faced with the task of getting home.

There were a few other photographers on the same stretch of sand, obviously having the same idea as me. With a touch of opportunism, I struck up a conversation with the friendliest looking girl. Vicki and her colleagues Craig and Lee were all from the camera shop Jessops (think Teds or Michaels) and they were in Skye to set up a photography/travel course in the near future. After the most subtle of nudges, I scored a lift in their van back to civilisation. However they were going in the opposite direction to Skyewalker so I was dropped off at the town of Carbost, which was still an hour from Portnalong but at least the shorter hour long hike would be along a sealed road. Carbost is home to the Talisker Distillery and the Old Inn, which I knew had live music on Friday nights. I decided to pop in just to warm up a bit before heading home. 

The live music was really just a random assortment of locals huddled at a large table jamming. They kept up a constant stream of lively traditional folky stuff on their fiddles, pipes, drums and guitars. It was spontaneous and unrehearsed but everyone involved obviously knew what they were doing and the encircling crowd was thoroughly into it. The atmosphere was buzzing, but relaxed, and I happily watched on from a corner as I drank a liquid dinner of local ales (the kitchen had closed by the time I arrived). 

As I was about to leave in walks Cassandra, along with the rest of her posse Megan, Sarah and Alana (I'm trying at least to recall names here, so they don't immediately fade into obscurity), and miraculously I scored my second free ride for the night straight back to the hostel in their rental. I had a really great night, and I couldn't have planned for much of it which really made it that much more memorable. 

I left this morning from the hostel feeling good about the world. Before I left I had time to fit in a long-winded gossip session with Lisa the hostel owner who revealed between giggles that one of the cyclists had been an absolute diva/drama queen/toddler - mostly through not knowing or appreciating how a hostel operates. Shame for him because I would thoroughly recommend Skyewalker. Guess you can't win em all.

The only Saturday bus available would only be passing Portnalong at 12.40pm, so it made no sense to wait around a closed hostel for almost 2 hours. I had a nice stroll in the rain back over to Carbost to find lunch. I managed a third lift from a man with a van about half way in. I wasn't even trying to get picked up but I think he took pity on me. There was a surprisingly great coffee stand opposite the distillery and I had a lunch of freshly shucked oysters and chips at the Oyster Shed - a farm shop and takeaway food stand that served fresh lobster, langoustine, mussels, oysters and other seafood fished straight up from the waters surrounding Skye. 

I'm now relaxing back in Portree at the local hostel, and waiting for Ellis to arrive at last tomorrow for the start of another road trip. The weather is looking great (all things crossed) so hopefully it lives up to the incredible 36 hours that I just had in Portnalong. 


scotlandBrian Cheung