Last week I had the privilege of returning to the West Coast of Scotland for a short camping trip with my husband. It is the first time I have been back to the West Coast, where I spent my teen years growing up on the Isle of Skye, for about 10 years. Needless to say it was as stunningly beautiful as I remembered it being, and even though the weather was a little soggy, the scenery was still breath-taking. I have always found that about Scotland – the weather is somewhat unpredictable but regardless of this it is still able to enchant you, indeed sometimes the moody clouds and misty mornings add to the wonder.
Something had changed though since my last visit…tourists…and lots of them. I first noticed this when we were considering finding a hotel on Skye – from previously living on the island I was fully aware of the midgy potential at this time of year and did not quite fancy sharing my tent with them. However, pretty much all of the hotels were fully booked or VERY expensive. As such, we had resolved ourselves to camping (we actually did find a hotel in the end after ending up with a very soggy tent the night before – but that is a different story!). Once we arrived on the island I was surprised to see just how many tourists there were, as well as lots of new road and tourist signs which I could not recall from before. Skye it seemed was experiencing a tourist boom!
When I lived on Skye previously we relied heavily on the tourism industry and as such I was initially pleased to see the island doing so well. Tourism 10-15 years ago was much more seasonal, and certainly not to the same magnitude! Preferring to have more of a nostalgic trip though, and to show my husband around the spots that I had grown up in and remembered fondly, I was keen to stay away from what had now become the tourist hot spots. One such place I wanted to show him was the Fairy Glen – an enchanting little place near Uig at the north end of the island. I had visited a few times when I lived on Skye and you could always enjoy a quiet stroll through the miniaturised landscape.
I was, therefore, stunned to find out when we arrived that we struggled to find somewhere to park. Twenty to thirty cars lined the small single track lane through the Fairy Glen, and dotted around the landscape were groups of people grabbing selfies. We finally managed to find somewhere to park, and started to walk along one of the well worn paths that I could not remember from my previous visits. It suddenly felt much less a nostalgic trip and more like a tourist attraction.
Another odd thing grabbed my attention as we reached what is known as Castle Ewan. Lots of miniature piles of stones were scattered across the landscape, and spiral patterns etched into the ground with larger stones, leading to a smaller cairn in the middle. There was one particularly odd pile of stones that had coloured paint on it, as if people had marked it with highlighters. Later on my husband noticed another area of stones with this colourful graffiti sprawled across it. I started to realise as I looked around that visitors were adding to these piles, and treating them as if they were a natural part of the landscape – I guessed they assumed put their by the ‘fairies’.
On our way back to the car I noticed something odder. A large group of people walking backwards around one of the circular stone patterns on the floor, they were laughing and trying not to fall over each other as a kilt wearing tour guide directed the strange ritual. They had stones in their hands which they were dropping on the floor as they walked around.
This strange behaviour was a little baffling, however, after a bit of investigation it seems that some tour companies are encouraging visitors to leave stones and walk backwards to appease the fairies as local folklore suggests. However, these stories appear to be entirely made up. Skye does have some fascinating fairy lore and stories associated with it including the ‘Fairy Flag’ at Dunvegan Castle, and the stories discussed here by Carolyn Emerick. The Fairy Glen, however, like the Fairy Pools gets its name not from the legends (at least known) in the area but the mystical and beautiful landscapes that they inhabit. Given this, I am not sure that these rituals to bring visitors ‘goodluck’ are necessarily appeasing the fairies, they are most certainly, however, changing the landscape. Indeed, if there are fairies at the Fairy Glen I am fairly sure that the sudden influx of tourists moving stones around their backyard would do quite the opposite of appeasing them!
One thing that did strike me though was that the tourist-made structures that now inhabited the Fairy Glen did add another mystical element to the place. There was strange eeriness to the abandoned stone spirals, and crooked rock structures littering the landscape. Personally, I think the beauty of the Fairy Glen can be appreciated in its natural form with or without its fairy residents. However, what became viscerally clear from my visit was that this place has little choice in whether it has fairies or not. Every stone placed, step walked backwards and story told (real or not) by its increasing tourist crowds sprinkles a little more fairy dust on the Glen…
From an academic perspective I found the role that tourism was playing in the formation of local legend interesting. I wondered to myself how long it would take, given the significant visitors numbers, for these stories to become part of Skye’s ‘official’ fairy lore. On a personal level, however, I found the treatment of the Fairy Glen in this way quite sad. The landscape is beautiful and mystical without the creation of rituals to add to the visitors ‘experience’. As such, I would encourage guides and visitors to consider how such a place can be appreciated without an impact upon the natural environment. The Fairy Glen is a stunning setting to tell stories of fairies, amongst the miniature hills, lochs and trees, but perhaps that is all that is needed. I would like to believe we can still be enchanted by the beauty of a place, and its authentic natural properties, without the superficial ‘thrills’ engendered by performing such rituals.