Castle Moil, or Caisteal Maol in Gaelic, is located on a headland on the shores of Loch Alsh, a short distance from the village of Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye.
The shattered remains of the castle are clearly visible on their hilly mount from the harbour of Kyleakin, and a footpath, which starts on the south side of the harbour, talks in terms of metres rather than in miles. A mere amble. A gentle stroll. There and back in twenty minutes. Call it half an hour to account for taking a few photos.
Of course, this was never going to be the case; otherwise, there would be nothing of note to write about.
The route followed a narrow, twisting path, following the contours of the shore, impenetrable brown bracken on either side ensuring that I wasn’t tempted to stray. My castle goal remained in clear sight with, seemingly, nothing between me and it to prevent my successful assault of the tower.
A slight rising slope and a small bay came into sight. At the mouth of the bay sat an enormous boathouse: stone walls and a big wooden front and door, with a red-rusted corrugated roof, run to ruin and, hauled up in front of it on the shore, a big wooden tub––the Johan––cabin windows smashed, left high and dry, tilted over at an aesthetic, but alarming angle. It was a picturesque wreck; a nautical mirror of the ruined castle beyond. There was something melancholic about the whole location; the feeling of neglect; the haunting suspicion of a story of abandonment, which I would never know.
For me, the Johan was merely a photo-stop. I photographed the smashed windows, which I could picture were the stone-throwing target of many a local youth; the rusty rudder; and the black strands of seaweed hanging from the mooring ropes. But the real purpose of my walk still lay ahead: Castle Moil. But where was the path to it? The castle was directly in front of me, but the route towards it was submerged beneath the cold, clear waters of the loch.
It was at this point that I recalled a plaque, which I had only paid scant attention to, half covered by undergrowth, cemented into the path, some distance back: watch the tide. A local would have been immediately cognisant of the situation, but me, a naïve outsider, had arrived without a thought to the state of the tide, or the consequence it would have on my endeavour.
What to do? Retrace my steps and leave Castle Moil unconquered? Or sit it out, wait for the tide to retreat, and advance in glorious conquest?
There was only ever going to be one course of action. I found myself a convenient rock upon which to sit by the shore, unpacked the sandwiches, which I had privately planned to eat later, and prepared to bide my time.
In the end, I was lucky. The tide was already on the way out. By the time I had finished my sandwiches, there was clearly a bigger expanse of dry land in the bay and a smaller expanse of water. In fact, from the promontory on which I was sitting, a whole new wreck started to emerge from the waters directly in front of me, first the cabin and then the deck of another boat––one smaller than the Johan, but similarly abandoned.
And so I scaled the summit to Castle Moil. I was forced to take a slightly higher route across the slippery rocks in order to circumnavigate the bay than I might have liked, but I managed to get there without getting my feet wet. As for the castle itself: in truth, there is not so much to it that I couldn’t have seen from the harbour at Kyleakin, but I felt a sense of achievement from having completed my journey. And, from the information plaque, which sits at the base of the castle, I did learn the history of a strange, and rather sad story:
“The last occupant of the castle was Neill, a nephew of the 26th chief of the clan Mackinnon. His father, Iain Og, was killed in the final conflict between the MacLeods and the MacDonalds fought at Coire na Creiche in the Cuillin in 1601. Here at the castle under the care of his aunt Jane, the young Neill spent his early years.”
What was young Neill’s life like on this lonely outpost? One of wild, unchecked adventure? Or one of loss and constant supervision under the watchful eye of a strict aunt Jane?
Two abandonments––the Johan and young Neill. I am content to make up my own stories, but I will never know the truth of either of them.
© E. C. Glendenny
E. C. Glendenny continues to explore Britain on foot.
E. C. Glendenny is the author of From Maia to Arbeia: a Walk Along the Hadrian’s Wall Path