The Strange Sheep of Greshornish


Poison is a funny thing. People assume it comes in a black bottle etched with a white skull and crossbones, but they are wrong. Poison comes in less solid, less black and white forms.


Some say drink is poison, and they are wrong about that, too. I make sure to pour a little whisky in my Thermos full of coffee every day, and honestly, I am indebted to the stuff. It has got me through many a damp day manning the tourist information booth at the Fairy Pools car park.


The tourists have so many questions. It helps to have a little inner glow to get me through a shift without drowning one of them in a rock pool.


Where are the Fairy Pools? (right in front of you, moron, walk a mile)


Will it stop raining today? (no)


Is there anywhere to buy food that isn’t chips? (no)


Are there real Fairies here? Can I see one?


These people are inevitably children, American, and/or have watched too much ‘Outlander’. When it comes to magic, I say, maybe it’s better not to look too closely. You can’t put a microscope to a fairy.


Still, not everyone wants to take life lessons from a drunk woman in a plastic kiosk.


Fair enough.


I get many predictable questions every day here, but my least favourite one is always asked after a disappointing trudge to the pools with five-thousand other disillusioned day-trippers.


Where is the best wild place to go on the island? For the real island experience?


The question is rarely accompanied by a smile, or any consideration for me. It is my land after all. My reality.


But, I don’t mind. Not really.


I suppose I even understand.


I can’t even hate them anymore. By the time the tourists come to my carpark, depressing reality has hit, hard. They have often driven for hours before they cross the bridge, or travelled on a toddler ridden vomit-stinking car ferry, and flown oceans, and driven north for hours, only to land here, in this tarmac wasteland. The island is not what they expected, back when they were booking their trip in Texas or Mumbai or Croydon. Where are the tartan clad chieftains, the handsome maidens in a fairy glen, the native forest, the mist, and monsters?  It’s all 1970’s bungalows and white-sliced-bread, sheep farming and Nescafe. I see their nausea and disappointment. Aren’t the Fairy Pools supposed to be shimmering crystal depths of aquamarine ice? Why do I have to pay for a car park? The public toilet is blocked.


The farming shocks people, too. The extent of it. The industry of it, on an island they were hoping to be full of hobgoblins and bagpipes.


Some days I even feel it myself, the pall of tractors and corrugated barns, the stink of diesel, the oily slick of traffic jams and tourism.


Still, it’s all quite functional, at its core. Although I appreciate not everyone loves function. They want enchantment.


Once Skye had many Gods, and all the monsters you could dream of – as well as Selkies and fairies that fluttered about in the full-moon, flitting between myth, devilry, and human form. But Skye only has two monsters now – farming, and tourism – and so, visitors are disappointed.


And to be fair, the tourists often disappoint me, too.


The bad ones, anyway. The ones I see throwing their Costa Coffee cups in the Fairy Pools as they take a naked dip with only a selfie stick and 50,000 of their closest Followers for company. These are the same ones that picnic on the ground and abandon their trash, their fag ends, vape pens and used condoms. They ‘wild camp’ in the grass, with disposable aluminium barbeques, burn holes in the moss and heather, scorch the peat, start wild-fires.


Shut the gates and bury your excrement, I want to say. And please, don’t shit directly on a fairy mound.


The good tourists take only memories, and leave only footprints.


And when the good tourists turn up, with a smile and a bin-bag to collect litter along the way,

I send them merrily on their way, with a map to my favourite walks, to the sea stacks, or the black sands where the golden eagles nest.


When it comes to the bad tourists, the ones who chuck Coke cans out their car window or drop steel-canisters of nitrous oxide in the carpark, I can be less kind.  I like to send them on an alternative type of adventure. My hope is they will find themselves.


These days, when the bad sort come whinging to me for advice – Where’s the real Skye? – I answer them as honestly as I can.


You have to drive north, I say. Far north. To the tiny peninsula of Greshornish.


In Greshornish, the true spirit and soul of Skye will enter you. The place has something unique that never leaves you. But remember, I say, the wee folk are not all of the happy-go-lucky Seelie Court. Some of them are mischievous – so behave – I say, I smile. I warn. I offer them the option. No one can say I don’t do my tourist guidance job well. Then I drink from my Thermos until I feel myself shimmer, and we all go on our way.


I live in hope. I’m positive, cheery even, and on the good days I don’t need to hand out a single map of Greshornish.


On the bad days, I leave it to the island. The island has its ways. You just have to pay attention to how a place feels, and react accordingly.


For example, it still feels isolated in Greshornish, because it is. There is less modern life there, less hurly-burly, and zero farming. Sheep have never been grazed on the peninsula, because it was said the fairies will enchant them and make them run around in circles until they die.


The tourists often laugh at this, raise an eyebrow, but you can’t ask a local who lives among the fairy folk to tell you a fairy tale, without expecting a little darkness and a few possessed zombie farm animals. Especially when it is 3pm and I am coming to the end of my Thermos.


No, believe me, it’s true, I tell the tourists, as they start checking their phone signals and Googling up Wikipedia, asking Siri to prove me wrong.


The fact is, it is all true. In the mid 1800’s the new owner of the Greshornish estate didn’t believe in the fairies either, and decided to scientifically investigate the mystery of the mad, dead sheep.


He sent his people to gather up local flowers and weeds and whole sacks of fauna, to have the plants tested by experts in Edinburgh, for poison.


Naturally, they found nothing. The plants and grasses all came back proven innocent, and entirely devoid of magic.


As if poison is that easy to find. As if it is stupid enough to glow pink in a test tube, or throb under a microscope.


Vindicated, the landowner put out fifty sheep to graze.


Within a month they ran around in circles. In another month, they were all dead.


Magic said the locals.




Anyway. Greshornish is a magical spot, I tell the tourists. You have to see it to believe it; the wet grass is thick with dew and lush with moon and the gorse is butter yellow and smells like fried pineapples. Everything is a little flusher and a little plusher there, and as for fairies – well. You will have to decide for yourself.


You should go. Look, but don’t touch.


The tourists drive off there at a thousand miles per hour, hoping to find a unicorn.


They don’t need to hear the rest of the Landowners life story. Many years after his sheep all died, and died again – he employed a new botanist to take a second look at all the plants he suspected to be poisonous – and the new botanist found them to be covered with tiny snails. Perhaps the snails were the mystery toxic element?


Again, this turned out not to be so.


A decade passed.


The Landowner attempted – again and again – to graze new flocks of sheep at Greshornish, with the same maddening, deadly result. Eventually, tired, furious, bitter, and broke, the elderly Landowner took a dead sheep and some snail covered plants to an even more eminent scientist, to crack the mystery of the mad sheep, before he died.


The eminent scientist discovered microscopic creatures living within the tiny snail shells. Parasites. These same monstrous tiny critters were soon found living inside the autopsied brains of the sheep.


It turned out, merely lollygagging among the fields of Greshornish was enough to turn the brains of the sheep. Take care – warned the scientist, the brains of humans may be susceptible too.


But only if those humans were stupid. Stupid enough to linger, and to scrabble around like animals in the long grass, lighting up a barbeque on the ground, say, or ‘wild’ camping on endangered flower meadows, or shitting on a grassy hillock, drunk swimming and drinking from the deep snail filled waters.


But, as I say, I don’t like to ramble on. Giving them the full story would only ruin the tourists’ days. They want to experience the real Skye after all, with all our real fairies and real monsters. I try to give them what I can. I like to smile, and let them have their magic. As far as I am concerned, they can go to Greshornish and tread lightly, or they can go to Greshornish and swim and trash and hump and sleep wild, and then go home to Texas, and Mumbai, and Croydon, to walk around in circles forever, until they die.