I finally relent and give up the Quiraing to the ghosts, turning my back on the pelting rain and wind and all too soon the back of my pants are as soaked as the front. Like invisible hands pushing me, making sure I don’t turn back, the wind ushers me back down the slopes. I look backwards over my shoulder once only to have my face instantly doused by the rain. I don’t look back again. The Quiraing will keep its secrets from me today.
As I get lower, the rain dissipates and the slopes of emerald glitter from the mist that seems perpetual. The lack of tall vegetation clearly shows every hummock and dip of the land between the stone formations jutting out of the ground. Here and there a handful of boulders are scattered downslope, as though they were marbles tossed by giants and then abandoned. This is the Quiraing landslip, part of the largest mass land movement in Britain.
Landslip. It’s such a gentle word, utterly unlike the violent ‘landslides’ that suddenly cascade downhill without warning taking trees and houses with them. Standing back and looking at the landscape as a whole, it’s easy to see how the land simply slid down from the basalt towers, like a tired person slowly sinking in a chair. Landslip and landslide are mostly interchangeable words, but here, I think landslip is the perfect descriptor. Although some of the nineteen mile long Trotternish landslip undoubtedly occurred suddenly and violently, other sections moved much slower. The Quiraing is still moving under my feet even as I walk. The evidence of this undetectable movement is the unending repairs on the road in Flodigarry, downhill from the Quiraing, next to the sea.
Far under my feet lies the reason for this large Quiraing land movement, one that covers three square miles, Jurassic sediment. The ghosts of an ancient era, from when the land I stand on was under a tropical sea, are now responsible for the Quiraing’s long, slow movement.
Although many come to the Isle of Skye for the dinosaurs, I prefer the specters of smaller life lying buried far beneath me. Prehistoric oysters and marine snails remain entombed in rocks underground and on the beaches. I found one myself on a nearby beach in a flat stone the size of my hand. I set the smooth rock on end on a boulder and inexpertly hit it with another rock. A thin piece split off revealing a dozen tiny shells inside, shells that had never been observed by hominid eyes before. Shells hidden away for millions of years.
In the misty land where I walk people have found other ghosts among the rocks that they called thunderbolts, long narrow objects thought to be thrown down to earth during thunderstorms. The Scots believed them to have medicinal powers to cure anything from rheumatism to preventing nightmares. Thunderbolts are the fossils of belemnites, extinct invertebrates similar to modern squid, but with long, pointed internal shells left behind when they vanished from the earth.
But my favorite stone specters are the ammonites. I spent hours scouring a Flodigarry beach for these extinct nautilus-like animals. They cruised around in the ancient oceans with their tentacles sprouting out from the spiral shell’s opening. Ammonites left behind more than their intricate shells, they left behind mysteries. In medieval times they were called snakestones because of the belief the circular forms were petrified snakes. In Scotland they were thought to have medicinal properties, for both humans and livestock, and were known as Crampstones. Despite my best efforts, I failed to find an ammonite fossil on Skye, but I accepted my defeat and bought one at the Staffin Dinosaur Museum to take home my own Trotternish ghost.