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Isle of Skye

I DON'T remember when I first heard of the mystic Isle of Skye, but as a child I dreamed of a whitewashed crofter's cottage where I would read by candlelight beside a peat fire, or sleep with the sea's drumming in the air around me. I probably learned of the little island tucked against the northwest coast of Scotland, so remote from the vast dry prairie where I live, from National Geographic, where most of my information about the world originated. Unlike some of my friends, I had seen an ocean; I lived near a warm southern sea until I was four years old, but my dreams were of icy spray on black rocks backed by green fields. My obsession didn't stop with Skye; it extended to most things Scottish. The instant I first heard bagpipes, I loved them, and will still drop anything I'm doing to follow a piper. I once climbed out of a shower when I heard one in a nearby park, and was saved from public censure only because my jeans and shirt were between me and the house's front door.

I may sound like a descendant of Highlanders, but my blood is primarily English and French; the English part is particularly embarrassing when I sing Celtic fighting songs. I come from a cattle-raising family; in my neighborhood, sheep - one of Scotland's main products - are categorized with head lice as an unsavory subject no nice girl discusses.

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When we finally went to the British Isles, Kyle of Lochalsh hung like a beacon ahead of our car as we toured Cornwall, Stonehenge, and other sites. As we got closer, we paused more often, as if afraid of our dreams.

In the village of Dornie, where three lochs meet - Duich, Long, and Alsh - we stopped at Eilean Donan Castle, built in 1220 as a defense against the Danes. Since warfare was conducted on foot, the castle was safely perched on a tiny island, approached by drawbridge. Around it, thick gorse, armed with three-inch thorns, discouraged attackers, as it limits wandering by tourists today. The simple system protected the castle until 1719, when a British frigate moved into the loch and shelled it from the water side. Clan McRae restored it in 1932 as a clan war memorial and museum.

My trip journal reminds me we paid 2.54 for the car ferry across the Sound of Sleat at its narrowest point, arriving in Kyleakin on Skye in a few minutes. We passed Castle Maol, where legend says a Norwegian princess waited for her lord's return from the wars, resisting suitors and warriors alike; some suggest she still awaits him within the crumbled walls. The Norsemen held the island for four centuries before 1263.

We wandered without plan over the island's one-lane roads, pulling into lay-bys to let more aggressive native drivers pass. We talked with mountain-climbers who practice for Everest on the Cuillin Hills, rough-edged mountains that explode straight up from the sea, and three men who were repairing an ancient clan marker. On the broad green moors, peat-cutters stacked winter's fuel, working in high rubber boots in the water that seeped upward. Other Scots stacked sparse harvests of grain in teepee-like piles for winter sheep feed.

After years of waiting, I bent to enter the crofter's cottage of my dreams at the Black House Folk Museum. The air was thick with smoke, and I understood with a shock what it would be like to really live there. One end of a crofter's tiny cottage usually sheltered the family animals. The low, thick walls shut out the cold, but also the light and fresh air. Many such huts had no fireplace or chimney; the fire was built on the floor. The inside of the house, as the name implies, was black.

In another croft near the ruins of an ancient piping college, we found The Piping Centre at Borreraig on Loch Dunvegan, ancestral home of the MacCrimmons, hereditary pipers to the MacLeod chiefs from 1500 to 1800. The door was locked, but a sign directed us down a path to a cottage where a cheerful woman stopped her work and walked back to let us in. Inside the chill walls we wandered unwatched between shelves holding ancient pipes and hand-lettered signs explaining their history.

That night, in the Atholl Hotel, I mentioned that my husband, George, wanted to become a piper. A few minutes later, a dour Scot called him from the public room into the dining room. For an hour that kindly man marched around the tables, playing his pipes for George alone, explaining reeds, timing, and breath control. I twitched in frustration, but I had not been invited; instead, I tried to explain to an Irish woman and four Scots why Americans still waste their natural resources.

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The next evening, we wandered down a brae into Glendale, across the River Hamara, to Holmisdal, where sheep in warm tones of gray, brown, and tan grazed on a hillside beside the river. The knitwear shop we wanted was closed, but a smiling woman left her supper to admit us, explaining that local women weave the clothing from the band of sheep outside the window. The wool is unwashed, so it will keep you dry even in a hard rain. Fingering a thick sweater the color of peat smoke, I looked for that shade among the sheep. ``I don't see this color,'' I said lightly. ``Did the sheep die?''

``Yes.'' She was near tears. ``We only had one of those; he was a beautiful ram. That is the last sweater woven from his wool.'' She paused, while I gulped. ``I don't suppose Americans would like unwashed wool, because it smells strongly when it's wet.''

The sweater and a matching hat have kept me warm and dry even in a South Dakota blizzard. The rich smell takes me back to Skye, the joy of walking the Cuillin hills in the sea mist, the warmth of the people we met.

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