Eagle spotting in the land of giants – Skye and the BFG
Updated: Aug 8, 2018
Skye, the cinematic setting for Roald Dahl’s children’s book is just as dramatic in real-life. Look out for the spectacular winged giants soaring above the Cuillins
Sophie and the BFG stand in front of the iconic Old Man of Storr. Photo: Entertainment One
As the sun gets lower and lower in the sky, illuminating the granite cliffs of Raasay, there’s a chill in the air, but none of us moves, not even to fasten a coat button. Spindrift IV is bobbing gently and the engine is silent. I have one hand on the flybridge railing and the other on my son Ben’s collar. All eyes are fixed on a white dot 100m away, barely visible against grey rocks.
Suddenly Ben shrieks: ‘It’s moving. Look! It’s coming this way!’ Six pairs of binoculars track from east to west until the dot becomes a magnificent eagle; wings retracted, legs splayed and talons outstretched. She hovers just metres from the boat before plunging feet-first into the water, then in a flash of white, is gone, soaring back towards her rocky perch.
There’s excited chatter and my son is trembling. He’s just joined the RSPB but I’m not sure the white-tailed eagle features in the My First Book of Garden Birds.
With an 8ft wingspan, the white-tailed eagle is Britain’s largest bird of prey. There are fewer than 50 breeding pairs in Britain, mostly confined to the west coast of Scotland.
I can hardly believe we’ve seen one so soon after leaving Portree. Once hunted to extinction in the UK, they were reintroduced in the 1970s and now attract thousands of visitors to Skye.
But the wildlife is not the only reason to visit. Fans of the film the BFG are in for a treat. These coastal waters offer some of the most spectacular scenery in the world – razor-edged pinnacles and glacial valleys, deep sea lochs and dazzling beaches made of millions of crushed shells.
Coral beach on Skye – the white sands are made from crushed shells. Photo: Ali Wood
In 2015 Steven Spielberg’s visual effects team (the one behind Lord of the Rings) decamped to the island to film landmarks such as the Quiraing, The Old Man of Storr, the Faerie Glen and the Cuillin Hills.
Portree is the island’s capital and its central location, halfway up the east coast, makes it an ideal base from which to explore the rest of the island. It’s here that skipper Nigel Waterson, formerly a management consultant, set up his sea safari business and now takes passengers out on wildlife tours.
‘I’ve always lived in Scotland and was a frequent visitor to Skye,’ he tells me.’ I got my sailing ticket in 2010 and bought Spindrift IV in Whitby three years ago with an eye to changing careers.’
We watch the eagle for a while longer and before it flies away and we continue east towards the Sound of Raasay. To the north is the Trotternish peninsula, with its towering knife-edge Storr ridge, and to the south the mountain ranges of Red Cuillin, separated by a glen from the Black Cuillin, one of the UK’s most challenging climbs, with peaks of over 3,000ft.
The Quiraing. Photo: Ali Wood
It’s calm today, but Nigel tells me it can get quite choppy in the sound. ‘There’s been 100-mph winds coming down here, typically in the winter. You can sail all the way around the Sound of Raasay, but when there’s a big northerly the swell is really quite substantial.’
At this point, Ben interrupts with the important stuff: ‘Are there any sharks around here?’
‘Not right here, but there are basking sharks in more open water,’ says Nigel. ‘You can see them pretty well at Neist Point. We also get minke whale, porpoise, dolphins and even humpback whales around Skye.’
Though we don’t see any whales today, our next wildlife sighting is a thrill nonetheless. Gathered on the rocks is a colony of harbour seals. Some are snuggled up next to youngsters – who in just two weeks will be left to fend for themselves – while others seem to be sunning themselves on their backs, flippers in the air.
Walking to the Fairy Pools at the foot of the Cuillins. Photo: Ali Wood
After some time exploring the coastline, we turn around. Nigel points out the black-topped mountain of Dùn Caan on Raasay, a 14-mile long island that lies between Skye and the mainland.
‘There are 196 people on Raasay’s electoral roll,’ he says. ‘We know that because we collected the ballot boxes at midnight during the last election. We also did the primary school trip; there were eight people, including the teacher.’
Just south of Portree, below what looks like smoke rising out of a township, Nigel points out the village of Camustianavaig, near the site of the Battle of the Braes. In 1882, during the Highland Clearances, a detachment of soldiers was sent to clear the crofters from the land. Most of the men were away fishing, so it was left to the women and children to fend off the soldiers with sticks and stones.
‘There are some fierce women on the Isle of Skye,’ he says.
The rebellion eventually lead to the formation of the Crofters Act of 1886, which brought the farmers security of tenure and the right to hand a croft on to their heirs.
As we motor back into Portree Bay we scour the rocks for the sea eagle and are delighted to see it’s still there, and just 50m away is another one.
‘Skye is often cited as a good example of a shared habitat between the white-tailed eagles and golden eagles,’ says Nigel. ‘Not everyone was happy about the reintroduction, though. They had a bad name for taking livestock, particularly lambs. I don’t know if that really happens, but there’s a faction in agriculture that doesn’t want them here.’
We watch the eagle for a while through binoculars, but dusk’s approaching and it’s time to head back into Portree.
The passage is relatively straightforward, though sometimes it can be exposed to the prevailing southwesterlies. This might seem surprising, given Portree’s location. However, the glens and the lochs to the north-west and south-west funnel through the winds from those quadrants, and katabatic winds can whip down from the cliffs.
‘The problem is there’s a mile-long fetch for the waves to build up so it can get a bit bouncy if you’re sitting on a mooring in a 30-mph wind,’ says Nigel.
It’s hard to imagine that today; there’s no wind and the water’s flat. It’s so calm that Nigel passes the helm to Ben and gives him a crate to stand on so he can see out through the wheelhouse.
‘Aren’t there any hazards?’ I ask.
‘Not really. There’s a rock called Sgeir Mhór, but it’s marked by a green can,’ says Nigel.
‘The rocks extend a fair bit, but there’s clear passage on the other side, too. As locals we don’t mind which side we go round – as long as we don’t hit them.’
The sun’s now low in the sky over Portree harbour and Ben squints as he steers the boat. There’s a frown of concentration on his face and his binoculars are dangling about his knees.
‘Port a bit. Hold at 10 left,’ says Nigel, pointing to the compass. ‘OK, now turn it to zero.’ Ben stands on his tiptoes and turns the wheel, first to port, then rapidly to starboard. Nigel is unfazed. ‘Hold her steady. Hold her steady on zero.’
On the pier, designed by the renowned engineer Thomas Telford, I can see a crowd of holidaymakers strolling in front of pink and peppermint terraces. We’re so close now I can almost smell their fish and chips.
The pretty town of Portree – the capital of Skye. Photo: Ali Wood
‘Portree was actually overlooked as a harbour until King James V came here in 1540,’ says Nigel. ‘He wanted to show he was boss and refused to visit any of the castles. He moored his fleet here, set up a bit of an encampment and made all the clan chiefs bring him money. That’s how the town got its name; Port Rìgh in Gaelic means ‘King’s Harbour’.
Ben is impressed and I can see he now fancies himself as a boat skipper. However, the pontoon is not far away and much as I admire my six-year-old’s confidence, I’m relieved when Nigel takes over.
‘Nice job helmsman,’ he says. My son’s beaming.
It’s been quite a day – one I will remember for a very long time. As we return to our holiday cottage that evening, there’s a bird of prey sitting on the garden wall. Ben walks straight past it without a second glance.
‘Did you not see that?’ I ask, reaching for the camera. ‘Yeah, but it’s just a tiny buzzard. Next time I drive the boat, mum, I want to see a humpback whale.’