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Over the Sea to Skye

July 1, 2010

There are many enjoyable things about running the Scottish National Portrait Gallery but few better than visiting Skye on the most perfect weekend of the summer.

I left Edinburgh at noon on Thursday 3 June to ride (Ducati 1000 DS) to Mallaig and catch the ferry to Armadale. I needed to work at the Clan Donald Centre on Friday and to meet an old friend Hugh Cheape, who is a course leader at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the National Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture. Hugh has been advising us on how we can use Gaelic in the new Portrait Gallery.

Many years ago it was Hugh who pointed out the significance of the ruins in the background of our full-length portrait of Lord Macdonald of Slate. This great Highland portrait used to hang at Armadale Castle and it had puzzled me that the artist had chosen not to paint Lord Macdonald there or at his other property at Mugstot on Skye. It was Hugh who realised that the ruins in the background were those of Duntulm Castle at the extreme north of the island and that the anonymous artist had copied them from the illustration in Thomas Pennant’s Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides published in 1774.

Duntulm had been the seat of the Macdonalds in their heyday as Lords of the Isles. Pennant’s description provided another fascinating insight on the Celtic significance of the portrait. “Dun-tuilm castle is a ruin, but was inhabited as late as 1715. It was the original seat of the MacDonalds in Skie: near it, a hill called Cnock an Eirick, or, the hill of pleas: such eminences are frequent near the house of all the great men, for on these, by the assistance of their friends, they determined all differences between their people. The place was held sacred.” It is on Cnoc an Eireachd that Lord Macdonald chose to be portrayed: The portrait becoming a powerful statement of his Celtic ancestry and position as head of one of the greatest Highland clans. The painting will be the centre piece of an exhibition in the new Scotish National Portrait Gallery which will examine Highland dress.

On Saturday I rode to Duntulm, explored the ruins and marvelled at the views out over the Minch to the isles beyond.

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