Darkness was falling slowly as we drove off the ferry. The crossing had been calm and the views oh so pretty, serving up amazing vistas under gorgeous sunlight. Our goal was not far but here, the roads seem built for coos and sheep, not cars and speed. Oh me oh my, we were on Skye!
The Isle of Skye speaks to the imagination. And while the name reminded me of the Bond movie “Skyfall” and its haunting theme song by Adele, that film’s awesome Scots scenes were shot in Glencoe, not Skye. The name Skye actually became a popular name, often – but not only – for girls.
Where are we?
Skye is the largest of the Inner Hebrides islands and its most northern. To give you a better idea of what “largest” means, it’s just slightly larger than O’ahu, Hawai’i. And definitely more north! Skye sits at a latitude of about 57 degrees north, like Sitka, Alaska. When darkness is falling here, it falls slowly, with the sun dropping down sideways rather than straight. This provides a long grace period of dusk as well as spectacular sunsets: great for travel, as there is no light pollution here, part of Skye’s considerable charm.
Really: drive carefully!
While the island isn’t all that big, do allow plenty of time to get around. Unlike O’ahu, there is no zipping up to the North Shore in under an hour. Many roads are single track but have well-signed “passing places” or turnouts every quarter mile or so. And I wasn’t kidding about those coos and sheep: they really are everywhere! You quickly get used to it all but again, take your time.
SET YOUR ROUTE
There are two options to get to Skye. You can drive in on the A87 over the big Skye Bridge on the north side, or take the Mallaig-Armadale ferry on the southside. Skye does not have an airport; the nearest local one is Inverness and the closest big international one is Glasgow, with Edinburgh an hour further.
We took the ferry from Mallaig, a more adventurous feeling. It’s east of Fort William, past Glenfinnan, about an hour’s drive. CalMac operates a very frequent schedule and the run to Armadale on Skye only takes about 30 minutes – but count on an hour or more with loading and unloading.
SET YOUR EXPECTATIONS
Skye is peaceful, quiet and rural almost everywhere. No massive infrastructure, no large chain hotels, no big box stores here. Instead, enjoy tiny villages, quaint local shops, eateries and pubs.
Lodging options are mostly lovely – but limited in number. What there is tends to be pricey in season, many are closed out of season, and they book out far in advance for any season. At the company, we have our favorite B&Bs as well as several mid-range to upscale hotels, in prime locations that we know from personal experience, that offer good value.
PLOP DOWN in PORTREE
While Skye has many beautiful locations with different characteristics, we wanted Portree as a central base. We like this small town, its restaurants, shops and pubs. The heart of the village has some fun options but, we went for a “splurge” stay about a mile out at the excellent Cuillin Hills Hotel.
The Cuillin Hills Hotel
Prettily positioned on Loch Portree, just off the Sound of Raasay, the hotel offers picture-perfect-postcard views towards Portree’s harbor front. It also boasts a fantastic restaurant called – what else – “The View”. The hotel has a well-stocked pub/whiskybar with an amazing selection of single malts on display. Guests can also just hang out in the adjacent large residents lounge, richly decorated and providing lots of comfortable seating.
A room with a view
The building is pleasantly low and our lovely four-poster room with stunning views was only the one floor up. No elevator, par for the course in many a Scots hotel, but baggage assistance is available if needed. We settled in and checked the weather forecast for the coming days: pouring rain every day… Luckily, this proved to be completely wrong and we had marvelous weather instead. Go figure!
Fun fact: “Portree” is pronounced “Port-REE” rather than “Por-TREE”, and “Cuillin” is pronounced “COOL-lin”. Takes a bit of getting used to, after saying it wrong for so long!
TOURING the TOP (DOUBLE OH) SEVEN
So, here we are on Skye, so much to see and do. Where to start? I could write a book about it but this is only a blog so, I’ll more or less briefly describe 7 highlights of our stay. No “double oh” with that 7 but, plenty of oohs and aahs!
001) OLD MAN of STORR
Skye’s Trotternish Peninsula is as far north as you can go on the island, and the coastal route around it is spectacular. We first stopped at the Old Man of Storr to stretch and do a bit of hiking. It’s only about 7 miles up from Portree and there’s a parking pullout strip right there. The hike is just over 2 miles up and while not all that steep, I’d allow 1-2 hours roundtrip, depending on your interest in admiring the views and taking pictures. Storr is a large rocky hill and the Old Man a big standing stone, visible from many points on Skye. You can actually hike beyond it, for great views back.
Back down, we drove on north. The continuing route has historically interesting marked sights to stop at. Look for the numbered signs, with parking areas and explanatory information displays. I’ll detail the next one later in this story – keep reading 🙂
002) DIGGING DINOSAURS!
It may surprise you but these prehistoric giants roamed the Isle in large numbers and left their footprints all over – literally! You can see them – um, the footprints – on the beach at Staffin, stop number 9 on the aforementioned marked route. There is a cool little museum here too. And by “cool” I mean interesting but also cool as in: unheated! Fine in summer, but be prepared for a bit of a chill in the off-season.
A world of good at the Columba 1400
We took a break at the Columba 1400, an admirable social initiative to help youngsters realize their potential, strengthening communities. Named for the 6th century Irish Saint Columba whose shrine in Iona has been visited for 1,400 years, the project operates a second location at Loch Lomond. The charitable Columba 1400 enterprise started up in the year 2000 and has provided courses to some 6,000 youths since. A great cause – and all revenues get plowed back into the project. This made us feel ever so socially responsible, wolfing down excellent freshly baked scones, lovely with clotted cream, jam and a nice pot of Earl Grey!
Continue along the same road up to Duntulm Castle, the northernmost point of Skye. In 2015, not even 2 years ago, researchers made a spectacular discovery: a dinosaur pathway from the Jurassic period, 170 million years ago. They found dino footprints that are only visible at low tide. You can actually walk to them (have a care) and marvel at this prehistoric sight.
Before you get there, and if you like more serious hiking, make time for the Quiraing Walk. It takes a few hours, requires adequate fitness and ideally some solid hillwalking experience. A very worthwhile hike – but make sure your camera batteries are charged…
003) FAIRY GLEN
The Fairy Glen is gorgeous – but rather secretive. No road signs to it or indicators when arriving at it. So, slow down on the A87 at the Uig Hotel and look for a narrow road east towards Balnaknock and Sheadar. It’s about a mile or so along and, park carefully as there really isn’t an official area. Once you’re safely pulled over, hop out to have a look at the lower section with collapsed drystone walls and then start up the slopes for some wonderful views.
By the way: the Uig Hotel offers good lodging, a restaurant and a very impressive whisky selection. I’ve booked a number of clients here, as well as in the more rustic but also more affordable lodge right behind it.
The name “Fairy Glen” has no known link to any legends or fairy stories, but rumor has it that some tour guides are having great fun making stuff up, to see if their stories will spread. Some say there is a historic link to nearby Dunvegan Castle’s Fairy Flag, see the next stop, but that too is speculation.
Fairys and Stardust
Unknown and rather ignored for a long time, the Fairy Glen was a film backdrop for the 2007 fantasy movie “Stardust”, narrated by the great Sir Ian McKellen. Its most famous spot is Castle Ewen, a rocky outcropping that from a distance and with less than 20/20 eyesight might be taken for a castle. The origins of that name too are shrouded in the mists of time…
To get to the top, I followed a bunch of sheep straight up the slopes. They looked on Mr. T style, pitying the fool. If only I hadn’t accepted their actually unspoken yet perceived challenge, I might have noticed a much easier path to the left. I did wonder where those other hikers came from all of a sudden! Flashing a somewhat apologetic grin at them, I got some looks back like “wow, look at crazy kilt guy scrambling up here”. The sheep seemed considerably less impressed. I did take the easy path down, after hanging out with my woolly pals for a bit, enjoying the views in this peaceful setting.
004) DUNVEGAN CASTLE
Dunvegan is the ancient home of Clan MacLeod and the oldest continuously inhabited Castle in Scotland. The Castle’s introduction video down in the presentation room features the Clan Chief who will set you right on the pronunciation: unlike the popular diet, it’s “Dun-VEGG-an” Castle. Clan MacLeod at Dunvegan and Clan Donald at Armadale dominated Skye for hundreds of years. The current Clan McLeod Chief is the 30th, Hugh Magnus MacLeod. Note the “Magnus” in the name to reflect their Norse origins.
In Scots Gaelic, the name is “Dun Bheagan”, with “bh” being a “v” sound in English. It means as much as small fort. Not sure why, as the Castle is a rather imposing building with lots of history, many rooms to explore and lots of artifacts to admire. As is usual in these places, no photography allowed inside. Walk outside around the back to their boat ramp area for a picturesque view of the Castle reflected in the water, photographically rewarding.
Flying the Flag of Invincibility
The Clan’s most prized possession is the “Fairy Flag”, likely from the 4th century, woven in the Middle East. It is linked to fairies, crusades and invincibility when used as a Clan battle flag.
Fun fact: the Clan Chief pronounces “Celtic” not with the “K” sound we commonly hear in the USA and Ireland but with an “S”. I enjoyed that, being an old-time Boston Celtics fan, my home for years in the Larry Bird era! Ahhh, the legendary number 33…
The views over Loch Dunvegan towards Gairbh Eilein are amazing from up inside the Castle. Looking out, I spotted a guy in a canoe taking pictures of the Castle, using professional equipment, perhaps for a magazine. I took a picture of him right back, another rewarding photography moment.
The Castle Gardens cover over 5 acres and are surprisingly luscious, considering that moors and craggy rocks dominate the Skye landscape. There are three very different ones: the Water Garden with its waterfall and bridges, the formal Round Garden, and a little further, easy to miss, the Walled Garden with a nice lily pond in the middle.
Defying the Laws of Physics, we spent more time than we had at Dunvegan and, alas, that meant no window left to drive out to Neist Point and the Cliffs. A reason to come back in the future!
005) THE FAIRY POOLS at GLEN BRITTLE
This famous and well-visited spot is a mere 40-minute drive from Portree. You can take the B885 route straight across Skye west then south or, the shorter but busier A87 south to Sligachan then west. The last 6 or so miles you’ll be on one of those narrow but metaled single-track roads with passing places. Park in the signposted parking lot on your right, thoughtfully provided by the Forestry Commission Scotland.
A hike for young and old
The Fairy Pools are accessible via a maintained and fairly short path. Cross the road and hike down along a modest incline to the River Brittle and the pools. Expect maybe an hour round-trip, going slowly, but plan more, especially if you’re into photography, as it is so gorgeous. Even on this blustery day, there were loads of visitors enjoying the wonderful setting and views, a wide variety from obviously experienced hikers striding along to an elderly lady taking it slow but getting there all the same, using her cane. After all, this is Skye: what’s the rush?
On the way back out, we caused a small traffic jam: a “Heilan’ Coo” appeared! I courageously ignored my valuable side mirrors and pulled over in one of those passing places. You’re not supposed to do this but hey: did I mention there was a Heilan’ Coo? The cars behind us could have passed us very easily actually, but several stopped and yanked out their phones and cameras too, thanking us! At the end of the single-track road, we did not turn right to go back to Portree but left. Time for the next highlight: from single track to single malt!
006) TALISKER DISTILLERY
Aye, me bonnie lass graciously allowed the proverbial wee dram! Talisker Distillery is at Carbost on Loch Harport, about half an hour driving from Portree – and conveniently near those Fairy Pools a mere 6 miles away. It is named after the hamlet of Talisker, originally owned by Clan MacLeod. The Distillery is the only whisky distillery on Skye, although the island boasts local ales and beers too. In Uig, the Isle of Skye Brewery offers a Red, Gold and Black, available all over the island. After days of serious sampling, I deemed them worthy brews indeed!
What’s in a name?
Talisker was established in 1830 and within about 70 years it became one of the best-selling single malts in Scotland. No longer fully independent but part of the huge Diageo consortium, Talisker still produces unique single malt whisky, several kinds, with names that evoke their heritage and location. Think Skye, Neist Point, Dark Storm and 57 Degrees North, named for the Distillery’s high latitude.
Truth be known, I found it a bit disconcerting to see other Diageo distilleries products in their gift shop. But, as long as those London-based owners leave the Skye locals alone to make Talisker, let’s be Jacobite about it and toast to their health with a hearty “slainte mhor”. The guided tour was excellent: educational as well as fun, and of course followed by the reward: a tasting.
Tours are available to all, but it’s wise to call ahead to secure a spot. Just in case a whole flock is visiting at the same time…
Driving back on the Carbost road, see if you can spot the scarecrow at the intersection. It’s part of the uniquely Skye “Tattie Bogal” or “scarecrow” festival held in June/July, when locals display a hilarious range of scarecrows, as shown in a video by Tartan Lens. “Tattie Bogal” made it to being the Scotsman’s Scottish Word of the Week in May 2014.
007) LICENSE to KILT at KILT ROCK
So logically, this final site is just a bit north of the Old Man of Storr, very close to Portree, and should have been number 002 but hey, I’m on this Bond thing so it had to be number 007: License to Kilt! And as licenses go, despite other worthy performances, nobody does it better than Sir Sean Connery. Have a look at this Independent (UK) article for the original Bond in: “A View to a Kilt”!
Our stop here was to see the famous waterfall at Mealt Falls as well as Kilt Rock. The Falls are right at the car park and drop some 200 feet off the sheer cliffs into the seas below. It gets very windy here, and you can hear this eerie sound, as if someone is softly singing.
In the spirit of bringing coals to Newcastle, I actually brought my own kilt to Scotland. After all, isn’t a kilt the only proper outfit for visiting Kilt Rock? I just love my long-distance hiking and road races SportKilt, made by a California company near where I live these days!
IF ONLY YOU LIVED TWICE
I hope my story will inspire you to travel to Skye with us, and inspired you to go see my top 007. But truth be known, we only scratched the surface. There is so much more to see and do here: the Skye Museum of Island Life, horseback riding, fishing, kayaking, birding, on and on goes the list. As always, time and money do run out and at that point, you gotta get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged. But if you’re like me, you’ll leave a piece of your heart behind on the mysteriously magical Isle of Skye. Like a dinosaur footprint on a remote sandy beach….
DISCLAIMER: My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that my opinions and views are not necessarily shared by the company. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine except where credited as noted, as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
(R) Photography by Robin Gabbert
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