Scotland’s rural islands are some of the best places to get away from the hustle and bustle of the British mainland. The Isle of Skye is arguably one of the prettiest of the isles, and certainly the most accessible.
The Isle of Skye, or An t-Eilean Sgiathanach in its native Gaelic, lies off Scotland’s north-west coast and is made up of six distinct peninsulas: Duirnish, Waternish, Trotternish, Minginish, Strathaird and Sleat.
Visiting the island can feel like stepping into a place out of storybooks; indeed the island is associated with a bounty of myths and legends: from the warrior woman and martial arts teacher, Scáthach, whose fortress Dún Scáith was located on the island, to local heroine, Flora MacDonald who, following the failed Jacobite uprising, smuggled Bonnie Prince Charlie off the island by dressing him as an Irish maid. The landscape is a treasure of jagged peaks, wild heather, sparkling lakes (lochs) and downy moors. Drivers share the narrow roads with wandering sheep and all signs are bilingual: Gaelic followed by English.
Skye, which was once ruled by the Norse, takes its name from the Old Norse word for cloud, skuy. References to the sometimes-unwelcoming climate continue in its affectionate nickname, The Misty Isle.
Nevertheless, the ever-present threat of rain and clouds does little to deter visitors, who come prepared for changeable weather, and although the island gets inundated with tourists during its short summers, Skye is large enough that you can always find a remote, isolated corner to escape to.
When the sky is clear, Skye is blessed with a golden light that makes the island a favorite destination for artists and photographers. Opportunities for outdoor activities also abound, as do cozy pubs where you can just relax with a local beer or whisky.
What to see and do
Mountain Climbing and Hiking
The sharp mountain peaks of Skye’s Cuillin range are visible from all over the island, and the main draw for keen climbers. The Cuillins reach 3,255 feet (992.12 meters) at their highest point, Sgùrr Alasdair, and the range is home to 12 Munros — Munro is the Scottish name for a mountain higher than 3,000 feet (914.4 meters). Some routes are quite challenging and should only be tackled by experienced climbers.
The jagged rocks and pinnacles of the Quiraing landslip on the Trotternish peninsula offer an easier, though steep, hike. Also on Trotternish, a well-marked path leads uphill to the foot of a distinctive 165-foot rock column called Old Man of Storr, and the pretty Fairy Glen offers a gentler walk through a landscape of small lochs and conical hills that locals describe as ‘Scotland in miniature.’
From Elgol, on the Strathaird peninsula, you can take a boat across the Loch Scavaig to the entrance of Loch Coruisk, an isolated shaft of water that lies beneath some of the Cuillins’ tallest peaks. Two boats that currently offer this trip are Misty Isle and Bella Jane.
Dunvegan Castle has been the seat of the Clan Macleod since the thirteenth century and is Scotland’s oldest continually inhabited castle. The castle is home to historical artifacts that include a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hair and the Fairy Flag, which was raised at clan battles during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and is said to possess magical properties.
The Clan Donald Centre occupies the 18th-century, neo-Gothic Armadale Castle on Sleat. The center houses a library, for those interested in researching their Scottish ancestry; a museum that covers 1,500 years of history, and 40 acres of gardens.
When local heroine Flora MacDonald died in 1790, 3,000 people attended her funeral. Her gravestone lies in Kilmuir on Trotternish, and is inscribed with an epitaph by Dr. Johnson: ‘Her name will be mentioned in history and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.’ A few steps from MacDonald’s gravestone you will find that of late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who celebrated his Highland ancestry in many of his creations.
Trumpan Church, on the northernmost point of the Waternish peninsula, sits in ruins on a peaceful waterfront site that belies its role in one of Skye’s most violent episodes. The invading Clan McDonald set fire to the church in 1578, murdering all inside but a young girl who managed to escape through a window, severing a breast in the process. A revenge attack by the MacLeods soon followed: they slaughtered all of the McDonalds in a battle known as the Battle of the Spoiling Dyke.
Book a day-trip or multi-day tour of the Isle of Skye
Food and Drink
Skye is home to two small scale breweries: the Isle of Skye Brewing Company, which is located in Uig, and the Cuillin micro-brewery, which produces four ales and is next door to the Sligachan Hotel, whose bar has a collection of 200 whiskeys.
Scotch drinkers should not miss the opportunity to visit the Talisker Distillery, the only whisky distillery on Skye, which produces a distinctly peaty single malt. Tours of the facility are led by extremely knowledgeable distillery staff and include a wee dram of Talisker 10-Year and a discount coupon for the shop.
If you are on a budget, and the weather is good, grab a portion of fish and chips from any of the takeaway chippies in Portree and a bench down by the pretty, colorful harbor.
For a splurge, you can’t get much better than the Three Chimneys restaurant on Waternish. The restaurant occupies a 120 year-old crofter’s cottage and specializes in fresh, locally caught seafood.
Fresh seafood is also on the menu at Lochbay Seafood Restaurant in the village of Stein on Waternish. The restaurant is housed in a tiny cottage with only a handful of tables and advance booking highly advisable in summer.
Portree, the biggest town on the Isle of Skye, offers the largest choice of accommodation options in a convenient location that is on the bus route and home to a helpful tourist office.
Elsewhere, budget travelers have a choice of three Scottish Youth Hostel Association-affiliated hostels located in Uig, Broadford and Glenbrittle.
Pricier options include the Duntulm Castle Hotel, which occupies a nineteenth century shooting lodge on Trotternish, and the five-star hotel at the Three Chimneys.
The island is home to dozens of small bed and breakfasts, which are usually family-run and offer a way to connect with local people that you might miss in a bigger hotel. Breakfast is always included in rates and is often a highlight of a stay. A traditional Scottish breakfast is a gut-busting affair of haggis, black pudding, eggs, bacon, sausage, porridge, breads and cereal. A good home-cooked breakfast will really set you up for a day’s hiking or exploring.
Since the mid-1990s Skye has been connected to mainland Scotland via the Skye Bridge, which reaches from Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland to Kyleakin on Skye’s Sleat peninsula.
From Mondays through Saturdays, public buses run this route every hour, continuing to the town of Broadford, and to Portree five times a day. On Sundays, there are two buses a day from Kyle of Lochalsh to Portree.
The CalMac ferry company serves the 30-minute sea crossing from Mallaig, on the mainland, to Armadale, on Skye’s Sleat peninsula, between four and eight times a day. Ferries also travel several times a day between Glenelg, 25 miles south of Kyle of Lochalsh and Kylerhea on Skye.
Visitors traveling with a vehicle should try to make reservations at least a day in advance (especially during the summer season), while foot passengers can just buy a ticket before boarding.
While getting around the island by public transportation is possible, you will be left reliant on an infrequent timetable and limited routes. Sundays, when bus services all but close down, are especially difficult.
If you are limited to using public transportation, and watching your budget, be sure to only take the local blue Stagecoach buses while on the island. Citylink buses, which are bigger and travel between Glasgow and Skye, are considerably more expensive.
A ‘One Day Rover’ bus pass is available on-board Stagecoach buses and is worth the investment if taking more than two buses a day.
Traveling by car allows you to get away from the main towns and into the far corners of the island; it is the best way to really see Skye.
A few companies offer car hire on Skye, and will meet you at your ferry terminal or bus stop upon arrival on the island. Booking a car as far ahead as possible is advisable, as is requesting an automatic transmission if you are uncomfortable driving stick.
Skye’s roads are narrow and many are single lane. Pay close attention to passing places and always be prepared to pull over to let oncoming vehicles pass — and show patience in waiting for sheep to cross.
Read about more Isle of Skye tours.
All photos courtesy of Karen Gardiner Dion.
– Karen Gardiner Dion