Those of us based in the UK may be familiar with the Isle of Skye. But many non-British travellers will never have heard of this magnificent Scottish island. This blog post is bound to change that! Since visiting Skye last summer, I sincerely believe this is one of the most beautiful places in Scotland and indeed all of the UK. Why? Because of the island’s out-of-this-world landscapes, picturesque fishing villages and medieval castles, just to name a few reasons. Above all, though, it’s the sense of isolation and space that makes this island such a fascinating place to visit. If you like the outdoors and are looking for some peace and quiet far away from bustling city life, then Skye is for you. Oh, and cloudy, rainy weather shouldn’t bother you, because they have plenty of that. After all, there’s a reason Skye is also known as the Misty Island…
How to get to Skye
Getting to Skye can be quite an endeavour. The island is the largest of the Inner Hebrides archipelago off Scotland’s rugged west coast. Since the 1990s, a motorway bridge connects Skye with the rest of Scotland. The island can hence be reached directly by car, but it’s still quite a journey: from Edinburgh or Glasgow it’s a 6-hour drive, from Inverness it’s 3 hours. However, the ride itself is a spectacle as you’ll drive straight through the incredible Scottish Highlands. If you don’t fancy driving, you could join a 2-4-day group tour from Glasgow or Edinburgh (which is what I did).
Alternatively, you could catch a train from Glasgow. Although this option is less straightforward, it’s an experience in its own right. Considered by many as one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world, the West Highland Line takes you from Glasgow’s Queen Street Station to the coastal town of Mallaig in 5 and a half hours. One of the highlights is crossing the Glennfinnan Viaduct (made famous by the Harry Potter films). From Mallaig you can catch a ferry to Armadale on the Isle of Skye.
Where to stay on Skye
Skye’s capital and largest town is Portree. Surprisingly busy – especially in summer – Portree is home to countless small family-run B&Bs, spread around town. Because of its location halfway up the island’s east coast, Portree is a great base from which to explore the rest of Skye. The historic town centre is charming but compact and has its fair share of small shops, restaurants and bars.
Be warned though: because of Portree’s popularity in high season many restaurants are fully booked evening after evening. This is especially the case at the end of summer, when visitors flock to Skye to see its beautiful wild flowers (Scottish heather). In order to avoid having to queue, make sure you book your dinners well (a couple of days) ahead! One of the most memorable meals I had in Portree was at Scorrybreac, which offers a set menu of contemporary Scottish dishes in a super-duper cosy setting (perfect after a rainy day!). For great no-nonsense seafood, I can recommend restaurant Sea Breeze.
What to do and see on Skye
For me, this was one of the most spectacular sights on Skye. The Cuillin are a rocky mountain range that formed out of volcanic and glacial activity thousands of years ago. Although there are no longer any active volcanoes here, the landscape still looks volcanic. Most spectacular are the Black Cuillin. Their dark grey peaks are often covered in clouds. This is a paradise for climbers. And if you’re not into climbing, watching the scenery from down below is just as breath-taking.
The Old Man of Storr
On the opposite end of the island, on the Trotternish Peninsula, lies another mountain range, called the Storr. Here, you’ll find one of Skye’s most iconic sights: the Old Man of Storr. This distinctive large pinnacle rock can be seen from miles away. If you’re lucky, that is. When I was here, most of the mountain was hidden behind a thick layer of fog. The area is supposed to be great for hiking and there is a moderate trail leading to the top in 45 minutes.
Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls
Just north of the Storr you’ll find some of the most dramatic seaside cliffs on all of Skye. The 90-meter-high basalt columns here are also known as Kilt Rock. Because – if you look very (very) well – they resemble a pleated kilt. From the road, it’s a short and easy walk to the edge of the cliffs. It’s well fenced off these days, because there have been fatal accidents here in the past. From the viewpoint you’ll have stunning views of Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls, an incredibly photogenic waterfall that plunges into the sea.
Dunvegan Castle and Gardens
Dunvegan Castle has been the home of the chiefs of the MacLeod clan for over 800 years, making it the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland. Situated next to Loch (Lake) Dunvegan, it’s also among Scotland’s most beautiful castles. Both the castle and the gardens are very well maintained and more than worth a visit. The MacLeod family still resides here in winter and the castle and gardens are therefore only open to the public from 1 April to 15 October.
Highland cattle are a quintessential part of the Scottish landscape. These adorable cows can be instantly recognised by their long hair, which keeps them warm in the harsh Scottish weather conditions. Highland cows can be found throughout Skye. If you’d like to see them up close, there are several farms that allow visitors. It’s a great way to learn more about (all forms of) life on the island.
You might wonder why a graveyard should be part of your Skye itinerary. But this is not just any cemetery. Kilmuir Cemetery is famous throughout Scotland because it’s the final resting place of Flora MacDonald. Flora who? You may not have heard of her before, but Flora MacDonald is one of the most legendary figures in Scottish history. In 1746, she helped the Catholic Prince Charles Edward Stuart escape after he was defeated by forces of the Protestant King George II. Although her family had sided with the government, Flora decided to help Charles Edward Stuart, feeling pity for his situation. Disguised as a maid, the prince and Flora fled to the Isle of Skye. After news of the escape broke, Flora was arrested and jailed in the Tower of London. A year later she was released under a general amnesty. She then married Allan MacDonald and they emigrated to North Carolina. But the American War of Independence forced them to return to Skye, where Flora died in 1790. A large standing cross marks her grave at Kilmuir Cemetery. And she’s not the only legend buried here: the renown British fashion designer Alexander McQueen was also laid to rest at Kilmuir Cemetery. With widespread views of Skye’s coastline this graveyard surely is one of a kind.
Eilean Donan Castle
Though not actually located on the island, Eilean Donan Castle cannot be missed when visiting Skye. Built on a tiny island between mainland Scotland and the Isle of Skye, Eilean Donan is arguably Scotland’s most iconic castle. You will more likely than not have seen images of it before.
The foundations of Eilean Donan Castle date back to the thirteenth century, when it was built to help protect the area from the Vikings. Over the centuries, the castle changed in size and shape as it became a stronghold of the MacKenzie and MacRae clans. An uprising in 1719 resulted in the castle being bombarded and it was left deserted. It lay in ruins for the next 200 years, until a new generation of the MacRae clan decided to renovate and rebuilt the castle at the start of the 20th century. These days, the castle is a museum that’s open most of the year apart from January. If you’re interested in Scotland’s clans (extended networks of families) and their history, this is a great place to learn more about them.
The mythical history and scenery of Skye and its surroundings make it a fascinating destination. I for one, will be back here.