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With the name Skye, there are certain things that must be done in life. Visiting my namesake of the Isle of Skye was at the top of the list for years. I’d always had high expectations of Scotland’s largest island. It’s not for nothing that National Geographic once voted it as the 4th best island in the world.
About the Isle of Skye
The Isle of Skye is the fourth-largest island in the British Isles, the second-largest of the Hebrides, and the largest of the Inner Hebrides. The Hebrides islands are located off the western coast of Scotland. The Isle of Skye is the only one accessible by a bridge, making it a popular tourist destination for Brits and foreign travelers alike.
There are about 10,000 inhabitants on the island, 1/4 of which are in the “capital” town of Portree. Several tourist destinations are available on the island, including a distillery (soon to be two), the worlds only by-hand tannery, the longest-inhabited castle in Scotland, etc. However, the primary attraction of the island is the nature and landscape. And attract it does. Every single hostel and B&B was full when I went. Good thing I had already planned to stay at a campground.
The first step was to get to Skye. There are 2-3 day tours leaving from Edinburgh. I personally wouldn’t recommend them. First, they are expensive. Second, they lock you into an exact schedule, only a small part of which is on the Isle of Skye.
If you don’t have your own car, there are a couple different ways to get to Skye. You can go via Glasgow or Inverness, and either by train or bus. They are all about the same price. However, make sure you book at least a couple days in advance. Train tickets double in price after 6 PM the day before your journey. The cheapest (by a couple pounds) is the Citylink bus directly from Glasgow to Portree for about £40. Once you’re onto the island, it is very easy to get a carpool within a couple minutes.
My recommendation would be to go by train. The routes are far more scenic and the seats can be more comfortable. Not all the trains have bathrooms as the buses do, but that’s hardly a compromise for the views. The train from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh travels along several bodies of water. And for the ultimate journey, take the train from Fort William to Mallaig. This takes you over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which might look familiar if you’re a Harry Potter fan. And if you want the ultimate experience for a few quid more, you can take the Hogwarts Express over the bridge in a true steam train. If you do take the train to Mallaig, you’ll need to take the ferry to Armadale on the island for £4.75, and then a bus to Portree for £7 (or hitchhike).
Walking through Portree, I found nearly every house doubled as a B&B. This stems from an old tradition of providing hospitality to Scottish travelers making their way across the highlands who needing a place to stay at night. Residents had the habit of having an extra bedroom, and those rooms are still available to rent out. If you want something cheaper there are a couple hostels in Portree, and the Skyewalker hostel in Portnalong is rated the best in Scotland. Of course, the cheapest are the campgrounds around the island, which is where I stayed my first night there. Only about 20 minutes walking outside of Portree, the Torvaig Campsite was the perfect stop. Granted, this is the Isle of Skye. If cold, wind and rain are not your cup of tea, camping here won’t be either. But it suited me just fine.
The second night I spent at a wonderful B&B, which was really a wonderful lady’s house she rented rooms out of. Not only did Sandra have a wonderful house and very comfortable room, she also provided a home-made, five-star Scottish breakfast in the morning, complete with eggs, bacon, sausage, potato sconces, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, toast, fruit, orange juice and coffee. Yum!
The food on the island isn’t particularly special compared to the rest of Scotland. There are, however, a couple special mentions. The first was The Isles Inn in the center of Portree. I’d already eaten haggis in Scotland, but their serving was amazing. Just as a note, don’t ask or think about what haggis is made of. Just eat it. It’s the national dish and not to be skipped if you visit Scotland. I’ve run into a couple people who didn’t prefer it, but it’s actually a hard meal to dislike. Just find a good quality restaurant, like The Isles, and order a plate of haggis, neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes).
Then, if you like seafood, head to The Oyster Shed just up the road from the Talisker Distillery. This new seafood stand is pure fish farm fresh food. With 1 million oysters growing just a couple minutes away, their food is fresh and delicious (if you’re a seafood fan, of course). Oysters are £1 each and served with lemon. Order some chips on the side and you’re good to go.
There are many attractions to see on the Isle of Skye, far more than you could possibly visit in a day, or even two. If you want to have a sunny day as well, you could easily spend a week on the island. I’ll list some of the highlights, as well as my personal favorites and recommendations.
The Isle of Skye is home to some of the most unique rock formations and landscapes in the world. Books have been written about the magical nature of these locations, and many have their origin in ancient fairy folklore.
The first is the fairy pools. These waterfalls are unlike any other on earth. Their clear blue water doesn’t need any Photoshop (when it’s sunny out). The backdrop of the Black Cuillin mountains themselves is one-of-a-kind. You can hike several kilometers up the path (which is only about a year old), but don’t stray too far from the trail or you might lose a shoe in the surrounding bogs. And if you want the supreme adventure, bring your bathing suit and a towel and ignore the bitter cold weather. You can jump from a ledge into one of the main pools by a waterfall, and then swim underwater through a hole in the rock to the waterfall itself. I did, and almost lost my voice. But damn it was worth it!!!
Next is the Fairy Glen. Now how do I describe something this magical? I just can’t. So here’s a picture to say it all.
Then there are Old Man Storr and Neist Point. I actually didn’t make it to those. Like I said, it’s actually impossible to visit the whole island in a day. But as far as breathtaking landscapes go, those would definitely be included.
There are a few castles to visit on the island, the best of which is Dunvegan Castle. Dunvegan has the been the home to and continuously occupied by the McLeod clan for the past 800 years. It is also home to the Fairy Flag, which you’ll have to learn about there. The only catch is you have to pay £11 to get in. Or you can get around the back for a photo if your tour guide is really cool, like mine was.
Finally there are the smaller attractions. Fairy Bridge, Trumpan Church and it’s horrific history, Armadale Castle, Talisker Distillery and Skyeskyns, the only tannery on the island. While you’ll pay £8 to see the distillery, Skyeskyns is free. Skyeskyns might not be the top attraction on the Isle of Skye, but getting a full tour of how to make sheepskin rugs and throws is worth the visit.
This requires a bit of a story. I went to Skye with a friend who had booked on the SkyeBus tour of the island the following day. She said there were still spaces on the bus open, and when we showed up the next morning early for the bus the sign said there were seats available. But alas, the driver said he was fully booked. So my friend took her seat and I was left to wander around the town to find an alternative to getting around the island.
I went the tourist information center and found there was a TourSkye bus leaving in a few minutes for £40. The tour alternated each day between two routes, one to the fairy pools and the other to the north of the island. Unfortunately this one was heading north and would not be visiting any of the fairy locations on the island, but it was better than nothing.
That’s when I met Rob. He was bringing another group and passengers into town for the TourSkye bus. I asked him if he was also giving a tour, and he said no, he was just bringing the passengers. I said I really wanted to get to the fairy pools, and offered to find more passengers for a tour. He refused, but after a bit more pleading, he said he would give me a private half-day tour to the fairy pools for £40. Yeay!
So we set out to the fairy pools. I jumped into and swam in the pools, as covered above. We spent a couple hours there, walking far up the trail toward the Black Cuillin mountains. Ironically, when we arrived I ran into my friend leaving after a quick view of the pools (no time for jumping). I offered for her to join my private tour, but she declined.
When we got back in the van, Rob grabbed the map to decide where to go next. And thus continued our adventure. We went to all the attractions covered above, had lunch at the Oyster Shed and tried a shot of the fiery Talisker whiskey. He gave me loads of data about the island, some of which I’ll share at the end of this post.
But there was more interesting event which occurred. Just before we got to the Fairy Glen, we saw the SkyeBus parked on the side of the road. I said it looked like it was broken down and when we drove up alongside we found that was the case. Rob said he would take on any passengers who wanted to switch over, but none seized the opportunity. Of course, I demanded my friend get on my tour, and in shock she complied. So while the rest of the passengers of that tour were picked up and brought back to Portree, my friend and I made it to the final destination of our tours. And the picture heading this post shows just how spectacular that was.
So my recommendation. Book TourSkye no matter what. And if you’re going to the island for two or more days, which you absolutely must to see everything, book the tour for two days to get to all the locations. At £40 a tour, this is a great deal. Turns out Rob is the owner of the company! And his care and customer services is unparalleled. I’m not just saying that for the truly magical experience he provided for me on the island. I got to see him work with the passengers for the other tour and he really did care. Having decades of touring experience also helps! Thanks Rob!!!!!
So that was my trip to the Isle of Skye. In little more than 36 hours, I finally had my wish come true and saw my namesake. It was breathtaking (literally, when I jumped into the freezing fairy pool), awe-inspiring and magical. As I said, if you go, make sure you arrive for at least a couple days to see it all. But if you can’t stay that long, at least get there for a day. Outside of Iceland, I believe this to be one of the most scenic locations in Europe. And I will definitely be back. With Edinburgh as my new home, it will be on my doorstep.
At that Talisker Distillery I found an information board which gave the origin of the name Skye. “The Isle of Skye’s name seems to come from the Norse words for cloud and island (Ski-ey); various authors suggest it was referred to in Norse as skuy (misty isle), or skýey or skuyö (isle of cloud). Perhaps because of those clouds, it has been romantically referred to in English as ‘The Isle of Mists’ (in Gaelic – Eilean a’Cheo). Even here, in the name of the island, there’s no escaping the weather.”
When you travel through the Isle of Skye, you will notice extensive deforestation. There’s quite a story behind this. Scotland actually sold the forestry rights on the Isle of Skye to paper makers for 200 years. They plant huge groves of Scandinavian pine and then cut them down after 20 years for paper. They leave the stumps in the ground to compost, and then five years later plant another grove. They also don’t cut down all trees at the same time, but rotate through different parts of the island so only patches are taken down at a time. While you might think this is horrible, the truth is that there were very few trees on the island before this started. Additionally, it is illegal in Scotland to cut down any indigenous trees. While not many existed on the island to start with, they are planting more each time they plant the Scandinavian pine. So after 200 years, we will actually have far more trees on the island than we had to begin with.
Rob mentioned that many residents on the island are very religious, and follow the Sabbath strictly. Thus, you might want to avoid going there on Sunday, or you might find a lack of activities, places to eat, etc.
On the tour, I learned about a man on Raasay who built a road by hand. The following is an excerpt from Wikipedia: “After decades of unsuccessful campaigning by the inhabitants of the north end of Raasay for a road, and several failed grant applications, Calum [MacLeod] decided to build the road himself. Purchasing Thomas Aitken’s manual Road Making & Maintenance: A Practical Treatise for Engineers, Surveyors and Others (London, 1900), for half a crown, he started work, replacing the old narrow footpath. Over a period of about ten years (1964-1974), he constructed one and three quarter miles of road between Brochel Castle and Arnish, using little more than a shovel, a pick and a wheelbarrow. Initial blasting work was carried out and funded, to the sum of £1,900, by the Department of Agriculture’s Engineering Department, who supplied a compressor, explosives, driller, blaster, and men.”
Lastly, Danny MacAskill, the top BMX stunt rider in the world, is from the Isle of Skye. His grandmother is actually one of the bus drivers for TourSkye, and you can find his family name around the island. If you want to see just how beautiful the island is, a view of the Cuillin Ridgeline and some truly terrifying stunt riding, watch this video: