The capital town of Skye is Portree. Larger villages include Dunvegan, Broadford and Kyleakin.
A little to the North of Staffin is the township of Flodigarry, notable for its superb country house hotel restaurant and the Backpackers Hostel beside it. The road continues around the most northerly tip of Skye through the village of Kilmaluag and follows the coast to Uig.
Whether visitors come this way to look for ghosts at Duntulm Castle or visiting The Skye Museum of Island life they cannot help but notice how history has shaped the place and its people.
Kilmuir lies at the far north of the peninsula. The graveyard has a memorial to the famous Flora MacDonald, who was well known for smuggling Bonnie Prince Charlie across the sea to Skye, disguised as her maid. They stayed at the nearby Monkstadt house which has recently been restored. St Columba was also reported to have first landed here and built a monestry just north of Monkstadt, on an island in the now drained lake Calium Chille.
The placenames here all refer to the religious importance of these places. The Gaelic cill means church giving “church of Mary” for Kilmuir and Chapel of Saint Moluag for Kilmaluag. Monkstadt means Monks farm in norse. It is a measure of how important these early Christian sites were that these names have so endured the passage of time.
At Linicro, just South of Monkstadt, the White-wave outdoor centre provides the chance to try numerous outdoor adventure activities and a compelling excuse to travel to the far North of Skye. There is accommodation on site in the form of wooden glamping wigwams but a day spent here is well worth a drive.
The Trotternish peninsula, famous for the tagline “Theatre of Geology” lies to the north of Portree.
As you travel north the Geology does indeed asserts itself in a landscape formed from landslides and erosion. The Old man of Storr dominates the skyline as he stands silhouetted before sloping buttresses of the Trotternish escarpment. During the Tertiary geological period, the continental crust began to rift and eventually the Atlantic Ocean opened up. Some of this early activity took place on Skye. Fissures spewed layers of lava, volcanic ash and debris on top of the soft sedimentary Jurassic rocks. The fossiliferous Jurassic layers collapsed under the weight, resulting in huge landslides and the dramatic cliffs we see today.
The traditional postcard views shift in scale and perspective as you travel along the road and visitors may be tempted to drive crane-necked in order to see it all. The road is single track in places and a better plan is to use the passing places provided. Those who climb out of their cars are rewarded with the most splendid views. The inadequate parking at the Old man of Storr and at the Quirang requires common sense to be applied for the sake of safety.
There is a good car park at the kilt rock where a clear day affords distant but impressive views of Torriden and Kintail on the mainland.
Staffin itself is a liberal sprinkling of white houses over the rich green fields of a successful and prolific township.
There is plenty of accommodation here for those wishing to stay beyond a daytrip and the village hall offers an amazingly comprehensive list of services. Under one expansive roof there is a café, laundrette and a licenced mini market that sells woolly hats, beach toys and frying pans along with all sorts of other household goods and groceries.
The friendly local staff, here and in the Columba 1400 centre, willingly give impromptu tourist information and advice to those who ask.
The Quirang is well signposted and worth every effort to visit. Once used to hide cattle from Viking raiders, this astonishing rock formation has more recently been the location of choice for numerous films; “Stardust”, “The land that time forgot” and “Highlander” among them. The Quirang is at once unforgettable and indescribable but it is not without dangers.
Vik or Ùige Meaning Bay (from Norse)
In contrast with the general rule, here in Trotternish, the East coast has all the rugged views, while the West Coast presents a more uniform coastline.
Uig is a charming port with ferry links to Uist and Harris. There is accommodation and a number of places to eat out in Uig.
The Trotternish ridge provides an obvious focus for walkers but there are other shorter walks suitable for all abilities; the Fairy Glen is a beautiful whimsical walk through a valley produced by many small landslides. The standing stones at Eyre where legend had Fingall make a campfire to cook a whole deer or a short walk to see Captain Frasers Folly in Uig.
Captain Fraser was an infamous land owner who doubled the rents in 1877 and provoked rebellion among the crofters. He later wheedled for favour with gifts of tea and sugar but the crofters complaints were better answered when parliament passed the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886.
The Middle Peninsula to the north of Skye is called Waternish after the Gaelic Bhatarnais itself derived from vadn, the Old Norse for water. The old road for Waternish leaves from the The Fairy bridge. This is a stonebuilt bridge between Edinbane and Dunvegan where the Chief of the MacLeods was given the fairy flag for protection before his fairy wife left him forever and returned to her people.
The beautifully whitewashed buildings of Stein are bedecked with dormer windows that look over the bay. Planned as a fishing village by the British Fisheries Society, Stein was designed by Thomas Telford in 1790. It is ironic that this master of design came undone in remote Skye but it is true that his plans for Stein ground to a halt in 1798 and were never completed.
Stein has two restaurants and there is plenty of accommodation in the area. Waternish offers boat trips and artists’ studios, SkyeSkins; the only tannery in Scotland and the vibrantly colourful Shilasdair Exhibition. There are a number of designated ‘Dark Skies’ locations but really, the whole peninsula is free from light pollution.
The archaeology in Waternish is worth mentioning. There is the incongruous and slightly disappointingly ruined Temple of Anaitis. It is unknown if the temple’s history dates back to the start of Christianity on the island or before. On a Sunny day this is a pleasant place to visit and imagine the wooden statue of the goddess leading a procession to the river to be washed and blessed. Dun Hallin broch to the East of Hallin makes for another interesting walk with views over Dunvegan head. The walk to the top of Beinn an Sguirr has terrific views, particularly of Harris.
The ruined church of Trumpan was the site of brutal guerrilla warfare between The MacLeods and the MacDonalds. All save one of the MacLeod villagers of Trumpan were burned alive inside the church. The one who escaped fetched the MacLeod army who killed all the MacDonalds in Blar Milleadh a' Ghàraidh the Battle of the Spoiling Dyke. From here there is a walk of about 4 miles each way that takes you from Trumpan to the lighthouse at Waternish Point. On the way there are more brochs; Dun Borrafiach is fairly well preserved but Dun Gearymore is badly ruined.
Achnacloich, Tarskavaig, Tokavaig & Ord
Glancing at a map of Sleat it is plain that the main road runs down the East coast of the peninsula but a brave loop of b-road makes the journey over the hills, bringing infrastructure to the West coast. The vilages of Achnacloich (Gaelic for field of stones and often called ‘Stonefeild’), Tarskavaig (Gaelic for ‘The bay of Cod fish’ after bygone days of plenty) Tokavaig (another Gaelic bay, either of the swell or of the whale) and Ord (Gaelic meaning ‘rounded hill’) were the lucky ones. The very fertile Dalviel (Gaelic ‘Dail a’ Bhile’ meaning ‘dale of the copse’) had no road and was abandoned when the families left so the children could go to school.
Tarskavaig is the largest of these villages and it has the added attraction of housing a community run café in the hall. The cakes are un-missable, as is the music when it’s on. All views to the west will show lovely sunsets but in Ord and Tarskavaig the experience is experience magnificent, for here the sun slides down in flaming glory behind the dark silhouette of the Cuillins. The views from Tokavaig can trump even that, however, offering the ruined 14th century Dunscaith castle in the foreground. Legend has it that this castle was the school for heroes where Cuchulainn himself was taught to fight by the witch Scathach. While admiring the scenery it is wise to pull into a passing place as driving the narrow windy road may command all of your attention.
Ord has a lot of holiday accommodation for such a small place. It is peaceful and quiet with a coral beach and even a tiny tidal island. Wild swimming is popular here on hot days when the tide has been out and the sand has warmed up. The road climbs out of Ord through delightful woodland and returns to the main road on the East Coast.
Located where the Black Cuillin meets the western seaboard is Sligachan. This is where to come to see the view that so often graces postcards and canvass alike of the Red and Black Cuillin with Glen Sligachan between them. There is an enchantingly picturesque stone built bridge in the foreground under which River Sligachan flows wide and excitable. Sgurr-Nan-Gillean looms large to the right, all black and menacing, crags and pinnacles, wreathed in unnatural wisps of cloud or with every crevice etched in snow she looks a merciless climb.
Walking or climbing in the Cuillins should not be undertaken lightly. The weather can be unpredictable, many routes marked on maps or guidebooks are for experienced mountaineers and even they can come unstuck. That said there is plenty for the novice to do here and any visitor who is unsure would do very well to hire a local guide.
The Sligachan Hotel was built in 1830. There was an inn at the head of the loch prior to that, near the shelly shore from which the hotel took its name. This large and well-appointed hotel was the first and often only port of call for climbers who visited the island but these days there are other options. There is a campsite near the head of the loch and backpackers’ hostel. For those seeking a little bit of luxury, the beautiful Lodge is available on a self-catering basis and there are cottages.
For non-climbing visitors, Sligachan offers a central base from which to explore the rest of Skye. There is an outstanding playpark for children and good wet weather facilities. The hotel bar is busy and friendly and the meals are good. There are no shops but there are busses from here to Broadford, Carbost, and Portree. Visitors are advised to check timetables carefully as some services are only run on school days.
Sgiathbost: the sheltered house or farm
At the head of loch Snizort is Skaebost Country House Hotel and 9-hole golf course. This is where the River Snizort reaches the sea. The salmon and trout fishing is known throughout Skye to be very good here. Permits are available through “Three Esses Ltd.”. The Hotel itself is a grand lodge built by the MacDonalds. Before 1954 when mains electricity became available, a hydro-electric scheme in river Snizort powered the Lodge.
Eilean Chaluim Chille or Saint Columba''s Isle is found in the river and can be reached by a wooden bridge. This was the Nicholson Clan graveyard for nine centuries and the aincient headstones can still be seen. The ruined chapel was also once the most important religious site in the islands from 1079 until 1498.
The tiny settlement of Kylerhea is on the East coast of Skye, just south of Kyleakin but it feels much more remote. It is approached either by road or, between Easter and October, by ferry from Glenelg. Either route is an unforgettable experience. Driving to Kylerhea the road is the highest in Skye. Starting at near sea level between Broadford and Kyleakin, it climbs to 279m high over Bealach Udal where the views are extraordinary. It then commences its descent, curling around hair pin bends and clinging to the side of steep slopes as it plunges back down to the village of Kylerhea.
The drive to Glenelg, where the ferry leaves the mainland, is just as breathtaking. The village of Glenelg is itself worth a visit. The ferry is a manually operated turntable ferry of a type no longer used anywhere else in Scotland. The 550m between Glenelg and Kylerhea only takes 5 minutes to cross but it is considered a tricky crossing because tidal currents are very strong. This is the narrowest part of the kyles that separate Skye from the mainland and as such it has been used as a crossing point for centuries. Cattle used to be driven across here for sale in the lowlands and there was a ferry here as long ago as the 1600s.
Kylerhea’s unspoilt natural beauty may be the reason for it’s poularity with Otters. The Forestry Commission Otter Haven has a great reputation. For the price of a donation, visitors can use the well positioned hide to watch for otters, birds and seals.
As a holiday base Kylerhea is perfect for nature lovers who want a remote experience without having to travel too far to get it. The drive to Broadford, and all the facilities and attractions offered there, takes twenty-five minutes. The ferry offers access to Glenelg with its hotel bar and restaurant, shop, post office and sandy beach. Visitors with their heart set on this holiday destination should book well in advance as accommodation is limited to a few self-catering properties.
The villiage of Kyleakin used to be the gateway to the island and best remembered for long ferry queues running past the filling station. When the bridge was built in 1996 there were well founded fears that the tourist trade would miss Kyleakin completely and it would be relegated to a sort of ghost town. I’m glad to report that these dire predictions have not come to pass. The filling station has closed but a selection of small shops and an Indian restaurant have developed in its place and Kyleakin itself has become a much nicer holiday destination without the ferry. It has a small marina, high quality hotels, a backpackers’ hostel, bars and restaurants. The bridge tolls, once the source of much controversy, were abolished in December 2004 and now people travel freely in both directions across the bridge, although it is occasionally closed in high winds.
The Castle Moil ruins still stand protectively over Kyleakin, despite estimates that it may have been built as early as the tenth century. It was once the home of the MacKinnon chief who married a Norwegian princess and the story goes that the princess had a chain stretched across the narrow strait and charged a toll to all who would pass. Thus she brought prosperity to her people and was well loved (although there are some more lewd stories about her conduct). It may be that the same princess was buried at the top of Beinn na Caillich, facing Norway so that she might feel the winds of home on her face for all time. The Norse influence was strong and the village is named after another Norwegian; Kyleakin translates as “King Haakan’s strait” after the Norse king who was based here before the battle of Largs in 1263.
Looming large behind Kyleakin is the hill of the red fox. It has a network of well-marked and maintained paths providing walks for different abilities. Another interesting and scenic walk is the Skye Bridge itself. The bridge touches down on Eilean Bàn, the island between Kyleakin and Kyle of Lochalsh where the author Gavin Maxwell once lived. Tours can be booked through The Brightwater Visitor Centre near the pier in Kyleakin.
This village is on the mainland and not actually part of Skye but since the bridge tolls stopped the communities have grown together. The great many services and shops in Kyle of Lochalsh are quite well organised and a large number of varied outlets fit into a geographically small area. That plus the banks, post office and health centre mean the people of Skye make the journey over the bridge with regularity. Parking can be a problem although there are lots of spaces around the seafront. There is a one way system which can catch visitors unawares but if in doubt repeatedly turning right is usually effective.
Kyle, as it is known, has fantastic public transport links, busses from here go all over Skye and to Inverness, Fort William, Glasgow and Edinburgh. The rail link to Inverness, one of the country’s most beautiful train journeys, has been many times threatened with closure but is now defended by the community organisation “the friends of the Kyle line”. There is a visitor’s centre at the railway station.
Community effort has also been successful in securing the Lochalsh Leisure Centre and, more recently the magnificent pirate ship playpark next to it! The friendly leisure Centre has a swimming pool, sauna, steam room, spa and a small gym and is a great place to head when the rain starts to fall! Kyle of Lochalsh has a glossy new RNLI lifeboat station and tour operators take visitors out to inspect the seabed in a glass bottomed boat but more is going on behind the scenes. There is a Butec naval base, a busy harbour and small visitor’s pontoon with fuel and water available.
In small places there can sometimes develop an unusual concentration of one amenity and Kyle has a surfeit of Dentists. If you have a toothache on Skye, Kyle is your most likely source of relief!
Isle Ornsay, Camus Cross & Duisdale
The communities of Camus Cross and Duisdale are separated from those to the south by a stretch good road crossing poor land. The Moine thrust, a geological structure that effects the whole of the Western Highlands, is seen here as the cliffs on the East of the road. The turn off for Isle Ornsay and Camus Cross is well signposted but lookout for the hump backed bridge and be prepared to reverse.
The name ‘Eilean Iarmain’ is Gaelic for ‘Isle Ornsay’ and means ‘Ebb Island or tidal Island’. The lighthouse, the island and the hotel all share the name. Designed by David Stevenson and the lighthouse was built in 1857 and is actually on a separate island. It was owned for a time by Gavin Maxwell.
More accessible, the pretty and utterly genuine Eilean Iarmain hotel was built in the early 1800s. With delightful views over the tidal island ‘Isle Ornsay’ to Knoydart, it is surrounded by converted stables buildings, steadings and stone built piers. This was a herring port in 1820 so the buildings were most likely put to good industrial use, more recently they have been repurposed to house cutting edge tweed and knitwear, designer whiskey and an ephemeral art gallery. The stables have been turned into deluxe holiday accommodation. The Hotel is still a hotel and it is worth mentioning it’s excellent and reasonable bar meals and the fabulous ceilidh music they often have.
This hotel is the centre of estate of the late Sir Iain Noble. In his lifetime he was passionate about the Gaelic language and its potential to turn the local economy around. His extreme views were not always popular but in his vision of Gaelic opening the door to economic recovery vision he was unequivocally successful. The presence of Iain Noble’s creation, Sabhal Mor Ostaig Gaelic College in Sleat has been the source of an economic bubble that has protected house-prices and ensured relative affluence. The new village of Kilbeg is further testimony to this success.
The village of Camus Cross is full of rural charm as its single track road curls prettily round the coastline and over the hill. B&Bs and holiday cottages are plentiful. There a number of small boats along the shore and artists’ studios dip their toes in the water at high tide.
The western peninsula of Durinish both sounds and looks like it escaped from a Tolkien novel. It is lonely and beautiful. The solitude and peace can be very compelling. Visitors here enjoy breath-taking sunsets, unspoilt wildlife and geography that seems to have been designed entirely for looking at.
MacLeod’s tables dominate many of the views here and they provide some very enjoyable walks for all abilities. Neist Point is the most westerly point of the Isle of Skye and there is an excellent walk to the lighthouse.
Another good walk in the area is to Idrigill Point to see MacLeod’s Maidens. Said to be the drowned wife and daughters of the fourth MacLeod chief, these three dark stacks protrude from the boiling sea foam, black, massive and treacherous to seafarers.
The north of Durinish has a wide and fertile township named twice a valley, once from Gaelic -Glen and once from Norse – Dalr. The village of Glendale was the home of John MacPherson, the Skye Martyr whose arrest in 1883 played a pivotal part in emancipating tenant crofters from the tyranny of absentee landlords. Glendale’s unique community ownership began in 1904 but it took the crofters over 50 years to pay for the estate.
Glendale bay is a wide, deep anchorage bounded by impressive cliffs to the north and a course sandy beach. As pretty as any picture of West Highland tranquillity, the modern Glendale boasts varied accommodation, a shop, post office, eclectic cafes and historic buildings.
The villages of Roag, Vatten, Harlosh, Ose and Struan lie to the south of Duirinish. There are many pretty coves and sandy beaches here with gentle views to the south over loch Bracadale, where the coastline is sheltered by the Idrigill point and the islands.
The single track road B8083 to Torrin and Elgol leaves Broadford immediately East of Broadford Hotel and windingly wends its way slowly around the landscape, demanding a very relaxed driving style. Visitors are encouraged to use the passing places to let local (faster) drivers pass. The passing places are frequently also be used to gasp at the scenery while trying to capture its magic, magnitude and stark beauty on camera.
The road passes Cill Chroisd, a sixteenth century church and graveyard that is worthy of mention. From here there is a 10 mile walk along the old railway line, across the limestone pavement to Borrereag and Susanish clearance villages. Walks up the Cuillins and between them abound but they should not to be undertaken on impulse. While many of these walks are suitable for children and novices in good weather, deaths can and do occur. If you are not confident hiring a guide is an excellent option.
As the road approaches Torrin, the marble quarry can be seen to the left just as the Cuillins rise spectacularly close on the right. The name ‘Torrin’ comes from the Gaelic Na Torrain misleadingly meaning ‘the little hills’. In Torrin, where the views become particularly arresting, there is a café and accommodation and a scattering of Skye’s ubiquitous white houses and sycamore trees. Room 13 is a distinctive red roofed byre inside which is an amazing artist’s studio which holds open days, exhibitions and fundraisers, it is the antithesis of all things pretentious in art.
Nine miles further along the road, Elgol perches attractively on a steep hillside with the road hair-pinning down to the pier. This has always been an important port and the past is quite tangible here. It does not take a wealth of imagination to conjure up a crofter’s wife carrying fish in a basket on her back. There are beautifully restored croft-houses to stay in and the entrepreneurial crofting spirit is still in evidence here. The village hall multitasks as a grocery-craft-shop-come café. The name ‘Elgol’ may derive from either Norse or Gaelic or a mixture of the two. It is interpreted as ‘the field of the wild angelica’ or ’weeping swan’ or ‘the noble dale’. There was reported to be a Viking ship called ‘The swan’ that sank before it could land here but the truth is lost in time.
Boat trips operate from Elgol Pier offering sea-life tours, daytrips and transportation to the Cuillins and small isles. A favourite is to Loch Coruisg, a glacial lake in the heart of the Cuillins. Deeper than sea level it is famous for its cold, clear water. There was once reported to be a monster living here but as he has not been seen for over a century it is probably safe to swim.
Coruisk House, an original 300 year old croft house, has been offering lodging to travellers to Elgol for more than 100 years and is now a Michelin Guide Restaurant with Rooms (24 hour advance reservation for dinner only. Open by reservation between March and October).
Elgol boasts two romantically famous caves, accessible only by boat or with careful reference to the tides. Spar Cave is a magnificent 50m long marble cave near Glasnakille. In the ninth century, when clans were always warring with one another, the young chief of Colonsay was shipwrecked here on enemy soil. His luck was such that he survived the shipwreck and was secretly coaxed back to health by the daughter of his enemy. On such fertile soil as this the seeds of love were sewn and the princess soon became pregnant. She helped her lover to escape and then birthed the babe in secret and hid it in the spar cave with her loyal servant. She came to the cave every day to feed the infant. Eventually peace was restored and she was wedded to the chief of Colonsay. It may even be true that they lived happily ever after.
Not so for the occupant of the other cave. In 1746 after defeat at Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie came to ‘over the sea to Skye’ and was hidden by the local Jacobites. The Redcoats were closing in however and known Jacobite residences were no longer safe so the young Prince was reduced to hiding in Bonnie Prince Charlie's cave, before he finally fled Skye, Scotland, abandoning the cause of the Jacobites forever.
Between Portree and Dunvegan the main road sweeps past the leafy village of Edinbane. Edinbane translates as An t-Aodann Bàn in Gaelic, meaning “pale hill face”. The small, but perfectly formed village straddles the river “Abhainn Choishleadar”. Although people lived here before the 1800s, Edinbane was redesigned in 1861 as a sort of highland ‘new town’. The new Edinbane was the brainchild of the wealthy and forward thinking philanthropist Kenneth MacLeod of Greshornish. His plan for the village included not only the physical requirements; a school, a watermill, an Inn and a hunting lodge, pretty cottages and carefully planned crofts. Thought was also given to the human resources a village would need to thrive; a skilled carpenter, smith and mason. Kenneth MacLeod was a popular and colourful character whose vision brought prosperity to the area. Before his death in 1869 Kenneth MacLeod’s last gift to the area was a trust, set up to build and run a hospital for the people of Skye. Gesto hospital was completed in 1870 and ran as intended until 2006 when the NHS made the controversial decision to close it.
Now somewhat diminished, Edinbane’s modern amenities do not stretch to a hospital. Recent centralisation of services has resulted in a post office that is only open on Tuesday afternoons but, as it is only a 20 minute drive to Portree, visitors are encouraged to use the facilities there to send postcards. The Edinbane Pottery is a family run artisan pottery in the middle of Edinbane. They use traditional methods to produce salt glazed, wood fired stoneware and they are happy to tell visitors all about it.
Edinbane has more than its fair share of old style hotels. The Greshornish House Hotel is a country house turned 4 star hotel. The original Edinbane Inn and Edinbane Lodge still both offer accommodation. There are live music sessions at the Inn and the Lodge reportedly has several ghosts. Other accommodation ranges from a camping and caravan club site to luxury self-catering in unusual buildings, the only proviso is to book early. Edinbane is ideally placed as a base to explore Skye’s three northerly peninsulas; Trotternish, Waternish and Durinish. These between them offer some of the finest dining on Skye.
The ‘north end’ of Skye is 3 distinct peninsulas rather than the one ‘end’ that is implied. From East to West these are Trotternish, Waternish and Duirinish. Resting in the sea loch between Waternish and Durinish is the large village of Dunvegan, pronounced Dun-Veh-Gan. The meaning of the name is thought to be fort of Beccán, where Beccán is a person’s name rather than any derivation of the gaelic for small.
There is a huge choice of accommodation in the area, necessarily so, since Dunvegan is a deservingly popular holiday destination. Kinloch campsite provides for visitors with tents or caravans and there are hotels, b&bs and self-catering accommodation to please all tastes and budgets. Dunvegan village has grocery shops, a post office and medical centre. There are also daily busses to Portree.
Activites available in or around Dunvegan are many and varied from walking and fishing to the unusual Giant MacAskill Museum. Skye could easily have a cake trail to rival the whiskey and castle trails of Scotland’s East coast. Every café and cake shop has it’s quirk, doubling as galleries, studios and craft shops and of course, for eight hundred years, there has been the unmissable attraction of the castle itself.
The Dunvegan Castle is one of Skye’s most popular attractions. The ancestral seat of the Clan MacLeod, the castle has been home to the MacLeods for all of those eight centuries, a Scottish record. The castle is built on a rocky outcrop of Basalt and was until recently surrounded by sea. Although what is seen today looks like one castle, in reality it consists of six buildings, built in 10 separate stages so is of significant architectural interest. The Keep was built by the 3rd chief, in the mid-14th century and is the oldest part still standing but there was a fort of some sort here long before that. In addition to this protracted history Dunvegan castle boasts an intriguing mythology, here the famous Faery flag, said to call the faeries to aid the clan in battle, is on display.
Another wonderful MacLeod story tells that the clan chief was in Edinburgh, attending a state dinner, when he was provoked to boast about his home. MacLeod said that he had a larger dining hall, a grander table and more precious candlesticks at home in Skye. When his companions doubted him, MacLeod challenged them to come to Skye and see for themselves. So it was that a party of Lords and Ladies came from Edinburgh to Dunvegan to disprove the Clan chief’s boasts. The clever MacLeod had a banquet laid out atop MacLeod’s tables and, although it was a starry night, his men carried torches to lead the party up the path. MacLeod impressed his guests saying that this was his great dining table, his loyal men were more precious than gold candlesticks and the heavens themselves were his dining hall.
MacLeod’s moonlight picnic might not have been so successful in poor weather but there are alternatives. North of Dunvegan, the Claigan coral beaches are the perfect venue for a picnic and the Dunvegan Bakery can provide all the necessities. It is locally quite famous for the wonderful range of baking, the warm welcome and the high standard and affordability of the café meals. Dunvegan is rich in eateries, from quirky cafés to hotel bars and traditional restaurants. A meal in the three chimneys, one of Skye’s michelin-starred restaurants, would be a grand alternative to a picnic indeed.
Minginish - Carbost, Talisker Portnalong & Glenbrittle
Minginish is an area worthy of exploration. Do not be surprised if the locals look a little odd at first, on closer examination they will probably turn out to be “tattybogles” or scarecrows erected for the Minginish tattybogle festival. It is advisable to politely smile and say ‘good morning’ nonetheless as mistakes can be embarrassing.
Carbost is the largest settlement on the Minginish peninsula. It is best known for the Talisker distillery, which has dominated the wide valley since it was built in 1831. The distillery has an excellent visitor’s centre that is very popular. The village also has a hotel, a bunkhouse, shop, farm shop, café, Doctor’s surgery and post office.
Fiscavaig and Portnalong are townships on the Northern coast of Minginish. Their hills are low lying, their houses spread out and their sunset views are exquisite. The view over Loch Bracadale towards MacLeod’s maidens is enough to compel the most casual visitors to stay. There are various B&BS and Holiday cottages for rent, a backpackers’ hostel and a hotel for anyone so smitten.
Talisker bay is a beautiful spot. There is limited parking but once free from the car visitors are rewarded with a unique panorama. Basalt cliffs rise majestically on either side of the bay. The beach changes a lot after storms and the sands are not always visible but when exposed black and white sand form distinct patterns. A little inland Preshal Mor and Preshal Beg are two dome shaped hills that were formed at the same time as the Cuillins but are completely unlike any of the other hill shapes on Skye. Both resemble Arthur’s seat and the Giant’s Causeway because they are of similar columnar basalt. Dun Sleadale Broch is another fair weather attraction that you need to stretch your legs to reach but it’s worth the effort.
To the far South of Minginish is the extraordinary Glenbrittle, a u-shaped glacial valley. At the end of the road, squeezed between the Cuillins and loch brittle is the award winning Glenbrittle campsite. Loch Brittle is wide and full and the beach at its head is generous and reliably sandy. The views to the West here show Canna and Rhum. SYHA have a youth Hostel here. It looks like the last building on earth but it is popular for its location. Walkers and climbers are drawn her like moths. The light that draws them is the majestic and menacing presence of the Cuillins and the harsh natural beauty they bring to the area.
As the river Brittle comes down from the lofty Cuillins it passes through a series of ethereal blue-green pools and waterfalls that are immensely popular for swimming. The fairy pools are worth travelling from anywhere in Skye for. The forestry commission have set up mountain bike trails running through Glenbrittle forest that can be accessed from the same carpark.
Nestled beneath the motherly shape of Ben na Calliach (the hill of the old woman) lies the central village of Broadford. The name bears an interesting reflection on the political history of the island. Broadford originally came from the Old Norse Breiðafjorðr meaning ‘wide bay’ but has been retrospectively translated into Gaelic as An t-Àth Leathann, meaning the ‘broad river-ford’. The second largest settlement in Skye, this long meandering village historically consisted of the few buildings on either side of the Broadford River, but the many small townships around the wide sweep of the bay have grown together and Broadford now stretches for a mile and a half around the bay.
Although some parts of Broadford may be more municipal than pretty, over the bay to Scalpay, Paabay and Torridon is unequivocally delightful. Threaded along the main road are a selection of craft shops and artists’ studios. The old pier, next to the Dunollie hotel is a bit like Broadford’s equivalent to the rive gauche and boasts several off-beat shops and a wool spinner. More practically, Broadford is home to Skye’s main hospital, a large supermarket, filling station, post office and bank and it is well served by public transport in all directions.
There is plenty of good quality accommodation for those who choose to use Broadford as a ‘base camp’, ranging from actual camping or Youth Hostelling to ‘glamping’, self catering, B&B or hotels. Even those staying elsewhere will find lots to do here. For nights out and meals Broadford is a good choice and ‘choice’ is the key word. Aside from Portree, no other village in Skye can offer such a variety of hotels, pubs, restaurants, cafes and takeaways. Many of these eateries make a point of using local seafood, venison or other ingredients and the overall quality is high.
Boat trips operating out of Kyle and Kyleakin offer pick-ups at either of Broadford’s two peirs and fishing is always a possibility too. Adventurous visitors can hire bicycles, take kayaking lessons or go on a sea plane trip. There are also many well maintained and easy walks in the area. The soft rocks of the bay hold a wealth of Jurassic fossils easy identified by amateur collectors and the Ranger service organise activities throughout the summer. If the weather is on your side and the tides are right the beach at Ashaig is a favourite picnic spot.
Across the bay from Portree lies the Braes peninsula. So relaxingly removed yet conveniently close to Portree’s amenities, Braes has a lot to offer as a holiday base. The Braes has a good supply of well-established B&B and self-catering accommodation providers.
Braes boasts views and north towards Trotternish, West over the sound to Raasay and South to the Cuillins. A delightful path at an Aird leads down to the beach and a promontory that reaches into the sea. The cliffs and natural arches are spectacular but please walk with care! The walk from the end of the Braes road, along loch Sligachen offers and insight into the past (and the possibility of a pub lunch) as this used to be the main road. The Modern Braes is a calm and pleasant cul-de-sac but it was not always so.
Battle of Braes
The Braes was once the site of a bloody uprising that has had a lasting effect on crofters’ lives. In 1882 the Battle of the Braes may have been the result of long standing grievances over the lease of hill grazing but it was triggered in earnest when the landlords sent the sheriff’s officers to evict some of the dissidents. The Braes’ women turned them back from this task and even forced them to burn the legal documents. The Braes folk were seen to be so lawless that forty-seven police officers were sent up from Glasgow to deal with them.
The folk of the Braes were sleeping when the police officers first arrived, intent on making arrests. Five men were arrested and the force began to withdraw with their prisoners. Many of the Braes men were away and it was the women who instigated the attack against the retreating police force. The crofters had no weapons but sticks and stones and their knowledge of the terrain but it was enough. The police force fled Braes in fear for their lives. As an indirect result the Napier Commission investigated the conditions of crofters and that led to the first law to protect crofting tenants’ rights.
Sleat - Armadale and Ardvasar
The Sleat peninsula stretches to the south of Skye offering views to Eigg and Rhum to the Weat and to Knoydart to the East. Sleat has a softer character to much of the rest of the island. The Calmac ferry from Mallaig arrives at the Armadale ferry terminal. The far end of the bustling car-park is where the bus shelter is located but visitors are warned to check the times as busses leave sharply even if the ferry is delayed. Many a happy holiday has started with a missed bus and there are worse places to be stranded than Armadale pier.
The growing shopping area starts on the very end of the pier where fishing tackle and leatherwork can be bought. The unique pleasure of catching your own supper can be experienced when the mackerel season starts in July. Fishing lore says to try at high tide after the rain, using feathers, don’t catch more than you can eat and eat them as fresh as possible.
In the car-park there more shops, buskers play fiddle, pipes or accordion as the ferry unloads and even the locals wander lazily while eating ice-creams and swapping gossip. The Ruabh Phoil occupies the rest of the small headland and it is an exceptional place to visit. The walk up the hill leaves busy commercialism behind and takes you to the ethereal world of fairies and herbalism, fare trade and compost toilets, permaculture, music workshops and quirky camping. It costs no more than a donation and it is worth exploring.
Armadale is flat and fertile land historically farmed and enjoyed by the Clan MacDonald.
A short walk from the pier is Armadale Castle, Gardens & Museum of the Isles, the former seat of the Macdonalds of Sleat which is now operated by the Clan Donald Lands Trust. Visitors can enjoy the historic gardens and castle ruins, find out local history in the museum and browse the library and archive.
There is a community owned filling station which houses a farm shop, tourist information and post office. Also within a mile to the south lies the hilly village of Ardvasar. The tiny shop here stocks an impressive range of groceries but is shut from 1pm until 2.30pm daily.
The village of Portree, situated on the east side of Skye overlooking a sheltered bay, is the capital of the island.
It is surrounded by hills - Ben Tianavaig to the south and Suidh Fhinn or Fingal’s Seat to the west, both about 1000ft (413m and 312m respectively) and Ben Chrachaig, much lower (144m) to the north.
Further north along the road to Staffin is the Old Man of Storr - a very popular walk. Across the bay to the east, the Island of Raasay can be seen with its distinctive conical hill, Dun Caan.
Portree is only about 200 years old and was created as a fishing village at the beginning of the 19th century by the then Lord MacDonald. The name Portree or Port Righ, King’s Port in Gaelic, (as on the road signs) is popularly thought to derive from a visit by King James V (of Scotland) in 1540 but the area around the harbour was called Portree or Portray long before the arrival of the king. Its name really comes from the Gaelic for Port on the Slope.
It has everything a visitor could wish for – banks, churches, cafes and restaurants, a cinema at the Aros Centre, a swimming pool and library at the school, gift and book shops, a tourist information centre, petrol filling stations and supermarkets, one in the village and a larger one out on the Dunvegan Road.
There is a regular daily bus service from Portree’s Somerled Square to Inverness and Glasgow and a local service round Skye. There are also sight-seeing trips round the island by bus or car and boat trips from the pier.
The village hosts numerous annual events, such as the Portree Show, the Isle of Skye half marathon and the Islands largest event the Skye Highland Games drawing visitors and locals alike.
A visit to the tourist office before leaving Portree is advisable. It is well sign posted and staffed by helpfully well informed locals. They equip visitors with maps and printable directions to attractions throughout the island. They can even point out where to buy suitable wet weather gear should it become necessary.
For further information on the history of Portree look for the book ‘Portree. Origins and Early History’. It is available from local book shops and direct from The Islands Book Trust.