Our trip to the Isle of Skye in October 2016 was well overdue (as is this blog post!), but when we did visit, we had a magical time and can’t wait to go back. We found that all the best things about Scotland have been encapsulated in the Isle of Skye – epic mountains, geological oddities, glorious wildlife, imposing castles, whisky distilleries, local gourmet food and exciting history.
We are often asked how many days you should set aside for a trip to the Isle of Skye. Of course, the correct answer is… as much time as you can afford! Being realistic, however, seven days would probably allow you (with the use of a car) to fully experience this island. But what if you only have three days? Well, don’t fret, as we managed to take in most of the main attractions within that tight schedule. Here is how we did it…
But before detailing our itinerary, the first and probably most important stage in your trip to the Isle of Skye is arranging your accommodation. Demand far outstrips the accommodation capacity of this relatively small island, so try to book at least six months in advance, or even earlier if you want to visit between June and September. There are only a handful of hotels on the island, with many small family B&Bs supplementing capacity. Also, you can consider staying on the mainland, in Kyle of Lochalsh, for example. Since the Skye Bridge was opened in 1995, connecting the island to the mainland, staying on the mainland has become a viable option for exploring Skye.
Another issue that you will have to consider when planning a trip to the Isle of Skye is how to get around the island. It is fairly easy if you have access to a car or if you are on a coach tour, although some roads can be quite narrow and need care. However, don’t expect to see its major attractions if you want to visit using public transport, at least not over the course of three days or so.
Despite the challenges this popular island faces, don’t let that put you off from visiting. Just make sure you organise your trip well in advance and you will be rewarded by some of the best natural beauty that Scotland has to offer.
Driving over to the Isle of Skye from the Applecross Peninsula on the mainland, we took the short drive over the Skye Bridge and headed straight into the heart of the island. Reaching the village of Carbost, we were more than ready for our first stop on the island – the Talisker Distillery. Perhaps surprisingly, this is only one of two distilleries on the Isle of Skye (although a new one has recently opened on the neighbouring island of Raasay). The tasting notes for this single malt scotch whisky highlight the peppery taste with a hint of the sea and is moderately peaty. It is with good reason that it has been referred to as "the lava of the Cuillins". Not quite to our taste, but the tour is interesting and informative, and there can’t be many better experiences than sitting looking out over Loch Harport with a wee dram by your side.
The Oyster Shed
Having worked up an appetite after soaking up the Angels Share at Talisker, we headed up the hill at Carbost to The Oyster Shed. This farm shop come seafood takeaway is a great stop if you are visiting the distillery. We sampled the fresh oysters in the shop and were very impressed. Then we treated ourselves to the seafood platter from the takeaway and were blown away by the local delicacies, as well as the stunning landscape in front of us as we ate at the Shed’s patio area.
Talisker Bay Beach
A fifteen-minute drive from Carbost took us to a hamlet at the head of Talisker Bay. The road ends here and you have to park up wherever you can find a space on the verge. A further fifteen-minute walk along a good pathway took us to the Talisker Bay Beach. It is a beautiful beach of stones and sand, best visited at low tide. Strangely, the shores of Talisker Bay contain both black and white sand on the beach. It’s a reminder that this area was volcanic, activity which created the Cuillin mountains. Another beautiful feature of the bay is the impressive waterfall on the northern side.
The Fairy Pools
We headed back towards Carbost, then on to the carpark at the Fairy Pools. It is a sizable carpark, but was almost full, despite being later afternoon. This is one attraction where it really pays to get there either very early or late on in the day, due to its popularity. It takes around 20-minutes to get from the carpark, along the River Brittle and up past the many blue and green hued pools to the waterfalls. Much about the Isle of Skye is magical, so it makes sense that several of its attractions have mystical names and the vivid colours of the pools suggest an unnatural origin. The waterfalls were not in full speight during our visit and are even more spectacular after a period of rain (which, unfortunately, can be a regular occurrence in Skye!). The pools are also a popular place for wild swimmers, although we were only daring enough to take our socks and shoes off and dip our feet into the water. We can attest to the fact that even towards the end of Summer, the pools were freezing!
On returning to the car, we continued down Glen Brittle until we reached Loch Brittle. There are more impressive glens on Skye, but it was a nice drive just the same.
Red Skye Restaurant
Our accommodation for three nights was back in Kyleakin, on the island side of the Skye Bridge, at the Glenarroch B&B. So, we retraced our steps through Glen Brittle and back on to the main road of the island, the A87. We had heard great reviews of the Red Skye Restaurant in Breakish so decided to stop there for a well-deserved meal. The restaurant is based in a 19th century schoolhouse and served excellent Scottish fare made with local ingredients.
The next day of our Skye adventure took us to the village of Elgol, which is on the shores of Loch Scavaig towards the end of the Strathaird peninsula. It is a long and winding road from Broadford, but it is worth doing for the views from this quaint harbour village over to the Cuillin mountains. Although we didn’t have time to do it, Elgol is also the jumping off point for trips to the mysterious Loch Coruisk. A small ferry will take you across the short stretch of sea to below the loch, then it is a swift hike up to one of the most celebrated views in Scotland. Interestingly, Elgol was used as a hideaway for Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746 after the Battle of Culloden. The cave where he is said to have waited for a boat to the mainland (“Prince Charlie’s cave”, or “Uamh Phrionnsa”) can still be visited today, a short walk to the south of the village.
Sligachan Old Bridge and waterfall
Before turning off along the A863 from the main A87 road, we stopped off at the Sligachan Hotel. It lies at the head of Glen Sligachan and is passed by every visitor travelling north to Portree. It is well worth stopping here to see the old stone bridge which runs parallel to the modern road. The views of the bridge with the savage profile of Sgurr nan Gillean in the background are extremely picturesque. Over the years Sligachan has become a jumping off point for mountain climbers looking to tackle the Black Cuillin, but for us it was a lovely scenic stop with the added bonus a drink at Seamus’ Bar nearby! If you follow the river upstream for about five minutes you will also find the Sligachan waterfall.
Dun Beag Broch
On the way north to Dunvegan Castle, it would be easy to miss the ancient Dun Beag broch on a hill overlooking the road. Thankfully, it is signposted and there is a well-maintained carpark on the opposite side of the road. Brochs were built in the last centuries BC and the first centuries AD, but archaeologists and historians are still arguing over what these stone structures were actually used for. There are around five hundred to be found across mainly the north and west of Scotland, but were they defensive towers, homes or symbols of power? By the time we had climbed up the hill and surveyed the picturesque view and walked the ruins, our guess was that Dun Beag Brock would have made a great little defensive tower. It is thought that Dun Beag would have been at least 10m taller than it is today. The residents would have lived at first floor level and above, while the ground floor would have been used for keeping livestock.
Giant Angus MacAskill Museum
As you enter the small village of Dunvegan, we came across the delightful little museum that celebrates the life of Angus MacAskill, who stood 7ft8in (2.36m) tall, weighing 425lb and lived from 1825 to 1863. It is thought that he was the tallest Scotsman ever to have lived, and the tallest recorded true giant, meaning that he did not have gigantism. It is also thought that he had the largest chest measurements of any non-obese man, having a diameter of 80in (200cm). Surprisingly, Angus’ parents were of average size, as were his nine siblings. Even more amazingly was that as a baby, Angus was so small he was not expected to survive. We can only guess that he ate a lot of porridge when growing up! Angus was 6 when his family were caught up in the Highland Clearances and they were forced to emigrate to St Ann's, Cape Breton. Angus added most of his size during his teenage years, and by his early 20s has become renowned for feats of strength, becoming known as Gille Mor, the Cape Breton Giant, or Giant MacAskill. Eventually he was recruited to take part in a travelling show, where he put on performances across North America and Europe, working alongside General Tom Thumb, the shortest fully grown man of the time. He retired back to St Ann's a wealthy man. In contrast to the man himself, the museum is only small, but it is well worth taking in on the way to Dunvegan Castle. You can even be like me and take your picture beside Angus and Tom Thumb – I’m the 6ft tall one on the left by-the-way!
Dunvegan Castle and Gardens
Claimed to be Scotland’s oldest continuously inhabited castle, Dunvegan has been the seat of the MacLeod of MacLeod, chief of the Clan MacLeod for more than 800 years. Originally the site of a Norse fort, the castle dominates Loch Dunvegan. We found the castle had many interesting displays, no more so that the magical Fairy Flag. The flag is treasured by the MacLeod clan, and has been used as a talisman during many of their battles. The legend behind the flag tells of how one of the chiefs of Clan MacLeod married a fairy; however, after twenty years she was forced to leave him and return to fairyland, but gave him the flag, promising that if it was waved in times of danger and distress, help would be given on three occasions. As well as the castle, make time to explore the gardens. Despite being located in such a wild area of Scotland, the gardens are full and colourful.
The Fairy Bridge
To continue the story of The Fairy Flag, we decided to take the short drive to the Fairy Bridge – the location where legend has it the fairy bade farewell to the chief. It was on the way to our lunch stop, so we didn’t have to make a diversion for it. There were no fairies visible on the day, but it was a beautiful little bridge to check out.
Lunch was spent at the Stein Inn, which has stunning views over Loch Bay. The Stein Inn is Skye’s oldest inn dating back to the late 18th century. Oh, and the food is great!
Claigan Coral Beach
After lunch, we retraced our steps back to Dunvegan Castle, but carried on further north, eventually coming to a dead end at the Claigan car. We then took the path for about twenty minutes up to the Claigan Coral Beach. It is a spectacular sweeping bay, but it is not the views that make this beach special. Rather it is its ‘sand’, which is actually made of the skeletal remains of a rare type of seaweed called Maerl!
The drive from Claigan may only be around 16 miles, however, the nature of the tight winding roads mean that it takes about 45 minutes to Neist Point. It is definitely worth the drive to this viewpoint on the most westerly point of Skye. Crowning this scenic little peninsula is Neist Point Lighthouse, which was constructed in 1909. This finger of basalt rock has a steep path down from the road to the lighthouse and requires a little bit of care while traversing. Parking is limited, so, like many attractions on this island, we would recommend getting their before or after the tourist coaches. We arrived a little before sunset and were rewarded with one of the best views we have ever experienced, with the sun setting romantically over The Minch (the stretch of water between Skye and the Outer Hebrides). The area is well known for its wildlife, although we did not manage to see any of the whales, dolphins, porpoises and basking shark which can often be seen from the point.
With the day coming to an end, we left Neist Point with food on our mind. Just a few miles down the road is the celebrated Three Chimneys, a restaurant which regularly gets included in the top ten best in Britain. We enquired in person on whether there were any reservations available, but unfortunately it was fully booked. When planning our trip to Skye, we were aware that we would probably have to book the Three Chimneys to have a chance of eating there, but we chose not to, since we didn’t want to be tied down to a specific time. Plan B, therefore, was to carry on down the road to Seumas’ Bar, which is next to the Sligachan Hotel. It was a good choice, since there was a great atmosphere, with hearty food and one of the biggest whisky bars you are likely to see while visiting Scotland.
The Fairy Castle
To continue our magical theme, we started the day by exploring Castle Ewen, also known as the Fairy Castle, in the Fairy Glen. Near Uig, the Fairy Castle sits above a fantastic wonderland of lumps and bumps and crazy pinnacles. Though it looks like a fortified tower, the ‘castle’ is actually a natural rock formation. Geologists have one view about this up thrust of rock, but everyone around Uig swears it was created by fairies. Park near, or just beyond a small lochan (on the right) and explore this amazing landscape.
We drove past the small port of Uig and headed up the western coast of the Trotternish Peninsula. Had we visited Skye during the summer months, we would have been able to check out the Skye Museum of Island Life. However, this museum closes for the year at the end of September, so we missed out by a couple of weeks. Less than half a mile from the museum, however, is Kilmuir Graveyard, which is famous for Flora MacDonald's Grave. The tall cross at Flora’s grave is impressive and complete with an epitaph written by the notable author Samuel Johnson (who, with James Boswell had met Flora in life during their tour of the Highlands). This reads "Her name will be mentioned in history and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour." It is said that Flora's funeral in 1790 was attended by 3,000 mourners, who between them drank 300 gallons of whisky. She was buried in a shroud said to have been made from a bed-sheet in which Bonnie Prince Charlie had slept. While in the graveyard, we also checked out the magnificent grave marker with a carved effigy of a knight in armour that lies close to the chapel enclosure. This marks the grave of Angus Martin, or Aonghas na Geoithe ("Angus of the Wind"). Angus is said to have earned his nickname by insisting on going to sea whatever the weather, and he is believed to have married a Danish princess with whom he had seven sons.
Continuing up the peninsula, we came to Duntulm Castle, which sits on a commanding position and was first fortified in the Iron Age. This defensive structure was added to by the Vikings, then fell into the hands of the MacLeods of Skye, then the MacDonalds. The castle was eventually abandoned around 1730 when it was said that a nursemaid had accidentally dropped the baby son of the clan chief from a castle window above the cliffs. The ghost of the nursemaid, killed in retribution, is still said to wander the ruins.
By now it was approaching lunch time, so we headed back down to Uig. Before eating, we checked out the Isle of Skye Brewery shop and bought a selection of their multi-award-winning beers. Although no tour is available at the brewery, the well-stocked shop is worth making a quick visit to. As was the Uig Pottery shop next door, which sells an impressive collection of pottery which is made onsite. If you are in luck during your visit, you may even see one of their artisans working on their hand-thrown creations. Lunch was had at the nearby Bakur bar and we found this a satisfactory pit-stop.
Taking the narrow and winding inland road from Uig towards Staffin, we reached our next destination, the interestingly named Quiraing. This geological feature is a landslip on the eastern face of Meall na Suiramach, the northernmost summit of the Trotternish. The view of the Quiraing is impressive when you approach from the road from Portree, however, the full enormity and beauty of this geological feature can’t be experienced properly unless you actually walk along the ridge. You could probably spend a full day walking from one side of the Quiraing to the other, but due to limited time, we parked our car at a makeshift car park on the side of the minor road and took fifteen minutes or so to walk up the rough paths and ascend one of the ridge peaks. It truly is an amazing view. In case you are wondering the name Quiraing comes from Old Norse 'Kvi Rand', which means "Round Fold".
After our brief trek up part of the Quiraing, we joined the main A855 road and headed south, making a twenty minute stop at Kilt Rock. This comprises spectacular sea-cliffs 55 metres (180 ft) tall, made of dolerite rock strata in many different colours (which makes the cliffs look like a kilt!). Kilt Rock boasts a dramatic waterfall created from the outflow of Loch Mealt.
Further south, the Lealt Gorge and Falls are often overlooked by visitors as they hurry up to see the nearby Kilt Rock, but Lealt is a hidden pleasure of Skye and deserves to be an attraction in its own right. It is easy to drive right by the gorge, tucked as it is below the A855 road, but there is a decently sized car park for any visitors willing to stop. From the carpark, there is a narrow, but good path to a viewpoint where you can look back into the depths of the gorge and see the waterfalls which tumble down a steep slope to the floor of the gorge far below.
Old Man of Storr
Before reaching Portree, we had one more iconic stop to make – The Old Man of Storr. You may remember The Old Man of Storr, a massive pinnacle of rock, from the opening scenes in Ridley Scott's 2012 feature film Prometheus, or perhaps from the multitude of images that seem to pop up on every traveller’s Instagram feed. For all the images buzzing round the internet, when we visited, this finger of rock pointing skywards was remarkably devoid of the crowds that normally frequent one of Skye’s most famous attractions. Maybe we were lucky, or perhaps it is the two hours round trip up the steep, but good condition path that puts off the tourist mass. Once you ascend the path up to and beyond The Old Man of Storr, you are treated not only to a great shot of the rock, but also beautiful views over to the isle of Raasay and the mainland at Applecross.
A visit to the Isle of Skye is not complete without a visit to Portree. It's photogenic harbour 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. By now it was dinner time and a visit to The Isles Inn was very welcome. The inn serves traditional, wholesome food and was a good choice for us rounding off our trip to Skye.
Join us next time when our family adventures take us to the museums and galleries of Houston, Texas. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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