Scotland

Skye – Scotland’s ‘Misty Isle’

Skye

Over the sea to Skye – the ‘Misty Isle’

When I told friends that I was going to Skye for a week’s holiday, they warned me that rain, hail or thick fog would descend and ruin the trip.

“It always rains in Scotland” was their warning cry.

But they were wrong – when I arrived, it didn’t just rain, it poured. Worse still, an impenetrable mist meant I couldn’t see more than a few feet into the distance.

Three days later, having been battered by storms and gale force winds, the sun broke out and temperatures soared. That’s typical of Skye’s weird weather.

Skye and camper van

Sunny Skye – wild camping in the camper van

Skye is an island of contrasts and extremes. You can experience four seasons in as many days – and I know now why it’s called ‘The Misty Isle’.

Despite the unpredictable weather, Skye is a brilliant place, if you can ignore the throngs of tourists and cars which clog up its main artery of roads and scenic drives in summer.

Here are 10 great things to do on Scotland’s most popular wild island… in good and bad weather.

1. Great Mountain Walks 

Skye

Skye’s scenic uplands

Skye provides the perfect holiday break for walkers with its brilliant selection of hikes to suit every ability level. But beware of challenging, boggy conditions when the weather turns wet and unseasonal.

I’m renowned as a ‘slowcoach rambler’ so picked a couple of easier walks which weren’t too difficult in terms of steep gradients.

I skipped the trickier terrain of The Quiraing, which sounds like a 1980’s heavy metal rock magazine. This is a popular walk for hardened walkers, attracted by its rocky pinnacles and cliffs.

Instead, I headed for the easier slopes of Bioda Buidhe and the Trotternish Ridge with its steep but shorter walking route.

Skye

Trotternish Ridge

The 100 mph winds were hammering hard into our faces as we battled our way along the escarpment edge, making it hard to reach the final pinnacles.

Eventually, we had to admit defeat when a torrential rain and hail storm descended on the bleak upland. The visibility was shockingly poor and the panoramic views were not at their best.

I was promised golden eagles but even these magnificent birds had given up in the gloomy weather. On a clear day, there are stunning views across to The Quiraing, Loch Cleat and Loch Leum na Luirginn.

Skye

Take to the hills

The names of the peaks are inspirational, if you enjoy torturing your body! How about a brutal walk to the summit of Bruach na Frithe, a Cuillin munro – known simply as ‘The Executioner’?

The Old Man of Storr and Rubha Hunish are iconic walks but we had to abandon them because of bad weather. For other wild walks, I’d recommend buying ‘Isle of Skye – 40 Coast and Country Walks’, a useful pocket guide.

If you’re a serious walker, I’d suggest purchasing the little book of Skye’s ‘toughest walks’ from the tourist information centre – or check out the Skye tourism website

2. Wonderful wildlife watching

Otter on Skye

Wild otter on Skye

One of the great joys of Skye is its fabulous wildlife which is easy to spot, if you follow practical advice from the experts and prepare yourself to be patient.

if you’ve ever read ‘Ring of Bright Water’ or seen the old British film, you’ve come to the right place for otter spotting.

Whilst otters can be seen around most of the island’s shores, two places are particularly special – Kylerhea and Glenelg – where Gavin Maxwell wrote his famous book about wild otters.

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Top otter spot

Now before you correct me, Glenelg is technically on the mainland on the other side of the Sound of Sleat, but it forms parts of Skye’s wider eco-system.

Over on Skye, Kylerhea faces Glenelg – it boasts an excellent otter and bird hide from which you can look across the bay in search of wildlife.

After staring through binoculars for an hour and several false alarms (it’s easy to confuse swimming seals with otters), there were no otters. We reluctantly headed back to the camper van.

Otter on Skye

Otter on Skye

The next day our mission was to spot otters on Skye before the end of the holiday… even it required hours of playing the waiting game.

The next day, we were rewarded almost instantly. Whilst strolling on the beach at Glenelg, a wild otter turned up and hung around in the water for over 30 minutes.

We watched quietly as the otter caught fish, sand eels and shellfish, dining out on its prey on the banks of the shoreline. What a memorable experience!

Skye RSPB

Kylerhea hide – Skye

Skye is also blessed with two of Britain’s biggest birds of prey – golden eagles and sea eagles. At Kylerhea in southern Skye, the RSPB hide is one of the best places to look for Britain’s largest raptor – the majestic White-tailed Sea Eagle.

Once again, you need to be prepared to hang around but patience will pay off, especially if you ask the warden for his top tips on sightings of the bird.

When Victor the Sea Eagle turned up, he was bang on time – a prompt 14:30 (as predicted by the RSPB man) when the tide was turning and there were plenty of fish for him to enjoy a late lunch.

This is a spectacular bird with a wingspan of around eight feet. It’s one of the few birds that dares pinch a large mackerel from a scary Black-backed Gull. It was astonishing to watch victorious Victor stealing fish from another large bird – and then skimming the water for more.

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Kylerhea from the bay

Victor has also been known to swoop down and take lambs, rabbits, fox cubs and even a rather chewy and inedible eider duck. After all, he has to feed himself, his mate and baby chick a couple of miles away on his nest.

Watch the YouTube video from the BBC One Show (below) to see the White-tailed Sea Eagles in action at Kylerhea during the summer months.

There are also dozens of seals in the Sound of Sleat and seal spotting is best done from the small ferry which travels across this short bit of water.

The seals will pop up around the boat and these curious and entertaining creatures are easy to see without binoculars.

The quick boat trip is well worth the ride for the odd way in which the ferry negotiates the currents, moving sideways sharply as it comes in to dock.

It’s a strange feat of navigation but it does mean that you get up close and personal with the island’s wildlife who look slightly bemused by the boat’s antics.

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The Glenachulish ferry – Kylerhea

Golden eagles abound around the island of Skye especially high above the Cuillin Hills – look to the skies to see them gliding on thermals on a sunny day.

There’s great bird watching along the coastline from the island’s rocky cliffs to its sandy beaches and surrounding seas.

3. Beautiful beaches

A trip to the beach is a must on Skye. Visitors are spoiled for choice, whether you’re a beachcomber, serious walker or member of the bucket and spade brigade.

The island’s northern coastline is craggy with cliffs, arches and stacks whilst the southern coast varies in terrain from gently sloping to pancake flat.

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South eastern coast of Skye

Talisker Bay is a beautiful beach which is perfect for an evening stroll as the sun goes down and the light changes dramatically, but bad weather put paid to our sunset walk.

Similarly, plans to walk from Trumpan to Waternish Point had to be scrapped due to heavy rain. This boggy walk traverses sites rich in clan legends and historical features such as an Iron Age broch and a lighthouse. It’s a pity we missed this walk because it’s renowned for its superb seascapes and views of minke whales.

After the gloom of three days lifted, the weather turned to summer sunshine – and another beach trip was on the cards. This time, we weren’t prepared for the heat and extreme temperatures which hit the giddy heights of 27C.

For once, Skye’s weather was more like Spain than Scotland… but guess who forgot to pack any sun cream and got badly burned? My bright red skin was punctuated with angry bites from the army of midgies that had come out to play during the wet weather the day before.

Skye views

Beach combing on Skye

The summer sunshine and heat were perfect for a wild walk down to Ardnish Point which lies on the southern outskirts of Broadford.

We started the walk along a pretty street of houses and crofts before reaching the wilder and solitary beach of Rubha Ardnish.

Cling to the path on the northern coast and head towards the point where you’ll be rewarded with a gleaming silver beach of white coral sand and rock pools. The only life seen during the two-hour walk was a herd of strange-looking highland sheep and their lambs.

Skye

White coral beach at Ardnish

When the tide is out,  you can walk over to the small islet of Eilean na Ruadhaich, a deserted spot from where there are great views of the Inner Sound towards the Kyle of Lochalsh.

This is a nature lover’s paradise with an impressive selection of sea birds including sandpipers, dunlin, godwits and oystercatchers. Otters and seals are often seen in these waters.

If you love plants, you’ll be fascinated by the variety of flowers which enjoy this wetland and beach habitat including the brilliant yellow, Flag Iris.

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Flag Iris

4. Stunning Scottish Castles

There’s nothing quite like a good Scottish castle and Skye has several from the top drawer around its coastline.

My favourite is Dunvegan Castle which – perhaps surprisingly – turns out to be Scotland’s oldest continuously inhabited castle.

Dunvegan Castle

Dunvegan Castle

This imposing pile is the ancestral home of the Clan of Macleod’s chiefs whose motto is ‘Hold Fast’ from when the 14th Century chief was confronted by a wild bull which he fought off.

Amongst the fascinating family collection, there are many strange artefacts from the family’s 800 year history.

The Fairy Flag supposedly dates from the 4th Century Crusades and is renowned for giving special powers to those in battle. It resembles the Turin Shroud, and like its Italian cousin, nobody knows the Flag’s true origins… but it’s the subject of some great yarns.

Dunvegan Castle in the mist

Dunvegan Castle in the mist

Down in the basement of the castle you can discover the history of the area and how locals once ate puffins when food was in short supply. Personally, I can’t imagine anything worse than eating this cute bird, not least because it doesn’t look very tasty.

Nature lovers can take a trip around the bay on the castle’s regular seal watching cruises which are fun. If you’re smart, you can easily see the seals bobbing up and down from the tip of the bay next to the castle.

The castle gardens are worth a look for their grottoes with waterfalls and colourful plants sheltered by rocky crevices. A surprisingly sheltered walled garden has created ideal conditions for more exotic plants and flowers.

Dunvegan Castle Gardens

Dunvegan Gardens

Down the road near Skye’s ferry landing port you’ll discover Armadale Castle and Woods, a popular tourist spot with easy woodland and nature walks. The ruined castle looks like something out of a romantic J.M.W Turner painting.

In summer the gardens are a riot of colour, but don’t forget your brolly as this is one of the wettest places in Britain!

There are great views across to the mainland on a clear day.  Take binoculars and you’ll be able to see as far as Mallaig and the mountains of Beinn Sgritheall.

5. Solitude and wilderness

Skye sea view

Skye seascape

One of the main reasons for visiting Skye is its wilderness landscapes – and the opportunity to escape from the bustling modern world on the mainland.

Unfortunately, the popularity of the island has grown enormously in the last decade and this is now threatening the very qualities which visitors seek out.

During busy summer months, you can easily find yourself caught in a traffic jam or tourist hell, especially at the island’s tourist honeypots. These also tend to be the target of huge coach tours loaded with American and Japanese tourists who descend en masse.

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Tammy escapes from the crowds on Skye

We found ourselves on the big camping site at Sligachan to top up on power supplies, surrounded by a huge party of mad Belgian motorhomers having a party.

But there are still places far from the madding crowd where you can enjoy Skye’s wild side, especially along the far north coast and the west of the island. Anyone prepared to walk longer distances and traverse remote routes will be rewarded with peace and quiet.

At the heart of the Cuillin Mountains, one of the best wilderness walks is Glenbrittle Beach to Coire Lagan, with the dramatic backdrop of Sron na Ciche which featured in the film Highlander.

6. Wild camping heaven

Skye wild camping

That’s what I call ‘a view’

Skye is great for wild camping if you can discover a special spot just off one of its quieter roads – and it’s legal in most places.

We were lucky to find beautiful sites in quieter areas of the island overlooking the sea and – on one occasion – a picnic table and spectacular viewpoint.

Cooking local Hebridean scallops washed down with a fine bottle of wine plus a late night Scottish whisky is strongly recommended!

Skye wild camping

Skye wild camping

One word of warning – buy your food in Broadford (the Co-op) or Portree because there are relatively few large or small food shops elsewhere on the island.

It’s bizarre but there aren’t many shops selling decent quality fresh meat, fish and poultry, although small local stores are OK for stocking up on pizzas and packaged foods.

Look out for the fantastic coffee and cake shop in Broadford – Deli Gasta – which has a small deli with takeaway fare as well as wonderful home-made sandwiches.

7. History and heritage

If you’re looking for authentic Scottish heritage, you’ve come to the right place. Numerous small historic sites are dotted around the island telling the tale of Skye’s Gaelic culture.

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Skye Museum of Island Life

The Skye Museum of Island Life near Kilmuir is one of the more interesting attractions with its collection of crofters’ cottages and household objects.

We visited largely to shelter from the thunderous rain when 125 mph winds blew across the island, but quickly ran into large crowds who had the same idea, mainly American tour parties.

Despite the crowds, this authentic collection of stone-built cottages is interesting because it reveals how the original crofters once lived and the hardships they faced.

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Crofter’s cottage Skye

Today, there are relatively few old-fashioned thatched, stone cottages in the Scottish Highlands. In their day, these rough-hewn homes were lit by peat fires

The crofters’ cottages were well suited to the island’s landscape and climate with a few small windows and thick walls to protect the inhabitants from the harsh weather. Domestic luxuries were non-existent and the dark interior wasn’t always a welcoming place.

The crofters worked on the land in agriculture with some villagers turning their hand to fishing and craft jobs such as blacksmithery.

Crofter's cottage Skye

Rough-hewn cottages

The cottages were built with walls of up to three feet in width and have hip-ended rooves with over-hanging eaves of thatch which form a fringe around the wall top. It’s fascinating to look at their simple but beautiful construction from natural materials.

Looking inside the cottages gives a good impression of life for people on the island and the wealth of interpretative information is impressive, even if the presentation is old-fashioned.

A couple of hundred metres up the road from the museum, you’ll find an intriguing cemetery (at the top of the hill) with old graves which speak volumes about the island’s history.

Kilmuir Skye graveyard + Fiona McDonald

Kilmuir graveyard – Fiona MacDonald’s memorial

Look out for the memorial and burial place of Flora MacDonald, made famous in the Skye Boat Song and stories of her adventures with Bonnie Prince Charlie.

There are other historic oddities in this graveyard including a carved effigy of a knight in armour near the old chapel enclosure at the dead-end of the graveyard.

This is the gravestone of Angus Martin – nicknamed “Angus of the Wind” – because he insisted on going to sea, whatever the weather. More fool him in Skye’s unpredictable climate!

On the edge of the old graveyard, a modern gated cemetery has some fascinating tombstones including a stone marking the burial-place of Scottish fashion designer, Alexander McQueen.

As you walk back to the museum, take a look in the bushes and trees for a good selection of woodland birds including summer warblers.

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Alexander McQueen gravestone

If you’re interested in the history of Skye’s crofts and rural life, you won’t want to miss the fascinating Clearance Villages to the west of the island.

To visit this area properly, you’ll need six hours to complete the full circular walk and get a real feel for its remarkable history. Sadly, we couldn’t find a big enough gap in the weather to complete this walk but I’m told that you’ll discover picturesque ruins of cottages, a marble factory and a shepherd’s house.

Boreraig is a beautiful but remote place where cottages were burned down and residents were evicted ruthlessly by Lord MacDonald in the 1850s as part of the Clearances. His sole aim was to make way for lucrative sheep farming.

Sadly, Boreraig is not the easiest place to get to due to its lack of access roads, but I’m told that there are exceptionally beautiful views of the Cuillin Mountains from this scenic walk.

8. Dramatic coastal scenery

Skye’s coastline is often dramatic and rugged with sheer cliffs and stunning seascapes. Take care to watch you step in bad weather and high winds!

Skye waterfall

Waterfall near Lealt

There are many great coastal walks with some of the best to the island’s north including the spectacular, jagged Brother’s Point and Rubha Hinish, located on a dramatic headland.

One of my favourite spots is Lealt on the Portree to Staffin road where a waterfall comes tumbling down to the sea and there are sensational views down the coast.

If you stop at the lay-by, you can take the short, well-made path and read the interpretation boards. Look down to ground level where you may be able to see the remains of an old diatomite factory.

Also watch out for minke whales and porpoises passing the coast, if you have binoculars.

Skye coast

Skye’s rocky coast

9. Boat trips

Until the road bridge was built to the Scottish mainland, visitors to the island travelled  ‘over the sea to Skye’ by boat, a 45 minute journey from mainland coast to the island.

Today, you can still make the ferry trip from Mallaig and it’s much more fun than driving over the bridge, mainly because you get a real sense of the remoteness of the island.

Portree Skye coast

Portree – boats afloat

The ferry is a slightly grubby, down at heel affair, but it doesn’t distract from the fine sea views and wildlife watching.

Even on this short journey, there’s a good chance of seeing seals, sea birds and seascapes before arriving in the tiny Skye ferry port, having been transported to a different world.

When you’re on Skye, there’s plenty of opportunities for boat trips especially from Portree where operators run sightseeing, bird watching and wildlife excursions.

Stardust Boats operate from Portree Harbour and sail across the bay, passing the old village of Score and towards the Scarf Caves where there is a wealth of bird life. As the boat gets into remoter waters ,you may be lucky enough to encounter the White-Tailed Sea Eagles whilst enjoying the views of the Sound of Raasay.

Other small boat operators run similar trips but choose a clear day when visibility is good if you want to make the most of the wildlife watching. Brigadoon Boats offers wildlife, geology, photography, fishing and private charters.

Sadly, the visibility was very poor and fog engulfed the coast when we thought about making a trip.

10. Small island towns

Skye has a handful of interesting communities including Broadford, Portree, Uig and Armadale where you can find accommodation, shops and cafes.

Portree Skye

Portree harbour

Don’t expect anything too fancy because most of these places are little more than large villages.

Skye is lovely but ‘chic and happening’ is not its biggest selling point. But art lovers can take in the Skye Art Tour featuring tiny galleries and studios. Hand-dyed wools and textiles are a local speciality.

If you love architecture, like I do, you’ll want to check out the Portree-based company which designs bespoke Skye cottages in traditional but contemporary style.  Your dream home awaits…

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Sea life

Skye is an island where you can be anyone you want to be because the opportunities to escape and do something different are multifarious.

Despite the intrusion of too many tour buses and tourists, it’s still – just about – possible to escape into the great wilderness. You can also cycle the islands back roads and get away from it all.

But at the end of the day, it helps if you can catch a window in the weather to make the most of your stay. Otherwise, you’re better heading back to your cottage, campsite or nearest pub to hunker down till the mist lifts and the weather improves!

Skye

Escape to Skye

2 replies »

    • It’s romantic if you can get off the beaten track and discover the remoter areas… and avoid the rain and midgies!

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