Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.
These poignant words can evoke so many images for those that call Scotland home. It could be a rallying cry for an independent Scotland, or a sad reminder of a lost opportunity for such independence. It could even, in more recent times, bring forth images of the show Outlander, which has adapted the song as its theme.
The Isle of Skye in Scotland is one of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, and one of it’s most sought destinations for travelers. The reasons for this are clear; it has the most varied attractions in the smallest, most accessible area.
The name Skye may come from an early Gaelic word, Skitis, which means winged. The arms of the island’s peninsulas do look like the feathers of an outspread wing. But many other theories have been put forth, including the Norse Skuy (misty isle) Skýey or Skuyö (isle of cloud).
Skye is about 600 square miles of scenic landscape, and you can get to the island via a bridge from the mainland or a ferry from several locations. It has a long history of occupation, from the Mesolithic period to the present day. It has been home to the Norse, the MacLeods, MacDonalds, MacInnes, MacNeacail, MacCrimmons, and the MacKinnons. It holds onto its Gaelic culture with fierce fingers, but its main sustenance has been shifting from fishing, forestry and agriculture to tourism at a fast pace.
But all that dry, historical information doesn’t illustrate the magic of the place. Misty green hills jutting into forbidding black peaks, mysterious surreal glens and mystical music across the land. It is a magical place, full of hidden tales and hauntings.
Why does Skye hold such a romantic view in people’s hearts? Well, apart from the magnificent views across the water, it was the site of several pivotal points in Scottish history. The most well-known is when Flora McDonald helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape the English by dressing him as her handmaid. But there were several other historical occurrences and places in the area.
- A visit from St. Columba to convert a pagan leader
- The massacre at Trumpan church between the MacDonalds and the MacLeods
- Samuel Johnson’s visit and subsequent writing on his journey to Skye
- The Fairy Flag in Dunvegan Castle
- Home of Scáthach, warrior queen and martial arts instructor
- The Highland Clearances of the lat 18th/early 19th century
I have been to Skye several times, and I still ache to go back. I highly recommend more than a short stay to this wonderful place. Some of the places I’ve enjoyed, or that I’ve heard of and still wish to visit, are, in no particular order:
- Duntulm Castle – on the tip of the Trotternish peninsula, this ruin has a commanding view of the surrounding islands. Do explore with caution!
- Uig – This ferry town has fantastic views across the bay, a nice pottery, and a brewery to the north.
- Skye Museum of Island Life – A folk park in Trotternish, it has fantastic views, insight on the way of life in the area around 1800 in croft houses, and a great collection of local books on its history.
- Kilmuir Graveyard – A beautifully situated open graveyard on Trotternish, featuring Flora Macdonald’s grave and several other singular markers.
- The Quiraing – the Quiraing is a large portion of the Trotternish peninsula, created by a series of landslips, resulting in a velvet green landscape with several interesting features, such as The Needle, the Table, and the Prison.
- Kilt Rock – this fantastic feature is definitely a must-see. Because of its vertical basalt columns and layers of dolerite, the rock looks like a kilt with pleats. There is a good viewing platform with plenty of parking to see the feature, with Mealt Waterfall as a bonus. On the day I visited, the wind was strong, and there were no endcaps on the tubular railings. This resulted in an ethereal howl in the wind, which might have been by design or by accident, but definitely added to the atmosphere!
- Staffin black sand beach – wonderful views from this black sand beach, it is nicely sheltered in a bay. Do be warned, the single lane road can be interesting, to say the least. If the day is cold and windy, there is a nearby cafe (Columba 1400) with great soups and coffees to warm you up.
- Portree – the largest town on Skye, named for the Gaelic Port-an-Righ, or Port of the king, after a visit by King James V. You will find many great restaurants, inns, and B&Bs in Portree, as well as the hostel laundrette (very important!) and a lovely bakery.
Neist Point – located on the far western point of the Durinish peninsula, there is a lighthouse and a fantastic view, near the township of Glendale. The walk is easy, but occasionally steep.
- Macleod’s Maidens – Close to Idrigill Point, these three sea stacks are quite dramatic, but require a bit of a hike to find. It’s a fairly easy walk, but be careful in inclement weather.
- Macleod’s Tables – a pair of flat-topped mountains in contrast to the jagged Black Cuillins, on the eastern edge of the Glendale Estate. According to legend, they were created by lightning when St. Columba complained he had no place to preach the Lord’s word.
- Three Chimneys – a well-known restaurant in the middle of nowhere! This high-end dining experience is well-worth a splurge. We went at lunch time when the costs were lower, but the food was incredible.
- Cave of Gold – a basalt cave hidden near the Skye Museum of Island Life, this is a short walk but steep and difficult near the end.
- Dunvegan Castle and Gardens – Home of the Clan MacLeod and the Fairy Flag, this impressive structure and gardens are well worth exploring. The interior has been set up for visitors to see the life of the castle inhabitants. I spent more time in the gardens, wandering the flower-lined paths, waterfall, and formal sculptures. The Fairy Flag itself is on display, supposedly gifted to the clan to use in dire straits. It had three uses allowed to call the Fairy Host, and has thus been used twice.
- Black Cuillins – a forbidding but beautiful mountain range. It runs from Carbost and into Glen Brittle, the striking mountains having a jagged grey appearance. You can also access the mountain trails from Sligachan to the north or Elgol to the south.
- Red Cuillins – Lower and less rocky than the Black Cuillins, the hills are gentler and appear red in the in the light from the paler granite.
- Sligachan River and Loch – at the ‘waist’ of the island, Sligachan is a haven for hikers. There is a large hotel there, with great seafood soups on a cold day, a selection of malt whiskies, and a good base for climbers. Glen Sligachan runs for eight miles south to Elgol and divides the rounded Red Cuillins from the jagged Black Cuillins.
- Trumpan Church – the site of a horrific massacre. These ruins were once known as Cille Chonain, or St. Conan’s church. In the 1500s, the MacDonalds burned the church while the MacLeods were inside, in retaliation to an early atrocity in Massacre Cave.
- Talisker Distillery – the only distillery on Skye, Talisker, is near Carbost. The taste of the whiskey is described as powerful, peppery and peaty. You can take a tour of the distillery and see the mix of new and old technologies, and a sample at the end.
- Knock Castle – A former stronghold of the MacDonalds on Sleat, near Armadale. The ruins date from the 15th century, and was constructed by the MacLeods. It is haunted by the Green Lady.
- Armadale Castle Gardens – Home of the Clan Donald, there is a Museum of the Isles and extensive gardens to wander. The ruins of the castle are not restored, but are impressive. The Stables Restaurant is good for a nice break.
- Cill Chriosd – (Christ’s Church) a lovely ruin and graveyard near Elgol
- Fairy Pools – located in the heart of the Cuillins, the fairy pools are a series of waterfalls with crystal-clear pools. They are at the foot of the Black Cuillins near Glenbrittle. The trail starts at Glen Brittle road, and goes over Bealach Brittle.
- Colbost Croft Museum – Right next to Three Chimneys is a lovely large blackhouse set up as a folk museum. It has two main rooms, a kitchen and living room and a bedroom. Bare floors and dry stone walls leave you with a sense of the past, while an outhouse containing an illegal still give you some sense of the people.
- SkyeSkyns – this small shop has great skins, furs, leather, and other products. You can see the process, visit the workshops, and try on many products.
- Edinbane Pottery – Edinbane itself is tiny, but they have a great Lodge and Pub, and a small pottery with delightfully unusual work.
- Old Man of Storr – The Storr is a rocky hill on the Trotternish, and the Old Man is an iconic rocky needle sticking up from the landscape. It’s been featured in movies (such as Prometheus) and has a path to view it. The path is fairly easy in decent weather, but can be slippery in the rain.
- Isle of Skye Brewery – Started part-time 20 years ago, this is the only brewery on Skye.
- The Skye Shilasdair Shop – if you are interested in handcrafted woolen goods or locally dyed products, this is the place for you. You can see the process, the locally sourced materials used for the dyes and the weaving, and purchase many lovely pieces.
- Giant Macaskill Museum – Thatched cottages are becoming rare on Skye, but one has been converted into a museum to the giant, Angus MacAskill, who was 7′ 8″ tall, the tallest recorded true giant.
- Skye Silver – it’s a small, narrow road to this shop, but well worth the trip to find their artistry.
- An t-Eilean Photographic Gallery – local photographer gallery near Broadford, for seeing Skye in all it’s wondrous moods.
- Seaprobe Atlantis Glass Bottom Boat – Care to see the diverse wildlife from a glass-bottomed boat? Well, glass windows under the water, at any rate. Seals, otters, fish, seabirds, shipwrecks, etc.
- Captain Fraser’s Folly – a watch tower situated over Uig bay
- Skye Heritage Centre/Aros Experience – Exhibits about Skye and the surrounding areas, cinema, live music, shows, located just outside Portree.
- Kilvaxter Souterrain – There are over 500 of these underground stone-lined structures in Scotland, usually associated with Iron Age settlements. They were used to hold food.
- Fairy Glen – this tiny surreal area just past Uig is a great venture. You have to turn at the sign near the Uig hotel and go up a small farming road. Keep going, you aren’t in the wrong place! Soon, perfectly conical green hills are flanking the road, and then a lovely scooped glen with a tall hill appears. Climb to the top of the hill to find a cave and an area where people have been placing rocks as artistic designs for years.
Skye is one of the places in the world I would happily live, if I could find a way to support myself. It is a beautiful place in and of itself, but the people, the food, the atmosphere, all speaks to my soul. We spent a lovely time there (my favorite lodging is at the Lodge at Edinbane B&B, a haunted 16th century hunting lodge with a pub and fantastic restaurant) and hope to go back again soon.
Don’t miss information on Celtic myth and history, as well as practical travel planning tips, and hidden places, in my travel books.
– Mythical, Magical, Mystical: A Guide to Hidden Ireland
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