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The Romantic Isle of Skye

Published
September 10, 2022
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Breaking News: A Maverick Traveller acknowledges the life and service of Queen Elizabeth II, symbolised by a dipped flag against trees in New Zealand, where it is still as yet the rawest days of early spring. This flag is at the end of the present post.

The following blog post is based on a chapter in my new book, The Scottish Isles: Part 2: Skye and the Outer Hebrides. The first volume, The Scottish Isles: Part 1: Shetlands, Orkneys and Hebrides is currently on sale at a reduced price, US $2.99 for the Kindle and US $9.99 for the paperback. The two front covers follow, after which the post begins.


STEPPING onto the Isle of Skye, you are in the footsteps of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Flora Macdonald, and many others who have sought refuge in its wild land, though the distance from the mainland is not huge, and is now served by a bridge.

A Relief Map of the Isle of Skye and its surroundings, with placenames. Map by Nilfanion, 17 December 2011, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right. North appears to be at the top.

The meaning of the name Skye is obscure. Some say it means ‘the winged isle’, though experts say that this is probably a myth even though the island certainly does look like a bird’s wing on the map.

I got to Skye by driving through the wild lands of Wester Ross, a scenic landscape in itself, with famous jagged mountains called the Torridons and the 2053 ft / 626 m Bealach na Bà or Pass of the Cattle, a short distance north of the Skye Bridge.

On a side road, the coastal Bealach na Bà is not suitable for learner drivers or caravans but does offer what’s said by some to be the best view in Scotland, of the whole of the Isle of Skye and of the Outer Hebrides as well other islands, the Hebridean seas, and the Torridons.

The real Wester Ross

A totemic carving just before the Skye Bridge

The road to Skye

A little further north in Wester Ross is the island-filled Loch Maree, said to be the most beautiful loch in Scotland and the namesake of a lake of the same name in New Zealand, as well as the interesting hydroelectric town of Kinlochleven.

Though I have been to Kinlochleven in the past, I did not take advantage of the opportunity to go up the Bealach na Bà or to see Loch Maree on this trip, as the weather was terrible.

Crossing the modern bridge to the town of Kyleakin on Skye, just over the Skye Bridge, I stayed at Saucy Mary’s, one of the best-known local backpacker hostels and restaurant.

The Skye Bridge

Kyleakin

Strange carved heads in a park at Kyleakin

Saucy Mary’s, with a rainbow

The hostel gets its name from a Viking princess who used to bare her breasts at sailors passing by in the strait between Skye and the mainland. Customs have changed since those days, I suppose.

Saucy Mary’s didn’t have self-catering facilities: the mains were 17 pounds and the breakfast 8 pounds. But there was a microwave and a kettle in the reception area, with which I managed to make dinner. Twelve people then took out their camping gas burners and did the same!

I made a point of checking out some local pottery stores on the island: there are a lot of arts and crafts.

There are places to eat and places to buy food all over the island, which has many villages and 9,000 permanent inhabitants. Of whom a bit over a third speak Gaelic as well, whence the bilingual road signs which aren’t just a token gesture.

Bilingual Road Signs on Skye

Saucy Mary’s didn’t have self-catering facilities: the mains were 17 pounds and the breakfast 8 pounds. But there was a microwave and a kettle in the reception area, with which I managed to make dinner. Twelve people then took out their camping gas burners and did the same!

I made a point of checking out some local pottery stores on the island: there are a lot of arts and crafts.

Pottery on Skye

And a lot of backpackers’ hostels and places to camp, although the signage for these tends to be aimed more exclusively at the English-speaking market.

There was a really good service centre for caravanning and travel in general, at a place named Broadford, on the east coast not far from Kyleakin.

Broadford is also one of several starting places for hikes in the volcanic, pointy, Cuillin Hills, another famous site of early British climbing. The Cuillin Hills are divided into the Red Cuillins and the Black Cuillins, based on the colour of the rock.

View of the Cuillin Hills from the A863 in the vicinity of Slighachan. Photo by Stefan Krause, 9 June 2011, Copyleft Free Art Licence via Wikimedia Commons.

Cuillin Hills signage for hikers and climbers

Further Cuillin Hills signage

I drove on up the east coast to a place called Slighachan, which is another starting point for hikes on the Cuillin Hills, another of Britain’s famous early climbing destinations.

At Sligachan I tried some whisky from the nearby Isle of Raasay. You can do tours of the two distilleries on Skye, Talisker and Torabaigh, and also the Raasay distillery. The Skye Whisky Trail is billed as the most scenic whisky tour in Scotland.

I did some hiking around the Cuillin Hills. It was incredibly boggy, boggy peat. There was just torrential rain the whole way.

‘Welcome to Glen Sligachan’

No vacancies in Sligachan, it seems, other than in the cottages

Hiker signs

Monument to early climbers

The Cuillin Hills

The Cuillin hills, stream, and monument

The author, suitably attired for a Scottish summer

Further north on the east coast is Portree, which is also a good caravan stop, at Park Bernisdale for instance.

North of Portree is the Quiraing walk, which I didn’t do as the weather was very bad. The Quiraing is an old, still-moving landslip caused by the retreat of the glaciers that once formed a steep-sided valley.

‘View from Quiraing to the Staffinbay. Isle of Skye, Scotland’. Photo by Stefan Krause, 12 June 2011, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

No single photo does justice to the quirkiness of the Quiraing landscape, which has many projecting towers with names like ‘the needle’, ‘the table’, and ‘the prison’. Some look like horns of whipped cream that have sagged to one side.

Near the Quiraing there are also some outcrops called the Storr. The solo pinnacle to the left in the following photo, the Old Man of Storr, towers 164 feet or 50 metres above a narrowing at its bottom and the ridge on which it sits. It doesn’t look very stable, but people climb it all the same.

‘The Old Man of Storr and surrounding landscape on the Trotternish Peninsula of the Isle of Skye in Scotland.’ Photo by David Iliff, 24 June 2014, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Here is a springtime view of the same gigantic outcrops, from another angle.

Another view of the Old Man of Storr. Photo by Clem_nat, 4 April 2019, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I didn’t keep driving up the coast to Portree and beyond, though. For one thing, I was too tired for another hike and the weather seemed too fickle.

Instead, the next day, I drove east from Kyleakin to Kylerhea over a mountain road. Kylerhea is an important nature sanctuary which has hides for looking at birds, seals and otters.

The road to Kylerhea

The road to Kylerhea, looking more daunting

Despite the way things looked on the road at first, Kylerhea turned out quite sunny, for a short while at any rate.

Kylerhea sign

Kylerhea wildlife

The harbour porpoise

A carving of an otter

By the shore in the Kylerhea area

I came within a hundred metres of seals, which were very timid and would flee if you got any closer. In that respect, they were quite different from New Zealand seals, which will let you get really close and then bite.

After that, I decided to go on southward down another road to Armadale, which had lovely gardens, a castle described as “the spiritual home of Clan Donald” though it is now run by a trust, and the Museum of the Isles. The castle and the museum share the same website, armadalecastle.com.

Armadale Castle Signage

Then I headed back and rejoined the main road to Dunvegan and Dunvegan Castle, still the family seat of the clan MacLeod.

The road-sign to Dunvegan Castle (left) and Portree (right)

Somewhere between Armadale and Dunvegan, I saw this classy-looking place, erected in 1930.

On the way to Dunvegan Castle, I passed the turnoff at Glenbrittle. In the Glenbrittle area, you can climb another part of the Cuillins. The area which also has waterfalls and the Fairy Pools.

What’s that turnoff I see ahead?

The Talisker distillery is in these parts. The Torabhaig distillery is in the southeast of the island, closer to Armadale.

Don’t drink and drive!

As I carried on, I passed through really idyllic sheep-farming country.

Pastures and water

Some sheep of a black-faced breed

Eventually, in the mid-afternoon, I arrived at Dunvegan Castle.

Dunvegan Castle

A closer view of the castle

The details of the East Elevation

Another selfie, in front of the legendary castle

The castle had a landscape by Zuccarelli, a very popular painter at one time, who ended up having at least seven of his paintings hanging in the late Queen’s State Drawing Room at Windsor Castle, which came to be known as the Zuccarelli Room.

Zuccarelli landscape

A fashionable ancestor, doubtless off to teach the colonials a thing or two in America, or perhaps Napoleon in a later generation. Note the tall furry cap that you can just see if you look closely, quite the thing in those days. They used to call it bearskin, though surely there could not have been that many bears to go around.

The salon. No doubt somebody really famous once played chess at that table as well, or maybe several people who were really famous.

The St Kilda Parliament, or assembly of leading locals, which made up a good fraction of the dwindling population on that exceptionally remote isle, till it was abandoned altogether in the 1930s.

An effigy of a servant descending to the oubliette, a kind of dungeon where prisoners were kept and, as it would seem, occasionally fed when anyone remembered to do so. Those who understand French, where the word oublier means to forget, will thus understand the unfortunate associations of the word oubliette.

The west elevation of Dunvegan Castle

As pretty as it is, Skye has a turbulent history of clan feuds, which reads like an account of the depredations of Te Rauparaha in the New Zealand of the 1820s and 1830s. I mean, check this out from an IsleofSkye.com page on the MacLeods:

"In 1577, after a MacLeod raiding party landed on Eigg, the island’s population of MacDonalds fled to a cave in the south of the island. With a view to flushing them out, the MacLeods blocked the cave entrance with heather and vegetation and set it alight. Instead of becoming prisoners, however, all 395 MacDonalds were suffocated to death. Enraged by the slaughter, the following year, the MacDonalds of neighbouring Uist landed eight birlinn war galleys at Ardmore Bay. While the MacLeods were all gathered inside nearby Trumpan church for their Sunday worship, the marauding MacDonalds barred the doors and set alight to the church, killing all but one — a young girl. The girl apparently managed to escape through a window, run the 10 miles to Dunvegan Castle and raise the alarm. Unfortunately for the MacDonald party, a low tide had grounded their escape vessels, leaving time for the MacLeods to catch them. A battle ensued, during which MacLeod raised the fairy flag and slaughtered his enemies to every man. The bodies of the fallen MacDonalds were lined up behind a turf dyke which was collapsed over the top of them. This bloody moment in history is widely known as the Battle of the Spoiling Dyke."

So much for the good old days! As of the time of writing, which is also the time of the quote above, the page warns that not all this horrible history may be literally true in every detail. Still, the old-time storytellers were often better at remembering stuff than we give them credit for today.

The fairy flag that the quote, above, refers to is the most prized possession of the MacLeods. It is a silk flag held in Dunvegan Castle, which is supposed to have come from Fairyland, and which is said to have been unfurled twice, conferring victory each time, or possibly triumph over a cattle pestilence. Legend has it that the fairy flag has the power to confer a third triumph, but that on the third occasion it is unfurled it will return to Fairyland taking the person wielding the banner with it.

The flag is certainly very ancient; scientific tests suggest that it may even have existed when the Romans were still in Britain. The fairy flag may also be the long-lost banner of the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada, of which there were similar legends, and which vanished after he was killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge at 1066. Vanished not back to Fairyland, so that story goes, but rather into the possession of a warrior named Leod, the original MacLeod. Service personnel from the Isle of Skye carried photographs of it during World War II, and it is said no airman carrying such a photo was ever shot down.

The castle had a landscape by Zuccarelli, a very popular painter at one time, who ended up having at least seven of his paintings hanging in the Queen’s State Drawing Room at Windsor Castle, which came to be known as the Zuccarelli Room.

There are other heirlooms on display, such as the Dunvegan Cup, which dates back to the 1490s, and Sir Rory Mor’s Horn, which may predate the year 1000.

When I was there, the head of the clan gave a speech about the history of the area, himself. The western islands of Scotland used to be joined to part of Northern Ireland in an ancient kingdom named Dalriada. Later on, much of the area was ruled by the Vikings, and then the area nominally became part of Scotland but was in reality ruled most of the time by warring clans. Dalriada sounds like a bit of a golden age compared to what came later.

Another important element of history is the way that Prince Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, the leader of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745/46 — the last of several such rebellions since the early 1700s, mostly directed against growing English domination and absentee landlords — sailed across the sea from the Outer Hebrides to Skye before fleeing, in defeat, to France.

Here is a video of the famous Skye Boat Song, which commemorates the prince’s voyage to Skye (and which supplies the lyrics quoted in this post's summary).

The thumbnail in the video is not historically accurate, at least as a depiction of the famous voyage. For Prince Charles (not to be confused with our new king) was to make the journey disguised as the maidservant of a woman named Flora MacDonald.

Upon landing on Skye, the prince was told by one of the first people who met him to remove his disguise as it only made him more conspicuous!

One of Bonnie Price Charlie’s waistcoats is now pinned up behind glass at Dunvegan Castle. The prince’s saviour, Flora MacDonald, who eventually married and had several children, gave her keepsakes in later life to a daughter who lived near Dunvegan Castle and was friendly with the MacLeods. And that is how they wound up in the castle.

Bonnie Prince Charlie’s waistcoat at Dunvegan Castle

Flora MacDonald lived until 1790 and is buried at Kilmuir Cemetery on Skye, where you can visit her grave. It is marked with a tall Celtic cross. Sadly, Flora never saw Charlie after his departure from Skye, though she kept several keepsakes.

Like Armadale, the castle has its own website, dunvegancastle.com. There are some other ruined castles on Skye, and the restored castle of Eilean Donan on a small island a few kilometres east of the Kyle of Lochalsh, the town opposite Kyleakin on the mainland side of the Skye Bridge.

I have made a video of my adventures to this point on the journey around Skye:

As for the town of Dunvegan, beside the historic old castle of the same name, this also turned out to be a good place for camping. The town is also quite an attractive destination in itself.

Dunvegan town is shown in this photo and the two that follow

The Fasgadh (‘shelter’) Stores in Dunvegan, an old-fashioned general store with a wide range of stocks

I could have kept going around the northern part of the island to Portree, or even, from Borve, northward to Uig from where I could have immediately caught a ferry to the Outer Hebrides. Or further on to Hunglader near the very northern tip of the island where there is the highly recommended Skye Museum of Island Life.

Among other things, the museum sports some restored, turf-roofed blackhouses: traditional dwellings that apparently get their name from the fact that they don’t have any exterior plaster of the kind that the Scots normally paint white.

Blackhouses had two drystone walls, an outer one and an inner one, with turf between to seal them from the weather and draughts. Later on, I believe, the use of mortar and exterior plaster would enable people to get away with having just one wall.

Blackhouse brochure

Blackhouse in Trotternish, Skye. Photo by Wojsyl, June 2002, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

However, I decided to backtrack to Bracadale, just past the Dun Beag Broch, and take a real back road through the middle of the island to Portree, and from there back down the coast to Kyleakin and Saucy Mary’s.

The Dun Beag Broch, an old ruined Iron Age fortification

Finally, I caught a ferry from the town of Uig, bound for Tarbert on the Isle of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides.

The way to Uig Pier

A pottery shop with crow-stepped gables in Uig

Brightly coloured houses beside the water in Uig

A yellow hostel that’s hard to miss!

Taking the promenade in Uig

For more information, see:

Isle of Skye community website: isleofskye.com

VisitScotland page for the Isle of Skye: visitscotland.com/destinations-maps/isle-skye


The Union Jack in Auckland on 9 September 2022

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