Hunkered a short way off the West Coast of Scotland, Skye is one of those places that instantly makes you feel like you’re in some sort of fantasy novel. The name somes from the Norse word Skuy, which translates as ‘Misty Isle’, and I am told that the reason for this is usually pretty obvious. Certainly when I arrived on the island, the sun that I had basked in on the mainland suddenly disappeared – replaced by a sheet of thunderous grey that rolled overhead.
Luckily the sun did come out in the end, but even if it’s tipping it down there are still plenty of ways to pass the time on Skye. (Just remember to take a coat).
I am a historian to the bone (and I have a degree certificate to prove it), so naturally when I visit a new place I like to delve into its past. Skye is worth the effort, as it has a colourful history that covers everything from dinosaur footprints on the beach at Staffin to the Highland Clearances in the 1800s. Personally I have a (frankly slightly disturbing) interest in all things outlaw/gang related – even my dissertation was about highwaymen. So it came as no surprise to my companions that I was instantly interested in the clan wars that dominated Skye’s history from the 14th century until the Jacobite Risings resulted in the downfall of the clan system.
On Skye the two main clans were that of MacLeod and MacDonald, and they were engaged in tit-for-tat feuding for most of their tenure. My favourite snippet of their history is the story behind the ‘Wars of the One-Eyed Woman’. As the tale goes, clan chief Ruaraidh MacLeod became tired of the constant fighting and decided to attempt a matrimonial alliance by offering his sister Margaret to Donald Macdonald (great name). Rather than a straightforward marriage they used a handfast arrangement, whereby the man and woman lived together for a year and a day. If the woman bore a child during this period then the marriage would go ahead, but if not then they would each return to their own families. Margaret MacLeod not ony failed to bear a child, but she also at some point lost sight in one eye. Donald MacDonald reacted by tying her backwards astride a one-eyed horse, led by a one-eyed servant, followed by a one-eyed mongrel, and sent the lot back to Ruaraidh’s seat at Dunvegan Castle (which is itself worth a visit). Ruaraidh responded to this insult by declaring war on Clan MacDonald, setting off a series of retaliatory battles and raids that culminated in the 1601 Battle of Coire na Creiche, where the MacLeods were utterly defeated. This was the last clan battle to be fought on Skye.
Art House Cafes
For those of you less interested in History, you might prefer to spend your time snuggled up in one of Skye’s many (and I mean many) artistic retreats. The island has a thriving arts and crafts scene (I’ll provide a link to some info at the bottom of this post) and each little community on the island has its own set of craft businesses: everything from photography to cosmetics, sculpture to weaving. But my favourite places were those that combined this arty vibe with tea and a huge slab of cake: the perfect way to dispel the chill on a slightly overcast day. What’s even better is that some of these Art House Cafes pop up in the most unexpected places, quite literally in the middle of nowhere. The ‘Wee Tea Room’ is an excellent example that we stumbled upon when a sudden downpour resulted in us aborting planned trip to Talisker Bay. On the drive back to our base in Portnalong we went past the long, lonely road sign-posted to the tearoom and decided that it was worth a punt. As with many of the Art House cafes on Skye, the ‘Wee’ tea room turned out to be literally that: a snug front room of the owner’s house with about four tables, and the owner’s photography lining the walls. It was worth a visit just for the view over the mountains, but the delicious lemon cake that I proceeded to stuff myself with was no less welcome. What’s more, by the time we had finished the sun had come out again and we were able to mount another expedition to Talisker Bay, which proved to be worth our perseverance: it is utterly beautiful.
However one cafe was apparently not enough, and on a day trip up to Northern Skye we found ourselves drawn almost magnetically to the Ellishadder Art Cafe. Again this was a snug front room in a beautiful house, and I happily spent a good hour nosing through all the items for sale: everything from hand-woven cushions to beautiful ceramics from the Uig Pottery. Yet even if you aren’t looking to buy anything (good luck resisting), the trip is worth it for the shortbread alone – I promise.
Wild Swimming in the Fairy Pools
For those of you who like to work up a sweat before you eat your shortbread, Skye is the perfect place. Obviously there are thousands of opportunities for walking on the island, but I decided that it would be even more fun to go wild swimming in a river so cold that it made my skin burn.
The Fairy Pools are a series of stepped pools and waterfalls, formed by a tributary of the River Brittle as it flows down from the Cuillin mountains. On an overcast day you can really see the beautiful blue/green tinge to the water, so if you’re after photographs it’s probably best to visit on a cloudy day. As I was planning to swim however, I was quite glad that there was some sun to warm me up afterwards. You can swim in any of the pools – provided you are agile enough to scramble down to them over the rocks. The most popular one is probably the first pool that you come to, because it is fairly deep and has a half-submerged natural arch which is great to swim under. It’s definitely worth taking goggles so that you can explore under the water – some people also wear wetsuits to keep out the cold but as I’m not a fan of being throttled by neoprene I braved it in a swimming costume, which on a warm day is just about bearable.
Access to the pools is pretty easy (walking route linked below), though the track is a bit uneven at points. Discretion should be used after heavy rain as it can get very boggy and the river crossings can be dangerous – don’t take any unnecessary risks. Oh, and don’t forget to take a towel.
While it is possible to reach this remote location by hiking through the Cuillins, we opted instead for taking a boat across from the Elgol peninsula. So on a fine, sunny day (‘typical Skye weather’ the skipper assured us), we set sail aboard the ‘Misty Isle’. We were in the capable hands of Captain Seumas, Seumas Jr. (his grandson), and James (which is the English equivalent of Seumas). On the way out we were given an excellent history of the area by James – along with the required dosage of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escapades in the area. On a clear day the views are stunning – across to Canna, Rum, Muck and Eigg. It is really worth trying to get a seat at the side of the boat on the way out so that you are better placed for any dolphin or seal sightings. We were lucky and encountered both – the dolphins followed the boat and put on quite a display for 20 minutes or so. The seals were somewhat more sedentary and sunning themselves on the rocks, but this did at least make them easier to photograph. At the other side of the bay we docked at a slightly precarious-looking set of stairs up the cliff face, but they proved to be sturdy and soon we were all setting off along the rough track (of sorts) to the loch. This is about a 15 minute walk/scramble beside the River Scavaig (possibly the shortest river in the UK) that runs from the loch down to the sea. Not really suitable for the reluctant walker, but they will miss out on the most gorgeous views. As you follow the path round a mound of rock, the Loch suddenly opens out in front of you with the Cuillin mountains towering all around. On a still, sunny day it is hard to imagine a more peaceful spot. Some of the boat’s passengers had obviously booked a one way trip and immediately set off to hike through the Cuillins (probably back to Sligachan), but as my travelling companions were more of the ‘easy stroll’ persuasion they sat down to have lunch whilst I pottered around the loch shore. For the best views, I had to cross the river by two sets of rather precarious stones – definitely not for the faint of heart or unsteady of balance – but the view was worth it.
An hour and a half later the boat returned to pick us up, and the crew doled out (delicious) hot chocolate and biscuits (or tea/coffee/juice, as preferred). Just to round it off: as we were munching away a huge Golden Eagle soared overhead. All in all a highly recommended excursion.
There are plenty of other things to do on Skye as well, such as visiting Talisker Bay or Claigan Coral Beach (which looks oddly Caribbean), or for the whisky buff there’s always the Talisker Distillery in Carbost. Basically, if you ever have the chance to get to Skye – go. You won’t regret it (as long as you remember your waterproofs!)
Slàinte mhath! (Good health)
Side note about midges: My travelling companions took every precaution against the wee beasties that plague western Scotland in summer, including eating garlic tablets for weeks before we went, wearing light clothes, and covering themselves in ‘Smidge’ repellant before leaving the house. I own a grand total of one light-coloured shirt, I hate covering myself in sticky oil, and my tablet-taking was erratic as best. Naturally I came away without a single midge bite, whilst my fellow travellers both had a few on their arms (though in fairness probably not as many as they would have had if they’d not been wearing repellant). I’ll leave it up to you to decide the moral of that story.
The Skye Guide – excellent source of general info, from walks to supermarkets.
Misty Isle Boat Trips – to Loch Coruisk
Skye & Lochalsh Arts and Crafts Association – Directory of all the wonderfully arty places on Skye
Fairy Pools Walk – in Glen Brittle, near Carbost.