“Sing me a song of a lass that is gone,
Say, could that lass be I?
Merry of soul she sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.”
Every time I hear this song from the opening credits of “Outlander”, it always sends chills down my spine. But it wasn’t until I stepped foot on Skye that the sense of longing for this place resonated with me. The sweet soothing tune conjures images of wind-swept coastlines, jagged sea cliffs, and fields of wild heather – all the things that I’ve come to associate with the Scottish Highlands.
The aptly name Isle of Skye came from an old Norse word meaning ‘cloud island’. Along with Edinburgh and Loch Ness, Skye is one of Scotland’s top tourist destinations. The Isle of Skye is 50 miles long and the largest of the inner Hebrides. It is known for scenery and landscapes that will take your breath away – dramatic coastlines, rugged mountain ranges, and velvety moors covered in moss and sparkling lochs. Here where the ancient castles still stand and giants and fairies roam, the isle is steeped in myth and legend, and full of captivating stories about bloody clan battles.
We decided to do a road trip from Edinburgh to the Isle of Skye to give us more flexibility to explore the Highlands. The best way to experience Scotland’s epic landscape is on the road. We were free to explore at our own pace and stop for every photo opportunity. It’s hard to take a bad picture here, even if you have absolutely no knowledge of photography.
Getting To Skye
There are 2 ways to get to Skye from the mainland, you can either take the Skye bridge or the Skye ferry. The 30 minute ferry departs from the small fishing town of Mallaig near Fort William and takes you to Armadale. The bridge is a bit further north from the ferry – closer to Inverness. Taking the bridge will also allow you see the incredible Eilean Donan Castle.
A Few Things to Know About Skye Before Getting There
Skye is buckling under the weight of increased tourism according to many of its locals. The small island with a population of ten thousand sees millions of tourists each year. With the recent explosion of tourism, the infrastructure just cannot keep up. The one-lane roads are choked with campervans, tour buses, and cars, and there are not enough hotels and B&Bs to cater to all the visitors to the island. It has gotten so bad that tourists are warned not to come if they haven’t booked ahead. If you plan to travel during the busier summer months, you have to book 3-4 months ahead or else you will be stuck with no place to stay.
There are also not enough restaurants to cater to the growing number of visitors. If you want to eat at a reasonable time, you’ll have to book way ahead as well. Even when we went during the shoulder season, most restaurants were fully booked.
The parking situation is even more dire. The popular stops do not have the capacity for all the cars, so people end up parking on the side of the road making it even harder to navigate small one-lane roads.
This day in age, it’s surprising to visit a first world country with limited cell phone and internet signal – it is a necessity that I’ve come to expect. Last year, for example, we had perfect cellphone signal climbing up Roy’s Peak in New Zealand. On Skye, however, you may be cut off from the rest of the world because on top poor cell service, there are also very few places that offer Wi-Fi. But it did give us a chance to disconnect and enjoy the beautiful island. We just had to remember to download maps for offline use ahead of time since we couldn’t rely on Google Maps while driving around.
The weather in Skye is unpredictable – and that is probably the understatement of the year. While out on a hike we experienced bright blue skies, pouring rain, and gale force winds – all within an hour. While it rained frequently during our 3 day visit, there were periods of sunshine that gave us a glimpse of how gorgeous this place can be on a clear day. Since we were not prepared for all the rain, we had to make a detour to a local store to buy ourselves a pair of £9 wellies that were a life saver on more than one occasion. We were told by the locals that the best month to visit is May, but even then, come prepared for fickle weather.
Where to Stay:
The delightful part of travel in Scotland is staying in B&Bs. We chose to stay at an airBnB near Portree, the largest town on the Isle of Skye. The 2 room apartment was comfortable and served as the perfect home base to explore the nearby Trotternish loop. Our lovely hosts Mairi and Harry were full of old-fashioned hospitality. They welcomed us into their home and even offered us some frozen pizza when we told them that we couldn’t get reservations to any of the restaurants in town. The best part is that the apartment had great WiFi, which was a huge bonus given how limited cell signal was on the island.
When we were planning our trip, the hardest part was trying to figure out how to fit everything into our three day schedule. There was so much that I wanted to do, but I also wanted to leave some free time to relax, since this was also our vacation – as Fausto is fond of reminding me. Here is a breakdown of the places we visited by day:
Day 1: Old Man of Storr
Old Man of Storr is the most popular walk on the Isle of Skye. This famous rock formation has been featured in many travel magazines and used as a backdrop for many Hollywood movies. As part of the Trotternish ridge, Storr was created by a massive landslide many years ago. The ‘Old Man’ is a large pinnacle of rock that can be seen for miles around. Legend has it that the rocks are fingers of a dead giant rising out of the ground.
This famous trail is one of the most photographed landscapes in the country. Despite the looming clouds, the path was busy with hikers and photographers. We got there around 9am to avoid the hordes of tourists and were able to find a parking spot near the trailhead. The full loop takes about 3-4 hours, but if you just want to go to the Old Man formation and back it’ll only take about 2 hours.
The steep trail changes from packed road to a rocky scramble half way up. The weather conditions deteriorated as the rain came pouring down, making the path slippery and muddy – yet we persisted. Our attention was focused on the Old Man covered in clouds. Once at the top, the sky cleared up a little and we could see all the way across the Sound of Raasay to the Scottish mainland. The views on a clear day are unmatched.
Day 1: Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls
Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls are a popular stopping point on the coastal road between Portree and Staffin. This was the quickest stop of the day, only a few minutes walk from the parking lot. Looking over the edge, you can see the epic views along the coastline of the Isle of Skye. To the North, you can see the magnificent Kilt Rock that is said to resemble a pleated kilt with the color of the rocks forming the tartan pattern. From the lookout point, you can hear the roaring of the nearby Mealt waterfall plummeting from the top of the cliff to the rocky coast below.
Day 1: Rubha nam Brathairean (Brother’s Point)
Rubha nam Brathairean is the Isle’s hidden gem. Even though it’s on the Trotternish Loop and a short distance from Kilt Rock and the Old Man of Storr, very few tourists venture to this place, which makes it that much more special. This easy scenic hike takes you to Skye’s most stunning coastal scenery, a dramatic headland marking the easternmost point of Trotternish. In fact, this was our favorite stop of the trip.
To get here, take A855 north from Portree. There is a small car park on the left hand side of the road. To get to the trailhead, cross the street and follow the sign for Rubha nam Brathairean. Follow the gravel and dirt driveway until you get to a gate where you’ll find a grass trail leading down to the shoreline. Once you turn the corner, the views open up revealing stunning coastline. The trail ends on a rocky beach, but to get to the cliff, you have to walk across a wide grassy bogland. This was where we were really thankful for our wellies because there was no way we could have made it across the field without boots.
Once we crossed the narrow cliff face, we were the only people around. Fausto pulled out his drone and took photos and and video of the surroundings. We spent about 2 hours there, enjoying the endless views of green grass, jagged cliffs, and blue ocean. We were lucky to have this spot to ourselves and even luckier that the clouds cleared and we had gorgeous weather – at least for a few hours.
Day 1: Quiraing
There is no better way to see the Quiraing (prounounced Ki-Rung) than to hike it. Landscapes made up of craggy cliffs, sunken valleys, and jagged pinnacles were left from the last Ice Age and molded from years of landslides. Standing at the top of the Quiraing and looking out over the Trotternish Peninsula with its million shades of green, I couldn’t help but fall in love with Skye over and over again.
The windy one-lane road to the Quiraing cuts across the Trotternish peninsula. The parking situation is not ideal, because the small lot at the top near the entrance to the hike is always full which leaves people little choice but to park further away on the side of the road. Luckily we got there at 4pm and most people had already left so we were able to find a spot relatively quickly. Since we were late, we decided to take the lower path to the Needle instead of the whole circuit which could take 3-4 hours.
The trail starts out fairly broad with a gradual incline making it easy to follow. The difficult part is the scramble across the gully which is a bit tricky to get across but doable with a helping hand. The scenery along the path is dramatic and breathtaking with excellent views of the coast below. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Islands of Raasay. We stopped short of the rocky pinnacle called “the Needle” and instead climbed up to the top of the hill. Fausto sent out the drone to take some pictures and videos of the surrounding area as we sat back and enjoyed the moment.
Day 2: Faerie Glen
Skye has a long history involving the faeries – as I learned reading Scottish Myths and Legends. Even though the Faerie Glen has no real legends or stories involving faeries, the strange and magical location made you feel like anything was possible. Located just south of Uig, this surreal place transports you to the pages of a children’s fairytale.
The hidden glen does not have well marked signs, but using Google Maps we were able to navigate ourselves there. Down a dirt path, you’ll find yourself surrounded by miniature rolling hills, gnarly moss covered tress, and grazing sheep. The peaceful simplicity of this place is exactly what makes it so appealing.
Off to the side, you can see a lone rock tower named Castle Ewen, that looks eerily like a castle ruin from the distance. From top, we had an awesome view over the heather covered hills and the glistening pond below. If fairies do exist, this would surely be the heart of their kingdom.
As we left the Glen, I turned around and saw this breathtaking scene and made Fausto stop the car so I could jump out and take the photo. This turned out to be my favorite photo of the Fairy Glen, since the glen’s hills and valleys can be seen from this perspective. Five minutes later, as I was walking back to the car, the sky opened up and poured, but luckily I made it back to the car just in time.
Day 2: Archery and Axe Throwing
One of the things that Fausto wanted to do on our trip to Scotland was learn archery and axe throwing. After some research, we found A.C.E Target Sports, a locally run company. Our instructor Dan spent two hours teaching us the techniques of archery and axe throwing. We had to learn all of the do’s and don’ts – how to properly hold the bow, how to safely recover the arrows and how to stand when throwing an axe. It was both fun and informative.
We spent the first hour honing our archery skills before Dan set up a competition to see which one of us would score the most points – I am happy to say that I got the best of Fausto. We were able to hit the balloons at the center of the target a couple times. I felt like Katniss Everdeen – at least in my mind.
The last hour was spent throwing axes at a target. It sounds a lot simpler than it looked. The trick is not to exert too much energy causing the axe to over-rotate and not hit the mark. But even after 30 minutes of repeatedly throwing, I still couldn’t master the subtlety of axe throwing. Fausto, on the other hand, was a natural! He was able to hit the bulls-eye on his first try.
Day 2: Sligachan Bridge
This beautiful old stone bridge is located close to the Black Cuillin mountains in the middle of the island. There’s a Highland legend that says the mountain-fed waters that run beneath the bridge are enchanted and if you immerse your head in the freezing water for a full seven seconds, you’ll be blessed with eternal youth. I can’t attest to the veracity of that statement, but I did see some people attempting to dunk their head.
Day 2: Neist Point
Located on the Westerly-most headland of Skye, Neist Point is home to a remote lighthouse perched at the very tip of the peninsula. The area is surrounded by massive cliffs looking out to the Outer Hebrides making it Skye’s most popular spot to watch the sun set.
The lighthouse was designed and built by David Alan Stevenson in 1909 (learn more about the Stevenson family on my Edinburgh 101 blog), costing a mere £4,350 which is about $500,000 in today’s dollar. The lighthouse was finally automated in 1990, at which point the role of the lighthouse keeper was no longer necessary.
The drive from Portree to this remote location takes about an hour, most of it on one lane roads where you will have to pull over to allow oncoming traffic to go through. When you get there, don’t stop at the first parking lot, keep driving through the gates to the upper parking lot which is conveniently located closer to the start of the trail. If you go during busy times, expect an overflowing car park and lots of people. After we found a spot, the sky opened up and it started pouring, which didn’t bode well for sunsets. We sat in the car and patiently waited it out, hoping that the rain would stop long enough for us to go and explore this spot and sure enough, after about 20 minutes the rain petered out.
There are two paths you can choose – the first one takes you down the steps towards the left and out to the lighthouse, and the second takes up you uphill over to the right where you where can get the perfect shot of both the cliff and the lighthouse in the distance. We didn’t realize this and ended up going down to the lighthouse initially. The round trip out to the lighthouse takes about an hour, but since we stopped to enjoy the view, it took a bit longer. While there, sitting by the cliff, we saw people with their fishing gear going down to the water. Even though there were lots of dark ominous clouds, we were thankful it didn’t rain because there was no cover out there. At the edge of the cliff it got pretty windy, so be very careful near the edges.
The view from the top is quite different because you get to see the lighthouse from afar, along with the finger of land jutting out into the sea. From this vantage point, you can see the countless sheep grazing away and the seagulls swooping in the air. When you go around sunset, you will find a lot of photographers with some serious camera gear patiently waiting for the perfect light.
Day 3: Fairy Pools
The washout continued on our third day. We were supposed to go to the fairy pools, except it was pouring when we got there, and it hadn’t stopped all morning and didn’t look like it would stop any time soon. We sat in the car trying not to let the weather get us down. We couldn’t decide if we wanted to brave the torrential rain since everyone came back looking like they had jumped into a pool. But alas, a tight itinerary based entirely on outdoor activities did not allow much room for all-day rainstorms!
So out we went. We put on all our rain gear and ventured down the road. The rain was falling sideways and we were soaked within seconds. Our wellies were no match for the downpour and I was soon sloshing around with water in my boots. Everything was completely wet including my camera. Even though it was stored in a makeshift plastic bag, all the moisture had managed to cause my camera to malfunction.
The Fairy Pools are a series of small waterfalls and beautiful crystal blue pools cascading down from the Black Cuillin range. The easy trail was well marked and relatively flat. The round trip to the waterfalls and back takes about two hours. The trail crosses the stream several times, but there were plenty of stepping stones, because obviously we didn’t want to get our feet any wetter *I said sarcastically*.
This place is gorgeous on a sunny day, but for us, the experience of hiking in the pouring rain was miserable. The Fairy Pools were lackluster because it was all dark and grey. We would just have to come back another time to appreciate it. On a high note, we finally came across some Highland cows that day. I was starting to think that they were a myth like the Loch Ness monster.
Day 3: Armadale Castle
Armadale Castle was the former home of Clan MacDonald. The once grand mansion was built in 1790, but was eventually abandoned after it was damaged by fire. The admission fee allows you to walk through the garden area, the castle ruins, and the museum. It stopped raining for a hot minute and we thought that we were finally going to have sunshine, but then it started pouring again. We had to take refuge in the museum and spent the time learning about the history of the Highlands from the Vikings through the Jacobite uprisings.
That afternoon we gave in and called it a day. Being perpetually wet and cold just didn’t feel good, so we checked into our airBnB. Our host Penny was ready with a hot cup of tea and even helped us dry our clothes. We spent the rest of the time under our cozy comforter, with a book about Scottish myths and legends and a dram of Oban whisky (don’t judge) to warm ourselves up. Instead of going out for dinner, we decided stay in and chat with our hosts Penny and Graham. Graham grew up in Skye and was full of stories about its history. As we learned over and over again, the friendly people are very much part of the charm of Scotland.
Even though our visit to Skye was a washout, we really enjoyed all the places that we visited. The landscape reminded me of a mix between new Zealand and Ireland, two of my favorite countries.