Isle of Skye, Scotland – Castles, waterfalls, sheep, fairy pools and hearts!
The Isle of Skye in northwest Scotland is a bit off the beaten track. In fact, it takes some concerted effort to get there. The nearest major airport is Glasgow and then it’s over 200 miles of twisty, mountainous, extremely scenic roadway. That’s well over 5 hours not counting coffee, restroom, and photo stops. You can get close via train (8+ hours) but you would still need a car or bus tour from the end point.
IT’S TOTALLY WORTH IT!
There is so much variety, most of it easily accessible from your car – mountains, sea cliffs, farms, waterfalls, wildlife, castles, BnBs, small communities, historic buildings and great hikes…and that’s even before you cross the bridge. Any journey through this area is spellbinding. Bring your camera!
In olden times (before 1995), the only way to get to the Isle of Skye was via one of several ferry services. When the bridge was first completed, the car toll was over 10 pounds and much more for lories (trucks) and coaches (buses). Many locals cross the bridge daily for work, shopping and taking their children to school. After years of protests against the toll, it was abolished in 2004. A local told us the story that for a while the toll was waived for anyone transporting livestock, so it became the norm for local families to have one sheep in the vehicle as they crossed the bridge. They’d leave the sheep at the other side for another driver to do the same and so it went. Wonder how many times those sheep went back and forth! Our only photo of the bridge is below with Skye Bridge to the far right.
It rains often and abundantly in the northwest of Scotland where the Isle of Skye is located. It rains much more here than it does on the east coast of Scotland (and it rains a lot there, too). So if you are lucky enough (as we were) to plan your trip to Skye on a favorable weather forecast, go for it. We were in the middle of a month long home exchange to Edinburgh, so we could pick our window of opportunity. Best to bring your rain gear no matter what the forecast says.
There is so much to see and do at the Isle of Skye!
We were only here for 3 days and did not come close to seeing it all. But we loved what we did see:
Neist Point Lighthouse at sunset
On the extreme western point, in Duirinish near Glendale, about 10 miles from Dunvegan – views, a hike, a lighthouse, sea cliffs, and sheep. We grabbed a quick dinner before driving out there because we knew everything would be closed afterward, but along the way we passed the well-reviewed restaurant The Three Chimneys and wished we’d eaten there. Park, then it’s about 45 minutes to walk to the lighthouse and back. Neist Point Lighthouse was manned when built in 1900 at 133 feet above sea level. It is now automated and its light can be seen 16 nautical miles out.
Castles – A trio of noteworthy castles
These are worth a visit, even if it’s just to admire the view and the setting. The famous Eilean Donan Castle (seen in nearly every castle calendar sold in Scotland and also in the James Bond Skyfall movie) is not technically on Skye but very nearby on the mainland on the road to the Skye Bridge. Dunvegan Castle and gardens near the town of Dunvegan was just across the bay from our farm stay. We also enjoyed the remote Duntulm Castle ruins perched on a northern seaside cliff with dramatic views to the Outer Hebrides Islands (and sheep). For us, it’s the setting and the history that grab our enthusiasm more than fancy innards although it is fascinating to reflect on how we imagine they lived and how furnishings were selected and acquired before department stores and Amazon.com.
Ovinaphobia: Don’t visit Skye if you have it
Sheep are everywhere. They are traffic hazards especially off the main highways, and they keep you company on the hiking trails too. Highland cattle are less abundant but very striking. Sheila was jealous of their hairstyle.
Fairy Pools, on the edge of the Black Cuillin Mountains
A beautiful hike to a series of cascades and pools, accessed on the road between Carbost and Glenbrittle. If it’s a nice day at the height of holiday season, parking can be tight, but it works out. We’ve read that most of the time you’re likely to have it nearly all to yourself. The name becomes truly meaningful if you allow yourself the time to gaze into the crystal clear blue pools. The colors and the happiness of flowing waterfalls and refreshing (but cold!) pools invite swimmers, dreamers and photographers to stay awhile.
Quiraing – An interesting geologic formation in the Trotternish area
In north Skye with outstanding views and lots of hiking options. The car park is small and fills quickly (accessed on the single track road between Uig and Staffin). You can see quite a bit of stunning beauty, high cliffs, plateaus and rock formations within a short walk or you can plan for a rigorous, lengthy hike to be thoroughly impressed.
Old Man of Storr – Another interesting geologic formation along the Trotternish ridge
With rocky monoliths and more views (and sheep) – only about 10 minutes north of Portree. It’s a steep hike to get there so bring extra water. Parking is not as much of a problem here.
Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls waterfall
Between the Quiraing and the Old Man of Storr is a well-marked turnout and carpark with views of a dramatic waterfall crashing roughly 170 feet directly into the sea. The impressive Kilt Rock towers as a backdrop at about 280 feet high, with its basalt formation resembling a Scottish kilt. Cliff views abound in this area and dinosaur fossils have been discovered.
Portree – The largest city on Skye
The central area for Skye’s tourism information. It’s a clean, pretty little harbour town to walk around and enjoy the cliffs, souvenir shops ranging from trinkets to finer arts, plus great cafes and pubs.
Waternish Peninsula just north of Dunvegan
A beautiful area with no particular highlight, just a few small towns, solitude, and lots of sea views (and sheep).
An abundance of darling Bed and Breakfast Inns
There are many dozens of places to stay on Skye. Since we made our reservations at the last minute during a period of nice weather in July, our choices were limited. In spite of that, we had fabulous success and we were really happy we didn’t “wing it”. As we explored the island Sheila noted how many places had “No Vacancy” signs out. She also noted that nearly every lodging option looked charming, interesting and well loved – tempting to do a longer stay just to try the various Bed n Breakfast Inns. Our first night was at a farm B-n-B. What kind of farm, you ask? Well, it is Skye so ….
Uiginish Farmhouse Bed and Breakfast, Uiginish
Glen Elg Inn, Glen Elg
Our second night, we stayed at the Glen Elg Inn, recommended by our home exchange host. The area of Glen Elg (a favorite of palindrome lovers) on the mainland is reached by a tiny ferry run by a sheepdog who herds the cars (max six cars). The ferry itself is a tourist attraction as it is noted as the last turntable ferry in operation. At each launch site, the crew manually turn the deck on the turntable for passengers to easily embark/disembark. The 6 mile road that gets you to the ferry from the island side is harrowing, yet has spectacular views and we drove it twice! At the Glen Elg Inn, we had a scrumptious dinner to celebrate our 5th anniversary (just a few days late). The setting is a charming, locally loved pub style restaurant with a roaring fire, busy bar and friendly conversation all around.
To truly experience Skye…
Single tracks – To experience all the best that Skye has to offer, you must be comfortable driving on single track roads. What’s a single track? It’s a one lane, two way road with turnouts every 100 to 200 yards or so to allow cars to get by each other. When the road is straight and visibility is good, it’s no problem. But when there are tight turns, blind rises, and lots of vegetation (not to mention sheep), it can be a bit stressful. Single tracks are required to get to Neist Point, Fairy Pools, Duntulm Castle, and the Quaraing. Definitely don’t avoid single tracks, but don’t speed, be respectful, and expect oncoming traffic (or sheep) at every turn. Some of the best scenery can be found on those single track backroads. Crazy as it seems, it really works well.
In Skye, most of the western isles, and the Highlands you’ll see road signs and other signs in both English and Gaelic – and sometimes in Gaelic only. It’s all part of the fun of exploration. We enjoy learning the basics and root meaning of words and town names. There’s usually significant logic to the names.
Did we see it all? No way. There are loads of reasons to go back, lots more single tracks to explore, the road to Elgol and sea mammal excursions, ferries to smaller islands, and whale watching trips.
Getting to Skye is half the fun. From Edinburgh, we skirted the western edge of Cairngorms National Park and took a side trip to Loch Ness, famous for a clever monster but doesn’t really compare to other lochs in the area from a scenery perspective. Along the way we saw lots of hearts, seriously, not even trying – hearts in the rocks, clouds, branches, peeled paint, you name it, but the one in the mud was true encouragement that we were on the right path even on a dreary day (which later cleared!).
Returning to St. Bernard’s Cottage (our home exchange home in Edinburgh) we made sure to take the road through incredible Glencoe and Rannoch Moor early enough to enjoy them in the fading daylight.
So, when planning your Scottish vacation, make an effort to get to the Isle of Skye. You will not regret the experience!
RTG Helpful Hints
- Be sure to use the restroom facilities before you need them. Same applies to filling your gas tank.
- If Trip Advisor shows very few vacancies, believe them! Also, for smaller inns, check the local tourism website.
Trip date: July 2015. Visiting the Isle of Skye was part of a 6 week stay in the UK. We’ll be adding our stories about Scotland, Wales and England as soon as we write it all down! Stories include a dreamy home exchange in Edinburgh, an unexpected spectacular visit to Cruden Bay, many rounds of excellent golf, frolicking at the fairy pools on the Isle of Skye, “ringing” the doorbell at #10 Downing Street, exploring gorgeous and ruined castles, speed-touring Wales, fun with friends in England and sailing on an outrageously engineered sailboat at the Cowes Week yacht regatta. SO many memorable experiences!
? Where have you explored on the Isle of Skye? Does this description remind you of somewhere else?