A Complete Guide to the Isle of Skye
A Complete Guide to the Isle of Skye
Skye is the largest and probably the best known island of the Inner Hebrides. Many people flock here each year from around the world. It is still easy, however, to find a corner of its rugged landscape all to yourself. Its dramatic hills are beloved by mountaineers and hikers as well as photographers and wildlife enthusiasts.
Whatever they choose to see and do while on the island, many fall in love with Skye's natural beauty and rugged romance, its heather-clad moors, quaint fishing villages, tranquil bays and interesting history.
People have lived on this island since the Mesolithic period. The island saw a time of Norse rule, and was long dominated by the Clan MacLeod and Clan Donald.
The Jacobite Uprising of the 18th Century saw a breakdown of the clan system, and the Clearances saw the island's population drop dramatically, as whole communities were displaced by sheep. The remains of some of the villages they vacated can still be seen today.
Skye is now home to a population of around 10,000 people, who share their island not only with the many visitors who flock here each year but also with the wildlife – red deer, golden eagles, otters, and Atlantic salmon are all included in the local fauna.
Some say that the sidhe (shee) also inhabit the island – these 'fairies' play an important role in the local mythologies.
Getting To Skye
“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...”
While many people, when they think of Skye, think of the Skye Boat Song, most visitors to the island now arrive not by boat but by road, over the Skye Bridge.
Incidentally, the song, which many believe to be an old Gaelic song, was actually written in the 1880s. It is often believed to describe the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie from the mainland – but it is unhistorical. In fact, Charles only came to Skye when he fled government searches in Benbecula – an island in the Outer Hebrides.
The Skye Bridge
The Skye Bridge links Kyle of Lochalsh, on the mainland, with Kyleakin on Skye across Loch Alsh. It bridges a distance of some 500m. The bridge opened in 1995 and there was a controversial toll for crossing until 2004, when the bridge was purchased by the Scottish Government and the charges were removed. Buses to Skye run from Glasgow and Inverness and train services run to Kyle of Lochalsh from Inverness.
Mallaig – Armadale Ferry
Caledonian MacBrayne runs the ferry services to Skye and other Scottish islands. The crossing from Mallaig to Armadale takes around 45 minutes. There is a summer timetable and a more limited winter timetable, details of which, and details of pricing, can be found on the Calmac website. Train services run from Glasgow to Mallaig on the popular West Coast Main Line throughout the year.
Glenelg – Kylerhea Ferry
Visitors to Skye can also consider making the crossing to the island from Glenelg across the Kyle Rhea Straits on the MV Glenachulish – the last operating manual turntable ferry in the world. This tiny ferry was built in 1969 and plugs back and forth every 20 minutes or as required every day (weather permitting) between around Easter and mid October.
This charming experience is a lovely way to begin your holiday to Skye – if you are lucky you may even spot a sea eagle, porpoises, dolphins or otters during the crossing. With a little planning, it is possible to reach Glenelg by bus, though it is easier if you have your own vehicle.
Ferries To and From Other Islands
A ferry service connects Uig on Skye with Tarbert on the Isle of Harris and Lochmaddy on North Uist. A small ferry also runs from Sconser, on Skye, to the neighbouring island of Raasay.
Getting Around The Isle of Skye
The A87 trunk road links the Skye Bridge with Uig, towards the north of the island. This road links most of the major settlements. Many of the branch roads leading off this main route have been widened in the last few decades, though many roads on the island are still single track.
If you do not wish to bring your own vehicle to Skye, you can get around between the main settlements by bus. Local services on the island mainly start from the island capital, Portree, or from Broadford, another of the larger settlements. Private coach companies also offer tours around the island.
Should you wish to see more remote and unpopulated parts of the island, the only way to see many of them is on foot.
There are a range of wonderful walks and hikes all across the island, including the unofficial and challenging Skye Trail, which will take you from the far north of the island, along the Trotternish Ridge and beneath the shadow of the Cuillin mountains to Broadford.
This unmarked hike is only for the experienced, though those of all ages and abilities will find it easy to discover wonderful walks on the island.
There is so much to see and to explore on Skye – but too really get to know this island, you have to leave the car behind and explore on foot.
Whether you take a gentle coastal walk, climb a rugged mountain, or even scale the 'Inaccessible Pinnacle' of Sgurr Dearg in the Cuillins range, getting out there into the wilderness is how you really get to know this rugged island.
That said, even on a brief visit and even without venturing far from the road, there is still plenty to see and do.
Where to Stay on Skye
Where you choose to stay on the island and what accommodation option you choose will depend, of course, on what sort of holiday you are looking for, and how you wish to spend your time on the Skye. Whatever you choose, there are plenty of options to select from.
The largest settlement and capital of Skye is Portree. Larger villages on the island include Kyleakin, Broadford and Dunvegan.
Whether or not you choose to stay in one of these somewhat larger settlements will depend on your personal preferences, though there are more accommodation options and amenities in these places than in more remote and less populated parts of the island.
There is a wide range of hotels in all the main towns and villages on the island, and even more B&Bs and self-catering cottages.
Those on a budget could consider a stay at one of the four hostels on the island, or even a camping holiday. There is one official campsite on the island, though intrepid souls could also consider wild camping in a remote part of the island, as long as they follow Scotland's Outdoor Access Code.
Things To Do on Skye
No matter what your interests or inclinations, there is plenty to see and do on the island. Here are just some of the main attractions you can expect to enjoy as you explore the Isle of Skye:
The Black Cuillin, as the true Cuillin are known, is a rocky mountain range that defines the landscape of much of the Isle of Skye. These mountains are one of forty National Scenic Areas across Scotland.
There are many walking routes in this range, from relatively easy and straightforward hill walks to dramatic climbs and scrambles.
The awe-inspiring 'Inaccessible Pinnacle' of the Cuillins is famous as the hardest of Scotland's Munros – involving a graded rock climb to summit. Even if you do not feel inclined (or don't have the time) to explore these mountains properly, you will still enjoy views of their rugged peaks as you make your way on the roads across the island.
This picturesque freshwater loch lies at the foot of the Black Cuillins. The loch is accessible by boat from Elgol, or on foot from Sligachan on a hike that covers a distance of around 7-8 miles.
Walking from Elgol is not recommended for inexperienced or nervous walkers, as it includes the 'Bad Step', a scramble round a cliff face above the water that is most definitely not for the faint-hearted.
A visit to the loch, however, is strongly recommended, and is a must for keen photographers!
A deservedly popular walk on the island leads you to reach a famous summit and pass through the dramatic landscape of the Sanctuary, with the Old Man of Storr and a number of other iconic rock formations. The Old Man of Storr is a rocky pinnacle that can be seen for miles around and which is a well known emblem of the island.
The Quiraing is a landslip on he northernmost summit of the Trotternish towards the northern end of the island. The whole of this mountain escarpment was formed by a series of landslips, which have formed the remarkable rocky pinnacles and shapes.
The Quiraing is the only part of the slip still moving – the road at its base must be fixed every year. Notable rocky formations on this landslip include the Needle, the Prison and the Table. These can be viewed on a range of walks in the region.
Fairy Pools & Fairy Glen
The Isle of Skye has long been associated with the sidhe, and there are many faerie sites to visit across the island.
The fairy pools are perhaps the most famous – a series of breathtaking natural pools and waterfalls. Dunvegan Castle (see below) is home to the fairy flag, and nearby is the fairy bridge, where the chief's fairy wife is said to have given him the flag before leaving for fairyland.
Listen carefully for fairy music on the Fairy Knoll, and step carefully through the eerie Fairy Glen.
Neist Point lighthouse, on Neist Point, is one of the best known lighthouses in Scotland. It was opened in 1909 and is crucial for marine traffic in the region.
An aerial cableway is used to take supplies to the lighthouse and cottages. The main draw here, however, is the beautiful outlook that can be enjoyed from here and on several good walks in the vicinity.
Historic Sites on Skye
Once the seat of the MacDonalds of Sleat, Armadale Castle's romantic ruins, woodland trails, beautiful gardens and Museum of the Isles allow visitors to discover 1500 years of history.
The castle ruins date from the mid 19th Century and command a magnificent position overlooking the Sound of Sleat. While you cannot enter the ruins themselves, you can explore the 40 acre estate, visit the museum or enjoy refreshments at the Armadale Cafe and Restaurant.
This ruined structure was the seat of the clan chiefs of Clan MacDonald of Sleat in the 17th Century. It is believed that this castle was built (in the 14th and 15th Centuries) on the remains of an earlier structure – though no evidence for this earlier structure has been discovered.
The castle sits on a basalt promontory above the sea. This place is not only of historical interest, it is also a scenic spot, beloved of photographers.
St Columba's Isle
A far less well known yet equally interesting historic site is located just below the bridge where the Portree to Dunvegan road crosses the River Snizort. This small island was the site of St Columba's first cathedral of the Bishop of the Isles. Though Iona is far better known for its association with the saint, this unassuming spot was the heart of Christianity in the Hebrides from 1079 until 1498. Here you can see the ruins of two small buildings and a range of fascinating graves.
Dunvegan stands at the heart of the large MacLeod estate and is the seat of the MacLeod of MacLeod, chief of the clan. Believed to have been a fortified site since earlier times, the castle was first built in the 13th Century and includes a range of additions which were constructed between then and the 19th Century.
The latest additions and changes saw the whole castle remodelled in a mock mediaeval style in the 19th Century. The castle sits on a rocky outcrop overlooking an inlet of the Sea Loch, Loch Dunvegan.
Suisnish & Boreraig
These two abandoned villages are amongst the many on the island that became uninhabited during the Clearances. The hike to these eerie former settlements on the 'Cleared coast' is largely on clear paths, tracks and minor roads, though it is boggy in places.
Starting at the Cill Chriosd ruined church on the B8083, the relatively unchallenging walk covers a distance of some ten miles, and will take around 5-6 hours.
On this walk you will see many ruined homes – the inhabitants of which were brutally evicted by Lord MacDonald in 1854 and get more insight into this tragic time period in Scottish history.
One of the oldest and most fascinating historic sites on the island, this little fort is an excellent example of an Iron Age Broch.
There are around 500 brochs to be found across the north and west of the country, including a number across the island, and opinions differ as to their original use.
Some believe that they were primarily defensive structures, while others believe they were symbols of power for local chieftains or leaders. Whatever purpose these structure originally had, they provide a fascinating glimpse into the distant past.
Museums on Skye
Staffin Museum is a must-see for many and one of the most family-friendly attractions on the island. Kids will love the exhibits here, which include dinosaur footprints and fossils!
This eco museum has a collection of dinosaur fossils that have been collected locally, as well as arrowheads and other artefacts found across the island. Take a short stroll to discover the open-air attractions.
Skye Museum of Island Life
At this museum site, in Kilmuir, you can see a township of thatched cottages as they would have been here on the island towards the end of the 18th Century. This is a must-see attraction for anyone who wishes to get more insight into the islanders and their history.
Eating & Drinking on Skye
In addition to enjoying the natural and human history across the island, one of the joys of a visit to Skye is the chance to enjoy some of the island's fresh, local food. Sconser scallops are a particular local delicacy and are delivered fresh to the many fine restaurants across the island.
Activities & Adventures
Art & Craft on Skye
Art lovers, and those who appreciate local craft, will also be able to visit a range of art galleries, workshops and studios across the island. This inspiring island is home to many artists and artisans.
Around Skye, there are also plenty of opportunities to get out on the water. Many wildlife safaris, fishing trips and guided boat tours will allow you to learn more about island culture and experience a taste of the breathtaking beauty that awaits around Skye's shores.
Skye from the Air
It is also possible to arrange a flight over the island with Skyeflight, who offer the chance to ascend from Broadford airport and see Skye from the air. This is an amazing way to see the island from a different perspective on an airborne adventure.
Hiking is not the only way to get out and explore the great outdoors on the island. There are a number of individual guides and private companies who offer activities, adventures and exciting experiences that allow you to get out and enjoy nature in a different way.
Visitors to Skye can try gorge walking or coasteering, canyoning, waterfall jumping, mountain bike adventures, climbing, abseiling, kayaking, canoeing and more. Themed wildlife or photography tours also abound. On Skye, there are almost as many different ways to enjoy the island's landscape as there are people.
This brief guide provides only a taste of what this island has to offer. The best way to learn more is simply to get there and experience it for yourself.