The Isle of Skye, the largest island of the Inner Hebrides has become something of a tourist magnet in recent years. The use of the island’s magnificent scenery as a backdrop for several film locations might explain part of the tourist boom. And indeed, film buffs are in for a treat as – amongst others - the BFG (2016), Macbeth (2015), 47 Ronin (2013), Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), Prometheus (2012), Breaking the Waves (1996) and Highlander (1986) were filmed here. It comes as little surprise that location scouts keep coming back to this corner of Scotland. The landscape is awesome, even breath-taking: craggy ridges, pointy peaks, sweeping bays, sandy and windswept beaches and the ever changing weather which adds just that little bit of extra drama.
But you will not be alone! From June to September coach tour operators and private vehicles clog up the island’s narrow roads, in particular along the main drag from Broadford to Portree and on to Skye’s main attraction, the Old Man of Storr. To avoid the crowds, it helps if you are an early riser and to be site preferably when everyone else is still enjoying their breakfast. During the summer, you can also take advantage of extensive daylight hours until at least 10.00 pm, so an early evening hike is certainly not out of the question. By that time, most coaches and private vehicles should have departed.
It wasn’t always like this. Until 1995, the island’s main access point was a short, 500 m ferry ride, and the two 28-car vessels transported an impressive 300,000 passengers across the narrow strait between Kyle and Kyleakin. But during summer, the queues reached truly epic proportions, making local traffic to and from the island an arduous undertaking. Then came one of many bird-brained Private Finance Initiatives (PFI), set up by the Major and Blair governments throughout the 1990s. It meant that the construction of the rather short bridge (which came in at 25 million £) was financed by a private construction consortium, which in return was allowed to charge a toll. And what a toll it was. At the time of the bridge’s opening in 1995, the round trip fee of 11.40 £ for the 30-second drive made it one of most expensive roads in the world. The locals were not happy, and often simply disobeyed the toll collectors and drove straight on. Demonstrations, protests, and harassment of ferry staff became common place. Alas, the newly devolved regional government of Scotland promised to address this ridiculous situation, and in 2004 brought the bridge back into public ownership (at a cost of 27 million £). It later emerged that the bridge operator had collected a whopping 33 million £ in the ten years of toll collection and thus had recouped all of its investment within one decade. Rather impressive, even by Las Vegas casino standards.
On the island, you will find many signs of the rise in tourism. Apart from Portree, Skye does not really have another sizeable settlement, but there are plenty of houses dotting the landscape, many of which having been recently done up, and often offering Bed & Breakfast accommodation, or the increasingly ubiquitous self-accommodation wooden pods, which at last spare the owners any awkward encounters during a nightly trip to the bathroom. Skye is also a thriving art community, and you will come across many arts and crafts shops and galleries, and yes whiskey distilleries as well. So, if you intend to do more than just hiking, then you came to the right place, although sun-bathing and swimming is really only for the hardy types (and very hardy at that).
I have selected three easily accessible day hikes lasting between two and five hours. These require only a modest level of fitness and no particular technical or climbing skills (although hiking boots - as always – are a must). But of course the island offers more challenging terrain. For instance, the Cuillin Ridge in the southern part of the island offers some of the most demanding hikes that can be found anywhere in the British Isles. To make matters difficult, however, hikers cannot rely on any signposted tracks, and the trail often merely resembles a scramble across jagged rock faces. Then there is the mammoth 80 mile Skye Trail, which covers the whole island from top to bottom. Although this is a well-known trail, for large sections there is no established footpath. To tackle the Cuillin, or the Skye Trail, it might therefore be best to hire a guide or go on an organised tour. Check out www.skyeguides.co.uk as a good port of call.
Accommodation can also be an issue. Although it seems that every second house on the island offers Bed & Breakfast accommodation, prices can be steep and supply limited, in particular in the busy summer months. For my trip, I consulted Hostelworld and selected the accurately named Skye Base Camp in Broadford, from which I did my daily excursions. Their highly comprehensive kitchen facilities also helped me to keep catering costs down. On my first night, I shared the place with two moody hikers. But for the second night, a British family with Pakistan roots descended on the place and added a merry touch (and delightful conversations) to proceedings. I noticed their impressive number of shopping bags in hopeful anticipation of wonderful smells potentially engulfing the hostel, only to be informed that tonight’s dinner would be at a nearby Chippy. So much for my unconscious bias but I have yet to recover from the disappointment.
How to get to Skye: Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland has a train station which is the last stop on the magnificently scenic Kyle line that starts in Inverness, which in itself is accessible from Glasgow or Edinburgh. The journey time from Glasgow/Edinburgh is 8 hours; from Inverness it is just under 3 hours. Alternatively, you can also take a 5-hour bus from Glasgow’s Buchanan Bus Station to Kyle. Travelling there by car is also straightforward: from Glasgow it is around 200 miles, past beautiful Loch Lomond and into the Highlands along Glencoe and Fort William; a journey of around 5 hours. From Kyle, you have to switch over to local bus services. Journey time to the island’s only real town Portree is one hour. Once on the island, transport without a car can get a little tricky and a taxi/minicab service might be your best bet. Try Skye Taxis at www.skye-taxis.co.uk.
Hike 1: The Old Man of StorrStart and Finish: car park (3£ for 3 hours), well signposted on the A855, some 10 miles north of Portree. Distance: under 3 miles (or 4.5 km), two hours
Old Man of Storr
This might just be the perfect introduction to hiking on the island. Hike might be too ambitious a term for a short 500 m altitude gain. Okay, getting to the base from where a group of rocky fingers point to the heaven, requires a short and sharp push along a very well-worn track. Once at the top, you might also want to traverse a little and take in the magnificent views across to the islands of Rona and Raasay, but all in all two hours should do the trick. The Old Man is arguably the island’s (if not Scotland’s) most iconic scenery. The views are nothing but spectacular and you will be snapping away. Yet, you will enjoy this visual feast together with many other visitors. When I got there in mid-May, just after the first Corona restrictions were lifted by the Scottish government, I found myself in the company of a small group of Chinese tourists, many of them beside themselves with excitement. I started chatting to two young couples, all fetchingly wearing the same shiny-white sneakers. The young men were running up and down the hills in a hugely impressive fashion, looking for that perfect photo angle, while their female counterparts had adopted a somewhat more sober and bemused facial expression. Apparently, Chinese tour operators are selling the Scottish Highlands as the land of ‘utopia’. Unfortunately, the crowds are for real. Hence, you might want to take the following suggestion on board: On your way up you will reach two forks, with all directions still going towards the jagged finger peaks. You might want to pick that option, with the least people on them.
Hike 2: MacLeod’s MaidensStart and Finish: Car Park in the hamlet of Orbost (accessible by single track), south of Dunvegan on the A863Distance: 10 miles (16 km) out and back, 5 hours
From Broadford, I drove along the western part of the island in the direction of Dunvegan. Just before entering the village a small track leads south to the hamlet of Orbost (just a collection of houses, really) where a big sign advises motorists not to go any further. That’s where you park your car and embark on a straight out and back, signposted hike of 4 to 5 hours. On a cloudy and windswept morning, I had this hike practically to myself and only encountered the odd cross country runner. At the end of the trail, you will find three stacks that are sticking dramatically out of the sea, while you are standing at the top of a 100 m vertical cliff face. The hike takes you through pine forests, sandy bays, along cliff edges and over wild land overgrown with heather and ferns. And of course, there are wonderful views across Loch Varkasaig. If you are lucky, you will spot seabirds and maybe even otters, and might just get a real sense of solitude. For most of my time there, I was accompanied by a magical chorus of bird song. Not as spectacular a sight as the Old Man of Storr. But the Maidens should still make you gasp.
And if you still have the energy, why not visit the village of Dunvegan with its cute, compact High Street and the nearby Dunvegan castle (16£ entry), the oldest, continually inhabited castle in all of Scotland and seat of the MacLeod clan.
Hike 3: QuiraingStart and Finish: Quiraing Car Park (3£ for 3 hours) Distance: 4 miles, 3 hours
From Portree, you have two options to get to the Trotternish Mountain range where Quiraing is located. You can either follow the A855 to the Old Man of Storr and continue for another ten miles until you turn left in the village of Brogaig. Alternatively, you can take the A87 towards the fishing village of Uig, then travel for a short stretch on the A855 before turning right. Or you can do a loop as I did: up to Uig, and then down via the Old Man of Storr. This is a stretch of the island, that could also be featured in our EPIC drive section. The roads are winding and narrow, but the views are out of this world. Quiraing is often referred to as mini-Skye (and funnily enough, Skye is often referred to as mini-Scotland), as it packs in all those visual delights (craggy and spiky mountain tops, magnificent vistas, a dream-like landscape) into a relatively compact area. Once you reach the car park, you have the choice of two entirely different hikes. All Trails has referenced the so-called Quiraing Circular Walk, which ambles along the foothills of the range for some 12 km. It is pleasant, but really the reason why you are here is to get to the top of the range. Following the trail from the car park, you will first head in an easterly direction, walking right below the craggy and steep rock face. After about one hour, the trail turns into a sharp climb, at the end of which you will feel on top of the world, with far reaching views (weather permitting of course) out into the Atlantic, across the island and even over to the Scottish Highlands on the mainland. Even seasoned hikers will feel elated. The views are just too good to be true, and you will realise, why many people regard the Quiraing as the best hike on Skye. To get back to the car park, the trail follows a series of often steep and muddy sheep tracks, and I was glad to have brought along my hiking sticks. Still, a tough work-out for thighs and knees.
Once you have completed the hike, you might want to spend some time on the beach (which in these parts has slightly different, less skin-exposed connotations when compared to its Mediterranean cousins). When descending the range, you will soon encounter the junction with the A855 leading you back to Portree. Beautiful Staffin Bay is right there (and you have probably spotted this wonderful stretch of sand during your hike). You might want to turn off, walk along the shore and take a look back at the Quiraing range with sunlight and clouds dancing on its sharp edges. You have just completed your walks in ‘utopia’.