Imagine a land of dark, craggy peaks and tumbling waterfalls. A land carved by myth and legend, spun by fairy tales and marked by bloody clan battles. Imagine moody moors and misty glens, purple fields and whispering winds blowing across glassy lochs. Imagine driving for miles without seeing another soul, give or take the odd rogue cow. Welcome to Skye, Scotland’s worst kept secret.
The Isle of Skye sits a short distance away from Scotland’s north-west coast and can be reached by ferry or by bridge. It’s the largest of the Inner Hebrides and despite being over 1600 square kilometres in size, has a population of just 10,000. This means that there is a strong likelihood of it officially having more sheep than people.
It’s achingly beautiful. It’s also experiencing a massive boom in tourism, with local authorities suggesting that the number of visitors is increasing as much as 17% a year. It’s hard to know where this wave in popularity came from. Perhaps it’s linked to the island’s increasing presence as a film location. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that more people are opting for ‘Staycations’ rather than expensive trips abroad. Perhaps it’s simply that Scotland is the current It place. Whatever the answer, the cat is well and truly out of the bag; Skye is wonderful.
Somehow, I foolishly managed to go 20+ years of living in Scotland without making it to the island. In September 2018, that changed. My boyfriend Fraser and I loaded the car up with supplies, packed our midge spray, and headed off into the heart of the Highlands, driving first through Glencoe, then up to Mallaig and, as the old ballad goes, ‘O’er the sea to Skye’.
Within minutes, I was in love. We spent three solid days in the car without ever getting bored. Anyone who knows me and my history with car travel will know that this is no mean feat. The panoramic single track roads seemed to change with every bend; one moment you could be looking across vast fields of peat, the next it could be towering mountain ranges or across the sea to mysterious islands. As far as road trips go, it’s hard to imagine a better location. Here’s a few of our highlights:
The Talisker Distillery
It won’t come as a surprise to all that this was our first stop on the island. We do like a wee dram…
40 miles from the ferry at Armadale sits the pretty village of Carbost, home to the oldest working distillery on the Isle of Skye and the gorgeous Loch Harport. We were cutting it fairy fine for time, with a tour booked at 4pm and our ferry arriving in at 2.45, but we arrived with a whisker to spare. Our 45 minute tour of the distillery took us through the entire distillation process, from the extraction of the peaty flavours to a sneaky peak at the impressive copper stills and traditional worm tubs. Finally, we were given a chance to check out the cask room, where the whisky is left to age and where The Angel’s Share, as it has become known, is lost during evaporation. The best part, however? Definitely the tasting. Only a wee one when driving, of course!
We couldn’t not stop at Sligachan. This wee settlement, with its smattering of hotels and a campsite, is a popular place for people looking to explore or simply take in the spendour of the Cuillin mountains. We drove through the crossroads several times and quickly learned that no matter which direction you approach the junction from, the view will blow your mind. We ditched the car many a times for a photo op.
Portree is the largest town in Skye, yet it very much retains that feel of a quaint wee fishing village – albeit a fishing village packed to the rafters with visitors. With its pretty town square, homely inns and abundance of seafood restaurants, it’s a great place to base yourself if you want to be at the heart of the action; be warned though, hotel bookings between May and September will need to be made the best part of a year in advance, and restaurant reservations are an absolute must if visiting during this time. If I’m honest, I found the throngs of visitors a little off-putting, particularly when the hanger began to strike and we made the foolish error of attempting a spot of shopping at the local co-op during rush hour. I still had a massive soft spot for the village though, particularly down at the harbour where the colourful townhouses look over the bay and boats come and go like birds in the breeze.
Kilt Rock & Mearns Falls
Kilt Rock is a sea cliff around a 20 minute drive from Portree, so named because the vertical basalt columns have a distinctly tartan-like appearance. Its full effect is best admired from afar, but there’s also a decent car park at Ellishadder where you can park and get a close-up of the stunning Mearns waterfall. Rumour has it that sometimes it’s so windy that the water blows away and doesn’t make it quite as far as the sea!
Check out our cute wee Airbnb, perched on a hill just above Kilt Rock. It came with garden sheep!
I’m just going to put it out there that The Quiraing is possibly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. High up on the eastern face of Meall na Suiramach, the northernmost summit of the Trotternish penninsula, The Quiraing is a landslip of epic proportions. The drive to the summit is steep and fairly terrifying, but absolutely worth it for the views. If time is on your side then it’d be worth taking the narrow circuit path through the valley; it’s a bit of a rocky scramble in places but has some of the most unbeatable views Skye has to offer. Expect crowds, but don’t miss The Quiraing.
Fun fact: The word “quiraing” comes from the Old Norse “round fold”. It makes sense when you see the lie of the land.
You may or may not have noticed, but I’ve got a bit of thing for castles. The older the better. While many people head straight to Skye’s Dunvegan Castle, my heart was taken by Duntulm, which stands at the northern tip of Trotterish. This wasn’t somewhere we’d planned to visit; it was more of a chance encounter. On our second day we were taking the scenic route around the northern coast of the island when this collection of ruins caught my eye. The castle stands in a pretty derelict state, but that made it all the more intriguing. Having done a little research since, I’ve learned that the castle was once home to the chiefs of Clan Macdonald of Sleat. Perched on the edge on a seriously uninviting cliff, the setting is pretty imposing! In fact, if the historians are correct, the only entrance would have been through a narrow cleft on the cliff face. I don’t fancy that much, but today there’s little chance of climbing around the castle’s interior anyway, as much of it is fenced off for public safety. Probably wise.
As if a ruined clifftop castle weren’t enough, Duntulm also offers some of the most gorgeous views we’d experienced from our travels around the island, with a panoramic vista out towards Lewis and Harris, and a backdrop which looked out onto the hamlet below. We were lucky to have the sun come out long enough to enjoy a picnic with the sound of waves sweeping gently below, but even if the weather’s not on your side this is a great place to stop, and far enough off the beaten track that you might just get the castle to yourself.
Uig is a pretty wee port town with ferries connecting Skye to the Outer Hebrides islands of Harris and North Uist. We’d only planned to stop here briefly on our way to the Fairy Glen but as the sun was out, we made full use of the portside Ferry Inn and grabbed ourselves a couple of drinks by the sea. We got some serious food envy from the table next to us, who were tucking into a rather into a rather inviting-looking bowl of mussels. Though small, Uig was a handy place to stop; the information centre in the ferry terminal were able to offer some local advice on hard-to-track-down spots of interest, while the gorgeous Uig Pottery was the perfect place to pick up a locally-crafted souvenir or two.
The Fairy Glen
Geologists will have you believe it was caused by a landslide; the locals will tell you otherwise. Whether carved by mythical creatures or mother nature herself, there’s no denying that the Fairy Glen’s landscape is unique! The conical grassy hills, tucked-away lochs and curiously-shaped rocky structures combines forces to form a landscape which wouldn’t look out of place in a Tolkein novel. It’s a beautiful place, but definitely one best visited early in the morning or as the sun begins to dwindle; the single track road and dinky car park are not well equipped for crowds!
The Fairy Pools
Another place associated with Skye’s mythical “little people”, The Fairy Pools are a series of waterfalls tumbling down from the Cuillin mountains. With poor internet and terrible planning on our side, we had to rely on our detective skills (and some very kind locals) to find the right road but we got there in the end! FYI, from the Sligachan junction head west towards Carbost and turn left when you reach the Totum Pole (he’s kinda hard to miss). Head towards the loch and you’ll find a wee turn-off by the caravan park which’ll point you in the right direction, towards Glenbrittle. It’s then a ten minute drive down a single track road to the car park, which is easy enough to spot.
It’s a gentle walk towards the mountains to reach the beginning of the Fairy Pools, though you can really make that as short or long as you like depending on how high you want to climb. As a rule of thumb, the higher you climb, the more impressive the pools We probably walked for an hour or so before the clouds of midges began to emerge and we retreated in haste. It’s a gorgeous stroll, with tumbling streams, cascading into deep, glassy pools and some rather entertaining leaps over the stepping stones. If if the temperature had been a little warmer, or if I’d been feeling a little braver, I’d have been seriously tempted to canonball in to one of those pools. Sadly it was not to be.
Even without the novelty of a late summer dip, The Fairy Pools were one of my favourite stops of the trip. They’re undeniably magical.
The Isle of Skye Candle Company
An absolute must if you’re arriving/leaving via the bridge. This gorgeous family-run shop produce handmade scented candles and gifts, and also stock some lovely work by local artists. I spent a good half hour or so trying to decide which scent I loved best (and came away a little bit poorer), but it was absolutely worth it.
Eilean Donan Castle
One of the most instantly recognisable castles in Scotland, the 13th Century Eilean Donan is absolutely essential on any Scottish road trip itinerary; thankfully, it’s only a 40 minute drive from the Skye Bridge, and it’s a route which offers unbeatable views as you pass through the Kyle of Lochalsh.
No matter which direction you approach the castle from it’s an absolute gem. In typical Scottish fashion, it rained and poured throughout our final day as we drove towards Eilean Donan. Thankfully, it cleared up just long enough for us to get a few snaps of the castle in all its splendour. If anything, I reckon the mist rolling over the hills adds a little character. What do you think?
A final note…
It’s easy to see why folk are falling for the beauty of Skye; it certainly got me hook, line and sinker. With its cinematic landscape and characterful nooks and crannies, this really is the dream location for a road trip through the Highlands.
With such beauty comes inevitable popularity, and the island has definitely shown signs of struggle over the last few years as it buckles under the weight of an increasing amount of visitors. Even in September, we could see evidence of this. Simply put; the sites are not designed for the volume of traffic they are experiencing. Car parks are overflowing. Travellers have taken to parking on verges, churning up fields, getting stuck, preventing access for local and emergency vehicles. While tourism undeniably brings in a lot to the local economy, it’s also creating utold pressures. It’s not exactly ideal.
My advice? Keep this in mind before you visit. For a road trip like this, consider coming outwith the peak summer months; it’s not like you can guarantee good weather in Scotland anyway, and the country looks pretty damn good whatever the season. Help ease traffic congestion by joining part of a tour; there are plenty great companies like Rabbies and Haggis Tours which can bus you around the island’s sites. Or park a little further away and walk to the sites. After all, the view ain’t bad. Support local businesses, visit the shops, meet the artists. Don’t steal sheep. Don’t be an idiot. You get the jist.