Years ago, I watched a biking video that highlighted a rider returning to his hometown on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. A few years later, the same rider rode a terrifying-looking ridge through the Cuillin Mountains on Skye, showcasing an amazing, rugged coastline and incredible views over the mountains. It became one of those places that I had filed away in the back of my head to consider visiting someday. I had almost forgotten about the videos, when I started poking around for places to visit in Scotland. The moment I noticed Skye on the map, I knew we had to see it for ourselves.
As soon as we arrived at our accommodation, we both knew it was going to be a great visit. Rick and Barbara were a hoot, laughing and joking with us and showing off their historic house that they had traced back to the early 1800s. Rick had a rich employment history, having spent time as a crabber, a lighthouse keeper, a torpedo tester, and a ship’s navigator, so he was full of stories and kept us entertained every time we talked to him. We stayed in a little shack next to their home that was previously used for crab processing, until Rick transformed it into a wonderful, comfortable apartment for his mother-in-law. She never ended up moving in, so they named it the “Crab Cottage” and began renting it out to visitors. It was practically perfect: small enough to feel cozy, but with a spacious kitchen, lots of living space, Christmas lights over the window, and a decorative owl, who Jenn immediately fell in love with. Stocked full of locally-made treats such as shortbread cookies, oatcakes, fudge, mince (fruit) pies, and hot chocolate, it would have been a great stay on the island even if we were trapped in the cottage every day. The first night, we had a little festive celebration, enjoying some hot chocolate and shortbread cookies under the warm, winter-themed blankets.
Skye is the most northern of the large Inner Hebrides, an archipelago on the west coast of Scotland. As one might expect from Northern Scotland in the winter, the weather was… unpredictable. More than one morning brought us pleasant skies for our day’s activity, only for us to drive into slicing rain and buffeting winds, and then just a few miles further down the road again meet patches of blue sky. Some of our time was spent simply driving around the island’s craggy coastline, admiring the dramatic cliffs and heather-laden moors, stopping frequently to photograph the impressive views or for Jenn make friends with the sheep and Highland cattle. When the weather cleared up enough to avoid getting soaked, we’d take walks down to the rocky beaches or along the cliff edges and watch the waves crash into the shore.
On our first day out driving, we stopped in the tiny town of Portree (the island’s largest settlement), population 2,491. Though barely more than a village, with a main square consisting of a handful of shops and a couple hotels, Portree was a charming little community. Clearly, everyone knew each other, as some of the locals chatted in a store and seemed to know what every other resident was up to. We spent a while talking, as the friendly bunch chatted with us and showed us funny videos skewering the more oblivious of the tourists that pour in each summer.
One of the beaches that we made it a point to visit was Staffin Beach (An Corran). In 2002, a local hotelier was walking her dog on the beach when she took note of some unusual looking marks in the rock. She and her husband investigated the surrounding area, and eventually found over a dozen fossilized dinosaur footprints, each with three enormous toes. The prints are suspected to be from Megalosaurus, a large carnivore that walked on two legs. The footprints were created during the Middle Jurassic Period, around 165 million years ago, and represent some of the largest dinosaur footprints ever found in Scotland. They’re surprisingly accessible, located only a dozen feet from the bottom of the beach’s access ramp – it seems amazing that nobody discovered them prior to 2002.
As our visit to Staffin coincided with lunchtime, we figured we’d find a little place to eat once we were there. As we passed through the “main” part of the town of ~500 residents, we noticed there seemed to be only two potential options: a small general store, and one large street-side sign simply reading, “Café.” We opted for the latter, and ended up at the Staffin chapter of ‘Columba 1400,’ a nonprofit organization that helps provide at-risk youth with job skills, boost their self-esteem, and surround them with a healthy support system. The Staffin chapter also serves as a hub for the local community, providing community lunches, a library and sports fields. We very much enjoyed our lunch of fish ‘n’ chips and vegetarian haggis (root vegetables with oats and rice), accompanied by about the largest pot of tea I’ve ever seen.
During one of our drives, just as the blue sky broke through the clouds, we arrived at the Neist Point Lighthouse. Located on the westernmost tip of Skye, the lighthouse was first lit in 1909 and sits at the end of a rather striking thread of land, whose grassy cliffs create a protected bay that provides frequent sightings of dolphins, sharks, and bird species of all kinds.
When the weather looked promising for one of the days, we took a trek out to the Old Man of Storr. Approaching the walk from the road, the hike’s namesake is easily identifiable – a thin spire of rock jutting fifty meters out of the hillside, around which local legends abound, with many of them surrounding the popular mythology that giants used to inhabit the area. One of the more prevalent versions suggests that a goliath who lived in the hills was buried after his death, but his thumb was left jutting out of the ground. Another tells of a man and a woman fleeing from the giants, but when they paused to look back, they were turned to stone (a smaller stone formation, ostensibly the wife, has collapsed in recent years). Still another suggests that a “brownie” (a type of helpful goblin who lived in family houses) carved the obelisk in homage after the death of the man he served.
The short hike was cold and windy, but provided beautiful views over Loch Leathan and out to the ocean beyond. We saw only a couple people during the peaceful walk, before we arrived at the overlook which was swarmed by a noisy group of six waving selfie sticks and shouting poses at each other. Fortunately, after a few minutes they seemed to grow bored and left us in peace to admire our spectacular views of the spiky rock formations. Though the weather isn’t always perfect, we’ve loved traveling in the offseason, getting views like these almost entirely to ourselves.
Another walk we embarked on was right near our cottage, around a small “oronsay,” or tidal island. Oronsay is a general word meaning an island with a causeway to the mainland, that’s typically accessible only during or around low tide. The walk took us over a short causeway, whose rocky beach was speckled with tiny yellow and orange snail shells, and up over the verdant hillside of the island. While Jenn fretted that the sheep might feel trapped once the tide came up over the causeway, none of them seemed to be too concerned about such an occurrence and happily munched away on their island grasses. The late afternoon light fought valiantly against the mounting cloud cover, occasionally piercing through and illuminating the dark cliffs and deep blue waters below.
Out further to the southern end of the island, we took the short walk up to the Fairy Pools in Glen Brittle, right near the Cuillin Mountains. Sourced from an underground spring in the neighboring mountains, the water is reputed to take on all kinds of blue and green hues in the bright sunshine. Unfortunately, our visit was entirely socked in by cloud cover, so the colors were rather muted, but we siezed the opportunity (and dim light) to shoot some of our favorite “fuzzy water” cascade photos and enjoy the solitude of the normally-popular attraction.
While the weather wasn’t always cooperative, Skye was an island of breathtaking beauty. The craggy cliffs, verdant islands, heather-covered moors, mirror-like lochs and rugged mountains packed into such a tiny area ensured that every mile of landscape took your breath away. That, combined with our lovely cottage, ranks Skye right up there on my list of favorite places we’ve been; I’d love to come back in the warmer weather and spend some more time hiking.
Regardless of when or whether we return, though, we will always have something to remember the island by. I mentioned to our hosts that Jenn thought their owl was cute, and Barbara absolutely insisted we take it with us, to remember our visit to Skye. Protests were of no use – Barbara was determined that her owl was going back to the U.S. with us. And with that, we have a new traveling companion. Meet Magellan.