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Monday, 23 March 2009

The Isle of Skye: a Microcosm of the Scottish Highlands

Written by Clint Cameron
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Aye lad, for sure hameldame ole Eilean a’Cheo” was the thickly accented and somewhat incomprehensible drawl of a reply uttered from a rather uncordial elderly local to what I assumed to be a fairly non-pugnacious question “So…, do you enjoy living all the way out here on Skye?”.

Hameldaeme’, when pronounced slowly to reveal the veiled syllables, means ‘Hame (or him) will do me’ which, after a bit of pondering and transliteration, I take to imply that the Old Man of Skye with his apparently permanently etched scowl and weather beaten face is pretty happy with his life out on Eilean a’Cheo (the Gallic name for the Isle of Skye). Fair enough.


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There would be no need to endure such climatic dynamism for this band of stoic travelers, however, we had the good fortune of striking three days of irrepressibly balmy weather where the mercury rose to a genial 20.5°C, an unheralded phenomenon at this latitude by all accounts. My pasty and somewhat sickly white skin coloration borne of enduring a miserable Scottish winter temporarily abated as we lapped up the sun for some much needed vitamin D and embarked on three days of intrepid, inquisitive tiki-touring and exploring. The Isle of Skye: a Microcosm of the Scottish Highlands, The Isle of Skye, northwestern Scotland, Inner Hebrides Islands, Cuillin Mountains, Scottish Highlands, Glenbrittle, Sligachan, Loch Coruisk, Kyleakin, Portree, travel scotland, Clint Cameron

The succession of craggy and serrated peaks, known as the Cuillin Mountains, are undoubtedly the centrepiece of Skye. The Cuillin’s were propelled up from the seabed during the same tumultuous period of earth quakes and cataclysmic volcanic eruptions that shaped the rest of the Scottish Highlands 430 million years ago, and they’ve subsequently been cleaved open and whittled away by the irrepressible force of glacial erosion, fashioning vast U-shaped valleys in-between jagged pinnacles. Reminiscent perhaps of inland Otago and the foothills of the Southern Alps, the Cuillins are adorned with scrambling scree slopes and sporadic patches of low lying, wind ravaged scrub.

 


 

The Cuillins offer superb, if somewhat arduous, hiking opportunities during the milder spring and summer months, with routes accessed from the villages of Glenbrittle and Sligachan found towards the mid point of the Isle. As per any trekking in Scotland’s Highland belt, be well prepared for any and all conditions. Even on the clearest and warmest summer days the weather can turn treacherous in an instant. We partook in a slightly less formidable ramble, skirting the flanks of tranquil Loch Coruisk, with the intimidating and broodingly dark flanks of the omnipresent Munro (a title attributed to Scottish peaks over 3000 feet or 914m) Sgurr Alisdair looming over us. Antiquated artefacts of Nordic heritage can be found around the grassy knolls of Loch Coruisk, including the earthen, buttressed remnants of a great Viking longhouse.

 

 

Between the 8th and 12th centuries A.D., Skye was a domain of the warmongering Vikings who used the Isle as an over-wintering base during periodic breaks, in-between raiding and pillaging townships down the British coast. Skye's proud Celtic heritage, however, outlived the domineering influence of the Norsemen as well as all the ensuing turmoil resultant from a history personified by belligerence and animosity. It remains strong to this day with around half the population still speaking in (vowel-deprived) Gaelic tongues.

The Isle is the historical seat of the MacDonald and McLeod clans, the later of which fortified their claim to the land through the impressive bastion of Dunvegan Castle located in the far north near the township of Duntulm. Indeed, the epic history of Skye as physically embodied through its myriad of castlesThe Isle of Skye: a Microcosm of the Scottish Highlands, The Isle of Skye, northwestern Scotland, Inner Hebrides Islands, Cuillin Mountains, Scottish Highlands, Glenbrittle, Sligachan, Loch Coruisk, Kyleakin, Portree, travel scotland, Clint Cameron, ruins, and standing stones as well as evident in its folklore, place names and customs, pervades the senses and captures the imagination. We were passing through a land of ancient pedigree where people have lived, fought, farmed and died for millennia. It’s a facet of the land that is incomparable and really does evoke an element of historical awe.

Access to Loch Coruisk and hiking in the far western reaches of the Cuillin’s can be ascertained via a trip onboard the Bella Jane which departs daily from the township of Elgol on the south-west coast. There are two options available, a shorter and more unperturbed 1.5 hour one way trip that deposits passengers at the base of the quick trek up to Lock Coruisk, or a longer 3 hour round trip onboard a faster vessel where the chances of seeing a greater array of the Isle’s wildlife is greater. The Isle of Skye: a Microcosm of the Scottish Highlands, The Isle of Skye, northwestern Scotland, Inner Hebrides Islands, Cuillin Mountains, Scottish Highlands, Glenbrittle, Sligachan, Loch Coruisk, Kyleakin, Portree, travel scotland, Clint Cameron

Otters, dolphins, basking sharks - with gargantuan mouths that can filter the equivalent of an Olympic swimming pool each hour - and Minke whales are all routinely sighted in the waters around Skye. The shores on the Atlantic coast are also home to a resident colony of the common grey seal, which, when not beached and lapping up the sun, could often be seen surfacing in the trail of the Bella Jane’s wake, embellished with bemused and slightly indignant expressions. Skye is also a notorious hot bed of activity for ‘Twichers’ (a term used for birdwatchers in the UK) who roam the island for species such as the enormous White-tailed sea and Golden eagles to tick off, complete with a full regalia of khaki dress, wide brimmed sun hats, obligatory binoculars and bird lists in hand.


After an amiable day spent out in the boat with faces inundated by the iridescent reflective glare of the sun, it was time to meander back to the petite little fishing village of Kyleakin. Until the bridge connecting Skye to the mainland was completed in 1995, Kyleakin served as the main ferry terminal for passenger’s crossing over Loch Alsh from the village of Kyle of Lochalsh. By the time we got back, of course, ‘Ahm be spewin’ feathers’ (another local term meaning, apparently, ‘I am particularly thirsty’) and there was no better place to soak up the early evening sun than indulging at Saucy Mary’s. The Isle of Skye: a Microcosm of the Scottish Highlands, The Isle of Skye, northwestern Scotland, Inner Hebrides Islands, Cuillin Mountains, Scottish Highlands, Glenbrittle, Sligachan, Loch Coruisk, Kyleakin, Portree, travel scotland, Clint CameronWith a constant influx of tourists, tour buses, and live music most nights mixed with a token smattering of locals, Saucy Mary’s is a jovial and raucous spot with festivities routinely kicking on well into the early hours.

King Haakon (so named in reference to the Isle’s Viking heritage) is Kyleakin’s other main establishment. It boasts a superb restaurant stocked with a fine selection of fresh, locally sourced and succulent seafood including scallops, lobsters and langoustine (fleshy mussels), complemented by a wide range of wines and whiskeys to be enjoyed whilst overlooking the bay.

The Isle of Skye: a Microcosm of the Scottish Highlands, The Isle of Skye, northwestern Scotland, Inner Hebrides Islands, Cuillin Mountains, Scottish Highlands, Glenbrittle, Sligachan, Loch Coruisk, Kyleakin, Portree, travel scotland, Clint CameronThe sun does not set on Skye during the summer months until well after 11.00 p.m. The residual afterglow of dusk lingers on in the west while an eerie, strengthening radiance in the eastern sky proclaims the arrival of the sun, creating an atmosphere of seemingly perpetual daylight. At this latitude, the Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights can sometimes be seen on clear nights as hyper-charged electrons dance to the tune of the Earth’s magnetic field producing mesmerising displays of shimmering radiance.

The premature return of the sun heralded the arrival of another remarkably glorious day, and so it was that we set off in earnest to explore the northern third of the Isle, albeit at a rather leisurely pace not half indebted to Skye’s notoriously winding, single lane roads (a legacy, like much of the older quarters in the cities and townships of Britain, of roads designed for single horse drawn carriage). While they add character and reflect the Island’s archetypical relaxed pace of life they can make traveling rather pedestrian at times. This tended to be particularly exacerbated by the frequent stops from the interludes of black-faced sheep which, followed attentively by their little spring lambs, ambled obliviously across the road to gnaw on sappy roadside grasses. The other livestock characteristic of Skye is the hardy Highland cattle or “’airy kow’s” (hairy cows) as we took delight in saying. Adorned with elegant, widely splayed horns and splendidly flowing auburn locks masking perceptive eyes, highland cattle are a result of centuries of selective breeding to produce a breed well capable of enduring the harsh Scottish climate.

The stark bleakness of the landscape can be disconcerting, and we often wondered how the locals manage to cope with Scotland’s wettest island, where it rains 250 days a year with rainfall averages 1200 mm per year in lower lying parts and up to 3000mm per year in the Cuillins. The majority of the island is farmed, with green pastures riddled by tuffs of wind-sheared tussock on the plains and lower lying moorlands embalmed by damp, spongy sphagnum mosses. Few crops are able to be coaxed out of the Isle’s sodden, boggy ground. Perhaps that’s part of what makes the Isle unique and why it exudes such ruffian charm.


The Isle of Skye: a Microcosm of the Scottish Highlands, The Isle of Skye, northwestern Scotland, Inner Hebrides Islands, Cuillin Mountains, Scottish Highlands, Glenbrittle, Sligachan, Loch Coruisk, Kyleakin, Portree, travel scotland, Clint CameronCrumbling igneous rocks and precipitous cliff faces flank the coast, some of which form near vertical seawall drop-offs that extend down to abyssal depths 100m or more below the surface. Inland, translucent rivers stocked with an abundance of Brown trout and Atlantic salmon gush and bubble along, meandering past river beaches composed of shorn-off shale and granite slabs polished and rounded smooth by the tumbling action of cascading water. Blessed with such stunning weather, a classic BBQ seemed mandatory and we managed to come across a concealed stretch of river beach in which to partake. Screened by blossoming broom, heather and gorse and framed by the Cuillin’s iconic mountain vista, our serene BBQ was only perturbed by the irritating plagues of Scotland’s infamous ‘midges’ (tiny flies), which prove the foil of many camping expeditions during summer.

A short drive skirting the coast will deposit you at Portree, the largest township on the Isle with a resident population of around 2000. Portree is a quaint and relaxing seaside town, renown for its picturesque multi-coloured pastel shop facades fronting a sheltered harbour and framed by a turquoise sea. The Isle of Skye: a Microcosm of the Scottish Highlands, The Isle of Skye, northwestern Scotland, Inner Hebrides Islands, Cuillin Mountains, Scottish Highlands, Glenbrittle, Sligachan, Loch Coruisk, Kyleakin, Portree, travel scotland, Clint CameronOur inquiries as to the whereabouts of the best beer garden in town led us up the hill to ‘The Marmalade,’ a secluded hotel complex with a relaxing atmosphere and a superb array of outdoor tables set amongst beautifully landscaped surrounds. The Scott’s penchant for whiskey is as famous as their midges are notorious, and we duly indulged in a locally brewed dram from the Isle’s own Talisker Distillery. With somewhat of a peaty, earthy aftertaste, however, I think this is one for the serious whiskey connoisseurs. If you do want to impress the locals and display a knowledgeable touch of whiskey drinker’s repute, be sure to tell the barman (in no uncertain terms) ‘Dinna drown the miller’- don’t put too much water in the whiskey (the miller being the supplier of the grain which went in the whisky).


Three days is ample to experience what gives the Isle of Skye its sense of capturing in caricature the essence of Highland life. However, it’s certainly not enough time to explore the island fully – given its relatively large size and varied assortment of sights and attractions. The next jaunt will be a prolonged excursion around Skye before meandering our way to the Outer Hebrides Islands, which are rumoured to possess some of the most outstanding coastline in the entire country. They can be reached via ferry from the township of Uig in northern Skye.

For now, it is back to the already too familiar, seemingly perpetual bleakness of Edinburgh as whatever meek (although much appreciated) dose of sun we had harnessed is withered away by the relentless onward march of Scottish inclemency.

Isle of Skye highlights and key facts

Population:

At 12,500 (2006), Skye is the least densely populated area in the UK.

Best time to visit:

May/June. These two months typically exhibit the most sunshine and least rainfall (although not the highest temperatures), the days are very long and the abhorrent hordes of midges have not yet reached their zenith.


Getting there and exploring:

The best way to explore the Isle of Skye is by hiring a car a pottering about. It’s a bit of a haul to get there, however, from the main centres (approximately 5 hours from Glasgow and 6 from Edinburgh traversing the network of motorways) and during peak seasons (holidays and summer) the sheer volume of traffic on the roads may lengthen this considerably so allow yourself plenty of time.

The Isle of Skye: a Microcosm of the Scottish Highlands, The Isle of Skye, northwestern Scotland, Inner Hebrides Islands, Cuillin Mountains, Scottish Highlands, Glenbrittle, Sligachan, Loch Coruisk, Kyleakin, Portree, travel scotland, Clint Cameron

 

 

 

Attractions, places to stay, and dinning out:

The Marmalade

Home Farm Road

Portree

Isle of Skye

IV51 9LX

Telephone: 0044 1478 611711

Fax: 0044 1478 611722

Saucy Mary’s Lodge & Café & Bar:

Kyleakin

Isle of Skye

IV41 8PL

Telephone: 0044 1599 534845

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Talisker Distillery

Carbost

Isle of skye

IV47 8SR

Telephone: 0044 1478 614308

www.malts.com

Bella Jane boat trips:

Elgol

Isle of Skye

IV49 9BJ

Telephone: (from within the UK only) 0800 731 3089

www.bellajane.co.uk

King Haakon Bar & Restaurant

Kyleakin

Isle of Skye

IV41 8PL

Telephone: 0044 1599 534164

Dunvegan Castle

MacLeod Estate (Dunvegan Castle)

Dunvegan House

Dunvegan

Isle of Skye

IV55 8WF

Telephone: 01470 521206

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Further information:

http://www.skye.co.uk . This is the Isle of Skye’s official website with links to accommodation, events, food & drink, history etc.

http://www.isleofskye.com . A similar website with additional information on trains, ferries, and coaches.

http://www.skyewalk.co.uk . This is a very useful site full of information regarding hikes and treks on the Isle.

The Isle of Skye: a Microcosm of the Scottish Highlands, The Isle of Skye, northwestern Scotland, Inner Hebrides Islands, Cuillin Mountains, Scottish Highlands, Glenbrittle, Sligachan, Loch Coruisk, Kyleakin, Portree, travel scotland, Clint Cameron

© Clint Cameron

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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