A curious fact about Scotland is that the further you get from civilization the closer you get to artist colonies. This mirrors my belief that much of art stems from a close connection to the natural world. It could be a happy coincidence, but the preponderance of artsy folk in and among the rural hills of Scotland at least raises the eyebrow. The Scottish people are quick to tie similar institutions together to form a collective – a rising tide lifts all the boats, as the saying goes – and just as they’ve done with their parks, trails, and distilleries, so have independent artists and craftspeople come together to form “craft trails.”
Skye is the perfect example. The Skye and Lochalsh Arts & Crafts Association (SLACA) have put together a trio of craft trails around the Isle of Skye and nearby Lochalsh that make it easy for visitors to browse the wares of local artists. Perhaps equally nice is that the craft trail provides a structure for taking in the island’s gorgeous scenery – you will find yourself driving to the reaches of distant peninsulas and down tiny roads hidden in the hills to find specific studios. Sarah and I spent a week on Skye last May and took the opportunity to cruise around the northern craft trail. Check out the map below from SLACA’s free booklet.
When the sun is shining above Skye, you need to seize the moment. It rained for most of our week, but when the sun peeked out we hit the road with our trusty craft trail map replete with targeted studios circled. We started in the far west since our base was south of Dunvegan and visited the Red Roof Café Gallery. The Red Roof is a small white-washed croft with a bright red roof that’s been refurbished into a tidy café with art on the walls. What a find! It hadn’t been open very long when we visited, but they were already a favorite in the area serving excellent light lunches. We split a ploughman’s lunch and a chocolate fudge bun that was one of the best things I ate on the whole trip.
After the Red Roof, we headed east and stopped at Skye Silver, a local silversmith and jewelry-maker. Skye Silver isn’t on the official craft trail, but that’s not an indication of respectability or quality. There are plenty of shops hidden among the hills that aren’t on the “craft trail” and yet do business. I assume there’s some kind of fee or membership process required for placement on SLACA’s trail. Nevertheless, the craft trail led us to many serendipitous finds like Skye Silver.
Skye Silver’s shop is lined with glass cases loaded with beautiful silver necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and pendants. As a jewelry-maker herself, Sarah was in heaven poring over the designs. We wound up getting a birthday gift for my sister before hitting the road.
The weather held up its end of the bargain and we were gifted with glittering lochs and gauzy views of distant hills. On the way to our next stop I spotted The Stein Inn, an ancient pub from 1790 down by the water in the minuscule town of Stein (pronounced STEEN). I took a detour to investigate and found a cozy pub with a maritime feel and excellent real ale and whisky. An open peat fire was smoldering in the grate, filling the old pub with a pleasantly earthy smell.
Suitably fortified, we drove up the road from Stein to Skye Skyns, a traditional tannery. The A-frame building has a showroom upstairs where all manner of sheepskin rugs and products are on display. Every so often they offer quick tours of their production area. I’m always fascinated by processes like tanning that we modern consumers take for granted, and the amount of work and care that goes into making just one rug is worthy of respect and admiration. We left with a white sheepskin throw (from one of the old sheep, they assured Sarah), and our collection of goods continued to grow.
The day was wearing thin so we trucked to our final stop at the very tip of the Trotternish Peninsula north of Portree – the Trotternish Artist & Studio Gallery. The gallery is just a simple house on a wide and windy plain. We walked in to find an octogenarian behind a drawing desk working on one of his landscape pencil sketches. His artwork was impeccable. Imagine taking a photo and transforming it into a pencil drawing in a program like Photoshop – that’s what his drawings looked like. He won us over with his charm and zest for doing work that he loves. His artwork spoke for itself, and we took home a romantic sketch of an old croft with a thatched roof.
We managed to visit a few other shops from the craft trail during our week on Skye, places like Skye’s Little Gems and the Skye Shilasdair Shop. Many of these artists and craftspeople are keeping alive traditions that have all but died out in the rest of Scotland.
The trail is a great success. It’s unlikely that we would have heard about any of these shops – much less found them – without the aid of SLACA’s brochure, and the journey provided cultural enrichment, incredible scenery, serendipitous finds, and souvenirs. Lots of souvenirs.