Today is the third entry in a my series of articles providing you with itinerary ideas for various regions around Scotland, and I have loads more to unveil over the next few months. I have largely focused on specific topics throughout the life of Traveling Savage, as I’ve found that kind of specificity is often lacking in travel writing. However, the time is right for me to provide information at a higher level to help you in your trip-planning, idea-generation phase.
These Scotland Itinerary Ideas articles will collect many of my previous articles on the selected region into one place, along with my assessment of their criticality for the visitor and a bevy of useful tidbits that might’ve gotten lost along the way. At the end of the day, these articles should be useful cheat sheets to refer to when you begin planning your next trip to Scotland.
As always, don’t hesitate to pepper me with questions.
The Isle of Skye
The Isle of Skye must be Scotland’s most-visited island, connected to the mainland by a convenient bridge and witness to hordes of tourists. Skye flops in the sea to the west shaped like a great lobster, the Trotternish and Duirinish peninsulas snapping the sea like claws. Something of a lobster’s temperament pervades the place as it is a land of enigmatic duality, at once a small place in the minds of travelers who seek to “do Skye in a day” and a vast, nearly trackless span of mountain and heath; at once brimming with vistas spanning the western seaboard of Scotland and a claustrophobic vice when the clouds have come to roost; at once clogged with tour buses and rental cars along the A87 and yet overflowing with sacred places that have seemingly never echoed with a human voice.
None can say what your time will be like on Skye, but one thing is known: You must go and find out.
Things You Can’t Miss
Portree. Portree is the primary settlement on the Isle of Skye, and it’s a beauty. The heart of the small, multi-colored town clusters around a bay in the northeast of the island, and it’s where you will find a nice collection of services, lively pubs, and restaurants. The town has a few “levels” as it winds up from the piers to the excellent seafood restaurants and B&Bs along Bosville Terrace, and the outskirts of town provide the practical stores and businesses that are scarce elsewhere on the island. As you might expect, it is a popular place, but I have never felt over-burdened by my fellow visitors.
The Old Man of Storr. Just north of Portree along the A855 stands one of Skye’s most iconic natural phenomena: The Old Man of Storr. The Storr is a rocky ridge whose eastern face is a labyrinth of craggy spires and pinnacles resulting from landslip, and the Old Man is the tallest and most distinctive of these spires. The hike up to the Old Man follows a well-marked path through the magical Tote Forest before pushing out onto a stony mantle reminiscent of Middle Earth’s Emyn Muil. Given its ease, proximity to Portree, and magnificence, the Old Man of Storr makes for a memorable hike.
Talisker Distillery. A small road leading to the outpost of Carbost winds down a valley crossing cattle grates en route to the Talisker distillery, which hugs the shore of Loch Harport in the wild and desolate west of the Isle of Skye. Much like the island itself, Talisker is a fighty beast whose flavor possesses a peppery bang and a sweet, peat-laced finished. Talisker is a wonderfully original whisky and the setting of the distillery is so perfectly out there. A visit to the distillery is a great reason to drive this section of Skye and make a stop at Glen Brittle (see below). Be sure to splurge for the Talisker Tasting Tour.
The Black Cuillin. On a clear day, the Black Cuillin are hard to miss as you make your way onto the Isle of Skye. Just southeast of Talisker and Glen Brittle, the Black Cuillin are a range of tall, rocky mountains that glower over the central neck of the island in truly awe-inspiring fashion. For many people, the awesome view from the car or bus will be enough – and it is a fulfilling view – but others will want to test their legs and give a few of the graded scrambles a try. The Cuillin are full of history, too. This was the site of the last clan battle fought on Skye in 1601 between Clan MacDonald of Sleat and Clan MacLeod. Folk tales also tell that the mythic hero Cúchulainn came here to learn from the warrior woman Scáthach.
Things You Shouldn’t Miss
Dunvegan Castle. Dunvegan Castle stands at the crook where the Duirinish and Waternish peninsulas meet, and has so for 800 years. This oldest castle in Scotland is the seat of Clan MacLeod, and should find its way onto your itinerary if you have any interest in history. Clan MacLeod possesses some incredible ancient relics like their mysterious Fairy Flag and the mythic drinking horn of Sir Rory Mor. The tour through the castle is also one of the best for my tastes, as it mixes ancient history with modern stewardship (the castle is still lived in for part of the year).
Neist Point. Continue west from Dunvegan until you reach the westernmost tip of the Duirinish peninsula and you will find yourself at Neist Point. This most westerly point on Skye is a stunning headland with a lighthouse punished by gale-force Atlantic winds and a surging, spuming sea. The violence of nature casts itself in new light here as the squalls off the sea would almost hold you up if you would attempt a trust fall off the cliff. But that would be stupid, so don’t do it.
The Quiraing and Kilt Rock. At the northern tip of the Trotternish peninsula, beyond Portree and the Old Man of Storr, stands a ripsaw range of sharp mountains that most certainly would have served as the Misty Mountains had Peter Jackson hailed from the UK. The Quiraing is a supernatural wonder with fascinating geological features like the Needle, the Table, and the Prison, ancient names that have been preserved through the centuries. Then visit the Kilt Rock on the northeastern shore where the Mealt waterfall thunders into the sea over vertical basalt pleats and patterns of dolerite sills.
The Skye Craft Trail. Much like artisans in Orkney, 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. These craft trails are the perfect way to organize your exploration of Skye while giving you worthwhile stops along the way. On my last visit, Sarah bought a sheep skin at Skyeskyns and I purchased a landscape penciling from the Trotternish Artist Studio & Gallery.
Things to Do Off the Beaten Path
The Fairy Pools of Glen Brittle. Glen Brittle is one of those places you don’t want to leave for fear you might never find it again. I say this even though my visit was cut short by overflowing streams that prevented me from reaching the storied Fairy Pools with their vivid colors. Go on a clear or overcast day, but not after a week’s worth of rain.
Claigan Coral Beach. Just north of Dunvegan Castle in western Skye hides the fascinating wonder of Claigan Coral Beach. This crescent of whitish “sand” is actually a vast stretch of tiny shells and bits of calcified algae that the tide regularly deposits here at Claigan. It’s a wonderfully hidden place despite it being somewhat well known – it simply takes too much effort for many to arrive at this magnificent beach.
Trumpan Church. Far up the Waternish peninsula on a lonely hill stands the ruins of Trumpan Church. This is a sombre place with an awful history. In 1578 under the cover of thick mist, men from Clan MacDonald rowed to this place and burnt alive everyone inside Trumpan Church. Clan MacLeod enacted swift retribution, killing all the men of Clan MacDonald involved in the brutal murder in what became known as the Battle of the Spoiling Dyke.
Logistics and Salient Bits
Bases. Portree is the primary base for most visitors to Skye, and I suggest it as the first choice for your time on the island. Alternatively, if you plan to spend more than a few days on Skye, consider finding self-catering accommodation in the northern half of the island with convenient access to Portree and its services. I have yet to find that perfect place to stay during my visits to Skye, but I really liked Ben Tianavaig B&B.
Transportation. Buses, ferries, and trains will all get you to the Isle of Skye (or close to it), but for exploration it will come as no surprise that I recommend renting a car. There’s nothing worse than being at the mercy of public transportation as your precious travel time slips away. There aren’t a plethora of roads on Skye, and they quickly become very small and often rough as you deviate from the A87, but they aren’t appreciably worse than the roads in other parts of the Scottish hinterland.
Food & Drink. I’ve found some great places to eat and drink during my visits to Skye, though you can also purchase local produce and seafood and craft an excellent meal at home, too. In Portree, I particularly like the Isles Inn, which has a great atmosphere, decent food, and good cask ales on draft. The Merchant Bar is also nice for something a bit more buttoned up, and I’ve heard the Cuillin Hills Hotel has an excellent whisky selection. Further afield, the Edinbane Inn in tiny Edinbane is great, as is the Red Roof Café Gallery between Dunvegan Castle and Neist Point (note they close in the winter). The Stein Inn is one of my favorite pubs in all of Scotland, and it makes a nice stop while browsing artisans’ wares on the Waternish peninsula. Dinner at the Old School Restaurant near Dunvegan is sure to put a smile on your face (langoustines and Stornoway black pudding anyone?), and of course Three Chimneys is a world-renowned restaurant in northwest Skye.
While Skye is often on the traveler’s to-do list while in Scotland, I hope this article has given you some new itinerary ideas to explore on your next visit. Don’t listen to the grognards – Skye is an amazing place that you must see for yourself.