A June 2002 trip
to Isle of Skye by Mary Porcher
Quote: Skye will pull you into its slower pace and challenging landscape. Then it will reward you with a setting summer sun that dances over the ocean for hours. This week was part of a five week journey in Britain. Read my most recent journals for more!
The sunsets over the sea to the Outer Hebrides are the most glorious I've ever seen. The pace of life for the visitor is slow and easy, with as little or as much adventure as you choose. Experiences here require investment: driving single-track roads, climbing cliffs, following closely the paths described in books. It is easy to get lost here, but getting lost is half the fun.
The memory that best summarizes our trip was a short evening walk we took with a guidebook. We set out to see an ocean cave and enjoy a cliffside view. When we found ourselves in a cow field, climbing over barbed wire and trying to decide which small hill to turn left at, we realized how little we knew about following routes on foot! At one point, we had to choose between sharing close quarters with 20 cows or walking through a bog. We chose the bog, with brush, tall grasses, bugs, and mud up to our knees. It was frustrating, but the scenery all around, the fresh air! Skye is both amazing and mysterious, difficult and remarkably simple.
It is essential to be prepared for the weather on Skye. At the beginning of June, we faced strong winds and chilly temperatures. I quickly purchased a hat and forgot about my hair. We wore our fleeces constantly and used the heat in the cottage. I don't know how many times I wished the clouds would disappear for just an hour.
The road signs on Skye are scarce, and our Blue Guide contained an embarassing 10 pages about the entire island. Basically, there are few main roads marked on the maps, and everything else is learned on the road. The best maps we found were at the Visitor's Center in Portree: free pamphlets on the different areas of Skye published by Traveler's Companion. While these maps show far more sights than any others, they don't mention how difficult the sights can be to reach. To truly experience Skye, you must have the gumption to open someone's gate, latch it behind you, and tromp through muddy fields toward your destination.
A week here costed us for petrol, for expenses, and for a cottage (car not included).
I once took a bus into Skye. It was a brilliant sunny day, and ever since then, I have longed to return. I didn't realize that the day I experienced was a true gem, and not the typical experience of Skye at all.
Driving in Skye this time allowed us to see the whole Island, to visit small communities, shop at the neighborhood grocery store, or just be alone in the hills. Driving also protected us from the varying degrees of cold and rain that dominated the week.
But driving Skye is like armchair travel. You don't know the island until it has you in its grip: with no car, no bus tour, just nature and a guidebook. Only then do you hear the bleating of the sheep, the dogs barking in the distance, the rain falling into the sea. If you stick to the roads and the largest tourist sights, you may leave disappointed. The island cannot compete with the scale and variety of the mainland castles or cities. Come for the scenery, for the rainbow peace and Gaelic people.
Attraction | "Skye Scene: Highland Ceilidh"
the night before the storms, near our cottage
Last night we heard the wind howling over the hills and glens of Kilmuir as we slept, and this morning we awoke to an uninviting horizontal rain. Jason made a mental note to wake up at about 7:30am to see the England match in the World Cup, and I dragged myself out of bed an hour or so later. England successfully advanced into the next round, although unexcitingly so, and we went back to bed.
The second waking was no better than the first, and as I looked out the glass doors in the living room, I could picture us stumbling along muddy farm fields to see an ancient site. We both settled into our history books with a cup of tea, postponing the inevitable. After eating lunch, I had a burst of energy, and off we went into an utterly miserable day.
an example of a broch
We drove to see a neolithic burial cairn in the pouring rain, only to be stopped by a "keep out" sign at the fence leading to the mound. So we headed to see the best broch on Skye, Dun Beag, and trudged away from the road through muddy sheep fields to get there. This broch is dated at about 500AD, and the walls still reach to about 9 feet. Brochs are circular fortresses or houses, with stones stacked tightly together like bricks without mortar. We have no pictures of this one because of the stinging rain. We dried out while eating an early dinner in Portree, then followed the signs downtown to Skye Scene, where admission was 6 pounds per person.
Skye Scene is a friendly group of locals, most who speak Gaelic, offering traditional song and dance to visitors. I was worried that it might be just a scramble to make tourist money, and I was glad to be proved wrong. Many of the artists were young, learning music and doing an excellent job at performing. They were from local clans, often wearing their own tarten, but it seemed natural for them, not too showy. There were Gaelic songs, and tunes we hadn't heard before on bagpipes, fiddles, the old celtic harp, and the accordian. The program lasted three hours, and the final minutes were filled with a slide show of Skye scenes. So a bad day turned around in a major way, and I believe Skye Scene was one of the best things we've done yet. It is a wonder to hear music that blends with this island so perfectly. I bought the CD and love it.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 2, 2002
Dun Beag Broch
Isle of Skye
We had a final breakfast and delicious hot showers in Wester Ross before crossing the world's most expensive toll bridge over to the Isle of Skye. It costs about $10 for a car, and the toll is charged both ways. It was raining and grey for the entire 55 mile trip from one end of the island to the other. Our holiday cottage is near the north tip of Skye, with a grand view of the coast from our spacious living room. We can hear the sheep right outside, and see the hills of the Uists (islands) over the sea. The sun does not follow a straight path over the sky here. Instead, it skips a circle around the horizon, and gives the impression that it will never set.
the view from our window
After a much needed nap, we drove to see a few sights in Trotternish that would be easily accessed on Sunday. We saw the Tote pictish standing stone near the early Christian settlement at Skeabost Island. The stone was crude compared to later ones: it was only smooth and carved on the front, and much of the pattern had worn away. In the later stones, both the front and rear surfaces were flattened, and often even the sides were carved with knotwork. Though we followed the map closely, we could find no trace of the original Christian missionary settlement here, which may have been started by Columba.
the northern coast of Trotternish
Then we drove along the amazing (even in rain!) Trotternish coast to the remains of Duntulm Castle. This sight was originally a Pictish fort, and became a much desired property by the MacLeods and the MacDonalds. It was the MacDonalds' home from 1539 to 1730, when a baby was accidentally dropped out of a window, down the cliff and to the ocean rocks below. Legend has it that this tragedy caused the family to abandon the castle. The ruins were some of the most impressive we've seen because of the great view and the height above the waves. The skies were clear in the distance, and only a few puffy clouds reflected the sunlight over Harris and Lewis. Visitors can only climb along walls and exposed rooms of the castle, because the crumbling interior has been fenced off. Still, it's worth a visit.
the view from the castle
About once a day, Jason and I get goofy, normally in the late afternoon. Yesterday, we were laughing and giggling as we drove through endless hills of grazing sheep. There are so many lambs, and I rolled down the window and looked at one and yelled "Lamb-eee, I Luuuuuuuuuv You!" He stared at me for a moment, then made a mad dash for the hills. I guess he knew what he was doing, because we were served lamb shortly after that for dinner.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on August 3, 2002
Duntulm Castle and the Tote Stone
The northcoast of the Trotternish penninsula
Isle of Skye, Scotland
Attraction | "Dunvegan Castle and beyond"
Dunvegan is the only complete castle on Skye, and is still inhabited by the MacLeods. Though it was not the finest or most interesting castle we've seen, certain parts of it date back to the early 14th century. It retains the feeling of a family home, with a large library and lovely hallways and bedrooms. The visitor enters the castle and faces a wide carpeted stairway and a quiet guide. She points the way up and leaves you to wander and read about the different rooms, or listen to the guides stationed in a few. The emphasis here is on family history, with many portraits and tales about the different lords and ladies of the house.
This was one of the only private castles we visited, because they tend to be expensive. Dunvegan is not a necessity for Skye visitors, but for those who are here for several days, it's worth the trip and the 6 pounds.
Next we drove a short way through the remote western countryside to visit the Talisker distillery, where Jason purchased a small bottle of whisky. We had already been on one tour, so we settled for stopping at a waterfall nearby and taking a few photos. The sheep came by to check us out before they scurried away, bleating. Then we dropped by the grocery store outside of Portree and picked up dinner to cook at the cottage that night.
near Talisker distillery
After dinner, we decided to go for a short walk over the nearby hills to an ocean cave. We used a guide book, but we found that it was quite difficult to choose which hill to round, which grassy slope to descend. We also found that it's easy to get stuck in a sheep or cow field or a bog, with barbed wire all around.
sunset from a cliff
Our one mile trek turned into two or three miles on gently sloped hills and occasional scrambling ones. But the sunset was glorious, full of color and clouds. And on the top of a cliff, with the waves and rocks below, we looked out on a pastel panorama. The sun was lingering over the mountains of Lewis and Harris in the distance. We set up the camera for photos, one kissing, and headed home to a late night snack.
A mile north of Dunvegan Village
Isle of Skye, Scotland
Attraction | "The Museum of the Isles"
Tickets are purchased heading up the hill beside the parking lot. One ticket covers entrance to all of the attractions, and the student rate was 4 pounds. As we walked the grounds, we got the strong feeling that we were missing something because we weren't part of the Donald Clan.
The Museum of the Isles is in a brand new building that smells of fresh paint, along with a heritage center and family research library. We walked through the glass doors and didn't know quite where to go, and the cashier pointed us to the left. We first entered a room with a large television screen and celtic music playing. There was audio at times, but it was not loud enough to be understood. So we tried to figure out where we were supposed to go next. The history of the Lords of the Isles is displayed here in a few rooms, in paragraph form, with the occasional illustrations tossed in. I felt like I was roaming around an incomplete museum, not sure what the order of the rooms was, not always able to read chronologically. It was difficult to be impressed with the small collection of artefacts, since many of them were unlabeled.
Perhaps these exhibits are most appreciated by family members. But I did come away with a more personal view of clan history, as it would be seen through the eyes of those who experienced it. We also enjoyed walking the garden paths nearby.
the sunset that night
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on August 3, 2002
Museum of the Isles
Clan Donald Skye
Armadale, Sleat, Isle of Skye IV45 8RS
Portree is a quaint seaside town that is easily walked and enjoyed. There is a central parking lot that charges an hourly fee, but if you drive around a bit, you'll find curbside spots without meters. Wherever you park, the shops and sights are only a step away. And a visit to Portree is even fun in the rain, because there are so many shops to duck into.
It's a good idea to follow the signs and visit the Tourist Information Center first. I was surprised at the excellent selection of information, books,and gifts here. The free Traveler's Companion pamphlets about the different areas of Skye contained the most useful maps and visitor information we could find.
Our best meal here was two blocks up the hill at Bosville Hotel's Chandlery Restaurant, which was recommended by a shop owner. We arrived a little before 6:00, and they were not serving dinner yet. But they seated us, alone at the bar, and Jason had Scotch and attempted to speak Gaelic to the bartender. The dinner bill was about 30 pounds, and the food and wine were good and filling. Even the best restaurants here aren't overly impressive, perhaps because of the remoteness and limited availability of ingredients and chefs.
There is a cramped grocery store within view of the hotel, where you can purchase necessities at a reasonable price. When I was there, it was incredibly crowded, and I felt a little claustrophobic! Just down the hill and around the first corner from the grocer is Portree's One Hour Photo. It is one of the best developers I've found. We developed 8 rolls of 36 exposures there for 60 pounds. It was cheaper than Ritz camera, and the quality was superb. Across the street from the photo shop, we purchased an antique gold ring for me at A' Bhùth Bheag. It is romantic and simple with emeralds, and only costed about $200. I would never have an emerald ring if we didn't go antique (they're so expensive), and I think we got a bargain! This little hole in the wall shop had all sorts of antiques, from silver to knick-knacks and jewelry.
Back across the street, only a few shops down from the photo developers, is a gift shop with an exceptional selection of highland pottery. There are vases, teacups and platters, all with mountains and flowers and celtic designs. Here I found the perfect gift for my mom, and a vase for myself as well.
It's best to drive into Portree when you can have dinner and then visit Skye Scene. Talking with shop owners and finding a few precious souvenirs, having dinner beside the sea, and enjoying an evening's performance of song and dance makes for the perfect day.
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