Going to the north of Scotland is a risky move in March. Like the Irish, the Scots are accustomed to chilly gales, pouring rain, and even snow well into spring, so Gavin and I took a gamble choosing to holiday there before the spring equinox had begun (and yes, I know we learned spring starts on February 1st, but did the persistence of Baltic weather ever really convince you of it?). Lucky for us, our premature holidaying paid off – we got three days of glorious sunshine.
Getting to Glasgow was a breeze from Dublin city: one bus, one overpriced airport breakfast and an hour-long flight later and I was setting up the satnav in our Vauxhall Corsa rental. The way up to the Isle of Skye was significantly longer; it’s a six-hour drive, more or less, to the west coast of the island where we stayed. I wasn’t an insured driver so Gavin took the wheel for the duration of our trip. While I gazed out at the snow-topped peaks and flicked between six temperamental BBC radio stations, he navigated the narrow, undulating corkscrew roads, stopping occasionally at designated ‘Passing Places’ to squeeze by other cars and buses.
The mist-covered landscape was dramatic on the way northwards, and we marvelled at the sheer size of the peaks. It had a familiarity of Connemara, though (bearing in mind I don’t like to belittle our beautiful western scenery) the whole place was just a bit more magnificent: huge and open, with sweeping valleys and vast, calm lochs.
From the kitchen in our Waternish cabin in the view was no less impressive: the garden, which overlooked a farmer’s patch of land, oversaw interlocking headlands dotted with little white houses. In the distance the islands of Harris and North Uist gave the horizon a craggy outline. To top it off, little rabbits hopped around the garden during the day. As we saw more of the island I thought there wasn’t an inch of land that wouldn’t boast an incredible view.
The clouds brought scattered rain and fog sat on the highlands on our first full day. We took a trip south to the Fairy Pools by Glen Brittle and walked the winding path beside the stream, stopping occasionally to take photographs of the waterfalls. When, about 3km later, we arrived at the foot of the looming hills, we made a quick stab at reaching the snow but scrapped the idea on the realisation that its nearness was merely a trick of the imagination. So we took a picture to prove how far we’d come and hiked back to the car.
On the second day we planned to visit the famous ‘Old Man of Storr’ viewpoint. I’d say this was the most impressive (and probably most difficult) of the walks we did. A sheer climb from the car park left us slightly breathless as the path evened out. From there, faint but colourful human-sized dots at the base of the jagged rock came into view and the cliffs loomed even larger above our heads.
Weathered down from five million years of erosion, the Old Man of Storr towers over its surroundings for miles around. It’s easy to see how these worn-away layers of rock have become one of Skye’s most important sights, and though popular, it only took a little detour away from the crowd until we were alone and it was quiet. We descended on a different path, admiring the jagged horizons and sparkling lakes of a timeless landscape.
On our way home we stopped into Portree, Skye’s largest town with a population of about two and a half thousand people. Monday is a quiet day: shops were shut, and the café we had planned to eat in also had its doors closed. Next door was a chippy (aptly named ‘The Chippy’) and we settled on having fish for lunch. The lady working alone behind the counter was battering the fresh fish when we stepped inside, and the smell of the fried food was enough get our stomachs going. We got a token Irn Bru to wash it down with and sat outside to enjoy the sunshine before taking a stroll by the colourful houses on the pier.
Having bought our groceries on the first day and cooked most meals, we treated ourselves to an evening in The Three Chimneys, an acclaimed restaurant on the west of the island. Not before we took the near-lethal roads to Neist lighthouse for the sunset though, and had a quiet beer on the cliffs there. I was glad for my hiking boots then as much as ever, as the grass was spotted with patches of squashy mud. In fact, if you do plan to visit, make sure hiking boots are on the packing list!
Once the sun dipped below the horizon we drove back and checked in for dinner, where the host escorted us for a predrink in the cosy adjacent bar. We opted for the tasting menu and it did not disappoint: there were so many courses I could barely recall half of them afterwards. Rather thoughtfully, there was a little menu placed between us on the table, and a lovely waitress gave us a brief overview of each plate as it arrived. From the heather and seaweed butter and mousses that began the meal to the final petit fours, I was absolutely stuffed by dessert. It was a very pleasant experience overall, although (expectedly) even the wine was expensive, and it’s definitely going to be a rare occurrence in the foreseeable future!
On our last full day the weather stayed sunny and warm as forecast. We drove north along the east side of the isle to The Quiraing walk, and followed the marked path for about 3 kilometres to halfway before stopping for a break and turning back. The scenery was just a beautiful as previous days: golden eagles soared overhead and cyclists pedaled their way up the steep path to the hike’s starting point.
That evening we didn’t venture far from the house. Only ten minutes up the road was a little place called Trumpan with a well-known church ruin. An information post at the site tells the story of warring families, the McLeods and McDonalds. The story goes that one family trapped the other in the church and burned it down. When a young girl who managed to escape through a window warned the rest of the clan, they swore revenge and slaughtered the arsonists as they fled back to their boats. It’s clear enough why Scotland is famous for its bloody history when you stumble upon sites like those!
At dusk we drove towards home and stopped in the Stein Inn, the oldest pub in Skye, for a drink. Customers were sparse: there was one burly man sitting at the bar waiting for his dinner, and two other couples sitting down. A fire was burning and it was warm, so we ordered two cask ales and some starters. Wooden beams, framed maps and patterned carpet reflected the inn’s traditional roots, as did the somewhat ambivalent treatment of the obvious blow-ins. From the reel-like music on the sound system to the Gaelic signs posted on the walls, I noticed the similarities in our Celtic cultures more than ever, though I got the feeling that the Americans who arrived at 7.58pm – two minutes before the kitchen closed – might not have been turned away with empty bellies at home in Ireland.
On our final day the weather held once again and we drove back to Glasgow airport in very different conditions to when we arrived. After forty-minute detour down to the ferry crossing (untrustworthy satnav!) we crossed Skye bridge and made our last tourist stop at Eilean Donan Castle in Kyle of Lochalsh. Dating back to the 13th century, its likeness has featured in everything from Scottish products to films, while the castle’s interior decor is a tribute to its 20th century restorer, Lt. Col. John MacRae Gilstrap. It was forbidden to photograph inside, so in summary: lots of tartan and portraits, and a very realistic kitchen complete with a freeze-frame of of a dummy maid catching some falling pots.
Skye is an true gem. For a place that wasn’t on my radar until recently, I would recommend it to anyone who wants an outdoor break – rain or shine, the walks are enjoyable but not strenuous, rewarding you with beautiful scenery for just a little effort.
Have you been to Skye before, or would you like to go? Let me know in the comments below!
Words by Cathy Carey. Photos by Cathy Carey and Gavin Hartigan.