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Is Skye worth visiting? A thousand campervans can't be wrong

Is Skye worth visiting? A Scottish icon in itself, in spite of its sometimes rainy reputation it's hugely popular in the main season.

Is Skye worth visiting?

The question is Skye worth visiting came to mind during a visit there at peak season. (Been there plenty of times before, but always had the advantage of seeing the island in the ‘shoulder months’!) Here are some notes on the visit to the Isle of Skye.

So, it’s August and Skye is full. Not full as in they won’t let you on to the island, but full as in you can’t actually stop to take a photo at a tiny pull-off on any of the roads without a Dutch campervan stopping directly behind you. Then a very tall man leaps out and takes exactly the same picture. Skye must be the most photographed island of the western seaboard. And we all go home with identical images.

View from Camus Cross, Skye, eastward to the mainland

View from Camus Cross, Skye, eastward to the mainland

Well, maybe not totally identical. The endless variations of light and shade mean that plenty of landscape effects last just for minutes, even seconds. You have to be ready. And this applies to Skye especially.

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The Isle of Skye pilgrimage

Mist on the Trotternish Ridge at the Old Man of Storr
Mist on the Trotternish Ridge at the Old Man of Storr

Skye is full in August also in as far as the car park for the Old Man of Storr walk overflows with all kinds of vehicles along both verges for what seems like hundreds of yards/metres, leaving only room for one car to squeeze up the middle. Halfway along you meet that Dutch campervan again, except this time coming the other way. (And this is an update - following the release of the movie 'BFG' in which the Old Man of Storr appears, the parking situation has got worse!)

The Isle of Skye seems to have pilgrimage status for some folk. The camera or smartphone-carrying visitors are compelled to worship at the feet of the Old Man of Storr, or the Lealt Falls, or Kilt Rock, or The Quiraing, or...well, anywhere that has a big carpark really.

It’s just what people do when they come to Skye, unless they are serious climbers. So, it’s all a triumph of destination marketing, which is brilliant for the industry. Is Skye worth visiting? Well, it must be if peak time numbers are a measure.

Kilt Rock

KIlt Rock, a famous geological landmark on the Isle of Skye

KIlt Rock, a famous geological landmark on the Isle of Skye

Make no mistake, Skye is a much more ‘tidied up’ experience than it was, say, 20-30 years ago. It’s much more buoyant, with all kinds of enterprises going on. I remember the first time I visited Kilt Rock there was a splendid old car graveyard just out of sight in a field hollow. And I couldn't help but notice it as I tramped across for a closer look at the geological curiosity . Bet the old wrecks have long gone.

Now the Kilt Rock viewing point is landscaped and ‘safety-fied’ for the enjoyment of all the visitors from many lands who come to view the curious rock formation. And there's even an information panel telling you all about Skye’s dinosaur coast.

The Quiraing

The Quiraing, Isle of Skye

The Quiraing, Isle of Skye

The Quiraing. Is Skye worth visiting? Well, yes, even more so if you enjoy rotational slippage. I know I do.

Yes, more rock formations. Thanks to another large carpark above (west of) Staffin, The Quiraing (above) is another popular hike. A very popular hike. (Had the place to myself, first time I saw it, back in spring of of, ooh, ‘88, maybe.)

North of the main town of Portree, all along the Trotternish Peninsula (see pic below and header), ancient lavas overlie even more ancient fossil-bearing sandstones and even the least observant visitor can see where these inland sheets of lava end in a series of cliffs and steep-sided hills. This is sometimes referred to as the Trotternish Ridge. The edge, crumbling in the slowest of slow motion, is at it its most spectacular at The Quiraing.

Standard thing that still seems to be said about this place is that, in the old days, stolen cattle were hidden there. Well, I reckon the cattle must have had climbing boots on, and used ropes to secrete themselves away in this curious place of sheer rock walls and steep slopes and pinnacles. When describing The Quiraing, budding guide-book or tourism literature writers should also try to work in the phrase ‘rotational slippage’ – I know I always do – as it sounds grandly geological.

Most folk start from the main carpark above where the road breaches the cliffs. You can take a shortcut, though it involves more uphill work, by parking at the cemetery you should note on your way up from Staffin. It’s actually closer to the weirdest bit of the broken cliffs where you can really see the – ahem – rotational slippage at its best.

Trotternish Ridge, Isle of Skye, near Staffin.

Trotternish Ridge, Isle of Skye, near Staffin.

You don't mind if I - just this once - repeat the header pic do you? This shows the Trotternish Ridge, ie the end of the lava flows that I bang on about, above. Well, Skye is such a geological sort of place.

Is Skye worth visiting?

Yes, if it’s clear at Elgol.

As it’s very difficult to find new things to say about Skye – though I’m doing my best here – it’s always safer to repeat the standard labels. (Gosh, more free advice for aspiring Scottish tourism copywriters.)

For example, the view of the Cuillin Hills from Elgol across Loch Scavaig is usually described as one of, or even, the finest view in Scotland. It’s possibly true. The painter JMW Turner did his wild watercolour thing here. Sir Walter Scott gave the grand Cuillins a plug in his narrative poem Lord of the Isles (1815) – a work which is unspeakably dull and mannered.

‘Sing ye o’ the Cuillins of Skye’

Or so the song starts. (Actually, the verses are about the Isle of Mull, which we think gives Skye a run for its money.) Anyway, more relevant is the fact that the John Muir Trust now looks after part of the Cuillins, Skye's grand hills.

Way back in 2000, the local laird – heid bummer in Scots language (or chief, as you might say) of the Clan MacLeod – who owned the place, tried to sell this sublime landscape privately for £10 million to fund repairs for his Dunvegan Castle. He took the land off the market in 2003 in return for a deal in which Scotland the nation got the land and he got his roof fixed (or whatever).

Cuillin Hills from Elgol.

Cuillin Hills from Elgol.

The Cuillins viewed from Elgol.

The main point about the Cuillins was best expressed in creaky language worthy of Sir Walter Scott himself by the famous English outdoors writer W.A. Poucher in ‘The Scottish Peaks’, first published in 1965. Poucher states, on the topic of the peaks of the Cuillin summits, that those ‘which so liberally deck the Main Ridge usually involve more rock climbing, and…are not for the ordinary pedestrian’.  

In short, plenty of visitors - most of whom are 'ordinary pedestrians' - come to view the Cuillns from Glen Brittle or from Elgol or from other points, but those who venture up them basically have to know what they are doing. The peaks of the Black Cuillin are tremendously popular with real climbers of course. And busy at, uhmm, peak season.

Many of you will be content to gaze on the spiky tops of Skye's mountains from a distance – and I wouldn’t blame you – though the boat trips from Elgol are very popular too and they give a special close-up view.

Portree when it rains

Portree, main street

Portree, main street

Is there anywhere more miserable that Portree in the rain? (Well, actually, yes. Stornoway, Outer Hebrides, on a Sunday – but that’s more of an aside than a link.)  Maybe the problem with Portree, the main town on Skye, is that it is one of these places that feels as though it should be bigger than it actually is.

In peak season, the overheard talk on the streets is in many different languages, but most of it can be translated roughly as ‘Is this it? Just a few streets. Wait. Maybe there’s something down these steps. Is there a decent cafe here? Heck, look at the queue at that seafood place by the harbour…’

Picture above - Portree, main town of Skye, is especially dreich in the rain. Sorry about the peeling paint as well. In truth, not a lot to do here really. I holed up in the Aros Centre.

So everyone mills around in their waterproofs and anoraks with an air of uncertainty, looking for the killer attraction, or cosy restaurant, while hoping the weather improves. Which it does, eventually. Or sooner. The pictures here of Portree in the rain and The Quiraing (above) in sunshine were actually taken only a couple of hours apart.

Opportunistic Hoodie Craw on sign outside Aros Centre

Opportunistic Hoodie Craw on sign outside Aros Centre

What to do in Portree, Skye

Tip: if you find yourself wandering around in Portree and it's miserably wet, just get a coffee or lunch at Aros. (Remember? That place you drove past on the way in. It’s a wee bit of a hike if you are walking from the ‘town centre’ of Portree.)

Aros is a bit of everything – community centre, arts venue, shop, cafe, restaurant, exhibition space, catering for local and visitors. Sometimes it’s Aros Centre, sometimes Aros Experience.  In fact, if you take a look at the Aros website, one of their drop-downs even advertises kilt hire – though I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s the best thing to do to fill in a wet morning. Anyway, they have wi-fi if you sit on the seats near reception area. And they are friendly.

Portree Harbour

On the Isle of Skye, Portree harbour is  worth discovering

On the Isle of Skye, Portree harbour is  worth discovering

Johanna here - I think Gilbert was particularly grumpy when he walked about Portree that day - but if it was raining, I do sort of agree with him! Still, I was there at a different time last summer and it was warm and sunny. I recommend you stroll down to the harbour area - pictured above. You'll find a few nice seafood restaurants, fish and chips, places to stay and boat trips.

Is Skye worth visiting – a distillery, a castle...

Another popular excursion for the non-mountaineers is Talisker Distillery. It’s got a small walk-round exhibition area, where you also wait for the tours. It has a small shop selling the usual souvenirs such as branded sweat-shirts and classic malts by Diageo (as they own the brand). There follows the usual guided tour with a snifter at the end. Ho-hum. It can be really busy and on a prettiness scale of one to ten it gets a five maybe. Nice enough drive to get there. But Scotland has lots of distilleries.

Skye’s main castle visit is Dunvegan, already mentioned above. By the way, it is definitely not Gaelic for ‘the fort of the strict vegetarians’. Personally, I am not totally convinced it’s worth the drive if you have limited time on Skye, but only on the grounds that Scotland has plenty of castles that might be more conveniently sampled. (For a start, you’re probably passing by Eilean Donan Castle if you’re driving to Skye via the Skye Bridge – and we feel this is a worthwhile castle experience.)

Eilean Donan castle - en route to the isle of skye

Eilean Donan castle - en route to the isle of skye

Can a Scottish site have too many pictures of the iconic Eilean Donan Castle? We think not. But on a page about Skye? Well, it’s on the road to the island, so it’s almost part of the experience.

Isle of Skye – the locals

Another way of answering the ‘is Skye worth visiting’ question is to assess the numbers of Skye residents who have, after visiting year after year, settled there from other parts of the world. (Actually, I mean Yorkshire mostly.) The very audible non-native presence in Skye either indicates the potential of the island to deliver what folk interpret as a high quality of life – or it may just mean that these new-ish folk are actually immune to midge bites.

There’s a very short blog post here, which sheds further light on this phenomenon, I mean how habitual visiting can lead to residency. It’s about how the Isle of Skye otters might be affecting house prices.

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Skye in summary

So, as one travel agency puts it, Skye,is ‘an utterly captivating island, offering myriad spectacular contrasts’ – and that is fairly typical of how everyone just lays it on thick, then often adds a veneer of mysticism to it as well. (In that respect it is like the island of Iona, only much bigger.) Basically, it’s a big, rugged, bonny island – spectacular in places – with a harsh history of bad landlords, but that was in the 19th century and now it’s got nice double-glazed houses.

And I think you’d like it, even in August. Ultimately, all those Dutch campervans can’t be wrong.