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Issue 13 - Not so blue Skye

Scotland Magazine Issue 13
March 2004


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Not so blue Skye

Australian travel writer Graham Simmons wanted to see Skye up close and personal. So he and his friends hiked their way around it.

Few places on earth call forth such lyrical longing as the Isle of Skye. The colours of Skye are a total eye-symphony – lime-green moss on weathered black rocks, yellow-dock spikes and red hawthorn berries, and the emerald shades of fir and pine trees over grassy meadows. Sadly, the same cannot always be said for the music of Skye.

In the village square of Portree, “capital” of the island, a lone piper was labouring through an exceedingly mangled repertoire. Among the crowd watching the piper was a kilted skinhead, talking on a mobile phone. The question arose: just where do you hang up your mobile phone when
you’re wearing a kilt?

I didn’t get to find out, as the band accompanying the piper suddenly struck up yet another butchered “tune”. Nevertheless, it was still possible to feel the music evoking the soft patter of rain on heather, and multicoloured clouds soaring over craggy peaks.

An upbeat air of new-found cultural pride is in evidence all over the Isle of Skye, with close to half the population now speaking Gaelic. The Aros Centre, just out of Portree on a scenic arm of Loch Port Rígh, is dedicated to this full-scale Gaelic revival.

Following a prolonged population decline during the ruthless Clearances of the 1800s, the population of Skye is now rising at a fast rate, for the first time in 150 years, and many island children are being taught Gaelic as a first language. Near Armadale, in the south of the island, a Gaelic language college draws students from all across Scotland.

The Aros Experience is a multimedia presentation of the history of the Isle of Skye, including the times of the Clearances. When Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped to Skye in 1745 after his defeat by the English at the Battle of Culloden, he set in train an orgy of revenge by the victors, somewhat akin to ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Thousands of ‘Skyelanders’ were forcibly removed from their crofts, with the connivance of some of the Highland chiefs. When Dr Samuel Johnson and his biographer James Boswell visited Skye in 1773, they spoke of a population downtrodden and demoralised.

Only at the Napier Commission of 1893 were the crofters’ grievances heard for the first time.

Today, a very different attitude can be seen on the Isle of Skye. Throughout the island, a huge resurgence of interest in Gaelic music has taken place.

The Highland Festival (from the last week in May to the second week of June) attracts visitors from around the world.

With friends Scott and Leanne, I decide to hire a car to tour the island. Having your own wheels is virtually de rigeuer in these parts, as buses seem to run only once every three months – and then only during leap years. Our first destination is the spectacular Cuillin Hills, with the best hiking in the whole of Scotland.

The road from Portree to the Cuillins veers skywards at the picturesque village of Sligèachan (or Sligachan in English – all the road signs on Skye are in Gaelic first, English second). At the car park at Glenbrittle, at the dead-end of the Cuillin road, we set off on one of several walking trails that lead up the ridge.

The Cuillin Hills make for sensational walking. The lochs and corries (whirlpools) that dot the 13 kilometre range seem like limpid hollows in a squashed-up piece of cardboard. Along the hiking paths, heather and sedges compete for space. Whilst the tallest peak (Sgurr Alasdair) is just a little over 1,000 metres high, the air nevertheless feels cool and bracing.

It’s difficult to leave the Cuillins, but the rest of the Isle of Skye still beckons. Naturally, it is hard to resist an invitation to visit the Talisker distillery, at the very west of the island near the village of Carbost. The distillery, built in 1830 despite the fiery protestations of the then parish minister Rev. Robert MacLeod, bills itself as one of just six producers of classic malts.

The road North West of Talisker (the A863) hugs the coast like a child clutching a teddy bear. In the village of Bracadale, overlooking the beautiful Loch Struan, 16 year-old Elsa helps her parents run a roadside café.

Helps, that is, when she’s not dreaming of a tantalising world “out there”, far from the strictures of an isolated rural life.

At Dunvegan Castle, the entry fee is no less than £8 per head. We’ve already been warned, perhaps incorrectly, that the interior of the Castle is nothing special. Still, the grounds are superb, and we do get to see the riveting ocean views from the castle forecourt.

Crossing a saddle to the dramatic Loch Snizort, via the A850, the road heads north along the coast of the Trotternish peninsula. The entrance to the fishing town of Uig is marked by a striking broch, a prehistoric stone tower.

At these latitudes, Old Norse place names recall the Viking invaders who marauded these shores a millennium ago. In the 13th century, the Norse became settlers rather than raiders, at places still bearing names such as Fiskavaig, Herebost, and Monkstadt.

Twisting and turning upon itself like an itchy snake, the road north of Uig traverses some of Skye’s most spectacular scenery.

Near the ruins of Duntuilm Castle, where Viking longships once rode at anchor, the Conor family now raise Cheviot sheep. The wool is a key ingredient in the much-prized Harris Tweed.

As we round the northern tip of the Trotternish peninsula, even the mild breeze abates. In the lee of Mount Quiraig, fishing boats bob nonchalantly in Staffin Bay.

Staffin is the second largest town on Skye, even boasting a “Vegetarian Internet” bed and breakfast; as though the two somehow go hand-in-hand.

Back in Portree, the sun is setting over the harbour. The picture-postcard shops and houses that line the waterfront glow with a golden radiance, a glow that changes colour just slightly the next morning, as a red tinge warms the chimney tops.

It’s time to leave the Isle of Skye – not as Bonnie Prince Charlie did, in a hasty retreat, or with the embarrassment of the much-sung star of Donald Where’s ya Troosers, but with a real feeling of nostalgia.

From Aberdeen, regular rail services run to Kyle of Lochalsh, from where there are regular bus connections to Portree on the Isle of Skye, across the new road bridge. Avery pleasant route back to the Scottish mainland is by ferry from the southern Skye town of Armadale to Mallaig,
where you connect with the scenic train service (steam on Sunday afternoons) to Fort William and on to Glasgow. A BritRail Pass (which includes Scotland) is great value. See your travel agent for details.

Car hire on the Isle of Skye is inexpensive if the cost is divided among a group. Rates start at around £32 a day. Rental cars are available from Ewan McRae’s service station, Dunvegan Road, Portree IV51 9HD
Tel: +44 (0)1478 582 306
Fax +44 (0)1470 582 396

A good choice is the Portree Hotel, right in the heart of Portree town in Somerled Square. Tel +44 (0)1470 612 511 Alternatively, there is a whole string of inexpensive B&Bs in Bosville Terrace, overlooking the harbour.

1. Hike the super-scenic Cuillin Ranges
2. Visit the Aros Centre and walk the Gaelic Alphabet Trail
3. Take a trip out to the Trotternish Peninsula
4. Visit the Talisker malt whisky distillery
5. Watch sunset and sunrise over Portree Harbour

The Tourist Information Centre in Bayfield House, Bayfield Road, Portree, Isle of Skye, IV51 9EL
Tel: +44 (0)1478 612 137
Fax +44 (0)1478 612 141
Very helpful if you know exactly what you’re looking for. Best consult the guidebooks first: Lonely Planet’s Scotland is good, and Rough Guides’ Scottish Highlands and Islands outstanding.
Aros Centre:
Viewfield Road, Portree, Isle of Skye, IV51 9EU
Enquiries: +44(0)1478 613 750