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Issue 29 - Skye & the Western Isles

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 29
October 2006


This article is 11 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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Skye & the Western Isles

Skye and the Western Isles take some reaching, but the journey is worth it. Dominic Roskrow explores the region

There’s something otherworldly about the road that takes you west and north towards Skye.

It’s a deceptively long and challenging drive for starters, though a stunningly picturesque and stimulating one. But it’s also unnerving as the landscape gradually changes and you move in to the rawest and ruggedest part of the British Isles.

This is particularly so if you arrive in the twilight zone, where day is passing in to night and the light plays tricks, the time of the day when the local wildlife comes out to play. In Autumn and Spring this is at its most acute, but at any time the north west sucks you in when dusk falls, and it’s an intimidating feeling.

We had left Oban in the late afternoon and had misjudged our journey time, so that at 8pm we were still heading towards the island. Tired and hungry, we were desperate to reach our destination. And then the sky started playing tricks on us.

You can’t fully prepare yourself for the first time you see the aurora borealis. It’s a bit like an eclipse; you know what’s going to happen but you’re still awestruck by it. It flickers in pinks and yellows like some psychedelic lightning storm, but it’s altogether more gentle and supernatural.

As welcoming parties go, the Northern Lights take some beating. But they’re a fitting entry point to a part of the country that even by Scotland’s breath-taking standards are outstanding.

These days you can cross to Skye by bridge, crossing at the Kyle of Lochalsh. And from the very beginning it’s the rugged scenery that impresses. If it’s wet – and too often it is – the rocks glisten in silent menace. There are few places on the planet where you feel more mortal.

The Cuillin are, of course, the backbone of the island and are famed throughout the world.

Mountaineering magazine Editor Lewis Eckett rates their peaks among the most challenging in Europe.

If climbing is a step too far for you, however, that doesn’t stop you enjoying stunning views across the island and the seas beyond from many vantage points accessible by foot or car.

Dramatic coastlines and other unusual landscapes dominate Skye and a trip round the island by car is thoroughly recommended. But it’s not all just scenery. There is a great selection of castles and museums to visit, and one of the best whisky distilleries in Scotland in the form of Talisker. If ever a drink reflected the environment that created it, it’s this one. Elsewhere there’s a wide range of activities to enjoy, including boat trips, pony trekking, angling and golf.

If you have the mind to wander further afield then the Western Isles may well make your perfect destination. These islands – part of the Hebrides – consist of Lewis, Harris, Barra and North and South Uist.

They can be reached by boat and Lewis boasts an airport but be warned – the winds in these parts can be severe, so much so that one islander told me that he didn’t see a tree until he was 13 because the island of Lewis doesn’t have many. This means flying can be seriously interrupted, so the ferry may be the better way to travel. They sail from Ullapool, Oban, Mallaig and Skye.

These islands are the heartland of Gaelic Scotland, and most islanders are bilingual.

Traditional music and culture is very much kept alive here, and travelling takes you in to some of the remotest parts of Scotland and some of the most independent.

But this is the place to come if wildlife is the reason for your travels – whales, including orcas, dolphins, puffins and seals are all common visitors around these shores.

Stunning beaches, too – and the perfect place to come and unwind, with the islands boasting a large number of outdoor facilities and tours.

Accommodation throughout the region is plentiful and of varying standards and prices. Book before you go through the normal tourist channels and VisitScotland.

Whichever of these isles you visit your experience will leave memories indelibly carved in to your heart. A heady mix of inhospitable terrain and welcoming island folk, they are unique – and well worth the extended journey to get there.