Tour 16/22 : Skye

Còmhlan bheanntan, stòiteachd bheanntan,
còrr-lios bheanntan fàsmhor,
cruinneachadh mhullaichean, thulaichean, shlèibhtean
tighinn sa bheucaich ghàbhaidh.

Sorley Maclean Ceann Loch Aoineart

If you're asking me, the area from the islands of Rum and Skye to Ullapool on the west coast mainland is the most scenic in Scotland. Steep hills rise straight out the sea, and the soil is soaked in bloody clan history.

It is a scenic area, of course, only if it can be seen. The climate is Britain's wettest, with Knoydart in the mainland exceeding 5.5 metres of rain a year. A saturated gloom can lour for weeks on end, especially in winter. When the mist closes in and the rain is falling horizontally, the unimaginative visitor is likely to be disappointed. But come the days of magic when clouds part for crystal-clear skies, the land fresh scrubbed and the air invigorating, you wouldn't be anywhere else. Like Sorley MacLean, you might then be inspired by the sheer physicality of the landscape:

A company of mountains, an upthrust of mountains
a great garth of growing mountains
a concourse of summits, of knolls, of hills
coming on with a fearsome roaring.

The oddly named (to Anglophone ears) islands of Muck, Eigg, Canna, and Rum, form the miniature archipelago of the 'Small Isles'.     Eigg is perhaps most interesting, with historic tales and some unusual 'singing sands' in the north. The island was bought collectively by the inhabitants in the 1990s, who so far are making a better job of running it than a succession of previous landowners - they recently became the world's first island community entirely self-sufficient in renewable energy.

Next to Eigg is mountainous Rum, an island with a reputation of inaccessibility. For years after the clearances it was a private island, run as a sporting estate by the Bulloughs, a family of rich industrialists. Visitors were unwelcome. The Bulloughs built an incredible castle, remarkable partly for its ostentation, but mainly for the unlikeliness of its setting. The island was sold to the Nature Conservancy Council (now SNH), who used the whole island as an outdoor laboratory, and again, visitors were strictly regulated. There is no permanent population, hotels or pubs, but there is a small shop and campsite near the ferry jetty. Thankfully today the policy is one of come all ye, without restriction - all it takes is a ferry trip, and one of the most     interesting islands in Scotland is yours to explore.

The Small Isles can be reached by ferry from the fishing port of Mallaig; as can the peninsula of Knoydart, the remotest part of the Scottish mainland. There are no roads to Knoydart, and it is a long walk over a rough hill pass to reach the one small village. The hills are at their steepest and roughest; the lochs their deepest and most fjordlike. Many walkers rave about Knoydart, claiming that for wildness it is their favourite place in Scotland. My own impressions are coloured by the fact I have never visited on a dry day. However all the rain makes for plenty of water features. Loch Morar (whose surface is barely 20m above sea level) is 310m deep, and like Loch Ness is said to contain a large unidentified creature. The rain fuels the most spectacular waterfall in Scotland (if not, at 150m, the highest), the vertiginous Falls of Glomach. A stiff tramp over a pass brings you the top of the falls - but from here you are unprepared for their full effect. A slippery and dangerous path descends to a rocky perch jutting out in front of the fall and the effect from here is stunning - and not recommended to vertigo sufferers!

You can enjoy the rest of the area just from the car, if that is your inclination. The picturesque Five Sisters of Kintail rise close to Eilean Donan castle: built in 1220, destroyed in the Jacobite wars, and rebuilt with such skill in the 20th century that it is nearly impossible to see the join between old and new masonry. Its completeness makes it a favourite for filmmakers, appearing most famously in 'Highlander,' and more recently in the James Bond film 'the World is Not Enough.' You are close now to Skye, easily accessible thanks to a new bridge. Romantics can still reach Skye by ferry if they choose, on the most scenic Glenelg to Kylerhea route, or from Mallaig to the south.

The magical island of Skye. The island is an agglomeration of peninsulas, over 50 miles wide and 50 miles long - but, thanks to the convoluted nature of the coastline, nowhere on the island is more than 3 miles from the sea. Each peninsula has its own character, and visiting Skye is like visiting five separate islands. The southern peninsula is low and fertile Sleat, where the Macdonald clan has its headquarters, Armadale Castle. Another castle on Sleat is Dunscaith; now ruined, it features in Ireland's 2,000 year old classical literature as a military college. Skye folk have a long martial history - if not the Macleod and Macdonald clans engaged in one of the longest and bloodiest feuds in Scottish history, then in the inordinately large number of Skye men who joined the British army to fight abroad in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even the most famous of all the events that ended the Clearances, 1882's     Battle of the Braes, occurred on Skye. These days battles take place on the shinty field (imagine hockey played in a dystopian, violent future), a sport unique to Ireland and Scotland.

Perhaps the Skiannachs have been moulded by their island's tumultuous geography. In Minginish, the second peninsula, erupt the steepest, rockiest, narrowest and most spectacular hills in Britain, the Cuillin. Attaining the Cuillin summits requires rock climbing ability, and the ridges between the tops can be narrow enough to sit upon and dangle your legs over 1,000ft drops on either side. To add to the general technical difficulty, sudden seamists can blow in, literally within seconds; and as the rocks are magnetic in nature, a compass for navigation becomes useless without prior knowledge of the magnetic variations. Despite this, the Cuillin remain extremely popular with climbers and experienced walkers, and the entire traverse of the main ridge is widely agreed to be the finest mountaineering expedition in the British Isles. When it is raining, many climbers sit around pubs and cafes, miserable: - a mistake, as Skye's coastline has miles of seacliffs and sea stacks which in their own way, are as exhilarating and spectacular as the Cuillin ridges, especially on the     Durinish peninsula.

The Trotternish peninsula is perhaps the most interesting of all. As well as Skye's neat capital, Portree, a ridge runs the length of the peninsula - easy going short grass rather than the extremities of the Cuillin - with some of the strangest landscapes to be seen between Iceland and the Dolomites. One one side, a road winds its way round a landscape of moraine hummocks known as the Fairy Glen. On the other side, landslips of volcanic rock have revealed cliffs and weird pinnacles. From the top of the road between Uig and Staffin, a path leads to the Quirang, a strange forest of rock towers. You walk up through these formations to suddenly arrive at a flat, grassy table, surrounded by pinnacles, fantastical in the mist. The Storr, also on Trotternish, replicates this weirdness. Volcanic seacliffs with columnar, Giant's Causeway-like formations and mountain and sea views run up the east coast of Trotternish, the most famous (because it can be seen by car, rather than being more spectacular than the rest of the coast) being Kilt rock, a cliff said to look like the pleats in a kilt. At the top of Trotternish, you come to ruined Duntulm castle with a heavenly outlook over an island-studded bay to the Western Isles. Duntulm was reputedly abandoned after a former occupant, in the form of a ghost, made such a nuisance of themselves that the entire household got fed up and moved to a new castle!

Skye from the mainland

Eigg at sunset

Rum from the mainland

The roadless fjord of Loch Nevis

Loch Morar

The heart of Knoydart

Rainclouds in Knoydart

Falls of Glomach

A feeling of freedom coming over the walker in wild country

The Five Sisters of Kintail

On the Five Sisters

Eilean Donan - one of the best known castles in Scotland

Isleoronsay, Sleat

Ben Tianavaig near Portree

Mist wrapped Cuillin from Elgol


Loch Scavaig in the Cuillin

Climber on the Cuillin

Entering the Fairy Glen

Coast near Kilt Rock

Trotternish near the Quirang

The Quirang