From the Archives: The Isle of Skye / by Heather

From October 2008: Isle of Skye, Scotland

*Note- The Isle of Skye, even after everywhere else I've been, is one of my favourite places in the world. Just thinking about it now still makes my heart beat fast and my feet restless. Skye is not to be missed.*

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Whenever I imaged Scottish landscape in my mind back in the States, I pictured, as I think most people do, rolling hills of green, stunning ocean cliffs, and a rugged and untamed terrain. Having spent time most of my time here so far in the city of Edinburgh (with the exception of one day trip up to the lower Highlands), my vision of a romantic and wild Scotland had yet to be fulfilled. That is, until I visited the Isle of Skye.

My the boyfriend, Jonathan, recently came out to Edinburgh from the States to visit me and being a travel enthusiast like myself, we had quite a few trips in mind. We had originally planned to go to Stockholm for the weekend, but Ryan Air canceled our flights (and didn’t give a full refund.....always be wary). So we decided to go up to the Isle of Skye instead on a whim. Skye is a island of the north-west coast of Scotland and is known for its natural beauty. When Jonathan flew in, I met him at the Edinburgh airport and from there we rented a car and started the five hour drive across the country of Scotland to Skye.

It was unfortunate that because we left Edinburgh so late in day, we drove through most of Scotland in the dark. I’m sure we went through some amazing scenery though, and somehow made there in one piece while learning how to drive on the opposite side of the car and road. We finally reached the Isle of Skye (by driving over a bridge that connects it to the mainland) around 11 at night, though of course, our hotel was in the far northern corner of the island. We followed a small, single-track road for roughly an hour, amid towering shadows of mountains and the inky depths of valleys that we could not yet see. Although we wanted to see what we were driving through, there was a sense of teasing mystery that could only leave us imaging what we would wake up to in the morning. Our hotel was in a very small town, past other very small towns and hidden away off the road.  For our whole trip there, it felt as though we were passing through nature’s midst and it was only with its untouched grace that we were allowed to be there.

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We finally found our hotel, the amazingly beautiful Flodigarry Country House, and crashed in our cozy and rustic room on the third floor. Awaking in the morning, the veil of mystery had been lifted with the sunrise and our room‘s bay window opened to the ocean, right at our doorstep. It was a beautiful way to start the day, and telling of the rest of our trip. We headed downstairs to eat and I ordered a traditional Scottish breakfast and was able to sample blood pudding. Not terrible….but with its strange and questionable texture, definitely not something that will become part of my normal diet. But the dining room had huge windows and gazing out to sea under the morning light was so breathtaking that even weird Scottish delicacies could not detract from it.

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We made our way along the coastline in the car, on a quest for certain vistas and places that had been recommended to us by the hotel. Apparently there were castle ruins, once belonging to the MacDonald clan, along the road somewhere. Being the ever vigilant navigator, I spotted a ruined building on a cliff and declared it to be an ancient castle. It turned out to be a-not-so-old but still ruined shack with a wheelbarrow inside. But there is no such thing as a bad pit stop on Skye, and we admired the scenery surrounding us. We eventually found the real castle, further down the road, and made our way to its respective cliff and rocky shore. The rugged landscape was everything my mind had previously conjured up of an ancient place, standing in its raw form. This stop was also our first introduction to the wind. 

Ah, the Skye wind. I must give it its own paragraph because it was more than a simple element of nature. It had a personality and character of its own, persistently demanding to be heeded and never letting you forget who, or more correctly what, had true power on the island. It was the kind of wind that slammed your car doors and pushed you where it wanted you to go, clutching at your clothes and grabbing your hair with wispy fingers. It curled around your eyelids, pulling them together and breathing cold air right into the core of your vision. If you formed your lips just right, you could hear the wind howling through them and rushing down into your lungs, making it hard to breath. Most of what I saw of Skye was through my hair, which was perpetually whipping my face. The wind was the most obvious sign of power on the island, and though it was rough, it was humbling and amazing at the same time. Now, when I am back in Edinburgh and there are a few gusts down the street, although still respectable and demanding, they feel more civilized and tame than the intense gales of Skye.

After we explored the coastline around the castle, Jonathan and I drove the other side of the island, where a place called Fairy Glen was supposed to be. We took a wrong turn, but it was alright because the street ended up being above the Fairy Glen and giving us a panoramic view that was almost essential to see before venturing into the place itself. The Glen is a strange but natural landscape that is all in miniature. Little mountains, tiny valleys, short, gnarled trees, even a miniature loch were present and the entire glen was covered in an impossible shade of bright, rich green. There was no one else around, and wandering through the silently eerie and bizarre terrain, one could certainly imagine faeries, elf and other spirits whispering through the confines of the glen.

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Later in the day, after exploring the small and quaint harbor town of Portree (which is actually Skye’s largest town), we set out to climb the Old Man of the Storr. The Old Man is a giant rock that stands slightly apart from the rest of an enormous, looming ridge. There was trail that led up to the ridge, and the most notable thing about it (besides the hundreds of mud holes that I skillfully managed to step in each of) was that it led through a small forest which, if not for the light cut through by the path, would have been completely dark. It was hard to imagine ancient clans on Skye, trying to make a living off that sort of dark, tundra-like land, and yet the land resonated of an ancient culture. When we finally made it to the top of the mountain, we found ourselves still dwarfed by enormous ridge that loomed above. But we were able to stand next to the Old Man himself and take in the coastal view. At that height, the freezing wind was even more forceful, and I found myself needing to hunker down and lower my centre of gravity just to avoid getting knocked off my feet. Once we drank our fill of the panorama and my fingers had turned a lovely shade of purple, we skipped, jumped, and ran down the rocky mountain in the light rain that had begun to fall (and create even more mud holes for me). I don’t think I have felt more grateful for a warm car, and the heater was on full blast as we headed back to Portree for dinner.

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On the way into town, I was surprised and ecstatic to see, walking along the impossibly narrow one-track road, two Highland Cattle. Of course, we pulled over, and being the lover of all things fuzzy that I am, I began edging my way closer to the two cows. One was off to the side, but to my glee, the other slowly started walking toward me. I squatted down and put my hand out and got more and more excited as it came closer. I know, a lot of excitement over a cow, but I couldn’t help myself. I was very happy about my new cow friend…until it tossed its horns at me. Now a big animal throwing around its pointiest, most dangerous bits is never a good sign, but I relented and took one more step closer. That’s when the cow took its own step and threw its horns at me with more gusto. I decided to stop being an overeager tourist and hightailed it back to the car. The last thing I needed was to have to explain how I was gored by a hairy coo.

After dinner in Portree, Jonathan and I were wandering around the town when we were directed into a pub by an enthusiastic and talkative local. He insisted that it was the hottest pub in town and it even had a live singer who sang ancient Scottish battle songs. We were game, so we settled into a little corner of the pub, Jonathan with a Guinness, and me with a shameful little half-pint of something the bartender recommended that I wasn’t a fan of anyway. While we were there, I kept trying to hide my half-pint behind Jonathan’s drink because it was by far, the smallest glass in the whole pub, not to mention still mostly full. When it comes to drinking, I am a pathetic excuse for a Scot and even more so against the rugged, tough Scots of Skye. So anyway, we settled in and watched the locals in their natural environment.

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It was, to say the least, hilarious. The live singer, babbling about something into the microphone, then singing Johnny Nash’s ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ (ancient Scottish battle songs…right); this one guy who kept coming in and out of the pub and either heckling the singer or singing along loudly. Another drunk guy wandered outside of the pub and then pressed himself against the window and watched the inside like a television set, before dancing around on the sidewalk. The local who originally invited us in got up with the singer and sang a few duets with him (we figured he invited us in because he wanted an audience). There were also some Glaswegians who were equally rambunctious and kept requesting songs then singing along. And there was another group of Americans, in their own corner, sitting rather stiffly, unsure of what to make of the locals. They also kept requesting traditional Scottish songs, but the singer decided that because they were American, they would prefer Johnny Cash, so he sang that instead. All in all, it was such an entertaining, unique experience and I couldn’t have asked for a better night before retiring back to our beautiful hotel.

The next morning was our last day at Skye, but we made one more stop at another ridge named Quiraing. This particular landscape is a massive landslip that is still moving and made up of various rock formations (with names like The Prison, The Needle, and The Table). The winding trail that goes up to the ridge started out on a wide plateau, but then nestled itself against the mountain, twisting and moving with the steep ground. Parts of it would just drop off completely and we would have to climb into and out of miniature gorges in the side of the mountain. All the while as we were hiking, an enormous expanse of land spread out under us, dipping into valleys, forming cliffs, jutting up into mountains, and smoothing out to create plateaus. Above us, in the ever-present wall of stone, waterfalls were trickling out and the wind was rushing through every single crack. In fact, at one point I thought there was a huge waterfall in the ridge because I could hear the sound of a massive amount of pouring water, but it turned out to be wind, gushing and heaving itself through an opening in the rock.

We pushed our way through wind, rain, and frigid air and began our ascent up one of the rock formations that was set apart from the ridge. The path was covered in mud, rocks, and water and at times felt like we had wandered onto a hazardous little sheep path. But we kept on it until we reached the top of the peak, where the wind was so strong, I had to hunker down. I came close to falling over a few times, which was unnerving since we were on a pinnacle. I imagined myself being blown off the edge of the cliff and rolling down the ridge, taking out sheep left and right as I went.

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The feeling at the top of this pinnacle was just extraordinary. There we were, being battered and completely ripped into by the elements, but I don’t think I have ever felt more alive. The air was thick with raw energy and strength and it flowed right through me, making me feel so invigorated and new. Sure, I looked like hell, but it is my firm belief that the best sign of a true outdoorsman (and woman) is that you look terrible, but feel great.

We lingered at the top for a while, but then the rain gained a little more gusto and began to pelt and sting us with even more fury, so we started the trek down. As we hiked back, we had to stop every so often and just admire the still sense of power held by the island. This may be hard to understand without being there, but the whole area had a timeless and mighty quality. One that had been present before man and will continue to be until fate calls it away. Skye is not merely a place, but a moment in time that stands still and echoes with such intensity that it demands to be heard by anyone willing to listen.

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