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Over the Sea to Skye, in Scotland

An Island Easy to Get To, Hard To Leave

Old Man of Storr
The Old Man of Storr comes into view after a long uphill walk through a fragrant forest.

Far more people in the English-speaking world are familiar with the Isle of Skye than will ever contemplate visiting Scotland’s west coast. This is because Charles Edward Lewis John Philip Casimir Sylvester Maria Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, fled by rowboat to Skye in 1746 disguised as a lady’s maid to elude the pursuing English army. The melodic and entirely misleading Skye Boat Song put this event and the island on the world map:

Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward, the sailors cry
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye.

So goes the chorus of the song that topped the British Victorian hit parade, written 138 years later in 1884 to commemorate what was a disastrous misjudgment with long-lasting historic implications for the Scottish clans who supported this vain young dilettante. Our Stuart crown prince set foot in his homeland for the first and only time at age 25 and within a year fled back to the European continent to live a privileged, careless life for four more decades. Skye was one of Charlie’s stepping stones to freedom.

As the song lyrically declares, it is still possible to arrive on Skye by boat from other islands and the Scottish mainland, though today the boat is usually a ferry. Or, in five minutes, travelers may drive or take a public bus from the mainland across the graceful arch of the 1,600-foot Skye Bridge opened in 1995. That is how my husband, Peter, and I drove over the sea to Skye.

For a week of car exploration and walking some well-marked routes around the island, we chose one base in the north for four days, and another in the south for three days, both researched and booked on the Internet. For budgetary reasons, as well as social ones, we selected B&B accommodation in two local homes (see sidebar).

An abundance of paved roads beckon the curious traveler to the tips of numerous peninsulas that make up this island of 100,000 hardy sheep, scruffy blonde Highland cattle, and 10,000 residents. While the island is only 50 miles long and seven to 25 miles wide, its deeply crenelated coastline of 350 miles is mostly peninsulas, each with a surprisingly distinctive geologic profile, personality, and history.

An Island with Personality

Skye is a powerful keeper of the Gaelic language, with 50 percent of residents, including the children, speaking it at a basic level or better. Road signs, businesses, and menus are bilingual. Almost every house on the island is freshly whitewashed, between one and three hundred years of age, and topped with a black slate roof. Set against the startling green countryside watered by rain year round, isolated farm houses and village clusters stand out for miles distant.

Perpetuating the island’s long farming history, sheep still rule fields and roads; however, it is tourism that pays the bills these days. The present value of a sheep’s entire fleece is so low that farmers lose money sheering or transporting the wool to market. Sadly, luxurious winter fleeces just fall off, chunk by chunk, into the fields leaving the animal looking quite tidily shorn.

Whether exploring by car or regularly scheduled public buses, visitors soon discover that the roads have plenty of rollercoaster vertical curves and horizontal hairpin curves. The vast majority are exactly one lane wide with no possibility of two vehicles squeezing by. This is an aspect of Skye many visitors find quaint, but it can also be a heart-stopper. Every few hundred yards a diamond-shaped sign announces “Passing Space,” marking a courtesy bulge at the roadside to pull off. During hundreds of miles of Skye driving, we never identified the courtesy etiquette of who pulls over first.

Venturing onto the pitch black country roads after dark, especially on a rainy night, is not recommended since many one-laners have sheer drops or deep ditches and all are shoulder-less. Should you misstep day or night, the locals shrug, “Just call the breakdown truck!”

Skye is famous for its dramatic panoramas and geological formations, with many of the best sampled on two feet rather than four wheels. Being moderately fit and in our sixties, we selected a number of challenging walks rather than heart-pounding near-vertical hikes up to 3,000 feet, though both options are certainly available with equal reward.

Depending on the weather and our exploration urge, we took advantage of the extensive grounds and private forests of Dunvegan Castle and Armadale Castle, the most famous showcases of clan history on Skye. On more adventurous days when the weather promised some long views and little wind, we sampled more challenging mountainous walks to Quiraing and the Old Man of Storr or a blustery sea cliff route shared with a curious herd of Highland cattle including several bulls. At $6, our breast-pocket-sized Walks: Isle of Skye by Paul Williams proved invaluable, listing 30 walks of one to 12 miles, all graded for difficulty with detailed route maps and descriptions.

Before our trip, numerous friends chorused that a week was too long on so small an island. In fact, we left regretfully, aware that we could easily have filled another week without repeating a single experience. Skye is one of those out-of-the-way places, easy to get to and hard to leave.

For More Info

Regardless of budget, Skye’s accommodations, eateries, and pubs are small-scale adventures, sharing stunning countryside or sea views and a taste of island culture. For secluded, elegant accommodations and international dining in world-class style, check out The 3 Chimneys at Colbost, www.threechimneys.co.uk, and Ullinish Country Lodge at Struan, www.theisleofskye.co.uk.

In the mid-range, eateries with plenty of local flavor and a sprinkling of antique-decorated rooms are the Stein Inn (oldest on Skye) at Waternish, www.steininn.co.uk, and the Eilean Iarmain at Sleite, www.eileaniarmain.co.uk. Super-fresh seafood rules on most menus, and none does it better than Creelers of Skye, www.skye-seafood-restaurant.co.uk, a small mid-priced restaurant in Broadford where pre-booking is a must.

We stayed at B&Bs which were comfortable and hospitable choices, including lavish Scottish hot breakfasts to carry guests through the better part of a day! See IsleofSkye for more for more information.

Alison Gardner, Senior Travel Editor of Transitions Abroad, is also publisher of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com, a richly illustrated resource for senior travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations worldwide. Readership is 1.6 million. Contact her at Alison@travelwithachallenge.com.

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