The Isle of Skye
Part 1: Getting There
" I see the noble island in its stormy showers
and the breaking of mist
creeping over desolate summits."
From "The Cuillins" by Sorley Maclean
When you are planning a relaxing getaway and are in search of sun, sea and sand, then you might fly off to an island in the Mediterranean If you just need to escape for a few days - and appreciate Scottish castles, scenery and seafood - then head for the Isle of Skye. The name comes from the Norse word for cloud, Skuy, and yes, it can at times be overcast, grey and wet. But the saying goes, if you don`t like the weather on Skye, wait five minutes. The rain clouds will pass over, the mist will clear to offer superb and dramatic views of mountain peaks, forests and seascapes.
Despite the fact that there is now a Bridge linking Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland with Kyleakin on the northern tip of the Sleat peninsula, in every other respect Skye retains that distinct, individual and above all peaceful atmosphere of island life and culture. And the most perfect way to arrive is on the 20 minute ferry crossing from Mallaig. I would also personally recommend leaving the car at home and travel up the Scotrail West Highland railway line from Glasgow via Crianlarich and Fort William. Sit back and relax. This must be one of the most spectacular railway journeys in the world.
At 0812 precisely the packed train, [make sure you reserve a seat], set off from Queen Street Station, skirting the Firth of Clyde to Helensburgh, and on up Loch Long and Loch Lomond where the Highland scenery takes over from the gentler lowlands. Through straths and glens, across barren moorland, stopping at village stations, over curving viaducts, hugging lochs and riverside, five and a half hours later we arrive in Mallaig. The Caledonian McBrayne ferry terminal is five minutes walk around the corner, the two timetables neatly corresponding for arriving rail passengers. Interestingly 2001 in fact is the centenary of the Fort William to Mallaig line, following the opening of the Glasgow to Fort William route in 1894.
Skye offers something for everyone and you can be as leisurely or as energetic as you wish. You can hire a car - meeting you off the ferry - or travel around by local bus. The largest of the Hebridean islands, at 50 miles long and between 7 and 25 miles wide, the beauty of Skye lies in the diversity of its lobster-shaped terrain, [from a bird`s eye view] with its jagged inlets and broad pincer-like peninsulas.
Up the east coast in a sheltered cove is the pretty fishing port of Portree, with its row of pink, white, and yellow-painted cottages built around a natural harbour. As the island`s capital, with bus station, shops and restaurants, this makes the perfect base for touring the island. Start at the Aros Experience with an audio visual show and exhibitions on the island`s history and Gaelic culture, traditional live music performances, crafts, books, and a lively café. Portree has a range of accommodation from the Backpackers hostel, B & Bs to the comfortable 4 star Cuillin Hills hotel, with wonderful views of the hills across the bay.
The Cuillins. Picture courtesy of buyimage.co.uk
"To me the glory of all birds
is the golden glimmer of the Skye bird"
With its open landscape of wilderness, craggy mountain ranges, forests, and sea lochs, walking, hill climbing and observing the wildlife are just some of the key reasons for coming here. In the south the sandy seaweed-strewn shoreline and the green fertile hills of Sleat, known as " the garden of Skye", offers a range of walks amidst the purest, freshest air. Set off along the Kinloch woodland walk leading to the fascinating ruins of the ancient crofting village at Leitir Fura. This is a superb nature trail with ash, birch, hazel and rowan trees, mountain streams, a carpet of fern and mosses and in the spring and summer, beautiful primroses and bluebells. In the quiet sanctuary of the woods, you `ll hear the birdsong of warblers, tits and flycatchers. You may also be fortunate as we were to observe a golden eagle diving low over the path in front of us and then swooping high over the tall pine trees.
For a tougher and exhilerating climb head 6 miles north of Portree for the Trotternish ridge, where you`ll catch the first glimpse of the dramatic black finger of rock, The Old Man of Storr, pointing 165 foot up into the sky. The track through woodland begins gently but then be prepared for a steep clamber to the base of the giant rock from where you can enjoy fabulous views across to the neighbouring island of Raasay. We experienced warm sunshine as well as a howling gale and a snow storm at the top, so be prepared, wear suitable boots and waterproof clothing in order to enjoy the 3 mile climb - about an hour and a half, for the round trip. In the heart and wildest part of the island lie the famous Cuillin Hills, offering magnficent scenery as well as challenging mountaineering but only for the very experienced.
With hills, moorland, and a coastline of undulating inlets, sheer cliffs and rocks, the island is the natural habitat for red deer, buzzards, ravens, seabirds and otters. Skye was the home after all of Gavin Maxwell and the inspiration of his story, Ring of Bright Water; his whitewashed cottage can be seen on its own tiny island directly beneath the Skye Bridge, with a Maxwell museum in nearby Kyleakin. The best way to experience the wild, unspoilt coastline is to take a boat trip, a scenic cruise, to spot seals and sea eagles, cormorants and the black guillemot. Watch gannets diving for fish off the rocks or herons and waders paddling along the shore.
A recommended boat trip is the Bella Jane departing daily from Elgol on the south west coast, and going up Loch Coruisk where you may spot schools of seals and porpoises en route. Romanticised by Walter Scott and painted by Turner this glacial sea loch is just a few hundred feet wide, dominated on each side by the Black Cuillin mountains towering above.
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