Isle of Skye
Skye has long been a mecca for hardy hillwalkers and climbers attracted by the alpine peaks of the Cuillin, the most challenging mountains in Britain. However, the dramatic coastline of the island – also often claimed to be the country’s finest – is scarcely less impressive and Skye has scores of varied walks at all levels. This guide contains 40 moderate routes covering all parts of Skye together with the neighbouring island of Raasay. They are intended to give a taste of every aspect of this celebrated landscape and to seek out some of the less visited gems as well as the popular highlights.Skye is the second largest of the Hebrides and its size often takes visitors by surprise. It covers over 1600 square kilometres and even this figure is misleading due to the island’s complex shape, divided into many peninsulas which can make touring the island a major undertaking. This shape gives the island its Gaelic name of An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, meaning the winged isle. The routes in the book are divided into five areas, each of which is introduced by a summary giving a flavour of its characteristics and a map to locate the starts of the walks.
Although the routes are termed moderate, much of Skye is a very wild landscape and few of the walks are on waymarked footpaths. Most can be wet underfoot, so good boots are needed.
The sketch map accompanying each route is intended to help plan the outing rather than as a navigational aid; the relevant OS or Harvey map should always be taken.
Whilst Skye benefits from the warming effects of the Gulf Stream and is mild in winter, the Stream also brings very rapid changes in the weather. Particularly in spring, it is quite possible to get bright sunshine, sleet, strong wind and rain all within an hour. It is, therefore, advisable to pack wind- and water-proof clothing and adequate warm layers to allow the walks to be enjoyed whatever the weather. Many of the routes would be suitable for families with children in good conditions, although care should be taken on the coastal walks as many of the cliffs are very high and unfenced. Loch Cuithir and the Broadford Marble Line could be done pushing an all-terrain buggy and parts of other walks would also be suitable.
Access and dogs
An effort has been made to include walks which can be done by public transport. However, the lack of buses to some remoter areas and the scheduling that mainly fits around the school day does not make this possible on many walks. The book indicates where public transport can be taken. Further information on timetables can be found at tourist information centres and from Traveline Scotland. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act in 2003 gave walkers rights of access over most of Scotland away from residential buildings, but with these rights come responsibilities. Remember that much of Skye is a crofting landscape and sheep and cattle-rearing is a difficult business. Always follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, and particularly keep dogs on leads during the spring and early summer, steering them well away from both sheep and lambs.
Skye and Raasay are wild landscapes and there is a huge amount to uncover here for the keen birdwatcher or wildlife enthusiast. The coasts of Skye and Raasay are particularly good places to spot otters with a thriving population, whilst both grey and common seals are a common sight. Minke whales and other marine mammals are frequently sighted in the summer months from headlands such as Neist Point, Waternish Point and Rubha Hunish.
In recent years the magnificent white-tailed or sea eagle – Britain’s largest bird of prey – has re-established itself across the island. It can be seen almost anywhere, but we would recommend Inver Bay on Raasay for a good chance. Golden eagles, too, have a strong population, particularly around the Cuillin and the Trotternish Ridge. Seabirds such as shags, guillemots and visiting gannets abound around the coastline: Rubha Hunish and An Aird are fabulous places to see breeding razorbills in the spring. Rubha Ardnish overlooking Broadford Bay is very popular with birdwatchers, with a huge range of species being reported.
Skye has a rich and bloody history, and many of the walks take in historical sites, from the remains of Iron Age forts to villages deserted during the Clearances and the industrial archaeology of the diatomite works and marble mines.
The mesolithic site at An Corran is one of the oldest in Scotland, dating to the seventh millennium BC, but the earliest remains obvious to walkers are the Bronze Age chambered cairns which were usually associated with burials – there is a good example on the Dun Ringill route. Iron Age sites are much more plentiful in all parts of the island, with the most impressive structures being the brochs. These were circular towers with passageways and staircases within the twin walls enclosing an open area in the centre. There are two brochs near Glenelg on the mainland adjacent to Skye that are well worth seeking out, but there are many other examples on Skye, the finest being on the Waternish Point route. Equally fascinating from this period are the souterrains – underground passages which may have been used for storage. A wonderfully preserved souterrain can be seen at Kilmuir in Trotternish.
Moving into medieval times, Skye was dominated by two great clans, the MacLeods and the MacDonalds, frequently at war with one another. This period was one of great bloodshed, from the battle at Coire na Creiche by the Fairy Pools to the massacre at Trumpan Church on the Waternish Point walk. This period gave rise to the many ruined castles scattered all over the island, from Hugh’s Castle and Duntulm in Trotternish to Dun Scaith Castle and Knock in Sleat.
The Jacobite uprising led by Prince Charles Edward Stuart was utterly defeated at Culloden near Inverness in 1746 and began a more recent dark time for the islanders. First was the romantic story of the flight of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ through the island, aided by Flora MacDonald, his original escape to Skye from Uist being made famous throughout the world by the Skye Boat Song. Charles spent five days on Skye before his flight took him to the mainland and eventually back to France, but Prince Charlie’s Cave where he spent his last night is visited on one walk.
In the aftermath of Culloden the Highlanders were ruthlessly repressed, with tartan and written Gaelic (even the bible) banned, together with the bearing of arms. The clan system collapsed as the chiefs turned their back on their people and became mere landlords. What followed were the notorious Clearances. People were forced onto the least fertile parts of the land to make way for sheep, their homes burnt down to prevent their return. Many sought a new life across the Atlantic, and songs, dances and placenames from Skye have made their way around the world. Ruined houses dating from the time of the clearances can be seen all over Skye and Raasay, those on the Clearance Villages, Hallaig and Screapadal routes being particularly poignant.
Late in the 19th century the crofters began to fight back, with uprisings such as the Battle of the Braes and the Glendale riots bringing their plight to the attention of the nation. New laws were passed to give crofters security of tenure. Attempts were made to set up new industries on the island, from the diatomite of Loch Cuithir to the Raasay ironstone mines. Although these eventually failed, by the late 20th century the fortunes of the island had turned as the population began to increase once more. Today the island’s economy is more secure and attempts are being made to revive the Gaelic language which had been in severe decline.
Skye has a huge range of places to stay to suit every purse, from luxury hotels to budget hostels and campsites. Even so, the island is very popular, particularly in July and August when every bed on the island can be full and it becomes essential to book ahead.