Having only been to Edinburgh and fleeting visits to Ben Nevis and the Cairngorms many years ago meant that we had limitless Scottish destinations. We were spoilt for choice so why not head to the summer tourist trap of Skye, easily accessible and looking awesome in the trials rider, Danny MacAskill’s “The Ridge” video. Accessible from both Glasgow or Edinburgh airports within 4 hours by car and offering miles of scenic driving en route makes the drive fly by from either city. We had landed in Glasgow and due to the directions taking us through Fort William it was an easy detour to go run up the British Isles highest peak, 4,413′ Ben Nevis; just to get a little exercise in on this travel day. Four hours round trip from pretty much zero elevation at Glen Nevis YHA was not too shabby!
The only downside was that the final couple hour drive to our hostel accommodation in Portree was in the dark causing us to miss out on the epic Scottish countryside.
Eilean Donan Castle just prior to crossing over the Skye Bridge
With the autumn weather being fickle at best on this, the largest of the Inner Hebrides, we had no grand plans. As long as we could drive our way around the island, get in some hiking, snap a bunch of photos, and with a bit of luck; find a gym for Andrea, we were happy – most things were accomplished in our short 5 day visit. Our entire stay was spent in the islands largest town, Portree, and deciding that the Scottish YHA’s are pricey we hit up the Portree Independent Hostel. We booked only 2 nights and ended up staying for 5 so it must have satisfied our meagre needs! The very few other guests helped us in our decision to stay.
Whereas the weather can be downright miserable it keeps the masses away, probably the biggest factor in us heading here in November. We had heard that in the summer months the local police stop tourists on the Skye bridge and actually turn them around if they haven’t got pre-booked accommodation! Apparently it’s an absolute zoo, such an overrun zoo that the hostel we stayed at could sell out 3 times over and parking areas for all the scenic spots spill over in all directions along the narrow lanes. We had no such problems – kitchen access in the hostel was never busy, often we were the only parked car looking out to sea or at a waterfall, the only exception being the almost always busy small lot for the ever popular Old Man of Storr.
Probably our most enjoyable time was spent firstly driving through an area north of Portree known as the Quiraing and the following day enjoying a 5 mile hike along its rugged cliffs and sloping landscape. This and the Storr had the biggest number of tourists but it was still possible to find plenty of solitude. It was easy to see why people flock here as we never had to drive far before the urge to pull over and see what was over a cliff or behind a hill – photographic opportunities abounded. Almost everywhere we went there were foreign plated minibuses full of zombies that had been up since well before dawn in anticipation of a glorious sunrise, usually never materialising! Unless the weather gods were accommodating I’m not sure that heading to Skye for a pre-booked photography trip at this time of year is a wise idea.
The other BIG attraction on Skye has to be the mountains of the Cuillin range, specifically the Black Cuillin and its 11 Munros; mountains in Scotland over 3,000′. Unfortunately they never completely revealed themselves and our couple of jaunts into them saw us in cloud pretty early on – the first occasion saw us have a crack at 3,162′ Sgurr nan Gillean, supposedly Skye’s most famous peak. We attempted this 14km hike early morning in a pretty good wind and had to be done before 1pm (the online guides giving it an 8 hour roundtrip!). Andrea called a halt to her hike as soon as we got to the pretty gnarly scrambling, choosing to hide herself in amongst huge boulders and wait for me to hopefully return. This I did after myself having to turn around in thick cloud whilst searching for a way up the final rocky section – apparently being mere metres away and separated from the summit by a slippery slab of granite that’s sketchy at best in dry conditions. This left a return opportunity, especially now that we’ve added the list of 282 Munro’s to our peak bagging schedule!
The second hike into this seemingly hidden range was purely reconnaissance in search of the infamous ‘In Pinn’, the most technical of the Scottish Munro’s. Making it to just below the final pitch on 3,235′ Sgùrr Dearg is straightforward, the 5.2 mile roundtrip hike taking 2.5 hours. This time I was without my partner in crime and could travel fast through the once again cloud covered rocky terrain – sitting on the final ridge in the cold wind looking up at the Inaccessible Pinnacle was an awesome feeling. The angle I was at made it look like a very short pitch but more technical than what I’d seen online. Today would definitely not be my day!
Between the two hikes we came across 2 other hikers and never got rained on – that’s not bad considering we’re in one of Scotlands wettest places. The Cuillin experience also bought on another addition to the bucket list; to traverse the range hitting all the Munro’s. The whole ridge is around 13kms in length plus a 7km approach/ descent, never descends below 726 metres, and involves 10,000′ of UP. This is going to test Andrea’s risk to exposure big time!
Sligachan bridge on a typical Skye day, Black Cuillins to the right, Red Cuillins to the left
Also on our sightseeing agenda was the conveniently located Old Man of Storr, a quick 10 minute drive from Portree on the road towards Staffin. As is probably guaranteed almost every day of the year the small parking lot was almost full at daybreak. The ‘Old Man’ can be seen many miles before it is reached, perched high on a rocky hill known as The Storr, an entire slew of trails weaving their way across the landscape. Most people choosing to take an out and back trail we combined it with another hike and made a loop of it covering 3.1 miles and 900′ of elevation gain – getting up to the pinnacle is on easy trail but covers some pretty steep ground.
A wet walk down to Neist Point Lighthouse on the most westerly tip of Skye was our final foray before leaving for the mainland – barely viewable in the low cloud we could see that in good conditions the listed building and surrounding dramatic cliffs would make for some excellent hiking. Apparently at sunset this location is a mecca for landscape photography.
One of the biggest problems we found were off-season closures, many of the residents either just staying home or choosing to get away from the miserable weather. Dunvegan Castle was finished for the season, Talisker Distillery visits operated winter hours and pretty much all the cafes we read about had shuttered up a month earlier, the exception being the newly opened Skye Blue Gallery. The islands largest town, Portree, was fully functioning with cafes, bars, restaurants and a couple of super markets …and we did both get to at least go for a swim and sauna at the local Leisure Centre.
Skye is well worth another visit, probably offering better hiking conditions in June or September, unless we really feel up for tagging the Cuillin Traverse in the height of winter! Next time a longer stay would also allow for time to take the ferry over to Lewis & Harris or one of the other Outer Hebridean islands.
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November 4th – November 9th 2018
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