In far northern Scotland, beyond the cities, traffic, and intelligible English, sits an island that seems as if it has been unchanged by time. The water still runs crystal clear, the peat covered landscape is as thick and peaty as ever, the sheep are roaming around as they have been for centuries, the rocky mountain summits are tall and barren, and it always feels as if Mel Gibson is going to peak over the next hill with an army of face painted Scots. The Isle of Skye is as magical a place as the name suggests.
About 10,000 people live on this 639 square mile island. I'll do the math for you. That's about 15 people per square mile. There are a couple main towns, but the majority of the island is beautiful open landscape made up of hills, mountains, pools, and rocks. With its many peninsulas and lack of trees, the views are vast and breathtaking no matter the direction you look on this island. Either you are peering across a deceptively innocent looking bay at another part of the island in the distance, you are looking across the rolling hills with nothing to block your view of peat stretching across the island all the way to the Cuillin Mountains at the southern end, or you are staring out over the coast at the unending northern ocean which does not look innocent by any means.
Selfy and I began our Scottish road trip after a hearty English breakfast and some fresh apple juice. We signed the guest registry and made our way north. We were on the motorway all the way to Glasgow, then things got more interesting. North of Glasgow you hit The Highlands. The motorway peters out to a good old fashion country road. The Burger Kings and petrol stations are fewer and farther between. The trees get smaller. The hills and castles get bigger. Big enough to require a few unscheduled stops on the side of the road just to admire the scene. And maybe to pee too. We made it all the way to Fort Williams before we stopped for our first Scottish fish and chips. That requires some self discipline let me assure you.
Finally we made our way over a long beautiful, bridge between the mainland and the Isle of Skye. We drove around the north side of the Cuillin Range and up to Portree, the largest town on the island. There were several pubs, a grocery store, and one semi-cheap hostel. This is the most any traveler can ask for. As we tried to figure out our hiking plans for the next couple days the hostel keeper explained the bus routes, recommended value accommodation around the island, and pointed us in the direction of the best haggis in town. We were not disappointed in any of those things, including the minced meat of sheep's heart, liver, and lungs that is haggis. Served with some boiled "neeps and tatties" and a tall Scottish ale, it wasn't half bad. Especially with the fire keeping the place warm while it got colder and wetter outside.
When the plan included hiking Scotland in October, I knew battling the weather would be a worthy challenge. Cold, wind, rain. I was ready for it all. Understanding that you can not control the weather and accepting it for what it is makes your time outdoors so much more enjoyable. Complaining about weather is even less useful than a penny. Seriously why don't we get rid of those things already. It is quite a nice surprise when all your preparation turns out to be unnecessary though. For 80% of our time in Scotland, the weather was perfect. Sunny, clear, cool, with a good breeze. By any standard Scottish measure, 80% good weather in October is near miracle status. As Selfy put it, "If someone told me I needed to pack sunglasses for this trip to Scotland, I would have told them they were mental." Or something like that.
Our first full day on Skye we did a little warm up hiking. We drove around to some of the best spots on the island checking out the waterfalls falling directly into the ocean, the massive rocks pointing straight up to the sky, the old rock walls scattered around, and the trails leading in all directions. We planned for our grand hike the next day by scouting out a good start and end point and looking at the bus routes to see if our plans were even possible. Turns out they were - if we were willing to sleep in the car at one of the bus stops in order to catch the bus to take us to the northern point of the island to start our hike before dawn. And as it turns out we were.
So our plan was to hike about twenty miles of the Trotternish Ridge from the Quiraing to the Old Man of Storr. As you know, plans always work out. We woke up in the dark, foggy, cold inside of the Volkswagen Up. To my semi-surprise, I saw the headlights of the bus winding up the sea side road towards us right on time. We were the only ones on the bus when we boarded. The nice bus driver lady asked us where we needed to go and took us right to the spot. We had a couple miles of road walking up to the ridge ahead of us as the sun rose over various parts of Scotland behind us. We reached the ridge in time to have a seat, eat some breakfast, and watch the sun peak over the horizon and light up the sky with colors to signal the start of a really good day.
The previous day we ran into a couple of guys all suited up for a long hike. They had just set off to thru hike the Skye Trail which runs the length of the island and is relatively unmarked. We thought we would catch them for sure on our hike. We even packed donuts and sodas to spread some trail magic. Unfortunately for them, we never saw each other. Maybe we passed them as they were taking a break somewhere, and then maybe they passed us while we were taking a break to eat the donuts and soda we brought for them.
The ridge we hiked was beautiful. We were up high on the peat covered cliffs with a steep drop to our left that leveled out then fell below the sea. There were more sheep than hikers to be seen, and the trail was not worn. This did cause a bit of confusion sometimes, but it was well worth it, like when we were having such a good time that we overshot our destination by at least a mile. Eventually, we realized we had gone too far. We also realized that even though the peat looks firm, sometimes you might try to step on it and fall straight through to a puddle of water. And then we realized that our only way back to the car was up and down the tallest mountain of the day. Realizations everywhere.
After a solid twenty mile day we treated ourselves to a nice stay at the Cowshed, a really great hostel on the other side of the island in the town of Uig. There were beds and showers and tables and couches. Just glamorous. The next day we kept the glamour coming with a brunch of Scottish oysters fresh out of the bay. We washed down our oysters with some sampling at Talisker Distillery where they make Scotch. Real Scotch. Then we were off for another snack at The Wee Tea Room - the most remote tea room imaginable. But the baked goods, coffee, hot chocolate, original photography, and hospitality of the couple who ran the little place were all fantastic. The last stop on our touristy tour of treating ourselves was the Fairy Pools. This was a beautiful spot at the base of the Cuillin Range where clear water trickled down the mountains above and made its way across a vast meadow forming pristine pools in the streams which ultimately led to the nearby sea. Unlike the Trotternish Ridge hike, this spot merely required a vehicle and a walk of a few hundred yards, so needless to say there were more "hikers" than sheep this time.
While at the Fairy Pools, the peaks of the Cuillin Range were staring down at Selfy and I, challenging us. So obviously we had to show them who the sheriff was. On our last morning on the Isle of Skye we set off on our final adventure. We saw a mountain, and we climbed it. There was no trail. There was no map. There was only a peak that we looked up at from below that seemed like it could be conquered. After several false summits and some fun rock climbing, we stood at the top of that mountain. At the top of the Isle of Skye. We looked around, had a snack, and headed back down.