Scotland’s Romantic Isle of Skye
Scotland’s scenic isle of Skye is an open-air museum of traditional life and history. Visitors climb ruined castles and Iron Age forts, ponder the Highland Clearances (which left behind more sheep than people), cut peat from a bog, and enter a thatched cottage for a trip back in time.
Complete Video Script
Offering some of Scotland's best scenery, the Isle of Skye is understandably popular. Narrow, twisty roads wind around Skye in the shadows of craggy, bald mountains, and the coastline is ruffled with peninsulas and "sea lochs," or saltwater inlets.
Skye, while Scotland's second-biggest island — about a two-hour drive from south to north — has only 13,000 residents. And it's been that way since the Highland Clearances back in the 1800s. That's when wealthy landlords decided sheep were better for their bottom line than people. Landless peasants were driven out, and to this day, the island's population is half what it used to be.
While plenty of tour buses cover Skye, it's a great place to have your own wheels. The island is dotted with scenic roadside attractions.
The Sligachan Bridge offers a classic Skye view, and a good reminder to stop the car and get out. The Cuillin mountains tower high above. And above the bridge looms the cone-shaped Glamaig Hill.
Around here, people really know how to have fun with nature. As a matter of fact, every summer, there's a race, from the bridge to the top of that summit and back. Last year's winner: 44 minutes.
If you know where to look, the island is strewn with the scant remains of past civilizations. Just a short hike from a handy parking lot is Skye's best-preserved Iron Age fort, Dun Beag.
To get the most out of our Isle of Skye road trip, I'm joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Colin Mairs.
Exploring this prehistoric stone tower connects us with Skye's distant past. Judging from these stones, the tower once stood much taller. I love scrambling through ruined castles — and this one is particularly evocative.
Colin: Well, people have been living on the Isle of Skye for thousands of years and this place, if you imagine it, probably had a timber frame inside, three stories high. They would get in here under times of attack. They could gather in here, the community, men, women, children, and their domesticated animals, and we think this was built around about 2,000 years ago.
Skye's best home base is the town of Portree, nestled deep in its protective harbor. Portree, with its narrow streets and humble shops, restaurants, and hotels, is the island's largest town and tourism center. As Skye gets more and more popular, Portree gets jammed with visitors in the summer.
The harborside, once busy with the its historic kelp-gathering and herring-fishing economy, like the rest of the town, is now dedicated to tourism. Fish and chips is a standby for a cheap lunch. Grab a spot and enjoy the view. But be on guard — those seagulls are hungry, too.
Well…the gulls are well fed. And now it's our turn… time for a pub lunch.
We're here in July, and every restaurant in town is busy with tourists — many escaping the heat of southern Europe for the cool of the north. Places that take pride in their food have raised pub grub to new levels: creative dishes, fresh vegetables, and salads. And, anywhere in Britain, I go for the local beer. Here on the island, it's Skye Gold.
The highlight of our Isle of Skye visit is driving around the scenic Trotternish Peninsula.
The coast is lined with jaw-dropping cliffs plunging into the sea. This one's nicknamed "Kilt Rock" because its volcanic lava columns look like pleats in a Scottish kilt.
A steep climb inland leads to a trailhead at the summit of the Trotternish Ridge.
Rick: Man, we're lucky to have a place to park.
Skye is well-discovered these days. But you can still get away from the crowds. Make a point to get out of the car and take a hike.
From here, we enjoy the easy walk across a dramatic escarpment called "the Quiraing." Hikers are richly rewarded, enjoying unforgettable views of the Isle of Skye and the distant mainland.
In addition to the stunning scenery, there's history and heritage in the land. We stopped at a peat bog that tells a story. Until a generation ago, bogs like these — where organic matter is slowly working its way to becoming coal — were harvested to heat homes.
Rick: So this is a peat spade?
Colin: Yeah, so that's just for cutting the peats. And it's a task like chopping firewood. It's a matter of survival, really. Peat was really important for people, historically, on the Isle of Skye. So you would cut the peat from a bog, like this. Then, you'd dry it out, first, put it on the fire, and that lets off a sweet, smoky smell. It's used through the harsh winter, heats the home, provides a fuel source for cooking. It's used widely in the whiskey industry, and I really love the smell of burning peat.
The fine little Skye Museum of Island Life explains how a typical Skye family lived, back in the days when peat was vital to survival.
Rick: So, what is this?
Colin: So, this is a crofting community, and it shows how people used to live in Skye. This was quite typical in the 1800s, and a croft is basically a small-scale farm — so, small-scale subsistence farming. They didn't own the land, but they lived off the land and paid the rent, as well.
Rick: So, this is where the family gathered.
Colin: Yep. This is a typical household setting for 1800s Skye.
Rick: So, the kitchen would've been where the action is.
Colin: Yeah, so they're all around the hearth. You've got the peat burning on the fire and that's burning day and night. People gather around here and they've got things to keep them amused, keep them entertained. They've got a Bible in the Gaelic language because they spoke Gaelic here. They've got musical instruments, and that would give them some entertainment as well. People would get together and have a cèilidh. A cèilidh is a get-together. They have a bit of a gossip, bit of a drink, maybe some whiskey, and then that leads into playing some music, some dancing, and we still use the term cèilidh today.
Rick: So, they'd gather 'round the peat fire. They've got their whiskey. They've got their bagpipe, their fiddle, and their accordion.
Colin: Yeah. What else do you need?
Farm communities like this had to be self-sufficient. A blacksmith made all the tools. And clothing was woven from local wool.
Colin: The people here were self-sufficient to make their own clothes, as well, and they basically could take the wool from their own sheep. They'll spin it into yarn, dye it, and then weave it into tweed on this loom, so the loom was kept very busy.
Rick: I hear the word "tweed" a lot when I'm in Scotland. What is that?
Colin: Yeah. So, tweed is basically a coarse, woolen cloth and very famous, from this part of the world. The most famous, really, comes from the neighboring island of Harris.
Rick: Oh. The Isle of Harris that's just over there?
Colin: Yeah, that's Harris.
The north tip of the Trotternish Peninsula is marked by the crumbling remains of Duntulm Castle. This was the first stronghold on Skye of the influential MacDonald clan. If offers another wind-blown chance to savor how history and nature mix it up here, on the Isle of Skye.