I’ve often found travelling to places that I’ve always wanted to go a risky business because my imagination, and the real time experience, doesn’t always match up, but my first visit to the magical Isle of Skye in 1983 was the complete opposite – and one of the reasons why the island exceeded my expectations was the wonderful Trotternish Peninsula.
That first journey to Skye involved a 600-mile journey from the West Country in a rusty old Fiat Mirafiore: There were no cheap flights then, and there was no Skye Bridge either – it was ‘Over the Sea to Skye’ by ferry from the Kyle of Lochalsh. The toll-free bridge has made the island far more accessible now, not just for me, but for everyone else too, so it makes sense to come out of season if possible when there are fewer people around and the only difference in the weather is that the rain is a bit colder.
As the picture of Loch Portree above shows, it’s not always raining on Skye, but the weather can be very changeable, which is bad enough if you’re just going for a drive, let alone climbing the ‘Inaccessible Pinnacle’. Driving around Trotternish is a much safer pastime than mountaineering if you ask me, but for those who like to put their North Face jacket on there are still some great walks to be had without putting your life at risk.
If you look at a map, you’ll see that see that you can drive in a complete loop around the peninsula, but the route I’m going to describe here cuts through the dramatic Quiraing (pronounced kweerang) instead of following the A87 south of Uig.
Skye’s capital, Portree, sits at the southern end of Trotternish on the banks of Loch Portree and is the obvious starting point: You have a choice on whether to go clockwise or anti-clockwise, but my preference is to go anti-clockwise which will take us alongside the Sound of Raasay and then around the northern tip of Skye before travelling down the opposite coast to Uig, where we turn inland for the road that will take us through the Quiraing.
Our journey begins by taking the A855 north out of Portree, and it’s not long before we encounter one of the island’s most famous rock features – the isolated pinnacle of the Old Man of Storr. Unfortunately, I’ve never been here when it would have made sense to walk up to the ‘Old Man’, but if it makes sense to you, then you should do because even if rock formations don’t set your pulse racing then the views undoubtedly will.
As we drive on up the coast, even if it’s not raining, there is still plenty of evidence that there’s no shortage of water around here: Firstly, there are the Lealt Falls, and then the even more impressive Mealt Waterfall which has Kilt Rock as a backdrop; The Kilt Rock has vertical basalt columns which, as you’ve probably already guessed, are supposed to resemble a pleated kilt.
There’s a convenient car park here giving good views along the coastline, and a recently improved bit of fencing designed to prevent people taking the 55-metre plunge over the cliffs into the sea like the waterfall. It’s in the form of a metal frame which when the wind is blowing a hoolie (like it was when we here in December 2019), produces a haunting musical accompaniment to the scene. It was a strong wind alright, but not strong enough to stop the waterfall reaching the sea, which apparently does happen occasionally.
Nearby is the Staffin Ecomuseum which will explain the area’s geological features and more, and as you drive through Staffin look for a turning on the right that will take you down to Staffin Harbour where you’ll be rewarded with some intriguing aspects of this part of the island’s past.
To the right of the harbour is Seal Bay from where the ‘Brindled Pass’ leads up towards more basalt cliffs where you can seek out Iron and Stone Age remains, but if you’re not feeling too energetic you might prefer to take a walk along an Corran Beach instead, where if the tide’s out, you may be lucky enough to locate dinosaur footprints that scientists first discovered here in 2002.
Even if, like me, you’re not lucky enough to find these remarkable footprints, it’s still worth the detour for the views alone. Looking back towards Staffin there’s a tantalising glimpse of the Trotternish Ridge which we’ll be coming to later.
Back on the main road, as tempting as it might be, we’re going to drive past the road that leads up to the Quiraing and continue north through Flodigarry towards the northernmost tip of Skye: Although this single track road doesn’t go right to the tip, it should be possible to see the Outer Hebrides, weather permitting of course, from several locations including the remains of Duntulm Castle, but even if you can’t, you know you’re somewhere different when you come across scenes like this one below.
It’s not possible to see everything on a trip like this (or any trip for that matter), but as we approach Kilmuir there are a couple of things that shouldn’t be missed, especially as they’re so close together.
Trotternish is the strongest Gaelic-speaking part of the island, and if you would like to get an idea of what it was like to live here in days gone by then make sure you drop in to the Skye Museum of Island Life, but I should warn you that if you’ve taken my advice and come out of season, then places like this won’t be open.
The same thing, fortunately, doesn’t apply to Flora Macdonald’s grave and Memorial which is just a short stroll up the lane at Kilmuir Cemetery. As most people who come here know, she has gone down in Scottish folklore as the ‘heroine’ who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape after his defeat at Culloden.
After five months evading capture, Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart, to give him his full name, arrived on the Outer Hebridean island of South Uist in June 1746.
You can listen to Bear McCreary’s version of the Skye Boat Song below. This was the original TV soundtrack for Outlander.
South Uist also happened to be the home of 23-year-old Flora Macdonald, who was enlisted to help the ‘Young Pretender’ escape ‘Over the sea to Skye’. The reason that she agreed to cooperate is open to debate; some people think that it was her family connections that persuaded her to help, but others believe that she just liked the look of him! Whatever the reason, with Charles disguised as an Irish servant named Betty Burke, a small boat with Flora, six boatmen and two servants, left the nearby island of Benbecula on 27th June, landing here on the Kilmuir coast at a place now called Prince Charles’s Point.
After hiding overnight in a cottage, they made their way overland to Portree where they parted company, and despite Charles’s promises, they never saw each other again. The prince was able to get a boat over to the island of Raasay where arrangements were made for him to take another boat to France, and he never set foot in Scotland again.
Within no time at all word had got out about Flora’s involvement in the escape and she was arrested and taken to Dunstaffnage Castle near Oban before being taken to the Tower of London.
It wasn’t all great news for Charles and bad news for Flora because she was released within a year and came back to Scotland marrying another Macdonald by the name of Allan. She bore him seven children while Charles had a string of mistresses and no legitimate children – and consequently no heir to his would-be throne.
In 1774 Flora and Allan Macdonald emigrated to North Carolina where they got caught up in the American War of Independence: For supporting the British, their plantation was destroyed, Allan was imprisoned, and Flora went into hiding before returning to Scotland in 1779.
She came back to her roots in South Uist and was joined by her husband when he was released in 1783. They then moved to Flodigarry (where we passed through earlier) and died in a cottage now used by the Flodigarry Hotel on the 4th March 1790. She was laid to rest in Kilmuir Cemetery aged 68.
A 15 minute drive further on down the A855 from the cemetery will bring us to Uig, where a 2 hour ferry crossing will take passengers across the sea to North Uist, but just before reaching the harbour we’re going to take a minor road on the left that will take us across to the Quiraing.
In my opinion, the Quiraing offers some of the most dramatic scenery in Scotland, which is saying something: Geologically speaking, the volcanic basalt which lies over the top of the softer sandstone underneath, has literally created massive landslides that are still moving today. The first time I saw this landscape it took my breath away – and it still does, but I’m not the only one who it does that to, and to really appreciate its stark beauty, it’s best to try and get here while other people are still thinking about it.
When we arrived on a wet and windy day last December, there was hardly anybody here, and the car park was virtually empty; I waited for the rain to go off and as I walked across the muddy terrain the clouds began to lift and the sun made a brief appearance. To see rock features like the ‘Needle’, the ‘Prison’, and the ‘Table’ it’s obviously better to get up close which means slipping on your North Face jacket and walking boots, but even if you don’t have the capacity, willingness or time, it’s still a landscape you won’t forget in a hurry.
As I suspected, the sun didn’t stay out for long and as we drove down towards the main road at Staffin, clouds started to descend along the Trotternish escarpment. I’ve always yearned to spend a day walking amongst this landscape with decent camera gear and decent weather, but I don’t suppose it will ever happen now.
Back on the main road we headed back towards Portree, which can often give some good views of the Cuillins in the distance, but not today. A threatening sky was hovering over the Old Man of Storr, and with short days up here at this time of the year, by the time we reached Portree the lights were already coming on, and we did what any sensible person would do; call it a day and head for the hotel bar before it started raining again.