Incredible Things To Do On the Isle of Skye and Scotland Travel Tips

It would be hard to truly understand the country of Scotland without exploring the highlands. The land, in its spare beauty, sets the perfect backdrop for rich Scottish history, its myths, and legends. I recently traveled to the Isle of Skye in the highlands and had the privilege of exploring here for a few days. Skye Island reminded me of Iceland, the same grandeur but fewer tourists. Travel here means you’ll face some logistical challenges. It is hard to find accommodation on Skye and in this article, I am including a comprehensive resource to help you find all the best places to stay on Skye. Driving one-lane roads can be a challenge too, check out my solution. Finally, we look at all the best things to do on the Isle of Sky – and the best time to visit.

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A (Very) Brief History of Skye

Millions of years ago, two tectonic plates collided to create a land divided into two parts – Scotland. Today, the two parts of Scotland (highlands and the lowlands) are different both culturally and geologically.

The Picts

In the last ice age, Scotland was uninhabited. However, as the ice melted, a southern people called the Picts settled here. Skilled in metalworking and farming, the Picts did not make written recordings about their civilization. Based on artwork, we do know that the Picts specialized in making jewelry and often hunted with falcons and rode on horseback. Written records of Scotland begin with the Roman invasion.

Mountains and a lake, middle of summer, a road on the side of the picture, Scottish highlands.

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Disclaimer: During my time in Scotland, I had the support of Many paid attractions I describe in this article were gifted experiences in partnership with VisitScotland. The opinions are, as always, my own.

The Romans in Skye

The Romans called the land Caledonia. They invaded and conquered Scotland – however, the Romans didn’t stay long. Legend says the Romans decided to leave when they realized that the people of the highlands will never admit defeat, even long after they have lost the battle. The sparse, beautiful and inhospitable land would simply not be worth the constant battle to keep it, according to the empire.

Scotland Travel Tip:

The best way to get around Scotland (and many other European countries) is via the train system. By booking the tickets in advance you can save about 20 to 30% over last minute ticket price. You can also guarantee a window seat for your journey.

The Gaelics in Skye

After the Romans came the Gaelics and the Anglo Saxons. Today, the people who inhabit the highlands are mostly the descendants of the two groups. The Gaelics are a northern group whose predecessors were the Vikings. They originally settled Ireland and spread to the nearby islands including Scotland.

The highalnds in Scotland, a mountain in the background, a running water stream, rocks and low shrubs covered with leaves.  Incredible things to do on the Isle of Skye.
The highlands, as seen on approach to Skye.

Eventually, the Gaelics divided into Clans – the Donalds, the Dougals, the Campbells and many others. Clans often quarreled between each other, fighting over land and resources. But within the clan, relative peace prevailed. Any member of the clan could live anywhere on clan land – it was all property of the members. The lifestyle was primarily agrarian and traditional. And so it continued for close to a thousand years.

The Clearing of Skye

It was not until the 18th century, that the long-established agrarian order began to change. In a British led movement called “the Clearing” generations of residents were suddenly forced from their rural homes into the crowded villages on the island. The land was emptied of people, with the goal of using it for agriculture and to benefit Scotland’s new landowning class. With the collapse of their lifestyle, many people descended into poverty. Brain drain followed as the most ambitious (or perhaps the most desperate) fled for lands of opportunity – including America.

Beach and ocean with small fishing boats, mountains in the background, sun is setting.  Things to do on the Isle of Skye - Portree.
Many islanders left for America from Portree. For most immigrants, these mountains would be the last view of home they would ever see.

Scotland Travel Tip:

If you are visiting the lowlands as well as the highlands, consider exploring Edinburgh. There are so many unique things to do in Edinburgh – it was even the inspiration behind the Harry Poter books!

Driving to the Isle of Skye

In the days of the clans, the highlands were a place strangers didn’t visit. Dangerous, impassable, and violent – that was how many described Skye in the 18th century. Today’s Scotland is very different Visitors are welcome and more come every year. However, modern travel brings with it modern challenges. And getting to the Isle of Skye is a big one.

Driving in Scotland can be difficult. For instance, driving on the left side of the road is a challenge for an American or a European. In addition, the Isle of Sky is notorious for bad roads – including one lane roads that cars share in both directions. The weather can turn quickly and roads wash out in the blink of an eye. Due to all these considerations, I decided to join a tour instead of driving solo. It was a great decision.

A pretty white series of two story homes set close to a dark sand beach.  Water in the foreground, mountains in the background, cloudy skies overhead.  Trees burried amongst the homes. Things to do on the Isle of Skye - Kyleakin village
Kyleakin Village, Isle of Skye

I traveled with Heart of Scotland tours, a high-end company that specializes in small group tours in Scotland. It was my driver, Kevin who made the experience even more extraordinary. Kevin, a prominent member of Clan MacLeod, an amateur historian and a collector of legends kept us entertained on long rides with myths that have been in his family for generations. I found Kevin’s passion for his home contagious – and it made the experience of exploring the Highlands and Skye that much more special. If you are thinking of booking a tour to Skye definitely check out the Heart of Scotland and be sure to ask for Kevin. Don’t forget to tell him “Viktoria says hi! :)”

A woman (me) in a rain jacket and a man (my guide) in traditional Scottish wear pose in front of a red van with the words "heart of scotland tours."  Reflections of the highlands in the windows of the van.
Kevin and I in front of the “wee red bus” on Heart of Scotland tours to the Isle of Skye.

Isle of Skye Travel Tip:

If you have your heart set on driving to Skye, check out major car rental aggregate websites and compare prices to save. Some of my favorites are Travelocity, Skyscanner, and Hotwire.

Isle of Sky Map

Skye is a small island. You can easily base yourself in one town and explore the rest of the Isle during the day. Most group tours stay in Portree, which is Skye’s major town. But if you are looking for off the beaten path, consider instead a stay in one of the medium-sized villages of Dunvegan, Broadford, and Kyleakin. And finally, the most rustic option is one of several dozen small villages dot the Isle. Some are functional little towns, and others just a few homes alongside a road. This downloadable Isle of Skye Map includes all the villages of Sky and all Isle of Sky visitor attractions.

When to Visit the Isle of Skye

In spite of its location in the north, Skye boasts a warm oceanic climate, which makes for mild winters and rainy summers. In the summer, the average weather hovers around 60 F and in the winter around high 30 F. Most tourists visit Skye in the summer. However, no matter when you chose to visit you will probably get at least some rain and lots of mist. Skye’s nickname “The Misty Island” is well deserved. Unfortunately, that means you are not guaranteed to see some of Skye’s most spectacular sites such as the Fairy Pools and The Storr. Still, your chance of seeing these sites is better in the summer.

Island of skye, a view from above with mountains in mist in the background and leafy trees in the foreground. Things to do on the Isle of Skye - the views.
The views from Dunvegan Castle.

Things To Do on the Isle Of Skye

Visit the Fairy Pools – Most Beautiful Places on the Island of Skye

One of the most famous Isle of Sky visitor attractions is the fairy pools. To get here, start at Carbost in West Skye and drive about 10 minutes towards Glenbrittle. Look for a parking lot designated “Forestry Commission” and words “Glumagan Na Sithichean.” Lower on the sign you’ll see the words “Fairy Pools.” After you park, continue on foot the roughly 40-minute hike towards Glenbrittle. The 2k journey can be a tough walk in inclement weather conditions.

Unfortunately, the crystal clear Fairy Pools water becomes muddy after any rain. If you really want a beautiful shot like this you’ll need to wait for a perfect day. As I was on Skye for just a couple of days and it rained the whole time (Misty Isle) I opted not to visit the pools. If you want to make sure you get to visit the pools, consider a longer stay on the Isle. This way you can wait out the weather if you need to.

A crystal clear small waterfall drops into clear water beneath, mountains in the background, a bright and sunny day.  Things to do on the Isle of Skye - Fairy Pools
A small waterfall close to Fairy Pools.

Marvel At Quiraing

Formed by a series of ancient landslides, the Quiraing is a series of picturesque rocky hills located near the villages of Staffin and Uig. Although the hike to the top can be tough in inclement weather, you can drive right up to the location on the hilly road below. From the Trotten ridge, the top of Quiraing, you can see all the way to the water, but if the day is overcast the pictures are still beautiful. For this shot, we drove up and walked just a few minutes up the hill.

Green hills culminate in rocky mountains, an overcast day with misty skies.  Things to do on the Isle of Skye - The Quaring.
The Quaring greeted me with rain and mist.

Meet The Old Man of Storr – Isle of Skye Visitor Attractions

A large pinnacle of rock that can be seen from miles away on a clear day, the Old Man is perhaps the most famous attraction in Skye. The hike to the Old man starts near the village of Portree. To get to the trail head, drive from Portree about 10 minutes towards Staffin. You can’t miss the busy parking lot in the summer, which gets totally full around mid day. If you decide to hike to the Old Man, start early. It takes over an hour to get up and on a clear day, it’s totally worth it. On a rainy day you’ll get a lot of mud and may not have any views at all.

If you don’t want to hike (or don’t have time), you can drive up and get good views of the mountain from below.

The isle of skye old man of storr, a series of sharp rocks that stick out of mountains.  in the background water and sky, in the foreground yellow grass.  Things to do on the Isle of Skye - Storr
Old Man of Storr.

Scotland Travel Tip:

Are you planning to spend a few weeks driving around Scotland? A great way to do so is with an RV. If you are experienced an RV adventure in Scotland can be a great experience.

#1 RV Rental Marketplace

Explore Skye’s Capital Village of Portree

Skye’s version of a metropolis (a few thousand strong) is the busy village and the capital of Portree. Whether you chose to stay in Portree or another location, be sure to come here and explore the beach, the town square, and the restaurants. The pretty, colorful row homes that line the bay are mostly restaurants and shops and this is a good place to stroll before dinner.

The capital dates to the mid 16th century when King James made camp here on his mission to persuade clan chiefs to join his cause. In the 18th century, as people were forced from their ancestral land into the villages, Skye grew poor and crowded. It was from right here, in Portree, that many ships sailed towards America. The conversion of the town into a fishing village in the 19th century helped prevent slow down immigration and began Skye’s economic turnaround.

A row of colorful homes line a beach, mountains in the backcground, trees behind the homes, lake with small fishing vessels in the foreground.
The port of Portree – today those colorful homes are mostly restaurants and shops.

Stroll the Dunvegan Castle and Gardens

The ancestral home of the clan of MacLeod, the Dunvegan Castle is the oldest continuously functioning castle on the island. The beautifully preserved property boasts an expansive series of gardens and a 19th-century interior. The most popular man-made visitor attraction on the island, the Dunvegan Castle is a must visit in Skye.

As is the case with many places in Scotland, the castle is home to quite a few legends. My favorite, as told by my guide Kevin (a member of the MacLeod Clan) is the legend of the fairy flag.

An ancient castle set among green trees, overcast sky in the background, yellow seaweed in the foreground, water in the distance
The magestic view of Dunvegan Castle, the ancient seat of the MacLeod Clan.

When a new chief was born into the clan, many years ago, the fairies presented him with a birthday present. The present was a good one. A special flag, one that the boy could use it three times in battle – and turn any unwinnable battle into victory. But, as with all fairy presents, there was a catch. If the boy ever used the flag for a frivolous purpose, it would lose its power. After he grew older, the boy used the flag twice in battle. And sure enough, certain defeat turned into victory. But before he had a chance to use the flag again, the young Scottish clan chief was visited by an English lord. Eager to impress the lord, the chief unfurled the victorious flag… and the flag lost its power. The chief never won another battle again. Today, you can still see the fairy flag hanging in a prominent spot in the castle. Perhaps it still has a little power left, if one were to use it for a righteous purpose?

Take in the Vista at Kilt Rock Viewpoint

The stunning geological formation of Kilt Rock is a beauty in any weather. On the one side of this lookout point, you’ll find the enormous Kilt Rock, so named because it looks like a pleated kilt. And on the other, the Mealt Waterfall. The wind roars above your head and on a clear day, you can see all the way to the mainland of Scotland from Kilt Rock. Take care at the viewpoint – people have fallen from here, and the place is full of ghosts. Or so they say.

Kilt Rock on the Isle of Skye.  Enormous mountain cliff stretches into the horizon.  On the right endless water and above angry clouds.  In sports, the cliffs are covered with green grass.
Kilt Rock, Isle of Skye, Scotland

Meet Casper at Ruined McDonald Castle – Explore Duntulm Castle

This structure may not look like much today, but it was once a mighty castle and a reason for a great confrontation between two clans – the MacDougal and the McDonald clan. The Duntulum Castle, unoccupied since the 18th century is an off the beaten path attraction to explore – if you can get close. The local people don’t – the word is very powerful ghosts live here. Locals tend to stay away from the ruins.

A green hill with a ruins of an medieval castle in the background, water in the distance, enveloped in haze - Duntulm Castle
The ruins of Duntulm Castle

Learn About the Traditional Lifestyle of the Highlands at Skye Museum of Island Life

The Skye Museum of Island life was established to help preserve the highlands lifestyle for generations to come. In this small museum, you’ll find the old style “black homes.” A black house is a traditional highlands living quarters, a small house with no windows designed to protect the inhabitants in Skye’s fickle weather. Here too you can discover the trades and traditional tools used on Skye for thousands of years.

A small stone shack with a thatched roof, two small wooden boats out front.  Traditional tools on the lawn in front of the boats.
A traditional black house and two fishing boats, as seen in the Museum of Island life on Scotland.

After you are done with the museum, walk up to the old cemetery on a hill. Here, try to find the old grave marker from the middle ages. Historians believe it was stolen from an actual middle ages grave and placed over a more modern one from the 18th century. Still, the marker is authentic and you can make out the protective gear and even some facial features of a man who died long ago.

A grave marker in the shape of a man  wearing a knight's uniform.  The grave marker is laying flat on the ground, surrounded by thick grass.  Newer grave markers surround it.
A medieval grave marker, Isle of Skye

Scotland Travel Tip:

Do you prefer to travel to Scotland in a group and meet new people? Check out organized tours to Scotland by G-Adventures. This company tends to cater to singles and young folks and is known for the social scene as well as exploration.

Animals of the Isle of Skye

Skye is an island that has been inhabited for several thousand years. The people who originally settled here methodically worked to eradicate island forests. The spare look of the island today is mostly due to man-made interference – not nature. As a result of mass forest removal, many predators were eradicated on the island. The idea was to make Skye safer for livestock. But today’s Scotland is a different place, an Isle of Skye is changing too.

A white sheep ram at the camera.  He stands among tall, green and yellow grass and behind him a small white structure.  Dark trees in the background.
Sheep are a popular Skye animal, they are raised for wool and meat.

Predators extinct hundreds of years are being slowly reintroduced on the island. Today you might notice Sea Eagle flying overhead. They hunt small rodents and are the first predator to be added back to the ecosystem. There is talk of lynx being reintroduced in the near future and one day – wolves. It’s been 400 years since the last wolf was seen on the island and a thousand years since the last bear. Man eliminated predators – but now, slowly, it is man who is helping to restore nature on the Isle of Skye.

Perhaps the most famous animal on the island of Skye is the highland cattle – Hairy Coos as the Scottish call them. Bred specifically for Isle of Skye’s rainy and cold climate, the cows spot a thick fur covering. Protected from the climate the Hairy Coos roam the hills all year round. They rarely sleep indoors. Although they produce good quality milk, today’s Hairy Coos are usually bred for the butcher. Hairy Coos meat is lower in cholesterol than to other types of red meat.

A highland cow covered in very long, thick fur with two thick bend horns..  He is staring at the camera, grass surrounds him.
A Hairy Coo – I interrupted his dinner.

Things to do Near Skye Isle

Explore the Authentic Recreation of Eilean Doonan Castle

Although this structure may look ancient, the Eilean Donan Castle is only around one hundred years old. Build on the site of a crumbling old castle, many movies feature Eilean Doonan as its backdrop. The Highlander Move, The World is Not Enough and Elizabeth all featured scenes set here. Unlike older castles (which have all been updated) Eilean Donan boasts a decidedly medieval interior. As you walk through the castle you’ll learn about the lifestyle of the highlands in the middle ages. Here, you can also discover more about the Scottish warriors who used to live on this site. The Doonan Castle is located at the foot of Skye’s entrance.

A medieval looking castle structure, with a stone bridge leading to eat.  Thick grass in front of it with a few small shrubs, and a mountain covered with tall trees behind.  Its a bright and sunny day.
Eliean Doonan Castle – It looks ancient but was rebuild only about a hundred years ago, on a site of castle ruins from the 13th century.

Tour the Isle of Sky Lochs – and Loch Ness in the Highlands

Although not located on the Isle of Skye, many people add a visit to Loch Ness to this journey. The tour I took also made a stop at Loch Ness on our third and final day of the journey.

Even though I am not a big believer in myth and legend, I must admit something strange could be going on in Loch Ness. As we boarded the large boat, I was not prepared to even admit the possibility that a large undiscovered animal could survive in these waters. However, that was before I knew that the fault line, the one that separates two old continents runs directly under the lake. And that the lake itself is as deep as some parts of the ocean – and very dark. And before I saw the infrared images, captured by the very boat I was on. In these images, something, close to the size of a large pleasure yacht appeared deep under water. It moved – and then disappeared, possibly diving further. Perhaps it’s just another Scottish legend – or perhaps it is more. You’ll have to come here to formulate your own opinion.

A large smooth lake in the foreground and hills with trees in the background, cloudy sky hangs over the trees covering some of them in a thick layer of mist.
The Loch Ness covered in Mist. Is there something mysterious under this water?

Hike the Spectacular Glencoe

Also located on the fault line that connects two ancient continents, Glencoe is another place of myth and beauty. Perhaps the most famous story of Glencoe is the massacre that took place here in the 17th century. Here, clan Donald played host to British soldiers engaged in negotiations. Several days came and went without incident, but one night the guests turned on the hosts and slaughtered 38 clan members in their sleep. Countless members of Clan Donald ran into the wild to attempt an escape – and died of exposure. The legend of the slaughter of Glencoe colored the relations between the clans and the English for years – and some say still has an effect to this day.

Today’s Glencoe is mostly owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and this pristine area is a prime hiking and trekking spot. You can take a short walk (from the visitors center) to explore the area. Alternatively, you can set out on a multi-day hiking adventure here. The longer trails are unmarked so this is a good trek for an experienced outdoors person.

Two enormous mountains and a valley between them, a thin stream of river in the valley, thick grass and small trees cover the mountains, a cloudy sky in the background.
The Spectacle of Glencoe.

Isle of Skye Accommodations

Accommodations on the Isle of Sky are notoriously difficult to find. It took me about 3 hours to locate mine – and this included roughly 50 phone calls. Many tour companies will make this arrangement for you, and this is one big reason why people chose to book a tour to Skye instead of traveling solo. Whatever you do – don’t leave booking accommodations to the last minute as I did. Book months in advance if at all possible.

The Best Places to Stay in Skye in Portree

Portree is the Isle’s capital town and offers the most extensive dining and accommodation options. However, you have to be careful when booking hotels in Portree. Often the websites list an incorrect location in the description. Always check the hotel’s location on a map prior to booking. The five best hotels in the center of Portree are:

Colorful, bright homes line a street that runs along the water, a large old fishing boat parked on the beach.   A sliver of sand in the foreground and water in the background.
The town of Portree, a close up of the beach.

The Best Places to Stay in Skye Outside of Portree

These hotels, while beautiful, are located outside the capital town of Portree. These are great options for a self-driving vacation and if you are looking for off the beaten path travel to Skye.

What to do if you can’t find accommodations on the Isle of Skye.

Finding a place to stay on Skye can be made even more complicated because many hotels do not list on multiple booking websites. The hotels often only list on one website – which means you should check all the big websites if you are having trouble. Don’t forget to check the map before you book and don’t rely on the description.

If you can’t find a hotel, you can also try posting in this group for Skye accommodations.

A medium size waterfall that runs over dark rock, large mountains in the background, overcast sky.

Isle of Skye Packing List

People call the Isle of Skye “misty island” for a good reason. It rains a lot, and the weather can be well… misty. A good packing list will help you to stay comfortable no matter what the Scottish Fairies bring. Even if you are not planning on any big hikes, just a few minutes walk in the wrong gear on Skye can be very unpleasant. With oceanic climate its always better to be overprepared than underprepared. And remember the old hiker’s adage – layers are key, and cotton kills. Here is my packing list for Skye:

A narrow hiking trail leading into the distance, thick grass and a few thin leafed trees surround the trail, mountains in the background.  The trail is wet with rain.  Things to do on Isle of Skye - hiking
A trail in Glencoe, the Highlands, Scotland.

Common Isle of Skye Questions:

Can you fly to the Island of Skye?

There are currently no airports on the Isle of Skye. Although there has been talk of adding an airport on Skye, many local residents oppose the idea. In addition, there is an argument to be made in keeping Skye wild. Roads are only one lane, hotels are already booked to the max. For now, it looks like Skye has all the tourism it can handle.

Where to Hike on the Isle of Skye?

The most popular hiking spots on Skye include the Old Man of Storr, the Quaring, and the Fairy Pools. A popular location to hike outside the island of Skye is Glencoe. No matter where you chose to hike prepare yourself with proper equipment as the weather in the Highlands can change quickly.

Is it Possible to do a Day Trip To Isle of Skye from Edinburgh?

It takes roughly a day to get up to Skye – a day trip to Skye is not possible from either Edinburgh or Glencoe. If you would like to visit the island, take a minimum of 3 days. With a longer stay on the island, you have better chances of seeing fairy pools and Storr.

One Last Thing

If you have read this far I’d like to say a huge thank you for taking your time and reading this (rather long but hopefully useful) article. I would like to ask you for a favor – please leave a comment or a question below. These comments tell the search engines that the article is valuable and the algorithm will show it to more people.

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Thanks again for reading, and see you on the road!

Viktoria aka Traveltipster

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33 Responses

  1. Great information- we toured Sky. Rented a car, single track roads were exciting. Hiked Old Mann of Storm, just for exercise…too socked in to see anything. Fairy Pools we’re neat to see, your article is accurate.

  2. Thank you so much for the insightful information. My husband and I are travelling there in September and so looking forward to it! We will surely use some of your suggestions!

    1. thank you so much Marion, I’ve reported this. They are so frustrating my pins get stolen all the time 🙁

  3. Such a beautiful place to go. We went to Scotland once but were lucky enough to have friends there to host it. It made transportation very easy. 🙂

    1. It is beautiful and really not at all crowded. I hope you have the opportunity to visit soon!

  4. your pictures look amazing. i have never been to scotland but i have always wanted to. right now i will just live through these photos.

    1. Its super popular although I think it will get more busy with time too. Hope you have a chance to travel there soon!

  5. OMG, that place is so idyllic. The fairy pools look magical. Thank you for this post. I learned so much about the Isle of Skye, its history, and its natural beauty. Hope I could visit sometime!

  6. I never travel to Scotland yet, thank you for the great tip, details and also sharing us the packing list for Skye! Scotland will be in my travel bucket list.

    1. Thanks Jacy! I am so glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, Skye is amazing – so is all of Scotland. I hope you have a chance to go soon!

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