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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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.
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.
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Disclaimer: During my time in Scotland, I had the support of VisitScotland.com. 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.
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.
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!
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.
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! :)”
Isle of Skye Travel Tip:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- The Bosville, Portree
- The Quayside, Portree
- The Royal, Portree
- The Portree Hotel
- The Caledonian, 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.
- Broadford Hotel, Broadford
- Sligachan Hotel, Sligachan Village
- Toravaig House Hotel, Sleat
- Oran Na Mara, Dunhalin
- The Lodge, Staffin
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.
- Hotels.Com Accommodations on the Isle of Skye
- Booking.com Accommodations on the Island of Skye
- Trip Advisor Accommodations on the Isle of Sky
If you can’t find a hotel, you can also try posting in this group for Skye accommodations.
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:
- Water resistant pants
- Waterproof jacket
- A thick sweatshirt to layer under a jacket
- Lightweight, water-resistant hiking sneakers
- Non-Cotton base layer (1 for each day)
- A Quality Hiking Bag– Needed for fairy pools. Old Man of Storr and Glencoe
- A Water Bottle
- A light hat and gloves
- Water resistant hiking (non-cotton) socks (1 for each day and keep an extra pair in your hiking bag)
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.
Thanks again for reading, and see you on the road!
Viktoria aka Traveltipster