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Have you heard of Isle of Skye? This beautifully rugged island off the northwest coast of Scotland is known for it picturesque landscapes, fishing villages and Highland sheep and cows. It’s the largest island in the Inner Hebrides archipelago. The coastline features peninsulas, narrow lochs and craggy cliffs, all radiating out from a mountainous center.
Skye connects to Scotland by way of the Skye Bridge and the Malaig – Armadale Ferry.
Those are the bare facts. There’s so much more to know. Come with me, over the sea, and learn about Isle of Skye and the magic that waits there for you.
Watch Out for Sheep
More sheep than people call Isle of Skye home. Approximately 100,000 sheep roam the island, compared to a population of 10,000 people. Walking, hiking or driving, one must give way occasionally to herds of sheep as they cross a path or road. You can find the shaggy Highland coo wandering about too.
And another well known animal originated here. The Skye Terrier was initially bred as an exterminator on the island in the 16th century. Greyfriars Bobby is the most famous Skye Terrier.
Portree, the capital of Skye, is also the largest town with 2300 inhabitants. Colorful houses line a harbor fringed by high cliffs. The tiny town began life as a fishing village early in the 19th century. Its name, Portree, is Gaelic for “Port on the Slope”.
What’s In a Name
I’m always interested in word origins and the meanings behind names. Skye comes from the Norse words ski meaning “cloud” and ey meaning “island”. The island’s history includes times of Pictish, Celtic and Norse rule.
I like the poetry of the literal name, “cloud island”.
Even earlier inhabits once occupied the island, back in the Middle Jurassic Age. Near Staffin, dinosaur footprints trail along the beach. Visible during low tide, these prints belong to the herbivorous ornithopods. Other footprints belonging to sauropods are located in nearby Brother’s Point.
Recently, however, new footprints connect to the fiercest of dinosaurs, meat eaters! This new series of prints, also discovered at Brother’s Point, belong to bipedal carnivores, smaller, older cousins of the T-Rex.
Stop by the Staffin Dinosaur Museum and then head out to find the tracks.
Oldest Continuously Occupied Castle in the Highlands
Isle of Skye is home to Dunvegan Castle, the only Highland fortress continuously occupied by the same family for 800 years. Located one mile north of the village of Dunvegan, the castle is the seat of Clan MacLeod and home to the Chief.
The castle’s architecture is unique in that it contains the work of at least ten building periods, ranging from the 1200s to the 1850s. In the 1840s and 50s, the 25th Chief completed a restoration to unify the various structures. Under the updates however remains five separate buildings, each with its own character and historical stories.
Skye is a magical place, full of history and stories. One legend says that if you stick your face in the water under Old Sligachan Bridge for seven seconds and let the water dry naturally, eternal beauty is yours.
The story goes that a mighty female warrior on Skye named Scathach fought Ireland’s favorite warrior Cu Chulainn for weeks and weeks. Scathach’s daughter grew tired of the battle. She journeyed to the Sligachan River, eyes filled with tears, and begged for the fighting to stop. The faeries heard her and instructed her to place her face in the water for seven seconds and she’d find her solution.
She did. The daughter prepared a wonderful feast. The smell of the food caused Scathach and Cu Chulainn to stop fighting. As a guest dining in Scathach’s home, Cu Chulain could do no harm to the host, ever. Because of the tears of love that spilled into the river, anyone who places their face in the water receives eternal beauty.
Old Man of Storr
One of Isle of Skye’s most popular hikes takes the adventurer to Old Man of Storr, a magnificent pinnacle of rock in the northern part of the island.
The name comes from another ancient story. The old man of Storr was a giant who lived in Trotternish Ridge, an area in the north. He eventually died and when buried, his thumb and hand protruded from the ground, creating the famous jagged rock formation.
Until recently, Skye contained the largest Gaelic speaking population in Scotland. Through the 1900s, 90% of the residents of Skye spoke Gaelic. Although that percentage is much lower now, efforts to preserve the language are underway.
One of Skye’s most popular destinations is the series of pools and waterfalls in Glenbrittle. Known as the Fairy Pools, these rock pools of clear spring water draw many hikers.
Glenbrittle is a valley through which River Glenbrittle flows. Many tributaries run down from the nearby mountains and into the glen (valley), including a stream of cascading waterfalls that form the Fairy Pools. The adventurous can swim in the pools although a wet suit is recommended. The water is icy cold.
Popular Filming Location
Due to its beautiful landscapes, Skye is a popular filming location. Movies such as MacBeth, Stardust, King Arthur Legend of the Sword, The BFG, Transformers: The Last Knight and Snow White and the Huntsman all shot scenes on Skye.
Bonnie Prince Charlie
The famous Skye Boat Song, which serves as the theme song for Outlander, owes its origins to a young Highland woman. Fiona MacDonald risked her life to aid Bonnie Prince Charlie after he fled in defeat from the 1746 Battle of Culloden.
While hunters searched throughout the Highlands, Jacobite supporters created a plan to smuggle the Prince to Skye. Fiona agreed to help by disguising Prince Charles as an Irish maid and conducting him to Skye. They sailed “over the sea to Skye” with the Prince dressed in a calico gown, quilted petticoats and a headdress to cover his face. The Prince eventually escaped to France.
For her part in the plot, Fiona spent time in the Tower of London. After her release she married and emigrated to North Carolina where she lived for a time before returning to her beloved Skye. She’s buried not far from where she came ashore with the “lad who was born to be king”.
The Northern Lights
Northern Scotland, including Isle of Skye, lies in the same latitude as Stavanger in Norway, meaning the aurora borealis is oft times visible from the island. Late autumn and winter are the best times to experience the amazing displays. Cold, clear nights with limited light pollution and increased solar activity create optimal viewing conditions.
Add Isle of Skye to Your Travel List
I hope this peek at Isle of Skye tickles your curiosity. I visited in 2017 during a family girls’ trip through the UK. We loved the rugged beauty of this island. It feels wild and unspoiled.
You can drive around the island in half a day…and spend months exploring its terrain and learning its stories.
Have you visited Isle of Skye? Would you like to? I look forward to a return visit someday.
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