O’er the Sea to Skye

A group of us sit on a wild windswept slope. The clouds engulf us and we huddle in the shadow of the “Old Man of Storr.” But as quickly as it came, the shower disappears and we are left with a vista of green and grey. A double rainbow bridges the line between land and sea.

I visited the Isle of Skye enthused by an image of a wild lonely place inhabited by ruddy sailors and reclusive princes:

“Speed bonnie boat

Like a bird on the wing

Carry me o’er the seas

Carry the lad

That’s born to be king

O’er the Sea to Skye

O’er the Sea to Skye”

While Skye has now long been a well-visited attraction on the backpacker trail, it still attracts not too many armchair tourists, and with a little effort it’s not hard to find a wild lonely slope of your own. A controversial new bridge now spans the strait between Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland and Kyleakin on Skye, and it is no problem to find a bus in Kyle meeting the train from the spectacular West Highland line to take you over the bridge. If, like me, you still long to be carried “O’er the Sea to Skye,” the ferries still run between Mallaig and Armadale (Summer only) and between Glenelg and Kylerhea (April-September).

In Kyleakin I stayed at Skye Backpackers for £10 a night, a clean, comfortable and friendly hostel, with great kitchen facilities. While huddled around an evening fire, the free tea, coffee and hot chocolate were an enjoyed added bonus. There are also many other hostels on Skye, so it is easy to base yourself in one of the many villages around the island.

Once on the island there is lots to see, and you don’t often have to go far to find it. While checking in at Skye Backpackers at 10 in the evening, I was astonished to see most of the staff and guests hurrying outside. Not wanting to lose my gear in the fire, I grabbed my pack and hurried outside to the gathering crowd on the waterfront, but instead of facing a burning hostel, all faces were turned to the sky for the eerie display of cosmic activity that is the Northern Lights. Seeing the lights for the first time is a mind-blowing experience; as you stare upwards and observe the ever-changing bands of milky white light, you wonder what the ancient inhabitants of Skye made of this spectacular phenomenon.

Daylight introduced me to the small village I was staying in. I was delighted by the intriguing little castle that lay in ruins to the south of the village, but determined to make the most of the day, I had planned a hike through the Cuillin Mountains.

Getting around Skye involves a little initiative. If you don’t have a car, there are a few buses that run the length of the island, but they are infrequent and expensive, with limited stops. Cycling is a great way to get around if you can brave the weather and the hills, but hitchhiking is also an option. Locals and other travellers were friendly and as well as rides right to my destinations, I was often given lots of friendly advice and even was invited home for dinner.

For those with the time and proper equipment, a spectacular hike leaks across the island, through the Cuillins with a hikers’ hut en route. It should be noted that the weather in this part of Scotland can be unpredictable. It is advisable to always carry the correct gear, including map, compass, warm clothing and wet-weather gear. Also be aware that the frequent fogs and mists can be very disorienting.

For those with less time or preparation, Skye still offers some amazing attractions. On a day trip with a local guide, a small group of us were treated to a day of stories, legends and fairytales as we explored the island’s East Coast.

We hiked up the flanks of the “Old Man of Storr,” where our guide told us the story of why the old man stood sadly – his freezing in stone a testament to his love for his wife: the “Old Lady of Storr”. She stood, not far away, frozen in her spot on the same mountain.

On the side of the road we stopped to photograph the “hairy coos” – a favourite with all visitors to the Scottish Highlands. We sampled the water from a delightful waterfall whose source was visible in the mountains above.

In the “Fairy Glen”, a hidden valley in the island’s eastern hinterlands, we were given a moment alone to reflect on the possibility of a magical hidden world. It seemed quite possible in this Eden of miniature hills, ferns and toadstools, where the grandeur of Skye’s landscape was recreated in miniature.

Back on the road, we stopped at a lookout; a platform overlooked cliffs jointed to create a pattern that makes this one of Skye’s favourite attractions.

Throughout the day we gained an insight into the island’s history. From stories of giants, to the island’s long resistance against Viking invasions, our guide was a fascinating storyteller and left us feeling an empathy for the island and its inhabitants. I visited Kyleakin Castle the next day and I imagined, through the mist, the back of a tall Viking woman who faced the ocean, controlling the passage of ships to her island.

In the pub that night, locals and backpackers mixed, laughing at the island’s more crazy inhabitants: a brother who lived alone on his own island – refusing access to anyone acquainted with his estranged brother. We nodded at the stupidity and unfairness of the island’s tolled bridge – funds for which will almost never be paid back – and we enjoyed some local beers, brewed from the heather that carpets the island in early autumn.

Skye won’t appeal to those who need to be entertained, but if a land of rolling hills and jagged mountains, lonely slopes and friendly villages appeals to you, take the time to be carries “O’er the Sea to Skye”.

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