Skye High in Scotland
By Kaleel Sakakeeny
“So where in Scotland are you going?” a British colleague asked over lunch. “Edinburgh? Glasgow?”
“Isle of Skye,” I said.
“Ah, the Scottish Highlands. We always think of Skye as a spiritual place. I really envy you.”
We ordered soup and appetizers and talked of other things.
Weeks later when I made the trip I recalled what he said.
Certainly there was nothing “spiritual” about the flight to London and then to Glasgow, though Glasgow, Scotland’s second largest city, has a vibrant art scene set in a working class environment (see box).
It was only after we boarded First ScotRail’s (www.firstscotrail.com) middle-aged cars at Glasgow’s Queen Street Station that I felt the first intimations of the Highlands as a spiritual precursor to Skye.
It’s a three plus hour trip to Fort William or four to Mallaig, the staging area for the thirty-minute ferry to Skye. In our case, we took the drive from Fort William across the Skye Bridge, because the ferry doesn’t run on winter weekends.
The train slipped through rolling, rugged hills and moors, profoundly beautiful, yet vast and lonely.
This is not a land for the faint hearted, I realized. This is the land Braveheart and his men fought and died for – a land made for heroes, or the place where heroes are made. And I began to “get” William Wallace’s unnerving passion and love for his country.
But if the clash of arms still echoes faintly from the hills and valleys, so do the verses of Scotland’s other favorite son, Rabbie Burns.
I found myself whispering, quietly,….
My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.
Hours later, crossing the Skye Bridge onto the Isle itself, I understood what my British colleague had said.
Though he understated it, “spiritual” is perhaps the best way to describe this noble island with its mystical mists and shrouded mountains.
Skye, impossible to measure because of its deep fjords and lochs, is roughly 50 miles long and about 20 miles wide.
But it seems so much bigger.
Partly it’s the roads.
No more than slender ribbons, they give the illusion of infinity. Winding through the shifting light and shadow, sweeping across uninhibited streams, they seem to stretch the land forever.
In the middle of the heather and sheep covered heaths, there are solitary houses, white ghostly things huddled against the sky and moody wind.
Why do people live here, I wondered.
Though I never had the chance (or nerve) to ask anyone, I gradually understood that the loneliness of Skye and its uncompromising beauty were mesmerizing.
One night, on a dark drive to hear a local band, the Peatbog Faeries, we spontaneously turned the car’s lights off in the middle of the road. The stars were so intense, you’d have thought, as Robert Frost said, “that the inner dome of heaven had opened.”
The stillness of the land was reinforced by the silence of the sheep that dotted the hills by day and lined the roads at night.
In such a place, the mind needs relief, and we were grateful for the randomly scattered small fishing villages and clusters of stucco homes.
Signs in Gaelic led to small, white B and B’s, and stone houses along stone walls lent a sense of stability.
Portree (in Gaelic, Port Righ) is the provincial capital. It’s a terrific little town with many pubs, B and Bs, narrow cobbled streets and small specialty shops.
The Bosville Hotel (see box) sits nicely in the center of the town and probably has the best food and service in Portree.
Nearby, the An Tuireann (Gaelic for “spark”) Arts Center is one of several pocket size but surprisingly classy arts and cultural centers on the island. The sophistication of the textile art, oil colors, film workshops and pottery collection belies the wildness of the island.
I had a cup of coffee in the small, stone and chrome café (must try the Beet Root Cake and All-Butter Tablets by Kathy), and listened as an elderly gentleman read poetry to his wife from a selection of books by local bards. His voice was pleasingly resonant; the Scottish burr challenged my ear.
In the spring and summer, the streams team with salmon and kyakers, and the Cuillin Mountains are favorites for back packers and hikers. Skye is a playground for otters and seals.
The Talisker Distillery is open, its signature full-bodied single malt as memorable as the boat tours of the lochs and coastal scenery.
May’s an especially fine month to visit.
The flowers are just budding (the tourists are not), and the heaths hint of new purple heather.
But in the early winter of this journey the bracken is brown, and only the wind and the sheep keep watch.
When you Go!
• American Airlines, Continental and US Airways have limited direct flights from North America to Scotland, but none from Boston. Best bet is London, then Glasgow and Isle of Sky by ScotRail and ferry. (www.firstscotrail.com).
For ferry schedule and information: www.calmac.co.uk
• Places to Stay
B and B’s dot the island. Most are small and isolated, but have dramatic views.
The Four-Star Bosville Hotel (www.macleodhotels.co.uk/bosville) is ideally situated, and its nineteen rooms are very comfortable and quiet. The staff is helpful and welcoming, and the included breakfasts authentically Scottish with smoked salmon, kippers, eggs, fruit and of course, Scottish porridge.
The adjoining Merchant Bar and award-winning Chandlery Restaurant offer good food and drink in a warm atmosphere. Room rates are seasonal, with summer the high season (55-125 pounds d/o)
For a Five-Star dining treat, The Three Chimneys (www.threechimneys.co.uk) on the isolated North Coast is among the country’s best, and those seeking a very secluded stay, the Stein Inn’s (www.steinininn.co.uk) five rooms on the sea are perfect.
• There are two privately owned car rental companies on Skye: Portree Coachworks and Macraes Garage.
Best to rent a car in Ft. William or Mallaig from one of the major companies. Most cars are manual shift and all driving is on the left.
Note: The UK doss not use the Euro, but ATMs are available in Skye and of course in the cities and airports.
This sprawling, former shipbuilding city on the River Clyde still retains an strong industrial feel. But with more museums and performance centers than one would reasonably expect.
Worth seeing is the Glasgow City Chambers (City Hall) with its eclectic mix of mosaic tiles, Italian marble and Aberdeen Granite.
The thirteen museums are admission free, and they range from Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed buildings to an impressive Gallery of Modern Art.
Lots of pub and Asian restaurants in the city, but Restaurant Rococo (www.rococoglasgow.com) is a “fine dining place” with a great wine list and convenient location in the city’s business district.
Information and Help
www.visitscotland.com is the helpful web site for all aspects of travel in Scotland, and detailed information specific to the Isle of Skye is at www.skye.co.uk/