- Where to Stay: Portree (The Wee House)
- Transportation: Rental car (100% necessary)
- Where to eat: No#2 Down the Lane, Fish & Chips Shop
- What to see/do: Portree waterfall, Dunvegan Castle, Fairy Glen, Fairy Pools, Kilt Rock, Quiraing, Old Man of Storr, Skye Museum of Island Life, Duntulm Castle, Kilvaxter Souterrain
Buckle in, this is going to be a long one! Want to browse through it? Look for the bolded words!
You haven’t seen dramatic landscapes until you’ve been to the Isle of Skye. Not to be cliché, but it’s truly difficult to put this place into words. Isle of Skye features some of the most breathtaking landscapes and dramatic rock formations I’ve ever seen as well as stunning green glens, lochs, wildlife and waterfalls literally every where you look.
NOTE: Prepare for cold weather, rain and high winds on Isle of Skye. I recommend lots of layers and wind breaker materials and be prepared for lots of hiking, so that means waterproof shoes!!
Coming from Inverness into the Isle of Skye on A82, we drove the length of Loch Ness, stopping to tour Urquhart Castle and Eilean Donan Castle along the way; two of Scotland’s most iconic, picturesque castles.
Urquhart Castle is positioned just along the banks of Loch Ness about 21-kilometers from Inverness. It’s strategic positioning and defensive design made for a nearly impregnable fortress in it’s hay-day. There is mention of use of the location as far back as 580AD from St. Colomba and the site has experienced a colorful history and passed back and forth between Scottish and English hands during the Wars of Independence. Urquhart is another ruin so you’re able to clamber freely around the complex (although there’re signs everywhere saying to stay off the lawn in front of the castle). We got lucky with the weather and experienced some striking blue skies as we wondered around. The castle defenses were destroyed during the Jacobite uprising to prevent it from being used by the English, but you can get a great idea of the strength of the fortress as well as the overall footprint of the space.
There was a man there giving a demonstration of swords and other weapons used by the Scots and how movies have skewed the image of what battle would have really been like in earlier times. He made sure to elaborate on how tough the Scots were. It was extremely entertaining and very informative (especially when he brought up good ol’ Mel Gibson and his legendary role as William Wallace). Not to mention it was fun to hold and swing around an authentic Scottish broadsword.
After exploring the grounds and snapping some pictures we grabbed some coffees from the gift shop before finding a spot to eat our typical packed lunch: sandwiches, salt & Chardonnay vinegar chips (best chips ever), and maybe a BrewDog IPA 😉
From Urquhart we hopped back in the car and continued along A82 towards our next stop, Eilean Donan Castle.
Considered one of Scotland’s most picturesque castles, Eilean Donan is built upon a tidal island where three lochs meet: Loch Duich, Loch Long, and Loch Alsh. Another highly fortified castle, it’s withstood the tests of time, and stands proud and in impeccable condition to this day. Eilean Donan was the stronghold of Clan Mackenzie but also has a long and vibrant history that dates back to as early as the 6th century. You may also recognize this castle from one of the recent James Bond films. The location of the castle is pristine and otters and other wildlife can often be seen swimming along the seaweed in the crystal clear water that surrounds the castle.
There are tales of many Lady Mackenzie’s becoming frustrated with their husbands and tossing their wedding rings into the well of the castle. There are many secret passages and doorways within the castle that create a rather mysterious experience as you explore the various rooms of the castle (look for the laird’s lug and peep holes strategically placed within the the main hall).
It took us nearly two and a half hours to make our way through the castle and we were hungry again by the time we had wrapped up so we grabbed some warm ham and cheese baguettes from the gift shop and found a bench along the bank of the loch to snack before getting back in the car for the final stretch of the drive into Portree.
The route we took into Isle of Skye took us over the Skye bridge and we again lucked out with some gorgeous blue skies and absolutely incredible views of the surrounding landscapes which, I have to say, are some of the most stunning I’ve ever seen. No questions asked.
Once you’re actually on Isle of Skye, it takes another 25 min or so to get to Portree, a small village on the western side of the Isle; our base for this portion of our trip. We stayed in another AirBnB called The Wee House, which was in the most incredible location, just a couple blocks from the heart of Portree. We arrived in town around 8p so the sun was just beginning to set, which allowed us plenty of light to go out and explore a little bit and let me just tell you, Portree is the cutest wee town and I absolutely fell in love with it.
Our first stop was the co-op right in the center of town to stock up our fridge with grab-and-go items (and beer) as we knew we were going to be moving around a lot on the Isle. We dropped the groceries off at the airbnb and made our way back out to grab a beer at The Isles Inn, which was surprisingly packed with people trying to get out of the drizzle that was coming down. After drinking our beers we walked around Somerled Square, checking out the various shops and restaurants. We ended up finding this restaurant called No#2 Down the Lane, which was very busy so we knew it had to be good. We put our names down for a table and grabbed a seat at the bar for a drink. We noticed nearly every table had ordered their signature mussels dish so once we were seated at our table it was the first thing we ordered. GOOD GOD, THEY WERE DELICIOUS! The most plumb, flavorful mussels I’ve ever had in my life and that was just our appetizer! We also ordered the Scottish salmon dish and the deconstructed pot pie and both were out of this world tasty. You cannot miss this place if you’re in Portree, but be prepared to wait a bit for a table as it’s a very small place (15 tables or so).
The next morning it was raining pretty heavily so we decided to hold off on hiking and instead went to check out Dunvegan Castle, home of Clan MacLeod. The castle is positioned on a rocky alcove on the Eastern side of the Isle of Skye. The 42,000 sqft estate is complete with an impressive castle, stunning gardens, campsites, hunting grounds, and wildlife excursions. Unfortunately for us, it was the coldest, wettest day of our trip and we weren’t up to trying to brave the weather for the gardens and grounds so we spent some time touring the castle and enjoyed a coffee in the gift shop to warm up. It took us about two hours to meander through the castle and what little of the grounds that we did see and then we were back in the car and driving back Northeast on A850 to intersect with A87 to drive around the northern most route of the Isle. Along the Northwestern side of Skye you’ll hit the Skye Museum of Island Life, Kilvaxter Souterrain and Duntulm Castle.
All of the aforementioned don’t take much time to see so they can, and should, be added to your itinerary if you find yourself along this route.
First stop you’ll hit driving North is the Skye Museum of Island Life, it’s a glimpse into the past of a highland village from 100+ years ago, complete with thatched roofs and artifacts of the era. The homes are typical of what you would have found on the island at the time and huddled closely together and always near a fresh water source. It’s an interesting little stop a long the way and a great photo-op.
What is the Kilvaxter souterrain, you might be asking? Well it’s an Iron Age farmstead and underground dwelling (although the later is still up for debate as to the true use of the underground structures). Some researchers suggest they were used for storing supplies over the long winters that the locals would perish without come spring. The gate to the souterrain was unlocked when we were there and there wasn’t a soul in sight so we could have easily crawled through the tunnels to explore inside but it was very dark, very muddy, and very claustrophobic so I didn’t get more than a couple feet in past the entrance before screaming at my boyfriend to back up and let me out!
Duntulm Castle, or the ruins of it at least, is positioned on the northern coast of Trotternish Peninsula and was once the seat of the Clan MacDonald of Sleat. The castle was built during the 14th/15th centuries but was subject to feuds between Clan MacDonald and Clan MacLeod. Legend has it that the castle was abandoned after the son of the chief MacDonald, at the time, fell from a tower window and perished on the rocks below. It’s said the boys nursemaid was set adrift in a small raft on the raging waters as punishment for the boys death. SIDE NOTE: I have NEVER been in as strong of wind as I was at Duntulm Castle. It was easily 50mph winds and it nearly burst my eardrums from the wind ripping through my hood. Again, lots of layers and ear muffs, even during summer.
Following this route along the Northern point of Skye and back down around the Eastern side towards Portree, you’ll pass by the Kilt Rock View Point. This is another iconic Scottish landmark and is a waterfall that plummets off the side of the cliff into the sea below. When the wind is strong, it appears that the waterfall isn’t falling at all and the water is pushed backwards over the cliff.
The next morning we awoke early and, luckily, the weather was on our side. We bundled up, threw on some sneakers and hopped back in the car to head towards Old Man of Storr and Quiraing. To get there, you’ll head north on A855 away from Portree towards Staffin. You’ll be able to see the formations of Old Man of Storr and parking areas along the west side of the road. This hike can be a bit intense and there were a ton of people when we went so just be prepared for that. The top was so heavily clouded by fog that pictures weren’t even turning out and we weren’t able to see the surrounding area from the top, unfortunately, so we didn’t hang around the peak long.
Once back in the car, we continued North on A855 towards Staffin and took the small road connecting Staffin to Uig to get to Quiraing. Let me just preface this by saying that this drive is INTENSE with very narrow roads, winding switchbacks, and wildlife running across the road. This route also becomes impassable during strong weather so it’s CRUCIAL that you go on a clear day or with a 4-wheel drive car. Aside from that it was one of the most stunning drives we took during our time on Isle of Skye.
The cloud cover broke up a bit as the day progressed and when we had finally parked along the road to hike Quiraing, we had some moments of stunning blue skies and nothing but rolling green everywhere we looked. The hike itself is mild and accessible for nearly all ages although letting others pass on the narrow path can be a bit tricky at times. There are two notable rock formations: The Prison and The Needle. The prison is a pyramidal shaped formation that, when viewed from the right angle, looks like a medieval keep. The Needle is a jagged 120ft high point that is a remnant of land-slipping. The change in terrain on this hike is interesting as you climb and we it was as if we went from the Shire to Mordor along the short hike. (Yes, that’s a Lord of the Rings reference). The terrain changes from grassy slopes to a rocky quarry when you reach “the bowl”. There was a man made shelter at the top, although no clue of how long it had been there or who made it. The hike continued further than we went and you have to hop over a break in a barbed wire fence to continue along the path so we decided to stop our hike there and return back to the car to go check out the Fairy Glen and Fairy Pools.
The Glen and the Pools are in different areas, and can be a little difficult to find on the map but definitely worth the excursion to see them. The Fairy Glen is just outside of Uig and is a Quiraing-like landslip that creates for some interesting rock formations. One of the hills still has it’s basalt top intact which looks like ruins from afar, giving it its nickname, Castle Ewan (can be seen on the right side of the photos below). In recent years, visitors have been moving the rocks to create spiral formations and small stone labyrinths to add to the mystique of the place. PLEASE DON’T DO THIS or leave anything behind (such as coins or trinkets). The influx of tourists is damaging the natural state of the locations and we (meaning everyone) want to keep Scotland and Isle of Skye untouched and beautiful.
The Fairy Pools are near an area called Glen Brittle and you’ll have to take small, off-the-beaten-path roads to get there from Uig and some of the roads were nothing more than gravel trails, so again, make sure the weather will support the drive or have a vehicle that you’re not going to get stuck in. The pools have a designated parking lot which makes it accessible and easy to find. From the car park, it takes about forty five min to an hour to hike back into the hills before you begin seeing the largest of the pools. It’s not a difficult hike by any means, but was muddy and slippery when we went as it had poured shortly before we arrived. The pools themselves are beautiful and the water is turquoise blue when the sun hits it. The water has eroded out the terrain where it flows making for some fascinating formations and photo ops. NOTE: there were small gnats flying around everywhere making it difficult to even breath. I had to wrap my scarf around my face to keep myself from inhaling them. After snapping some photos of the pools we were pretty wet and cold from hiking around so we made our way back to the car and headed back to Portree to grab some fish and chips along the harbor and taking our last stroll through Portree before turning in for our last evening there.
The fish and chips from the shop along the Portree harbor were some of the best we had during our trip and they’re served wrapped in a brown paper parchment that locks in all the delicious aroma and flavor! We found a small alcove that was shielded from the drizzle and devoured our fish and chips while sipping on some Tennent’s beers. After eating we had just enough time for one last stroll through Portree before sunset and we stumbled upon what we’re calling “the Portree Waterfall”. The waterfall is just a short, 5-10 minute walk outside of Portree and if fairies existed, they’d live here. It was such a magical little find.
There was so much more we could have seen and done on Isle of Skye but sadly our time had come to and end on Skye and we were packing up the next day, saying goodbye to our Wee House in Portree, to make our way to our final base: Stirling!
Wow, this is an excellent post. I’ve not made it to Scotland yet, but feel like I’ve been there after reading your article. I LOVE old castles and these are so amazing. You are brave – I wouldn’t have set foot inside that underground tunnel thing.
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It’s become my favorite place in the world! It’s so rich with history and culture and the castles are simply amazing! The tunnel was definitely a little claustrophobic but we were the only people walking around the entire castle at the time so it was doable! You’ve got to go Scotland!
Thanks for reading! 🙂