The most popular destinations on Scotland’s Isle of Skye appear to be suffering from too much of a good thing. Holiday bookings were up 44 percent in the first half of 2016, according to Cottages & Castles. And with no indication that the trend is reversing (or even slowing), residents are calling for a long-term tourism strategy and improved infrastructure to protect the island’s natural beauty.
As visitor numbers soar, iconic attractions like Fairy Glen (above), Storr, Neist Point, and the Quiraing (below) are suffering from increased erosion, danger and damage from insufficient parking, and a lack of public toilets. The latter has led to…well, let’s just say some unpleasant discoveries for the locals in Uig and elsewhere.
There are some indications that improvements may be on their way for some of the island’s more popular destinations. But whether the requisite upgrades come from government, fundraising, or elsewhere, they're going to take time. And as tourist numbers continue to rise, Skye’s most-visited attractions might not be able to weather the wait as well as they've weathered Scotland's wind and rain.
How can you help, whether you’re planning your first visit or, like me, you’ve ventured to the mystical misty isle a number of times? If you want to be sure it’s just as beautiful, and maybe a bit lest congested the next time you make it back, you could donate to the Fairy Pools Community Fund if you've got a few pounds to spare.
But over the long run, the best solution is to get more people off the beaten, crowded paths that lead to places like Stor and Fairy Glen, and out exploring some of the island’s lesser-known, but still magnificent destinations and attractions.
I’ll point you to ten of my favorites below, as well as a few I haven't made it to yet. But I’d love to hear some of your personal hidden gems on Skye, so I can explore a few on my next visit. Please leave your suggestions in the Comments section below, or on the Escaping America Facebook Page.
St. Columba’s Isle
On a small clump of land hidden from the road and split off by the river Snizort, outside of Portree in the town of Skeabost, sits St. Columba's Isle.
This secluded area was the central point of Christianity in the Hebrides from the 10th to the 16th century. Before that, it was probably a significant Pictish site.
Today, it's totally invisible from the direction of the nearest road, and accessed via a well-maintained wooden walkway through a plethora of scrub and bramble. This, combined with the constant aural presence of the nearby Snizort river, enhances the otherworldly feel of the place.
There are marked graves here ranging from the 11th century, through to the 1960s. And much of the area is studded with malformed, moss-covered hunks of stone that were clearly grave markers set down hundreds of years ago.
For more photos and details, see my original St. Columba’s Isle blog post.
Dinosaur Footprints and Staffin Museum
Not far from Storr and Kilt Rock on Scotland's Isle of Skye, and just down the path from the Quiraing is the district of Staffin.
Aside from being at least as picturesque as any other settlement on the island, Staffin is also the hot spot on Skye (and Scotland in general) for dinosaur fossils and footprints. Several bones and fragments have been found in this area, beginning with a single 49cm-long footprint in 1982.
Since then, several other footprints have been found in the rocks of nearby beaches, including Staffin Beach (An Corran), and the shoreline at Duntulm, about nine miles north along the A855. Other specimens found in this area include several small prints ranging from about 7 cm down to a positively tiny 1.7 cm (that's about two-thirds of an inch for us behind-the-trend folks in America). That put Skye in the Guinness Book of World Records as the site of the smallest dinosaur footprints ever found.
Aside from getting out to the shore to see the footprints in situ, the best place to take in Skye’s prehistoric history is the lovely Staffin Dinosaur Museum. The small museum is housed in a charming stone building that's probably older than a few greats of an old man's grandfather. The collection is all laid out like someone's garage sale, in a way that makes the fossils and casts seem more immediate, more real, than the experience in most larger museums.
The museum is run by local Dugald Ross, who established it in the 1970s when he was a teenager, and has been involved in related studies on Skye over the years. In fact, in 2015, research undertaken in part by the Dugald and the museum led to the identification of a new species of dolphin-like reptile, which was given a Gaelic name—reportedly a first.
For more photos of the museum, as well as a crash-course on the details of Skye’s prehistoric and geological history, see my post on the Staffin Dinosaur Museum.
Waternish Peninsula: Trumpan Church and the Abandoned Village of Unish
The Peninsula of Waternish, across the sheltered bay which gives the village of Uig its (Norse) name, holds many worthwhile wonders. They include the fairy bridge and Dunvegan Castle, as well as the welcoming Stein Inn, the oldest on Skye. But I'll be focusing on a couple other attractions here, both haunted by somber echoes of a sad past.
The ruins of Trumpan church was the scene of vindictive tragedy in May of 1578. On the first Sunday of that month, members of Clan MacDonald burned all the gathered MacLeod churchgoers alive by blocking the exit and setting the thatched roof on fire. According to the story, only a young girl survived by escaping through a window.
This was in retaliation for an incident a few months before, when Clan MacLeod led a raiding party to the nearby isle of Eigg. When the 395 MacDonalds who lived there (the entire population of the island) sought refuge in a cave, the MacLeods set fire to the entrance in the hopes of smoking them out. Instead, all the MacDonalds suffocated.
This is far from the end of the gruesome tale of Trumpan. I haven't even touched on the resulting Battle of the Spoiled Dyke. But to hear the rest (and see many more photos), you'll have to head to my original post about Trumpan Church.
A few miles from Trumpan church, as you walk along the west coast of the peninsula toward Waternish Point, you'll find the abandoned village of Unish, a casualty of the Highland Clearances. Made up of 47 abandoned buildings, most of which are now just broken knee-to-waist-high stone rectangles, Unish is about eight miles from the nearest inhabited village (Stein).
The town was first documented in 1708, but by 1880, it included just one occupied house. Now the only residents are the sheep, oblivious remnants of the agricultural and societal shift that brought about the town's demise. If that's not enough history for you, there are also a couple ruined Iron Age brochs on path headed toward Unish.
Knock Castle & The Museum of the Isles
Further South, on the East coast of Skye's Sleat peninsula, you'll find a pair of ruined castles, one with a garden, a modern museum that details Skye's history, and its very own peacock.
The partially restored Armadale Castle is a picturesque ruin, set in a massive 20,000-acre estate that includes an expansive and well-maintained garden area and woodlands with many exotic trees. I'm partial to the massive monkey puzzle tree.
Also on the grounds is the excellent Museum of the Isles, which tells the history of the Highlands and Islands from the perspective of Clan Donald.
Four miles up the A851 from the museum sits the ruins of Knock Castle, or Caisteal Chamuis, which dates to the 1400s. It's a bit of a slog from the road through some brush and bramble to the actual ruins, and truth be told, there's not a whole lot of the actual castle left. But the eroded shoreline makes for an interesting walk, and the view from up next to the castle ruins is fantastic in every direction.
Also, for those enticed by such things, the ruins are said to be haunted by two types of ghost, a a Green Lady, or gruagach, and a glaistig, a spirit who protects livestock. The sheep near the castle certainly seem well cared for.
Walk from Kyle of Lochalsh , Over the Skye Bridge to Kyleakin and Visit Castle Moil
The Skye Bridge, which connects the island to the mainland, is doubtlessly one of Skye's most iconic sights. And I can think of few better ways to get acquainted with this stunning area than to spend time in Lochalsh gazing over the water to Kyleakin, then walk the two miles or so over the arching bridge.
As you walk down into Kyleakin, make sure to spend some time exploring the beach. And if you're thirsty or hungry, do stop at Saucy Mary's.
Once you've had a dram or a pint, continue along Meuse lane, in the general direction of the castle ruin, which should be visible in front of you as you walk down the lane. Follow the signs for the castle, and you'll soon find yourself off the street and on a path surrounded by ferns. Before long, you'll emerge into an incredibly charismatic cove that's one of my favorite spots on all of Skye.
From there, you can make your way up to Castle Moil itself, where (on a clear day) you'll be rewarded with a positively breathtaking view of the cove, Kyleakin, the Skye bridge, and Kyle Lochalsh across the water. It truly is one of the best views I've found on Skye–or anywhere. I have a 50-inch panorama of the image below hanging on the wall of my office.
Visit Loch Sheanta
Located just north of Staffin, between Digg and Flodigarry along the A855, is an unassuming pull off and car park for Loch Sheanta (alternatively spelled Loch Shianta), or Loch Saint, which is fed by a “holy well.”
Long ago touted as "‘the most celebrated well in Skye" (A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland," Martin, 1695), the spring here and the lochan that it feeds into was visited by many for its healing qualities.
The loch is hidden from view down below the road. But if you know enough to find the car park, a small sign and a well-maintained path surrounded by wildflowers and pretty trees will guide you quickly to the stunning wee loch.
Many suspect that Loch Sheanta and its bright turquoise waters (so close to the edge of Staffin Bay) was of importance well before the 1600s, and may have been an ancient Celtic place of worship.
For more on the loch, see my Facbook post about how I stumbled upon it on a hunt for dinosaur footprints at Staffin.
Explore Old St. Mary’s Kirk and the Duirinish Standing Stone
A small village just a mile or so from Dunvegan Castle, Kilmuir has one of the highest percentages of Scottish Gaelic speakers outside the nearby Western Isles.
And while there are plenty of intriguing ruins in the area, St. Mary’s Old Kirk and the surrounding cemetery and countryside is well worth a visit on its own. The roofless church itself dates to 1694, and is overlooked by a far-more-modern landmark. The 15-foot-tall Duirinish Standing Stone was erected by locals to commemorate the millennium in the year 2,000. In order to better appreciate the ancient peoples of the isles, the stone was erected using only ropes, human muscle, and ingenuity rather than modern machinery.
St. Mary’s Old Kirk is home to, among others, the graves of generations of MacCrimmons, hereditary pipers of Clan MacLeod, as well as some MacLeods. A few late-medieval gravestones with memento mori are also on display, enduring the weather while reminding visitors that their time is short, just as they have for hundreds of years.
For more on St. Mary's Kirk, see my original blog post.
Visit a Broch: Dun Beag and Dun Hallin
Scotland's 500-or-so brochs, round drystone fortified structures, don't quite have the same connection to deep time as the standing stones of Orkney or Callanish. But at around 2,000 years old, and often found in isolated spots far from any modern structures, they're still fascinating and mysterious. There's no real consensus about whether they were mostly defensive structures or the dwellings of powerful locals. As many were occupied for several hundred years, the reality likely is a combination of both.
Two of Skye's best-preserved brochs are Dun Beag (above), located about halfway between the Sligachan Hotel and Dunvegan, and Dun Hallin (below), on the Waternish peninsula, east of the settlement of Hallin. Dun Beag is the better preserved of the two, and easier to get to, as it's not far from the main road.
Dun Hallin isn't well signposted, and it's a fair bit from the road, off in a field occupied by cattle and at least one horse. But both are well worth a visit. Aside from the brochs themselves, both locations provide spectacular views.
For more on brochs, and many more photos, see my original blog post about Dun Hallin.
Walk Around (and Above) Uig and Visit Rha Falls
The village of Uig on west coast of the Trotternish peninsula may technically be tiny, with only a few hundred residents. But its frequent ferries to Tarbert on Harris and Lochmaddy on North Uist can make it a popular spot for those headed to or coming from the Outer Hebrides. So it can be a fairly bustling place when a CalMac ferry is docked. And the Isle of Skye Brewing Company, just a few hundred feet from the ferry, makes a good stop for anyone looking for a drink or a souvenir.
But it’s worth spending a good chunk of a clear day just wandering around Uig and taking in the views of the village and the hills around Uig Bay. The latter can best be seen by heading up the ridge that overlooks the village, via a fairly steep ascent of the A855. If walking, us caution though, as there’s very little shoulder in spots, and this is a main road. Once up at the top, the views of the village and the bay below are just stunning.
And either on the way up or down, look for a signposted path near the bridge over the river for a short path that leads into the woods, to the lovely two-level Rha waterfall. It may not be as dramatic as Kilt Rock, but Rha falls is beautiful just the same. And you’re far more likely to be alone here, in a lovely patch of green woods that—depending on the time of year—may be blanketed in bluebells and/or wild garlic.
If you’re still up for some exploration after that, you can head to the other side of the bay and check out Captain Frasier’s Folly. I’ve yet to make it there, but judging by its location, overlooking Uig from the opposite side of the bay, I’m sure it also offers up some stunning views.
Skye Museum of Island Life, the Grave of Flora MacDonald, and Kilvaxter Souterrain
Following on from the ridge above Uig, if you continue north on the A855 for about five miles, you'll be rewarded with some fantastic views (again, if the weather is clear) over the Minch toward the Outer Hebrides, and eventually come to a car park for the Kilvaxter Souterrain, a fascinating underground stone-lined tunnel that's been hiding in the landscape for at least 2,000 years.It was only discovered in April of 2000 when one of the lintels collapsed.
You can enter and crawl your way through the ancient passage if you like. Just know that it's cramped and wet, and you'll probably need a torch. After walking 19 miles the day I came upon it, I felt content to sit nearby and drink a Cuilin Beast from Skye Brewery while imagining what the area was like back before modern conveniences. At least they had beer.
Another half-mile or so up the A855 is the Skye Museum of Island Life, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, housed in seven persevered thatched buildings. It's a great place to escape to on a rainy day, as there's enough here, especially in text form written on the walls, to keep you busy for hours. Just know that if it is raining, you'll definitely get wet dashing between the buildings.
Behind the museum, about a third of a mile further up the road, you'll also find the Kilmuir Cemetery, final resting place of Flora MacDonald. Sadly, I wasn't aware of the latter fact until after I'd visited the Skye Museum on my last trip. That's fine though, I always like to have a handful of reasons to return.
Still here and looking for more to do? Congratulations. You've seen and done more on Skye than I have in four visits (so far).
Speaking of reasons to return, there are at least a few other sites that deserve to be on this list, but I haven't had the chance to visit them yet. Among them, Spar Cave in Elgol, and Loch Coruisk (which WalkHighlands boldly calls "the most magnificent of all Scottish freshwater lochs),. And if you're up for a real climb, Blaven is often described as the easiest Munro to bag on Skye.
The three examples above are enough to keep me busy on at least one more trip, and none are even close to Storr, Fairy Glen, the Quiraing, or the Fairy Pools—unless maybe you're an eagle that can fly over the Cuillins.