ISLE OF SKYE
Our journey of discovery in Scotland continued with a two and a half hour ScotRail train from Inverness to the far western coast and the Isle of Skye. ScotRail runs daily trains to the farthest highland regions, Thurso on the northern coast (where we’ll visit next), and Kyle of Lachalsh on the western coast.
Once again, we were enthralled by the names of villages where our train made brief stops. When announced by the conductor, they sounded like mythical destinations lifted from some ancient Gaelic tale of highland wizards and warriors: Beauly . . . Muir of Ord . . . Dingwall . . . Garve . . . Achnasheen . . . Achnashelach . . . Stromeferry . . . Duncraig . . . Plockton. Just another way that Scotland charms you with its originality and whimsy.
ScotRail regional trains are generally three or four cars, clean, comfortable, and modern, with convenient customer service. Every hour or so, an attendant wheels a cart down the aisle serving hot mugs of tea and coffee, beer, wine, sandwiches, sweets, and packaged soups heated with hot water.
The western landscape is similar to that from our Edinburgh journey; meadows and valleys with sheep pastures, sparkling blue lakes linked by marshes and streams that spill into a river, and a lonely two-lane highway that winds around hillsides. Traffic is light, just a few cars, trucks, and buses headed to the outer regions.
Between villages are farms with occasional grain fields or stone fenced pastures. Every few miles, abandoned farm buildings or barns are crumbling beside weed covered dirt roads. Reminders of past generations who gave up farming in remote settings to move to a nearby village.
The weather, predictably, is overcast with brief glimpses of the sun interrupted by rain showers. The miles click by, the train goes around a hillside, and slows for the next village. Dark clouds move across the sky and rain showers splatter the window. It’s June in the Scottish highlands.
Kyle of Lachalsh
Our rail journey ended at Kyle of Lachalsh, a village on a bluff looking across a narrow inlet at the Isle of Skye. Off shore, salmon are raised in fish farms. Kyle of Lachalsh was featured in a BBC documentary, ” Great Rail Journeys of the World,” narrated by Michael Palin. Palin was so charmed by Kyle of Lachalsh that he bought the sign from the railroad station platform and took it back to hang in his London garden.
Kyle of Lachalsh has a weather-beaten hotel on the inlet, pubs, imbiss’s, (fast food shops), a restaurant, and post office. The most important building are the train and bus stations, the main reasons that people come since it’s the jumping off point for the Isle of Skye. Before Skye Bridge was built in 1995, the remote island was accessible only by ferries or boats. The four-lane bridge accommodates only buses, trucks, and cars.
Isle of Skye
The Isle, largest of the Inner Hebrides Islands, is shaped somewhat like a bird with its wings raised. Around the Isle are peninsulas, inlets, and remote islands, many uninhabited. It’s population is approximately 10,000, rising to about 24,000 in the summer. Northwest are the Outer Hebrides Islands, the last land before North America. We’ll leave the Outer Hebrides for our next Scottish adventure.
The Isle landscape is stunning; dramatic granite mountain peaks, steep cliffs that plunge to rock-strewn valleys, and blue water coves. Rushing water cascades down steep slopes into pastures and streams, heading to coves and lagoons.
The weather changes dramatically and often on the Isle. Cloud formations float across the sky like they were being blown by invisible fans. They swirl around mountain tops, then swoop down to fill valleys in mists. Within minutes, patches of blue sky appear over the next valley, only to disappear when another bank of clouds darken the sky.
The Isle is almost too barren and rocky to support cultivation or livestock. Constant winds from the chilly north Atlantic blow across the Isle, making seed planting nearly impossible. During storms, winds can reach 80 MPH.
The road to Portree is winding, hilly, with sharp turns that reveal stunning views of the Isle’s many peninsulas, inlets, and blue water lagoons. One village along the way is Broadford where the Isle of Skye Music Festival was held in the mid 2000’s. The Festival won a ‘fan friendly award’ in 2006, but financial shortfalls ended the concerts and none has been held since 2008.
We reached Portree, the largest town in the Inner Hebrides, after an hour bus ride from Kyle of Lachalsh. Portree is a popular destination for tourists, back packers, hikers, and mountain climbers searching out adventure on the remote Isle. In summer, the population can soar to 5,000.
Portree is sheltered from north Atlantic storms and high tides by steep cliffs in a protected cove where fishing boats can safely harbor. One third of the 2,000 people who live here year around speak Gaelic.
The Portree bus station in the central plaza is surrounded by bakeries, pubs, and restaurants which were crowded the afternoon we arrived. We took a short walk to the narrow A-11 road that curves and rises to a cliff with a spectacular view of the harbor where sail boats and fishing vessels were anchored.
We hiked a half mile to our B & B, passing homes behind tall hedges and tucked into dead-end roads that ended at the water’s edge. Our accommodations were on the second floor of a modern home with windows facing the hillsides. At the end of June, the sun doesn’t set until almost midnight and rose at about 4 AM, pouring bright sunlight into our room. A delightful way to greet the new morning with incredible views of the Isle.
Our host was a man who returned to Portree ten years ago after a career as a London musician to take care of his ailing mother. When she passed away, he took over the B & B and said it was the best decision he ever made. Now he tends his B & B with four comfortable rooms, teaches sailing at the harbor, and leads backpacking trips into remote areas of the Isle. Not a bad life.
He was cheerful, energetic, and eager to share stories about life on the Isle. But when tourists desert the Isle in November, he heads for warmer climes in Spain and Majorca to scuba dive and sail. Not a bad life.
We had dinner that night of mackerel, chips, and Scottish ale along the harbor front at the Lower Deck, a pub with six or seven tables crammed into a wood-paneled, low-ceiling setting that did look like the lower deck of a wooden sailing ship.
Our one night visit to the Isle was adventurous. We’ve travelled to remote locations before, but none that had the stunning beauty and thrill of being so far away from urban frenzy.
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Next destination: Orkney Islands
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