I’m calling it 20/20 vision. As we clamber into autumn after six surreal months, I realise that seeing Scotland through fresh eyes has been 2020’s almighty silver lining.
For many Scots, acquainting themselves more fully with all that this country has to offer has proved unexpectedly enlightening. Entranced by the wildly romantic coasts, crystal-clear waters and rolling hills they have uncovered, setting off on a staycation has been a reminder of the immense beauty on our doorsteps. My own venture took me to the spectacularly beautiful Misty Isle – immortalised in the Skye Boat Song when Bonnie Prince Charlie sought refuge after the Battle of Culloden – and I can assure you there is no better time to go over the sea to Skye.
Low autumnal sunlight cleared the spattering of rain as I reached the Skye Bridge. A carpet of purple heather with dark green and burnt orange tumbled out ahead, while mountains towered above – this is Scotland at its best.
WHERE TO STAY
The north and north east offer jaw-dropping clifftops and winding roads – enough to make the hearts of walkers, twitchers and petrol-heads alike beat that little bit faster.
In Central Skye, from Portree to Broadford – where rugged driving routes are carved round the Cuillin’s curves – there are any number of hiking and climbing trails to enjoy.
To the west and north west are coastal views stretching from the likes of Dunvegan towards North Uist, as well as Glenbrittle and Loch Coruisk which seem fit for any scene in Lord of the Rings.
A personal favourite though is southern Skye – often overlooked by tourists heading straight for the Cuillin mountains, the panoramic views from Sleat and Eilean Iarmain are utterly breath-taking. From pristine beaches to rolling hilltops – 23,000 acres of which are looked after by Scott MacKenzie, Skye’s only full-time Gamekeeper who works on Eilean Iarmain Estate – it is certainly worth investing time in the south for some peace and tranquillity.
Hotel Eilean Iarmain & Estate, Sleat
Eilean Iarmain is a 19th-century hotel with six bedrooms in the Main House, six in the Garden House and four gorgeous suites in the converted steading. I was lucky enough to stay in one of the self-contained suites with a spectacular view across the bay – the perfect place from which to watch the morning sunrise with a cup of tea. Lady Luck was on our side with gold and yellow hues reflecting across flat calm waters. As well as a lovely hot shower with Highland Soaps and Arran toiletries, the suite was a peaceful retreat from which to revel in the sheer beauty of the surrounding landscape.
Privately owned by Lucilla, Lady Noble, who works tirelessly to continue the legacy of her late husband Sir Iain Noble, the hotel is a hub of activity dedicated to treasuring and nurturing the surrounding landscape and its wildlife, as well as preserving Scotland’s long-standing culture and traditions. Gaelic is at the heart of that legacy, with Sir Iain having established the local Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (which is an academic partner of the University of the Highlands and Islands). He also launched Pràban Na Linne, The Gaelic Whiskies, in 1976. On site, you can indulge in a whisky tasting, or indeed a tasting of their Uisge Lusach gin, with Rosalyn MacLeod and Leah Dunlop – both fonts of spirit knowledge.
Whether you fancy a cosy night by the fire in Am Prabàn Bar for a chat with the locals and fellow diners, or a more formal dining experience in the brasserie, Birlinn, the food offerings at Eilean Iarmain are quite exquisite. Head chef Sean Dunning recommended the daily special from the restaurant – butter-cooked hake with chorizo, saffron risotto, spring onion and peas. It was so moreish – juicy, salty and flaky – and was condemned-man’s-last-meal-good. Unpretentious food served in an incredible setting? Sign me up.
Lucilla seems to think Eilean Iarmain casts its spell on anyone who visits, and judging by my reluctance to leave, I daresay she’s onto something.
The Ferry Inn, Uig
Quite simply, this place is Hygge heaven.
A gorgeous inn based in the fishing village of Uig, The Ferry Inn has been run by the Morrison family for six years. As soon as you walk through the door, you’re met by gorgeous scents, a wood burning stove, candles and sumptuous furnishings – and the bedrooms are equally beautiful, adorned with SkyeSkyns sheepskins and nautical-themed cushions. There is also a welcome Isle of Harris G&T ready in your room, as well as a selection of teas and homemade shortbread. If you want a place to switch off those pesky phones and hunker down for the evening, this is where you need to be.
The Ferry Inn is a lively base from which to explore the likes of The Fairy Glen and the Falls of Rha, and is a stone’s throw from popular beauty spots like Kilt Rock, the Quiraing and the Old Mann of Storr. Frankly, I was all set to move in!
Dinner at the inn is prepared by the owners’ son, Hamish Morrison, (who also happens to be a talented photographer) and I was overjoyed to see the abundance of local and Scottish fare on offer. Homemade bread made with Isle of Skye lager was served along with smoked salted butter and Isle of Harris gin-soaked olives to start. Scallops from Harris were the star of the show, served with sweet and salty pancetta jam, Stornoway black pudding and toasted oats for an earthy finish.
To my delight, the mushroom risotto for my main might have fed a family of four – nose-baggers rejoice, this place does hearty, generous portions, and this was creamy and garlicky with just enough bite to it.
Owners Gordon and Shona, as well as their daughter Anna, serve their guests in a personable manner, but it’s not overbearing. If you want to sit in the corner and read a book, you can. If you want to have a nightcap at the bar and talk with guests into the small hours, that’s fine too. Attention to detail is key at this inn, and I must say I found it utterly enchanting.
Sligachan Hotel, Cuillin Mountains
Walking in to the reception area where a roaring fire had been lit was just what the doctor ordered after a long day exploring the surrounding hills. Nestled away between the Red and Black Cuillin mountains, the Sligachan Hotel couldn’t be a more idyllic base for avid hillwalkers.
My room was cosy and peeked out onto the misty hills – a sight to fill the heart of any proud Scot with joy. Whether you’re dining in the hotel restaurant, Cafe Cuil, or the adjoining Seumas’ Bar, you can guarantee it will be some of the freshest fare you’ve had in a while.
My advice? Ask for the chef’s recommendation. The Shetland mussels with Malaysian-style broth he recommended were truly divine – silky smooth and packed full of fresh coriander and coconut flavours. The sea bass with herb mash and salsa verde was also a winner – crunchy skin and flaky on the inside. It went down an absolute treat.
Sligachan’s meat is supplied by Lochalsh butchers in Kyle, and the majority of their fish comes from Mairi at Just Hooked Portree. Vegetables are also sourced in Inverness and Skye, while wild mushrooms are foraged around the island by Wild Skye. This place is a veritable ode to Scotland’s magnificent larder.
Kenneth, Sligachan’s whisky ambassador, was also on hand to talk me through a selection of top drams in Seumas’ Bar – including two from Skye’s illustrious Talisker Distillery – topping off an evening of pure indulgence.
WHERE TO EAT
The Oyster Shed, Carbost
With a backdrop just as spectacular as its seafood offerings, The Oyster Shed is the perfect pit-stop for lunch when visiting nearby Talisker Distillery.
Birch is a specialist coffee house – the fresh aromas of coffee alone are enough to give you that hit of caffeine to kick-start the day’s adventures. Their homemade soups, sandwiches and sweet treats were perfect for a post-boat trip lunch.
Kinloch Lodge, Sleat
An historic destination enjoyed by countless visitors to Skye, Kinloch Lodge has been owned by Lady Claire and Lord Godfrey MacDonald since the 1970s. With Lady Claire’s culinary know-how, this is an epicurean delight – perfect for those seeking a more formal dining experience with world-class food.
The Three Chimneys
Head chef Scott Davies is inspired by the land and sea of Skye, and likes to weave subtle culinary narratives into his dishes. See if you can unravel the stories on Scott’s plates at this 3 AA Rosette restaurant.
SEE THE SIGHTS
Whatever your favoured mode of transport – cruising, walking, cycling, swimming, kayaking or driving – there is something for everyone on Skye.
Spindrift Boat Trips, Portree
It would be criminal to go over the sea to Skye and not squeeze in at least one boat trip. Spindrift Boat Trips, run by Nigel Waterson and his crew, offer two-hour round-trips from Portree Harbour into the Sound of Raasay – and what a wonderful trip it is!
Perched high on the cliffs we saw two majestic sea eagles who had just devoured their surf and turf lunch, as well as a colony of seals who looked up at us sleepily from their siesta spot on the rocks.
Ravens, gannets and seabirds galore, we were then treated to a spectacular display from some cheeky dolphins who were playing in the wake of the boat. Jumping clean out of the water before diving beneath the hull and reappearing on the other side, this was a beautiful experience and a reminder of the remarkable wildlife that call this place home. Two hours passed by in a flash, and the occasional splash of sea water did me the world of good.
Nigel’s knowledge of the area is quite incredible, and this is his fourth season running boat trips from Portree. Talking you through all manner of geological features as well as tales of former residents from the islands, this was an experience that I will hold dear for a long time.
Simulated Stalking, Hotel Eilean Iarmain and Fearann Eilean Iarmain
Scott MacKenzie, Eilean Iarmain’s gamekeeper who is utterly devoted to the 23,000-acre estate and its wildlife, took me out on a simulated stalking experience which I cannot recommend highly enough. It is one of the most authentic ways of seeing Skye and gaining a real appreciation for the estate’s incredible conservation efforts. What’s more, it’s fantastic fun and highly addictive – you’ve been warned!
Scott talks all his guests through the ins and outs of deer management while taking them through how to shoot cleanly and efficiently, and in the least damaging way possible to a herd. Though incredibly modest about his achievements, Scott has won multiple awards – including the prestigious 2019 Gamekeeper of the Year award (UK-wide) and has been instrumental in seeing the hotel win Country Sports Hotel of the Year titles.
He is the only full-time gamekeeper on Skye and is an excellent tour guide – he can point you in the right direction for blissful driving routes and hidden gems in southern Skye. An opportunity not to be missed!Talisker Distillery, Carbost
Be sure to stop off at Talisker Distillery on your travels. Not only is it in a stunning location along Loch Harport, it is the oldest working distillery on Skye and produces some highly acclaimed drams that the globe’s top connoisseurs adore for its distinct, peaty notes.
The founders of the distillery belonged to the MacAskill clan, who were of Viking decent, and in the Talisker shop there are fascinating snippets to walk you through this rich history. There’s even a ‘fill your own bottle’ experience to be enjoyed… Whisky aficionados, rejoice!
Currently, the distillery is following guidelines with a phased reopening approach, and booking ahead is essential. (All experience bookings can be made directly with the visitor centre team by phoning 01478 614308.
Walking round the malting, milling, mashing and distilling hubs with site operations manager Jackie Robertson, it seemed to me like some beautiful form of alchemy.
Dunvegan Castle, DunveganThe Fairy Pools
Marsco Hill, Red Cuillin
One of the finest of the Red Cuillin hills, the 736m summit boasts spectacular panoramic views of the Cuillin Ridge. Long enough to feel you’ve worked off your breakfast, but manageable with the right walking gear, this one needs to be ticked off the list for the hikers out there.
After just 24 hours on Skye, I can honestly say the grey pallor of city life had been replaced by a rosy glow, cheeks kissed by the fresh sea air and gushing wind. But it’s not just the geography of this island that makes it so special; after a week on Skye, it seems to me that this place is bound by a little magic – and that’s thanks to the people who have lived here for generations.
If I were to give one piece of advice, it would be to talk with the locals. Each time they pointed me down a dirt track for the best driving route, advised that I ignore the sign posts and scramble over rocks to a secluded beach with white sand and turquoise waters, or recommended which bakery to visit for lunch, their tip-offs were the true highlights.