Rugged Beautiful Skye

by Tess Paterson
Eilean a Chait, Scotland

Outdoor pursuits are legendary on the spectacular Isle of Skye. Just be prepared for the midges

Words and photographs Tess Paterson

We’re kyaking across water so compellingly turquoise, it feels a bit like a Greek island. One small difference is that we’re on a loch that’s a nippy six degrees – not something you’d want to fling yourself into in a hurry. It’s early spring, and for a blissful week we’re hanging out on Skye, part of the inner Hebrides off Scotland’s west coast. Travelling with the mohair-farming in-laws means rising early and staying busy. Which is why, on day one, I’m kitted out in an alarmingly snug wetsuit and wedged into a ridiculously slender vessel. Quite possibly for life.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it in no time,” says our kayaking instructor Will Evans. Earlier Will had shown us the basics in a sheltered cove just off the village of Plockton, a delightful mainland spot about half an hour’s drive from Skye. We’d practised sprints and turns – nifty moves that ideally require years of Pilates and upper body conditioning. Once Will was satisfied we wouldn’t drift out into the Atlantic, we left Plockton in our wake.

Sea Kayak Plockton caters to the full gamut of paddlers. For the experienced, there are sought-after summer expeditions to the outer Hebrides. Howling Atlantic gales permitting, you’ll get to paddle around the stunning beauty of an uninhabited island like Mingulay, dwarfed by its 200m cliffs and attendant golden eagles. Closer to Skye, you might choose to circumnavigate the isles of Raasay and Rona, wild camping thrown in.

“We believe in giving people confidence out on the water,” says founder Alison French. “If people feel confident they’re more likely to develop paddling skills which will enable them to enjoy the beauty of the Highlands from a totally different perspective.”

Thanks to Will’s patient guidance, we’re doing just that. For a blissful few hours we meander along Loch Carron, drawn in by the spectacular scenery and impossibly clean water. Every so often a seal lifts its glossy head above the surface. Just when I think my arms might give in we pull up at a lovely cove with a shale beach. We’ve bought a packed lunch, we have this pristine spot to ourselves, and the sun has turned the water to Mykonos blue.

Skye has a rugged beauty all of its own – a staggering mix of mountains, lochs and moody skies, with atmospheric pubs thrown in. Each morning we head out from the Sound of Sleat for a day’s adventuring. At first, deluded and naive, we don’t register the omnipresent cloud of midges that thrives along the shore. What begins as an innocent packing of the car erupts into some frenzied, high-octane face-swatting. By day two, wise to their stinging bites, we sprint to the car, get in as one, and slam the doors. No Kruger Park mozzie would get a look in.

Will had recommended the Applecross Pass as a worthwhile drive, and this glorious stretch of road does not disappoint. From Loch Kishorn on the mainland it rises steeply, morphing into eyebrow-raising hairpin bends with forever views. We hit pockets of cold mist and I take a couple of pointless soft-focus pics. Winding down the other side, there’s a deer-filled field and a knot of woodland, before we arrive at the Applecross Inn.

Judging by the accents, much of fit, middle-aged Scandinavia has chosen to ride Applecross Pass in matching leathers

This charming pub is owned by Judith Fish, MBE. Judith and her team manage hordes of hungry pass-goers with unflappable calm, serving comfort dishes like haddock, chips and peas, and local haggis flambeed in Drambuie. It’s generous, down to earth and deserves its reputation. Replete and happy, we wander outside past a throng of expensive motorbikes. Judging by the owners’ accents, much of fit, middle-aged Scandinavia has chosen to ride the pass in matching leathers.

The next day we head north through the pretty town of Portree towards the Trotternish penninsula. It’s a cool damp day, which is a good thing because the walk up the The Storr is pretty steep. This remarkable rocky pinnacle looks out over the Isle of Raasay, and on a grey-skied day its wild cragginess seems to capture the essence of Skye.

Further west, we wander around the Waternish peninsula and the whitewashed village of Stein. This cluster of black and white cottages is home to Michelin-starred restaurant Loch Bay. Chef Michael Smith does ‘Scottish with a French twist,’ and his menus pay tribute to the remarkable seafood found in and around Skye. As a pud-first person I’d like nothing more than to try the autumnal tart with calvados parfait and bramble sorbet. Aye, right. Another time.

Nearby, the family-run Skyeskyns is well worth a visit. With an emphasis on natural fibres, their small-batch, handmade items range from wool and tweed slippers to luxurious sheepskin rugs. It’s the epitome of slow fashion. Things get a bit Dr Zhivago when we try on the gorgeous Winter Queen hats, then dissolve into silent, thigh-slapping laughter. Some things are just more hilarious when you’re on holiday. Apart from the beautiful knitwear there’s also a pop-up yurt serving coffee and fabulous cakes. Fueled up and happy, we head off for Dunvegan Castle.

Towering above a rocky promontory, this stunning site was claimed by the MacLeod clan eight centuries ago. It’s remained their ancestral home ever since, and getting lost in the five-acre gardens is particularly rewarding. Archive news footage from 1956 shows Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip driving in an open top Hillman to Dunvegan for lunch. Apparently the royal yacht Britannia had dropped them off in Portree and picked them up at the castle afterwards. Frankly I wouldn’t travel any other way.

Back home, our local is calling – the Am Praban bar at the hotel Eilean Iarmain. It’s a half hour walk with jaw-dropping views. All along, islands and boats dot the Sound of Sleat, and on arrival we dive into a thirst-quenching pint. I’d like to say that we sat outside, admiring the lighthouse on Ornsay Island. What actually happened was an onslaught of marauding midges, so we fled indoors and enjoyed some upbeat Celtic tunes by a trio of local fiddlers.

Years ago we watched a wonderful series where Lady Claire Macdonald concocted delicious locally-sourced dishes at her home on Skye. To our delight, this hallowed spot, Kinloch Lodge, is just down the road. Making the best of our jeans-and-flannel rambler look, we head over there on our last day. Cossetted by jaunty chintz wallpaper and ancestral portraits, the farmers head straight for the bar and its cracking single-malt collection.

Chef Jordan Webb’s lunch menu features gems like Lochalsh langoustine macaroni cheese, and home-smoked fishcakes with vermouth cream. The Scottish cheese platter includes the delightfully named Tain Minger, Morangie Brie and Blue Murder. As ever, I’m feeling for the s’mores – warm dark brownies with melted marshmallow.

“We’ve veered away from a technically-impressive tasting menu to one simpler and far more approachable,” explains Jordan. “I’m lucky to work with Mitch (Mitchell Partridge), the hotel’s ghillie, who has taught me so much about the variety of ingredients and flavours on our doorstep. That guests have the ability to join a foraging walk and then see the same ingredients on that evening’s meal is really special.”

In celebration of its 1972 opening, the collaborative cookbook ’50 Years: Kinloch Lodge’ launches in September. It’s a testament to landscape, family history and local Skye producers. Isabella Macdonald, who manages Kinloch and grew up in its heart, says, “Working on the book together with Mum has been a wonderful experience. Not only have we been able to share our own recollections, but I’ve realized just how pioneering and brave both my parents were to begin the Kinloch journey.”

With its windswept magnificence and relaxed hospitality, Skye is a place not soon forgotten. Leave me on a comfy sofa, Talisker in hand, watching a sleek otter dart beneath the Sound. As for the midges, neither citronella smoke nor a manic head-swatting with a branch helped. It’s probably nature’s way of keeping the tourist numbers in check.

For another stunning Scottish escape see Highland Games.

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Linda Dreyer July 2022 - 10:25 am

What an inspirational article Tess! Skye looks magnificent and worth a visit. You’ve captured the essence of it all, including the crisp, fresh weather, the picturesque villages, the breathtaking countryside with its pristine beauty, delicious local cuisine and the rich ambience of every place you visited. Your touches of humour had me chuckling too! Great article. Thank you.

Tess Paterson July 2022 - 10:37 am

Thank you, Linda. It’s such a timeless place


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