Over the Sea to Skye

view of portree harbor

Google told us it would take about three and a half hours to drive from West Plean House in Stirling to the Mallaig ferry terminal, where we would cross to the Isle of Skye. With a reservation for the 4pm ferry, we anticipated a very leisurely day with enough time to see everything and also go on a short hike in Glenfinnan. Spoiler alert: we did NOT have a leisurely day with enough time to see everything and also go on a short hike in Glenfinnan. Despite leaving by 9am, we just barely made it for ferry check-in and we didn’t do much hiking.

Lesson learned: it takes so much longer to get from point A to point B in Scotland than Google says it will should. When driving, account for small, narrow, winding roads, slow-moving vehicles that back up everyone behind them, bad weather, sheep and other animals in the road, and your own inability to resist pulling over constantly to take pictures and admire the views. 

Day One

After another delicious breakfast, we said a very sad goodbye to Hannah, Molly, and West Plean House and got on the road to the Isle of Skye, where we would be spending three days. If you’re driving, you can cross over to Skye via the Skye Bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh. Since we were coming from a bit further south, we opted to take the CalMac ferry (which transports both people and cars) from Mallaig to Armadale instead. The route from Stirling to Mallaig also provided the opportunity to check off a few spots on our Scotland Bucket List during the drive.

Our drive from Stirling took us through the Trossachs National Park and into the HighlandsGlencoe serves as a sort of gateway into the stunning Highland landscape you see everywhere you turn. We stopped in one of the many little car parks along the road to walk up into the hills a bit and take some photos.

If we were planning this trip again, we would stay a night in Glencoe to allow time for some real hiking and taking in more of the breathtaking beauty. 

Our journey took us next through Fort William and then to Glenfinnan. The plan had been to stop at the Glenfinnan Monument for a bit, but despite circling the car park many, many times, we couldn’t get a parking spot. Luckily, both the road and car park are very close to the monument so we got a good enough look from the car.

Just a few minutes down the road was our next stop: the Glenfinnan Viaduct. Well, not technically, but that’s where the hike began to get to views of it. What’s the Glenfinnan Viaduct? It’s the bridge the Hogwarts Express travels over on its way to Hogwarts! We’d read to park at the Glenfinnan train station, but word of warning, it’s super tiny and there is not a lot of parking available. Given how impossible it had been to get a spot at the Glenfinnan Monument, we weren’t hopeful…but we were successful!

Though we didn’t have time to do the full hike over the Glenfinnan hills and down to the viaduct, we wanted to stretch our legs and hopefully at least get a view of it. After about 15 minutes of walking, we came to a crest with views of the Glenfinnan Viaduct to the left, Glenfinnan Monument straight ahead, and down Loch Shiel (also in Harry Potter) to the right! While it would have been awesome to do the full walk (next time!) this worked out pretty perfectly too.

We arrived for check-in at the Mallaig ferry terminal with a few minutes to spare and had a smooth, quick crossing (it takes about 55 minutes and your can get out of your car during). It was another hour from Armadale to our final destination, Portree, the largest town on the Isle of Skye. When we knocked on the door of our B&B, we learned that our room was unavailable due to burst pipes in the house – luckily the host had been able to book us in to Dalriada Guest House instead. Dalriada was a perfectly nice place with a pleasant owner but it wasn’t ideal for us, mainly due to being located outside of Portree. This made walking into town difficult, if not downright dangerous, given that part of the road didn’t have a sidewalk and was also poorly lit (we learned this the hard way). However, given how busy Portree gets in the summer, we were very lucky we didn’t end up having to sleep in our car!

We had dinner that night at the restaurant in Cullin Hills, a very nice hotel situated above the picturesque Portree harbor. It was a very nice meal that included fresh Scottish salmon, though perhaps not quite worth the price tag. We really enjoyed the location and views from the large front lawn, so it’s definitely a spot to visit when you’re in Portree. Perhaps for a drink?

After dinner, we walked through town, had a drink at the West Highland Bar, then managed to catch one of the few taxis in town back to Dalriada.

Day Two

Time for another castle! This time we set our sights on Dunvegan Castle, home of the MacLeod clan and situated on Loch Dunvegan. It was heavily raining when we set out from Portree but it completely cleared during the 30-minute drive. After getting our tickets to the castle, we immediately went down to book a seal trip (!!) since we weren’t sure how long the wait would be. Turns out, not long at all! The crowds hadn’t yet set in so we just waited about 10 minutes for the next departure. The seal trip goes out onto the loch to see the resident seal colony, lasts about 30 minutes, and is super awesome. After the seal trip, we explored the castle, walked through the extensive gardens, and had lunch at the castle cafe.

That afternoon, we hiked the Old Man of Storr, an iconic rock formation part of the Trotternish Ridge 15 minutes north of Portree. We followed others’ suit and parked along the A855 as the main car park was full. The trail started off wide, gravelly, and crowded, but it became a smaller dirt trail about halfway up and less dedicated walkers started to turn around as the climb became steeper and more strenuous.

Given the rain earlier in the day, a few parts of the trail had turned very muddy and boggy – we saw quite a few people step into what they thought was a shallow mud puddle and sink all the way up to their knees in mud. As we were walking, it started to get progressively darker and more windy. We came to a plateau with amazing views of Skye, as well as a clear view of the rain and fog rolling in from the south.

By the time we got close to the huge rock formations, there weren’t too many other people around and it was raining pretty steadily. Alex set his sights on scrambling up to the base of the Old Man, and thinking that it didn’t look too bad from below, I followed…and then found myself clinging to whatever I could as the dirt and gravel fell away beneath me and my feet slipped on wet rocks.

Panicking, I couldn’t go any further but also didn’t know how to get down. Eventually, I basically sat on my butt and shimmied down to safety while Alex continued on, reaching the base of the Old Man while I enjoyed the views and waited for him from a safer elevation (it’s not really that dangerous, I just really hate heights).

It was a great hike – steep enough to get a decent workout, but easy enough that it’s doable by most people. It’s not technical, and you don’t have to do any of the rock scrambling if you don’t want to. The hardest part is the steep uphill at the beginning (and avoiding the bogs!).

We did a “load” of laundry back at Dalriada (aka hand washed all our dirties using the bathroom sink), hung it up to dry using our travel clothesline, and took a taxi down to Portree for dinner. While we waited for our table to be ready at Antlers Bar and Grill (in the Portree Hotel) we stumbled upon the local pipe band marching through town! So that was super cool.

We didn’t have the same success getting a taxi as the night before, so after a half hour and calls to eight different taxi companies, we set off on foot and managed to not get hit by a car on the dark and windy road back to Dalriada.

Day Three

Well, this was awkward. Because of the cool temperatures, we hadn’t registered how humid it was until we started to pack up our laundry from the night before and discovered it was all still soaking wet. So after breakfast and packing up the car, we set off for the Fairy Glen with the back of our car looking like this:

Lesson learned: do laundry as you go, not all at once. 

Oh, the Fairy Glen. It’s a strange and magical cluster of small hills and fields near Uig, about 20 minutes northwest of Portree. We arrived around 10am and were fortunate to have it mostly to ourselves for a while.

After our time with the fairies, we drove down into Uig in search of a pub or something similar. We ended up at The Pier Restaurant, a modest pub in the harbor serving cheap pints and decent food. Next door was a local pottery shop, Uig Pottery, where we bought a souvenir clay Highland cow.

At this point, we actually boarded a ferry for Lewis and Harris and came back through Uig the next afternoon. I’m rewriting history a bit for clarity’s sake. 

After lunch, we hopped back in the car for the hour drive to Carbost and a tour of Talisker Distillery. It was a really well-done, informative tour though be prepared for crowds, and definitely book your tour in advance; luckily we had done so, as all the tours for the rest of the day were sold out by the time we arrived. Our tour ended with a dram of Talisker Storm.

After Talisker, we checked into our B&B for the night, Fineviews. We were the only guests and really enjoyed the quiet location and large, private accommodations. The B&B was a few minutes’ walk down to Munros Bar in the Taigh Ailean Hotel where we stuffed ourselves on freshly-shucked oysters from Loch Harport (a stone’s throw from the bar), gammon and egg, and fish and chips. We enjoyed a post-dinner espresso (for me) and dram (for Alex) in the Fineviews front garden overlooking the loch.

We had also planned to stop at the Fairy Pools while on Skye, but due to all the recent rain, the minor creek we had to cross to get to them was in fact a gushing river.

We considered forging across and accepting the inevitable wet feet but the more we watched the water going by, we realized it was moving so quickly there was a possibility of actually getting hurt. Next time!

Next: A Night on Lewis and Harris