Written by: Anne Gavin
On life’s journey we sometimes see glimpses of true beauty and true happiness – of what it must look and feel like. However, few of us get to inhabit that place for long periods of time. Because God only knows in our everyday life – there is oftentimes loss and disappointment, unmet expectations and just the daily grind. Also, at some point along the way we have to deal with illness, injury and often profound sadness. Life can be hard for even the most fortunate among us. But, there is a place I found that is probably as close to heaven as we might get before the day comes when our life passes on. It’s where you can go to see beauty so vast, so perfectly formed and so exquisitely outlined that it will etch itself in your mind. That place is called Skye. Everyone must go there to experience what heaven may actually be and feel like. It doesn’t seem real when you are there. But, it is.
Absolutely no rest for the weary. I had transitioned to beautiful Glasgow overnight. There is such a different vibe here than in Edinburgh. Warm temperatures and sunny skies continued, illuminating an urban city bustling with students and artists. My hotel was quite close to Glasgow University and across from the Botanical Gardens in Glasgow’s West End. This time I really did hear bagpipes at all hours of the night as students and musicians prowled the streets below my room. There was a buzz coming from the street – laughter and general sounds of people gathering to meet up or maybe return from an evening out at the pub. It wasn’t unlike the sounds of New York City. It felt exciting and fresh, young and alive. However, I couldn’t wait to start the next phase of my journey – off to the Isle of Skye, with a few much anticipated stops along the way.
I was picked up bright and early by my guide, Catriona Stevenson of Slainte Scotland. Over the last 6 or so months, Catriona and I had been corresponding. We met via Facebook. I had put out a blind request for some help and guidance on a Scottish Travel Facebook Group. I knew that for my second full week in Scotland, I had a few more boxes to tick. Skye was one of them and would serve as the focal point of the week. However, I had absolutely no idea if what I was proposing was possible in a week’s time. All I did know is that I wanted to find a knowledgeable guide that would get me where I wanted to go and one I felt comfortable with given this would be a private tour. I was very lucky and didn’t have to look long. I was immediately impressed by Cat’s response to my inquiry and the fact that she didn’t try to “sell” me on her tour vs. another. But, then, she really didn’t have to. Her thoughtful consideration of my inquiry, prompt and professional response and ultimately the thorough itinerary she proposed sealed it. Sometimes you just click with people and it is how I felt about Slainte Scotland and Catriona, in particular. There was also the added benefit that Catriona was herself obsessed with Outlander. I knew we would have much to talk about on the long drive to Skye!
I wasn’t wrong about that as our first stop was the studios in Cumbernauld where Outlander is filmed. Catriona has intimate knowledge of the studio because she was actually an extra during filming of Season 2. I had known this prior to coming to Scotland. Catriona and I had discussed it some but not much given the confidentiality agreement she had to honor due to her involvement in yet-to-be-seen episodes of Outlander. She told me just enough to whet my appetite about what it was like to be on set. It reminds me that there actually is an incredible Outlander-related story about how it was truly meant-to-be that I was to take this tour with Catriona and Slainte Scotland. But, I will cover that a little later! The studio was unremarkable but larger than I had thought – covering quite a bit of square footage. It’s clear how impactful Outlander has been to growing the size of this dismal industrial park on the outskirts of Glasgow. Unfortunately, I didn’t spot any of the production crew, but it was fun to see it and imagine the familiar sets inside.
Next we were off to find the mysterious filming location for the fictional “Craig na Dun” stone circle featured so prominently in the Outlander novels and television series. In my Facebook research, several Scottish tour guides had posted about finding it, but all were very cryptic with details. Not sure why that may be other than competition for “Outlander related” tours has become fierce in Scotland over the past year. It seems guides want to one-up each other on as yet undisturbed location sets from the television series. So, even though my itinerary had been set, of course, I had to ask Catriona if she knew the place. She did and had been there once a year ago. She thought she could remember and in her typical cheerful fashion, she agreed to take me there despite going out of our planned route by almost two hours. The location is off a narrow farm road near Kinloch Rannoch. We did have some difficulty locating it at first. It’s easy to get turned around direction wise when you are so deep into the Highlands that every farm road off the main highway looks the same. However, when we did find it, I was beyond thrilled. The sheep had been there before us so any romantic notions I had in my head of Claire and Frank or Claire and Jamie were dulled a bit as we dodged fresh sheep dung strewn liberally about the hillside. It was, though, a climb I had thought about doing ever since I knew I was coming to Scotland. It wasn’t as steep a hill as I had envisioned. The hill lies just above the road – maybe 100 feet if that. The grass really is greener there or maybe that was the Outlander colored glasses I was wearing! I stood in the middle of the Hill and imagined the stones especially the large buzzing one in the center. I looked off towards the Loch and listened to the wind whip above through the trees. I thought about the Druids Dance and Bear McCreary’s soundtrack, of course. It was amazing and beautiful. “Who the heck finds these places?” Catriona and I both said almost simultaneously. Give that man or woman a raise! The diversion was well worth it. Another #OutlanderGoal achieved.
After stopping for a toastie in the ONLY café in Kinloch Rannoch, we started in the direction of Skye. I saw some brilliant landscapes along the way as we cut through clefts in the mountains and hills. At the same time, my decision to NOT drive myself on this part of the tour was reaffirmed. Hiring a guide is a very good thing to do as driving in Scotland can be treacherous – especially on the one lane roads. And, there are a lot of one-lane roads. There was more Outlander talk in the car as we dissected Season 2 episodes, the characters and the plot including show vs. book changes and I got to hear a few behind-the-scenes stories Catriona discreetly shared about her experience as an extra. Unfortunately, I can’t share them here so will have to leave you to wonder.
We were almost to the Skye Bridge when I saw it. The beautiful Eilean Donan Castle. I am not alone in being completely entranced with this lovely castle that sits out on a rocky peninsula. It’s one of the most photographed castles in Scotland despite being one of the youngest. It’s really just its setting that makes it so magical. The lovely bridge to the castle is exquisite and the way the water that surrounds it sparkles and creates mirror images. Just lovely and a must-see for me.
Upon arrival on Skye, we headed to my B&B – the beautiful Kinloch Lodge. Spectacular setting and amazing service. There is a Michelin rated restaurant there which we partook in that evening. Lots of delicious courses. A little posh for the limited hiking wardrobe I had brought with me, but glad we did it. I was anxious to get to bed, though, so I could wake up and see more of lovely Skye.
We got an early start heading out for what I anticipated would be lots of hiking. I wasn’t prepared, however, for how large the island is. There is really only one main road around. You have to drive quite a bit to get anywhere but the scenery along the way is really breathtaking. The Cuillin mountains stand tall above one side of the island. At 3,225 the Sgùrr Alasdairt in the Black Cuillins qualifies as a Munro. It’s majestic. We saw lots of climbers along the side of the road preparing for their ascent. It looked like serious business. Maybe beyond my capabilities for the moment, but this might be a challenge for the future!
Onward we rolled through wide open landscape soaring up on either side of the roadway. Again, I refer to my earlier comment about traveling to Skye with someone familiar with driving the roads there. It’s an art and a science to learn how and when to give way to oncoming traffic when on the one lane roads that populate most of the island. I was in very good hands with Catriona, however. But, more than once I was grateful it wasn’t me behind the wheel. Our first climb of the day was at the Old Man Storr. A brilliant, sunny day, I actually left my jacket in the car for the first time this trip. There were many other climbers on the trail and the first quarter of the climb was straight up a very steep incline. We climbed high enough to grab some amazing views of the mountains and the sea in the distance, but my 3 hour hike from two days previous was fresh on my mind, legs and heart. I just wasn’t up for another vertical climb so we stopped half way up to admire the views and take some photos. I was disappointed in myself but resigned to the fact that I had already done more hiking and climbing then I ever thought I would this trip. That said – I knew there would be more opportunities on Skye to redeem myself. And, there was…
|View from Old Man Storr trail|
The seminal point of the visit to Skye – by far – for me was the climb at the Quiraing. I wasn’t going to miss this one. These are some of the most other-worldly views and landscapes I have ever seen in my life! The Quiraing is part of the Trotternish ridge formed by a massive landslip creating very high cliffs, hidden plateaus and soaring rock pinnacles. You can follow the loop trail for about 6.8 km starting and ending at the car park. The car park itself sits on a plateau at the top of the Trotternish about 5.5 miles from Uig and 2.5 miles from Staffin. If you are coming from Portree, it’s about 21 miles. It not a trail for the faint of heart. The trail itself is about 2.5 feet wide at most and is rocky and craggy and requires some scampering at times to cross over gaps in the mountains and small waterfalls. Oftentimes, as I looked out at the views below, I felt like I had just stepped into an oil portrait someone had just painted. I am sure there are other places in the world as beautiful, but something about this place is at once peaceful yet rugged and even dangerous. Occasional gusts of very strong winds would kick up and then just as suddenly eerily stop. I really don’t know how to describe the feeling one gets when you reach the summit. The only thing I can say is you must go here. It’s rated a medium hike for length and gets a hard rating for difficulty. But, worth every step and every bit of breath sucking and heart pumping effort you make on the climb. I will NEVER, EVER forget this place.
After this amazing experience, we continued our trek around the island. We stopped to pay our respects to Flora MacDonald, the young woman who aided Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape after the Battle of Culloden. She is buried at the cemetery in the village of Kilmuir. Kilmuir is the only place (outside of the western islands) where Scottish Gaelic is spoken by at least half the population. Her gravestone is quite grand and reflects the important part she played in Scottish history after the rising and subsequent clearances of 1745. Her gravestone is marked with the following – “…a name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour…”
It was a nice breather after a long, long day. And, did I mention the days are VERY long on Skye. The sun does not fully set there until 10:30 p.m in the spring. It’s an adventurers dream. You could literally spend 16 hours doing outdoor activities every day this time of year. Unfortunately, for this Sassenach – 10 hours per day was about as much as I could do. Thankfully, my patient guide understood.
Day 2 on Skye, we started off bright and early at the Fairy Pools at Glenbrittle – on the south side of the island and at the feet of the Black Cuillins. It’s easy to see why these pools carved between the massive faces of the Cuillins were revered by early inhabitants of the islands. They are truly enchanting. You can almost picture the wee folks dancing from stone to stone and waterfall to waterfall. And, the deep green of the water in some of the pools reminds you of what a fairy might bathe in. It was an easy, slow walk up to the very top of the pools. We stopped quite a bit to enjoy the views. Photographers – amateur and professional – all around us. It was a beautiful day so we were joined by many other walkers and admirers of this spectacular place. It’s another “don’t miss” on Skye.
We made a quick stop at Talisker Distillery for a wee nip of whiskey before lunching in Portree and some quick shopping. As the afternoon waned, we wound our way back to Armandale for the quick half hour ferry ride back to mainland Scotland and the quaint port town of Mallaig. We continued our search for the elusive Wi-Fi access in Mallaig to no avail. Note to self: No Wi-Fi on Skye. Good place to go to get away. You have no choice!
It was here that Catriona left me, albeit briefly. I boarded the Jacobite Steam Train bound for Fort William. What a glorious two hours it was as the train puffed and chugged through some beautiful mountain villages and along the sea. For Harry Potter fans, the Jacobite Steam Train was used in some filming (Hogwarts Express) and there are several film locations along the way that our conductor pointed out. On a clear day, you can see for miles on the train. I wouldn’t recommend it for cloudy or rainy days. The fare is not inexpensive so you want to be able to see the many magnificent views and get your money’s worth. My favorite part of the trip was seeing many of the locals – kids in tow – standing near the tracks and waving as the train passed by. The train itself is quite iconic and is viewed as a source of pride by many who live along the tracks. I met Catriona at the station in Fort William and we continued our drive. It was getting late – close to 9:00 p.m. but was so glad there was some light left when we drove through Glen Coe. Everything I had heard about this place was true. It is so eerily vast and haunting. Catriona amused me during this part of the drive with some ghost tales about Glen Coe – and there are many. There were a few she had experienced for herself. Other stories came from travelers who had made their way through the Glen and dared to stop to camp for the night. I smiled wryly at her re-telling of these and her own stories. Maybe I believe, or maybe I don’t, but it’s easy to see how such tales could emerge from such a place. As the sun began to set, some dark clouds rolled in creating some odd swirling formations. It was, indeed, ghostly!
It was a very late arrival at a charming Guest House in Inverkip that night. Forester’s House, run by Jim and Rhona Wallace was a welcome and warm haven after another very long day. These two people epitomize Scottish hospitality. While the rooms themselves are old-fashioned and a bit dated, the attention to detail and cleanliness is surpassed by few, if any, places I stayed throughout my trip. However, it was more about the gracious attitude, the way I was greeted upon arrival (despite the extremely late hour), as well as the beautiful place setting and carefully prepared breakfast buffet. Rhona, in particular, is a true Highland raised lass – a member of the Wallace Clan. She was lovely to talk with in the morning and told me about some interesting work she is doing with a friend to establish a service to help visitors to Scotland discover their Scottish heritage. If you are ever in the Inverkip/Greenock area, look up Rhona and Jim at Forester’s House.
|Forester’s House — Breakfast is Served!|
The next morning would be my last with Catriona. I was sad knowing this as she had been such a wonderful traveling companion and so knowledgeable about Scottish history – and Outlander, of course. I could not have asked for a better guide on Skye or on our trips to and from there. My serendipitous story about Catriona has to do with a news story I wrote for this Blog several months ago. I had learned that Outlander was filming some final scenes for Season 2 in Falkland — the stand-in village for Inverness in the show. I had quickly co-opted a friend that lived near to Falkland to try and get some photos of the sets and costumed actors and extras for the Blog story I was working on. He was able to get some photos and a fun video of a male and female extra walking down the street dressed in 1960-era costumes. I put the video in the Blog and published it. I shared it with Catriona who I was already talking to quite frequently at this point about the trip and my itinerary and tour. She told me she loved it but that was the extent of it. Several months later, however, she confided in me that she was an extra for the scenes shot in Falkland and that was actually HER in the video my Scottish friend took and which I subsequently included in my Blog post. I couldn’t believe it and neither could she. It was truly serendipity — meant to be — that she would be my guide on Skye. Of that, I was quite sure!
For our final hike, we set off towards the Greenock Cut. The “Cut” refers to an aqueduct that was built there in the 1900s. When the great potato famine hit Ireland, Irish workers came to Scotland for work. Many of them ended up building the aqueduct that spans some 6.5 miles in the hills above Greenock and Inverkip. It’s known to have some of the best views in southern Scotland. The Cut did not disappoint. The weather was a little overcast and misty but as the morning went on, there was some clearing and we were treated to some beautiful views looking out towards the Clyde River. We walked about 2 and a half hours over the Cut and saw some beautiful stone bridges and bothies that were used as rudimentary shelter for the workers who built the aqueduct. The trail is very exposed and subject to gusty winds so there was need for some shelter, hence the bothies. We even saw a few bothies with fireplaces, now grown over with shrubbery and weeds. It was an easy walk along a mostly flat trail. There were sheep on either side of us as we wound our way along. Again, we found ourselves stepping lightly around steaming piles resulting from the sheep’s prolific grass eating. But, all part of the Scotland experience!
We ended the walk at the Greenock Cut Centre where we grabbed something to eat (and my first Irn Bru of the trip!) and awaited the arrival of my friends from Kilmarnock who were to pick me up and take me with them to stay for the weekend. It was a lovely couple of days and life changing in many, many ways. There is not a more perfect place than the Isle of Skye. True, I was blessed with good weather. But, I have to believe that this circumstance was divine in nature and I will always be grateful that God chose to shine his light on such an exquisite place those few days so I could experience it so perfectly.
I spend the last several days of my Scotland trip with dear friends and set to explore the west coast of Scotland. Until my next post… Slainte!
Read ALL my Scotland Diary entries here:
A Sassenach Abroad
Ready, Set, Scotland
May 13-14 Edinburgh
May 15-17 Castles, Kirks, Cairns and Culloden
May 19-21 The Highlands Part 2
May 24-27 Over the Sea to Skye
May 27-30 The West Coast and Scottish Hospitality
Have you ever been to the Isle of Skye or any of Scotland’s western islands?