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Summer 2023, Part 5 of 5: Working and Walking on the Isle of Skye

17-20 August 2023

Text by Blake Milteer

I can't remember a summer when I've spent so little time at home. From one perspective, that's not a bad thing; in June, July and August, Edinburgh is absolutely heaving with tourists. Traffic (pedestrian and vehicular) and general obnoxiousness get turned up to 11 during those months. Another view is that many of those people come to attend events as part of Edinburgh's various festivals, which is great. During most summers we are among the crowds, going to as many shows as we can afford; but this year, travel and the fact we allocated most of our summer entertainment budget to a single show in June (click here for the blog post covering that concert) meant that we mostly missed the energy in Edinburgh. Not a bad compromise, I'd say.

Drawing this memorable summer to a close, Sarah went off for a week in Badachro and I went across to the Isle of Skye.

Having not been to Skye in peak tourist season before, I was a bit worried that I'd left crowds of people in the city for crowds of people in the rural Highlands. The roads were extremely busy and slow-going. Portree, the largest town on the Isle of Skye was also rammed with tourists - a situation not helped by a steady feed of visitors disembarking from a massive 1200-passenger cruise ship moored just beyond the harbour. While tourism is a significant component of Scotland's economy, it is clear that the funds going back into infrastructure support for small communities and road maintenance are not equal to the strain from numbers (and all-too-often poor behaviour) of visitors.

Fortunately, work kept me mostly away from the zombie hordes, as I was there to help paint a fishing boat.

A man painting a boat.
That's me painting the registration numbers. Photo by Simon McWhinney.

The boat was brought ashore for painting, which had to be done while the tide was out and the weather was consistently favourable. So the boat was accessible for about 7 hours each day over 2 days before high winds and rain came in. Afterwards the boat was again moored in the harbour.

'SERENE' is a beautiful fishing boat owned by my brother-in-law, Simon. It was the last wooden boat built on the Isle of Skye and possibly the last one built in Scotland, as it wouldn't be viable to source the timber in this country today. Many passersby stopped to admire the boat as we were working.

Sunset over Portree harbour, Isle of Skye, Scotland.
Sunset over Portree harbour. Photo by Blake.

Simon was generous to invite me to help out and I really enjoyed it. Last year, he welcomed me along on a fantastic trip in one of his boats for four days from Eyemouth up the east coast of Scotland to Inverness, then down the Caledonian Canal to the west coast and up to Skye, where I stayed for another week.

During that stay I made the video below. It includes a great day on the fishing boat with Simon and his crewman, a stunning walk up to The Storr, and part of my trip home on the West Highland Railway Line. The video is quite long, but worth a watch. (Duration: 13:56)

Back to my August 2023 visit:

After the work was done, there was time for a bit of exploring. It's not terribly difficult to have a peaceful, rewarding, relatively tourist-free day. Here are my proven ingredients:

1. Do your homework: find interesting walks and destinations that are off the beaten path

2. Get advice, perspectives and recommendations from folk who live there

3. Know how to read an OS map (either download it on your phone or bring a paper one 'cause there might be no mobile service where you're going)

4. Get up early and venture out before the tourists do

5. Go out in shite weather when other people are staying inside complaining (but go with an understanding of the weather and terrain, take appropriate garments, food and water, know your limitations and be safe; also let someone know where you've gone)

The video below is divided into 5 parts

Part I: Scorrybreac circuit walk, Portree

I did this walk one morning before the tide went out far enough to access the boat. It's just a short 1.75 mile loop but traverses some gorgeous coastline. Dominating the view across to the Isle of Raasay was the cruise ship 'Ambience' with a steady stream of passengers being transported ashore to Portree. Needless to say, this was not the sort of 'Ambience' I was hoping for on this otherwise lovely walk.

Part II: Dun Gerashader hill fort

This subtle ruin near Portree is an example of the many ancient sites dotting the Scottish landscape that don't receive significant attention, much less renown. I nevertheless find these places great fun to identify on a map or enjoy hearing about from local folk and then setting off to find them.

Part III: Waternish peninsula walk:

My goal for the day was walking along the Waternish peninsula on the west side of Skye. The weather was windy and cloudy with sheets of passing rain. Compared with some of the island's better-known landscapes such as Trotternish (with the Storr and Quiraing, the Cuillins (particularly the Fairy Pools) or Neist Point, Waternish is quite subtle so it's probably not at the the top of most peoples' 'must see' list. Indeed I encountered only two other people on the walk. See the photos below for more detailed descriptions of some of the area's highlights.

Part IV: Kilvaxter Iron Age souterrain

An Iron Age underground chamber, probably used used for storing butter and other foods. This one was uncovered in 2000, the vault is 17 metres in length and about 1.5 metres high, though I couldn't get very far as the floor was covered in water.

Part V: Beaches

Short walks at day's end along the beaches of Cairidh Ghlumaig and An Corran.

The Storr viewed from Dun Gerashader. Photo by Blake.

The Storr is a hill featuring dramatic cliffs and unusual rock formations created as part of a massive post-glacial landslip (landslide) on the Trotternish escarpment about 5,000 to 13,000 years ago. It's an immensely beautiful place, but also intensely impacted by the traffic of more than 220,000 visitors each year, hence the major path work you can see being done in the first video above. The Storr was busy when I was there last year in October, so for this visit during peak summer tourist season I chose to enjoy the view from afar.

Here are some still photos from my walk along the Waternish peninsula:

Memorial cairn.
Memorial cairn commemorating the death of Roderick Macleod, who died in a battle between the Macleods and Macdonalds in circa 1530. Photo by Blake.

Plaque on the memorial cairn. Photo by Blake.

I do enjoy a good pile of rocks.

The goal for many who walk along the Waternish peninsula will be the far point, where there's a lighthouse and also stunning views across the Little Minch to the Western Isles. It's not far to the point - only about 8.5 miles round trip - but with the weather offering little possibility of a view, I set out for a feature at the halfway point. There, a few hundred metres off the path is Dùn Borrafiach.

Ruins of Iron Age fort, Isle of Skye.
Dùn Borrafiach, Waternish Point. Photo by Blake.

Ruins of Iron Age fort, Isle of Skye.
Dùn Borrafiach, Waternish Point. Photo by Blake.

More than 500 of these Iron Age drystone forts are found mainly in the north and west of the Scottish mainland and on some of the isles. Among the best-preserved examples are Mousa Broch in Shetland, Dun Carloway on the Isle of Lewis, Edin's Hall Broch in the Scottish Borders (among the few built away from the Highlands and islands) and Dun Telve in Glenelg (pictured below) Over the millennia, stone has been taken from many of these sites for use in other structures but it's still exciting to stand among the ruins, identify traces of activity in the surrounding landscape and imagine the people who built and utilised these places.

Iron Age broch.
Dun Telve in Glenelg, on the mainland just across from the Isle of Skye. Photo, October 2018 by Blake.

As seen at the end of the video, I took a meandering route back to Portree, driving around the northern coast of Skye and stopping to walk along the beaches at Duntulm (Cairidh Ghlumaig) and An Corran. There are dinosaur tracks found at both these beaches, but between the high tide and relentless wind I decided it best to return at a later date to search for those. I did, however, find the non-fossilised skull of a dinosaur descendent:

Seabird skull.
Razorbill skull found on the shore at Cairidh Ghlumaig. Photo by Blake.

Leaving Skye:

I was in no hurry to get home to Edinburgh, so I stopped to take in some vistas along the way:

Mountain on the Isle of Skye.
West slope of Glamaig with heather in bloom. Photo by Blake.

I also chose to take an alternative route from the Isle of Skye to the mainland. Rather than the standard drive across the Skye Bridge, I drove further south to catch the Skye-Glenelg ferry. This crossing has been in use for hundreds of years; since the 1980s, vehicles and passengers have been ferried by the MV Glenachulish. Built in the late 1960s it's the last manually-operated turntable ferry in operation worldwide. The boat is uniquely suited for crossing the tidal Kylerhea strait. Carrying a maximum of six cars, the ferry can dock alongside the pier in nearly any tide and load/unload vehicles diagonally (rather than from the bow and stern as most ferrys do) onto the jetty via the turntable.

The drive to/from the ferry adds a good bit of time to your journey, but it's well worth it. The crossing is short, the scenery magnificent, and the crew (humans and dogs) good-natured. I would recommend this journey on an historic ferry to anyone.

And finally, back on the mainland, a place I've passed many times but never bothered to stop is Invergarry Castle on Loch Oich.

Scottish castle ruin.
Invergarry Castle ruin. Photo by Blake.

I had worked with 19th century photographs of the castle when I was curator for the MacKinnon Collection and then saw it from afar while travelling down the Caledonian Canal in 2022 (Loch Oich is one of the 3 Great Glen lochs connected by the canal), so I wanted to have a closer look. The castle was built in the 17th century by the MacDonnells of Glengarry, suffered repeated attacks over the following two centuries and is now a ruin. In Loch Oich, the wreckage of the trawler Eala Bhan lies near the castle.

That's it for the summer 2023 blogs. We hope you enjoyed them.

We look forward to the possibility of further adventures next summer - perhaps with an excursion or two between now and then...

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