Skye & Lochalsh
The Vikings called Skye "the Cloud". In Gaelic, it's Eilean a' Cheo - the isle of mist. There is no other island in Britain that can conjure up the images, the landscape, the history and romance of Skye.
Its mountains and lochs fill visitors with awe and history and legend is woven into the very fabric of the land. Castles and landmarks are reminders of a rich and bloody history between the feuding clans of Macleod and Macdonald. Caves on the coast helped Flora Macdonald hide Prince Charles Edward Stuart after the failed Jacobite rebellion, while giants and fairies are responsible for some of the more unusual landmarks.
One of the most popular attractions on Skye is Dunvegan Castle. Home of Clan Macleod for over 750 years, it's the oldest continually inhabited ancestral home in Scotland. The 30th Macleod of Macleod and his family still call Dunvegan home.
Many chiefs have come and gone, leaving behind them a legacy of legends and relics all of which can be seen displayed in the castle.
The most precious of the Macleod treasures is the yellow silk Fairy Flag which is said to possess magical powers. When spread on the marriage bed of a Macleod it will bring heirs, furled out over the loch it will charm herring into the bay and if unfurled in battle the numbers of the Macleods dramatically increase to ensure victory. The final charm can only be used three times. It has already been used twice, successfully, at Glendale in 1490 and against the Macdonalds at Trumpan in 1580. Against all odds, the Macleods triumphed.
The castle gardens are worth exploring and there are trips out onto Loch Dunvegan to see the seals.
Wildlife thrives on Skye. Otters play amongst the seaweed, red deer roam the glens and golden eagles soar from the crags. Ascrib Island, just off the coast, is home to hundreds of puffins that burrow into the cliffs to breed.
Activities, unsurprisingly, are centred on the outdoors. Everyone from beginners to skilled rock climbers is encouraged to experience the scenery at first-hand.
Climb the Cuillins. Pony trek across Trotternish. Sail around the coast. Cycle or just take a leisurely walk along routes with breathtaking views which will refresh, relax and recharge you.
Even when the weather turns - and it frequently does - the land loses none of its magic. In fact, when the island cloaks itself in a light mist, it becomes even more mysterious and welcoming.
Sit by the peat fire in an old pub with a glass of Talisker Whisky, which is distilled on the west coast of the island.
Visit one of the potters, painters or silversmiths on the island and see how Skye works its way into their creations.
Or visit one of the many centres which explore the history and culture of Skye and let the island weave its spell on you.
Legends of Skye
Macleod's Tables are two table topped mountains which dominate the skyline of Duirnish. They're named after one of the best-loved Macleod chiefs - Rory Mor.
On a trip to the Royal Palace in Edinburgh, the gallant and cultured chief was teased by Edinburgh courtiers, who believed Skye was a barbaric island at the back of beyond.
They asked if he had ever been in a more elaborate banqueting hall, or seen more precious candelabras or even eaten at a larger table than the one he was sitting at. To which, Macleod merely invited the catty courtiers to visit him in Skye.
They duly arrived at Dunvegan and towards evening Macleod took them up to the top of the mountain, where he had a banquet laid under the roof of the sky.
As night fell, his clansmen stood round the table with flaming torches so the feast could continue. Macleod then retorted that no man had ever made a more spacious banqueting hall than the one they were sitting in. No candle holders could be more precious than the ones standing around them, and he believed his table was larger than any other table built.
That put an end to the snide remarks. And gave the mountains a name.
Travelling along the main route from Fort William to Skye, you pass through some of the most magnificent Highland scenery in Scotland. Lochalsh is a hidden place, often neglected by visitors who believe Eilean Donan and Kyle of Lochalsh are all there is to this region.
From Cluanie on the edge of the loch the road winds through Glen Shiel which is hemmed in by mountains on all sides. Climbers come here for The Saddle, Sgurr an Lochain, Sgurr Fhurar and the distinctive ridge walk of the Five Sisters of Kintail. There are walks up the Five Sisters to suit all degrees of proficiency. Even from the safety of the road, the view of the mountains is inspiring.
At Shiel Bridge, you catch your first glimpse of Loch Duich. The view is even better on the scenic road which twists and turns up the pass of Mam Ratagan only to descend to the coast and Glenelg where Gavin Maxwell set his novel Ring of Bright Water.
Past Glenelg into the tranquil Glen Beag, you will find two of the best preserved brochs in Scotland. Standing over 11 metres high, the stone walls of Dun Telve and Dun Troddan are green with moss, but still manage to impress their solidity. The traces of galleries can be seen between the outer and inner wall and it is easy to imagine the settlements that were protected by the fortress.
Arnisdale is a pretty, sleepy village on the scree slopes of yet another Munro looking out over the magical Loch Hourn and is the final stop in the Glenelg area, unless you intend to proceed on foot and bag a few more Munros in the process.
Back at Shiel Bridge, the silver waters of Loch Duich stretch before you and the road follows the line of shore. Snowcapped mountains reflect in the still waters and the view when you turn the corner at Keppoch takes in the silhouette of Eilean Donan Castle.
As one of the most photographed landmarks in Scotland, Eilean Donan is instantly recognisable. It seems to float out on the water, it’s only link with the mainland the sturdy stone bridge. The castle was actually in ruins after the Jacobite rebellion of 1719 when Hanoverian troops fired cannon balls from their ships on the Jacobites taking refuge inside.
Originally the stronghold of the Mackenzie clan, Eilean Donan was later handed over to the Macrae’s. They oversaw restoration of the castle which was completed in 1932 and the Castle has become a favourite with tourists and film makers alike. Highlander, starring Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery was filmed here, the castle providing a suitably atmospheric and brooding backdrop to the mystical plot.
Beyond the pretty villages of Dornie and Ardelve is a track road which leads along Loch Long and into Glen Elchag. The Falls of Glomach, the second highest waterfall in Britain plunges from here into the ravine below and you can clamber down the 200m drop to the roaring water below.
Beyond the Falls lies the secret and hidden country of Lochalsh with more of the Kintail mountains, accessible to only climbers and hillwalkers. Among the steep slopes and crags are deep dark forests, black lochs which turn to silver in the sun and cascading rivers and waterfalls which rush through the ravines and crevices towards the sea. The confusion of mountains and lochs blend into Strathmore and Glen Affric. Routes are established which will take you through Kintail and onto Glen Affric but these are only for the serious hill walker.
Back on the main road, after crossing the bridge over Loch Long, you arrive at the Balmacara Estate owned by the National Trust for Scotland. The Lochalsh Woodland Gardens within the estate are tranquil and pretty whatever the season or weather.
Kyle of Lochalsh is known as the Gateway to the Isle of Skye. For centuries the main crossing point to the island, it has, since 1995, been home to the Skye Bridge. Now free to cross, this has to be one of the most scenic bridges in the world, offering spectacular views of both the Cuillins in Skye and the mountains of Wester Ross.
An important naval base during World War Two owing to its strategic position on the north-west coast (residents needed security passes to enter and leave the village), Kyle of Lochalsh is still a busy harbour today. It is also home to Seaprobe Atlantis, the semi-submersible glass-bottom boat which, in recognition of the village’s important role in the war, offers passengers of all ages the opportunity to explore the World War Two shipwreck HMS Port Napier without getting wet. All trips also offer the chance to explore all the scenery and wildlife, above and below the waves, in waters so rich in wildlife they have been designated a Marine Special Area of Conservation.
Heading up the steep road with its hairpin bends towards Plockton, there are great views of Loch Carron below and the moors of the Balmacara estate. In summer, the hills are purple with heather broken by the bright yellow of the broom and gorse. Plockton itself is one of the prettiest little towns in Scotland. It gained recognition as the setting for the BBC television series Hamish Macbeth.
The promenade winds along the harbour where the pleasure yachts and washed out rowing boats are moored. The hotels, shops and houses all have their gardens on the waterfront, a riot of colour in the summer and thanks to the Gulf Stream, huge palm trees sprout from the pavement. Crumbling country cottages are scattered along the shore all with their own little dinghy or rowing boat moored to the lawn. To get you in the holiday mood, stroll around the town, take afternoon tea in one of the friendly hotels and then wander round the art gallery and craft shop or scramble up the nearby hill for inspiring views.
Continuing your journey, you follow the steep winding road which seems to want to pitch you into Loch Carron below until you reach old village of Stromferry. At one point this would have been the crossing point over the water to Kishorn, Applecross and Wester Ross. Now the road just carries on along the shore, through Attadale and Strathcarron. Stop off at the West Highland Dairy for some pointers on how to make cheese, yoghurt and ice cream. Once you have tasted the selection of cheeses here, your cheese board at home will never be the same.
Taking time to explore Lochalsh is always worth the effort. Words will fail you, when you see the mass of mountains stretching into the far horizon. And you will find it hard to describe the impact that those views have on you as they suddenly appear from around a corner.
Photos: Alan Hendry