REACHING THE ISLE OF SKYE
From Portree on the Isle of Skye to the coastal township of Applecross on the mainland, here is a breathtaking journey around and up the Scottish Highlands.
Spin from Skye to the mainland to discover the wild landscapes of the Scottish Highlands
Portree and Applecross are only 74 miles (119km) apart by road, but the route between them is epic in the most elemental sense. Driving in an arc from one to the other, the panorama from the passenger’s side window is a near-constant of bruised-blue open seas or gaping loch, these waters often churning and frothing. The landscape is otherwise one of verdant pine forest, even greater expanses of rugged, rockstrewn moorland and towering mountain ranges. Separating these two townships, one located just off the West Coast of Scotland, the other just on, is the highest and the most otherworldly pass traversable by car in the British Isles. The first time I took this extraordinary drive was in the summer of 2011, going in the reverse direction. Today, I depart from Portree on a frigid midwinter’s morning with a bank of gun-grey cloud brooding over the humpbacked peak of Ben Tianavaig, one of the two prominences that flank the town’s natural harbour. Within a mile I’m in the midst of Skye’s open country, panoplies of rolling, craggy dun-coloured moor dotted with battalions of pine. A bubbling stream runs parallel to the road. Tendrils of mist snake over the water, a common sight here. In the 9th century, Viking invaders from Scandinavia gave the island the name Skuy, Norse for ‘misty isle’. Even those marauding Norsemen must surely have been struck by the Cuillins, the twin mountain ranges that bisect the island at its midpoint. The A87 winds right through them: the Red Cuillin – triangular-shaped peaks as if a child’s drawing or a Martian landscape – looming on one side of Glen Sligachan; on the other the more ominous Black Cuillin, jagged like a row of broken teeth. I drive up and around the Cuillin, which provide company until the road drops on to the flatter land of Broadford Bay, where I can look out at Skye’s little sister isle, Raasay, high and rocky. I follow the bend of the bay to the southern tip of the island and the Skye road bridge. Opened in 1995 and spanning the picture-postcard Lochalsh Sound, this replaced a ferry service that had been sailing in one form or other since the 1600s. From the outset, the bridge was controversial. The private operating company appointed by the government to run the bridge imposed a prohibitive toll which locals refused to pay. More than 100 arrests were made, but Skye folk did what they have been doing for
centuries, which is to say dug in, and in 2004 the toll was scrapped. This region as a whole demands hardiness. That much is apparent as I head out of the town of Kyle of Lochalsh towards the buttresses of Glen Shiel, menacing black slabs stretched across the horizon, with a cold wind howling in off the Sound. Turning left off the A87, roughly three miles (5km) further down the road and just after the tiny village of Auchtertyre, I join the Wester Ross coastal route. I might as well be passing into Middle Earth. As the meandering road rises, falls and climbs again, it does so through curtains of pine and silver birch. Ahead of me are the sheer peaks of the Torridon range, snow-capped and foreboding. To the right, banks of steep hillside are flecked with deep purple heather; below, glistening, is the enormous spread of Loch Carron. Raven stalk the higher ground; a buzzard perches on a roadside sign, motionless and watchful. Unspoilt, untamed beauty surrounds me for 20 miles (32km), yet it is a mere prelude to the wild heart of the drive. The turn off for Bealach na Bà – the Pass of the Cattle – is two miles (3km) on from the township of Kishorn. Ahead of it, a large red sign spits out warnings: ‘Not suitable for caravans, large vehicles or learner drivers! High risk of snow!’ Like Frodo Baggins, I am off to Mordor. In total, Bealach na Bà stretches out and up for 11 miles (18km), rising at a one-in-five gradient to 2053ft (626 metres) and then plunging back down to Applecross Bay. Initially, it is deceptive, almost benign. As I guide the car up a gently climbing bend, I am afforded a view out to sea with the sun breaking through the cloud. On the hillside, I spot a pair of red deer, stags, standing sentry and watching me. Soon enough, though, the road tapers to a single track and the true drama begins. Here, the road bucks and with it the car engine whines in protest. At the same time, the bends become more acute until the route is but a series of head-spinning hairpins – a rusty barrier all that stands on one side between narrow track and a straight drop of hundreds of feet. More than enough to make one’s stomach churn. At the plateau, a kind of alien netherworld unfolds. This is a wilderness of black rock, a blacker sky, snow and ice on the ground, all else indistinct in the gloom. And then, magically, at the apex of the descent and under the charcoal cloud line, there is clear sky and the sun once more kisses the land and sea, lighting them up in a chorus of greens and blues. Down, down I go towards Applecross. Its Gaelic name is A’Chomraich, ‘The Sanctuary’, and entirely apt. Such as it is, the town is but a ribbon line of whitewalled houses, a shop and an inn set along the seafront, looking out to a deep, wide bay. It is hushed, peaceful and welcoming. I drive another three miles (5km) west of Applecross and pull off the road at a small, rough-hewn car park. A track leads off it and down on to a bowl-shaped beach of golden sand, a bank of it rising 70ft (21 metres) back up to the roadside. There is no one here but me. The tide is out, and I walk across wet sand to the sea’s edge. From there, I am able to regard, across the water, Raasay and Skye beyond. So close, but also seeming so very far away.