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.

Lonely Planet (UK) - - Travel Quiz - Paul Rees

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.

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