ISLE OF SKYE
Scotland’s moody, mystical landscapes are very popular with tourists, but you can still experience its quiet magic without breaking the spell – or your bank account
This Scottish island is very popular, but Chris Davies finds an idyllic (and mostly free) way to experience its charms
distant screech echoes off the hills. We stop walking and turn to look at the loch. This particular inlet, Loch Nan Uamh, is one of more than 200 sea lochs along Scotland’s west coast, and our narrow footpath has zigzagged up its southern slopes, offering cloud-wreathed views of the pine-clad far shore. The shrill blast is unmistakable, and now a second and third bounces across the water as a billowing steam train crosses a stone bridge, then disappears, still blasting away, into a tunnel. Back on the path, we climb the final steps over a grassy ridge and get the first glimpse of our destination for the night: Peanmeanach bothy, a solitary stone cottage overlooking a deserted, sandy bay. The low cloud is turning to rain as we navigate a succession of boggy pools and hop, rock to rock, across narrow rapid streams. Six hours earlier, my partner and I had collected our rental car at Edinburgh airport and driven the beautiful Loch Lomond road north, past its wooded islands, through Glencoe, Fort William and into the Western Highlands. By 6pm we’d parked in a deserted lay-by, donned backpacks and boots, and set out on the first hike of our Scottish walking holiday. It’s about 7pm now, but it’ll be light for a few hours yet. These long, summer evenings are wonderful – you can get so much done. Now if only the rain would ease up a bit. It’s inclement weather, however, that’s largely responsible for the existence of our shelter tonight. Bothies are small huts or cottages – the traditional homes of labourers or game keepers – that are now left unlocked and free for cold, wet hikers to use. A volunteer organisation, the Mountain Bothies Association, looks after almost 100 such shelters, mostly in Scotland but
also scattered across northern England and Wales. Invariably isolated and usually offering little more than sleeping bunks and a roof, bothies are not meant for comfort, but with a bit of preparation you can bring your comfort with you. And there is no better way to experience the spectacular wildness of the Highlands. Smoke is rising from Peanmeanach bothy as we cross a final grassy fen and draw near. Alex and James, university students from Gloucester, have found wood and built a small fire. They welcome us inside. You can’t book a bothy – anyone has the right to shelter. Parties of more than five are forbidden, but space should be made for smaller groups. If you’re arriving late to a popular bothy, a tent could save you an uncomfortable night, but bothy etiquette is to make room no matter how full. We trade whisky for crisps and biscuits, hang wet clothing by the fire and devour our deli-bought chicken and rice before retiring upstairs, where we have the cosy attic to ourselves. The next morning we say our goodbyes and hike back to our car to catch the ferry at Mallaig. There are more than 700 Scottish islands of various sizes, but we’re heading to the second largest by area and fourth by population: the Isle of Skye. Since 1995 a bridge has connected Skye to the mainland at Kyle of Lochalsh. It’s only a short drive north, but I feel an island loses something if you don’t arrive by boat. It was the supreme seafarers, the Vikings, who named this island Skuy, or ‘mist’, and it is misty as we chug across the channel, an enormous rainbow dwarfing a sailboat off the starboard bow. The ferry is packed, and we’ve heard that accommodation on the island is hard to find. Scotland has become increasingly popular in recent years – in 2017 it was voted the most beautiful country in the world in a survey by Rough Guides. With its wild coves and misty peaks, Skye is rightly a gem in that crown. The locals also think highly of it: a 2016 UK real-estate survey ranked it the most desirable place to live in Britain. Most visitors converge on Skye’s three main attractions: the north-eastern rock formations of the Quiraing and the Old Man of Storr; and a string of waterfalls near the centre of the island called the Fairy Pools. The queue of cars from the ferry seems headed that way. We peel
away from them and turn off towards our second bothy in the south. The Scots, they say, can really tell a joke – a sense of humour’s inevitable, perhaps, when your national stereotypes also include stinginess, deep-fried everything and bagpipes. Even so, it takes a special kind of levity to enshrine the unicorn as your official national animal. It’s been amusing me since I came across the fact while Googling in the car. Now, high up on the hiking trail, with the trinkets and tourists far behind, a beam of golden light lances through the clouds into Camasunary Bay below. And it suddenly seems plausible that the country’s myths and legends could be real. From lesserknown kelpies and selkies (supernatural water horses and shape-shifting seals) to the world-famous Loch Ness Monster, why not the unicorn as your official beast? Landscapes like this are fertile ground for the imagination. Camasunary is as charming as Peanmeanach. Three Dutch hikers arrive as we reach the bothy door, and then a Scottish family, wild-camping up the beach, pop in for some tea. Beyond that, the sheep-scattered bay is ours, and after exploring until sunset we grab a deck of cards left by a previous hiker and play by candlelight into the night. We leave unhurried the next day and take a meandering, scenic drive. Our final bothy is way up on Skye’s northernmost tip; the hike in is short and easy – and we are rewarded with the best views of the journey so far. The Lookout bothy was once just that – a coastguard lookout that monitored the stormy shipping lanes north of Skye. The visitors’ book is full of whale and dolphin sightings, and someone has left binoculars and a marine-animals chart. Despite much hopeful searching, we don’t spot anything, but as the light fails, so the lighthouses flash; I count more than a dozen blinking away in the deepening night. Back in Edinburgh, I’m on a final mission: a search for Scotland’s most artery-clogging meal. Deep-fried anything (think pizza and chocolate bars) is supposed to be ubiquitous, but central Edinburgh is apparently too hip for that these days. Besides, my partner is unconvinced, so instead we tuck into one delicious meal after the other; this city is saturated with cheesemongers and artisanal delis, wine bars and cosy restaurants. After five nights of camping meals, we’re only too happy to feast on good food and then hit the streets to walk some more. Although far from the Highlands, a sense of the mythical remains in the city. Every skyline seems to sport a gargoyle and at every turn Edinburgh Castle towers over all. It’s no wonder JK Rowling’s Harry Potter sprang from these streets. I suppose anything seems possible when your national animal’s a unicorn. And that screeching on the bridge at pine-clad Loch Nan Uamh? That must have been the train to Hogwarts, after all.
LEFT Boats await the tide on Scotland’s west coast. OPPOSITE The tiny Lookout bothy has fantastic cliff-top views across the North Minch channel. Kind hikers have left binoculars for whale and dolphin spotting.
The 10pm sun sets slowly over Camasunary Bay, where sheep graze on the shore and a welcoming bothy provides shelter.
FROM LEFT Talisker is the oldest singlemalt distillery on the Scottish coastline; the view from Lookout bothy towards the Outer Hebrides isle of North Uist.