Skye (Gaelic: An t-Eilean Sgitheanach) is the largest and most northerly of the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, linked to the mainland by a toll-free bridge. It's a rugged mountainous island with spectacular scenery. Portree is the main settlement, with a tourist information centre, and the main concentration of accommodation.
Gaelic is spoken by 30% of the population, and there's a college teaching entirely in Gaelic in Sleat. On road signs in Skye, the Gaelic version of the place name is given first followed by the English version.
- Sleat is the gently rolling southern part of Skye where visitors first arrive. Most use the toll-free road bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh.
- Minginish is the central body of Skye, grouped around the dramatic Cuillin mountain range.
- 4 Elgol has boat trips to Loch Coruisk and a fine beach at Camasunary.
- Sconser on the main coast road has ferries to Raasay,
- 5 Sligachan is little more than a road junction in the wilds, but has accommodation.
- 6 Carbost on Loch Harport is home to the Talisker whisky distillery.
- 7 Glenbrittle is a good base for climbing the Cuillin.
- 8 Portree is the main village of Skye, and has the most accommodation and other amenities. North of here, the island breaks into three stubby fingers.
- Trotternish is the largest and most frequently visited peninsula, having the stunning rock formations of the Old Man of Storr and the Quiraing. Buses follow A855 round the coast, with plenty of options for walking and climbing.
- Waternish in the middle has some pretty villages, especially 10 Stein, but is overlooked by most tourists. See also the ruins of Trumpan church.
- Duirnish is the western peninsula.
- Nearby islands:
- "Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing, Onward! the sailors cry,"
- "Carry the lad that's born to be king, over the sea to Skye."
- but he wasn't so born. The Stuart or Jacobite royal family were ousted in 1688 by the Protestant Hanoverians; they attempted several counter-coups and the last and most serious was that of 1745 by Charles Edward Stuart (1720–1788), "Bonny Prince Charlie". His cause was shattered at the Battle of Culloden near Inverness and he fled into the Highlands, spending six months on the run before escaping to France. And had he conducted his military and political campaign with half the guile, fortitude and good luck that attended his flight, he might have regained the crown.
Flora Macdonald of Sleat (1722–1790) happened to be on South Uist when the Prince and a few comrades pitched up there - a dangerous dead-end for them. She was no Jacobite sympathiser but took pity, and arranged passage for him to Skye disguised as her maid, if flouncing about like Liberace playing The Widow Twanky counts as "disguise". They landed near Kingsburgh, Portree on Skye on 29 June 1746, where he was briskly told to change out of that damn-fool costume. Next morning the Prince was spirited away to the island of Raasay, and never saw Macdonald again. He then doubled back to Portree, tramping across Skye to Elgol where on 4 July he was conveyed to Mallaig on the mainland.
All this was a symptom of the remoteness, poverty and isolation of Skye and much of the western Highlands. The terrain was rugged, the soil was poor and boggy, fishing was hazardous, and there were few minerals. The population drifted away to Glasgow and beyond, and in the 19th century came a series of evictions as the landowning chiefs realised that sheep paid better than subsistence farm rentals. But also in that century came a turnaround in perceptions, as stark mountains were re-defined as scenery, and rain-lashed heaths as romantic vistas where the Prince hid out and was never betrayed. It also became not only safe but fashionable to wear the re-invented tartan and sing Jacobite songs, without being considered seditious. "The Skye Boat Song" was first published in 1848 - the folk tune may have been traditional but the words were modern English. It inverted the geography, having the Prince flee from mainland Scotland to Skye, whereas his journey was from the Outer Hebrides to Skye closer inshore thence to the mainland. And of all the places he fled through, the song has indelibly linked him to Skye, two brief transits but easier to work into a song lyric than, say, Borrodale.
Tourism on Skye was boosted at the end of the 19th century when railways reached Mallaig and Kyle of Lochalsh. In the 20th century the island roads were improved, mountaineering on The Cuillin became popular, and the ferries were converted to ro-ro to carry more vehicles. The game-changer in 1995 was the completion of the Skye Bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh, though the operator charged hefty tolls until being bought off in 2004. Tourist infrastructure has lagged behind the growth in visitors - don't come here in summer without booked accommodation. Skye is the most touristy of the Hebrides, yet if you come offpeak, or turn down a back lane (to Glenbrittle, say) it still feels miles from the busy modern world.
The main road to Skye is the A87, which branches off A82 (Fort William-Inverness road) at Invergarry, to run west via Shiel Bridge (for Glenelg), Dornie (for Eilean Donan Castle) and Kyle of Lochalsh, crossing the toll-free bridge to Kyleakin. It follows Skye's north coast via Broadford and Portree to Uig.
Scottish Citylink Bus 914 / 915 runs twice daily between Glasgow and Skye. The route north is from Buchanan St Station via Glasgow Airport, Dumbarton, Loch Lomond west bank, Crianlarich, Glencoe, Fort William, Invergarry and Kyle of Lochalsh. The route continues across Skye via Broadford, Sligachan and Portree to Uig, about 7 hours in total.
Bus 916 / 917 runs twice daily from Inverness via Loch Ness and Kyle, then via Broadford and sligachan to Portree; 3 hours 30 mins.
Stagecoach Highlands Bus 55 runs three times M-F from Kyle to Kyleakin and Broadford, with two continuing to Torrin and Elgol.
Bus 51 / 52 runs from the ferry pier at Armadale to Broadford and Portree several times a day.
There is no railway on Skye. The two mainland stations with connections to Skye are 1 Kyle of Lochalsh and 2 Mallaig. From London they're both about 11 hours by daytime train, 13 hours via sleeper. Kyle has trains from Inverness, and is the better linked, with buses onward to Skye. Mallaig has trains from Fort William and Glasgow; from Mallaig you take the ferry to Armadale as described below, then a bus.
Calmac car ferries ply between Mallaig on the mainland and Armadale near the south tip of Skye. They take 45 mins and sail daily, every hour or two Apr-Oct but only a couple per day Nov-March. Fares in 2022 are about £10 per car plus £3 per person.
The tiny Skye Ferry runs April to mid-October between Glenelg on the mainland and Kylerhea, which is up a minor road south of Kyleakin. It's an odd contraption, with a swivelling deck, and its capacity is only six cars per trip or 18 per hour; there's no bus from Kylerhea. This ferry is best regarded as a tourist sight, not a practical transport option.
From Uig in the north of Skye, Calmac car ferries sail to Tarbert on Harris and Lochmaddy on North Uist - buses from Glasgow traverse Skye to connect. (No ferries 30 Oct - 11 Dec 2023 as Uig harbour is closed for construction works.) Those Outer Hebrides or Western Isles can be reached by other routes from the mainland (chiefly Ullapool to Stornoway, and Mallaig to Lochboisdale); so you could then sail to Uig and reach Skye by that circuitous route. It's not dissimilar to Bonnie Prince Charlie's fugitive backtrack to the mainland.
There's also a ferry between Sconser on Skye and Raasay. There's no other transport to that island so you have to double back. And yes, BPC did the same.
Buses run along the main highways between the bridge, Armadale, Portree and Uig as above.
Stagecoach Highlands Bus 57 circles between Portree, Uig and the Trotternish peninsula. Bus 57C is clockwise, Portree > Uig > Flodigarry > Staffin > Portree and 57A is anti-clockwise the reverse route. It runs every 3 hours or so M-F plus Sa in summer.
Bus 56 runs 3-5 times M-Sa from Portree to Dunvegan, with a couple continuing west to Colbost.
And that's about it. Individual village pages describe some other buses but they're of limited use to the visitor. Many are in effect school buses: anyone can use them, but they only make one run early morning then in late afternoon, M-F in termtime, so they don't run in the summer holidays. A good example is Bus 154 from Portree to Carbost.
The main road A87 and the roads to Armadale A851 and Dunvegan A850 are undivided highways, in good condition though winding and very busy in summer, so overtaking is hazardous. Almost everything else is a single lane with passing places, although the Trotternish road A855 section between The Storr and Staffin has now been widened. Always have in mind whether your nearest passing place is ahead or behind you, and be prepared to respond to other vehicles accordingly. When using a passing place keep left: if the space is on your left pull in, if it's to your right stop adjacent on the left and the oncoming driver will swerve around in the passing place. Out of season the roads are very quiet, but some of those sheep ought to be made to attend road safety awareness training.
Car hire is available in Mallaig and Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland, and Armadale and Portree on Skye. Book well ahead as their fleets are small. If you fly into, say, Glasgow, you'll do better to hire from the airport.
Many of the roads in Skye are cyclable, although traffic can be a problem in late summer. If you're cycling, make sure you have good raingear; Skye is wet even by the drizzly standards of Scotland. Bikes travel free on the ferry from Mallaig, and the ride from Armadale north to the bridge is pleasant.
Hitching is never 100% safe, but residents of Skye are generally very open to giving lifts in remoter areas (especially if you've missed the last bus of the day or it's raining).
- Trotternish, the peninsula north of Portree, was distorted by a huge landslip 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. The ice had been supporting the mountainside, which collapsed leaving strange exposed rock formations. The Old Man of Storr is a rock pinnacle seen from the road, and Kilt Rock is a dolerite sea cliff that doesn't much resemble a kilt. The Quiraing is a weird plateau hidden by rock pillars - you only get a limited view from the road, so take the four-mile loop walk to get close.
- Macleod's Maidens are sea-stacks near Skye's west tip. They're reached by a long hike from Dunvegan, but more usually seen by boat trip.
- Prehistoric: the aligned stones and other megaliths are modest, but no coastal headland is complete without its broch or dun. These are Iron Age settlements, around 200 BC to 200 AD, with the best at Dun Ardtreck teetering on the cliffs near Carbost. For even earlier remnants see the Dinosaur Museum at Kilt Rock.
- Dunvegan Castle is the grandest building on Skye. It's been the ancestral home of the Chiefs of Clan MacLeod for 800 years, but what you see now is mostly Victorian.
- Armadale Castle is the masonry shell of an 18th/19th-century mansion, but has attractive gardens and a museum.
- Other castles that are little more than picturesque stumps are Dunscaith a few miles north of Armadale, Castle Moil at Kyleakin and Duntulm north of Uig.
- Neist Point Lighthouse on Duirnish Peninsula is the most westerly point of Skye.
- Loch Coruisk is a scenic loch framed by mountains near the west coast, usually reached via Elgol.
- Skye Museum of Island Life north of Uig has a preserved township of thatched cottages, displayed as at 1800.
- Learn Scottish Gaelic at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Skye's Gaelic college. Attend one of their short courses or do a full degree.
- The Cuillin are Skye's most famous group of mountains, and there are coastal treks. Visit Walkhighlands (Isle of Skye walks), a free and independent guide to walks on the island.
- Bag all the Munros, the mountains over 3000 ft / 914.4 m in Scotland. By far the most difficult is Sgùrr Dearg above Glenbrittle, as it's topped by a sharp blade of rock rightly named "The Inaccessible Pinnacle", requiring rock-climbing skills and gear to surmount.
- Look up your ancestors: the Archive Centre in Portree has records back to the 17th century.
- Boat trips mostly sail from Portree, with some from Uig and elsewhere. The visit to Loch Coruisk is usually done as a boat trip from Elgol.
- Events: live music, ceilidhs and concerts are held year round, but mostly July-Aug.
Skye has its own local radio station which is worth a listen to find out about local events. 102.7MHz, 106.2MHz (Portree/Staffin) & 107.2MHz (Sleat) depending on where you are and it is also available online.
Fill the car tank before you leave central Scotland, and drive cannily. You'll do a lot of mileage just to get here, with not many refueling options en route. The filling station at the south end of Portree has fuel for only a few pence more than city supermarket prices.
Most of the larger villages on Skye have some kind of small shop, but don't expect a broad range or supermarket prices. Portree has the biggest selection, including two Co-op supermarkets. Broadford has a few shops including a small Co-op.
Woollen goods are a noted product of Skye. Look for them at the gift shop at the Clan Donald Centre at Armadale Castle or in Portree.
- Cuillin Brewery in Sligachan is a micro-brewery that offers tours.
- Isle of Skye Brewing Company in Uig has brewery tours and a shop. Their most popular bottled beers are Black Cuillin (a dark porter), Red Cuillin (an amber) and Hebridean Gold (a golden ale), available in many pubs across the island.
- Isle of Skye Distillery make gin and vodka in Portree, no tours.
- Whisky distilleries: Talisker in Carbost is the best known, but there's also Torabhaig in Sleat, plus Raasay an easy day-trip from Sconser. All three can be toured. Isle of Skye Whisky is perfectly quaffable, but it's a blended product from Broxburn near Edinburgh, with no connection to the island.
The main tourist season is from Easter through September. The bridge has made Skye very accessible and popular, outstripping the supply of accommodation, and some hotels are block-booked in summer by coach excursions. So you need to book well ahead, and don’t try to visit in July / August without a booking. It's got so bad, at the height of summer the police have to turn people back on the A87 if they haven't booked anything. Off-season is quieter and some places hibernate, but it's never as closed and boarded up elsewhere in the Hebrides.
Camping is popular with visitors to Skye, but it's even more popular with the midges, who greet each new tent with hungry clouds. You might do better in pods where you can shut them out. Camp sites are dotted around the island, some in very picturesque settings. You can probably wild-camp in a tent most places, but camper vans and caravans attempting to park by the road overnight will be moved on by the police. There are hostels in Broadford, Glenbrittle, Portree and elsewhere.
The main concentration of hotels and B&Bs is in Portree. They're pricey! Self-catering cottages are simply everywhere, some very out-of-the-way; they usually book by the week.
- Return to the mainland via the bridge to see Plockton, Eilean Donan Castle at Dornie, and Loch Ness.
- Or return via ferry to Mallaig to visit Glenfinnan, Ardnamurchan Peninsula and Ben Nevis above Fort William.
- The Small Isles are Eigg, Rùm, Muck and Canna, reached by ferry from Mallaig; in summer a day-trip may be possible.
- Outer Hebrides: ferries sail from Uig on Skye to Tarbet on Harris and to Lochmaddy on North Uist.