Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.
I could feel it rising in my chest – that feeling you get when embarking upon a new adventure, or returning to a place that has buried itself deep in your heart. For me, it was a little of both. It was my first time back on the Isle of Skye in three years, and it was almost like I was seeing it again for the first time.
As we pulled around a bend in the narrow road and the Old Man of Storr sat like a sentinel on the horizon with a background of wispy cloud and blue sky, my heart gave a flutter.
I was back in Scotland. I was back to Skye.
The song lyrics above came to be tied to my second visit to this Scottish isle. I caught myself humming it in the shower; as we climbed to a waterfall; as I sat on a ferry and bid the island farewell.
You may recognize the song from the opening credits of “Outlander” (and, if like me you binge-watched the entire first season in one weekend, you can probably sing it, too). The song actually has more to do with the Jacobite uprisings in Scotland than the Isle of Skye itself, but the ethereal, lullaby-like tune will forever conjure for me images of wind-swept coastline and the incredible landscapes that make up my favorite part of Scotland.
I remember the moment I fell in love with the Isle of Skye.
It was a rainy August morning. Chilly enough that I was wishing I had packed another layer for Scotland in the summer. My feet were getting wet as I walked through the grass in my Teva sandals (again, inappropriate for Scotland in summer), but the wet and the cold weren't really bothering me.
Because out in front of me was the most magnificent view.
I was standing atop the Quiraing and looking out over the Trotternish Peninsula. It was a million different shades of green beneath a typically gray sky (there's a reason that Skye is also often referred to as “the Misty Isle”). And, to me, it was perfect.
I had fallen hard for Scotland already, but in that moment I fell the hardest for the Isle of Skye. Even in the cold and the rain, there was just something magical about it. Maybe the fairies really DO hold sway here…
My second visit to Skye, therefore, had a lot to live up to. I was excited to share my favorite part of Scotland with my mom, and yet a tiny part of me worried that it couldn't possibly live up to my romanticizing of it over the previous three years.
But I needn't have worried. The sun decided to shine for three whole days in Scotland and the fairies were once again working their magic.
(And even on my *third* trip to Skye, the weather and the magic cooperated for yet another incredible trip.)
My Favorite Part of Scotland
The Isle of Skye, like the rest of Scotland, has a long a varied history. Its name, “Skye,” comes from the old Norse for “cloud island,” reflecting Scotland's Viking past. It was also home to some large Highland clans for centuries, until post-Jacobite rising laws disbanded the clans and relocated many Highlanders to other parts of Scotland, the UK, and beyond.
The island's website really describes Skye best: “A place where time means nothing, and beneath every footstep lies 500 million years of history.”
Skye also has (in my opinion) some of the best scenery in all of Scotland. The Cuillin Hills rise up in the middle of the island, surrounded by heather-covered moors that lead down to sea cliffs and rugged beaches. Skye is a wild kind of beautiful that I hope is never tamed.
Things to see and do on the Isle of Skye
If you find yourself with a couple of days on Skye (and, really, you should plan to spend at least 2 or 3 nights), here are some of my top things to see and do:
If you're driving to Skye from the Scottish mainland, your route north through the island will take you past a beautiful old stone bridge – the Sligachan Bridge, close to the Black Cuillin mountains. There's a legend that goes along with this bridge that says the mountain-fed waters that run beneath it are enchanted. It's said that if you hold your face in the water for a full seven seconds, you'll be granted eternal beauty.
Worth a try, right?
Portree is the “capital” of the Isle of Skye. It's one of the larger cities on the island and makes a good base for exploring the Trotternish Peninsula (the most popular part of Skye). It also has a gorgeous harbor with colorful buildings and some fantastic seafood restaurants. (Even the takeaway fish and chips shop is amazing.) For the best views, walk up towards the hospital and take a trail through the woods to an old watchtower. On a clear day, you can see the Old Man of Storr and the Cuillin Hills from the top of the tower.
Old Man of Storr
Speaking of the Old Man of Storr, the Storr is a big slab of rock on the Trotternish Peninsula. At one end of the slab, there's a lone, tall pillar of stone. This is the “Old Man.”
There are a bunch of different legends about this pillar of stone. One suggests it's the thumb of a giant buried beneath the Storr. My favorite, though, is that of a little old man who used to walk up to the Storr frequently with his wife to look out at the ocean. After his wife died, the old man walked up to the Storr one last time and found himself wishing he could stay there forever because it was the only place he could remember his wife and be happy. The mischievous fairy king heard the old man's wish and granted it, turning him to stone.
Whichever legend you like best, there's no denying that this part of Scotland feels magical.
Bride's Veil Waterfall
Within sight of the Old Man of Storr, Bride's Veil Waterfall is a popular photo stop along road A855. If you climb through the boggy grass alongside the waterfall, you'll have a fantastic view of the Storr. It's also supposed to be lucky if you drink from the falls.
You can't see this waterfall from the road. You have to park in a small lot, go through a wooden gate, and walk along a worn trail in order to see Lealt Falls, which faces the sea. On my first trip to Skye, I hiked down to the waterfall with my tour group. On this second and third visits, I just sat at the top of the cliff and enjoyed the view.
Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls
If there's one fashion statement that Scotland is known for, it's the kilt. And this rock formation on the coast of the Isle of Skye looks ridiculously similar to a pleated kilt. It's of course just rock, but looks pretty cool, especially when you get nearby Mealt Falls in your shot, too.
When you near the top of the Trotternish Peninsula, there's a narrow, nearly one-lane road that cuts across the peninsula. It's called the Quiraing Road, and cuts through some of the best landscapes on the Isle of Skye. The deep valleys and craggy cliffs here were formed thanks to great landslips, and there are rock formations with names like The Needle and The Table and The Prison. The Quiraing can be incredibly windy and wet, but it was here that I originally fell in love with Skye.
The Fairy Pools
The Fairy Pools really do deserve their magical name. This site consists of shallow pools and small waterfalls formed as the River Brittle flows down from the Black Cuillin mountains.
I didn't get to see this spot for myself until my third trip to the Isle of Skye – and let me tell you that two hours here isn't nearly enough! First, you need to hike from the parking lot to the beginning of the pools (a little over 2 kilometers), and then you need to follow the river up toward the mountains to see all the pools and waterfalls.
The Fairy Pools can be crowded during high season, but I still really think they're worth visiting.
Located on the northwestern side of Skye, Dunvegan Castle is the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland. It was the seat of the chiefs of Clan MacLeod for more than 800 years, and today is open to visitors. On display inside the castle are beautifully furnished rooms, artwork, and clan treasures. One of these treasures is the Fairy Flag – a tattered banner that is said to have been given to the MacLeods by the fairies and that, when raised in battle, would always ensure the clan's victory.
The castle also has acres of formal gardens, which both my mom and I really enjoyed wandering through.
In stark contrast to the seat of Clan MacLeod, Armadale Castle in the southwestern corner of the Isle of Skye is nothing but a former shell of the grand mansion it once was. Armadale is the former home of Clan MacDonald. A great mansion was built here in the 1790s, but was damaged by fire in 1855 and eventually abandoned in the 1920s.
The gardens at Armadale are maintained by the Clan Donald Skye Centre, however, which also operates the Museum of the Isles. If you're waiting to catch the ferry from Armadale to Mallaig, spending an hour or so in the museum might be a good use of your time. The museum traces the history of Skye and the Highlands from the Vikings through the Jacobite risings to the present day. There's a lot to read here, but it's a comprehensive look at the history of this part of Scotland.
Where to stay on the Isle of Skye
You really need a few days on the Isle of Skye in order to see everything. I recommend making Portree your base and exploring from there. It makes a good base both for its location, and because it has everything you need including restaurants and a grocery store.
My picks for where to stay in Portree include:
Portree Independent Hostel – On a budget? Then this friendly, centrally-located hostel is your best bet.
Portree Hotel – A good mid-range option located right on the main square in the center of town.
Cuillin Hills Hotel – If it's luxury you're looking for, this hotel with its great harbor views should be at the top of your list.
Or, you can see the best hotels in Portree here.
Have you ever been to the Isle of Skye?
*Note: I visited Skye for the first and third times as a guest of Haggis Adventures, and for the second time with Highland Explorer Tours. (Read my review of that experience here.) There are also a few affiliate links in this post.