The Isle of Skye is one of the most beautiful and best-known parts of Scotland. And where you get a well-known beauty spot, what else do you get? Sight-seers. Tour buses. Cameras/iPhones/iPads/electronic device of choice. I have never seen so many people crowded around a pair of bewhildered sheep on a single-track roadside, viewing the mountains behind through their camera lens.
But never fear, there are still many places where you can get away from the crowds and enjoy the best of Scotland’s wild, unspoiled landscape. It may mean you have to put on your walking shoes or brave the narrow, single-track lanes, but believe me, it will be worth it.
How to escape the crowds
Unfortunately, public transport is somewhat limited on the island, so some form of transport (two wheels or four) is a must for getting away from the tour buses. As with the rest of Scotland, Skye is a great place for motorhomes, with a choice of well-equipped campsites or wild camping spots. Just make sure you follow good campervan etiquette and don’t stay in one place for more than two nights. Cycling can be a great way to get around if the weather is nice, but be warned that the mist, rain and wind can descend at any point (even the height of summer) so come prepared!
Coaches and tour buses generally stick to the larger roads, so the easiest way to escape the crowds is to explore some of the smaller roads on the island. And yes, these are usually single-track roads with passing places! General etiquette is to pull in at the nearest passing place if you see someone coming towards you and, if you’re on a hill, give priority to vehicles coming up the hill. Drive carefully and look out for sheep and Highland cattle. Unless you really want to annoy the locals and other visitors, don’t park up in passing places.
Tourist hotspots (and the alternatives)
Don’t get me wrong – the places which attract the hoards are beautiful and worth a visit. But if you want to get these sites to yourself, you’ll need to get there first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Summer nights on Skye are short and as it stays light until after ten in June, there’s plenty of time to explore. But if you want to find a piece of Skye where the only company you’ll have is the odd sheep or moorland bird, then check out some of my favourite alternatives to the popular tourist traps.
Fairy Pools, Glen Brittle
The advent of Pinterest and Instagram have ensured the clear waters of the burn (stream) a firm place on the tourist route map. Many couples have picked this spot for their wedding elopement, only to find they themselves declaring their love to their spouse and twenty Japanese tourists (and their iPads).
A less-travelled alternative to the Fairy Pools is Coire Lagan. Park up at the end of Glen Brittle and hike up a good path for about an hour to reach this small lake, ringed by the imposing black peaks of the Cuillin mountains. Seen from above (you can scramble a short way up behind the lake) it looks almost like a heart. Cute. The clear waters are tempting on a sunny day, but it’s colder than it looks!
The Trotternish peninsula
The Old Man of Storr and the Quiraing are certainly impressive, but there’s no need to fight the traffic on the peninsular ring road. You can get dramatic views of the imposing cliffs from the little-known An Aird peninsula. Take the minor road that leads off the A87 to the south of Portree and continue down the coast until the road splits at Gedintailor. Follow a footpath that leads across a rough open area before the enclosed fields, down to a small dell and round to a stony beach. It’s a short walk around the peninsula, but you could easily take a picnic and spend a full day exploring the coastline, paddling off one of the two beaches and taking in the views of the Trotternish peninsula to the north, Raasay to the east and the Red Cuillin mountains to the south.
This is another site which Instagram has a lot to answer for. The dramatic cliffs and easy access make for a trail of people pottering down to the lighthouse at the end. If you’re willing to put in a bit more effort, the Macleod’s Maidens offer a wilder and equally dramatic viewpoint. The three sea stacks (mother and two daughters) can be viewed best from the headland above. It’s a 17km round trip, but the spectacular views across Loch Bracadale will help keep you going.
A romantic stroll to a white ‘sand’ beach at the end of a headland; it’s not hard to see why people swarm to this beach north of Dunvegan. The ‘sand’ is actually small pieces of fossilised and sun-bleached algae – beautiful, if slightly spiky underfoot. But (and I’m about to let you in on a BIG secret) there are proper white sand beaches on Skye. And with a bit of luck, you’re get them all to yourself.
I came across one such beach on one of those Scottish days that started with torrential rain and then gave way to a beautiful, hot, sunny day. It’s said you can experience all four seasons in a single day in Scotland and from personal experience, I can attest to the truth of this.
I’m actually quite relunctant to tell you about this spot. It’s one of those beautiful spots you come across and secretly want no-one else to find. (So keep schmum and don’t go sharing this post all over the internet.)
Head down to Sleat, to the most south-westerly road on the island, and keep going until you can’t drive any further. There’s a small car park next to one of those art galleries where you just want to buy everything in the shop. Get your walking boots on and follow the track for a couple of miles as it winds its way down to the sea. Keep following your nose and the sound of lapping waves until you come to a perfect, white sand bay ringed by rocks.
Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints and act all mysterious when your friends enquire which Mediterranean island you’ve been holidaying on.
How to get to Skye
Most people arrive on Skye by car, either via the bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh or across the ferry from Mallaig. It is possible to get there by train, from Glasgow up to Mallaig (a beautiful journey in its own right) but once on the island, you’ll be at the mercy of the limited bus schedule. If coming from further afield, fly to Inverness (2 hrs), Glasgow (4 hrs) or Edinburgh (5 hours) and hire a car for the drive up.
There are plenty of B&Bs and self-catering accommodation on Skye, but it does get booked up during peak season so it pays to plan ahead. There are also a number of campsites with excellent facilities that accept campers and campervans/caravans.
What else do I need to know?
The Scottish midge is possibly the creature most feared in proportion to its (tiny) size. Though I seem to have particularly tasty blood and hence get eaten alive, I do have a slight fondness for the midge for its role in keeping Scotland relatively free of mass tourism. Take repellent, a head net (particularly if camping) and some antihistamine for when you inevitably get bitten.
Skye is pretty cosmopolitan as Scotland goes, but phone signal is limited in places and non-existent in others, which, depending on your perspective, is either a blessing or a pain in the backside.
The other reason people don’t flock to Scotland for their hols? The weather. That’s not to say it’s always bad. I’ve come back sunburnt from many a Scottish holiday. But it is somewhat unpredictable. When it’s good, there’s no better place on earth. And if it’s not so good? Well, that’s what waterproof clothing was made for.
Go to Skye. Find the places away from the crowds. Just don’t tell your friends.