Recently I had the great opportunity to visit Scotland and the Isle of Skye with my Quebecois brother. (Even though the trip wasn’t part of my planning of my Polynesia Trip it was a great opportunity to try out new gear, and get some miles into my legs.)
On the Isle of Skye there is an as of yet unofficial route, which starts in the north of the Island at Duntulm, passes by the beautiful headland of Rubha Hunish, (supposedly one of the best places in Scotland to spot Whales!) and then goes along the Trotternish Ridge, through the village of Portree all the way to the South, either over Blaven (928m) or through the little village of Elgol, to finally reach the end point at Broadford.
walkhighlands.co.uk has a great guide of the trek and has devided the route into 7 stages. We really only had 6 trekking days, so we either had to walk hard or skip one stage. Considering this is one of the harder treks in Scotland, we decided, it was probably best to skip the “least” interesting stage. Talking to a guy in an outdoor shop in Portree (Inside Out?), we decided that stage 4, was probably the one to skip, since it went along the road going south.
The Skye Trail is one of the most spectacular treks I have done, and I must say we both found it to be a good challenge, especially Stage 2 and the climb up and over Mt. Blá Bheinn (Blaven).
Along the route we were accompanied by countless sheep and their tasty offspring, that became increasingly alluring the more freeze dried food we consumed.
Stage 1 – Rubha Hunish to Flodigarry 11.5km
We flew into Glasgow (you would probably be better off flying into Inverness), and wanted to take the bus to Fort William, change there and then head either to Portree or Uig. From there you will need to hitch a ride to the start of the trek or use the local busses. They don’t run on Sundays, and since we arrived on a sunday and missed the first bus from Glasgow, we ended up deciding somewhat bewildered to take a cap all the way. This is by no means the cheapest way to get there, but it solved our transport problem nicely. The trip from Glasgow to the start of the trek in Taxi cost us 275£. (The train from Glasgow to Inverness is 70£, and then you need a bus from Inverness to Broadford, Portree or Uig which is around 25£)
Anyway, we ended up at the parking lot close to the old, and now closed, Duntulm Hotel. From there, the trail goes north until it hits the top of the Island, which is about 2km further away. It was around 9pm when we started out, so we decided to pitch our tent 1.5km down the trail. Actually a beautiful place in its own right with great views over the abandoned village of Erisco, the Duntulm Castle and the bay.
The day after we started Stage 1 for real. If you do the trek, you should definitely take the path that goes down to Rubha Hunish. It will be on your left when you hit the escarpment. It is before the boothy, and you will want to go down there. Would be a perfect spot for a camp or just having lunch, on the northern tip. We somehow missed the path, and when we realized it, we were already well into the stage. The trail stops and the guide will tell you to go south east. We got lost here, since there was no trail and no real features, just marshland and moores. Trailing somewhat South East for a while we did finally get to the ruins of an old Church back on the route, which had quite an eerie feel to it. The weather here makes even the smallest ruin seem, like something out of a highlander movie!
The route passes a few houses on the way, and follows the eastern edge of the escarpment with beautiful views out to sea. At the end there was a steep and slippery drop, we had to walk, before we got to Flodigarry. Here you will find the Flodigarry Hostel and the Hotel. The Hotel is much nicer and has a very nice Inn.
A decision must be made at this point. Stage 2 is a wooping 28km, and goes into a mountainous wilderness area that some say is the most dramatic mountain ridge of the entire British Peninsula. So you might want to continue from here, and take a few miles off of stage 2.
At the Hostel, we met two rather worn out German guys who had taken refuge inside. All their gear was spread out and seemed to be soaked through. They looked like they had just come out of a warzone. They told us they had tried to pass the ridge, but have had to give up, because of severe weather, and had to retrace all the way back to the Hostel! That must have been at least 20km of not getting anywhere. Considering we were already a little anxious about Stage 2, this only added to the suspense!
They told us of a small parking lot some 5km from the Hostel, that was suitable for pitching a tent, but from that point on, it was 23km of barren mountain ridge, with very poor camp possibilities.
So after a small pint at the Inn, we decided to go the first 5km of Stage 2. This part was spectacular! The fog and drizzly rain made the whole 5km rather atmospheric. We had the heavy fog descending from the spiny mountains above us, making for a great backdrop. Below you would have the fields and the rivers in the distance, and above you shouldering fog clad mountains. Had we stumbled upon William Wallace and his gang of freedom fighters, we wouldn’t have blinked.
At the parking lot we crossed the road and tried to find a good sheltered spot to pitch our tent. We put it up behind a boulder, a little up from the parking lot, that had good cover from the wind. 3 Dutch guys, that we would meet again on the route, had pitched their tent on a flat spread of land close to the parking lot.
Stage 2 – The Trotternish Ridge – Flodigarry to the Storr 28,5km
We packed up in the morning after a good dish of Müsli and water/powdered milk. The weather was decent, and the first few miles had increasingly fantastic views. The first two hours we walked up and up to reach the ridge itself, and the sheer drop offs were knee shakingly spectacular. Coming from Denmark, where you could probably survive a fall even from our highest point, heights have always played tricks on me, so it took me some time before I had the stomach to venture out and walk close to the ridge.
Here we had about 5km of great trekking in a very dramatic setting, but soon the familiar fog would ingulf us. The higher we went, the more fog we got, in fact it was probably more walking in the clouds than fog itself. This makes for a little tricky walking, since you can easily lose your way. You don’t want to be too close to the ridge in the fog, but neither do you want to be so far from it that you can’t see it. Up here there was hardly any trail left, and we had to rely on our map and compass extensively.
We did manage quite well with the map and compass, always keeping the ridge on our left. It seemed to work and we just had to stay on course, and we would make it through. We would have to cross 7 tops with the highest being Hartaval 669m. This probably doesn’t sound like much, but believe me it is. I would even venture to say that the scenery in places were as dramatic as I’ve seen it even in the Bolivian highlands. Of course in the fog, this is difficult to see. It was as if the mountain didn’t want to let us in on its secrets, only letting us get glimpses through sudden and abrupt clearings in the fog, that would take our breath away.
We probably managed about 10km of foggy hillwalking before we got good old fashioned lost. At Craig a Lain 609m, the dude from Walkinghighlands.co.uk wanted us to continue in a south easterly direction. The only problem was, in the fog this looked like walking straight over the cliff side, and so without thinking we started to wear off west following a fake ridge. After about 1km we realized our mistake, and had to spend a great deal of time figuring out where we were on the map. However this deep into the Scottish fog, with no features in the landscape around us of any kind, it was very difficult navigating indeed.
In the end we decided to take a compass reading and head in an easterly direction. This should, if we were not completely off the map, put us back on the real ridge. Only problem was, this “real” route would take us down, what we thought was the ridge itself. If you look on the map, just east of Craig a Lain you have the real Ridge where you do not want to go down by any means, a pretty steep slope that continues southeast and a nice wide slope that continues in a south westerly direction.
Looking at the map now, it seems ridiculous that we could get lost. But in the fog, we couldn’t see a thing! In fact it took us a whole 45 minutes to find the ridge again. From then on I kept the compass in my face.
It was getting late, and we still had a few mountains to cross. In the end we managed to reach the end of Stage 2 at 10pm and make camp at the rock formation The Needle, having walked for a good 12 hours straight!
Stage 3 – From the Storr to Portree 14km
Stage 3 looked so much easier on the map, but with Stage 2 in our legs, it was by far the hardest. After leaving the roads at the Storr, we had to walk through 3km of a very boggy area, to reach the continuation of the ridge. This part was not as steep as the day before, and we were blessed with beautiful weather. The route climbs up over a few mountains with the final one overlooking Portree itself.
We were dead set on getting to Portree fast, and skipped lunch, which was a big mistake. But we so wanted to find a place to eat and find a good warm bed for our tired bodies. And so we decided to make a shortcut, which was a very bad decision, that ended up being a lot longer and tougher than the original route. So much for planning on an empty stomach and tired mind! We did finally make it to Portree, where we had decided to spoil ourselves with some luxury, and went straight to the Inn (The Isles), where we had booked a room. After showers off to the stone oven pizza house!
We were so destroyed after these last 3 days and 55km of walking, that we considered staying a day here to rest. But in the morning the day after, we felt pretty good again, and decided to start anyway. Amazing what a warm bed can do for you!
Stage 4 – From Portree to Sligachan
We didn’t do this part for lack of time, and ended up taking the bus to Sligachan and go straight to Stage 5. Busses leave from the central square in Portree and only took 15 minutes!
Stage 5 – Alternative route. Sligachan to the Boothy at Camasunary 11km
After having read through the guides, we decided finally to take the alternative route, which would eventually have us up over Blaven and from there to Torin and then on to Broadford.
This was a welcome choice, since it meant that today at least, we only had about 11km to walk. Knowing this made for a great day, with good walking in a valley beneath the towering tops of Marsco 738m and Blaven 928m. Two picturesque lakes made great spots for lunch and rests, and the whole trek was very comfortable. At the end of the trek we made it to the Boothy at Camasunary where we found one guy Steven and 2 empty rooms, in which we tossed our stuff.
We had plenty of energy left after the easy walk, and had lots of leisure time around the boothy, where we, without any luck, tried to help out Steven in his attempts to catch salmon in the river, that came down from the mountains. He shared some of the salmon though, that he had caught and smoked. Good times.
Steven was a guy who had pretty much left civilization, or at least, we would later find out, had chosen to live far away from any human contact. He told us he wandered from place to place, trying to live off the land as much as possible. The stories he told us at the fireplace kept us up most of the night..
Stage 6 – Alternative route. From The Boothy over Blaven 928m to Torin 14km
Looking at Blaven from 0m, it looks like you would need climbing gear to do it. But the guy from Walkinghighlands said it was a good alternative route. And Steven said he had done it alone, so we should be able to do it too!
Blessed with the best weather of the entire trip; full sun and blue skies, we started out toward the foot hills of Blaven. The route seemed to want to take us up along the ridge itself all the way to the top. This seemed impractical, and so instead of heading straight to the south ridge, we walked around and attacked it from the south east, where the slope was a little less steep.
Getting to the ridge was pretty tough scrambling up a very steep grassy and stony hill. In places it did get somewhat alarmingly steep, but on all fours we managed alright, and after about an hour, we were on the southern ridge. From here it flattened out, only to go straight into what looked like a wall of impassable boulders. Now, without a 20kg backpack, this would be alright. But with this much weight on our backs, I started to get a little worried. We sat for some time to ponder what route to take, and we both tried to venture up over the boulders without backpacks. Finally we did the climb and with backpacks off, we hauled them up one by one, and made it up. Thing is, you could do it with your backpack on, but the counterweight of the backpack and the 500m sheer drops didn’t mix well.
After this point it flattened out again, with a blend of grass and rocks. A path was visible now and again, and we kept on going up. Not making the mistake about not eating lunch again though, we sat down and cooked up a good solid lunch of noodles with sausage! At around 700m it was all rocks, and it got slightly more tricky, and we had to be careful not to step onto rolling stones. You do not want to start a rock slide here!
It was walkable without having to be on all fours, and we made good progress. In fact from here on reaching the top was decently easy, you just had to be careful with all lose rock under your feet. The views were great all the way up, and the further we got up the views opened up in new directions.
Thinking that the Challenge was behind us, we made it to the top. However it slowly dawned on us, Blaven has two tops, one at 924m and another at 928m! We were at the 924m one, at had to climb down between these shoulders, to reach the real summit. I dunno what happened, but the route we took, was severely steep. You will need to be careful here, since the drops go straight down from where you stand, and there is no path, just boulders and cliff side. It took us some pretty stressful 15 minutes, not to lose our footing, and make our way down. Again we had to take off our backpacks, and lowering them down one by one, until we could reach what looked like a walkable route. Here we dropped a water bottle and it went straight down..
Apart from this crazy little section, where you would have loved to have brought a rope, the going was easy, and we made the real top just after that.
From what I hear, the weather on the Isle of Skye is very rarely clear in any sense of the word. But today, the weather was awesome, by any standards and it was well worth the scramble.
The way down was steep, but a lot easier than the way up, apart from the annoyance of walking downhill.
We made it to a nice little bed and breakfast in Torin.
Stage 7 – From Torin to Broadford 20km
Although this was another 20km, it was just as easy walking as stage 5. We just followed the coast all the way south to the abandoned village of Suisnish, which was now home to hundred of sheep. The trail was not as interesting as the other days we have had. But to be fair, they were hard to beat. What made todays trek an interesting walk however, was all the abandoned villages, or rather the ruins thereof.
Sometime in the 1800, the story goes, the clever landlords of the area decided to evict every single villager, from this part of the Isle of Skye, to make room for more sheep! As if they didn’t have room enough!
It was a long trek still, and we were well worn out when we finally reached Broadford, where we had booked a room at the Backpackers Hostel, which were located just on the other side of a small forest. A good and cheap little spot.
Clean, happy yet still walking like old men, we headed out to find the most promising restaurant in town, and ordered the biggest plate of lamp we could get!