Whenever I write about the Isle of Skye, I try to encourage visitors to look beyond the usual iconic landmarks as the island has so much more to offer. Although joining one of the Bella Jane boat trips from Elgol to Loch Coruisk is undoubtedly popular, the remote geography of the area means you can easily find a quiet spot to enjoy Skye's wild and dramatic landscape once you arrive at your destination.
On my Scottish west coast road-trip with Red Kite Campers, I wanted to explore a part of the island I'd never visited before so I opted to join a cruise with Bella Jane, one of the local tour companies that run Elgol boat trips.
The road to Elgol
It's really hard not to fall in love with the scenery of Skye and the views along the road to Elgol are up there with the best in Scotland. Despite having my Loch Coruisk boat trip booked and a tight schedule to keep, it was impossible for me to drive more than a few miles without a photo stop, much to the annoyance of Mr Adventures Around Scotland. I mean just look at that backdrop, I defy anyone to resist getting their camera out every 5 minutes!
This did mean that we pulled up to the car park in Elgol with 5 minutes to spare and I was slightly panicked to find it packed full. The relatively quiet roads on my journey that morning had made me complacent and I had already forgotten how busy some parts of Skye can be. Learn from my mistake and give yourself plenty of time! Thankfully I managed to get a space sorted, checked in and joined my fellow passengers on the pier as the boat prepared to set sail.
Sailing on the Bella Jane
As we motored our way to our destination, one of the crew provided some entertaining and informative live commentary as we navigated our way across Loch Scavaig. The crossing may be short but there is still plenty to see from the open deck. On one side you pass the neighbouring Isle of Soay, home to only a handful of residents. Just beyond that lies the Small Isles, with the rugged peaks of Rum and the distinctive form of An Sgùrr on the Isle of Eigg, easy to pick out on the near horizon. On the opposite side, the remote southwestern coast of Skye rises up to meet you.
Despite opting to live on Scottish islands, I'm not a huge fan of travelling on wee boats and I'll admit to being a bit apprehensive before the journey. However, it was a surprisingly pleasant crossing and the humerous anecdotes from the crew and dazzling scenery kept everyone entertained and distracted.
Arriving at Loch na Cuilce
If someone had taken my photo as we neared our stopping point, I'm pretty sure my mouth would have been hanging open and my eyes popping out my head! Sailing in to the inlet of Loch na Cuilce is about as close as you will get in Scotland to feeling like you are entering the belly of Mordor.
Even on a relatively bright day, the towering jagged black peaks were gloomy and foreboding and the water was an otherworldly shade of verdant green. The occasional seal popped its head out to greet us, while more of the resident colony basked lazily on lumps of rock. With so much vying for my attention, it was hard to know where to look.
Breathtaking can be a cliché when it comes to depicting Scotland's scenery but in this case it is the only word that really does it justice. I recently read an article on Scottish Anchorages describing this spot as "...without doubt the most dramatic anchorage in the Hebrides" which pretty much sums it up.
Exploring around Loch Coruisk
When Wendy from Red Kite Campers got in touch asking if I wanted to take their new VW campervan away for a few days to try it out, I got pretty excited. I've been on a couple of campervan road-trips in Scotland already and I love the freedom of making up my route as I go along and parking up at the most beautiful places for a short stop or even a whole night.
That initial excitement soon turned to dilemma after dilemma. With so many rewarding journey options, I struggled to decide on a route! In the end I opted for a road-trip that would incorporate some of the best Highland scenery on Scotland's west coast. As I only had the campervan for 3 nights, I had to be selective in the places I could visit in order to reach a balance of having time to enjoy the adventure without spending too many hours behind the wheel.
The route I have featured below includes a few Scottish tourist classics with my usual mix of hidden gems thrown in. It is impossible to see all of Scotland in a few days but if you are short on time and big on scenic landscapes, my recommended 4 day itinerary should tick all the boxes. I've also included some extra suggestions if you have more time to spend.
DAY 1 - MILTON OF CAMPSIE TO GLEN SHIEL
APPROX 160 MILES
With no sign of the torrential rain easing, I decided that our planned walk in Glen Coe was best abandoned as our clothes were just about dry again after our earlier soaking at Loch Lomond.
Mr Adventures Around Scotland pulled our colourful VW campervan in to a layby near the mouth of the looming glen and we both hopped in the back, feeling quite smug that we had such a cosy shelter to wait out the worst of the weather.
The rain thrummed noisily on the roof as a pot of water bubbled away on the stove. As I poured two mugs of steaming hot coffee, I could just about make out the distinctive form of Buchaille Etive Mor through the sheets of water sweeping across the surrounding landscape. On days like this, the iconic mountain takes on a foreboding appearance as it guards entry to the gloomy glen beyond.
I've been to Glen Coe countless times and could number the times I've visited on a clear, dry day on both hands and this was definitely not one of those days!
One place in Scotland I get asked to write about more than anywhere else is the Isle of Skye. Despite visiting numerous times, there are many reasons why I have never got round to publishing a blog post about Scotland's most popular island until now! I thought it was time to share my top recommendations for things to do on the Sleat Peninsula which is at the lesser visited southern end of the island.
There are a zillion articles out there already that list the top attractions on the Isle of Skye and the last thing the world needs is yet another blog about the Quiraing, Fairy Pools or Old Man of Storr, although I'm sure there will be many more to come! However, despite what numerous other travel blogs might lead you to believe, there is way more to see in Skye than the cliched list posts of must see attractions that swamp the internet. If you follow my Scotland travel blog, it is hopefully because you want to explore beyond the typical Scottish tourist attractions.
On my last two trips I have based myself in the Sleat Peninsula in South Skye which is known as 'The Garden of Skye' due to its relative greenness. There is no shortage of ruined castles, picturesque villages and stunning scenery to keep you occupied and a new whisky distillery is bound to make the Sleat Peninsula a more tempting destination, although there is not yet the same hectic crowds that you will find further north
Despite The Isle of Skye bursting at the seams with visitors at certain times of year, it is still possible to find quiet corners away from the crowds. My two biggest pieces of advice if you want to have the attractions and wild beauty of Skye all to yourself, is to visit off-season (April and October are good times as many attractions are open for the season although check individual listings for exact dates) and secondly, to explore the lesser visited parts of the island.
If you want to visit the Isle of Skye but don't want to be caught up in traffic queues and tour buses or just want to experience a different side of the island, you definitely need to check out my list of top things to do on the Isle of Skye's Sleat Peninsula!
Take the ferry to Armadale
Armadale Bay is home to the ferry terminal which connects the Isle of Skye with Mallaig on the mainland. Although you could drive across the Skye Bridge, following the stunning 'Road to the Isles' from Fort William and boarding a ferry feels like you are going on a proper island adventure. This is my preferred way to travel to Skye, although another unique way to travel to South Skye is via the world's last manually operated turntable ferry from Glenelg.
Armadale Bay has a few pretty shops and Rhuba Phoil has a short circular woodland walk which is a fairly easy leg stretcher. Look out for the viewpoints as you follow the winding path through the trees and take some time to enjoy the coastal panorama surrounding this permaculture community.
Another one of my favourite things to do is grab a coffee from The Shed and enjoy the views to Knoydart.
Visit - Armadale Castle and Museum of the Isles
On my most recent trip to the Isle of Skye I rented a Clan Donald Holiday Lodge within the estate at Armadale Castle on the Sleat Peninsula. The 20,000 acre estate in the South of Skye was once the traditional lands of Clan Donald and was purchased by the Clan Donald Lands Trust in 1971.
The estate is home to a range of walking trails, historic gardens and the stately remains of Armadale Castle, however the highlight of my visit was a tour of the Museum of the Isles. I highly recommend setting 1 - 2 hours aside to follow the audio guide through the 7 galleries full of fascinating objects, spanning 1500 years of history. This is definitely one of my top things to do on the Sleat Peninsula.
For those looking to research their ancestry, there are also genealogical resources in the library and after all that exploring I also recommend stopping by their ornate coffee shop for tea and a fresh baked scone.
Unfortunately there is not much left of Armadale Castle itself, a stately mansion house that was largely destroyed by a fire in 1855. The house was abandoned in 1925 and it is pretty much just the facade that is left today, although it is still an imposing sight.
If, like me, you stay at one of the lodges on the estate, entry to the castle grounds, museum and gardens is free.
This is one attraction on the Sleat Peninsula which can definitely get very busy, however when I visited in April I pretty much had it all to myself!
Visit - Dunscaith Castle
When it comes to Scottish castles I quite often find that less is more and Dunscaith Castle on the Sleat Peninsula is the perfect example of this.
To reach Dunscaith, park in the layby on the main road at Tokavaig and walk along the track towards the single white cottage before following the shore towards the obvious castle remains.
The ruins of what once must have been an impressive coastal structure are perched dramatically on a big lump of rock on the shores of Loch Eishort. Dunscaith Castle is thought to date back to the 13th or 14th century and once served as the MacDonald Clan's principle seat on the Isle of Skye. It was abandoned in the 17th century and has been at the mercy of the elements since.
The stone bridge which links the castle to the mainland can still be seen, although it is missing some vital pieces and I definitely wouldn't recommend trying to cross it! It is best to visit when the tide is out so you can walk under the bridge and around the rock base. Head up to the cliff top to take in some pretty breathtaking vistas towards the Cuillin Hills.
The main reason I started this travel blog was to inspire people to explore beyond the typical tourist attractions and uncover Scotland's hidden gems that without doubt deserve more attention. After a lifetime spent travelling around my home country, I have built up a pretty good knowledge of amazing places that often get missed out in the usual guide books and remain largely undiscovered.
One of those hidden gems is Glenelg, a small village on the west coast, overlooking the Kyle Rhea, a strait which separates the mainland from Skye. Just a 30 minute detour from the hoards of sightseers at Eilean Donan Castle and you will find an area bursting with rich scenery and history, yet largely devoid of tourists.
If you are planning to head along the north west coast towards Skye between Easter and October, I highly recommend avoiding the road bridge and diverting along the more stunning but lesser known route to the island and taking the ferry from the 'Original Gateway to Skye'.
If you need more convincing than just my word to abandon the typical tourist trail, here are 6 reasons that might persuade you...
p.s please excuse any raindrops on the photos as the day I visited it would have been drier standing under a waterfall!
1. The Mam Ratagan Pass
Leave the tourist route behind and follow the Mam Ratagen Pass from Sheil Bridge to Glenelg and you are immediately rewarded with one of the most stunning drives in the country. Climbing to a height of over 1100ft and navigating a few hairpin bends along the way only add to the experience and your prize for taking the road less travelled is superb vistas towards the Five Sisters of Kintail and Loch Duich.
It would be easy to dismiss this as just a scenic drive, however you are following an important historic pass which was the original route to Skye, used firstly by drovers heading south with their cattle which they swam across the Kyle Rhea strait, then a military road was built by General Caulfield to reach the barracks at Glenelg before being rebuilt by Thomas Telford in the early 19th Century and upgraded again in the 1980s.
With most people now reaching Skye by the main road bridge, relatively few people travel over the pass and many are unaware or have forgotten it's previous historical importance as the main highway connecting the island and the mainland.
2. The Glenelg Inn
To celebrate your arrival in the village or to grab a refreshment between your explorations, you should head to the cosy Glenelg Inn for some traditional Highland hospitality. I love the quirky decor in the bar area and it has a great reputation for locally sourced food.
if you time it right you can also catch some live music and in the winter you can sit by the roaring fire.
I would personally love to stay the night here at some point and spend more time exploring the area and relaxing with a whisky while admiring the views to Skye.
3. Iron-Age Brochs
Follow the road from the village to the twin Iron-Age broch towers, Dun Telve and Dun Troddan. Standing over 10m high and over 2000 years old, they are the best preserved brochs on the mainland.
Many of the original features including internal staircases still exist and it is fascinating to stand inside and imagine the life of the people that occupied them thousands of years before when the area would have been a more hostile place.
Brochs are circular drystone towers, found mainly in the north and western coastal regions of Scotland. They are thought to have been fortified dwellings with some defensive function and built as a display of status and wealth.
Whenever I visit places like this I always wonder how many modern structures will still be standing in hundreds never mind thousands of years time and can't help but be impressed at the skill of the builders who created such simple yet sturdy constructions that have lasted many, many lifetimes.
4, The Bernera Barracks
The Bernera Barracks were the last of four Highland forts built at strategic points by the Hanoverian Government to garrison soldiers after the Jacobite risings of the early 1700s. Able to house up to 200 soldiers it was positioned to control the crossing from Skye at Kyle Rhea.
Construction began in 1719 and It is thought that stone from the nearby brochs was used in the building of the barracks which continued to be utilised as a military base until 1797 by which time it was already falling in to ruin. By 1800 the rooms were available to rent for a pound per year and by 1830 it was used as a poorhouse and subsequently by victims of the Highland Clearances.
Although a substantial part of this atmospheric structure still stands, it is currently fenced off for safety reasons.
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