Walking the Skye Trail

Skye is one of my favourite parts of Scotland, an island with some of the best scenery anywhere, a rich history and so much variety in the landscape, including the peaks of the Cuillin Ridge, the UK’s most challenging mountain range. It was great to spend a week on the island leading the Skye Trail, a relatively new addition to Scotland’s growing catalogue of long-distance trails and one of its most challenging! We had a group of 10 strong walkers for the week and many thanks to them for a fantastic week on the trail. From the welcome meal in the Sia Café in Broadford to the final evening in the Isles in Portree it was a lot of fun, with some of the best weather imaginable. Here’s an account of our 7 days walking the route.

DAY 1 – BROADFORD TO TORRIN

Day 1 on the Skye Trail is a good introduction to what is to follow on the trail. A mixture of walking on minor roads, trail and coastal path, with breathtaking views of sea and mountain. It was a little chilly as we set off from Broadford up the road towards Elgol, with a little dusting of fresh snow on the local hill, Beinn na Caillich. Despite the chill, the hills were clear, the views were fantastic and within minutes of leaving Broadford, we heard our first Cuckoo of the trip – the first of many!

We followed the path in Strath Suardal along the line of the old railway that formerly carried quarried marble down to the pier in Broadford, then headed up and over the hills, down an idyllic glen into the secluded clearance village of Borreraig. As we climbed away from the strath we got out first glimpse of the Cuillin and past the remains of the old mining works. The descent by the Allt na Pairte was lovely with primroses in flower and plenty of caterpillars about. Suddenly Loch Eishort burst into view and we took time for some photo opportunities.

After a break at Boreraig, taking in the peace of the scene and watching some herons and oystercatchers in the bay, we headed along the coast towards Suisnish. It is an interesting, undulating route between these old settlements, with the path tracing an intricate line between the sea and the cliffs. As we rounded the corner to Suisnish, the views of the southern end of the Cuillin Ridge were fantastic. Gars-Bheinn, the southernmost top on the ridge, caught a moment of bright sunshine with the main ridge shrouded in a snow shower behind giving some proper drama to the scene. The showers reached us eventually but they didn’t last long and we made good progress onto the shores on Loch Slapin before stopping for a well-earned lunch break.

Near the idyllic bay at Camas Malag we found a nice perch on a sunny limestone outcrop with some mountain avens starting to flower and views across the loch to the peaks of Bla Bheinn and Clach Glas. It was a perfect spot to enjoy the heat of the spring sunshine, have a bite to eat and savour the view. All that remained for our day was a 4km walk into Torrin. This was also enjoyed with plenty of sunshine and the views across turquoise waters to the mountains beyond. Unfortunately the Blue Café was closed but David, the trek manager, arrived in perfect time to collect us and take us back to Broadford, satisfied after a good first day on the trail!

 
Walking towards Camas Malag with views across Loch Slapin to Bla Bheinn and Clach Glas

DAY 2 – TORRIN TO ELGOL

After a scenic journey down Strath Suardal on Monday morning we rejoined our route at Torrin. Walking around the coast there were more fantastic views of Bla Bheinn and it’s surrounding peaks. Another Cuckoo was calling somewhere in the trees. With it being a bank holiday, a few cars were passing en route to Elgol but before long we reached the car park for Bla Bheinn where we headed off the road and climbed up into some trees.

Heading into the forestry and sheltered from the cool easterly breeze it was warm in the sun. We rejoined the main road for a short 1km section and got the first views of the day to the main Cuillin Ridge, towering above the intervening headland. At the bridge over the river at Kilmarie we turned our attention to the coast once more and the afternoon was spent on a combination of minor roads, tracks and paths past a series of little crofts and cottages, all in magical locations. Our route wove a winding path amongst native birch and rowan trees, all with fresh buds, with vast fields of bluebells in between and quite a few primroses thrown in as well. Outside the trees we past a herd of Highland cattle which seemed happy to have their photo taken against a beautiful coastal backdrop and in these clearings there were fine views down the coast to the Small Isles and Mull and across the Sleat peninsula (the southernmost tip of Skye) to the big peaks of the western mainland, which all had a fresh cap of snow on, making them look particularly impressive on the day. At one such spot, we found a nice spot amongst some rocks to enjoy lunch.

The final pull over the hill from the small hamlet of Glasnakille provided the best view of the day as the Cuillin burst into full view, with Rhum and Canna further west. We descended into the sheltered hamlet of Elgol in glorious sunshine, with time to spare to enjoy the classic view from the beach and enjoy coffee and cake in the local shop/café.

Heading down to Elgol with the Cuillin Ridge in full view ahead

DAY 3 – ELGOL TO SLIGACHAN

Returning to Elgol to start Day 3, the weather was possibly even better than it had been yesterday, although it was a little cooler. A steep climb up the road got the legs warmed up early in the day and then we wandered along the intricate path that winds its way along the coast, first to the isolated bay of Claddach a’ Ghlinne and then onto the magical Camasunary Bay. Bluebells and primroses were once more a feature and we saw our first red deer of the trip – grazing better pastures in somebody’s garden! The early morning light was picking out all the finer details of the Cuillin Ridge. Above the turquoise waters, against a backdrop of blue skies, the view was magnificent. As we descended into Camasunary we even stumbled across an adder, seemingly out to warm up in the sun and it obligingly allowed a few photos.

It was nice to look into the new, spacious bothy at Camasunary and then take a break before heading into the wilds of Glen Sligachan. This section of the trail is a real highlight of the route as a good path leads away up the glen past remote lochs under the steep slopes of Bla Bheinn, then Marso with the shapely cone of Sgurr nan Gillean pulling you onwards. Eventually the other peaks of the Cuillin also came into view. For the third day in a row we heard a cuckoo high on the slopes above us. We stopped for lunch by the idyllic Loch an Athain. With the sun out and now sheltered from the wind, it was lovely and warm and almost encouraged some of the group to go for a swim at the next river crossing! However, the cloud built a little as we approached Sligachan and a cool breeze was blowing down the glen, which encouraged us to put layers back on and push on to the pub. We reached Sligachan in good time once again to enjoy a well-earned dinner and a pint in Seamus’s Bar!

Leaving Elgol with the Cuillin across Loch Scavaig on a glorious spring morning

DAY 4 – SLIGACHAN TO PORTREE

It was a chilly start to the day at the Slig with the Cuillin looking quite foreboding, cast in deep shadow by the clouds while Sligachan caught a little sunshine. We headed off through the campsite and onto the shores of Loch Sligachan. There are a couple of rivers to cross soon after that and they can be difficult in spate conditions, but we made easy work of them on the day after the recent spell of dry weather. Following this it was a pleasant coastal walk on a good path along the shore with some nice areas of bluebells and a cuckoo calling once more.

Reaching the minor road at Peinachorrain we took a break by the traditional red phone box and then carried on along the minor road to Braes. It was a straightforward walk on quiet roads past more tidy cottages with fine views across to the island of Rassay. Here we past a memorial to the crofters who had fought for their rights in 1882 – actions that led to the Crofters Act of 1886 that granted crofters security of tenure on the land.

At the junction to Camastianavaig we stopped for lunch with good views of nearby Ben Tianavaig and then it was a further short road walk to reach the Varagill River. By the road here we saw our first orchids of the trip with some northern heath orchids lining the verge. At the river we turned onto a lovely stretch by the tidal flats outside Portree where we walked along machair type terrain with stunning gorse, bluebells, saxifrage and native woodland on our left. Regaining the road at the Aros centre, a gentle walk along the pavement brought us to the town square and a pleasant coffee shop to finish the day, now with more than half the trail complete!

 
Checking the phone signal at Peinachorrain!

DAY 5 – PORTREE TO THE STORR

Starting straight from the centre of Portree, this walk started with another fine stretch of coastal path through an area owned by the Clan Nicholson and past the headland where Bonnie Prince Charlie left Skye for good. There were many more bluebells amongst the native woodland then things opened out to give an easy walk through grassy fields. There was a large cruise ship moored just offshore against the backdrop of the Cuillin, still visible away to the south. It was nice to think of how far we had come along the trail having past there a few days previous.

A steep pull took us up to gain the headland above steep cliffs and then a fine stretch along the cliff tops gave easy walking with views ahead to the Storr and over the islands of Rassay and Rona to the peaks of the western mainland which all had an unseasonable cap of fresh snow on top! Some of the group caught a sight of a golden eagle and there was a pod of porpoise passing far below.

We made a stop at the day’s high point, the 393m Sithean a’ Bhealaich Chumhaing, and then a steady walk on good terrain with a biting north-easterly wind in our faces took us along the remainder of the ridge. This section of walking presented a good introduction to what lay ahead on the Trotternish Ridge tomorrow with good going underfoot above steep slopes to the east and gentle slopes off to the west. Just before the final descent onto open moorland a sheltered spot presented itself and we stopped for a lunch break. With the dry conditions of recent weeks, the usually boggy section ahead across the moorland towards Bearreraig Bay was relatively easy and we soon picked up the road, crossed the dam at the Storr Lochs and wandered back to the bus. This was the shortest day on the trail and a nice early finish allowed for a good rest ahead of the trail’s longest day tomorrow!

Heading along the cliff tops towards the Storr

DAY 6 – THE TROTTERNISH RIDGE

The Trotternish Ridge gets a good reputation and is widely considered to be the best part of the Skye Trail, as well as the toughest. Despite all I’d heard, I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was! We made an early start to give ourselves the full day to play with on the ridge. The forecast for the day was ideal – light winds from the north, with clear, sunny and cool conditions. Despite the forecast, the Storr was shrouded in the mist as we approached from Portree, but it soon cleared and we were down to t-shirts on the ascent past the ‘Old Man’. As we climbed we were presented with all the classic views of the Storr in perfect conditions. Leaving the pinnacles behind and rounding the back of the Storr, the whole group were up for visiting the summit so we headed up the easy angled slopes, Martin leading us up the final pull to the summit. The views from the top were stunning in all directions with the Cuillin in the south, the Outer Hebrides out west, the peaks of the western mainland all the way from Torridon to Foinaven in the east and the winding Trotternish Ridge – our route for the day – stretching away towards the northern horizon. From here we could see there were some rain showers nearby, on the Cuillin, the mainland and on Harris but we escaped with a glorious day!

Setting off from the Storr we had a big descent before a steady pull up to the summit of the day’s second top, Hartaval. Here we got our first taste of the high-level ridge walking for the day with steep cliffs dropping away to the east and gentle, grassy slopes leading away westwards. As we reached the edge of the cliffs we caught an amazing sight of a group of 4 golden eagles soaring above us. It was quite a moment and we stopped to watch them soaring overhead.

We enjoyed lunch at the top of Boca Ruadh. It was warm in the sun and very pleasant eating lunch relaxing on the short-cropped grass with 360 degrees of superb views. Next up was the mighty spur of Sgurr a’Mhadaidh Ruadh which we detoured out to visit. This summit gave dramatic views down to the corrie floor far below and across the old mining works. A steep climb then led to Creag a’ Lain. The walking after that was a joy with some relatively straightforward undulations taking us as far as Beinn Edra, the last major summit on the ridge. We enjoyed another break here, with more phenomenal views and a few of us tackled the trig point for a bit of extra sport!

As we descended from here we were passed by a few parties walking the trail in the opposite direction, including one brave guy wearing a kilt! Reaching the Bealach Uige we were at the lowest point since leaving the Storr car park first thing in the morning. This left one more climb to get up and over Biodha Buidhe. The ups and downs of the day were starting to take their toll, but a strong push saw us through and soon we were on the top. As we climbed we got some nice views down to the rocky towers of Dun Dubh and Druim an Ruma. These bizarre natural features formed as the result of the biggest landslide in the UK and gave us a taste of the scenery to come tomorrow at the Quirang.

It was one of the group’s 50th birthday on the day and when David met us on top of Biodha Buidhe we had a celebratory chocolate cake in the sunshine to mark the occasion. We then descended back to the bus, with fine evening light picking out the details of the Quirang. A cuckoo called from the trees below making this day 6 out of 6 for these birds. Or maybe it was the same one following us up the trail!? Reaching the road, we’d been on the go for 9 ½ hours. Although tired we were all in high spirits after one of the best days of ridge walking any of us had experienced and the end of the trail was now within reach!

George claiming the summit of Beinn Edra

DAY 7 – QUIRANG TO RUBHA HUNISH

After a big day on the Trotternish Ridge yesterday, it was nice to return to a normal start time for our final day on the trail. Once again the forecast was perfect and the views of the Trotternish Ridge were fantastic as we drove back up through Staffin to reach the days start point. Our first section of the day took us through the incredible rock spires of the Quirang. The day’s fairly prompt start meant that we mostly had the place to ourselves (a pretty rare event!) and we took our time enjoying the iconic scenery of the area. Before long we reached a fork in the trail and a good path, with one steep and eroded section, took us down to reach the road about 1km south of Flodigarry.

A short road walk took us to Flodigarry where we turned down past the hostel and found our way to the shore. Here, in a sheltered grassy spot we enjoyed a break with some nice views across the Minch to the peaks of Wester Ross on the mainland. Continuing on from here we had an undulating journey along dramatic cliff tops with views down to precarious sea stacks and ledges covered with sea birds. The geology of the cliffs was fascinating with some impressive basalt columns and evidence of dramatic folding of the Earth’s crust. Along the way we saw kittiwakes, cormorants and guillemots either soaring between the cliffs or perched on ledges. After passing the remains of a WWII radar station we soon reached the sheltered bay at Balmaqueen where Lee and Geoff called in the group for a final lunch break. It was a fine spot to stop, watching the waves crashing against the shore and with plentiful clumps of sea thrift covering the foreshore in a carpet of pink. It was tempting to stay for longer but the end of the trail was within touching distance so we moved on. Climbing past the remains of Saint Moluag’s Church we crossed the moors to the cliff tops. Here we surmounted our final obstacle – negotiating a field of cattle including bull and calves! – and reached the end of the Skye Trail at the Lookout Bothy overlooking Rubha Hunish, the most northerly tip of Skye. It was a satisfying moment, and it was good to take the obligatory team photo. All that remained was a straightforward 2km walk out to the road to the bus and head back to Portree for a celebratory dinner at the Isles!

 
The team at Rubha Hunish – the Skye Trail successfully completed!