(The Gear Loop) - Skye is an island that attracts superlatives like moths to a flame. Home to some genuinely world-famous scenery, jagged mountains, winding roads, dazzling lochs and an incredible coastline, it is an adventurer’s paradise.
The island’s story is constantly being rewritten and has so far featured Vikings, clan warfare, the tragedy of the Clearances and daring mountaineering endeavours. Skye, in all its glory, is quintessential Highland Scotland and it’s no wonder so many are keen to write their own chapter.
For mountain lovers, the main draw is the Black Cuillin, Britain’s most challenging and, arguably, most spectacular mountain range. They are also Britain’s youngest mountains, and their geology is unique. Formed 60 million years ago, they are the twisted remains of a magma chamber, sculpted and sharpened by aeons of glaciation. Left behind is a landscape of intimidating towers, sinuous ridges and razor peaks comprised of grippy black gabbro and basalt.
The Cuillin dominate the heart of the island, yet there’s plenty to experience elsewhere. Some of its most iconic sights can be found on the Trotternish Peninsula to the north. Here, a gigantic landslip that runs pretty much its entire length has created some stunning scenery.
The coastline is magnificent too, with staggering cliff scenery and awe-inspiring headlands. And, after a day of exploring, there’s always a cosy inn for a wee dram, too.
Hiking the Black Cuillin
The Black Cuillin feature the only peaks in Britain that are named after the first people to have climbed them which, along with other names like 'the Inaccessible Pinnacle' and 'the Executioner' (the Anglicised translation of Am Basteir), tells you everything you need to know about how challenging this complex mountain range can be.
However, you don’t need climbing skills and ropes to have a wonderful time hiking among the Cuillin. Popular objectives include the Fairy Pools: an immensely dramatic wild swimming spot in Glen Brittle and Sgùrr na Stri: a mini mountain that gives famous views across Loch Scavaig into the heart of the Cuillin.
A hike into Corie Lagan rewards with spellbinding scenery, while a boat trip from Elgol into Loch Coruisk allows you to explore a dark interior enclosed by the mountain walls.
If you’ve got big mountain summits on the agenda, Bruach na Frithe is widely considered the easiest peak to attain on the Cuillin Ridge, which is why it is the one the OS managed to install the one and only trig point on top of. Starting from Sligachan, the route ascends through Fionn Choire, giving access to astonishing vistas once the summit is reached.
Blà Bheinn, the impressive outlier on the opposite side of Glen Sligachan is also a relatively straightforward hike via its main routes, with just the occasional rocky clamber. Its detachment from the main ridge gives it a hefty panorama. Keep your eyes peeled for the resident golden eagles.
You may have heard of the Cuillin Ridge Traverse, the most iconic challenge in British mountaineering. At 12km in length and featuring all 11 of the main ridge’s Munro summits, long sections of Grade 3 scrambling, abseils and Severe rock climbs, it’s a huge undertaking that requires commitment and ironclad mental stamina. Statistically, you are more likely to climb Everest on your first attempt than you are to complete the Traverse.
The Cuillin also feature Scotland’s most technically difficult Munro, the Inaccessible Pinnacle, which can only be summited via a rock climb. It is common for hikers to employ the services of guides for this ascent, as well as for the Cuillin Traverse and other intimidating routes in the range.
Exploring the rest of the island
Away from the Cuillin, there is loads of alternative adventure to be had. The Trotternish Ridge is just as iconic, featuring the oft-photographed landmarks of the Old Man of Storr and the Quiraing. Its remarkable landscape is the result of a monumental landslip, which has left some wonderful landforms and striking rock formations. The road that runs around it is a treat for experienced cyclists.
The Old Man of Storr is a beguiling rock pinnacle that towers up beneath the Storr, a 719-metre hill and the highest point on the Trotternish Ridge. The trails here are among the busiest in Skye, so don’t expect to get them to yourself unless you get up early to beat the crowds.
While both the Quiraing and the Old Man of Storr see many visitors, the Trotternish Ridge as a whole is relatively serene, mostly pathless, rewards with further exploration and makes for an unforgettable expedition. At almost 23 miles in length, many choose to split any traverse in two, wild camping somewhere along the way. Unlike the Cuillin Traverse, this is very much a walk and achievable by all reasonably fit hikers.
Whiskey aficionados will enjoy the Talisker Distillery in Carbost and the Torabhaig Distillery on the Sleat Peninsula, while those interested in clan history can head for Dunvegan Castle, Scotland’s oldest continuously inhabited fortress. There are many great places to head for a spot of paddle boarding or kayaking too, with many hidden bays and beaches.
When to go
Trying to predict the weather on Skye is futile and there’s no guarantee of a favourable forecast at any point in the year. When the rest of the Highlands basks in glorious sunshine, Skye can stubbornly hold onto its clouds. Its location is at the mercy of westerlies coming in off the Atlantic, which gives it a warm, wet climate.
This also means its high ground doesn’t hold on to snow as readily as the uplands on the mainland. Regardless, in winter, the mountains here can be extremely challenging, calling for solid mountaineering skills and equipment, while road cycling can be arduous to say the least.
This makes some of the warmer months preferable. If you are heading to the more popular beauty spots, try to avoid weekends and public holidays. However, there are plenty of ways to escape the crowds even on August bank holiday weekend by seeking out less-frequented objectives. The midges are rife through the summer, so perhaps the best time to visit Skye is in late spring or early autumn if you don't like bugs.
Where to stay
Skye’s popularity means there are plenty of places to stay and a range of accommodation types. Thanks to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, wild camping is permitted and there are almost endless possibilities if you fancy pitching a tent.
Portree is the largest settlement on the island and has plenty of accommodation options and places to eat and drink. It’s very well located for exploring the Trotternish Peninsula to the north and is generally well situated for most of the island’s main attractions.
The port village of Uig is ideal for the Quiraing or the smaller Fairy Glen, while you can also catch a ferry to the Outer Hebrides from here. Dunvegan is a good shout for the Duirinish Peninsula, which features some awe-inspiring coastline, including the iconic Neist Point.
However, if adventures among the Cuillin are your primary concern, Glen Brittle and Sligachan are the best options.
Glen Brittle occupies an enviable spot to the west of the Cuillin Ridge and is the ideal basecamp for many approaches to the range’s peaks. This is also where you’ll find the Fairy Pools, the popular beauty and wild swimming spot that’s often thronged with Instagrammers.
Broadford is also just a short drive from the Cuillin, particularly Blá Bheinn. Staying here also makes getting back to the mainland easier if the weather forecast is favourable off the island, which it often is, to be honest.
How to get there
Up until October 1995, the main route to Skye was via a short ferry crossing. However, the opening of the Skye Bridge changed all of that and now motorists can drive straight across on the A87 from Kyle of Lochalsh. Of course, those of a romantic disposition may still prefer to approach the island across the water. The ferry from Mallaig on the mainland to Armadale on the Sleat Peninsula is the most accessible option.
In terms of public transport, you can get the train from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh and pick up a connecting bus service to explore the island. There are also buses to Skye from Glasgow, or you can get the train to Mallaig via Fort William, take the ferry to Armadale and pick up a bus from there.
Essential gear for the Isle of Skye
Skye’s Cuillin Ridge Traverse
Written by Adrian Trendall of All Things Cuillin, Skye’s Cuillin Ridge Traverse has rapidly become the go-to guide for those eying up a traverse of the main ridge.
With precise descriptions, useful route diagrams and detailed mapping from Harvey, it features the full traverse as well as a number of other excellent scrambles among the Cuillin range.
Montane Trailblazer LT 20L Backpack
For adventures among Skye’s hills and mountains, Montane’s Trailblazer LT 20L is a great lightweight daypack.
Featuring a body-hugging design, the Trailblazer is designed for fast-paced adventures and comes with a multitude of storage solutions for your trinkets, snacks and gizmos.
Sealskinz Waterproof All Weather Ankle Length Sock with Hydrostop
Sealskinz’s Ankle Sock features three-layer fabric: the outer is woven from ripstop nylon for durability and comfort, the middle is a hydrophilic membrane that keeps water out and the inner is made from Merino wool, insulating your feet and wicking moisture away.
This gives you a breathable waterproof sock – perfect for Skye’s wet climate. An additional feature is its elastic taping around the cuff, which stops water running off your leg onto your feet.