An t-Eilean Sgitheanach -- the Isle of Skye, that is -- has got to be one of the most magical places I've ever visited. I went there several years ago, and every year I keep thinking about going back. The island is quiet, stunningly beautiful, with great walks and drives, a thriving Gaelic culture, friendly people, good food, great whisky, and lots and lots of sheep.
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It was also perhaps the first time I had visited a place because of a piece of music. Scottish accordionist/composer/producer Phil Cunningham lived on Skye at the time, and had composed tunes on the two albums he did with the group Relativity that said things like "this tune was inspired by the view outside my kitchen window on the Isle of Skye", and "this tune was inspired by the view on the train trip from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, perhaps the most beautiful two-and-a-half-hour train journey in the world." The tunes were so beautiful that I thought, "I have to go there." (Phil was right about that train trip, too.)
I understand things on Skye have changed a bit since my last visit; there's now apparently a bridge to take the place of the ferry that took passengers from Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin, the landing point on the island. That's a bit of a bummer, as I rather enjoyed the brief ferry trip, but I suppose it's made things more convenient for visitors. I'm of a mind, though, that convenience in accessibility isn't necessarily a good thing. Some places are special enough that it should require a little bit of extra effort to get there. The ferry was part of the charm of the experience for me, and it took less than 10 minutes. I don't need the convenience of a bridge, but I suppose that it's good for the economy of the island.
When I landed at Kyleakin, I was taken to a nearby hotel to hire a car; it was affordable enough, but I was taken aback by the requirement of a £50 cash deposit for the car hire. I was a starving student who was already running out of money, but the cheerful gentleman assured me that the deposit was 100% refundable, "unless you hit a sheep." Sheep outnumber humans on this island, and apparently rental cars hitting sheep had been a bit of a problem.
I had booked a B&B in Portree, the island's main town, and the drive from Kyleakin to Portree was stunningly beautiful. The drive was right along the island's east coast, and the view, amidst the hills and the heather, was of the small neighboring island of Raasay 14 miles long by 4 miles wide, and with a population of about 200. When I arrived at Portree, once a busy fishing port but now a tourist town, I began to have the first of several weird but wonderful experiences that were right out of my favorite movie, "Local Hero" (set in Scotland but in the Highlands of the mainland).
My B&B was a big, beautiful house owned and operated by the delightful Mrs. McKenzie, who greeted my knocks at the door with a line right out of "Local Hero" ... "Oh, come in dear. It's never locked." I was shown to my comfortable, well-decorated and spacious bedroom, then told her that my journey to Skye (which included sleeping on the floor at the Inverness train station, something I do not recommend) had been difficult, and the only thing I wanted was a shower. "Oh dear, there'll be no shower here," she said. I was speechless and nonplussed, but she led me to the bathroom on the second floor, where the door was opened to reveal ... the largest, free-standing claw-foot bathtub I had ever seen. I gasped. (It was luxurious.)
Portree is charming, and there's plenty to do - restaurants and cafés and walking and an arts centre - but what you'll want to do mostly is just SEE the island. Rent a bike, take a boat trip ... you'll rarely see a place more beautiful. Some of the more spectacular sights include Dunvegan Castle, home of the island's ruling MacLeod clan for many years, The Old Man of Storr (a stone pinnacle with a great view) and ... well, just about anywhere you point your eyes.
Keep an eye out for fliers or posters about cultural events happening on the island. There was one event I was incredibly lucky to run across. I was in a wee craft shop and happened to notice a wee poster on the door, describing an evening of song, poetry and piping at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the southwestern side of the island. I drove out there that night, was greeted by the President of the college, who gave me a tour, and was delighted by the fact that almost everyone there was speaking Gaelic and not English. Skye is part of the Gaidhealtachd, the Gaelic-speaking region, and despite encroaching tourism the culture is still strong there. The evening (conducted and hosted entirely in Gaelic) featured performers from both Scotland and Ireland. There were two singers of sean-nos songs (unaccompanied songs in Scottish and Irish Gaelic), two pipers (one of whom was a member of Battlefield Band at the time), and two poets -- one Irish, whose name escapes me at the moment, and ... the Scottish poet, who I later realized was the greatest living Scottish Gaelic poet, Sorley MacLean. As I talked to more Scottish people after this trip, I learned that I was very fortunate indeed to have heard him speak; he died not long after.
There were other experiences I had there that convinced me that Skye is perhaps the most magical place I'd ever been to, but ... I'll keep those to myself. :-)
See the island, meet the people, drink the whisky (the bottle of locally-made Talisker Single Malt, distilled in 1956, that I took home is the greatest Scotch I've ever tasted). Experience Skye for the first time; I can't wait to experience it for the next time.
Useful web sites include the Internet Guide to Scotland - Skye at
http://www.scotland-inverness.co.uk/skye.htm, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig's site
at http://www.smo.uhi.ac.uk and Kyleakin resident Ray Shields' page at