The Isle of Skye lies close to the north-west coast of the Scottish Highlands. It is the largest and the furthest north of the islands in the Inner Hebrides. The name ‘Skye’ is probably from the Norse words Ski (cloud) and Ey (island). In Gaelic it is normally referred to as An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, which translates as The Winged Isle - from the wing-like shape formed by the two northern peninsulas of Waternish and Trotternish. The island is marked on old Roman maps as "Scitis". In English it's sometimes referred to as the "Misty Isle" (Eilean a’ Cheo, in Gaelic). That one seems a wee bit too romantic for my taste. And there’s more…but that’s enough to confuse anyone already.
Skye is a romantic place though. The history, the legends, the scenery, the weather, the music and the poetry combine to produce something very special indeed. It is that peculiar magic that draws visitors to the island from all around the world, and makes it Scotland’s biggest tourist destination after Edinburgh. It has been said that Skye is conclusive proof that, sometimes, God was just showing off.
Skye is about 50 miles from north to south, and around 25 miles from west to east at its widest. The coastline is very irregular and indented by sea lochs. In all it is some 400 miles long – and I can’t think of a single mile of those 400 that I would class as dull. The coast is littered with bays, sea arches, stacks, caves, massive cliffs, waterfalls, fossils, tidal islands – a lifetime’s worth of exploration and discovery.
This dramatic coastline surrounds some of the most exceptional and varied scenery to be found anywhere. The main mountain range, the Cuillin, is often said to be the home of the only true mountains in Britain. Certainly there is nowhere in the country to compare with the magnificent, dramatic and challenging peaks and ridges of the Cuillin.
Nearby, the rounded granite lumps of the Red Hills are less savage, but still offer stunning views - both of them, and off them.
In the north-east is the Trotternish Peninsula, with the world famous ridge or escarpment that forms its backbone. The ridge rises to its highest point at the summit of the Storr, above the tortured landslip topography that includes the iconic pinnacle - The Old Man of Storr. The ridge is home also to the Quiraing, another landslip area of pinnacles and gullies, this time below the summit of Meal na Suiramach.
The geology of Skye is complex. It is the variety of rock types that underlies, literally and metaphorically, the very different sorts of terrain and scenery to be found on the island. The impact of successive ice sheets passing over, the last as recently as 11,500 years ago, adds to the mix.
To summarise simply, there are three main geological regions:
The south-east has some of Britain's oldest rocks in the form of 3,000 million year old Lewisian Gneiss. These are overlaid by younger (c800million year old) sedimentary rocks, mainly Torridian Sandstone.
The Cuillin is much younger, being the heavily glaciated remains of a solidified volcanic lava reservoir some 60 million years of age. Just south of the Cuillin can be seen limestone in Strath Suardal. This gives rise to the complexes of caves in the area. It is metamorphosed limestone that forms the marble that is still extracted commercially at Torrin.
It isn’t that Skye has had more history than anywhere else, it’s just that it hasn’t been covered up by agriculture, motorways and housing to the extent that it has been in more developed parts of the world.
There are obvious remnants of the past almost everywhere you look, and there is plenty left to explore – perhaps even the chance that you will discover something that nobody else alive knows about.
The oldest evidence of human activity on the island is prehistoric, starting about 6,000BC, when hunter-gatherers of the stone age left shell middens. Standing stones abound, some with pictish carving still visible. The population began to settle in agriculturally based communities about 3,000 years later. Today, chambered burial cairns can be found without difficulty in many parts of Skye.
The iron age did not reach the island until around 500BC. This period left us many hut circles and duns, together with some very impressive brochs. Souterrains, long underground storage passages, also date from the iron age. There are good examples of all these prehistoric structures on Skye, several of which are covered in the Ancient monuments section of The Skye Guide.