Northwest from Sgur na Stri

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.

Portree Bay


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 face of the Quiraing

The Sleat peninsula to the south offers an altogether different sort of scene. Lush, wooded glens are interspersed with the most idyllic crofting communities. Nowhere does the land rise above 1,000 ft. The mild climate and fertile ground give the area a look more of south-west England than north-west Scotland.


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.

The Storr reflected in Loch Fada

The north of the island is composed mainly of lava flows. These horizontal flows built up on top of each other to a depth of around 2,000 ft. The rocks have since been eroded by rivers and ice, leaving flat-capped hills and stepped plateaux in the north-west. In the north-east (Trotternish) the underlying sedimentary rocks have collapsed under the weight of the basalt, tipping everything sideways to form the distinctive landslips. The ground here is still moving, evidenced by frequent rockfalls at the Storr and by the tortured state of the road at Flodigarry. There are many fossils to be found in the Jurassic sediments exposed at low level on the east coast.


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.

Dun Ardtreck

Vikings came from Norway to take control of Skye around 700AD. Their rule lasted, not without dispute, until the defeat of Haakon at the Battle of Largs in 1263. It was only then that Skye came under the rule of the Kings of Scots. Clan feuds and bloody strife continued long thereafter. The battles between the Macleods of north Skye and the Macdonalds of south Skye seem almost countless.
After the second Jacobite rebellion of 1745, and the Battle of Culloden in April 1746, Prince Charles Edward Stuart became a fugitive from the British crown.  He was helped in his flight around the Hebrides by Flora MacDonald, who famously sailed with him from Benbecula to Skye. The prince was disguised as her woman servant. The well known Skye Boat Song commemorates, famously but inaccurately, the difficult trip. Stories and locations connected to their adventures abound on the island. A monument to Flora can be found in the cemetery at Kilmuir. It is incribed with Dr Johnson’s epitaph for her: ‘A name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.'
Despite the belief, or hope, expressed in the final line of The Skye Boat Song, Charlie never did come again. Skye, along with the rest of the Scottish Highlands, was subjugated by the British government. The wearing of tartan was outlawed, bearing arms was outlawed and even the native Gaelic language was outlawed. In this circumstance, the clan chiefs’ role moved to that of landlord, raising rent from their now crofting tenants.

Dunvegan Castle

The  chiefs encouraged the growth of the working population on their land so that they could exploit the profitable kelp industry. This seaweed was collected, prepared and sent south to make soap, fertilizers and other valuable products. When the market for kelp collapsed in the 1820s, the landlords turned to sheep for income, producing wool for the mills of the southern-based Industrial Revolution.
The crofters were now largely seen to be standing in the way of progress. Most were moved off the fertile land to make way for the sheep. Some emigrated voluntarily, to central Scotland, Canada or America. Many were evicted by terrifying force, their houses being burnt as they were thrown out. This was what became known as The Highland Clearances. There are many, many such deserted settlements on Skye. Excellent examples can be visited at Suisnish, Boreraig, Lorgill and Tusdale. Take a hard heart – or take a handkerchief.

Part of the cleared village at Tusdale

The population of the island hit its lowest point in the mid twentieth century. At the 2011 census it stood at 10,008, having grown by more than 8% in the previous decade. The island is retaining more of its children, and attracting people who value the exceptional lifestyle that it can offer. Broadband internet availability has allowed a new type of cottage industry. The business start-up rate is the strongest in the Scottish Highlands. House building and renovation keeps hundreds busy.
The island is thriving, and the outlook seems good...

If you are in any doubt about the drama of Skye, take a look at this video 'trailer' produced by Visit Scotland. How could you resist coming to see all this for yourself?