Trotternish Peninsula, Isle of Skye
The most northerly of the Skye peninsulae, Trotternish has at its heart the high ridge of volcanic rock known as the Trotternish Ridge. This ridge, which is one of the most popular walking areas on the island, runs from the peak of The Storr in the south-east, through the striking Quiraing near Staffin, to end abruptly near Flodigarry in the north. On the way, it produces some of the most memorable sights on Skye, most notably the approach to the Old Man of Storr in the south, and The Needle and The Prison in the Quiraing.
The main road sticks closely to the sea, avoiding the high ground of the ridge itself, and this route makes for a magnificent drive through some of the best scenery Scotland has to offer. But if you are a little more adventurous, take the narrow, winding road that runs from Staffin to Uig, which climbs to the top of the ridge and runs across the high Trotternish plateau before finally dropping back down to the sea.
The highlights that follow are arranged to form a roughly circular counter-clockwise tour, though of course they can be visited in any order.
A Designated Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Loch Fada is a small inland loch at the southern end of the Trotternish ridge. Loch Fada is connected at its northern extremity to the larger Loch Leathan through a gently winding stream. The road along the loch is narrow, but there are frequent passing places for cars to cross paths, or to stop and admire the spectacular scenery. The views from the southern end of Loch Fada north to the Old Man of Storr are among the highlights of Skye.
The romantic ruins of Duntulm Castle are perched in a dramatic cliff-top location looking out towards the Outer Hebrides. Access to the castle is by way of a short track across the top of a sheep pasture that can be very slippery and muddy in wet weather. Duntulm Castle was a MacLeod possession, but became the chief residence of the MacDonalds in 1539, who held it until their support for the Jacobite cause resulted in Duntulm and all of their Trotternish possessions being seized by the English crown.
It seems likely that a Norse fortress predates the medieval castle we see today, and it is possible that an earlier Iron Age fort lies under the ruins of the Norse stronghold. The castle is defended by steep cliffs on three sides, with a drop of 50 feet to the rocks below. Local legend tells that Duntulm was abandoned in the early 18th century after a careless nursemaid dropped the infant heir to the castle from a window onto the jagged rocks.
Old Man of Storr
The views of the rock formation known as the Old Man of Storr dominate the road north from Portree into the Trotternish Peninsula. The Storr mountain itself forms the southernmost end of the Trotternish ridge which extends in a north-westerly direction, taking in some of the most spectacular scenery on Skye, and offering some of the best opportunities for walking. There are two parking areas at the base of the Old Man of Storr, and trails lead up to the top of the ridge and beyond.
The top of the ridge is frequently enveloped in mist, giving it a mysterious quality. Be aware that the weather can change very quickly, and setting out for a one hour saunter up to the Old Man and the nearby Needle can start out in sunshine and end in rain and thick cloud – or vice versa! If you aren’t inclined to climb to the summit, the best views of the Old Man of Storr can be had from the southern end of Loch Fada, where a layby allows parking for several cars.
Lealt Gorge and Falls
The dramatic gorge and waterfall at Lealt rank as one of the hidden pleasures of Skye. It is easy to drive right by the gorge, tucked as it is below the A855 road about 5 miles south of Staffin. For those lucky enough to realize they are within a few steps of a natural wonder there is a small car park and a short, mostly level walk to a viewpoint where you can look back into the depths of the gorge and see the waterfalls which tumble down a steep slope to the floor of the gorge far below.
Carry on along the gravelled path and after a few hundred metres you will come to a second viewing platform, this time oriented so as to give commanding views over the surrounding cliffs and the sea. At the foot of the cliffs, hugging a narrow band of shoreline, lie the ruins of several buildings from a factory that once processed diatomite mined at nearby Loch Cuithir, in the hills above Lealt.
Kilt Rock & waterfall
About one and a half miles south of Staffin on the A855 coastal road lies Kilt Rock viewpoint. There are really two attractions here; one is the waterfall which tumbles from the nearby loch over the precipitous cliff edge in dramatic fashion, the second is Kilt Rock itself, a striking vertical cliff-face of basalt which – if you use some imagination - resembles the folds of a Scottish kilt.
There is a fenced viewpoint that gives the only reasonable views of Kilt Rock, though the angle of the coast does not allow for a really good look at the waterfall. For best light viewing Kilt Rock, come in the morning.
Staffin is one of the larger settlements on Skye, though that can be misleading, for it is a small village which spreads north along the curve of Staffin Bay, merging as it does into smaller outlying crafting communities. The Bay describes a lovely arc, with a pebble beach at the centre, and the small profile of Staffin Island rising up from the waters of the Bay. The views across to Gairloch and the Scottish mainland are superb.
Above Staffin rises the upland of the Trotternish Ridge and the popular walking area of the Quiraing. The beaches north of Staffin are good fossil hunting territory; remains of shell fossils are fairly easy to find; my 5-year-old daughter found an ammonite fossil within a few minutes of hunting, and I stumbled upon the remains of a Cretaceous period Belemnite (a relative of the squid).
Staffin to Uig road
The road across the middle of the Trotternish peninsula between Staffin and Uig climbs past the jagged grandeur of the Quiraing and emerges onto a fairly level landscape of heather and peat. The infant River Rha runs beside the road for most of the journey to Uig, growing gradually in size as it is fed by numerous small burns along the way.
There is a great feeling of openness as if the sky has receded into the distance, and you are driving along the top of the world. When you reach the western end of the road, the vista of Uig Bay opens up suddenly beneath you, with views across to the lovely Waternish peninsula opposite.
The Quiraing is a fantastic, almost other-worldly, landscape of rock formations near the northern end of the Trotternish Ridge. The most famous of the formations are The Needle, a spire of jagged rock, The Prison, a ridge which, if seen from the correct angle, resembles a castle keep with corner guard towers, and The Table, an incongruous green-clad plateau nestled in the midst of the Quiraing rocks.
This is a very popular walking area, and almost any clear day will see ten or twenty people out walking the Quiraing. If you have a mind to try the walk there are two main options. To reach the Quiraing drive north through Staffin, where the narrow road to Uig branches off to the left. The turning is also signposted for The Quiraing. There is a parking area on the left about half a mile along, adjacent to a cemetery. This approach is shorter, and lets you reach the base of the ridge more quickly, but makes for a very steep climb to the Prison and the Needle.
If you don’t fancy the steep climb, carry on driving to the top of the ridge, where a parking area gives access to a gravelled path running roughly across the side of the ridge to the base of the Needle and Prison. The way is well-marked for the most part, but rather peters out after you reach an area of rough scree at the base of the Needle. From here you need to be reasonable fit and determined to scramble up the hill to the Needle and the Table beyond. But if you do make the climb you will be rewarded by some of the most spectacular views of the Isle of Skye.
Quiraing -> The Prison
The name ‘Quiraing’ translates loosely as ‘pillared fortress’, so it should come as no surprise that one of the most prominent features of this unusual glacial outcropping of the Trotternish ridge is known as The Prison. Whether this formation actually resembles a prison is up to your own imagination; from one angle it looks like an upside-down letter V, but if seen from just the right direction it does indeed look like the crumbling ruins of a stone keep with corner turrets. The Prison can be climbed with a bit of a scramble up the steep slope, but be warned that there is plenty of loose scree and good footwear should be worn.
Quiraing -> The Needle
The most easily recognizable Quiraing landmark is The Needle. From the car park at the top of the Trotternish ridge, The Needle doesn’t look terribly impressive, but as you climb closer to the top of the ridge you begin to realize just how imposing this ragged finger of rock truly is. The best vantage point can be had if you are brave enough to scramble up the scree to the plateau known as The Table, and look down on The Needle.
Quiraing -> The Table
This small, green plateau seems oddly out of place, hidden away like a secluded snooker table in amongst the higgledy-piggeldy rock formations that surround it. In the days of clan warfare, this plateau was used to hide cattle, and in more peaceful times the Gaelic sport of shinty was played on the mostly level surface. The easiest access is via a path around the west side of the plateau, rather than the steeper scramble up the eastern side.
Flora MacDonald's grave
Kilmuir cemetery is full of fascinating graves, the most famous of which is this Victorian-era memorial to Flora MacDonald, who risked her life to save Bonnie Prince Charlie from capture by the English after the unfortunate prince had been beaten by the Duke of Cumberland at the Battle of Culloden on April 16, 1746.
Flora MacDonald dressed Prince Charlie as her maid, and helped him to reach Skye, and, eventually, escape to France. MacDonald later married and emigrated to North Carolina, but eventually returned with to Skye, where she died in 1790. Dr Johnson provided the epitaph for her memorial, erected by public subscription in 1880.:
Her name will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.
Before you can enjoy Kilmuir cemetery you have to first find it, which can prove difficult. The cemetery is on a sloping hillside about one mile north of the village hall in Kilmuir, on a minor road signposted to Heribusta.
Skye Museum of Island Life
This small museum consists of seven traditional thatched crofters cottages, situated on the westward sloping hillside just north of Kilmuir, on the Trotternish peninsula. The location is superb, with views across to the Outer Hebrides.
The primary focus of the museum is to show what life was like for crofters in years gone by, but there are also exhibits of memorabilia associated with Flora MacDonald and Bonnie Prince Charlie, the crofters' rebellions of the 19th century, clan warfare, and the history and prehistory of the region.
The crofters' cottages show the use of traditional building methods and materials that evolved over the centuries to suit local conditions. Walls may be up to three feet thick, with a steeply overhanging roof of thatch made from reeds or rushes. Included in the cottages on show here are a weaver’s cottage, barn, smithy, and ‘Celiedh House’, where you can view a collection of old photographs and documents relating to island life.
The Fairy Glen
A brief drive south from the ferry port at Uig brings you to an unexpected treasure; a small valley of striking rock formations, oddly-shaped hills and tumbling burns known as the Fairy Glen. Quite what fairies have to do with this is beyond me, but there is no mistaking the magical feel of the landscape; it is an area like no other on Skye. Erosion has caused the land to form tiny mountains, lochs, and valleys, creating a ‘Highlands in miniature’
The most popular of the rock formations is Castle Ewen, also called the Fairy Castle, which does indeed resemble a crumbling castle ruin perched atop a high ridge of rock and turf. A path winds around the hill to reach the castle, but the more adventurous climbers will want to try the direct route up to a narrow ridge that leads to the castle – but only try this route if you have a good head for heights as the width of the ridge can be measured in centimetres, not metres!
The mystique of the Fairy Glen has led to its popularity with various spiritual practices; when I visited last there were several small stone circles laid out on the ground, and several altars with coins and other articles left as prayer offerings.
Rha valley waterfall
On the northern edge of Uig the river Rha tumbles down from the uplands of the Trotternish ridge. The river valley is quite narrow at this point, and heavy with trees and underbrush; this is one of the largest areas of broadleaf woodland in northern Skye, and the Woodland Trust has created fairly gentle walks along the Rha and nearby Conon burns. This woodland, rich in ash and elm, is some of the last remaining plantations of native forest in the largely treeless Trotternish region.
Park near the bridge across the Rha, at the northern outskirts of Uig, and go over a stile to find a short path leading up the valley beside the river. After a few hundred yards a set of steps has been laid into the hillside. Descend these steps and you will find yourself before an attractive series of waterfalls and pools. The waterfalls are not dramatic, but the setting is peaceful and quiet; a lovely spot to sit and listen to the sounds of nature.
Kensaleyre standing stones
This pair of standing stones occupy a striking position overlooking the shores of Loch Snizort Beag where it meets Loch Eyre. The stones are easily visible from the busy A87, but there is no readily accessible parking place, just a narrow pull-by on the side of the road. You will have to climb a fence and cross a farm field to access the stones.
Local legend tells that there were originally three stones, used to hold up the cooking pot of the Fianna, or Feine, mythical stone-throwing giants. An alternate tale attributes the stones to Fionn, or Finn, a legendary hunter and warrior and leader of the Fianna.
The stones are generally assumed to be between 3500 – 4000 years old.