Walking the Skye Trail during Covid

The Skye Trail is not as well trodden as the West Highland Way or Great Glen Way but, as Henry Clifford found out, this creates an even more magical route

The Inner and Outer Hebrides have always piqued my fascination. Ever since I walked the West Highland Way six years ago, The Skye Trail has been on my to do list.

When you Google it, images pop up that wouldn’t be out of place in Jurassic Park or on a planet from a foreign galaxy. In July, during a time of uncertainty and amid the global pandemic, my curiosity won over and I finally experienced the landscape for myself.

Unlike the West Highland Way, which has a clear and signposted path throughout, The Skye Trail is an unofficial long-distance trail that starts at the top of the Isle of Skye and finishes at the town of Broadford in the South.

The Skye Trail Guidebook

The Skye Trail

A challenging backpacking route from Rubha Hunish to Broadford

£9.95

This guidebook describes The Skye Trail, a challenging week-long trek across the largest island in Scotland's Inner Hebrides, the Isle of Skye. From Rubha Hunish in the north, the Skye Trail heads along the Trotternish Ridge and past the Cuillin to Broadford in the south. Suitable for experienced backpackers and mountain walkers.

More information

Skye has a reputation for changeable weather and it certainly lived up to it during my visit. It can be glorious sunshine and within five minutes you are facing driving rain with all your wet gear on!

Guidance surrounding Covid-19 changes nearly as much as Skye’s weather, so when it became clear that I would be able to fly up to north-western Scotland without the need to quarantine, I booked my flight from London to Inverness and then the bus that links Inverness, the Capital of the Highlands, to the Misty Isle.

The final town that the bus arrives in before you head over the bridge into Skye is Kyle of Lochalsh. It was here that a local fisherman hopped on our bus and at the next stop in Broadford, two of his friends joined.

For many outdoor jobs, sunlight is key. Due to its location, Skye enjoys up to 18 hours of sunlight at the peak of summer, but a meagre six and a half at its darkest period in winter. Covid-19, and the lockdown that followed, deprived many people of the peak months where they can bring in income. The pandemic also came during the busiest tourism months - one of the island’s key drivers of revenue.

During our taxi ride up to the red telephone box that marks the start of the trail near Duntulm, the impact of the pandemic became more evident as the taxi driver told us his story.

But like all the folk we met on Skye, he was jovial, upbeat and very friendly. At the red telephone box he gladly took a photo of my friend and I to mark the beginning of our trip and told us: 'You’ll be experts in rain before the trip is out.' He was not wrong.

Duntulm

The trip doesn’t take you through the town of Duntulm but it’s worth mentioning it as for many years it was the seat of one of the most famous Scottish clans: the MacDonalds. The MacDonald’s notoriety increased when Flora MacDonald helped smuggle Bonnie Prince Charles from the mainland to Skye.

After losing the battle of Culloden in 1746, the English were hunting him down and Bonnie Prince Charles, disguised as Flora’s servant, rowed across to Skye to find shelter.

Throughout the trail there are fantastic vignettes of history like this that are a joy to learn about and are gleaned, as ever, from talking to local people and of course from a good book! For me, this came in the form of a Cicerone guide book which was brilliant.

Beginning of trail
The beginning of the trail

Rubna Hunish

The beginning of the trail starts at the top of the island at a spot called Rubna Hunish, a beautiful headland and a great place to see minke whales.

The first day of the seven-day trail is very approachable and eased us into our journey. Little did we know, but aside from the final day of the trip, it would be our only day of full sunshine.

Eating energy bars on the cliffs looking out to the smaller island of Raasay, a small island between Skye and the mainland, was a joy. At the end of the first stage you descend into Flodigarry, where Flora Macdonald lived for many years.

The campsite in town was closed due to Covid-19. We knew this as we had already called many of the potential places to set up tent along the trail, but after a day of getting lost in nature, it was a reminder of what was going on beyond the Misty Isle.

We pushed on and wild camped next to Loch Langaig. The wind picked up in the night and it would stay with us throughout the trip.

Unofficial trail

The Skye trail is an unofficial trail so the mileage will vary depending on how you walk it, but roughly speaking it’s 80 miles over seven days and day two is the ‘whopper’.

With 18 miles and 1750 metres to ascend, it’s a day that is significantly more challenging than any of the others in the trip.

At the loch with the Cicerone guide
At the loch with the Cicerone guide

When we set off from Loch Langaig the weather was overcast and quite breezy. There was, however, signs of sunshine in the direction we were headed and we were confident that the weather would not give us any trouble.

As we climbed through the spectacular rock formations of the Quiraing, the visibility was good enough to take in and enjoy the dramatic views. We soon got to the carpark at the bottom of the famous Trotternish Ridge and all was well.

It is one of the best ridge walks in Britain and the views you are exposed to make you feel like you are on another planet. As my father would say, this was big country’.

For the whole of the ridge you stick very close to the cliff edge and are never far from a great view. Once you’re up on the ridge there are very few points you can descend from and equally not that many places you can wild camp so you have to commit to doing a big section of the ridge, which is not advised when visibility is bad.

Trotternish Ridge 2
The Trotternish Ridge

All was well until two hours in when we got hit with a hailstorm, which precipitated driving rain and poor visibility for the next three hours. I must admit, I did not think the weather would be quite that bad in mid-July and therefore wasn’t best prepared.

After a few hours my hands were numb and it was quite hard to do up my buckle on my rucksack. We didn’t get to see many of the great views that would have been afforded to us had the visibility been better and unfortunately chatting was hard as it was too wet and windy to maintain conversation.

That said, it felt like the weather couldn’t get any worse and in my head I was telling myself: ‘If we can do the Trotternish Ridge in poor conditions, then the rest of the trail will be a piece of cake.’ Thankfully, this was true. However, we still had to tackle Beinn Edra, a peak at 611m above sea level that was the start of various ascents and descents.

Old man of storr
Old Man of Storr

The second stage typically finishes at the Storr but we camped at the foot of Hartaval, the last peak before the Storr. We weretired and visibility was poor at the top of Hartaval, so we decided to make Stage 3's walking that little bit longer.

All I wanted was to be off the peak as the wind was relentless, but we had a solid tent and felt comfortable enough to camp. As soon as we got into the tent my friend Charlie started to get some of the food out and before he managed to offer any to me, I was asleep!

camp
Our camp

I found that I was asleep by 8pm often on this trip - something that is inconceivable for me when I’m at home in London. When we rose, the weather was better, but it was still windy and overcast. We headed up and around the Storr, to reach one of the most famous vistas on the island and a rock formation that is always on the list of things to see, the Old Man of Storr.

After the epic ridge walk, we headed towards the coast and walked along the cliffs. Thankfully, the weather cleared enough to see the Isle of Raasay. Although an incredible view, the highlight of the day for me was a sighting of three minke whales. I heard a flapping noise coming from the water below the cliffs and noticed that it was coming from three whales popping up for air and, seemingly, having a play.

This was a real gift, having thought we wouldn’t get to see any after drawing blank at Rubna Hunish on day one, where it’s much more likely to see them. They’re large, powerful creatures and it was a joy to see a mammal that matched the majestic nature of its surroundings.

Coast where we spotted whales
The coast where we spotted whales

During this stretch, I met a lovely couple from Yorkshire who have a house in Skye and spend a few months of the year there. One of them said Portree (our next stop) was ‘buzzing’. I’d been walking in wet boots for two days and the idea of a place to dry out my clothes spurred me on to march faster into Portree, the main village on the island.

Our hotel had underfloor heating in the bathroom which was a life saver. We laid out all our gear and headed into town for some food. The majority of places were still closed but many of the ones that were open were fully booked and it took us some time to find a place that had space – something we hoped was a nod to tourism recovering in the area.

Our hotel had all the correct Covid-19 sanitation procedures in places and we felt confident and comfortable staying there. It was strange feeling a bit merry after a few beers, looking at your watch, and it saying 10pm and it’s still light outside. I recall it took longer than normal to sleep that evening as there was still light coming through the curtains.

Portee
The island's main village of Portree

After a hearty breakfast and a brief stop at the camping shop to get energy bars, we set off for Sligachan. The fourth day of the trail is considered by many as the easiest and for a large part of it we were on a tarmac road. To be honest, for us, the fact that our feet were dry and we weren’t on perpetual boggy terrain was a blessing.

When the tarmac finishes you get to a path that goes along Loch Sligachan and after crossing a river, you arrive at Sligachan. The highlight of the day was seeing some seals and otters playing around at the mouth of the loch.

Again, the campsite was closed. However, we wanted to camp near the campsite as there is a brewery right next door called ‘Cuillin Brewery’ named after the famous Cuillin mountain range that overlooks it.

We had some delicious craft beer and cider and topped off the night with a dram of Talisker Port Ruighe. Port Ruighe is the Gaelic name for the town of Portree, which felt fitting as we’d just come from there.

The next stage follows Glen Sligachan for the majority of the day, a glen sandwiched between the formidable Black and Red Cuillin mountain ranges. We had another wet day, but this time without much wind. Nothing could top the weather we experienced on day two so it was manageable.

The Cuillin were shrouded in mist for the majority of the day but it was enjoyable, nonetheless. We only saw three people the entire day and it was again a reminder of the global situation outside of our blissful bubble on Skye.

We finished the day in a wonderful bothy. A group had stayed there two days before we arrived from Warrington (the guest book is a great read) and had left a third of a bottle of whisky for the bothy.

We had a few glasses and left some midge spray and rehydration salts for the next people. Talking of midges, because it was so windy, they only caused us problems one night when we camped behind a wall which acted as a wind barrier and allowed them to thrive!

The next day we could have summited the famous Bla Bheinn, a peak in the Cuillin at 928m, but visibility limited us to only 80m ahead so we decided to take the cliff route. This was fun as the route takes you along an eroded cliff path with some dramatic drops to your right.

Like in other parts of the route where we stumbled upon a path, we had to cut away a lot of branches or brambles - clearly not many people had walked them in quite some time!

Coast
The route hugs the coastline

As you hug the coastline, you get to see other islands including Eigg and Rum, and the view is specular. We carried on to a bay and broke for lunch on a cobbled beach. We chatted to a local who pointed out her family in wetsuits walking towards us with a large catch they were going to barbecue at her house for lunch.

There were three generations all in one shot and it was a beautiful scene. After lunch we turned inland and snaked back round the coastline to Torrin.

We set up camp for the last time on the banks of Loch Slapin, a short walk from the town of Torrin. The final stage finishes in Broadford and takes you along the coast and through remnants of Suisnish and Boreraig, villages that were destroyed as part of the Highland Clearances.

In a century of rapid global population growth, it was strange to think the place we passed through once held a larger population than it does today. We broke for lunch and saw some people descending the path we were due to ascend. With the end of the trail so close, we pressed on and a few hours later, arrived in Broadford.

As with all long-distance walks, the sense of achievement at the end is very rewarding. We had walked the Skye Trail in conditions that were much worse than expected and without the usual amenities like campsites, cafes and village shops that would have been open if Covid-19 was not with us.

We had to carry more food as a result but one of the advantages was that we often had some of the best views all to ourselves. We learned about the culture, history and nature of Skye and it’s a trip I would love to do again some day.

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