My view of Loch Ness was obscured by thick morning dew over our window. I wiped the moisture away with my sleeve and gazed outside, looking for a creature to surface above the water.
Richard met us for breakfast, still wearing his kilt and outlined our schedule for day two on the Isle of Skye. If I thought day one was strenuous, then that was a leisurely pace compared to the expedition that awaits us.
Our plan was to continue southwest towards Skye via bridge crossing into Kyleakin which is where we’d spend the night. Richard designed his own route entirely, including some of the best hikes for us to feel the allure of Scotland’s most enigmatic island.
Although we had a general itinerary, Richard’s idea of a perfect Skye trip evoked a sense of flexibility and spontaneity. To him, what mattered most was something unique for all of us while providing optimal value for our money. This was the first tour in which I had experienced this dynamic. We had the perfect liberty to choose our own path, as a collective. On one condition that we remained en route and in safe hands – then we could do whatever we wanted.
Richard blasted his Scottish music in the coach as Loch Ness vanished from behind. By this point, my tourmates were completely at ease with each other and Richard, casually chatting with him as he drove and getting to know his story. Our relationship developed into a friendship, like backseat companions on a road trip. But being the shy, silent type, I remained quiet, actively listening to the conversation around me.
We learned that within a few months, Richard would be heading off to Australia to be with his girlfriend who was from there and working as a paramedic. He didn’t seem exactly sure of what he’d be doing while down under. And with a mind of a lexicon and a mastery of Scottish geography, I presumed he was a seasoned veteran. However, he was, in fact, the tour company’s the newest addition by six months.
Our first stop was perhaps the most famous castle in Scotland – Eilean Donan Castle. In Richard’s words, one would recognize this place from “every single ‘Visit Scotland’ rough guides book you’ve seen in bookstores and online.” He went on to say that like yesterday’s sights, this castle was yet another film set, although less appealing. Its filmography includes the “atrociously bad rom-com” called Made of Honor that his girlfriend dragged him to see.
Eilean Donan was perched on a small island connected by a stone bridge. It marks the meeting point of three major lochs: Duich, Long and Alsh.
The castle’s origins were likely attributed to an Irish saint called Donan, who arrived here in the 6th century and formed a small community. However, its first real structure was built in the 13th century as defensive fortifications from Viking invasions and feuding clans. By the 1700s, Donan had enormous protective walls that encompassed the island but later collapsed during the Jacobite uprisings. The English government, receiving word of a shipment of gunpowder, cannons, and weapons to arrive at Donan from Spain, sent three frigates to bombard the castle. After three days of fighting, the Jacobites surrendered and Donan was in ruins. For almost 200 years, it remained crumbled and derelict, until Lieutenant Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap purchased the island in 1911. The castle was restored to its former glory and according to its foundations, completed in 1932. A place that once kept outsiders at bay is now enticing tourists with its romantic splendour. And as evident from Made of Honor (yes, I saw that film too), the castle hosts weddings.
Despite Eilean Donan’s long history, its magnificence mostly emanates from the outside. According to Richard, the inside wasn’t worth the quid. At most, we only needed 20 minutes to see the lonely fortress in person rather than through a book and to capture it from all angles. While taking pictures, I felt an unusual crisp to the air that morning, with a fresh breeze radiating from the water.
We left Donan behind and proceeded to the village of Kyle of Lochalsh, which was our takeoff point towards the island. The Skye Bridge was the primary connection with Great Britain since its construction in 1995. At one time, in order to cross into the magical realm of Skye, one would have to pay its greedy toll master. Instead of taking ownership, the UK government licensed the bridge to a private company who charged extortionate fees. This miffed the Skye residents enough to form a group called SKAT (Skye and Kyle Against Tolls) who launched a legal campaign to Scottish parliament. Eventually, the government purchased the bridge in 2004, thus abolishing all duties.
As we freely crossed into Skye, the air outside was suddenly shrouded in mist. Richard had to slow down the coach while driving past a hilly spot with only a few metres of visibility. And fittingly, “Skye” is, in fact, a Norse word for “misty isle” (Ski means cloud and Ey means island). I presumed that clear, sunny days in Skye are as frequent as rain in the Sahara Desert. The isle’s equivocal romanticism through legend and scenery makes it a desired vacation spot for Brits. Especially those who are too strapped for cash to fly south.
The fog dissipated, revealing some low lying clouds up ahead over Fairy Pools – our first hike of the day. But before we arrived, our coach was briefly slowed down by dawdling traffic. We were supposedly very fortunate to have chosen Skye in October. Richard said that in summer, campers would clog the road, often trailing for several kilometres. He then pointed his finger at some tire tracks in the ditch from idling camper vans, now etched into the earth and causing road deterioration. Watching this, I envisioned what peak period Lake Louise must be like.
“I hate tourists!” our fellow Canadian bemoaned.
“But you are a tourist!” Richard replied.
She shrugged, looks of disgust still present on her face.
I laughed slightly because I understood how she felt. This dilemma is a common psychological symptom for most travelers. Your disdain for tourists heightens the more you embody that role. Simply mentioning the word “tourist,” exhibits a negative connotation in itself. We visualize selfie sticks, littering, drunkenness, lack of regard for local customs and in our case – big campervans ruining fragile environments. I find it difficult to disassociate “tourist” from feelings of guilt and shame. While abroad, my coping mechanisms are ways to reinvent myself as a “traveler,” to rise above the improprieties of a tourist. That’s easier said than done. Therefore, I’ve decided to make peace with adopting both identities, but with an emphasis on responsible tourism. While traveling, I acknowledge the benefits of helping local communities and mitigating environmental harm.
Richard parked the coach beside a row of buses and shut off the engine. We had one hour to hike the Fairy Pools, the valley down to our left. It was 30 minutes to one side, at a brisk pace towards the waterfall and equal length to return.
Light rain pellets started to hit the roof. I zipped up the waterproof jacket that I borrowed from my mom, wrapped my scarf tightly around my neck and put on my hat. It was time to put my new Blundstones to the test as I anticipated some muddy and slippery terrain ahead.
Exploring Fairy Pools, I felt entirely removed from any signs of life – even while surrounded by other hikers. I trod the rocky footpath, enjoying a panoramic gaze and capturing the sight of clouds blanketing the mountaintops and the bubbling sound of water trickling past me. I momentarily pretended that I was in a medieval fantasy film – with swathes of armies charging at full-speed towards one another, barreling down the bronze-coloured hills in perfect unison. Or I pictured a scene straight out of Macbeth or Game of Thrones.
With such a charming name like Fairy Pools, its waterfall is also a geological oddity. Its bright blue and green hues are unique to this spot and originated from unexplained forces of nature. Here, some brave visitors can also plunge into the icy waters below. But the conditions were too crisp for swimming today.
I made it as far as the waterfall. I was thoroughly impressed by my boots gripping firmly to slippery rocks with little mud in between the creases, allowing for an easy hike in good time. As I stopped to gaze at the waterfall, two off-leash dogs whipped past me, jumping effortlessly between the rocks with their webbed paws. Their owners then followed behind them. Meanwhile, few of my tourmates had managed to climb further up, as far as the hilltop behind the waterfall. I was tempted to continue, but knowing I’d be cutting too close, I turned around.
By that point, the rain intensified into mist blanketing my face and hands. I paused only to take photos as my fingers chilled and turned pale. I found out the hard way that my jacket was water repellent, and during my trek back I felt dampness absorbing into my arms and shoulders. By the time I reached the coach, my jeans were soaked. Of course, nothing was more uncomfortable than sitting on a bus in wet jeans.
Everyone else returned, their hair and clothes drenched and matted. We were all on time, except for the couple who raced back just ten minutes late. Richard restarted the engine, and we welcomed the warmth once again on our frigid hands.
We stopped near the town of Dunvegan to pick up lunch. Nestled in the woods about a mile north was a castle of the same name, and currently Scotland’s oldest continuously inhabited castle. Its lavish estate boasts five acres of gardens, a pier, and some commercial and residential property for rent. With an abundance to see and do at Dunvegan Castle, Richard was unable to open a time slot within our busy schedule.
As we drove past the castle, he said, “Here is the home of your people” to the girl from Boston, sitting behind me.
Built around the 13th century, Dunvegan Castle has been the traditional home of the chiefs of clan MacLeod for at least 800 years. MacLeod happened to be her surname. Richard expressed some regret over skipping this place and depriving her of the opportunity to reconnect with her ancestors (she was quite understanding).
Yet five minutes later, he blurted out, “Who wants to see some seals?”
“Yes!” We proclaimed with exaltation. So Richard pulled the coach towards the roadside and allowed us 15 minutes to see the cute creatures from afar.
The colony was clustered on a bed of rock by the Loch Dunvegan shoreline, safely separated them from us. As we inched closer, our feet were bogged down by a swamp which eventually dropped off by 10 feet with jagged rocks. Therefore, we watched from a reasonable distance without causing a disturbance. From here, they resembled tiny beige grubs wiggling through the dark mud. Despite being generally assumed as playful mammals, their movement was very minimal, their rotund bodies basking in complete laziness.
At this point, our journey through Skye was reaching a denouement and Richard decided to get creative. Although considered off course according to our official itinerary (arguably, Richard’s preference served as our primary “brochure”), there was one spot that he wanted to hike with us, the Neist Point lighthouse. For the first time, he gave us a choice: Neist Point or the final stop on our tour. We took his suggestion without hesitation.
Leaving Dunvegan, we crossed inland towards the lighthouse, situated on the most westerly tip of Skye. The island of North Uist rests between Neist and the Atlantic Ocean.
Richard changed gears to thrust coach uphill. As we climbed, the shoreline materialized from outside of my window. Steep, volcanic cliffs hugged the coast forming miniature coves and curving upwards towards the sky. With one look, it would appear that I’ve returned to Iceland. The fog graciously lifted, granting us perfect visibility. This is the magic of Skye, a feeling like it’s listening to us, and nurturing us through our travels.
The footpath trailed towards the edge of the tallest bluff along a gradual incline. It crept along steep hills and barreling down from the other side like a rollercoaster. I started to feel a burn in my legs during the ascent, my boots keeping me steady over damp pebbles. It was the most exercise I had since leaving home. Meanwhile, I saw a ghoulish white lighthouse perched on a nearby sloped precipice.
After the seal-watching, our Scottish-themed safari wouldn’t be complete without sheep. The flocks grazed around us, seemingly nonchalant of our presence. I made an effort to watch my footing to avoid stepping in droppings that littered across my path. And sadly, the freedom they enjoy here comes with great risk. Richard beckoned us a few metres from the edge of a cliff, glancing over 100 feet down at one unfortunate sheep that went astray. Of course, he couldn’t resist some morbid humour at the poor animal’s expense.
We were led astray from the footpath towards the shoreline, leaping carefully between boulders. Some of us aimed to reach as feasibly close to the edge as we could. Once again, my boots safeguarded me from a perilous injury, like a backward fall or a twisted ankle. I stopped and let the sound of crashing waves fill my head and the salty wind ripple through my coat. As I stood still, the personal tribulations from my life changes and future anxieties – from leaving Ottawa, missing my friends, job hunting and new apartments – fell on deaf ears. Even for a moment, the ocean washed them away.
Upon returning, we crept towards the lighthouse, until we reached a fence, followed by an eight-foot-high wall that restricted access. It was a spectral, Hitchcockian kind of place. I felt an uneasy and unwelcoming feeling like a dreadful shadow resided within its walls. Built in 1900, the lighthouse was manned during its early years but eventually moved to an automated system and no longer required maintenance. Even the keeper’s cottage nearby, although privately owned, appears to be hardly in use. I could see cracks and cobwebs along the walls, with an emptiness that lurked behind the barred windows.
We turned and left the spirits be, following Richard to the coach. I still had a creepy, tingling sensation along my back as I left – like running up the basement stairs after switching off the lights.
The second we exited the parking lot, a thick fog enveloped. Multiple rental cars passed us going opposite, attempting to navigate the narrow road. Richard felt sorry for those poor hikers who drove all this way only to see nothing. I was amazed at our impeccable timing. The seven of us were united in our unique experience which no one else shared. Seemingly unfazed by the weather, Richard led the coach back onto the highway.
It was about an hour and a half drive back to Kyleakin. When we arrived at our hostel, Saucy Mary’s Lodge, we saw it had separate guest houses. To our excitement, one of them was exclusively ours.
Kyleakin was a quiet fishing village dotted with bright white cottages, surrounding the strait of Kyle Akin. Our hostel’s name derives from a local legend named Saucy Mary, a Norwegian princess. She was notoriously known for charging hefty tolls for ships to pass through the strait. From her castle, she hung a chain to the mainland, preventing any trespassers without paying. No wonder tolls were a sticky subject here in Skye.
Once we settled in, my Canadian friend and I had dinner at a nearby restaurant. I only realized now that today was Thanksgiving Sunday back home. So I ate the closest thing to what constitutes a hearty Thanksgiving meal – fish n’ chips. Upon walking back, darkness ensued and the town was nearly pitch-black from a lack of lighting. We stayed close to streetlamps to find our way back, carefully crossing a narrow toll-free bridge to our hostel on the other side.
Everyone was relaxing inside once we returned. We capped off the night with some drinks and sat by the fireplace. A conversation about politics and our countries’ social norms continued from last night. Again, it was all of us and accompanied by a staff member who occupied the room beside our kitchen.
The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind of how many steps I climbed, rocks I jumped or miles I trekked. The most important thing to me right now was sipping a cold cider and easing my tired muscles. My weariness succumbed to sleepiness, forgetting about the encroaching finale of our journey.
- Info about the Skye Bridge
- A full history of Eilean Donan Castle
- Dunvegan Castle– History and Surrounding Areas
- Neist Point Lighthouse
- Kyleakin and the story of Saucy Mary