Highlands: Skye blue Skye

Last Wednesday was our last full day in the Highlands, and I wanted to go to one of the islands. There are several of them off the western coast of Scotland, and together they constitute the archipelago known as the Hebrides (which has always sounded so mystical to me!).* Our closest islands were some of the Inner Hebrides: Skye, and the Small Islands (which have fun names like Eigg, Rum, and Muck). There are a number of ways to get there, from island-hopping by ferry to driving over a bridge to Skye, but what ended up working best for us was to take the train from Fort William to the coast town of Mallaig (“MAL-egg”), and then the ferry from Mallaig to Skye. It was not an ideal schedule; it meant about 4 hours on train and ferry and only about 1.5 hours on Skye. But whatever: we went.

Approaching Skye on the ferry

{as always, click to enlarge, or mouse over for description}

The train ride to Mallaig is a gorgeous one, the same route taken by the Harry Potter train. I didn’t take many pictures; mostly I wrote letters and chatted with the extremely friendly Glaswegian family sitting on the other side of the aisle. (Don’t worry, I took tons of pics on the return journey!) Once we arrived in Mallaig, we had about half an hour to grab takeaway fish and chips before boarding the ferry.**

Cars on the lower deck of the ferry

The half-hour ride from Mallaig to Skye was chilly, windy, blindingly sunny, and, like so much in the Highlands, ridiculously beautiful. I think a video conveys the experience better than any number of photos.

Once we arrived in Skye, we headed straight out to the nearest trail. We only had a little more than an hour, and half that time would have to be spent coming back from wherever we went, so we just wanted to see whatever we could.

Road along the coastline in Skye

Skye coastline

Looking out along the coast of Skye

View of the water through trees

We’d been walking along the roadside for awhile but when we spotted a gap in the wall and a tiny trail leading down to the water, of course we tried it. I’m so glad we did, because if we hadn’t, our entire hour on Skye would have been spent roadwalking in the unremitting sun with the cars passing us by.

Erik walking down a trail

As it was, at the bottom of the trail we found a stretch of beach almost entirely covered in pebbles, shells (so many limpets!), and big rocks totally encrusted with tiny barnacles.

Erik standing on the rocks

And, of course, the sea, framed by clouds above, and at the horizon, the grey-blue-purple rise of the rest of Scotland.

Rocky coastline of Skye

It’s remarkable what a difference there is in the sea’s appearance when it’s unbounded by anything, versus when you can see land on the other side. Every bit of saltwater we saw in Scotland — whether it was the sea lochs near Fort William, or the Atlantic here in Skye, or the Firth of Forth in East Lothian — had coastline somewhere in view. It’s not at all like my more familiar view of the Pacific’s unbroken horizon. And surely there are differences, too, in the composition of the water, the particulates in the air, or the angle of the sun — details unknown to us which contribute nevertheless to our experience of new shores. The Earth is such a vast and interesting place. It is a great, great privilege to be able to see so much of it!

White clam shell (razor clam or similar)

Small beautiful spiral shell and tiny barnacles

Worm castings on the beach

Limpets

Lisa on the rocks

Dead orangey jellyfish on the beach

Little shells and tiny barnacles

Twobugs on Skye (I love that I can say that)

Boats in the harbor

By the time we boarded the return ferry, our time in the strong sun had caught up to us, and we didn’t even bother to go up to the top deck. We just slouched on the inside seats, hoping the delayed ferry (it was 10-15 minutes late) wouldn’t make us late for the 6:15, the last train of the day. Fortunately it didn’t, and since the train was only about one-third full, I was able to move around quite a bit to take photos out the windows. (If you read my Glenfinnan post, this was the train ride with the nice ticket-taker who let me into the staff area to take video of the viaduct.)

By the way, this is the route from Mallaig (A) to Fort William (B) by car. I know there are some places where the rails go right by the road, but I expect they diverge in other places. You can see from the map that it is an interesting terrain with lots of mountains and water, and that’s reflected in the photos.

Google Satellite map showing the route from Mallaig to Fort William

Green mountain topped with grey stone

Field with a little house and the ocean in the distance

View over treetops to the ocean with mountains

Evening view of the ocean with inlets

Water (loch?) with green hills around

Green hills, late afternoon

Green hills with heather

Wide view of the green hills and stones

Incredible postcard-ish view of a little tree-covered island in a loch

Another view of the island in the loch

By the way, when we passed these incredible tiny islands in the morning, the nice Glaswegian man told us that people used to bury their dead on these islands, “because of the wolves.”

Silhouetted hills and loch

Loch amid green hills

Car driving on a road backed with many tall evergreens on a hillside

At some point during our five-night trip, I told Erik, “Let’s come out here again some summer and just spend all three months driving around the Highlands.” He said okay. And next time I think we wouldn’t spend all our time in a yurt, but might alternate between camping-type stays and B&Bs. The yurt was peaceful and the camp was in a gorgeous place, but it was also damp and chilly (because we suck at starting fires) and dark and there were lots of bugs. On the other hand, I think we got a much deeper understanding of the country as a result of not living in a modern building. If we went out and toured the Highlands every day and then came home to a cozy, warm, brightly lit inn full of people… in a way it would just be like any other place. But being in the yurt, literally quite close to the earth, hearing the stream behind the loos, walking out each morning shivering but stunned by the sight of the mountains… it was a different experience, and in many ways a better one.

Cows next to the yurts

That night, after we got off the train in Fort William, we spent nearly an hour walking around town looking for an uncrowded place to eat. Every restaurant told us it would be 40 minutes before they would have a table. Finally we ended up at the town’s one Chinese restaurant, where we were seated immediately and served with courtesy and promptness. I repeated to Erik several times in gratitude, “I should have known my people wouldn’t let me down!” We returned to the camp and went to bed right away.

I woke at midnight and I had to pee. I thought, “Ughhhhhh, I will be SO glad to get back to civilization,” and trudged over to the door to put on my shoes and a sweater and jacket and go out into the night. I stepped outside and the night was lit with stars in every direction. I remembered that this was the farthest north I had ever been, and realized that there were almost no electric lights within eyeshot. I stood there shivering, surrounded by mountains and trees and all those stars overhead, and found the Little Dipper just above where I was standing. To my right the half-moon was hanging bright and ringed with its aura of light. I thought of “back to civilization” and smiled. Trust nature to remind me what we gave up when we took to streets and towns and light at the flick of a switch.

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*By the way, if you’re as ignorant of UK geography as I was before this trip, you may be wondering about the Shetland and Orkney Islands. Yes, those are off of Scotland too, but on the northeast side. Quite northy, in fact — about the same latitude as Oslo, whereas Edinburgh is about the same as Copenhagen (also a surprise to me). And they are groupings of islands, rather than single islands called Shetland and Orkney. Traveling the world has been an excellent geography lesson! In my pre-travel mind both Shetland and Skye were vaguely associated with the area around Britain (and with dogs, and sweaters), but I had no idea about geography or nationality. Now I know! As for the sweaters, probably I was thinking of Fair Isle, and it turns out that’s a little island in the Shetlands. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about with dogs, I mean Skye terriers and Shetland sheepdogsGo back to post

**We ate lunch sitting on the ground outside the ferry ticket office, watched with great interest by an entire French tour group. I don’t know whether it was the fried fish and scampi that caught their eye — sometimes tours don’t feed you when you want to be fed! — or our age or our Asianness or the fact that we were sitting on the ground. But it was a fun experience, eating our lunch with all these French people observing us and smiling. Go back to post