The Darker Side of Skye

September 25 — 2018 | Isle of Skye, Scotland

Julia Hobson and Rachael Walker pedal to find the quiet in Skye.

The Isle of Skye lies off the far North West coast of Scotland and is famous for its stunning scenery. The black summits of the Cuillin hills rise imposingly straight from the sea, weathered by wild Atlantic winds.  Even the lower hills feel untamed, wild and dramatic, with few paths working their way over the rough tussock-ridden grass and heather.

It’s no wonder that the scenery here has featured extensively in films and TV shows, making more people than ever aware of Skye’s beauty and encouraging them to visit.

Tourism is vital for Skye, without it the Island would struggle to survive.

But this small island has struggled to cope with the huge increase in visitor numbers. Narrow single track lanes have become congested with hundreds of vehicles, and parking places at popular spots have overflown. The problems are highlighted in a few key areas, as many people visit just a few iconic spots,  ignoring much of the rest of the Island.

Articles on CNN and the BBC earlier this year caused a stir by claiming that Skye had become a place to avoid, that too many tourists were negatively impacting the Island.

I’d read the articles but I didn’t want to believe that the Island had changed from the idyllic place I’d experienced before and kept in my mind. I knew there was another side to Skye than the one being reported, and I wanted to take my bike and try to find it with my good friend Rach.

Julia and Rachael kick off an exploration into secluded Skye.

We had a plan…

We would use our bikes to ride away from the busy places, to reach parts of the Island that fewer venture to, simply because to get there requires walking or riding more than 25 metres from your car.

We would visit outside the busiest times of day. The early mornings, the late evenings, night time, the antisocial hours.  

We’d explore when bad weather kept others away. Skye’s scenery is always dramatic whatever the weather, but it is often at it’s most impressive and intimidating when storm-filled skies enhance the black nature of the hills and rocks.

We had just a few long days to explore, and as we drove North, it seemed our plan was already falling into place…

It has become a bit of a joke amongst ourselves, that whenever Rach and I plan a trip, we can guarantee awful weather, and this trip was no different… a two month long heat wave of endless dry sunny days was due to come to an end the day of our arrival. But on this occasion, perhaps that was a good thing?

So much for that heatwave, raincoats were out early and stayed on the whole trip. 

Exploring

We set off the moment we arrived, keen to ride at least a short way in the sunshine. Headed for a coastal path that took us to a quiet part of the island, away from the main tourist spots.

The air was hot and heavy, thick with moisture in the way that it only is before a storm. Dark clouds were brewing and we were slowly losing sight of the distant mountains as they became engulfed in rain.

The trail was so engaging that we barely noticed though, short technical climbs and descents through bracken lined terrain, requiring 100% focus to be ready for whatever appeared next. Deep ruts formed from years of water erosion reminding us of some of the forces that have shaped the landscape around us. We gradually climbed away from the sea, until a dramatic cliff top view greeted us ahead.

Dark, pointed sea stacks, towers of crumbling rocks rising straight from the sea. Ringed by huge sheer wave-battered cliffs full of noisy fulmars. The sky was black and moody looking, waves pounded the base of the precipitous cliffs below. The atmosphere could not have been more dark and ominous. Right on cue, the heavens opened! Within minutes we were drenched, our waterproof jackets no match for the amount of rain falling from the sky, we were certainly witnessing a darker side to Skye!

The best thing about this less than perfect weather though? We hadn’t seen a single other person. We had the place and the trail to ourselves. It was wild, raw, natural and unspoilt, exactly what we had come in search of. We couldn’t help but smile.

A totally different perspective of the lush green island. 

Creatures of The Night

The storm was due to intensify as night fell, bringing gale force winds and torrential rain with it. Coupled with the fact it was getting dark, it was the kind of night where most people want to be warm inside. Battling the overwhelming urge to do exactly this after already having one drenching for the day, we reminded ourselves that it would be a great opportunity to head for a late evening blast to one of Skye’s usually busiest spots, perhaps to actually see it without hundreds of others there too?

It worked, there were just a few hardy photographers sheltering in vehicles, waiting for the slim chance of a moment of perfect light looking West out to sea in the direction of the setting sun. Tonight was not to be their night, but it was ours.

It was easy to see just why Neist Point has become so popular. A spectacular craggy peninsula jutting out into the wild Atlantic sea, with a lighthouse sitting perched on the end. We cruised along the coastal path, watching the light casting its warning out to sea, and feeling the storm drawing nearer. It didn’t provide the best riding we’d ever done, but it felt satisfying to see such an impressive spot with none of the crowds that normally gather there.

 

Does it get more Scottish than this adorable little cabin? We didn't think so either. 

A Night Out

All night the storm battered our little cabin, threatening to lift its roof, and we woke to a dull wet day. Uninspiring to say the least. But with an improving forecast, we were determined to seek out adventure.

We had in mind an overnight trip to a remote Mountaineering club hut tucked away in one of Skye’s most dramatic settings, at the foot of the beautiful Loch Coruisk, looking up to the Cuillin ridge.

The spot we were aiming for is accessible only by boat or by several hours walking or riding the way we were planning. It seemed like a perfect way to escape the crowds and find our own space.

Our journey started with wonderful flowing undulating singletrack taking us down the huge Glen Sligachan, towering hills all around, the sound of the busy road we had started from gradually disappearing as we ventured further down the glen.


When the trail grew too steep to pedal we switched to hike a biking, and before we knew it, emerged onto a pass and a new view. It was like looking at a postcard, almost too beautiful to be real. Huge rock slabs sloping down to the Loch and sea below, ringed by the impressive line across the sky that is the Cuillin ridge.

The descent started with a rough, water-eroded rut of a trail, disappointingly unrideable. Our frustration didn’t last though, as before long we reached the slabs.

It felt like they were made for riding. Giant whaleback lumps of rock with incredible grip. We could have been in the Norwegian fjords, or British Columbia, a perfect natural playground.

Tearing ourselves away from the fun, there was just the last hurdle of a somewhat sketchy deep river crossing before we were finally rewarded with a view of our perfectly placed hut. Hidden by black cliffs and bordered by the sea on one side and the river on the other, it felt like we had found a secret paradise. Deer grazed all around, eagles flew overhead, and inquisitive mink visited us on the rock slabs which sloped into the sea as we lay in the sunshine, the only sound was that of the sea lapping gently on the shore. It was an awe-inspiring place, perfect for contemplating the silence and solitude of where we were, and exactly how one imagines an idyllic island like Skye to be. Making the journey to somewhere a little more remote and less easily accessible than the roadside attractions, we had once again found the side of Skye we had come in search of.

It was hard to leave this incredible place the next day, but thankfully we knew we had an awesome descent to look forward to riding as we made our way back to the rest of the World.

They may have not seen any other humans out there, but there was no shortage of new forest friends.  

Sunset Shredding

On our final night, the sun came out and promised an evening of amazing light. We had a trail in mind, one where there is no path marked on the map, but we knew there was one on the ground. Leaving a quiet bay at 7pm, once again we passed no one on our push up. Eagles soared overhead, warm sunshine made us sweat for the first time this trip, and the light grew more and more impressive as the sun fell lower in the sky.

Reaching the top, we sat bathing in beautiful light, looking at where we’d been the night before, seeing no one, watching sea, mountains and sky, and shadows falling on the rock towers below. It was the perfect reminder that Skye is full of alternative places just as magical as the few that everyone descends on thanks to Instagram fame and accessibility.

The descent was an immaculate piece of fast flowing, grin-inducing singletrack weaving along the clifftop and down through the heather, a perfect way to finish our trip.

Reflections

We drove home the next day happy that our trip had been such a success. Sure, we witnessed some of the problems we had heard about, the busy roads and the hoards of people taking the same pictures at the same beauty spots …Places as stunning as this will always attract visitors who want to see those sights for themselves.  We had indeed discussed the dilemma of being tourists ourselves and being part of the problem we had read about.

But we had found that like so often, if you venture a little further from the beaten path, go in search of somewhere different from the same spots everyone flocks to, or choose when to visit, you can discover a whole new side to a place, just as beautiful, but chances are you’ll have it to yourself.

The news articles were wrong, Skye will always be well worth a visit, there is so much more to this Island than five famous beauty spots and queues of coach tourists standing at the side of the road photographing them! I can’t wait for the next trip back to explore more of this beautiful Island.


 

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