Snapshots of Scotland: Urban Encounters & Memories of the Misty Isle

It envelopes you again – that delicious, at times slightly dizzying, yet oh-so-familiar feeling. Call it what you will. Itchy feet. Cabin fever. Travel mania. Out of the many references, the one which resonates as the most romantic term is probably wanderlust, so let us settle on this.

Many are the destinations I have often resolved to return to after a particularly exhilarating trip and, indeed, I have kept my word on this point. Top of my list as a travel place deserving multiple revisits has always been Scotland. My experiences there in 2011 with my taller, calmer half (he merits many other and more laudatory descriptive terms, but these will suffice for now) had caused an admiration and passion for all things Scottish that I knew I would be ready to indulge time and again. Finally, the moment for reconsidering an exploration of bonny Scotland had come, and I was more than ready for it.

This time, however, I was set to uncover a different corner of the Scottish archipelago, interspersed with fond brief urban interludes. Whereas my previous trip had allowed me to essentially do the rounds of a number of must-visit places, including all the usual suspects, this time I had a more limited time-span and budget to work with, so my travelling companion and I needed to prioritise. Given that she didn’t have any prior experience of Scotland, it was vital to at least sample some of the delights that the two most important cities, namely, the capital Edinburgh and its historical rival, Glasgow, have to offer. Keeping this in mind, we factored in both striking cities, whilst making the ethereal Isle of Skye the focal point of our trip.

Hardly unknown to holidaymakers as it is, the Isle of Skye is most people’s first point of reference and indeed call when planning a trip to the Hebrides, in this case the inner portion of the many islands that dot the Scottish archipelago. I was given the task of putting together the itinerary for this trip, being that my lovely friend does not have the privilege of working from her residence as I do. As I absorbed the information, I began to piece together what I considered to be the crucial facets of our stay on Skye, including mesmerising landscape features, the discovery of historical buildings, visiting the island’s principal town, charming pubs and of course delectable Scottish fare, as well as whisky tasting!

First of all, the natural environment. If you’re as ravenous for verdant pastures, multihued peaks and generally lush, velvety terrains as I am, you won’t be able to get enough of either the drive to Skye, which took us five hours all told from bustling Glasgow, and the environs of the island itself.

Just your average dose of bucolic beauty on Skye
Another panoramic shot of this striking island – with yours truly in the background

Skye holds so much interest as a destination in and of itself for many reasons. As I have already alluded to above, there is much to delight travellers, from the glorious scenery to the seriously charming towns and villages, not to mention the whisky indulgence. From a personal perspective, Skye is intriguing because, similar to the other more northerly outposts of the Scottish archipelago, it is very much imbued with its own distinct identity, a fact that is not lost on travellers who reach the island by car. This element quite soon becomes apparent despite its relatively easy accessibility today due to reliable motor and marine links – in other words, the bridge and the ferry. For instance, even the most superficial of online research carried out about the island quickly reveals that, up until a hundred years ago, it was primarily Gaelic-speaking. In an effort to preserve this wonderful instance of Celtic identity, the language is not only omnipresent in schools, but is represented by means of a college solely dedicated to instruction in this ancient, melodious tongue. Its appreciation is strengthened by the utilisation of both Gaelic and English in folk music. In addition to the above and the place names being rendered in both languages, small whisky production houses also use the vernacular to market their beverages.

The Hebridean islands’ remoteness from the mainland have ensured that they played a most compelling role in an episode of the tumultuous history that has characterised the British Isles. Flora MacDonald, a member of the famed Macdonald clan, one of the two most important of the island, played an instrumental part in the Jacobite rebellion during the latter half of the eighteenth century, facilitating the escape of he known as the Young Pretender to the English throne, Charles Edward Stuart, referred to in popular lore as Bonnie Prince Charlie. His flight after the bitter defeat at the Battle of Culloden involved a spell of hiding on Skye, during which time he donned the disguise of a serving wench to Flora herself, going by the name of Betty Burke.

One of the specific sites which is steeped in history is the magnificent Dunvegan Castle, home to the Macdonald’s arch-rivals, none other than the MacLeod clan, for some eight hundred years. Perhaps slightly less imposing than a number of the multitude of castles dotted along the path up to the Highlands, the seat of the MacLeod family nonetheless retains an air of elegance and splendour while simultaneously allowing one to entertain the notion that this grandiose building is still used as a residence for the illustrious family in question.

The exterior of the wonderful Dunvegan Castle
One of the many rooms of the castle open to the public – sumptuous yet oddly intimate

Like a great deal of other northerly destinations, especially those of Celtic culture, Skye is steeped in fairy lore. Dunvegan Castle itself houses the Fairy Flag, the remnants of what must have once been a gorgeously crafted silk fabric in yellow and brown which was said to have been covered in so-called “elf dots”. Together with Sir Rory Mor’s drinking horn, this is one of the more peculiar valuables that can be viewed at the castle.

A propos libations, whisky enthusiasts visiting Skye could do worse than take a leaf out of our books and drop by the island’s most prominent, if commercial, distillery on the island, the Tallisker production house. While my fellow whisky lover and I were sadly unable to avail ourselves of the whisky masterclass due to our limited schedule (it is only offered on weekdays), we nevertheless had the opportunity to take a guided tour of the premises, with a more limited degustation of some of the popular vintages on offer. Of course, travellers after a cosier sampling experience could always opt for one of the more artisanal distilleries on the island offering blended creations rather than the sought-after single malts.

The magic of whisky-making!

There is, unfortunately, only so much you can pack into two-and-a-half days of exploration. Other than sourcing a much-desired and admittedly more Continental Negroni cocktail at one of the most up-to-the-minute bars and restaurants in Portree, the island’s main town, my friend and I felt obliged to hang on to our foodie credentials by dining at one of the island’s most famed eateries, The Three Chimneys. Acting as the star draw for the bed and breakfast which it is adjacent to, quaintly referred to collectively as The Three Chimneys and the House Over-By, the restaurant has, for years now, been one of Skye’s mainstays for a refined take on local game and the freshest fisherman’s catch, also finding itself featured on the top ten list of a renowned New York-based food critic. Happily, it did not disappoint, the delicately produced tasting dishes showcasing some of the most palatable ways in which North Atlantic ingredients can be utilised.

Skye might be regarded as a brief stop along the Hebridean tour, or the culmination of a visit to the Highlands. With the sensation that it gives those who set foot on it of having travelled to a parallel world, one where crofting is still a valued occupation, and where marine sprites masquerading as seals are apt to convey you to their murky, uncertain depths, where a song sung in a lilting, unfamiliar tongue transports you back to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hiding place, Skye packs more than a few punches, some of which will clearly have to wait until my return.

At the risk of sounding trite, there really is more to Skye than meets the eye. (There, I’ve said it!) If the above has gone any way towards convincing prospective visitors that this dazzling Hebridean jewel is worthy of their consideration, then that would make me a pleased travel writer indeed.

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