The Big Routes: Skye's Trotternish Ridge

© James Roddie

Scotland has its fair share of classic mountain ridges, but none of them compare to Trotternish. Fairytale surroundings, Hebridean grandeur and geological weirdness all blend to create a walk like no other. If dragons existed, this is where they would live. Possible in a day but perhaps best enjoyed over two, this is 22 miles of some of the best hill-walking in the UK. Save it for good weather and it'll be a route you'll never forget.

Heading towards Hartaval  © James Roddie
Heading towards Hartaval
© James Roddie

The hottest day ever recorded on Skye during the month of May had been two days previously and the sun hadn't stopped shining since. Nursing our sunburn in the campsite in Portree, Alex and I read the weather forecast with mixed feelings. We had two more days before the heatwave broke.

The sun woke us just after 5am. We both forced down a big bottle of water each, applied a comical amount of sun cream and left Portree as the town started to wake up around us. The long ascent towards the first summit was a tease – a gradual, grassy pull up a broad spur that did not hint at the miles of spectacular ridge beyond. The heat of the sun was already making itself known and part of me wished we'd just gone for a swim in the sea instead.

The freakish geology of the Quiraing is a tourist attraction, but much of the rest of the ridge remains deserted  © James Roddie
The freakish geology of the Quiraing is a tourist attraction, but much of the rest of the ridge remains deserted
© James Roddie

These must be some of the most enjoyable miles of hillwalking to be found anywhere...

All that changed when we reached the summit of Ben Dearg. A deep bealach dropped off below us with the impressive bulk of The Storr rising up beyond. I was excited at the thought of what was to come. A golden eagle briefly made an appearance above, before effortlessly drifting away.

The summits

Ben Dearg 562m

The Storr 719m

Hartaval 669m

No match for crag id:"Baca Ruadh" 639m

No match for crag id:"Beinn Edra" 611m

Bioda Buidhe 466m

Meall na Suiramach 543m

A heatwave on the Trotternish Ridge  © James Roddie
A heatwave on the Trotternish Ridge
© James Roddie

The descent down to Bealach Mor looked exceptionally steep and it required a bit of thought. We chose to head left and skirt beneath the steepest section, but to our surprise we spotted a walker ascending straight up it. His position looked improbable but he was making rapid progress, stopping only to give us a cheery wave as we descended.

From the bealach it was a stiff re-ascent of over 400m but it seemed to pass quickly, and before long we were looking down on the iconic Old Man of Storr. Even from our high viewpoint it was a magnificent scene. The first tourists of the day could just be made out as tiny specks scattered around the base of the pinnacle, and it accentuated our solitude up on the ridge.

Things became much more social on the summit of The Storr. At the trig-point we bumped into other backpackers for the first time – a Belgian couple heading southbound on the Skye Trail. Soon a cheerful Japanese walker joined us, grinning from ear to ear, closely followed by a hill-runner who looked to be on familiar turf. We all exchanged a few words and soaked in the shared energy of being in such a place in such flawless conditions.

Alex and The Storr  © James Roddie
Alex and The Storr
© James Roddie

The Storr marked a turning point in the day. From here things became steeper, hotter and more tiring. Yet with every turn the scenery grew more splendid.

It seemed too good to be true, but a golden eagle appeared from nowhere and began circling in the corrie beneath us before landing on a pinnacle in the sunshine

The entirety of the ridge stretching north came into view repeatedly, and we both felt a constant mix of fatigue and excitement at the sight of the string of summits that were to come.

An unexpected and violent gust of wind took us by surprise at Bealach a'Chuirn. It felt to have erupted from over the cliff edge just as we'd approached for the view. We made a rapid retreat a short distance back and listened with fascination as more gusts battered the cliff edge whilst we stood in a flat calm only a few metres away. We checked the sky for any signs of an impending change in the weather but it remained cloudless.

A succession of stiff descents and steep climbs took us over possibly the finest section of the ridge – Hartaval to Creag a'Lain. I'd been here before a few times, and on each occasion I'd felt these must be some of the most enjoyable few miles of hillwalking in the UK. At Sgurr a'Mhadaidh Ruaidh we stopped to peer down an immense gully before another fierce gust sent us on our way.

The middle section of the ridge has some of the best walking anywhere  © James Roddie
The middle section of the ridge has some of the best walking anywhere
© James Roddie

It was still quite early when we decided to set up camp. We could have covered several more miles before dark, but how could we resist the camping spot that we'd found on Creag a'Lain? The cliff scenery below us was the stuff of fantasy, and with a clear sunrise forecast for the morning it was going to make for an exceptional place to spend the dawn.

We set an alarm for 4.45am and dozed for a while before watching the sun set over the Outer Hebrides, Sporadic fierce updrafts from the cliff edge kept me awake overnight but those hours passed quickly. I was up and preparing my camera equipment with plenty of time to spare, and gave myself a few minutes to just soak in the pre-dawn atmosphere before I needed to start taking photos.

Summit camp on Creag a' Lain  © James Roddie
Summit camp on Creag a' Lain
© James Roddie

Sunrise was everything we could have hoped for. It only took a few moments for the shattered cliffs of Creag a'Lain to light up with gold, and within minutes everything around us was basking in crisp, warm splendour. It seemed too good to be true, but a golden eagle appeared from nowhere and began circling in the corrie beneath us before landing on a pinnacle in the sunshine.

We struck camp early and started heading north in high spirits. The first steep ascent of the day came almost immediately as we headed up Flasvein in bright sunshine. By 6.30am it was warm enough for us to strip down to t-shirts and I was already feeling the effects of dehydration. I couldn't help but laugh when I thought of how different things had been the last time I'd been on this section of the ridge in May 2013. Horizontal sleet and wet snow had almost driven me off the hill and my views along the ridge had just been eerie glimpses through gaps in the cloud.

Sunrise from our camp  © James Roddie
Sunrise from our camp
© James Roddie

It didn't take long for us to settle into a comfortable rhythm of 'up and down, up and down' along the grassy undulations of the ridge. It was hard to think of a more comfortable surface on which to walk. There was rarely a path to pick up so we simply followed our noses over the seemingly endless small summits as the temperature continued to rise.

From Beinn Edra northwards we began to meet backpackers tackling the ridge in the opposite direction. Many of them were visiting Scotland for the first time and were surprised by the heat, and we came across at least one pair of walkers who looked to be really struggling. A Belgian couple stopped us to ask 'Are you Alex and James?' after they'd met some old friends of ours in Staffin who we knew from our days working at the Clachaig Inn.

Approaching The Quiraing  © James Roddie
Approaching The Quiraing
© James Roddie

The improbable shapes of the Quiraing, which had seemed so distant for the last day and a half, were suddenly upon us. It was a shock to the system to be greeted by a crowd of tourists as we crossed the Staffin-Uig road, but it certainly didn't prevent us from looking forward to the classic mile of geological grandeur ahead. We enjoyed the luxury of a well-built path as we passed beneath 'The Needle', 'The Prison' and other aptly-named landforms.

We were alone again for the final stretch of ascent and last half mile of the ridge. Just beyond the summit of Meall na Suiramach the ridge ended with a surprising abruptness – a steep grassy nose plunging straight down to miles of flat bog and heather below. The views from here were of a very different character to what we'd become used to - Skye's northern-most tip could be seen only a short few miles away, with the open sea stretching beyond.

Getting out of the sun and resting our legs seemed preferable to lingering on the summit so we made quick work of the descent off Meall nan Suaramaich. Incredibly, after two days of unbroken sunshine, we looked back an hour later to see a thick bank of cloud capping the ridge. And as we set up camp at Rubha Hunish that evening, ever so gently, it started to rain.

Looking back south from Meall na Suiramach, at the northern end of the Trotternish Ridge  © James Roddie
Looking back south from Meall na Suiramach, at the northern end of the Trotternish Ridge
© James Roddie

Distance: 35km/22 miles

Total ascent: 2100m/6900ft

Terrain: Largely pathless and grassy, with some very well worn paths around the Quiraing. Some big descents and re-ascents make this a tiring undertaking, but there's also plenty of easy and enjoyable romping along flatter sections. The coastal location of this ridge makes it a frequently extremely windy place, with fierce updrafts from the cliff edges common even in relatively settled weather.

Maps: OS Landranger (1:50000) 23; Harvey XT40 Skye Trail

Guidebook: Great Mountain Days in Scotland by Dan Bailey (Cicerone)

Overnight options: There are many suitable options for spectacular wild-camps along the ridge. Water sources are very limited however so this needs to be taken into account. Extending the route past the northern end of the ridge to Rubha Hunish and staying in The Lookout bothy makes a very satisfying finale.

Route variants: The route describes here begins in Portree and traverses every summit on the ridge, ending at Rubha Hunish. Perhaps a more common choice to to start/finish the route at Flodigarry (a convenient base), but this avoids a small but spectacular section of ridge north of the Quiraing.

Seasonal notes: Real winter conditions don't come along very often on this relatively low-lying coastal ridge, but under snow it would almost certainly take two long days to complete. Some of the steeper descents would require serious care if icy.

Escapes: An early descent is possible from several bealachs on the ridge. The road from Staffin to Uig crosses the ridge at Quiraing and can provide an easy escape.

Public transport: A bus service runs from Portree around the north side of the island. Flodigarry is a convenient place to finish to the ridge and catch a bus, or if you're keen to traverse the entire length of the ridge (or walking the Skye Trail), a bus can be caught from Duntuilm.

29 Jun, 2019

I walked the Trotternish Ridge from north to south back in 1987 as 2 days worth of my Silver Duke of Edinburgh's Award expedition (we continued down to Slighachan on day 3). I remember 2 days of blue skies and cloud inversions all the way across to Torridon, and seeing no one else. Quite magical.

7 Jul, 2019

The Trotternish ridge is one of the best walks in Britain in my opinion. We walked it north to south in March 2017, we had glorious sunshine but really strong winds which scuppered the planned high camp. I fancy doing it all again sometime.

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