UKH

The Skye Trail - Walking to the end of the world

© Dan Bailey

Passing beneath the Cuillin, and following the crest of the mighty Trotternish Ridge right out to the far-flung point of Rubha Hunish, the 128km Skye Trail is among the most spectacular long distance routes in Britain, says Cecilia Mariani.


There are places in the world that, even after one short visit, can steal a piece of your heart. For me, Skye is among them: a dramatic island off the coast of North-West Scotland, connected to the mainland only by a thin road and immersed in a special, almost magical, atmosphere.

Sgurr nan Gillean and Am Basteir from Sligachan  © Dan Bailey
Sgurr nan Gillean and Am Basteir from Sligachan
© Dan Bailey

The first time I visited was at the end of winter. The highest peaks were still wearing their winter coat, but down by the sea the air was definitely trying to tell me that spring was on its way. I had been wanting to visit the place for a long time, but the opportunity never came until I spent two days on the island with a friend. We slept in a bothy on the northernmost point of the island and combined hiking with some beach exploring and a little whisky drinking. I was hooked, and I left knowing that I was going to be back soon.

I only had to wait a few months before I was able to go back, but this time it was going to be a different experience altogether. I had the chance of discovering the island on foot and at a slow pace, leading a group of clients on the Skye Trail, one of Scotland's many long distance trekking routes, and arguably one of the best big walks in Britain. 

About the trail

The Skye Trail is a relatively new entry in the list of long distance trails in Scotland, and unlike many other routes it is not waymarked. This makes it slightly more complicated than some others, as decent navigation skills are necessary to be able to find the right way, and thus perhaps it's not so appealing to beginners. The route covers 128km (80 miles) from the southern town of Broadford to Rubha Hunish, the northernmost point of the island. It crosses all sorts of different terrain and landscapes, from the coast to the mountains and remote glens, connecting some of the most iconic spots.

In certain sections the path is not obvious, if not absent altogether, making the hike more challenging but also more interesting. A couple of sections of the trail, Glen Sligachan and the Trotternish Ridge, are committing, taking you far from outside contact, whereas everywhere else there's always an escape route, and the hiker is never too far from a road.

Biodha Buidhe and the Quiraing  © Dan Bailey
Biodha Buidhe and the Quiraing
© Dan Bailey

Bla Bheinn from Glen Sligachan  © Dan Bailey
Bla Bheinn from Glen Sligachan
© Dan Bailey

The trip

Day 1 - Broadford to Torrin

Distance: 20km

Have you ever heard of the infamous Scottish weather? Well, my group and I didn't have to wait long before we could experience it first hand. Our week started with heavy rain, mist and wind, but this was not enough to discourage us. We set off from Broadford and walked south to the shore of Loch Eishort, and then continued along the coast to the small village of Torrin. Today's route was a good introduction to the journey, with rough and faint paths over breathtaking sea cliffs. The spirits were high and the group strong, and we couldn't wait to discover more.

Bla Bheinn and Clach Glas look awesome from Torrin... but the sheep aren't bothered  © Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com
Bla Bheinn and Clach Glas look awesome from Torrin... but the sheep aren't bothered
© Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com, Sep 2008

Day 2 - Torrin to Elgol

Distance: 16.5km

The weather seemed to promise something better for today, and we started our walk with a glimpse of sunshine: a rarity in the north-west Highlands. We walked from Torrin to Loch Slapin and all the way around to the Bla Bheinn car park. From here we cut through forests and fields around the headland, and joined a minor road which led us to the small village of Elgol, one of the most picturesque spots on the island, with breathtaking views of the Cuillin Ridge.

Eager to see some wildlife, we kept our eyes open and managed to catch a glimpse of a red kite, one of the many birds of prey that inhabit the island's skies. But the highlight of the day didn't have anything to do with wildlife. Towards the end of the day we came across a house with a sign which couldn't be ignored: fresh homemade ice cream. We stopped, and a lovely couple gave us all a tub of their amazing ice cream, which gave us the energy to finish the walk for the day.

The Cuillin from Elgol  © Dan Bailey
The Cuillin from Elgol
© Dan Bailey

Day 3 - Elgol to Sligachan

Distance: 18km

Day three was by far one of the most scenic days on the trek as well as one of the longest. It started off on a pretty narrow path that cuts the sea cliff connecting Elgol with Camasunary: a beautiful section of the trail but not to be underestimated. Once at Camasunary we couldn't skip a visit to the very well maintained bothy, and we took the opportunity to have lunch inside.

After lunch we entered Glen Sligachan, a long open strath between Bla Bheinn and the Red Hills on one side and the Cuillin Hills on the other. This is one of the most remote sections of the trail and certainly one of the most impressive, and we were able to spot many red deer along the way.

At the end of the glen our efforts were rewarded with a pint and a lovely meal at the Sligachan Inn, the perfect end to a beautiful day.

Cuillins from Sgurr na Stri  © Marek
Cuillins from Sgurr na Stri
© Marek, Aug 2008

Day 4 - Sligachan to Portree

Distance: 19km

After yesterday we needed an easier day, and the walk from Sligachan to Portree gave us a chance to rest. We started off road, on a path that followed the shore of Loch Sligachan all the way to the village of Peinachorrain. From here we started walking north towards Portree, the main town of the island.

On the second part of the day, unfortunately, the trail followed some minor tarmac roads which gave us some pretty sore feet. But, as we reached the halfway point of our journey, we soon forgot about it and went to celebrate with a wee dram of whiskey in the island's capital.

The northern Cuillin from Sligachan  © Dan Bailey
The northern Cuillin from Sligachan
© Dan Bailey

Day 5 - Portree to the Storr

Distance: 14km

After a good rest in Portree, we left the town behind and started walking along the coast following the cliffs north. This section of the trail gave us stunning views over Raasay, Rona and the Torridon hills in the distance, as well as amazing views of the volcanic Skye coastline. The walk along the pathless clifftops was pleasant, and definitely easier underfoot than the previous day.

This was also another successful day on the wildlife front. First a buzzard started circling above our heads, easily recognised by its unmistakable call. But what really made our day was a sea eagle, which we could only see for a fraction of a second, flying off from the cliff side and around the corner.

Our day ended by the Storr car park and the incredible rock formation of the Old Man of Storr, where our transfer was waiting for us to take us back to Portree for the night (see the logistics section below).

The Sound of Raasay from The Storr, high point of the Trotternish Ridge  © Dan Bailey
The Sound of Raasay from The Storr, high point of the Trotternish Ridge
© Dan Bailey

Day 6 - Storr to the Quiraing car park

Distance: 23km

And so, one foot after the other, we reached the most feared and challenging day on the trail: the Trotternish Ridge. Formed by an ancient landslip, this amazing ridge line is one of the most distinctive mountain features in Britain, and includes ten summits more than 20km of largely pathless and exposed terrain. "There must be great views from up there", you might think. Well yes, if other people's photos are any guide. But the truth is I sadly couldn't tell you, as the clouds were down to glen level and we couldn't see a thing for the whole day.

We started the walk in the rain, trying to come to terms with the fact that the weather was not going to change for the rest of the day. Nevertheless, we gained the ridge and continued along it with good pace, even though route finding was difficult in such conditions and required constant navigation. After reaching the seventh summit, as the weather gave no sign of improvement, the morale of the group started wearing off and both body temperature and energy levels began to drop. It wasn't worth continuing along the ridge, so we decided to make our way down west instead, towards Glen Uig.

However, this turned out to be not the easy and straightforward way down that we had thought, with plenty of boggy ground and no paths in sight. After a proper river crossing (our feet were already soaked so we didn't really care!) we finally reached the road and were happy to take our boots off and dry up a bit, and make our way back to Portree for a hot shower and some good food.

Rubha Huinish Sea Cliffs  © Marek
Rubha Huinish Sea Cliffs
© Marek, Aug 2008

Day 7 - Quiraing car park to Rubha Hunish

Distance: 16.5km

With many kilometres under our belts, we finally got to the last day of the trek. The weather was slightly better than the previous one, as we started walking through the stunning rock formations of the Quiraing. Rock needles and tall cliffs were our companions for a few hours, together with the many tourists that come to visit this popular place in the summer.

We reached the small village of Flodigarry just in time for lunch and a quick break by the youth hostel, and after this we started walking the very last section of the trail. A few more kilometres on pathless clifftops separated us from the end point the headland of Rubha Hunish, which we could now see in the distance, together with the Outer Hebrides.

We were starting to get really excited, and continued walking on the headland in the direction of the Lookout bothy, at the most northerly tip of the island. A craggy point stuck out in the sea, this place feels like the edge of the world. We reached the end right when the weather started getting worse, so after a few pictures and some dolphin spotting we started making our way back to Duntulm, the inland official end of the walk, where our bus was waiting to take us all back to the start point, in Broadford (the joys of running an organised trip!).

Walking the length of the Isle of Skye is a truly rewarding experience. It gives you the opportunity to discover some of the most remote corners of the island, as well as the more touristy spots. And the route is really breathtaking: a magical land halfway between the sea and the mountain tops, with some of the most beautiful natural environments in the UK and plenty of wildlife, as well as unique culture and traditions. I had a great time on this trip and I'm looking forward to going back. It would be great to have some sunshine next time. But in the highlands and islands, you take what you can get!

Glen Sligachan, one of the more remote parts of the trail  © Cecilia Mariani
Glen Sligachan, one of the more remote parts of the trail
© Cecilia Mariani


Information on the route

Cicerone guidebook Walking the Skye Trail by Helen and Paul Webster contains a lot of useful advice, and route details.

The OS maps needed to cover the entirety of the trek are Explorer (1:25000) 408, 410, 411 and 412, or OS Landranger (1:50000) 23 and 32. That's a lot of paper to carry, so the more convenient alternative is the purpose-made Skye Trail XT40 (1:40,000) from Harvey Maps, which covers the whole route (and a strip either side of it to allow for variations and escapes) on a single waterproof polyethylene sheet.

Approaching Camasunary on the scenic coastal path from Elgol  © Cecilia Mariani
Approaching Camasunary on the scenic coastal path from Elgol
© Cecilia Mariani

Logistics and equipment

Logistics wise, the best and easiest way to walk the Skye Trail is with a tent, and camping along the way. Wild camping is allowed in Scotland, as long as common sense is used and certain principles are followed (such as avoiding camping directly on the side of the road or in someone's garden, and abiding by Leave no Trace principles). There are also a few campsites along the way. If you'd rather not camp, however, it's also possible to use hostels and B&Bs, but this would require more planning and leave you rather less flexible in terms of deciding to stop on a whim. There are a couple of stages where accommodation is not available at the end of the day, so a pick up and a drop off for the next day would have to be arranged, either with the accommodation owner or a taxi company.

In terms of equipment, what you need will depend on the type of accommodation that you choose. If you're camping you'll need a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat, cooking equipment and food.

Supplies could be topped up as you go, but only in a couple of places on the actual line of the route. Broadford has a supermarket with pretty much everything you'd want to stock up at the start. Once underway, Portree is the most obvious resupply point, since it's roughly midway on the route and has the best selection of shops and other facilities; Elgol is another possibility, with a small village store. But re-stocking will have to be planned in advance to ensure you're passing through settlements during opening hours. If you choose not to camp, on the other hand, you'll only need to carry snacks and some food for lunch.

It's always sensible to carry some emergency equipment such as a first aid kit and a group shelter, as well as some extra food and warm layers. And of course a waterproof jacket and overtrousers cannot be missing from the bag of anyone who's embarking on the Skye Trail.

For footwear I would recommend good waterproof boots with ankle support, so that you'll be protected in all kinds of weather and on different types of terrain. On established routes such as the West Highland Way, which is largely on hard-packed tracks, many people will prefer non-waterproof trainers; however on the Skye Trail you'll be covering plenty of rough ground and quite a lot of bog!

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