It was a bit tricky to find a tour company operating in Skye. Visiting their websites showed that they were all closed, or had no availability, so we assumed that they’d all shut up shop. We were therefore surprised to see a tour bus picking up passengers from the main bus stop in the centre of Portree.
A few emails later and we were booked onto the 6 hour Winter Tour by Skye Scenic Tours. We arranged a hotel pickup/drop off and got the hotel to give us a packed lunch. Sorted!
We got a sizeable sandwich (choices of bacon, lettuce, tomato, ploughmans or salmon), a bottle of water, packet of crisps, piece of fruit and shortbread – perfect for refuelling.
Our biggest reason for going with Donald on his Winter Tour was that he visited the Fairy Pools. Even though we had hunkered in our hotel room the previous day as torrential rain was blown in sideways across the island for over 24 hours, we were still hopeful of being able to reach the turquoise pools and waterfalls which were normally visited by over 200,000 people every year.
We pulled into the carpark and the attendant greeted Donald by name and let us know the bad news. The ford which started the walk up to the Pools was over ankle deep. Previous trampers had had to throw their poles and gear across – just too much rainwater collected from the Black Cuillin’s and funnelled to the Brittle River.
Donald was good though, he gave the four of us on the trip the option of going anyway. We looked at each other and eventually agreed that it was probably best for us not to spend the rest of the day with drenched shoes and jeans, and to head a little further down the valley to a “secret spot” Donald knew about. I took the below photo of the Fairy Pools as we went by but it will have to wait until the next time we visit.
The “secret spot” turned out to be visible from the road opposite the Glenbrittle Youth Hostel, so I don’t feel like I’m breaching any confidence in mentioning it here. Lovely waterfall and while the turquoise of the iconic photographs was hinted at rather than saturating the view (suggesting post-photo filters), the white of the rapids, the darkness of the rocks and the brown of the bracken were all very picturesque.
Happy enough with the replacement waterfalls, we headed back to the main road to Portree. At the crossroads, where the Kyle – Portree road met the roads leading to the western most two peninsulas, we stopped for a look at the Old Sligachan Bridge which used to be the only way across the river.
Statues of two iconic hill walkers had just been erected to commemorate Professor Norman Collie and John Mackenzie, first to top many of the peaks on Skye.
It was possible to get public transport to Sligachan but not to the Fairy Pools, so when we had done our research we’d explored getting public transport to Sligachan, then hiking the 7 miles (11km) between the peaks in the Black Cuillins to the Fairy Pools and arranging for a taxi to meet us at the Fairy Pools carpark and take us to the Talisker Distillery in Carbost (£35-£42 depending on which taxi firm you use if you’re interested).
Old Man of Storr
We had previously climbed the Old Man of Storr, so this was just a quick photo stop. It was good to get a perspective on just how tall the climb had been.
Donald was a local of the Trotternish peninsular, the eastern of the three fingers which formed the northern part of Skye. As a native Gaelic speaker we marvelled as we could pick out Irish and Welsh elements of his accent – on top of the lilting sing-song Scottish Highland accent of course!
He kept up a steady stream-of-consciousness commentary about pertinent things as we passed – certainly the most value in terms of words per minute of tour time, that’s for sure!
The same rains which made the Fairy Pools unreachable, made for impressive waterfall displays on the Eastern side of Trotternish.
Kilt Rock & Mealt Falls
The wild cliffs stretching in both directions provided excellent views out across to the Isle of Raasay and below the water level, according to Donald, there was a research facility specialising in submarine activities. Apparently an assortment of weird and wonderful naval vessels undertook exercises at various times.
An Coran Beach – Staffin
With some extra time available as a result of not being able to get to the Fairy Pools, I dropped a few subtle hints about maybe being able to see the dinosaur tracks at An Coran Beach.
Everybody seemed to think that was an OK idea, so Donald drove down to the beach. We had researched getting to Staffin on our own, but with there being only three buses per day, it was going to be awkward getting there. As Donald drove us down to the beach I was doubly glad he’d agreed to take us as the road was narrow with lots of blind corners and no safe walking places for pedestrians.
In addition to being convenient and safer, Donald actually knew where the footprints were! While the tide was perfect for finding them, if he hadn’t pointed them out we might have spent hours scouring the beach for their exact location.
The tide on our arrival was perfect: mid tide – where there is enough water to accentuate the prints but not cover them entirely.
We then headed inland climbing up one lane roads which doubled back on themselves like pictures I’d seen of the Swiss Alps. I was glad Donald knew the roads (he’d pointed out his village where he lived on the way) and that it wasn’t snowy or icy.
The views from the top were spectacular: The Quiraing is a landslip on the eastern face of Meall na Suiramach and features truly spectacular views. We stopped at the carpark where the tracks leave from, quite glad we didn’t have the two hours to complete the 6.8km track as apparently it’s classified as ‘Medium’ in length and ‘Hard’ for difficulty.
We cut straight across the top of the Trotternish peninsula to Uig (pronounced Ooh-igg) where the ferries departed to the Outer Hebrides, stopping at the local brewery. I was more interested in having lunch and the others made use of the facilities rather than checking out the local products, so we didn’t linger long, heading south out of Uig and then up a valley to the Fairy Glen.
It almost captured the otherworldly feeling of the Quaraing in miniature, with an extreme Middle Earth vibe.
Castle Ewan turned out to be a natural rock formation which looked like an actual castle. Ange braved the high winds, crossing the exposed path to reach the actual rock of the keep. We were there when there were maybe four other people – in the summer with the crowds it would be quite interesting with too many people on the paths potentially jostling for position. If the fairies didn’t get you the drop might!
Some tourists apparently moved the stones to make patterns in the fairy rings, so a sign warned them that the fairies didn’t like that. Apparently the locals spent a lot of time and effort putting the stones back after people had left: exhausting – a truly Sisyphean effort!
St Columba’s Isle
Donald hadn’t really given much guidance in terms of how long we had at each stop, primarily a combination of not needing the Fairy Pools’ 90 minutes and not really lingering at any of the other stops. I imagine if there were more than the four of us then we would have used more time.
Anyway, Donald took us to a couple of places that weren’t on the itinerary to fill in the time. A detour down a farmer’s driveway looking for Highland cattle (“hairy coos” in the local parlance) turned up blank, but we took in the wonders of St Columba’s Island which turned out to be a square burial island reached by a small bridge.
It turned out to hold the remnants of the Mortuary Chapel for the Nicholson Clan, the same clan whose homestead sat on the headland beside our hotel.
The best parts of Donald’s tour was that he was flexible – not being able to go to the Fairy Pools wasn’t so bad – we got to see the waterfalls further down the road, and it was the people on the tour who made the choice not to go (and get wet) and it gave us more time to see the dinosaur tracks on the beach. Not a bad trade off.