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Scotland--Is Skye Essential, Revisited

I am planning a trip to Scotland and have Rick's "Best of Scotland" book. The more I study Scotland, the more excited I get. My wife and I have only visited as a side trip to Edinburgh from Ireland, for three nights in 2002.

There was an earlier thread about how essential a visit to the Isle of Skye is. https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/scotland/to-skye-or-not-to-skye . I wanted to re-open this topic, since the responses were not that many and inconclusive.

My general sense is that Skye is very hyped, but maybe for good reason. The tourist infrastructure is under built for the demand, and accommodations are on the expensive side for what you get as a result. Seems like there is plenty of natural beauty elsewhere in Scotland--is Skye that much better than anywhere else?

I notice that Rick's tour stays in Kenmore which looks like a very relaxing place. It would be great to visit the castles on the eastern side, like Balmoral, Glamis, Cawdor. But you can't do everything with limited time.

As an experienced traveler, I look for ways to cover less ground and spend more time in fewer places. Skye is a ways out but perhaps too great to miss, what do you think?

My preliminary itinerary:
Glasgow (3 nights)
Oban (2)
Skye (2)
Inverness (2)
Kenmore (2)
Edinburgh (4)

This is one more day than I ideally have to spend. Where to cut?

Posted by
202 posts

Hello vftravels

First of all I will declare my bias, that I am English and spent the first 47 years of my life living in England, but have chosen to take early retirement from my busy job and move to Skye. So you can guess that I love Scotland and Skye especially.

So, on to your questions. I think it is quite difficult to advise you without knowing more about your interests. You have 7 nights in busy cities (Glasgow and Edinburgh) and a further 2 nights in Inverness (to my mind a working town without much to attract the visitor, apart from its proximity to Culloden). Glasgow and Edinburgh are very different from each other, Glasgow a more industrial, contemporary city with some great art galleries, and Edinburgh with centuries of history, the castle, the Royal Mile, the Botanic Gardens, The Royal Yacht Britannia, proximity to Rosslyn Chapel etc.

If you are more interested in the scenery of Scotland and maybe getting out and doing some hiking then you probably have too many nights in cities. If however, you are more into museums, galleries, 'the bright lights', pub culture etc, then you might have the balance right.

You also don't say when you are planning to come to Scotland. The weather, while never completely predictable, seems to me to be more settled (and a bit drier) in May, June and September, and in July and August the midges can be an issue in the Highlands (especially if there's no wind) . In rural areas the opening hours for castle etc may be much more restricted in the winter and spring. For example Dunvegan castle here on Skye is usually only open from Easter until mid October.

You mention castles, but it's worth noting that the Royal Family use Balmoral in the summer and visiting is pretty limited, with (so I am told) only one room in the castle open to the public. The castle is almost invisible from the roadside, to protect the RF's privacy.

And so to Skye. I have travelled extensively to most parts of Europe, North America and Australia & New Zealand. I felt that Skye was special from the moment we first came here for a short holiday. The scenery is wild, dramatic, sometimes bleak (it's snowing as I write this), and I adore the coastal landscapes which create an ever changing colour palette and some amazing sunsets.

Is it very busy? Well, that depends on when you come. During the school holidays (early July to end of August), yes it can feel busy at the major tourist spots, e.g. Fairy Pools, Old Man of Storr, Neist Point Lighthouse, Quiraing. BUT, there are many, many equally beautiful spots on Skye that many visitors don't bother to discover (probably because they haven't been featured in a newspaper article or guidebook!). You can get a sense of what might be worth discovering by having a look at the excellent walking/hiking website www.walkhighlands.co.uk You will see that there are many, many suggested trails and we can go out for a hike in the middle of summer and know that we won't see another soul if we avoid the places I mentioned above.

You mention tourist infrastructure. Yes it can be pushed to breaking point in those busy summer months. We have 11,000 permanent residents and the property taxes from those residents goes to Highland Council (based in Inverness) who then have to prioritise how to spend that money to maintain all the infrastructure we need (not just public toilets and car parks!) to sustain daily life. Accommodation is limited. There are no huge, chain hotels, but that to me is part of the charm of the island. If you search you will find wonderful, individual B&Bs, small hotels, or even 'glamping' (posh camping) pods. Yes, you will need to book ahead of time, maybe a few months in order to get a good choice of the best accommodation. (I'm running out of space so will post this and continue on a new post).

Posted by
202 posts

Skye continued....
Most accommodation providers are small businesses, with hosts that will give you a wealth of ideas about places to explore and tips on how to avoid the overcrowded spots. There are accommodation options in every price bracket from basic, hostel type rooms for maybe £50 per night, through to up market B&Bs that are more like boutique hotels (£100-£130 per night) and then the really upscale places, such as The Three Chimneys who are currently charging £360 per night!

Skye is also becoming a real 'foodie' destination, with many British visitors choosing to take short breaks just to come and eat here. There is a Michelin starred restaurant - The Lochbay (my personal favourite), The Three Chimneys, Edinbane Lodge, Kinloch Lodge at the upper end and many decent mid range pubs and small restaurants, e.g. Edinbane Inn, Ferrry Inn Uig, Caroy House, Old Inn Carbost, etc, etc. They all pride themselves on using the freshest, local ingredients.

You can also make boat trips from Elgol, out to the Small Isles or into the Cullin mountains. You will likely see dolphins, seals, sea eagles, a host of sea birds (including Puffins at some times of the year) and on Rum (one of the Small Isles) you will certainly see Red Deer.

There is also a very active arts and crafts scene here, with many small, artisan craft studios open to visitors, with the Visitor Information centre offering a booklet and map to help you find them.

There are no large chain stores or malls - a huge attraction for those of us who live there and have chosen to escape the 'rat race'.

I hope this (rather lengthy) post helps and I'd be happy to answer any specific questions about Skye.

I'm sure many of the Scotland experts will be along soon to add their wisdom and help you get the best out of your trip.
Best wishes
Jacqui (Skyegirl)

Posted by
472 posts

We stayed 2 nights on Skye in early September this year. We had planned to drive around the Totternish Peninsula, but scrapped those plans when the day turned out very rainy with low clouds, and we knew how stressful the driving would be in that weather. So we opted to visit the Dunleavy Castle, and toured Talisker Distillery. When the clouds lifted late in the day, we loved the amazing scenery. I might suggest 3 nights on Skye to ensure you see what you want without rushing, and one night in Inverness.

Posted by
5276 posts

If you want to visit castles in the eastern part of Scotland then you should plan some time a bit further east. You can easily get to Cawdor from Inverness, but you should first look at this web site from VisitScotland. I am not suggesting that you follow that itinerary, as that's a lot of castles. :) A few years ago, I stayed in Ballater. It was a great base for seeing a number of castles of different types. I went to Crathes Castle, Kildrummy Castle, and Corgarff Castle. Each one was very different. I did not go to Balmoral--it was September and the Queen is often in residence. But I did go to the wonderful Knock Gallery that overlooks it. I am looking at a couple prints I picked up there as I type this. There are other art galleries that make wonderful breaks. Also there a number of stone circles in the area. I found Cullerlie in between castles. It's a beautiful area. You could get down to Donnotar if you wanted, but it's a bit more of a drive.

Glamis Castle is wonderful, but it is further south and closer to Dundee. I stayed in Kirriemuir when I visited it. But you could also stay in Dunkeld, one of my favorite places and get to Glamis and maybe up to Blair Castle.

As for Skye, it is lovely. But most (all?) of Scotland is lovely. So, no matter what you decide are your priorities, you should have no regrets.

Pam

Posted by
1629 posts

Thanks for the great responses. My preliminary itinerary is based upon Rick's from "Best of Scotland", only substituting Kenmore for St Andrews. I usually find that Rick is pretty on target about what places to visit, but I don't adhere completely to what he suggests.

The timing would be May or early June 2019. Interests: history, museums (art and otherwise), architecture (especially old stuff), culture, natural beauty. We like to mix up cities and smaller towns. The right place in the countryside, with the right weather, can be spectacular (as we had in Devon, England in 2013 and Dingle, Ireland in 2016). We live in California and are no strangers to natural beauty but Scotland seems unique. Some of the best travel experiences come not from blockbuster sights but rather just being in a place that's different from back home. Castles and the history behind them (we have been to Stirling and Edinburgh Castles) are very appealing, but we're not set on any specific ones that we must see.

We are in our 50s (me)/60s (she) and not into clubbing or nightlife. Don't mind a little pubbing but I anticipate we will find pubs most places in Scotland. I would not mind doing a little hiking but it's unlikely that we would take any hikes over a couple of hours. We are not golfers and St. Andrews does not call to me so far. We have different levels of energy for travel. I will run myself ragged to see what's around the bend, my wife is more sensible and likes to "put her feet up" by 5 p.m. many days. I get myself into trouble if I push it too hard with her.

Rick seems to like Glasgow a lot, I do realize its reputation for being a little more gritty. I don't want to drive right off the plane so it makes sense to start out in Glasgow or Edinburgh. Glasgow could also be a day trip from Edinburgh, of course, but that might seem a little lacking for a big city. By bookending our stay with the big cities we get to end in Edinburgh without splitting up our visit into two stays or sleeping the last night at an airport hotel. It did occur to me that three nights is a lot in Glasgow, but the first day is a throwaway. So two full days might be about right.

I don't know if we would really sleep in Inverness, this is a place holder as much as anything else. I do think Cawdor Castle and Culloden Battlefield seem very worthwhile, in that general area. It might seem cliched to want to see Loch Ness, but we're good sports about that sort of thing. I thought about taking the train from Ft. William to Mallaig as well, but I am not sure if we can fit that in. It's supposed to be very scenic.

We are also trying to hedge our bets on the weather a bit. Being in a small village on a rainy day is not a lot of fun. A two hour hike in the rain is not fun either. There is more to do in cities on a rainy day, of which there are many in this part of the world.

I am starting to think Skye should definitely be on our itinerary, and three night would be better than two. Sometimes places are hyped because they really are that great. The camping pods seem quirky and appealing to me, definitely considering those.

Thanks again for your advice!

Posted by
298 posts

I really enjoyed the two days I spent in Skye, especially the Fairy Pools hike and eating at The Three Chimneys.

Posted by
202 posts

Just to say that I don't recognise 'Dunleavy Castle'. I think the poster may mean Dunvegan Castle?

As for camping pods you can find them in many places all over Skye. One of the more quirky (fun?) places is called Skye Eco Belles camping.

Posted by
903 posts

In August I will be going back to Scotland.
I wouldn't miss Skye for the world. Two days including a 2-hr hike down in the Cuillins.
And we're ending our trip in Skara Brae.

Posted by
658 posts

Hi, vftravels,

In addition to the list of Northeast castles above, there are many more in Aberdeenshire that are well worth visiting. The largest concentration of castles in Scotland is within about a 40 mile radius of Aberdeen, and if you are a castle bagger, you can see as many in a day as you can possibly handle. Of course, after that day, you may never want to see another castle as long as you live!

Here's a short list:

Craigievar Castle
Castle Drum
Fyvie Castle
Haddo House
Castle Fraser
Muchalls Castle
Delgatie Castle
Huntly Castle (ruin)*
Tolquhon Castle (ruin)
Slains Castle (ruin)*
Dunnottar Castle (ruin)*

Plus many others, some still in use; others in ruins.

Happy castle bagging!

Mike (Auchterless)

  • = impressive ruin
Posted by
1045 posts

Skye and Mull were my favorite places in Scotland. I love islands! We did the hike up Old Man of Storr, saw the Quiraing, and went to the musuem of Island Life.
Skye is amazing!

Posted by
1087 posts

Skye would be well worth the trip. We stayed north in a small B&B well away from the tourist crowds. It was April and we had the north pretty much to ourselves.

We also stayed on Mull. It is just as impressive in a different sort of way. We stayed just outside Dervaig. We walked from our B&B through a forest one evening after dinner. For nearly two hours we didn’t see another soul!

Posted by
64 posts

We are not golfers and St. Andrews does not call to me so far.

I think it's a mistake to see st Andrews as just golf, it's got a lot more to offer than that - beaches, a ruined cathedral and castle, the pretty easy Neuk fishing villages down the coast etc. Dundee, with it's new v&a museum is 20mins away.

Rick seems to like Glasgow a lot, I do realize its reputation for being a little more gritty. I don't want to drive right off the plane so it makes sense to start out in Glasgow or Edinburgh. Glasgow could also be a day trip from Edinburgh, of course, but that might seem a little lacking for a big city. By bookending our stay with the big cities we get to end in Edinburgh without splitting up our visit into two stays or sleeping the last night at an airport hotel. It did occur to me that three nights is a lot in Glasgow, but the first day is a throwaway. So two full days might be about right.

From what you mention as your interests I think you should fill 2 full days no problem. A day trip from Edinburgh would be lacking and would probably give insufficient time to see that much - I'd only recommend that option if time is very limited or you're not that interested in city stuff like museums and galleries etc.

From my experience, I wouldn't say Glasgow is any more gritty than most US cities - and considerably less so than some! I think the term I'd use, particularly in comparison to Edinburgh, is "urban";-)

Re Skye, I personally don't think it's a must see, but others may disagree. I prefer the far NW Highlands, up towards Lochinver and surrounds.

If I was going to cut anything it would be Inverness. It a tiny fraction of the size of Edinburgh and Glasgow and as such has far far less to do. If you're looking to see sights in the area id maybe stay somewhere outside Inverness.

Posted by
323 posts

You mentioned taking the train from Ft. William to Mallaig. We chose to drive the road to the Isle and watch the train pass over the viaduct. It is a beautiful drive and your can take the ferry to the Isle of Skye from Mallaig. Alone route we stoped at the white beaches and the bridge over the Atlantic at Seil. We had not planned to stay on the Isle of Skye and wish we had. We had gorgeous weather in July and Skye was breathtaking. We chose to skip Glasgow. I have heard that it has rejuvenated itself, but I think you go to Scotland to see the Scenery. (3 days in Glasgow maybe too much and I would certainly pass on Glasgow to go visit Skye).

Margaret