The wild beauty of the Scottish Highlands is legendary. It’s a place that can, as if by magic, lure you back again and again.
Our journey began in the somewhat underrated and stunning city of Glasgow, one of many gateways into the Highlands. Setting off early one morning in the cool of a spring morning, our excitement was palpable – we’d heard so much about this ancient land. For some, it’s the home of our forebears – we grew up hearing tales of Scottish ancestors; for others, it’s a place visited time and again in favourite novels or movies. But the one thing we all share is the excitement for the landscapes, people and Gaelic culture we know await.
It’s not long after our departure that we start to realise just how incredible the next few days are going to be. Coming into a clearing, we’re faced with open fields and the glass-like Loch Tulla, our cool morning becoming a lovely still day. In front of us is a perfect double image – in the distance stands Black Mount, its brown-grey peak covered with slivers of white snow reflected mirror-like in the loch below.
Soon after we arrive in the Glen Coe region, famous for its spectacular mountains. The road snakes along one side of the pass with the valley falling below and snow-capped peaks towering above. The lure of the Highlands is inescapable and we stop to walk the gravel paths and take photos. Eventually we descend into the town of Glencoe, and are enticed by the scent of traditional fish and chips with mushy peas coming from a blue-and-white weatherboard shack flagged by daffodils.
After lunch, we drive on to Fort William along the shores of Loch Lochy (apparently Australia isn’t the only country that names things twice), where again we are greeted with perfectly reflected mountains. We decide to pull over and it is immediately clear that dozens of others have also – a surprise considering how quiet the roads are. It’s wonderful to see groups of people stopping to appreciate the beauty of something so quiet and still.
Just before the town of Kyle of Lochalsh, the popular Eilean Donan Castle is one of our last stops on the mainland. A stunning 13th-century castle on the edge of three tidal lochs, it was once vital to those who ruled over the lands it resides upon. It’s remarkable to see the castle standing so proudly on its island, knowing it lay in ruins after the Jacobite rising until its 20th-century restoration.
Skye Bridge meets visitors at the doorstep of Kyle of Lochalsh, and provides an instant departure from the mainland. We climb up and over the loch before descending into Skye – still part of the Highlands, but an instantly more desolate, wild and barren place. This exacerbated difference between the mainland and Skye makes this bridge seem otherworldly, as though you have crossed some threshold into another universe. The mountains are various shades of orange and red-brown, the powerlines and roads the only signs that mankind has managed to inhabit such an untameable place.
A while later we arrive at Sligachan, which consists of a single pub and a small old stone bridge that runs parallel to a newer road. The bridge makes for amazing photos; the rocks of the river below are a rich brown, a stark contrast against the crystal water. It sits in the foreground of The Cuillin, Skye’s most dominant and central mountain range – reportedly haunted by the ghost of an outlaw and murderer called MacRaing. Looking at their ragged, ominous peaks it’s easy to see why such a legend exists.
Eventually we reach the A855, a 55km, mostly single-lane ring road that circles the Trotternish Peninsula of Skye. The A855 begins in Uig, a sheltered town along the west coast. Approaching in the afternoon light from the opposite side of the bay, we’re in for a treat. Small cottages nestle into the hillside, their lawns running to the sea’s edge. The homes of the Highlands are beautiful in their restrained uniformity, slate roofs and dormer windows are quintessential elements of Scottish architecture, but here the traditional whitewashed appearance is quainter and more modest.
After Uig we head to our accommodation for the next few days, a small cottage in this traditional style in the coastal crofting village of Kilmuir in the hills of the Quiraing landslip. This small village is one of the last in Scotland where half the population still speaks Gaelic. After dropping off our things we decide to walk the peaceful roads. It’s rural, with kilometres separating one house from another and the walk at this late time in the day is nothing short of breathtaking. Ruins of churches and homes, some centuries old, are dotted between houses.
Looking out towards the ocean you can see the Outer Hebrides, some of the most remote islands in the UK. The Outer Hebrides are mountainous and, placed across the ocean as they are, seems unreal – as though the alps have grown from the sea. Because the Highlands never seem to do anything by halves, the afternoon leaves with a colourful sunset.
The next morning we awake to thick fog and drive to the 15th-century Duntulum Castle. The ruin sits on the most northerly point of Skye, and after a stroll across a field, it slowly takes shape – a once-grand castle almost collapsed into the sea. Legend has it that it was abandoned after the chieftain’s son fell from a window and died while in the care of a nursemaid, and as punishment, the nursemaid was set adrift on the North Atlantic in a small boat. It seems that the Scots love a dramatic tale.
We decide to head west, and so from the most northern area on the Isle we begin the trek to the most western – Neist Point. The roads get progressively narrower, and by the time we reach the coast we’re driving on a tiny track through herds of sheep. Immediately before us is a huge cliff, and beyond that, a foreboding rock peninsula. A steep set of stairs descends over the edge of the cliff, before snaking across the landscape.
A couple can be seen in the distance making the journey out to the very tip of the peninsula, but knowing that our time is precious and having a rough idea of the lighthouse we wish to see, we start in another direction; scrambling up rocks and across a field that sits next to the ‘carpark’.
Muddy sheep-runs lead to the edges of the cliff, but treading carefully across them (while thanking the heavens that we brought sturdy boots) the peninsula slowly gains its iconic shape, and the white lighthouse in the distance starts to reveal itself. The basalt cliffs mimic those of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and the story goes that an Irish giant was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant, Benandonner. The Irish giant accepted the challenge and built across the channel so that the two giants could meet, thus the identical rock formations on each side.
It’s almost lunch by the time we arrive at the Fairy Pools. The pools are probably the only place on the Isle where we’ve run into other people, signifying its popularity. It’s easy to see why – clear turquoise water gushes down a neverending series of tiny waterfalls, while pink heather bushes line its edges. People jump and climb, seeking new angles to explore, and those daring enough dip a toe or two in the icy water.
After the steep climb we’re famished and stop in at the main harbour town of Portree, situated on the shores of the Sound of Raasay. The old town square features classic Scottish architecture before winding down a cobbled street to colourful buildings on the harbour’s edge. We arrive at the Portree Hotel seeking a hearty meal and we’re not disappointed by the menu, which features dishes such as ‘haggis, neeps and tatties’ and fresh seafood from the town harbour. I opt for a burger with black pudding, pork belly and stewed apples, and it's delicious – I’m still trying to recreate it at home with little success.
That afternoon we travel to Mealt Falls, a waterfall that plunges into the ocean, and Kilt Rock – so named for resembling the folds of a kilt. The afternoon sky is clear blue, the light beautiful and golden, and the morning fog has dissipated into a blanket of cloud covering the Sound and Atlantic beyond. While not being able to see the bottom of the falls may be a disappointment to some, for us it only served to heighten the experience; literally a waterfall that drops into the clouds.
With fading light we head to our final stop, The Storr, a landslip formation that is perhaps one of the most iconic and recognisable places on the Isle of Skye. The gravel path crunches underfoot as we ascend the steep slope, and the tufted grass synonymous with the Highlands glows brilliant orange. We don’t make it quite to the top, but to just below a large rock called ‘The Old Man’.
Taking a moment to catch our breath, I’m grateful for the chance to sit quietly and take in the unforgettable view. From our rock perch we can see the Cuillin range again in the distance, with Loch Leatnan in the foreground. Below us the paths winds back to the road and just beyond is the rugged cliff coastline. The cloud covering the ocean is magical – it truly makes us feel as though we are up in the sky on Skye.
We spend our last night relaxing in our cottage, thinking that we’ve probably seen the best of what the Highlands and Skye has to offer. But she has one more trick up her sleeve.
Having religiously followed geomagnetic activity reports for months, we’re subscribed to all matter of alerts, emails and newsletters. Suddenly a red alert pops up – there is a significant chance of the aurora borealis being visible from the UK, a rare event, right now. And we’re in one of the most remote, northern, light-pollution-free areas in Scotland.
We quickly pile coats, beanies, scarves and gloves on over our pyjamas, grab our cameras and race to the car. We know our spot – Duntulum Castle. The five-minute drive feels like an age, and yet its the shortest we’ve taken all day. Tumbling out of the car in the pitch black we know to point our eyes and lenses directly north over the castle. The first few exposures produce nothing, and we begin to feel as though perhaps we were foolish for so easily believing that it was possible to see the aurora from as far south as the UK. But then, one camera lights up green, and another, and another. Then, purple, and then the dancing lights begin. I’m covered in goosebumps as I relive it – Scotland truly treated us to something special, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The next day we rise energised, fuelled with the kind of optimism only nature can bestow. We’re ready to drive to Inverness and it’s sure to be another beautiful day, driving through remote mountain passes, wild forests and past neverending lochs. We’re sad to say goodbye to Skye and the rural Highlands; the sheer ethereal and otherworldly beauty is not something that will ever leave us... But we know in our bones that this is a place we will always want to revisit.
All images by Emma Russell