Skye Trail, Day 1: Broadford to Elgol (23 miles)

The morning light folded the mist above the mountains into shades of blue like fine, laundered gauze. I had been sitting impatiently at the window of my room in Broadford, bag at the ready, waiting for enough of the daylight to arrive to begin. September now; morning came later, and month by month the hours of dark would eventually overtake the hours of light.

Broadford was small, and quickly left behind. A turn on the road here and a gate there and I was on the heathland leaving the town behind. These early miles were reported as being easy ones, and the tracks good. Initially along the route of the former marble line; a tiny railway that transported marble away from the quarries around Broadford. Like much of this high area of Scotland, the land is made up of various types of granite that create an acidity in the soil on which the heather thrives. When this granite first arrived here in this area between Broadford and Torrin, it was in the form of red hot magma, interrupting the dolstone that had previously dominated and metamorphosing into the distinctive Skye marble – green tinged from the presence of serpentine.

The main quarries were only around for a hundred years, closing in 1912, and the railway arrived very late in the game in 1907. Previous to its building, there had been an aerial ropeway which sounds like an awful lot of effort and just a bit dangerous.

The track was strewn with the clouded lumps of altered dolstones, frosting out towards the edges, and in spoil heaps where these lazy edges bubbled with reflected and blurred light. The track continued in and away from the road and soon any sound or evidence of people or traffic disappeared. Autumn had started to claw away at the bright summer vegetation, and the heather was dark. Sitting out like an old bracelet, pitted hollows where gems had already fallen out around the occasional stubborn amethyst.

Eventually the coast opened up before me, and with it the quiet, low stones of the ruins of Boreraig. The Battle of Culloden in 1746 and the defeat of the Jacobite Clans was an instant turning point in the history of the culture and society of the Scottish Highlands. Chiefs were stripped of their power, their lands forfeited, and the clan system nearly completely dismantled. Now families were reduced to tenants on land that was no longer familial, and subject to the decrees and desires of new landlords. The old way of field-strip farming and agriculture was removed in favour of large scale grazing, and Skye struggled to adapt. Rent increases and a freefall into poverty forced many Skye Highlanders to sell up and leave. Eventually the new landowners decided to stop haggling with their tenants, and just evicted them. Clearing the Highlands.

These forced evictions put an end to the Highland way of life forever. Clans divided, and families set sail for different lands. In the 12 years up to 1775, 20,000 people emigrated, with 54 ships leaving the west coast of Scotland in one year alone.

What is left behind now are the ghosts of those last settlements; the end of rich centuries worth of culture and community. The walls of Boreraig continue to crumble further and weeds and shrubs wind their way between the stones here on the coast with the sea to the front and the purple heights of the mountains behind.

I quietly moved through to sit on a hill beyond for my breakfast. It was a bad idea. The midges descended and in my rush to retrieve my very glamourous headnet, it ripped. I desperately shot Smidge in all directions as I made my retreat to continue along the coastline, a smeared putty of dead midges where I had repeatedly slapped my own face. Whilst the Smidge eventually had the desired effect, the midges still managed to find the gap between my three-quarter length leggings and my hiking socks and nibbled a ring around my legs that would itch the entirety of the trail.

The path along the coast became rockier, and the high tide at the base of the cliffs had left a herd of sheep far more baffled than they should have been. My path stuck right to that base, over the rocks, but the woolly obstacles bleated in one large, squeezed, bouncy pile in front of me.

“Oi!” I yelled “Get off my path!” I slammed my pole down on the rock and the sheep magically found ways to scatter; finding the path ahead, descending onto the tidal stones or, in graceless but still impressive fashion, scurrying almost vertical up the cliffs themselves. Here I was, Moses like, having split the fuzzy sheep sea. I did wish for their agility as I clambered over the boulders, but soon found my way around the peninsula and past the second set of ruins; that of Suisnish

The Forced Eviction of Suisnish

 ‘As I was returning from my ramble a strange wailing sound reached my ears at intervals on the breeze from the west. On gaining the top of a hill on the south side of the valley, I could see a long and motley procession wending along the road that led from Suisnish. It halted at the point in the road opposite Kilbride, and there the lamentation became long and loud … Every one was in tears; … and it seemed as if they could not tear themselves away. When they set off once more, a cry of grief went up to heaven; the long plaintive wail, like a funeral coronach, was resumed; and, after the last of the emigrants had disappeared behind the hill, the sound seemed to re-echo through the whole wide valley of Strath in one prolonged note of desolation’

Sir Archibald Geikie, geologist, who witnessed the clearances

Loch Slapin appeared before me and, the other side, the first view of the Cuillins. Here I ran into a man with two bounding border collies. He wore braces that he thumbed, knee high socks, and a rope around his shoulder. An aging Munro-bagger, it did not take much for him to take a conversation quickly into his summitting accomplishments.

“I’ve done them all” he told me

“Only once?” I goaded. I was quickly reassured that he had done many multiple times. He informed me that I would have a hard time of the ridge, that I was in for a shock.

“Because you’re small” He said.

“I see”

“And English”

“There is that”

I was under absolutely no illusions that I would have a hard time of the Trotternish Ridge. I was curious if he thought that I thought I was just going to be bounding up some equivalent of the South Downs. But he seemed to take great relish in imagining my struggle so I let him have his moment.

“Do you live here?” I asked.

“No.” He said “I bought a van. I’ve worked well past sixty and I thought what the hell for? I lost so many friends, so many friends, last year. I just retired. I’m just going to spend the rest of my money and my days going to the beautiful places that make me happy until they put me in the ground”

I told him I hoped there would be many happy years of exploring before that happened, perhaps enough to give the Munros yet another climb each.

Coastal Wildlife

The remoteness of the Hebridean coast is not supportive of the larger array of biodiversity seen in the mainland, but that does not mean wildlife lovers would be disappointed.

Both golden eagles and sea eagles can be regularly seen and heard, along with a plethora of coastal birds like kittiwakes, puffins and red-throated divers. Mountain hares and rabbits are prey for wildcat and pine marten.

Basking sharks, seals and porpoises are often seen around the coast, and one animal that thrives on the rocky ground and seaweed strewn pools are otters.

In fact there are so many otters that there are whole tours based around spotting them and hides set up in their most prevalent spots. You might well need the help because despite these animals growing to up to three foot in length, they are so well adapted that they become basically invisible once camouflaged on land.

From a quiet morning, it was now busier, and my next interaction as I approached Torrin was with a woman, around my age on a day hike to Broadford, but now blighted by a lack of signal and a dependence on downloading GPS coordinates to her phone. I took out my map so she could take a picture. She asked if I’d met the man I’d just bumped into – the Munro bagger with the dogs and the braces. She said she had an observation about the differences between men and women that travel alone.

“Women that travel alone do so for experience and curiosity and adventure and we’re probably flighty and non-committal in ordinary life, but the men that travel alone all do so as if they have something to prove to the world, they relish some sort of ‘lone wolf’ status and are all just a bit misanthropic”

“Haven’t had great experiences with the lone males then?”

“No. They’re all just weird.”

“I mean, for the next week I’m not really intending to have a shower and am excited by the prospect of instant mashed potato so I guess its all relative”

Loch Slapin turned into Torrin; the café talked about in the guidebook was shut but a hot food van was set up at a viewpoint half a mile further. The shore was multicoloured in lines of mustard yellow and red seaweeds, pushed up and down by the tides over the rocks. A geographical rainbow. I sat and ate my burger viewing the lengthy road walk around the loch ahead of me as sheep crunched around the exposed stones, munching around the brash thistles.

The roadwalk was, indeed, tedious. They were in the process of having the tarmac reapplied so small queues of cars were held up to only be allowed through every twenty minutes. I passed the first queue and waved at the man from Highway Maintenance. It did mean I had the strange experience of a long stretch of new road just to myself as I followed the curve round of the loch to the other side. As the loch became bay, became sea, small fishing boats bobbed on the water and rough shacks sat on the shore.

I carried on, briefly into the forest, then down again to Kilmarie and the Straithaird Estate. Bought and developed by Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull until 1994 when he sold it to the John Muir Trust. Annoyingly, fences had been erected, blocking my access to the streams to replenish my water. I had circled this gathering of burns to do just that, but found myself walking a mile further out the estate until I found a suitable flow to filter and contain. I reached where I had intended to camp, by the Dun Ringhill ruins, but it was early and I still had miles in me.

Dun Ringill is an iron age fort, or the remains of, that were at one point taken over and used as the clan seat for Clan MacKinnon. The stacked stone broch and its eerie doorway looked out from a perfect placement above the curve of the land from the loch to the sea, but instead of staying I ploughed on to Elgol.

I heaved up onto the fields and came across a substantial obstacle; a great heft of a highland cow laid across the path right in front of my exiting gate. The path dropped to one side beside her with no long way around, and to the other was a closed and barbed fence. She must have been aware of me, I deduced she didn’t care much, and crept forward in the hopes there might magically appear to be a safe way around her. Then I saw a small scrap of fluff on the path in front of her, a calf, and I backtracked incredibly quickly. My track record with cows is not fantastic and I was just going to have to wait this one out. I stood a distance away, and kept making noise so my presence didn’t surprise her. I serenaded her with Alice Cooper’s Poison, Pat Benatar’s Love is a Battlefield and a medley of Joy Division before she decided my singing was too bad to keep tolerating and lumbered off, prodding her calf before her, down the slope to the left and I made a beeline for the gate.

Crossing the peninsula to Elgol was not an inspiring mile. The scrappy moorland was cast over with numerous pylons and masts, but eventually I made my way to the village. The shop was just about to shut, but I made my in to quickly get some lovely cold milk. The proprietor advised that I camp down the bank beneath the village looking out to sea – it was flat and there was a public loo just above it making for both a comfortable and civilised wildcamp.

True, it wasn’t the most rustic or remote, but I appreciated flat, with a stunning view out over the water. It seemed the midges did too, but I had pre-armed with Smidge this time and only a few of them fell into my dinner providing extra protein.

Tomorrow would be the end of the easy miles, it would start with a nervously nasty cliff-edge route to Camasunary Bay, and, for that, I would need a lot of instant mash and a good night’s sleep.

  • Distance: 23 miles
  • Total Elevation: 1312ft
  • Terrain: Coastal paths, tracks, minor road
  • Toughness: 3/10
  • Maps Used: Harvey Maps XT40: Skye Trail, WalkHighlands GPX download: Torrin to Broadford & Sligachan to Elgol

5 thoughts on “Skye Trail, Day 1: Broadford to Elgol (23 miles)

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