Skye Trail, Day 3: Sligachan to Portree (12 miles)

As lovely and atmospheric as it seemed to be camped near to a waterfall, the mistakes with this were two fold; the soothing sounds of running water meant I would wake every now and then convinced I needed a wee, eventually unfold myself from my warm bag and stride outside to find that it was just the noise playing tricks on me. Secondly, it meant my day started with a water crossing and my half dried socks were only half dried a total of five minutes before I had to sigh, grimace, and step into the icy, rushing stream.

I picked my way across the water and looked up the other side to the colours sunrising on the horizon out to the sea. Sheep were out grazing on the shore and a lone horse stared quizzically across to me, tall and aloof above his squat woolly companions.

Oh no you don’t, I thought, I know about you Kelpies. I heard about you in Mann and in Snowdonia and you’re all here also – evil water spirits in the form of horses that engage with travellers, and once the weary traveller has been tempted to ride the back of the horse they will be dragged into the water and drowned, or flown upwards and dropped, or just plain eaten. Either way, the traveller dies. Thankfully this Kelpie realised I was untemptable and lost interest quickly.

The path along the loch, though amongst a similar unruly coastal terrain as the day before, was wide and plain and mostly clear. It was an easy track to follow with little fearing for my life. The bright stripes of seaweeds on the stones shone in the morning – the kelp that glowed golden and the dulse a dark red. The kelp industry in Skye has had highs and lows; first rushing to try and attain a foothold in the 18th century as the rise of industry required alkaline ash, such as that from kelp, to bleach linen and to be used in manufacturing glass and soap.

It was an appealing industry as prices charged could be up to £20 a ton, but Skye lacked what made Tiree and Southern Uist thrive; flat grassy spaces on which to dry out the plants. Prominent Highland landowners such as Lord Macdonald, forced their tenants to move to the coast to engage in the gruelling and backbreaking work of kelp farming. The tenants were compelled through the subdivision of the agricultural land into small crofts which meant they could not support themselves anymore unless they also worked in kelp production.

Landowners started placing all focus on the one industry, meaning the kelp was no longer used to fertilise the fields. Following the boom came an inevitable bust as foreign taxes on kelp import were lifted along with developments for more easily making alkaline ash. Prices crashed and what followed on Skye and throughout the Hebrides was famine, poverty and, eventually, the Highland Clearances.

Today, with kelp being used to create biodegradable packaging as well as a basis for nutritional supplements, the industry is slowly starting up again. Far more voluntarily of course, and with more modern alternatives to drying the plants than relying on great flat pastures which Skye has barely any of.

Bonnie Prince Charlie

The international fame of Skye comes in no small part from the popularity of the Skye Boat Song that recalls the journey of Bonnie Prince Charlie escaping the Duke of Cumberland after the Battle of Culloden.

The song tells the story of how the Prince, disguised as a serving maid, flees with the aid of Flora Macdonald, across to the island. It remembers the bloody fields of Culloden and the mournful, awful aftermath of the Jacobite defeat.

But who was Prince Charles? Charles Edward Stuart was the Stuart claimant to the throne of Great Britain in the 1700s, spent most of his life in Italy and France and in 1734 began his quest to Britain to restore the throne for the Stuarts. In 1745 his now full fledged Jacobite troops defeated the only government army in Scotland at the Battle of Prestonpans. The 6,000 strong Jacobite army continued to win battles across northern England before returning to Scotland and the awful and gruesome defeat at Culloden.

Charles believed himself betrayed and abandoned the cause, fleeing to hide in the moorland, highlands and islands of Scotland as the Duke of Cumberland pursued him. He eventually left with the aid of the French back to his home in France. The defeat at Culloden would spell the end of Highland culture, and Bonnie Prince Charlie would never return to Scotland.

Looking back along the path, I could see the perfect witch’s hat of Gamaig in the Red Cuillin, its steep scree slopes appearing absolutely unclimbable. Nonetheless, an annual hill race takes place to the summit and back. Buoyed on by the tale of Gurkha Harkabir Tharpa who had run the circuit in 1889 barefoot in under an hour, fell runners continue to use his time as an aim with few succeeding to beat it.

The path I was following climbed up a short cliff, over the occasional stack of boulders. At one point I must have inadvertently followed a misleading sheep trail as I ended up edging around the very end of the cliff, gripping firmly onto the heather, my bum half dangling over the edge. This was definitely not the path I was meant to be on. The far more agile sheep now had their karma from the first day when I so egotistically and biblically ordered them from my path. I did eventually clamber back onto solid ground to find the real path trundling along quite nicely in front of me.

At Peinachorran, the track turned to road, and I was in for the long trudge up it to Portree. Turning with the coast, I made my way through the settlement and onwards on the tarmac. A frustrating road to walk on, narrow enough that I had to step out the way and stop for every car with not very much of a grass bank. There wouldn’t be many cars until far later on, but there were enough to create a tedium and a fast growing resentment.

My resentment was lifted by the occasional appearances of honesty boxes by the ends of driveways. Usually these contained items that a backpacker, unfortunately, cannot carry (though many would love to) such as eggs and jars of honey. Some promised cakes or shortbread, but I was clearly too early for such luxuries. One majestic box where proceeds went to Huntingdons research had been cleared out of tablet which deeply saddened me as nothing makes such a grand breakfast as a dense block of delicious sugar.

The Braes peninsula harboured a memorial against its slopes. An uprising occurred here in furious and bloody revolt against the forced changes to farming practices, resultant poverty and all the eventual clearances. The tenants of the Braes ignored the ban on grazing their own stock and stopped paying rent. Lord Macdonald sent the sheriffs to evict the troublesome tenants, but the women of the Braes would have none of it, forcing the sheriff to burn his own documents and return defeated.

Fifty policeman were called up from Glasgow, and the people of the Braes pelted them with sticks and rocks from the higher vantages on which they had their homes. Arrests and fines were eventually made, but only after the police themselves were left bewildered, injured and mostly in surrender to the furious villagers with nothing to lose. The media coverage of the fight of the Highland crofters soon encouraged mass sympathy for their struggle, and the military refused to step in. The people of the Braes were never cleared, and their acts of defiance lead to the enactment of the Crofters Act of 1886 which saw more security measures put in place for the tenant crofters, and the end days of the Highland Clearances.

As I neared the end of my crossing of the peninsula, I stopped short. There above the curve of the next bay, beyond Portree in the distance, rose the Trotternish Ridge on the horizon. I had half hoped my first sight of it would straighten out my trepidation, as it became something real rather than imaginary and prone to daily wild warping. Nope. That was not the case at all; it looked utterly terrifying.

The great blocks of it, outlandish and almost top heavy slammed against the skyline like a huge and impenetrable wall. The Old Man of Storr looking absolutely tiny as it stuck out its pinnacles like a gateway. Still a whole day’s section from here and it was already imposing. I could barely take my eyes from it. It’s one thing seeing and logically understanding the topography of the ridge, but another now with it starting to lay out in front of me. Seeing after the hefty climb already to the top of Storr, the deep swoop I would have to follow down, then rise up again to Hartaval, and know that those undulations only continued for the next 15 miles. High up and exposed, prone to changes in weather, often covered in fog and vulnerable to storms.

One of those times I study something and can’t help but think how much damn easier it could be if I didn’t carry a backpack.

The trail finally allowed me a path off the road as I neared Portree, winding down to the edge of a stream and an area that would be a perfect wildcamp for a southbounder; being able to look back on the ridge they just completed with the satisfaction of a full meal from town and a lovely, sheltered swathe of grass to sleep on.

Not for me, I carried on towards town. Now yearning for the launderette and some fish and chips and a restful half day before proceeding. The high tide had come in, making the final half mile along the bank another one of boulder clambering. Any stone I dislodged revealed a small crab that scattered, alarmed, from its collapsed shelter. I trod more carefully,

I emerged outside the Aros Centre and marched into Portree. Unfortunately my sense of time had now warped and, being a day ahead of my initial plans, had not realised it was Sunday. Half the town was shut and no chippies appeared open. Annoyed, I made my way to the launderette at the back of the Portree Hostel and had to venture out again to break a tenner into coins for the machines, and then again when I realised that there was no detergent on offer so I had no other option than to go to the Coop to get a whole damn box. A group of more organised Korean boys in the launderette watched my frantic moody to and froing with gathering amusement. I then realised that there were no wall sockets available and I would have to find somewhere else to charge up my power banks in this half closed town. Suddenly my resting half day was turning into one of endless chores. I’d be grateful for the stupid ridge after this.

I finally loaded up my washing machine. I realised the clothes I was in needed to be washed also and that this was probably something I should have thought about beforehand, but now growing irritation had lead to a short fuse and not caring very much. I fished my camp clothes from my bag and turned to the boys.

“I’m really sorry, I need to put my leggings and top in the washing machine. I have clean clothes here but if you could all look away for just a moment I’d be really grateful” The Korean boys chose, instead, to scarper and I sat in my shorts and band shirt, wrapped in my raincoat and I watched my clothes get tossed around the machine in solitude, switching them over to the tumble dryer until, eventually, I had clothes that weren’t drenched and covered in sheep shit anymore. I changed again and, like a new, but still determined, woman set out to find fish and chips.

All three chippies were shut, despite two claiming to be open seven days a week. There was a seafood barge – some sort of extension to a restaurant – out on the harbour but it didn’t offer the most classic of British seaside dishes. Eventually I found it on the menu at a place more decked out as a bakery, parked myself by a wall socket and intended to eat very slowly for the next two hours.

“What can I get you?”

“Fish and chips please”

“We’re all out of fish”

What was this absolute nonsense? I was utterly defeated.

“Scampi?”

“Sure.”

To say the scampi was unsatisfying is an understatement. I had absolutely no qualms in letting it get cold as I ate incredibly slowly, writing out entire postcards between mouthfuls. When I felt that my banks had enough charge, I paid up, packed up and got the hell out of Portree.

The Warrior Queen of Skye

Scáthach supposedly lived on Skye around 200BC, using the castle of Dún Scáith as her fortress. Her ruthlessness and undefeated mastery of conflict was of such renown that many young fighters were sent to her for training. She was a practitioner of the barbed spear known as the gae bolg and she was also known as a formidable magician with the gift of prophecy and, as if her legend wasn’t embellished enough, she is also now queen of the dead.

One such young warrior sent to her was Cú Chulainn, honour bound to complete tasks to prove himself. The story of Cú Chulainn, his romantic liaisons, gnarly deals and armed triumphs is a whole sordid mess in itself and the man would not be well regarded in the modern age. However he did repay Scáthach for her training by defeating her sister and rival who never again threatened the Warrior Queen of Skye.

The trail continued through the Scorrybreac estate; all lovely and manicured with signs forbidding camping. Which was a pity as the onward path seemed reluctant to grant any flat spaces and I aimed for the apparently ‘relatively flat’ Bile Pastures. I had my doubts they would be flat though. Sure the maps topography had the contours more spaced out, but the terrain surrounding was dense with bracken and fern and I didn’t want to get there only to discover unpitchable terrain.

A bald man with a dog stood in the middle of the path and he reached out to touch my arm as he greeted me. I stepped backwards as he continued to stand in the middle of the path.

“Are you doing the Skye Trail?”

“No” Something about him made me just not want to give him any information at all.

“That’s a pity. I was. I was hoping for company” He was wearing a thin, zip up fleece with just a small messenger bag and worn down trainers. He absolutely was not doing the Skye Trail. He reached out again, to the compass at my shoulder. I stepped back again, folding my arms.

“I’m just going wherever with my husband. He’ll be catching up soon”

“I have to get out every now and again. I’ve had some issues. I won’t give you the whole sob story.”

“OK” Even if he hadn’t been blocking my path, I had no intention anymore of letting him see me go that way.*

When a couple came up behind us and turned to walk up to the tops of the cliff, I abruptly turned also to follow them and made a steep climb. It turned out to be a good decision regardless as there were numerous places for a flat camp with far reaching views. The setting sun chilled me out and I quickly put the entire annoyance at the whole day behind me and set up my tent. More supernoodles and instant mash tonight, plus chocolate restocked from the Coop. I had clean clothes and tomorrow I was heading to the ridge.

  • Distance: 12 miles
  • Total Elevation: 500ft
  • Terrain: Loch paths, glens, rocky tracks, road
  • Toughness: 3/10
  • Maps Used: Harvey Maps XT40: Skye Trail, WalkHighlands GPX download: Portree to Sligachan

*I initially, as many of us do, considered my response to be unfair as the man was unlikely to be of malicious intent, just socially awkward. However, I chose to include this interaction here as it came to my attention that a woman two days behind me had a similar interaction with the same man outside of Portree which also caused her to leave the Trail. Maybe any woman (I’m assuming he only approaches women) reading this hoping to walk the Skye Trail alone would just be slightly safer with a some forewarning and a reassurance that it’s OK to just be very abrupt with middle aged bald men with dogs until you’ve reached the Bile Pastures.

5 thoughts on “Skye Trail, Day 3: Sligachan to Portree (12 miles)

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