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The Raw Beauty of Skye

Skye is a seductive mix of breath-taking rugged beauty pelted by four seasons each hour and warm Scottish hospitality.

Sunbathing seals in Skye (c) Visit Scotland

Sitting on a little wooden clinker boat, scudding across calm Loch Dunvegan with local Colin at the helm, our eyes are trained in anticipation on the skyline where a tiny island is coming into view. Breathing in the seductive cocktail of salt, seaweed and warm sunshine, I trail a hand in the cool water, clear and sky-blue. Or perhaps Skye-blue. As the island nears, what I thought were rocks around its periphery turn out to be common seals. Lolling in the sunshine, some of the pale, freckled adults are comically blubbery and too lazy to move; a flipper flips here, a tail twitches there. Others turn to look at us with doe eyes, and the few pups among them are predictably adorable.

Chugging back, we wistfully watch them morph back into pale rocks, before turning to see 13th century Dunvegan Castle come back into view. Seat of the MacLeods for 800 years, there are battlements up top, aristocratic interiors (as well as a truly terrifying dungeon), and landscaped gardens that contrast with Skye’s natural wild mountains, lochs, valleys and coastline.

History relates many years of turbulent times between Skye’s MacLeods and MacDonalds. While the MacDonalds won the last battle on Coire na Creiche, their Armadale Castle in the south of Skye is an atmospheric ruin. It seems the MacLeods won in terms of castle maintenance.

Castles, whitewashed houses in emerald valleys, the iridescent silver of sun on loch, hundreds of shades of green, imperious sheep, golden eagles and locals mixing gruff with charm. The island is a seductive mix of breath-taking rugged beauty pelted by four seasons each hour, warm Scottish hospitality, phenomenal seafood and local whisky, aka ‘uisge-beatha’, Gaelic for ‘water of life’. I soon learn, the trick is to do enough exploring to burn up breakfast and make space for lunch and dinner.

Portree is the main town in Skye (c) Visit Scotland

Portree is the main town, colourful houses reflecting in the bay. The 130-acre Scorrybreac peninsula, home to the MacNicol clan for 800 years until the last chief left in 1825, was recently acquired by members of the clan, my late father included, whose heart belonged in Skye. Inexplicably I didn’t travel up from London with him before he died. Emotions aside, the 3km public trail through MacNicol land that skirts the peninsula is alive with butterflies and thistles, seals and sea eagles. Eventually it turns inland up a challengingly steep hill, efficiently burning those breakfast calories. My father would have wholeheartedly approved of the recovery lunch I had at Portree’s Scorrybreac restaurant: oysters from The Oyster Shed followed by flaky hake and then Talisker whisky chocolate desert.

After family, my trip is all about food. Up north in tiny Uig, sustenance comes with a side of traditional entertainment. A 19th century inn turned boutique hotel, restaurant and bar, The Ferry Inn’s rooms are stylish and modern, and the restaurant serves up a generous bouillabaisse of Uig Bay langoustines, local mussels and crab, fish, samphire and crusty bread, with an indulgent side of truffled polenta chips. Leaving just a pile of pretty shells, I move next door to the bar where local botanic gins give the whiskies fair competition, and two traditional fiddlers play into the night.

Not far from Dunvegan, at Skye’s most famous restaurant The Three Chimneys the Skye land and sea tasting menus are the stuff of gastronomic legend. Bag a room in the luxurious House-Over-By and a table is reserved for you for dinner. Imagine raw and scorched Dunvegan langoustine, seaweed-steamed halibut, poached and roasted Gartmorn duck with rhubarb.

One of my favourite lunches, however, takes me back to basics. Call ahead and The Oyster Shed’s oysterman Paul will give you a lesson in shucking; prize open the shells, eat the oyster from the tip of the knife and wash the shell’s brine out with a dash of whisky from neighbours the Talisker Distillery. I ordered a lunchbox of roasted scallops and langoustines too, devouring them alfresco with a glass of white wine. My neighbours were tucking into lobster and chips, washed down with the country’s second-most-famous drink, the luminously Trump-coloured Irn-Bru.

Alongside hikes to the Old Man of Storr’s standing pinnacle, Kilt Rock and the Mealt waterfall, my favourite afternoon takes me to the Fairy Pools at Glenbrittle, a string of turquoise pools and waterfalls that get more beautiful the further you trudge, minimum 30 minutes. Not many tourists strip down to swimmers and jump in, but I recommend it. Breath-stealingly cold, the water is clear and hugely energising.

Fittingly my last dinner was at Eilean Iarmain Hotel, home to the late Sir Ian Noble, who founded the island’s Gaelic university and was a dear friend of my father. Sinking into the drawing room’s comfy sofa by the crackling fire for a comforting cup of tea, I move to the Birlinn Restaurant overlooking the Sound of Sleat for sea-fresh mussels and local venison.

Here I discovered you have to stay up late to stargaze during Skye’s summers. Sitting outside one of the hotel’s stable suites, the whisky miniatures, calm silence and real dark are conducive to family reminiscing and, later, comfortingly healing sleep.