The Isle of Skye had been on my travel wish list for a long time. It’s an unusual place with other-worldly landscapes, a place that ignites the imagination and seems protected from “the real world.” Then late last year, when my mom and I decided to finally make good on those plans for a family vacation to Europe, we decided to spend on a week on the Isle of Skye. I knew I would love it. What I didn’t know is that it would be so complex and so deeply interesting.
The Isle of Skye is located in the Outer Hebrides just off the mainland in northwestern Scotland. Getting there is not easy — from Edinburgh, you’re looking at a 5-6 hour drive on an assortment of roads, including small two-lane roads in the Highlands. But the experience of visiting Skye is worth every minute of driving to get there. It’s wild and romantic and beautiful. It’s steeped in history. It’s isolated yet not old-fashioned. It’s everything I’d hoped it would be and so much more.
We planned our stay on Skye carefully. We booked a house (see the bottom of this post) and stayed a week. A couple we ran into near Edinburgh announced that we’d be bored with 6 days on Skye, but I knew they were wrong. I doubted I’d ever come back and therefore wanted to get to know as much of Skye as possible. As it turned out, 6 days wasn’t enough.
Before delving into my recommendations of what to see and do on the Isle of Skye, I should mention a bit about our travel style. We were with my kids, ages 9 and 6, and my mom and stepdad, who generally like a slower travel pace than we do. My mom is also a writer, so she generally prefers visiting historical sites over active outdoor adventures (what Skye is mostly known for).
We also had some bad weather during our stay. Fortunately, because we stayed as long as we did, we were able to work around it, but most days were rainy and windy in the morning, changing to cloudy and threatening rain the rest of the day. While we were still able to get out and about, our hiking windows were limited, and we didn’t do as much as we had hoped. You’ll especially notice that hiking the Quiraing is missing — that’s one thing I hope to do next time (yes, I loved it so much that I hope to return!).
You can use this Google map to help with your travel planning:
I’ve included the sights on the Trotternish Peninsula first and then branch out to the Dunvegan area and the Sleat Peninsula. We didn’t make it to the westernmost part of Skye where Neist Point is (next time!). I’d love to hear your suggestions of what to do on the Isle of Skye.
Drive around the Trotternish Peninsula
Any drive on the Isle of Skye is beautiful, but the Trotternish Peninsula loop might be the best drive on the island. Starting at Portree, you can follow either road A855 or A87 north and continue until you’ve made the loop around the peninsula. Set aside a few hours for the drive, especially if the weather is decent enough to include a hike on the Quiraing.
Plan to stop at the Uig Pottery, the Museum of Island Life, Duntulm Castle, and Kilt Rock (see more on these below). There are cafes and small shops selling local wares along the way — just look for signs posted along the road.
Kilt Rock & Mealt Falls
Visiting Kilt Rock is easy — look for a sign just south of Staffin, pull into the parking lot, and get a good position along the fenced viewpoint. This place gets crowded, so you might have to wait a few minutes to get a good view.
As you might have guessed, Kilt Rock is named for the basalt columns that mimic the shape of the folds of a kilt. You could almost miss Mealt Falls because it falls at a whisper over the columns and down to the sea below.
Visit the Museum of Island Life
At the northwest corner of the Trotternish Peninsula is the Skye Museum of Island Life, an outdoor museum dedicated to the cultural heritage of Skye. It’s made up of several traditional thatched cottages, each demonstrating a different aspect of crofter life. You can still see thatched cottages like these on the Isle of Skye, but these give you the chance to see them up close. The construction of the cottages with stone walls and sloped roofs allowed them to withstand the extreme winds of winter.
Try to take your time here — I found the information and photographs posted inside the homes helpful in understanding the way people lived on Skye in the late 19th century. Admission is 2.50 per adult and 50 pence per child.
& the Kilmuir graveyard
On a hillside just above the Skye Museum of Island Life sits the historic Kilmuir graveyard where Flora MacDonald is buried. She’s remembered as a heroine of the Jacobite cause because she bravely helped conceal Bonnie Prince Charlie during his escape from the British after the Battle of Culloden. Prince Charles dressed as a woman and pretended to be Betty Burke, Flora’s maid.
After his successful escape to France, Flora was arrested for treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London but was released. She married, had 5 children, moved to North Carolina, but later returned to Skye, where she died in 1790. She was supposedly buried in a shroud made from Bonnie Prince Charlie’s bedsheet!
Besides Flora MacDonald’s grave, other important graves are here, including a medieval effigy to Angus of the Wind and the graves of the MacArthurs, the pipers of the MacDonald clan at nearby Duntulm Castle.
Duntulm Castle sits on the northwestern edge of the Isle of Skye. Keep an eye open for the turn off sign because it’s easy to miss while passing by on A855. This ruined castle was once the main residence of the Clan MacDonald of Sleat until they moved it to Armadale (see below). According to legend, the ghost of one of the nursemaids still wanders the ruins. She accidentally dropped the chief’s baby from a window and was killed in return.
Tip: Be careful if you visit with kids; the ruins sit on sheer cliffs, and signs warn visitors not to pass certain points.
Staffin Dinosaur Museum
This tiny museum contains fossils, ancient artifacts and dinosaur footprints. The man who works there has a wealth of knowledge about local geology, so if you’re interested in learning more about this or visiting dinosaur footprints on Skye, he’s the one to ask. Bring cash for the small admission fee (about 2 pounds) and locally-made souvenirs for sale.
Hike to the Old Man of Storr
The Old Man of Storr was the main reason I wanted to visit Skye, and the hike to the rocks does not disappoint. We were there a week and kept waiting for good weather for the hike. When we woke up to yet another morning of rain and strong winds on our last day there, we knew we had to try the hike despite the less-than-ideal conditions. Once the rain let up, we put on our good hiking shoes and made an afternoon of it.
The main part of the hike takes you up a well marked trail to just below the Old Man of Storr rock, as you can see in the above photo. Don’t make the mistake that we did of trying to climb the short but steep trail of dirt and unsteady rocks just under the Old Man (you can see it to the left of the people behind my husband and kids). Instead, take the flatter trails that weave around. You’ll eventually get above the rocks for views like this:
You can continue up to the main viewing point on top of a small cliff. One of my regrets from the trip is that we didn’t make it that far — it started to rain just a bit, and I didn’t want the trails to get slippery.
Tips for hiking the Old Man of Storr with kids: Wear good shoes that can get muddy. Dress in layers– you’ll likely get warm climbing but may need some protection from the wind once you’re up higher. The hike isn’t terribly long but is strenuous, so try to have your hands free and bring only a small bottle of water that could be stashed in a pocket. Once you reach the top, there are many trails that lead through the rocks, so you can extend your hike depending on how much time and energy you have.
Find ancient standing stones
If you’re looking for big standing stones, your best bet is probably to take a day trip (by ferry from Uig) to the Isle of Lewis to see the Callanish Stones.
On the Isle of Skye, there are a few ancient stones scattered about. They date from the Bronze Age and are at least 3000 years old. If you take A87 north from Portree, you’ll come to Loch Eyre at Kensaleyre, where a pair of large standing stones stand on the shore. It’s very hard to find a place to park here, but if you park near houses nearby, you can walk to the gate and then through the sheep field to reach them. Legend says that the giant Finn used to roast deer at these stones.
Because we weren’t able to find a place to park, we drove to another pair nearby (see the Google map above for the location). The pair of stones is smaller and less impressive than those by the shore, but you can drive right up to them without worrying about parking or walking on the busy road. Interestingly, the stones are not marked at all despite the fact that they’re thousands of years old and represent an aspect of life on Skye in the Bronze Age.
Another interesting stone can be found a couple of miles away near Skeabost. It’s newer, probably from the 8th century, and is covered with pagan Pictish carvings. If you’re interested in this stuff, check out the ancient cairns and brochs on the island.
St. Columba’s Isle
My mom and I love to delve deep into history. If you do, too, then put St. Columba’s Isle on your list of things to do on the Isle of Skye. It’s a small island in the River Snizort with the ruins of the Cathedral Church of the Bishop of the Isles from 1079 to 1498 and a historic graveyard. As you can see below, you can enter ruined chapels and see the graves of clan chiefs, bishops, and a 16th-century effigy of a clan warrior.
“A cauldron of heads”: As if the history of this sacred church and burial ground isn’t enough, this is the site of an important clan battle in 1539 between the MacLeods and MacDonalds for control of the nearby land. According to legend, the heads of several clansmen floated along the river after the deadly battle.
The Scorrybreac Circuit walk
Hands-down one of my favorite experiences on the Isle of Skye, this 3-km loop walk is beautiful, the perfect way to spend an extra hour near Portree. Look for the road sign posted for ‘Budhmor.’ Park where you see a few parking spots and start out on the trail inear the water. You’ll soon pass through a tree-covered trail that opens up to bay views and then a green hillside that meets the sea. Continue up and up the trail and then make the slow descent back down to the beginning.
Walk at Loch Sligachan
One afternoon, when the sun finally came out, we decided to drive down to a bay that I had heard had beautiful views. My stepdad was riding his bike on the same road, and after we thought it was time to turn right to go back, we noticed that he had gone left instead. I suggested that we follow him in case he had gotten lost, but he certainly was just fine. We ended up driving a short distance to a dead end and this view.
You can park here, enjoy a picnic on the picnic table, and then hike on the trail that hugs the water. It goes all the way to the town of Sligachan, but you can go as far as you want and then turn around. Chances are you’ll have this spot all to yourselves — we were the only ones on the trail!
See dinosaur footprints
We didn’t see the dinosaur footprints on the Isle of Skye, but I learned that the best places to see them are the beach at Duntulm and Staffin during low tide. I believe that there is one easily visible footprint at Staffin Beach, a three-toed print. The more important find is at the Duntulm beach (scramble down to the water with the castle ruins in the nearby distance), where huge sauropods left footprints in what used to be a lagoon. Here it’s best to try to view them from afar and look for a group of shallow depressions in a line; otherwise, when standing right next to a footprint, it would be hard to distinguish it from a dip in the mud.
Shop at the Uig Pottery
The small town of Uig is also the port where ferries to neighboring islands depart. At the Uig Pottery near the ferry piers, the artists make everything there in the shop with views of the water right outside the windows. A lovely place to pick up a souvenir or some gifts!
Visit the Skyeworks Gallery
The Skyeworks Gallery is located above the Isle of Skye Baking Co. and features the work of several local artists. From scarves and ceramics to paintings and jewelry, the work sold here is not only beautiful but also makes good gifts to take back home.
Dunvegan Castle is the most important residence of the Clan MacLeod, who have lived here for more than 800 years. It’s also the oldest continuously-inhabited castle in all of Scotland. It’s also the home of the legendary Fairy Flag. The fourth chief of the MacLeod clan married a fairy, but after one year, she had to return to the Fairy World (see the Fairy Bridge below). According to one legend, she left behind the flag to bring good fortune to the clan in battle. She warned, however, that it could be used twice but “woe betide you if you unfurl it a third time.”
According to another legend, the fairy princess returned to the castle one night to console her crying son and wrapped him in her shawl. A third story states that the Fairy Flag is actually a 4th century silk banner that was brought back from the Crusades. Whatever its origins, the flag is precious to the clan and is now on display in the castle along with other artifacts such as a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hair. In fact, members of the clan who fought in WWII carried photos of the flag for protection.
Besides visiting the interior of the castle, there are three other activities on the grounds. First, don’t miss the five-acre formal gardens, especially the Water Garden and Walled Garden. After exiting the gardens, make your way down to the water (follow signs for the boat tours). You can take a one-hour boat tour to see the seals that reside on the rocks near the castle. After passing by the seal tour office, take a short walk to the farthest point on the jetty. Continue on a small trail through the trees to the rocks–it should take only about 5 minutes but affords the best views of the castle.
Tips for visiting Dunvegan Castle with kids:
Upon entering the castle, kids are prompted to look for keys in the rooms during their tour. Once finished, your child can go back to the entrance and report the number of keys they found to earn a nice prize. My kids loved this challenge but had to go through the castle twice to find all the keys!
The 25-minute boat tour to see the seals costs 7.50 pounds per adult, 5.50 per child, and is on a first-come, first-served basis (no online reservations).
There’s a cafe located in the parking lot.
Dunvegan Church & historic graveyard
This was one of my favorite finds of our stay on Skye. I read about this ruined church and graveyard in the exceptionally helpful little book Short Walks on Skye. After visiting Dunvegan Castle, we stopped in the town of Dunvegan, and while my kids had some fun at the playground, I explored this place with my mom and stepdad. The church houses the graves of clan chiefs as well as the pipers of the MacLeod clan. From this point, there are also excellent views of the Cuillin mountains and the MacLeod Tables, the flat table-like mountains beyond the loch.
Tip: If you walk from the main road in Dunvegan, walk through the grassy hill and veer right until you see it. If you park on road A850, it’s easier to find; you can’t miss it!
The Fairy Bridge
I love the fairy legends on Skye. There’s the Fairy Princess, Fairy Bay, fairy cows, Fairy Flag, Fairy Glen, Fairy Pools, and Fairy Bridge. After visiting Dunvegan and learning about the Fairy Queen and her Fairy Flag, make a quick stop at the Fairy Bridge. It’s just off the A850 road from Dunvegan to Portree, and if you might have it all to yourselves like we did. The Fairy Bridge is an old bridge that was used by clansmen as a meeting point.
However, the legend associated with this bridge is far more interesting. When the MacLeod chief wanted to marry the Fairy Princess, the Fairy King allowed the marriage with the condition that she would return to the Fairy Land after one year. It was here, at the bridge, that she said goodbye to her husband and returned to her people.
Tip: Do a tick check after walking through the brush near the fairy bridge (or any other place on the island). We were wearing long sleeves and boots, but I got a tick in my ankle after walking here.
Eilean Donan Castle (just off the Isle of Skye)
Eilean Donan is one of the most famous views in Scotland, but the castle that we see today is actually fairly new. The original castle was built in the 13th century as defense against the Vikings. After it was involved in the Jacobite rising, the castle was destroyed in retribution and lay in ruins for 200 years.
Eilean Donan was rebuilt in the early 20th century and the bridge from the land to the island was added then. Cannonballs that were used to destroy the castle and before and after photos of the castle are some of the more interesting displays inside.
Tip for visiting Eilean Donan with kids: Get there when the castle opens to avoid the crowds. Kids are given an activity booklet to complete while touring the castle. On site, there’s a nice cafe with prepared kids’ meals. The castle has no gardens or grounds to explore, but there’s a small area with picnic tables outside the ticket office and cafe.
Armadale Castle Gardens & Museum
Armadale Castle was the chief residence of the Clan MacDonald of Sleat. After a fire, only the walls remained and were left to the elements. While there isn’t much to see of the castle (you can walk around it and admire it from the outside), the extensive Armadale Castle Gardens are worth a visit. The Museum of the Isles has the best exhibitions of Scottish history that we saw during our stay in Scotland.
Armadale is located on the southeastern tip of the Isle of Skye on the Sleat Peninsula. We visited Sleat as a day trip from Portree in combination with a visit to Eilean Donan in the morning.
Tips for visiting Armadale with kids: The website mentions archery and clay pigeon shotting activities for kids, but those were not being offered when we visited. There’s a large playground with obstacle course activities that my kids loved.
Where to eat on the Isle of Skye
Fish & Chips in Portree
The food here may be really unhealthy (they even warn you that it’s all fried in beef oil!), but it’s SO good. It’s a tiny place down some steps on Quay Street with picnic tables outside.
Isle of Skye Baking Co. (+ gift shop)
This was one of my favorite stops during our trip! The Isle of Skye Baking Co. cafe makes an easy stop for a meal any time of the day. Besides the housemade jams, we loved the cheese platter for kids.
Located right on the main square of Portree, the Granary serves food throughout the day, including sweet treats, lattes and tea for a nice afternoon treat. There is seating indoors (fun to see the old interior) and outdoors (fun for watching the people go by).
Have afternoon tea at Kinloch Lodge
Kinloch Lodge on the Sleat Peninsula in southeastern Skye is home to a Michelin-starred restaurant that serves food throughout the day. If you arrive in the afternoon, you’ll be treated to an elegant afternoon tea service including the most delicious scones. If you come to Sleat, you can’t miss the lodge — there are signs for it on the main road.
Lochside Crafts in Dunvegan
One of our favorite meals was at Lochside Crafts in Dunvegan. This small cafe restaurant has stunning views of the loch and MacLeod Tables and serves easy meals like smoked salmon salads with bread and local cheese.
If you’re staying near Portree, you should know about the Co-op for grocery needs. There are two locations, one small one in central Portree, and one larger one on a road just outside the center. Because we were staying in a vacation rental, we went to the larger co-op a few times to stock up on groceries and buy easy meals.
Where to stay on the Isle of Skye:
We wanted to be in or near Portree, the largest town on the Isle of Skye, both for the convenience of the town and for the central location near some of the island’s main sights. Because we were traveling as a family of 6, we chose to stay in a vacation rental home, and we found the perfect place to stay: Bayview Croft.
The interior of Bayview Croft is modern and comfortable with plenty of space for 6 people on two floors. The outside was also perfect, with plenty of land to wander, access to the water, and, best of all, a view of the Old Man of Storr!
You can reserve the house on Trip Advisor.
Other recommended places to stay:
Cuillin Hills Hotel: Luxurious accommodations in a 19th-century hotel with spectacular view of the Black Cuillins. The hotel is just a 10-minute walk from the town center and is located right next to the beautiful Scorrybreac trail.
Kinloch Lodge: Home to the Michelin-starred restaurant mentioned above, this beautiful lodge is set in a quiet location on the Sleat Peninsula. It’s not as central as Portree, but if you’re looking for a special lodging experience, this might be for you.
Marmalade Hotel: A boutique hotel just 5 minutes on foot from the town center of Portree.
Tips for visiting the Isle of Skye with kids:
Both Dunvegan and Eilean Donan Castle had activities for kids and cafes with kid-friendly menus. My kids’ favorite experiences were the two playgrounds that they found in Dunvegan and the Armadale Castle Gardens. Not only were they happy to find a playground of any kind (after a lack of playgrounds on the trip), but they were also excited by the “awesomeness” of these two.
Playground in Dunvegan: This playground is just below the church and next to the Lochside Crafts cafe on the main road in Dunvegan. It’s located on the water with the MacLeod Tables in the distance. Of course my kids didn’t care about the views — they were fascinated by the mini obstacle course and enormous see-saw (can you see the air Gabriel was getting below?!).
Playground at Armadale Castle Gardens: This playground is made from natural materials and includes a felled tree, rope course and climbing equipment. It was raining when we were there, but my kids loved it!
Do you have questions about visiting the Isle of Skye? Suggestions? Let me know in the comments below, and check out these other resources:
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Photo of Duntulm Castle: Henrik Palm on Flickr