Jutting out from the mainland like a giant butterfly, the bare and bony promontories of Skye fringe a deeply indented coastline. The island’s most popular destination is the Cuillin ridge, whose jagged peaks dominate the island during clear weather. More accessible and equally dramatic in their own way are the rock formations of the Trotternish peninsula, in the north, from which there are inspirational views across to the Western Isles. Of the two main settlements, Portree is the only one with any charm, and a useful base for exploring the Trotternish.
Prince Charles Edward Stewart – better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie or “The Young Pretender” – was born in Rome in 1720, where his father, “The Old Pretender”, claimant to the British throne, was living in exile. At the age of 25, having little military experience, no knowledge of Gaelic, an imperfect grasp of English and a strong attachment to the Catholic faith, the prince set out for Scotland with two French ships. He arrived on the Hebridean island of Eriskay on July 23, 1745, and went on to raise the royal standard at Glenfinnan, gather a Highland army, win the Battle of Prestonpans, march south into England and reach Derby before finally (and foolishly) agreeing to retreat. Back in Scotland, he won one last victory, at Falkirk, before the final disaster at Culloden in April 1746.
The prince spent the following five months in hiding, with a price of £30,000 on his head. He endured his share of cold and hunger whilst on the run, but the real price was paid by the Highlanders who risked, and sometimes lost, their lives by aiding and abetting him. The most famous of these was 23-year-old Flora MacDonald, whom Charles met on South Uist in June 1746. Flora was persuaded – either by his beauty or her relatives, depending on which account you believe – to convey Charles “over the sea to Skye”, disguised as a servant. She was arrested later in Portree, and held in the Tower of London until July 1747. She went on to marry a local man, had seven children, and in 1774 emigrated to America, where her husband was taken prisoner during the American War of Independence. Flora returned to Scotland and was reunited with her husband on his release; they resettled in Skye and she died aged 68.
Charles eventually boarded a ship back to France in September 1746, but never returned to Scotland; nor did he see Flora again. After mistreating a string of mistresses, he eventually got married at the age of 52 to the 19-year-old Princess of Stolberg, in an effort to produce a Stewart heir. They had no children, and she eventually fled from his violent drunkenness; in 1788, a none-too-“bonnie” Prince Charles died in the arms of his illegitimate daughter in Rome.
For many people, the Cuillin (An Cuiltheann), whose sharp peaks rise mirage-like from the flatness of the surrounding terrain, are Skye’s raison d’être. When the clouds finally disperse, they are the dominating feature of the island, visible from every other peninsula.
There are three approaches to the Cuillin: from the south, by foot or by boat from Elgol; from the Sligachan Hotel to the north; or from Glen Brittle to the west of the mountains. The second route, down Glen Sligachan, divides the granite of the round-topped Red Hills (sometimes known as the Red Cuillin) to the east from the dark, coarse-grained jagged-edged gabbro of the real Cuillin (also known as the Black Cuillin) to the west. With some twenty Munros between them, these are mountains to be taken seriously, and many routes through the Cuillin are for experienced climbers only.
The road to ELGOL (Ealaghol), fourteen miles southwest of Broadford at the tip of the Strathaird peninsula, is one of the most dramatic on the island, with a stunning view from the top down to Elgol pier. Weather permitting, you can take a boat from Elgol across Loch Scavaig, past a seal colony, to a jetty near the entrance of the glacial loch Loch Coruisk.
Loch Coruisk, a needle-like shaft of water nearly two miles long but only a couple of hundred yards wide, lies in the shadow of the highest peaks of the Black Cuillin, a wonderfully overpowering landscape. The journey from Elgol takes about an hour and passengers are dropped to spend time ashore. Walkers can hike amidst the Red Hills, or over the pass into Glen Sligachan.
Protruding twenty miles north from Portree, the Trotternish peninsula boasts some of the island’s most bizarre scenery, particularly on the east coast, where volcanic basalt has pressed down on the softer sandstone and limestone underneath, causing massive landslides. These, in turn, have created pinnacles and pillars that are at their most eccentric in the Quiraing, above Staffin Bay, on the east coast. Most people visit the west coast to catch the ferry to the Western Isles from Uig, or the folk museum, further up the coast.