Skyewalker Hostel

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“Skyewalker?” The bus driver immediately asked when we told him we were going to Portnalong. That he could guess where we were putting down our backpacks for the next few days was not a surprise; there are few options for accommodations in Portnalong. In fact, my sister and I were going to Portnalong precisely because we were staying where we were staying.

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The Skyewalker Hostel has been voted Best in Scotland by Hostelworld users for 3 out of the last 4 years, and when you get there, it’s not hard to see why. The main building looks modest enough on the outside — it used to be the Junior Secondary School for the area and the walls are made of wrought iron — but Skyewalker’s owners, Brian and Lisa, have managed to turn the inside into a home. Comfortable couches line the common areas; musical instruments and old pictures adorn the walls alongside inspiring and sometimes quirky quotes. For those inspired by a spell of rain to curl up in a corner and read, there’s a shelf full of books; I spotted Dick Francis’ To The Hilt in one of the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and immediately forced it on my sister. (To The Hilt is partly set in Scotland and you could tell the late Mr. Francis — a former champion jockey who rode for the Queen Mother, turned award-winning, bestselling author of deceptively simple thrillers that are actually perceptive studies of human nature — was deeply moved by the country’s landscapes and heritage. I recommend it.)

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Not that reading is the only thing you will want to do in Portnalong. There’s a good-sized hill literally across the road from the hostel that you can climb for sweeping views of the Minginish peninsula. The fairy pools and mountains of Sligachan are only a short bus ride or drive away, making Skyewalker a great base for climbing the Cuillins. The hillsides of Portnalong itself are dotted with gorgeous flowers and polite sheep — one was ambling down the road to the harbor when he saw us approaching and he stopped to let us pass, I swear to God — and they’re perfect for a casual, soul-refreshing walk.

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Unfortunately, I hadn’t remembered to take photos of our room, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s clean, the beds comfy, and more than spacious enough for 8 people. There are also dorms for anywhere from 4 to 10 people, and if you don’t fancy sharing, there are private rooms as well, some with en suite bathrooms. Brian, spotting my name on his records when we checked in, said with some amazement, “You booked us back in February.” (It was September.) “In February, you could have booked anything! You should have booked a private room.” But the dorms were actually quite good and the price — £18 per person per night, in our 8-bunk case — appealed to the cheapskate in me.

Those without similar monetary constraints might splurge on these:

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Jedi huts, they’re called — you get the feeling there are at least two people in Portnalong eagerly awaiting the 18th of December — but they’re really more like wood cabins, cozy, private, and with patriotic pillows to boot. The two huts are located in Skyewalker’s immensely spacious backyard, along with a giant chess set, a couple of picnic tables, a tattered blue-and-white saltire, and the hostel’s iconic Solardome.

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Which brings us to why I was so eager to stay in Skyewalker: I was secretly hoping to see aurora. There are sometimes sightings of the northern lights in the Isle of Skye, even in September, and Portnalong has less light pollution than, say, Portree. I figured Skyewalker’s Solardome would be the perfect place from which to train a hopeful eye on the night sky. Alas, it was not to be — Mr. Sun didn’t oblige — but I discovered an alternate use for the glass enclosure.

On our second day in Portnalong, while my sister visited the nearby Talisker Distillery and the other guests went out to pursue their own pleasures, I decided I would take advantage of the rain as an excuse to be lazy. I took a book, some food, and my laptop out to the Solardome and just read, wrote, and did nothing. It was a perfect day.

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Stuff you should know if you’re thinking of staying at Skyewalker Hostel:

  • The bus only comes by the hostel 3x a day, once on Saturday, and not at all on Sunday, so if you’re taking public transport, plan accordingly.
  • If you’re coming from Kyle of Localsh, see the How to get to Portnalong section of this article.
  • The hostel is closed for cleaning from 1100h to 1500h and guests must vacate the premises then (but I stayed at the Solardome during those times and no one ever said I couldn’t, so that seems to be okay).
  • They don’t accept children under 5. Guests with children between 5 to 12 are accepted but must book exclusive use of a room.

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© Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved.

A Small-Town Girl’s Short Guide to Portnalong

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Portnalong isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to people’s minds when they think of visiting the Isle of Skye. There are no tourist attractions in Portnalong itself; the nearest is probably the Talisker Distillery in Carbost, about an hour’s walk away. There are only a few accommodations to choose from and the bus only comes by twice or thrice a day, except on Sundays, when it does not come by at all. But perhaps it’s for that very reason that Portnalong is, as the cliché goes, the perfect place to get away from it all.

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How to get to Portnalong

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From London or Edinburgh, take the train to Inverness. (If you’re coming from London, I highly recommend the Caledonian Sleeper.)

From Inverness, take the train to Kyle of Localsh.

From Kyle of Localsh, take the Scottish Citylink bus (915 or 916, the Glasgow to Uig route) and get off at Sligachan. Cross the road and wait for the white Murdo A MacDonald 608 bus (the Portree – Fiskavaig route) which will take you to Portnalong.

The Kyle of Localsh bus stop

The Kyle of Localsh bus stop

The Sligachan bus stop

The Sligachan bus stop

That’s the route we took when we visited Portnalong last September. There are other ways to get there, of course, depending on where you’re coming from. If you’re going by Fort William, you can take the train to Mallaig, the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Armadale, and then a bus to Portnalong. Whatever your situation, the best way to figure out routes and times is to use the Traveline Scotland planner.
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What to do in Portnalong

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Go on a trek uphill (just follow this route)…

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What the ground looks like on these hills

What the ground looks like on these hills

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…or downhill to the harbor (by following this route)…

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…and back up…

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…or just find a good nook for a book, read, let your mind wander, do nothing — it’s just as rewarding.

Where to stay in Portnalong

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We stayed at the Skyewalker Hostel, which has been recognized by Hostelworld for several years now as the best in Scotland.

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Hotels in Skye

Hotels in Inverness

Hotels in Scotland

 



Booking.com


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Portnalong | © Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved. 

 

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Inverness to Kyle of Localsh

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Inverness to Kyle of Localsh

They say it’s the journey, not the destination. On the train ride from Inverness to Kyle of Localsh, that’s certainly true.

The train journeys between Fort William and Mallaig and between Inverness and Kyle of Localsh are generally acknowledged to be among the best in the world in terms of scenery. More people seem to favor the former but — and perhaps it was the late afternoon timing of our ride from Mallaig to Fort William, or perhaps it was because we took it after we’d been to Skye, to whose landscapes most other things would pale in comparison — I actually loved the Inverness-Kyle of Localsh route more.

Mountains. Trees. Sheep. Streams. Near-perfect mirror images of the sky from lochs so brilliantly blue. Unlike the train ride that conveyed us to Inverness, which treated us to views the Scottish highlands in its moody finest, the ride that carried us away was done under blazing sunshine. Here’s a video featuring some of the sigh-inducing scenery from that journey…

…and for those who, like me, are sometimes too lazy to click on videos, here are a few of the highlights in roughly chronological (that is, Inverness to Kyle of Localsh) order.

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Anytime fares from Inverness to Kyle of Localsh cost £22.60, while advance fares — which are sometimes still available the day before — can go as low as £13.30. From Kyle of Localsh, you can take a bus to the Isle of Skye, which is even more gorgeous, but that’s another post. Happy Monday everyone!

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© Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved.

Culloden Battlefield

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Because I don’t have the words.


If you want to know a bit more about the Jacobite Rebellions, Andrew Ross MacDonald’s website is a good place to start. Andrew, of Hame Tours, is a local historian, folklorist and traditional Scots singer and his guidance was extremely valuable to us in understanding Scotland’s heritage and culture, including the circumstances surrounding and consequences of the battle of Culloden. It’s a tragically fascinating chapter of Scottish history and the events that followed were just horrible. If you take my land from me, give it to some Sassenach, break up my clan, forbid me from, basically, being myself, and replace me with freaking sheep, I think I would like independence too! (As a person from a country that was under cruel Spanish rule for over 400 years then sold to the Americans, ransacked by the Japanese, and then looted by our very own credentials-faking shoe-hoarding couple, you bet I can relate.) But that’s another issue…

Anyway, Culloden battlefield was, unexpectedly, the part of Andrew’s Highlands tour that touched me the most. Those three yellow flowers in front of the Mixed Clans gravestone are actually mine. If you are ever in the Highlands, don’t hesitate to give Andrew a call — (+44) 7742 011300 / (+44) 7768 180061 — or email him at andramacd@gmail.com.

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Culloden Battlefield | © Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved. 

Outlander

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Scotland wasted no time being Scotland. Mere minutes after we pulled out of Edinburgh on our way to Inverness, the skies — already overcast to begin with — started dropping big beads of rain on the roof and windows of our train. No matter. The gloomy weather only enhanced the drama of the scenes unfolding outside. Mountains, moors, lochs, light, shadow, sheep, horses, heather. Scotland: strong, resilient, valiant, fierce, unfailingly beautiful.

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Strangely enough, the cold, remote, sometimes desolate landscape secretly warmed my heart. Perhaps the bleakness outside called out in kinship to the bleakness within, to that part of me that still grieved for things lost. I looked at the gray skies and the near empty earth and thought: my sadness has found its home. I could be happily sad here for the rest of my life.

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But that was only the beginning.

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Outlander | © Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved. 

Inside the Caledonian Sleeper

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Sleeper trains can save you time and money, but of the ones I’ve had the opportunity to try, the most that can be said about their comfort level is that they’re tolerable. I’ve been on one of the top bunks of a 6-couchette compartment and I can tell you it’s no fun not being able to sit upright and sleeping with the ceiling barely a foot above my nose.

The Caledonian Sleeper, the overnight train service between London and Scotland, is by far the most luxurious sleeper I’ve ever been on. My sister and I took it both ways — from London to Inverness, and from Fort William back to London. (The photo above was taken at Fort William.)

On the Caledonian Sleeper, you actually feel kind of pampered. There’s a steward who comes to your compartment and orients you if it’s your first time on the sleeper. He also asks you what time you would be like to woken up, what drink you would like to have in the morning, and whether or not you want breakfast.

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Outlaws and dreamers

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On the way from the Clava Cairns to Cawdor Castle, Andrew MacDonald (of Hame Tours) played us a few songs from Scottish musician Dick Gaughan. As I looked out the window, the landscape seemed to provide the perfect backdrop for the music and I could’t resist shooting a few clips. If you’re here quite often you know I almost never post videos, but this one I just had to share. It’s a short sub-minute mash of two clips, and the song is just as we heard it in the car so you’ll hear a few extraneous sounds every now and then. The song is called Outlaws and Dreamers — you can find the complete lyrics here.

They’ve called me an outlaw, they’ve called me a dreamer
They said I would change as I aged and grew old
That the memory would fade of the things I had lived through
That the flash fire of youth would slowly turn cold

But I raise up my glass and drink deep of its flame
To those who have gone who were links in the chain
And I give my soul’s promise, I give my heart’s pledge
To outlaws and dreamers and life at the edge

Extra:
Dick Gaughan boycotted the opening night concert of the Celtic Connections festival earlier this year, in protest to what he perceived was BBC’s biased coverage of the recent independence referendum. In this article about the boycott, one commenter said, “Seems a shame that Mr Gaughan is disappointing both of his fans over an argument that was lost in September last year” and Dick Gaughan himself replied, “Who’s the other one?” 😀

 

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© Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved.