Skye and Stardust

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A books and crafts store in Portree, in the Isle of Skye, had several DVDs of the movie Stardust (2007) displayed prominently in one of its shelves. I thought the owner simply liked StardustI do, it’s one of my favorite movies, the book on which it was based is written by Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite writers, and it stars Mark Strong, who’s the absolute bee’s knees as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, it turns out a good chunk of Stardust was actually filmed in Skye, hence the merchandise. I recently re-watched the movie and every time I saw a familiar location I wanted to jump up and shout “Look! I was there!” — except that I was on a plane, alone, and watching the movie on my laptop, so it would have been weird.

Stardust

 

The Fairy Glen

The Quiraing

Septimus (Mark Strong) and Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) at the Quiraing, planning evil plans

And Skye

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The Fairy Glen

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The Quiraing mountain range:

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Honestly, I’ve run out of superlatives for Skye. And for Scotland. All I can say is that I feel like a part of my heart is still there, and since I don’t know when — if ever — I can return, I guess for now I’ll have to stay just a little bit heartbroken.

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The fairy pools of Skye

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“There was a drought in Skye recently,” said Donald Nicolson. “It didn’t rain for 6 hours.”

Donald and his wife Claire run Skye Scenic Tours and we were in Donald’s van for their popular one-day tour (30 GBP as of September 2015) around Skye. Aside from my sister and me, there were two sisters from Canada who’d recently finished their Masters in Glasgow; a recently wed couple — the guy Irish, the girl American — who had just settled in Ireland; plus the latter’s mom and cousin who’d come from the US to visit the newlyweds and took in a tour of Scotland along the way. Donald picked us up first — the Canadian sisters were also staying at the Portree Independent Hostel — and then we drove down to the Harbour where the others were staying. Donald cheerfully ushered the family of four into the van, introduced us, then said to the Americans in a mock whisper, “You won’t believe what they’ve been saying about Americans.” The four of us laughed — we’d done nothing of the sort, of course — but the cousin good-naturedly said, “Oh, we’re not too proud of ourselves at the moment too.” (We didn’t ask why.)

The skies were gloomy by the time all eight of us were in the van and it was forecast to rain later in the day. Skye Scenic Tours has both a dry-weather itinerary and a wet-weather itinerary — so the tour never gets canceled no matter the weather, explained Claire — and one of the major differences is that the Fairy Pools is only part of the dry weather tour. Once we’d all settled in, Donald turned to us and said, “Okay, what is the one place that you absolutely must see?”

We all hesitated for a moment, looked at each other, and then as if by pre-arrangement we all answered, “The fairy pools?”

I was afraid Donald would remind us that it was going to be a wet day and that we’d have to follow the wet-weather itinerary but he merely grinned and said, “Then we better go there first.”

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I don’t know if our Fairy Pools experience would have been different if we’d gone there on a sunny day. I think back on the landscape now and I suppose…if it had been a sunny day, I would have thought the Fairy Pools would be a nice place for a picnic, with its grass and flowers and trickling streams. If one had a horse, it would be a nice place for a trot, and a gallop every now and then.

But it wasn’t a sunny day — the drizzle that had begun even before we reached the area turned into bigger, faster drops as we descended into the valley. And in the rain and the mist and the bracing cold, the Fairy Pools was more than a nice place. It was a place where adventures could happen — could even be happening right then, as we skipped across stones, past gold and purple blooms, and walked upstream in search of the pools. Who knows who would come down to meet us from those mountains covered in cloud? Who knows what sight awaited us as we ascended those rocky steps? All those stories of warriors and brave ladies and people with the Sight — for some reason, they all seemed to come more alive in the rain.

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If we didn’t have many more places to visit that day, it would have been nice to linger at the Fairy Pools: to walk, and feel, and imagine.

But reality beckoned.

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The Fairy Pools of Skye | © Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved. 

Midges and mountains and Scotland’s Skye

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“I am being eaten alive!” cried Pippin. “Midgewater! There are more midges than water!”

“What do they live on when they can’t get hobbit?” asked Sam, scratching his neck.


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Well, Master Gamgee, they live on me, for one — at least that day we went traipsing ’round Skye on a wet, windless, beautifully gloomy day. Multiple websites warned me of midges, but like many other bad stuff, you don’t really think midges will happen to you until they do. And besides it isn’t really fun going on a tour of Skye dressed like this:

And by "this" I mean the two sensible people coming up in full anti-midge protective gear.

And by “this” I mean the two sensible people coming up in full anti-midge protective gear, not the one in red. Though my sister paused less often for pictures so she didn’t get bitten as much.

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Not that a swarm of midges covering your face is too fun, either, but…you know…when you think of going to see the Fairy Pools, you don’t really think: Oooh! I’m going to the Fairy Pools! I’m going to wear protective clothing and put a net over my face like a keeper of radioactive bees! (Though if you have thought that, I can tell you you’ve got your priorities straight and that I wish to emulate your sensibility in future. Or at least I will bring bug spray.)

According to Donald Nicolson, our guide, midges tend to congregate near bodies of water and they’re most active when there’s no wind. They don’t bother you when you’re walking but when you stop — to take photos, for instance — they instantly descend upon every exposed part of your body. I thought midges would be like mosquitoes — which we have a lot of in the Philippines, that’s why I thought I could handle midges easily — but they look more like flies and they bite more like fleas. And it wasn’t even the midge bites that bothered me so much; it was that they were all over my face and I nearly inhaled a few of them a couple of times! Inhaling midges = so not fun.

Still, all those midge bites and near inhalations were worth it. I’d gladly play midge meal again if it meant going back to views such as these:

The Cuillins of Sligachan

The Cuillins of Sligachan

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Sligachan bridge

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Mountains in Scotland that are over 3,000 feet are called Munros. There are 282 Munros and some people make it a mission to climb all of them — these people are called Munro baggers (a term that rolls off the tongue so satisfyingly, probably because it reminds me of Bungo Baggins). Anyway, I could be mistaken but I believe that ragged tooth-like structure in the last photo above is the Inaccessible Pinnacle (referred to fondly as the In-Pin or In Pinn) which is notorious among Munro baggers as the only Munro that needs to be ascended by rock climbing.

Sligachan, above, was our first stop (and my first encounter with midges). I’ll post in greater detail about some of the other stops later, but here’s a quick look.

The Fairy Pools

Fairy Pools

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The Fairy Glen

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The Quiraing

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Kilt Rock

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Lealt Falls

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And the Old Man of Storr

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Sigh. Scotland. So worth a few midge bites.

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O flower of Scotland / When will we see / Your like again

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Scorrybreac Circuit — A Walk Through Clan Lands

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“How about a short walk?” My sister said at around noon on our first day in Portree, in the Isle of Skye. We had just had brunch and truthfully I was feeling a bit sluggish — well, who wouldn’t, after a plateful of bacon, scrambled eggs, fried haggis, and fried bread — so I eagerly said yes.

(And not to totally veer off topic but, my God, that fried bread! I can feel my arteries clogging at just the memory of that bread — and I come from an island where people snack on chicharon without batting an eyelash, so that’s saying something. I’m glad I got to try it that one time but I think I’ll go for something less oily in the future.)

(And since we’re talking about food, you know what would be the perfect thing to pair with haggis? Rice. Steaming hot Ganador rice fresh off the rice cooker. Oh, the joy…)

Anyway: short walk, said my sister.

About an hour later, we were short of breath, climbing up rocky paths, struggling with hike-inappropriate shoes (my sister) and a hike-inappropriate large, full, crossbody bag (me), because apparently what the guide book meant by a “short walk” and what we thought the guide book meant by a “short walk” were two totally different things, but…

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…God, for views such as that one above, I would gladly go on a “short walk” with an unwieldy bag over and over and over again.

From Portree Harbour, we simply followed the road towards Staffin and then took the right-hand road at the fork, down Scorrybreac Road, keeping continuously close to the coast.

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After a while, we found this sign, the official start of the Scorrybreac Circuit.

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We went over a bridge…

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…and came to this gate.

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According to the clan’s website, the Chiefs of Clan MacNeacail lived for a long time at the house of Scorrybreac, on Ben Torvaig, and were called Nicolson of Scorrybreac. Their direct descendants eventually moved to other parts of the world. In the early 1980s, when the lands of nearby Ben Chracaig were put up for sale, Nicolson clan members in Skye and around the world decided to buy it “to be held in perpetuity for conservation and the enjoyment of both the local people and the visitors to Portree from around the world.” The land is now administered by Urras Clann MhicNeacail (the Nicolson Clan Trust) and kept “freely open to the public, to walk its footpaths and enjoy spectacular views both from along the shoreline and from atop its high cliffs.”

So we entered the gate. At this point…

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…you can go left and up towards the memorial for the Nicolson Clan. There’s also a bench there if you want to take a break and sit gazing at the sea for a while.

We chose not to linger and took the path on the right.

We came across this well dedicated “To the Glory of God and in grateful memory of those of Clan Nicolson who died for their countries in the cause of justice.” It’s called Murdo’s Well because it was built by Murdo Nicolson of Portree, who also built the memorial cairn.

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We then walked through this leafy tunnel…

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…and continued along the coastal path, surrounded by some of the most beautiful land and seascapes around Portree.

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When we got to this gate…

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…we didn’t go through. (You’re not supposed to.) Instead, we turned left and went uphill — the start of the more challenging part of the walk. (It’s not too difficult, really, just more challenging compared to the mostly flat terrain previously.)

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But the views are beyond rewarding, don’t you think?

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And then we got to the top, where we spied some cattle, and it was easy goings from there onwards.

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An easy downhill path took us back to the starting point.


Note:
I did most of the planning for this whole UK thing, but all credit for this amazing post-fried-bread “short walk” goes to:

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Thanks also to the Nicolson Clan for establishing and maintaining the path. If you are ever in Portree, the Scorrybreac Circuit is definitely something you should do.

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Hotels in Portree

Hotels in the Isle of Skye

 

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Portree

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You know you’re in Scotland when:

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And:

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Though this one has got a good Westeros game going on:

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But Portree, the largest town in Skye, is more than the sum of its puns.

Its most iconic landmark is the harbour, with its colorful buildings and numerous fishing boats.

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With a good concentration of hotels and hostels, as well as regular service by Skye’s bus network (definitely more than Portnalong‘s 0-3 a day), Portree is probably the most convenient place to use as a base for exploring Skye, especially if you don’t have a car of your own. We stayed at the centrally located Portree Independent Hostel, which had lovely rooms and a vast kitchen.

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Just behind PIH, down some steps, is a parking area for campers and the like, as well as a great little map of Skye (by genius J. Maizlish Mole, commissioned by ATLAS Arts) that may not be too informative in the usual sense, but is certainly more entertaining than most maps. Limited edition prints of the map cost £300, but there are postcard-size portions for sale at £1.50 each.

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Aside from reading tongue-in-cheek maps, there isn’t very much to do in Portree — it’s really better as a base than as a destination of its own — but I highly recommend taking the time to do the Scorrybreac Circuit, a 3-4 km walk that will take you past the most gorgeous scenery.

I hope you’re all having a wonderful weekend!

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Hotels in Portree

Hotels in the Isle of Skye

 

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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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