The wilder side of Skye
Ignore the overheated headlines proclaiming tourist overload, the Scottish islands still offer the perfect mountain biking getaway.
A wilder side of Skye
Words: Julia Hobson | Photos: Roo Fowler
The air was hot and heavy as we stood silently beside our bikes, captivated by the incredible view that had suddenly opened up before us. Dark towers of crumbling rocks rising straight from the sea, ringed by huge, sheer, wave-battered cliffs full of noisy fulmars. The sky was jet black and menacing, waves pounded the land far below, the breeze was picking up, and the mountains we had been gazing at across the water were slowly disappearing from view, engulfed in thick grey mist. The atmosphere could not have been more dark and ominous.
It could only mean one thing. The seemingly endless heatwave of the Summer of 2018 was about to come to an abrupt end. Right on cue, the heavens opened. Within minutes we were drenched, our waterproof jackets no match for the biblical amount of rain that was falling from the sky.
It was predictable; no less than we’ve come to expect from the weather every time we plan a trip together, but for once, it was also perfect, exactly what we had come in search of. Wild, raw, natural and unspoilt, and not a single other fool anywhere to be seen. We couldn’t help but smile.
Over the sea to Skye
We’d come to Skye, that magical mythical island that lies off the far north-west of Scotland. A goldmine for Scottish tourism, famous for its rugged scenery, where the black jagged ridge lines and summits of the Cuillins rise imposingly straight from the sea, weathered by wild Atlantic winds. The rest of the island is equally stunning; sheer cliff-faces and towering sea-stacks, waterfalls, and wild windswept beaches. Even the lower hills feel untamed, wild and dramatic, with a few paths working their way over the rough tussock-ridden grass and heather. For lovers of Scotland’s wilder side, the island has a magnetic attraction. It has inspired poems, songs, books, films and generations of people to come and visit and experience its beauty for themselves. In fact it has never been so popular.
You’d imagine this would be a good thing, after all, tourism is the lifeblood of Skye, and without it the island would struggle to survive.
But the infrastructure of what is essentially a small rural island has naturally struggled to cope with a rapid increase in visitor numbers. Narrow singletrack lanes, never intended for hundreds of coaches, caravans and motorhomes, have become busy and congested. Parking places at popular spots have overflown to the point that visitors abandon their vehicles in verges or passing places, causing erosion and contributing to congestion. The problems are highlighted in a few key areas, as many people visit a few iconic spots, all wanting to post the same photo on Instagram, and then head to the next, ignoring much of the rest of the island and its beauty.
The problem has attracted the attention of the wider world, with articles on major news websites including CNN and the BBC earlier this year causing a stir by claiming that Skye had become a place to avoid, a victim of its own popularity, that too many tourists were negatively impacting the island.
I knew this wasn’t the whole story.
I’d read the articles, but I didn’t want to believe that the island had changed from the idyllic, wild, elemental place I’d experienced before and kept in my mind. I knew there was more. Another side to Skye than the one being reported, and I wanted to take my bike and try to find it with my good friend Rachael.
We had a plan.
We would use our bikes to ride away from the busy places, to reach parts of the island that few venture to, simply because to get there requires walking or riding more than 25 metres from your car.
We would visit places at quieter times of day, early mornings or late evenings, making use of the long daylight hours.
We’d explore when bad weather kept others indoors.
And so it was that we found ourselves riding bikes in the middle of a storm, somewhere on a wild windswept corner of this island, witnessing Skye’s rugged scenery at it’s most dramatic, having dodged the congested roads and side-stepped the hordes of people we had read about in the media.
Back at our cabin and drying out after that first ride, looking at maps and plotting where to venture next, we could hear the storm intensifying. As night fell, gale force winds howled, threatening to lift the roof, and the sound of torrential rain lashing the walls continued through the hours of darkness and greeted us as we woke the next morning. Battling the overwhelming urge to hide indoors in a warm cafe, we knew it was another perfect opportunity to escape the crowds and find our own piece of Skye.
The craggy nature of the landscape on Skye means that of the relatively small number of paths on the island, even fewer are actually worth taking a bike on. Most mountain bikers will have watched in awe as Danny Macaskill rode his way along part of the Cuillin Ridge during his film of the same name, but most will also have realised that he is probably the only person talented (or crazy?) enough to even attempt such a feat. There are however, a number of lower paths working their way through deep-sided glens and towards the foot of the mighty peaks, and it was one of these we had our sights set on. Our plan was to ride to a remote Mountaineering club hut, which lies tucked away in one of Skye’s most impressive settings at the foot of the beautiful Loch Coruisk. Accessible only by boat or by several hours walking or riding the way we were planning, it seemed like a perfect way to escape the crowds and find our own side of Skye.
Owned by the Junior Mountaineering Club of Scotland, but available to use by other climbing club members for a small charge, a few last minute phone calls and a stroke of luck meant we were soon in possession of ‘the key’. Any place where entrance is gained by an item as grand-looking as this ingot of wrought iron cannot fail to fill you with excitement at the prospect of an adventure!
Leaving the crowds of selfie-takers all uniformly stood in the classic ‘check out the awesome view behind me’ pose on Sligachan bridge, we began to pedal away, the sound of the busy road we had started from gradually disappearing as we ventured further down the glen. Wonderful flowing, undulating singletrack wound its way along the bottom of the valley, and a sense of tranquility descended on all of us as we rode in silence, dwarfed by the high peaks around us. We were just a short ride from the road we had left, but in every direction, the only trace of human interference in this wild landscape was the path we were riding along.
I thought about the journalists who had written the news articles describing Skye as a place too overrun with tourists to be worth visiting, and I felt sorry for them. Had they ventured a little further from the famous roadside beauty spots, they’d have discovered that in places like the one we found ourselves now, their words couldn’t have been more wrong.
As our trail began to snake slowly upwards, we switched to hike-a-biking, adopting a steady plod, broken only by frequent stops to admire the expansive views all around. Climbs like this always pass quickly when the mind is distracted by the scenery you’re passing through, and before long we crested our horizon. The vista opening up before us was like looking at a postcard, almost too beautiful to be real. Huge rock slabs sloping down to the Loch and sea below, ringed by the dominating line across the sky that is the Cuillin ridge.
By now the earlier rain and clouds had disappeared, and the sun warmed our skin, tempting us to lie basking on the rocks in this incredible spot, but the lure of the giant whaleback lumps of rock below drew us on.
Initial frustrations at the unrideable water-rut of a trail that led us down soon disappeared. As we reached the perfectly angled slabs, it felt like we had been transported to the Norwegian fjords, or British Columbia, a natural playground for bikes with a backdrop almost too mind-blowingly beautiful to be real. We pushed up and rode back down endless ridgelines purely for the sheer unadulterated joy of riding terrain that dreams are made of, overwhelmed that nature could produce something so perfectly suited to bikes.
All the best overnight hideaways require a challenge to reach them, and the deep fast-flowing river guarding ours provided the final hurdle. With no sign of the stepping stones we’d seen marked on the map, we rolled up our shorts, and began to tentatively wade across, bracing ourselves with every step to avoid being knocked over by the current. The prospect of a night in a wet sleeping bag and clothes fortunately provided the incentive needed to make it across without mishap.
Rounding the final corner of the trail, there it was, a small white hut, hidden by black cliffs and bordered by the sea on one side and the river on the other, it felt like we had stumbled across a secret paradise. As amazing as the hut was, it’s location was too impressive to waste any daylight hours inside, and so we lay in the sunshine on the rock slabs which sloped into the sea, watching inquisitive mink darting around us, eagles soaring overhead, and deer quietly grazing all around. The only sound was that of the sea lapping gently on the shore. It was idyllic, an awe-inspiring place, perfect for contemplating the silence and solitude of where we were. This was the Skye I had known existed, far removed from the image depicted in those articles and their disturbing claims.
The river level had dropped the next morning, revealing the stepping stones and merely a few giant leaps needed to keep our feet dry. While never easy to leave places as magical as this, the thought of spending a morning riding wild, empty natural trails on the return journey to civilisation certainly helped ease the process.
Sunsets and singletrack
Our last night brought sunshine and the promise of an evening of amazing light. It was time to venture out after hours on another mission.
Leaving a quiet bay, once again we passed no one on our push up. Despite the almost perfect conditions, it seems us humans are creatures of habit, and for most, 7pm is a time to be either eating dinner, or sitting in a pub, not setting off on a hike up a big hill.
Warm sunshine made us sweat for the first time this trip, and the light grew more and more impressive as the sun fell lower in the sky. Reaching the top, we sat looking at where we’d been the night before, watching sea, mountains and sky, and shadows falling on the rock towers below. It was hard not to feel smug.
It was late July, the busiest time of year on an island that we’d been told would be so overrun with tourists that it would spoil our trip, and yet we’d spent three perfect days without seeing a single person at any of the stunning places we’d visited.
We descended in the last of the light along an immaculate piece of fast-flowing, grin-inducing singletrack weaving along the clifftop and down through the heather. A sublime piece of trail set against the backdrop of distant hills and the shimmering sea down below, that relatively few of the millions who have visited this island will have ever set foot, or wheel on. A perfect and fitting end to our trip.
We drove home the next day happy that the trip had been such a success. Our initial fears that the stories we’d read would be true had been put to rest. We had found the other side of Skye.
Sure, we witnessed some of the problems we had heard about, the busy roads and the hordes of people taking the same pictures at the same beauty spots. Places as stunning as this will always attract those kinds of visitors. We had discussed the dilemma of actually being tourists ourselves and being part of the problem we had read about.
But the solution isn’t for people to stop visiting Skye – an island that relies on income from tourism to sustain it’s economy – altogether, but to visit more of this place than the few spots made famous by Instagram.
Skye is riddled with spectacular wild scenery around every corner, and as is so often the case, if you take a different path from the crowds, you will be rewarded with your own quiet places. Venture a little further off the beaten track, pick up a map, explore, or simply choose when you visit. With a small amount of effort, it is not only possible, but easy, to find a different side to Skye to the one you might have read about, and for that reason, it will always be worth the long journey to get here.
As always, there are two sides to every story…