ISLE OF SKYE & EILEAN DONAN CASTLE
Just before crossing onto Skye however, we pass Eilean Donan Castle, one of Scotland’s most photographed and instantly recognisable citadels. When you first set eyes on it, it is easy to understand why. Strategically located on its own little island, overlooking the Isle of Skye, at the point where three great sea-lochs meet, and surrounded by the majestic splendour of the forested mountains of Kintail, Eilean Donan’s setting is truly breath-taking.
The original site was first settled by Bishop Donan as a tranquil monastic retreat in 634AD. The first castle was later established in the 13th century by Alexander II in an effort to help protect the area from Vikings. The original castle encompassed the entire island and featured seven mighty towers connected by a massive curtain wall. Over the centuries, the castle contracted and expanded, until 1719, when it was involved in a lesser known Jacobite uprising. On learning that the castle was occupied by Jacobite leaders and a garrison of Spanish soldiers, the British sent three Royal Navy frigates. The heavily armed warships moored a short distance off the castle and bombarded it with cannon. With walls of up to 5 metres thick, these cannon had little impact, but eventually the castle was overwhelmed by force. Discovering 343 barrels of gunpowder inside, the Commanding officer blew the castle up; following which Eilean Donan lay in silent ruin for the best part of two hundred years.
The castle that visitors enjoy so much today is relatively modern. Eilean Donan was reconstructed as a family home between 1912 and 1932 by Lt Col John MacRae-Gilstrap, and incorporated much of the ruins from the 1719 destruction. At this point the bridge was added; a structure that is as much a part of the classic image as the very castle itself.
Eilean Donan Castle appears probably appears on more shortbread tins than any other.
Visitors now have the opportunity to wander round most of the fabulous internal rooms of the castle viewing period furniture, Jacobean artefacts, displays of weapons and fine art. Historical interest and heritage are in abundance. Eilean Donan often attracts an eerie sea mist which lends to the overall atmosphere.
The Isle of Skye itself arguably contains Scotland’s most spectacular scenery. It was once voted the fourth best island in the world by National Geographic magazine. It is renowned for its natural beauty and offers plenty of wildlife, history, geology, mind-blowing landscapes, hillwalking and a variety of other outdoor activities. Situated off the west coast of mainland Scotland, Skye’s landscape is distinctly Highland with its lochs, heather-clad moors and towering peaks.
Time is always an enemy to anyone visiting Skye, and much as we would normally advocate getting out of a car to explore, we rarely have the chance to do so. Skye is perhaps more forgiving than most for the motorist however. With an early start we advise taking the A87 to the islands de-facto ‘capital’, Portree, a picturesque, pastel cottage-lined harbour.
The harbour at Portree
From Portree take the winding A855 along the east coast. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to visit Prince Charles Cave, where the fugitive Stuart claimant to the English throne hid from the English Redcoats in a deadly game of cat and mouse after his defeat Culloden in 1746, but you will be able to see the ‘Old Man of Storr’ from the road, a curious set of needle like rocks.
It’s only a short drive before you’ll find yourself itching to get out again. This time the object of your fascination will be Kilt Rock and the Mealt Falls. It’s clearly exaggerating things to talk about Venezuela’s Angel Falls in the same paragraph, but this is the effect. The Kilt Rocks are so called because they resemble a kilt, with vertical basalt columns forming the pleats and intruded sills of dolerite forming the pattern. The Mealt Waterfall duly obliges with some spectacular action, plunging some sixty metres into the Sound of Raasay below
Mealt Falls (Venezuela)
If you have time to push further north and follow the coast road you will complete the loop of the Trotternish Peninsula. Duntulum Castle would be your next stop, followed shortly by the Flora MacDonald Memorial.
As anyone familiar with the story of the Jacobite uprising and following pursuit of Bonnie Prince Charlie by the English redcoats around the Highlands will know, Flora was the original Scottish heroine who helped spirit fugitive “over the sea to Skye”. In truth she didn’t do the rowing herself as you’ll often see depicted, and she was let down by her sailors who drank too much and spoke too loudly! Flora was actually born on the Island of South Uist, but was laid to rest on Skye
You might always choose to cut across Trotternish at this point instead and take a left hand turn between Brogaig and Glashivin on an unmarked road to begin one of the Scotland’s great short car journeys through the beguiling and wild landscape of the Quiraing (on reaching the other side of the peninsula you can always double back a 5 minutes to the Flora MacDonald Memorial if you choose to)
The Quiraing, if you feel like you’re driving through a car commercial, there’s a good reason for doing so. You are
The Faraway Fairways, ‘gastro golf’ tour is heading for lunch near Dunvegan castle but the beauty of this is that so much of it can be done touring from your car. Time will always be the winner though. Many a visitor leaves regretting they didn’t have more of it such is the measure of Skye
The scenic landscape of Skye also provides a home for an abundant array of wildlife ranging from red deer and Scottish wildcats to pine martens and mountain hares. Visitors might be able to spot seals, dolphins, otters, golden eagles or sea eagles.