We woke up to the drum of raindrops, rolled up uncomfortably at the bottom of our sloped tent. The previous night, we had pitched our new Hillenberg Nallo 2 for the first time on the windy and rainy coast of Scotland’s Isle of Skye. We had specifically purchased the overpriced Swedish tent to withstand the storms and rain that we anticipated to encounter on the 130-km Skye Trail across the island. We also brought a map of the otherwise unmarked route which warned that the trail is suitable only for “experienced hillwalkers” who are “familiar with walking in Scotland”. We had done one hike together the previous year in Norway which also featured ‘hills’ and decided we fitted the description. That experience did not extend to our new tent however, which came with a range of nifty strings, ropes and hooks that you really want to figure out before you embark on your journey. But after we got ourselves out of the tent’s sloping corner and managed to stuff the wet cloth bundle back into our backpacks we had also ticked that box and confidently started on the swampy highland trail.
We started with a relatively easy hike along the coast on the northern tip of the island. The word Skye comes from an old Nordic word which means clouds, and the place tried hard to live up to its name. However, the rains on Skye turned out to be short and local. This means you are either laughing at the people on the other side of the hill or you’re the one getting wet while they’re sipping margaritas in the sun.
The erratic weather seems to scare away most locals and visitors, except for British tourists and sheep, who leave the island covered in B&Bs without vacancies and manure. We noted that all the animals on the island are marked with blue or red paint, as it seems someone is preparing a Scottish-English proxy battle of sheep, though we have not been able to verify this (the only people we met stayed in B&Bs and were wondering the same thing).
After completing the first recommended day-hike, we climbed up the Trotternish ridge and we were treated to views of bright green landscapes under the impressive cloudy skies. The pressure was on as we pitched our tent for the second time, this time under the watchful eye of about 500 tourists that hiked up the popular mountain from a nearby parking lot on the other side. So maybe it was not the most deserted spot in the world, but it did make for a stunning dinner view…
Both in terms of length and beauty, the entire Skye trail can be divided into two parts: the route over the Trotternish ridge, and the other 6 days. After walking 14 km over flat roads, the second day follows with 28.8 km over a series of mountains along the ridge and cannot really be split into easier sections unless you have your own tent, food and water. Not surprisingly, this became the first day ever that we did not meet a single person on the trail.
We played ‘coat-on-coat-off’ for most of the day, as the weather changed from rainstorm to sunshine at a ten-minute interval (but don’t be fooled: the intervals get longer if you do decide to sit out the rain and leave your jacket off altogether). The route offered fantastic panoramas as the weather play tricks with shadow and light over the green landscape below the ridge. We ended our hike just past the last big mountain, the old Storr and were greeted by a rainbow while cooking a dinner of coconut curry on our wood-fueled stove.
WalkingHighlands.co.uk gives most of the Skye trail a ‘bog factor’ of 4 out of 5, which is explained as “underfoot conditions are likely to be wet”. After walking the coastal route from the Storr to the town of Portree we can confirm that the 4-star rating is warranted and that the British do indeed like to understate things. Our feet did not emerge from the mud until we reached Portree, where we broke our own trail rules and traded in the usual snack of home-blend trail mix for a warm lunch.
After camping outside Portree we walked 19 km to Sligachan where we re-filled on water before walking the boggy path to Glen Sligachan to look for a campsite. About an hour into the trail four Swiss teenagers emerged from the swamp carrying backpacks and big sleeping mats. Obviously they had not found good camping ground in the valley, so we decided to continue walking to higher grounds to find a good spot. This also gave us a good excuse to preserve our national pride and overtake them on the trail.
After hiking in Norway and Scotland we have gotten pretty good at spotting potential or miserable camping grounds from a distance, and as we climbed the mountain it became pretty clear this was not going to be an easy pitch arena. Jochen and I split up late afternoon and climbed rocks and false summits left and right looking for 2 square metres which wasn’t entirely rock or water. And we found it. That one spot in thousand, high up a mountain next to the trail – 2.5 metres long, 1.5 wide, with actual grass. Not exactly flat, but we used our clothing and gear to level the space under our sleeping mats.
We did not get to enjoy the view for too long however, as it turned out that the magnificent spot had not gone unnoticed among the local midge population either. We quickly lit a fire in our BioLite stove, assuming this would scare them away as it had done previous nights. But we were clearly in their spot…
Covered in deet, we packed our tents in record time in the morning and started at fast pace to escape the midges. In the process, we almost failed to notice the remarkable fact that we woke up to light blue skies with not a cloud for miles. Yes, we were hiking the highlands in sunshine and before long, we had to add a layer of spf 50 sunscreen on top of the deet. As we left the midges behind us and started to enjoy the sun, we encountered another animal, as Jochen spotted a roe-deer. The roe was blinded by a low morning sun as we approached it, and we were able to get spectacularly close to it while I fumbled with my camera in the grass.
The path quickly reached the shores of the island and passed the so called “bad steps” on the way to Elgol. Without rain, the rocks were not too slippery and we enjoyed plenty of breaks to breathe the ocean air.
At Elgol, we arrived at a tiny shop to get some water, where we were greeted by the four mountain-Germans. Where and how they ever found enough camping space for their four identical tents we don’t know, but it seemed to have taken its toll as they were eagerly consuming the store’s entire store supply of cookies and canned peaches.
We decided to make a small detour on the sixth day to climb the 927-metre high Bla Bheinn on our way to Torrin. Early afternoon, we started ascending an ever steeper path and soon arrived in a green valley of streams and boulders that lies right under the peak of the Bla. Determined to make good time, we steadily carried our backpacks upwards over a path of loose stone and it was fairly late when we noticed a few other hikers going up via a different path. We were already close to the top however, so we decided to press on and continued to scramble along the loose rock. It was only after the trail had completely disappeared and we found ourselves climbing hands and feet up a rock wall that we realized we had followed a sheep’s trail and, more importantly, that the sheep were better at climbing than us. We admitted defeat and decided to go back and pitch the tent next to the streams below the mountain peaks. We soon found out why the mountain is called the “Bla” as sheep all around the mountains bleated loudly to mock our defeat for the remainder of the evening.
The next morning at 6 am, we decided we could no longer stand the mocking sheep and got up to climb the Bla over the right trail after all. Arriving alone at the top at 8 am, Skye treated us to stunning views of the entire island. On the horizon, we could make out almost every section of the trail that we had walked thus far.
We descended the valley to walk the 25 km or so to Broadford, the final destination of our trip. At Broadford we treated ourselves to some of the most average-tasting meat pie dishes I can imagine, followed by some equally average fish & chips made of batter with what I think was pieces of fish in some places. Afterwards, we faced a familiar hiking problem. After camping in the open every night, we were suddenly presented with parking lots, civilization and nowhere to pitch. We walked out of the city for an hour or so but found only swamp, gypsy camps and swamps. So we returned to the village around 21.00 to opt for our last resort before dark. We set up our tent in a little park in the middle of Broadford next to three other couples and four very drunk Swiss teenagers that celebrated the successful end of their trip with beer, a little guitar and a repertoire that consisted of a perpetual repetition of Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’. And sure enough, slowly, drops of rain started to fall on our tent again as the Isle gave in to their desperate plea for some real weather.