Say this for the Vikings: If nothing else, they were good with names. That's what occurs to me as the fog rolls in on my first full day of hiking Scotland's northern isles. Knee-deep in heather and eye-level with a thick gray mist that seems to have swallowed the island whole, I can only marvel at the precision with which the Norse once named this place. They called it ski, meaning "cloud," and on this late September day the Isle of Skye is enthusiastically earning its name.
Of course, not everyone enjoys wet socks and muddy boots, so Skye must have something else to recommend it, right? Boy does it ever. That something is the raw beauty of sheer cliffs and wind-whipped fjords, of heaving hills, sheep-dotted farms, and jagged black mountains that hug the sea. And in the midst of it all, a strange kind of serenity—a peacefulness that comes from the sense that at any given moment you might just have this weather-tossed wilderness all to yourself.
Thanks to the "clearances" of the 19th century, that feeling isn't simply part of the imagination. In the mid 1800s, Scotland's clan chiefs realized sheep were more profitable than farmers and booted their clansmen from the Highlands. On Skye, where farming was life, the population dropped from 23,000 to 8,000. Today those numbers have risen only slightly, to roughly half the pre-clearances total.
I'm fortunate to be exploring this lonely wilderness with Iain Thow, author of the Scottish Mountaineering Club's official Highland Scrambles North guidebook and a trip leader for local adventure outfitter North-West Frontiers. Shaggy, rugged, and unendingly cheery, Thow has been guiding walkers like me through northern Scotland since 1989. He estimates he's led more than 6,000 people through the Highlands. If my trip is any measure, most of them have gone home happy.
"I like people in all their bizarre variety," he says. "Otherwise I could never do my job."
This week that job is to introduce my group—six of us in all, including my wife, two Londoners, a Californian, and a retired judge from Sydney—to the Hebridean islands of Skye, Harris, and Lewis.
"I love the sense of space, the scale, the jaggedness, the intricacy of northern Scotland," says Thow. "There's this feeling that you're just a small person in a great big world you can never totally know."
But thanks to Thow we're getting to know it better than most. And our route, while not exactly flat, is a far cry from strenuous. This Highlands and Hebrides Discovery tour emphasizes the landscape, the history, and the people of northern Scotland in equal measure without attempting to bust our guts ... or our budgets, for that matter.
Highlands, low budget
The Hebridean Islands, of which Skye is the largest and most well known, form a broad and barren archipelago off Scotland's northwest coast. At £830 (roughly $1,650 US; see USATODAY.com's currency converter for current exchange rates), this North-West Frontiers tour is a budget-friendly introduction to them. It's considerably less than Backroads' similar Highlands and the Isle of Skye ($4,298) and REI Adventures' Highlands & Islands ($2,750) trips, yet it still offers end-of-the-day comforts like fine dining and three- and four-star guesthouses.
In addition to walking days on Skye, the trip takes you way off the beaten path to the less-traveled outer islands of Harris and Lewis. While actually a single landmass, Harris and Lewis were divided long ago by two branches of the clan MacLeod, and they're set apart by physical differences that make the division seem natural. Rocky and treeless, the coastal hinterland of Harris (or "Na Hearadh" in Gaelic) has a stark, edge-of-the-world feel to it. More northerly Lewis (from the Gaelic "Leog," or "water lying on the surface") derives its name from the vast peat bogs that blanket it. The well-preserved stone circle at Callanish, where you can freely walk amongst and touch the standing stones, makes Lewis attractive to archeology buffs as well.
Back on the mainland, the "Highlands and Hebrides" tour also includes a sightseeing stop at Eileen Donan castle—a marvelously restored 12th-century fortress seen in the original Highlander film. Additional highlights include a weaving demonstration and fireside tales by a traditional Scottish storyteller.
In my search I was able to find one comparable alternative to North-West Frontiers' trip. Wilderness Scotland's Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Skye tour is virtually the same price (£825 for 2008 trips) and covers similar ground, though I can't personally vouch for its quality. It also has fewer departure dates next year.
North-West Frontiers will offer the "Highlands and Hebrides" tour on eight dates in 2008: May 10, May 31, June 7, July 12, August 2, August 23, September 6, and September 13, all Saturday departures. The minimum group size is four, with a maximum of eight.
While the tour price is the same for all dates, you'll find the cheapest international flights in May and September. Scottish weather is unpredictable any time of the year, so if price is a factor I suggest going early or late in the season. That also offers your best bet for pre- and post-trip accommodations availability.
The most convenient gateway airports from the U.S. are Glasgow and Edinburgh. It's about three hours by train from either city to Inverness, the starting point for the tour. British Airways and easyJet also fly to the domestic airport at Inverness from London.
North-West Frontiers' middle-of-the-road prices attract a varied clientele. The diversity of my trip is fairly typical, says Marco de Man, the company's owner.
"Seventy percent of our clients are based in the United Kingdom," says de Man. "About 15% are from the U.S., and a further 15% from mainland Europe, Australia, and New Zealand." Hikers typically fall between 45 and 65 years of age.
Most days end with cheery dinner conversation and memories that will linger for years. Me, I think rainy days will always take me back to that serenely wet walk on the Isle of Skye. And that's a memory worth savoring long after my hiking socks have dried out.
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