Seeking serenity on Scotland's northern isles

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.

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