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Kylerhea and the steep slopes of Glen Arroch in Skye – the drove road to the south for the island’s black cattle – lay directly across the tidal race of the narrows, but the travellers were bound down the Sound of Sleat to Armadale. It was raining as they boarded a boat and embarked on their pilgrimage to Eilean Sgaithanach, The Winged Isle.
The name reeks of flatulent poesy. But Skye is indeed the Winged Isle. The peninsulas of Seat and Strathaird, Minginish and Duirinish, Vaternish and Trotternish reach into the waters of the Minch like outspread pinions.
Skye is Skye. Unique. A microcosm of the Highland scene in all its infinite diversity. Subject to lightening changes of mood, switching – at the drop of an oilskin – from a sombre, all-pervading greyness to such a diamond-hard brilliance of light that a tiny figure on a distant hill springs into such startling prominence that the air seems to have acquired a telescopic quality.
Kyle of Lochalsh, as the main road and rail terminus, is the most popular jumping-off point for Skye. A few minutes trip across the narrow straits and the car-ferry is nosing alongside the tid-swept jetty beside the green grave or ruined Castle Maoil.
Kyleakin is Acunn or Haco’s Strait. On a September evening in the year 1263, the warfleet of the Norse king slumbered at anchor here, Haco’s warriors at ease, unaware that teh gods were conspiring against their king.
Eight miles from Kyleakin, the village of Broadford straggles around its wide bay, overlooked by Beinn na Caillich and the Red Hills. Hugh Miller gently coveted the island of Pabay out in the Bay.
Broadford is the ideal centre for forays into the Cuillins and south Skye. The road west from Broadford skirts the Red Hills by Torrin and loops around Loch Slapin. Even the rusint corrugated-iron roof of a byre undergoes a subtle transition in this landscape. It could be an integral part of a Hebridean Shangri-La shielded from the encroachment of the outside world by the mighty pinnacle ridge of Blaven.
The road ends at Elgol near Strathaird Point, the tip of the peninsula nosing out into the Cuillin Sound which separates Loch Slapin from Loch Scavaig.
There is no more wildly theatrical backdrop than the jagged peaks of the Black Cuillins. Seen across Loch Scavaig from Elgol, they look like the ramparts of Valhalla, fit sanctuary for the heroes of Odin.
Coruisk, which so fascinated and repelled the early Victorians, can be reached by motor launch from Elgol or on foot through Glen Sligachan. Another route is by the track around the shore at the head of Loch Scavaig, where the rock obstacle of the ‘Bad Step’ has to be traversed. Coruisk, the Corrie of Water, is a fine example of the Victorian penchant for extravagant over-dramatization.
A steep bath across the hills from Couisk lealds to GLenbrittle, where rich pastures make it the most fertile glen in the Minginish peninsula. Haunt of climbers, the sandy bay at Glenbrittle mushrooms into a gaily coloured tented town in the summertime.
Sleat presents a surprisingly verdant face of Skye, and there is no better approach than by sea from mallaig to Armadale.
The Great North Road, which runs from the Isle Ornsay across the moors to Broadford, swings west by Loch Ainort, thrusts through the hills to Sonser and Sligachan and undulates along Glen Varragill to the capital of Skye, Portree.
The distinctive, truncated beacon of dun Caan is a constant reminder to those taking the Great North Road of the close presence of Raasay, in the waters of the sound, off Skye’s eastern shore. Boswell loved Raasay, not least perhaps because the island affords superb vantage points for seeing Loch Sligachan and the Cuillins at their spectacular best.
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