“Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
The Inner Hebrides boast some of the most dramatic landscapes in Scotland:, quaint harbors kissed by chilly Atlantic waters, towering cliffs, emerald green valleys and superb scenic trails. Scattered crofts peek from hills speckled with blackface sheep and highland cows. Skye’s seductive sights are to be taken in slowly, breathing in the fresh moist air, letting the crisp breeze tease your senses.
On Skye’s west coast, the crystal clear Fairy Pools, that lie along the Brittle river, offer stunning views with every step you take up its gorgeous two mile path. Up north, in the Trotternish peninsula, stands the commanding Old Man Storr with a long trail leading to a spectacular pinnacle that can be seen for miles. Overlooking the northeast coast, you’ll find the luxurious Flodigarry Hotel, a former hunting lodge that has been welcoming guests for a peaceful getaway since 1928.
But Skye wasn’t always peaceful. First it was invaded by the Vikings in 794 AD until it was taken over by the Scots in 1266 during the battle of Largs. Later, like the rest of the highlands, the island fell prey to the XIX century clearances when locals were violently forced out of their homes to give way to sheep rearing. John Prebble’s book The Highland Clearances is a riveting account of this arduous time in Scottish history.
Skye’s capital, Portree, is a lovely harbor of colorful houses and dreamy sunsets. A quaint fishing town that is home to some fine dining like Scorrybreac. An intimate dining room where you’re warmly welcomed by Niall Munro as his brother Calum, a classically trained chef, concocts mouthwatering dishes like the coconut crusted scallops, the espresso coffee roasted venison and the homemade chestnut gnocchi made with locally grown wild mushrooms. The chocolate mousse, spiked with a single malt from nearby Talisker distillery, is a true treat.
Just a few doors down, the Bosville Hotel offers luxury accommodation with an eclectic decor of modern comfort with a seaside cottage theme. This small boutique hotel is also known for its Merchant bar where an after dinner drink, by the cozy fireplace, is always in order. Its restaurant, Dulse & Brose, specializes in modern Scottish cuisine with a seasonal menu of the best Skye has to offer: braised Highland beef cheeks or seafood stew made with Portree langoustines.
As you leave the island, you’ll come across the gorgeous XIII century Eilean Donan Castle before heading southeast towards Loch Ness, where you’ll find Urquhart castle, a structure over 1000 years old. The scenery is breathtaking and it’s no wonder there is a legend about this lake. Just one look can trigger your imagination to believe anything could happen here. Its muddy waters, surrounded by forest covered mountains, make for a great legend. Monster or no monster.
Inverness, a lovely midsize town on the banks of the river Ness, is known as the cultural capital of the Scottish Highlands. Tourists flock here to visit nearby Loch Ness and the beautiful Inverness castle, perched upon a cliff that has guarded the city for centuries. The Inverness Museum and Art Gallery showcases ancient Pictish stones and contemporary Highland art. A charming Victorian indoor market with its cast iron and wooden dome roof is a must see. Right outside the city you’ll find the famous battlefield of Culloden where the Jacobite Rising came to a tragic end in 1745. A stunning site with a visitor’s center where, through immersion cinema, you can experience what it was like to be there during the fight between the Scottish and British armies.
As far as dining, Inverness has plenty of good choices with Rocpool being a favorite. A modern restaurant that renders an array of entrées from fresh seafood like the perfectly roasted Shetland halibut or the succulent Scottish beef accompanied by a fantastic wine list. From the heavenly bread, served promptly as you’re seated, to the last bite of the delightful lemon meringue pie, Rocpool makes for an extraordinary dining experience.
For luxurious accommodation, not too far north from Inverness, stands the Kingcraig Castle Hotel, home for generations to the MacKenzie clan. Situated on 10 acres of beautiful highland countryside , this retreat also offers a great culinary sampling of Scottish selections with a French flair like the hearty, yet delicate, codfish cassoulet. The cozy lounge, with its country house manor feel is perfect for an afternoon drink.
As you follow A9 north, along the coast, you’ll pass the Glenmorangie distillery and the picturesque town of Dunbeath where acclaimed poet Neil Gunn was born. “Knowledge is high in the head but the salmon of wisdom swims deep” (The Green Isle of the The Great Deep).
In about two hours, you’ll arrive in remote John O’Groats, the northernmost point of mainland Britain. A tiny hamlet that sits on the edge of the Pentland firth, brushed by wild winds, roaring waves and spectacular views of the dramatic Scottish shoreline, which you can enjoy, in private, from the glass-front cottage rentals by Natural Retreats. Only four miles down the road, you’ll find Gills Bay for a ferry ride to the Orkney isles.
“Always by the shore, Kirk and kirkyard.
Legends of men, their carved names
Faced east, into first light, among sea sounds.”
George MacKay Brown
You can hardly expect sunshine or high temperatures in Scotland. If you’re realistic with regards to the weather, you’ll soon discover that the essence of Orkney’s magic hides in the misty air that wraps these lovely islands that are bathed in Nordic history.
The Vikings settled in the 9th century until 1496 when King James III of Scotland married princess Margrethe of the dual kingdom of Norway and Denmark. As her dowry, her father King Kristian, pawned Orkney to the Scottish crown until he could pay a lump sum of 60,000 florins. He was never able to raise all the cash so the islands became part of Scotland.
Once the ferry lands in St. Margaret’s Hope, you’ll have to drive through several small isles to get to the main island. Just a few miles in, you’ll come across a snippet of Orkney’s important history: the causeways that link the islands known as the Churchill barriers, built by order of the former British prime minister for protection from the Germans during World War II. Right by one of the barriers, lies a shipwreck and soon after, on Lambholm, you’ll find a small church assembled with two Nissen huts: The Italian Chapel, created by Italian POWs who were brought to Orkney to build the barriers.
These islands are steeped in history. On their sandy shores, rolling hills and ample fields hides the intriguing past of their earlier inhabitants dating back to the Neotlithic era. You can see remnants of their civilization at Skara Brae where settlements have remained almost intact for over 5000 years. Other outstanding testaments to the Neolithic era are the Ring of Brodgar (a ceremonial site), Maeshowe, (a chamber cairn and passage grave) and the Standing Stones of Stenness, all part of Unesco’s World Heritage Sites. Nearby, on the Isle of Hoy, stands The Old Man of Hoy, a magnificent sea stack that measures almost 500 feet.
All around Orkney’s spectacular landscape, dotted with plump sheep grazing without pause, the serene surroundings are truly breathtaking, in spite of the grey skies and the occasional wicked wind gust. The main hubs are Kirkwall, the capital with its busy harbor and Stromness a picturesque fishing village of cozy bed and breakfasts, bookstores and lovely coffee shops. And, of course, like elsewhere in Scotland, there’s a fair share of whiskey distilleries. At Highland Park, some delicate 10-year-old and 12-year-old single malts can be sampled during an engaging tour of the premises , where whiskey has been made since 1798 or even before. The “since” date refers to when they started paying taxes but like most distilleries in Scotland, whiskey has been produced for a lot longer with the earliest record being 1494.
As far as accommodation, the family-run Kirkwall Hotel stands out for its warm hospitality. An old Victorian structure with beautiful tartan carpeted stairs that lead up to well fitted and comfortable rooms, some with lovely harbor views. The hotel’s restaurant is a reminder of a bygone era of sumptuous decor: paneled ceilings and velvet drapes that frame the large windows facing the harbor. A great menu of local specialties such as seafood – fantastic crab cakes – and local meats -delicious lamb roast- as well as generous breakfasts were exquisite and well priced. Nearby Victoria street is lined with charming shops like Orkney Tweed that sells a beautiful selection of wool hats, blankets and handbags.
Southwest of the mainland, lies Stromness where poet George MacKay Brown was born. Right across his house, stands the Stromness Museum which showcases objects salvaged from the German high sea fleets scuttled in Scapa Flow right after World War I. The Piers Art Center exhibits modern creations by mostly young local artists. Julia’s café, a quaint little eatery by the harbor, is ideal for lunch or a snack of tasty salmon cakes and locally brewed Puffin ale.
As in most small towns in Britain, nothing much happens after 5 pm. Stores close and only a few pubs and restaurants remain open for evening entertainment. Gladly, one great option is Wrigley and the Reel in Kirkwall, a music school and café bar, run by the Wrigley sisters, where live music is played, some nights, until 10 pm. Also, the Foveran, a fantastic family-run restaurant with rooms located right outside Kirkwall, serves homemade bread, locally sourced entrées like scallops with orange and seaweed butter, seabass with lemon risotto, prime Orkney beef and delicious crispy Orkney Grimbister cheese. First class dining with spectacular views of Scapa flow.
Amazing landscapes, gracious hospitality and superb cuisine. As you leave Scotland’s stunning scenery behind, you’ll take with you a satisfying sense of serenity. The best of souvenirs!
*A special thanks to Dr. Garry MacKenzie for providing valuable insight in his book Scotland, A Literary Guide For Travellers.
“The essence of Orkney’s magic is silence, loneliness and the deep marvellous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light. ” George Mackay Brown