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Skye Trail, solo and with a sidekick

Skye Trail, solo and with a sidekick

Postby widdershins » Sun Aug 23, 2020 7:26 pm

Route description: Skye Trail

Date walked: 22/08/2020

Time taken: 8 days

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I'm fond of a long-distance path, but have never managed to complete one. Somehow I always get sidetracked by better plans (such as skipping the miles and miles of road walking on the Arran Coastal Way in favor of taking the bus, or abandoning the middle section of the Kintyre Way to eat seafood and swim on the white sand beaches of the Isle of Gigha). But I was determined to do a long walk properly for once -- complete, end to end and in the proper order. I nearly succeeded!

Previous users' walk reports were a great help to me in preparing -- thanks in particular to Hounds of Howgate for his excellent and down-to-earth vlogs, which give a great sense of the terrain and many useful tips.

I navigated entirely using the Viewranger app on my iPhone -- I downloaded each stage of the route with the corresponding OS map tiles. By putting my phone in airplane mode, I could compare my location against the route whenever I needed to using the phone's GPS, without caning the battery as the "Follow Route" mode tends to. I also carried a hard copy of the Skye Trail book and the Harveys map and compass for backup, but to be honest, I never even opened the paper map.

Thanks to COVID-19, many of the campsites and facilities along the route were closed (eg Flodigarry Hostel & Sligachan Campsite), or at least closed to walkers with tents, so I came prepared to wild camp the entire length of the walk if necessary, apart from a couple of nights I'd booked at B&Bs. Fortunately, a friend turned up halfway through in his campervan, meaning I got to do the rest of the walk in relative luxury, often with company and sometimes carrying only a day pack.

I traveled north to south, meeting anywhere between 2-6 Skye Trail walkers a day coming in the opposite direction. Without exception, they all seemed to be from outside the UK -- I was very struck by this. I've traveled to many of the Scottish islands and discovered each has its own character, but I'd never been to Skye before and it seems unique in its overwhelming appeal to international visitors.

Day 1: Rubha Hunish to Flodigarry (Loch Langaig)

I arrived at the Rubha Hunish car park the previous evening shortly before sunset. While packing my backpack, I encountered the landowner, who was taking down the license plate numbers of the cars parked there. He explained in some distress that there had been problems recently with dirty campers, including one party who had dumped the contents of a chemical toilet in the car park, and that human waste had been left unburied around the bothy and even behind the interpretive sign in the car park. We commiserated about dirty campers and I brandished my poop trowel to reassure him I was a veteran Leave No Tracer. Possibly this was a classic American TMI, as he departed shortly after this conversation.

The Rubha Hunish lookout bothy was open, and there was only one other person spending the night there -- another solo woman traveler. We had a cup of tea together, watching the sun set over the Isle of Harris, and I fell asleep in my tent under shooting stars.

Sunset at Rubha Hunish

The next day I woke to find the magnificent views had been completely swallowed up by fog, rendering this a less spectacular day's walking than it could have been. The joys of a coastal walk tend to be dampened by zero visibility. However, tromping through purple heather over moorland blowing with mist was very atmospheric, and as a friend of mine says, if you want to enjoy the best Scotland has to offer, you've gotta pay your dues. (Of course, the fog lifted 20 minutes after I finished the day's walking. :roll: )

If using the Walkhighlands route description, watch carefully for the stile mentioned at Stage 6 -- I missed it in the high bracken and spent half an hour floundering around uselessly on higher ground until I realized my error and backtracked. The scramble down to shore level immediately afterwards is steep and a bit tricky for a solo walker with a big pack.

A map posted in the Rubha Hunish bothy advised that the Flodigarry hostel was closed but that Loch Langaig, about a mile south along the road, offered good wild camping, so I pitched up there just before the midging hour and enjoyed dinner in my tent. I had the loch to myself.

Day 2: Flodigarry (Loch Langaig) to the Trotternish Ridge (Bealach Chaiplin)

I set off first thing in the morning with my pack at its heaviest, carrying all supplies for camping on the ridge plus 3L of water. The climb from Loch Langaig is a stiff one, but the views looking back reward the exertion. Careful route finding is necessary on the Loch Hasco path just before it meets the tourist path along the Quiraing -- many paths are visible on the ground, and I missed the left turn (I was undercaffeinated) and ended up scrambling up a loose slope of rockfall in my big pack. Once on the Quiraing footpath, though, I could see all the way to the peaks of Torridon across a sea of mist.

Looking east from the Quiraing path

The day was clear, bright, windless and hot, which made the going arduous. To my delight, I found a waterfall tucked into a heathery knoll a couple hundred feet from the path at Bealach Uige -- it can be found by listening for the sound of water. I had a brief but intensely refreshing shower, texted a London friend about it to make them jealous and refilled my bottles before heading up and over Beinn Edra and the following summits to Bealach Chaiplin, where I made camp for the night. Again, I was besieged by 10,000 midges hungry for my blood, but after an hour's hiding in my tent, a breeze sprang up and I was able to watch the sunset out on the ridge with my mug of bedtime tea.

Day 3: The Trotternish Ridge (Bealach Chaiplin) to the Storr

Dawn over Torridon.

Sunrise from the Trotternish Ridge

After an initial cup of tea and a 20-minute detour down the back of Bealach Chaiplin to refill my water bottles from a stream, I set off along the ridge again, feeling unusually fresh and vigorous. The sky was bright with only a thin canopy of high cloud, and a mist was blowing over the top of the ridge. I found a large rock to perch on while I had my oatmeal and my second cup of tea, surveyed the magnificent views and felt very smug about my life choices.

Monday morning #mood

This was probably the most spectacular day's walking I've ever enjoyed. It was like being on the roof of Scotland, seeing for miles in all directions, from the Outer Hebrides to the Cuillin to the mountains of the mainland. In the 24 hours between leaving the Quiraing and arriving at the Storr, I met no one except a farmer sat on a quad bike just past Sgurr a'Mhadaidh Ruaidh, enigmatically waiting (for a shipment of contraband? for a tryst with a forbidden lover from the other side of the ridge?). This means I spent a day in which I saw more eagles than humans -- surely the introvert's dream.

The ascent to Hartaval was a hard pull, and the descent into the next bealach a dicey one, the path not being obvious from above -- there were a few moments I got through by means of my backside and some stern self-talk. Nevertheless, I made it safely down and over the shoulder of the Storr. It was something of an anticlimax to come down into the crowds at the Old Man, feeling I'd gone a bit feral in the last 48 hours and no doubt looking it too. But joy! My friend with the campervan (we'll call him the Sidekick) had arrived at our rendezvous, so there was shelter from the midges (and cold beer) that night.

Day 4: The Storr to Portree

A restful day of lower-level moorland and ridge walking after the exertion of the previous two days. The final descent to Bile Pastures is steep and mildly treacherous -- the Sidekick turned his ankle in a hole hidden by grass. Not much to report about this part of the walk -- by far the most strenuous part was queuing for an hour in the rain for a table in a pub in Portree. In fact there were queues outside every pub in Portree. I got to teach the Sidekick a new word I'd learned since moving to Scotland: "hoaching".

Day 5: Sligachan to Elgol via the cliff path

I decided to omit the Portree to Sligachan stage in favor of something a bit more spectacular to make the Sidekick feel he'd gotten his money's worth by driving all the way up from the south of England to Skye. The Sidekick is not only a dyed-in-the-wool faffer but a n00b to camping, and we had a late start from the Sligachan Hotel after he took ages to pack and then had to be thoroughly shaken down. I managed to dissuade him from bringing a 2-litre pump-top bottle of sunscreen, an entire bunch of bananas and a spare pair of hiking boots on an overnight trip. I patiently explained that just because you can fit it in your rucksack doesn't mean you should.

The weather continued blazingly sunny and the path was stony and dusty underfoot, which gave wide-open, treeless Glen Sligachan, sandwiched between forbidding rock-strewn volcanic peaks, something of a pitiless Death Valley atmosphere.

Glen Sligachan

Camasunary Bay was a beautiful stretch of beach distressingly littered by plastic flotsam. The bothy is shut for COVID reasons, but that didn't seem to be discouraging the many campers pitching their tents near the beach and kindling bonfires as the evening drew in. It looked like a very romantic spot for a night in a tent and we were sorry not to be able to linger, but a walker we'd met on the path had advised us of a wind warning for gales the following morning, so we wanted to push on to Elgol and get the dodgy cliff walk out of the way while there was still light and the weather was fine. I knew (although the Sidekick didn't) that fatal mishaps had occurred on the cliff path, and I wasn't risking negotiating it in poor light or high winds.

The two dodgy stretches of cliff path are overgrown and narrow and require care and concentration, especially coming as they do at the end of the walk when you're more likely to be tired. They are not much worse than some of the cliff walking I've experienced on England's South West Coast Path, but I'd recommend watching Hounds of Howgate's video on YouTube about this stretch of the trail for a sense of what the going is like, and if you're at all uncertain about your ability to traverse it safely, taking the alternative route from Camasunary to Kilmarie.

Glen Scaladal, the next bay over from Camasunary, is listed on the route descriptions as a possible place to wild camp, but we found it similarly littered with plastic, not so scenic, and much frequented by Highland cows. Worst of all were the midges -- we stopped very briefly on the beach for the Sidekick to drink some water and retrieve something from his pack and within 2 minutes, his back and arms were alive with a shimmering coat of thousands of crawling insects. It was horrific, like something from the kind of nature documentary that makes you vow never to visit the Amazon jungle. Needless to say, we hustled off from Glen Scaladal at speed.

We emerged from the cliff path as the last of the light was fading and set up camp on a flattish bit of hill behind Elgol. The Sidekick, in the tradition of camping n00bs everywhere, had brought a brand-new tent he'd never pitched before. Fortunately, it was a Big Agnes and about as straightforward as they come. We had it set up in under 10 minutes, and I introduced the Sidekick to the joys of a freeze-dried dinner.

Day 6: Elgol to Torrin

We awoke at 5am in a tearing gale. The wind had shifted in the night and was now battering the tent side-on. The winds were rising by the minute and Big Agnes -- like me on my first trip to Scotland, a well-meaning American totally unprepared for Scottish weather -- was increasingly flattening and groaning under the gusts. By the time the Sidekick returned from his morning ablutions, I was bracing the tent with my body to keep it from tearing loose completely. Fortunately our friendship goes back many years through many minor crises and disastrous holidays, so we were able to work together to take down the tent and strike camp so nothing got blown away. I also got to teach him another new word I'd learned since moving to Scotland: "hoolie".

The winds were fierce and the clouds were dark; Loch Scavaig was whitecapped and pierced by the bursts of gannets diving.

A stormy morning near Elgol

We trekked the last mile over the hill and took shelter from the wind in the portico of the Elgol village hall. The Elgol public toilets were also open (although the shop is shut for COVID reasons), for which we were grateful. We decided to wait out the wind, which was scheduled to drop by midmorning, and were rewarded by a bright, warm and blustery day for the more mellow, wooded walk along the coast from Elgol towards Torrin.

Elgol to Torrin

We'd left the Emotional Support Van parked at the head of Loch Slapin, so to reward us for our battle with the gale that morning, we had a place to sleep with rigid walls, and camping wine!


Day 7: Torrin to Broadford

Another relatively undemanding day's walk, this one solo, with the midges harassing me all the way to Suisnish. The stretch of path along the coast is torn up by mountain bike treads and very muddy in places. Saw several herons, but no seals or otters. A wind sprang up in the early afternoon, so I had lunch sitting down and blissfully midge-free, with my back against a standing stone above the cleared village of Boreraig. My favorite part of the walk was heading up and over the purple moor before coming back down to join the railway path that leads into Broadford. Then fish and chips, a bed in a B&B and a glorious BATH.

Day 8: Portree to Sligachan aka the Missing Bit

I'd resolved to leave out this bit of the walk, as other users report it's the most skippable and I didn't think of myself as a compleatist, but having walked all the other bits, the omission of this one part nagged at me like an unresolved chord, so I decided to go back and finish the Skye Trail properly.

The Sidekick agreed to drop me at the Aros Centre in the morning before heading off to amuse himself with a Quiraing walk. I floundered my way down from the road through wet bracken to find that the bit of the walk that "may be impassable at very high tide" is definitely impassable half an hour after high tide, being thoroughly underwater. Given that the alternative suggested is to walk for over a mile along the verge of the very busy A87, I scrambled back up through the undergrowth as quickly as I could, hoping the Sidekick hadn't left yet. Luck was on my side! Thanks to his faffing, his campervan was still solidly parked where I'd left it and I successfully begged a ride to the start of the road walking at the turnoff to the Braes.

This was in fact the most uninspiring section of the Skye Trail -- miles of road walking in the rain past dozens of holiday homes, accompanied by the usual entourage of midges. I imagine a detour down to An Aird might be rewarding in different weather. The path along Loch Sligachan was mostly a running stream after the rain during the night and morning, and the final section alternates river crossings and bog slogging. I was greatly assisted in the river crossings by a pair of water shoes, but all in all, the fact that the parts of this section that aren't road walking are prone to being underwater makes it a stage of the Skye Trail that can be skipped without much loss.

BUT -- I'd done it! An entire trail, end-to-end (sort of)!

IMG_0569 2.jpg
Me, a person who finishes things!
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Re: Skye Trail, solo and with a sidekick

Postby Scottk » Tue Aug 25, 2020 1:02 am

Nice report and photos. I’m hoping to do this shortly as I have some time off in September and the midgies should be better! Fingers crossed
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Re: Skye Trail, solo and with a sidekick

Postby Woodsy Boy » Sat Nov 07, 2020 1:52 pm

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