When you’re bound for the northwest Highlands, the last thing you need to worry about is the weather — it’s more or less guaranteed to be thrilling. Prepared with sunglasses, waterproofs and walking boots, I set off from London at 9pm, stifling the kind of effervescent excitement you only feel when you’re walking towards a train with bunk beds on it. The bumping and swaying of the Caledonian Sleeper, joining the dots northwards via Crewe, Preston and the Trossachs, has a lulling effect, and I’m well rested by the 10am arrival at Fort William.
A cup of Earl Grey arrives at my cabin door between Rannoch and Corrour, and that’s it for breakfast, though setting off peckish doesn’t seem much of a hardship with dinner booked at one of Scotland’s most celebrated gastronomic destinations. As I roll off the CalMac ferry in Armadale, I’m amused to think how blasé I was as a 17-year-old on my last visit here. Skye’s natural beauty is prodigious, yet all I can remember from a trip with my teenage sweetheart and his family in 1991 is the Travelling Wilburys on a loop in the car.
This time I’m absolutely all eyes. Weather conditions are luminous and changeable, and the colours are distractingly lovely: clouds of golden gorse, the muted purples and greens of a hunting tartan, settlements picked out in white. The road up to Dunvegan and The Three Chimneys restaurant skirts the mighty Cuillin Hills, then passes through the villages of Bracadale and Struan, where I slither up a muddy hillside to poke my head into Dún Beag, the remains of a round Iron Age fort — all atmosphere and imagination, signposted but otherwise unexplained. Dún Mhor, if less completely preserved, is worth the short walk onwards for the views towards the Cuillin.
Too late for a proper moorland ramble up MacLeod’s Tables — a folkloric pair of mountains to the south west of Dunvegan — I drive to Neist Point to walk out to the lighthouse, a blowy, cinematic mile or so along the grassy headland. There’s no sign of whales or dolphins this afternoon, but the views of crag and cliff are exciting, and the blustery air gets me in the mood for the pub — and I mean the pub, one of Skye’s oldest, the Stein Inn.
Built right on the edge of Loch Bay, amid a handful of whitewashed cottages, this place has everything: good ale, 125 malt whiskies, straightforward bar meals and a peat fire. Mine’s a half of the Reeling Deck from Isle of Skye Brewery and a packet of crisps; if I was going to stay put for supper, they have Loch Dunvegan langoustines on the menu this evening.
The Three Chimneys
Over the 20 years since my last visit, I’ve read up on Skye and, in particular, The Three Chimneys, a converted cottage on Loch Dunvegan that opened in 1985 and has evolved to become a legend among gourmet globetrotters. Owner Shirley Spear, self-taught chef and tireless champion of Skye produce, was very much in the vanguard of the British food renaissance. Though she is no longer at the stoves — chef/director Michael Smith has been in charge day-to-day since 2005 — The Three Chimneys is still very much her creation. I check in at the adjacent House Over-By, whose six suites each have sea views, luxe bathrooms and sheepskin throws.
Smith’s menus are based on meat, game and seafood from what he calls “the best natural larder there is”, plus necessary deliveries from the mainland, ordered several days in advance. Smoked haddock comes with marag crumb (black pudding), local quail egg and ‘skink potato’ cooked in broth; Minch lythe (pollock) is served with mussel risotto and mussel pakora.
The dining rooms, all beams and great stone walls, are kept rustic and largely unadorned, with slate placemats instead of white linen. There’s also a table inside the kitchen, where you can dine watching the chefs at work, so long as you’re happy helping to plate up the soufflés.
The following morning I’m up early for a meeting with Mike Lates, aka Skye Guides. I hit The Three Chimneys’ breakfast buffet hard: creamy yoghurt, fresh honeycomb and fantastic home-baked fruit scones and marmalade, followed by the full Scottish breakfast (and mustard in a Peter Rabbit eggcup). I also pop a ham salad sandwich from Jann’s Cakes in Kilmuir into my backpack.
My time is limited, so Mike shows me part of the ‘tourist path’ leading towards Sgurr nan Gillean, one of 11 Munros on the Cuillin ridge. He’s a trusty guide, scion of a climbing family, with a modest, pragmatic disposition and a priceless knowledge of these hills. His niche is small private walks, tailored to your experience, fitness and preference, from a mild cardiovascular stroll and scramble such as we tackle today, to the Cuillin Ridge Traverse, as well as winter climbs in testing conditions. He explains what gabbro is (grippy, coarse rock), reveals the connection between Gurkhas and fell-running, and describes happy summer times bathing in a pool we pass by.
You do look at your feet a lot when you’re walking up a big hill, especially when the weather comes in, but I’m still thrilled by the intensity of the browns and golds of the boulder field, and the glittering bodies of water visible below us as we ascend. I’ve never donned a harness and helmet or got truly close to a cliff-face, but after a morning with Mike I stick ‘proper walking’ and ‘coming back to Skye soon’ on my to-do list.
It’s sad driving across the bridge to leave the island, but 15 minutes outside Kyle of Lochalsh, on the road towards Achnasheen and Wester Ross, the view opens out onto Loch Carron and it becomes a great drive.
At Glen Docherty, the landscape begins to swell and ripple, then the mountains of Beinn Eighe and Slioch rise up on either side of Loch Maree. My next stop is a curious, genuinely unique hotel on the banks of Loch Ewe, run by a family so committed to its charming, idiosyncratic Victoriana that it’s impossible to imagine what the place would be without them. Pool House is luxurious in the most extraordinary way, its suites named after Second World War naval vessels, its ghost stories genteel, and its wine list and whisky collection first-class.
I’ve taken HMS Diadem, usually known as the ‘Titanic suite’. Every inch of wall in the bedroom, dominated by a 7ft x 7ft four-poster, the bathroom, replete with Edwardian bathing machine, and the sitting room, with its loch view, open fire and Titanic mementoes, is papered in maritime-motif deep blue. It’s extremely comfortable. Peter Harrison, head of the family, settles guests in with pre-dinner G&Ts; daughters Elizabeth and Mhairi assist son-in-law John in the kitchen. Everything you touch, taste or see here is top-drawer and often one-of-a-kind. Of the other suites, Bramble is the prettiest, painted in duck-egg blue and full of French antiques.
Nearby at Badachro, Ian McWhinney lives by the waters his family have been fishing for 200 years. Curing used to take place here at Dry Island, until Loch Gairloch’s fishing trade was destroyed by trawling during the 1950s and 1960s. Still, he makes a good living from creel-caught shellfish as well as letting out a magically secluded B&B cottage, and taking tourists out to haul in a few creels or fishing baskets.
Between the heavenly views of Beinn Alligin and Torridon, Ian’s charismatic banter, and the sheer fun of tip-toeing offshore and rowing out to his traditional fishing boat, I couldn’t be happier. This kind of fishing, impossible without specific knowledge of the breeding and burrowing habits of crabs and langoustines, is sustainable and (non-certified) organic by default, with strict rules about throwing back small catch and females with eggs. I get to handle a live starfish, see common seals, and admire the big, beautiful ‘prawns’, aka live langoustines, which fetch high prices in Spain and even China.
There are some fine old pubs hereabouts, including sailors’ favourite the Badachro Inn, tantalisingly visible during Ian’s boat trip, and the Old Inn near Gairloch, with its own microbrewery and live music nights. The Torridon, my next stop in Wester Ross, has a real-ale pub in its grounds, too: it’s a family-friendly, easygoing add-on to the hotel itself, an 1880s hunting lodge whose rooms and suites have been updated with boutique-hotel appeal: bold stripes, feature wallpaper, and REN bathroom products.
You never can tell at the dinner table, but I’m guessing most of my fellow guests are here for the walking, mountain biking, climbing, kayaking and gorge scrambling. The Torridon’s location makes it, arguably, one of the most desirable properties on the planet — the owners could run it Basil Fawlty-style and you’d still want to hang out here. As it is, they lay on an army of helpful staff, a gastronomic dining room, upper-crust sitting room and snug library, and whisky a-go-go.
Rather than driving straight over to Inverness to catch the sleeper southwards, I’ve decided to go out on a high road: the treacherous Bealach na Bà mountain pass, as the old cattle-droving route from Applecross to Lochcarron is known. Conditions on the road are notoriously wintry even when it’s sunny at sea level. I’ll have to navigate its infamous hairpin bends later but first, lunch.
The coast road from Glen Torridon, via pretty Shieldaig, brings me to the Applecross Inn, packed and lively. I perch with a half of Red Cuillin and chat to owner Judith, who has been here since 1989 and also owns the village petrol pumps. Plate after plate of fish ’n’ chips is relayed from kitchen to bar, where old photos and cuttings are pinned next to a list of customers for Alan the chimney sweep. Judith recommends the langoustines and a crab salad, which are fresh, clean and delectable. I’m ready for the mountain. And yes, it hails, snows, and gets skiddy on me. I’m semi-stranded on top of the world in a beautiful, dramatic wilderness. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Tradition: A wee dram. Stein Inn stocks some 125 single malts, the whisky bar at the Torridon gleams with more than 350 of them, and Peter Harrison’s treasure trove at Pool House, housed in a Victorian vestibule, includes many priceless rarities.
The Caledonian Sleeper from Euston to Fort William or Inverness, from £19 one-way with ScotRail. scotrail.co.uk
Check National Rail for regional train times. nationalrail.co.uk
Or fly to Inverness from various cities across the UK with EasyJet or Flybe. easyjet.com flybe.com
Hiring a car is the best option. Public transport is limited.
When to go
The days are longer in spring and summer, and there’s more chance of dry weather, but the northwest Highlands are beautiful all year round. Some businesses close off-season, November to March.
Stein Inn. steininn.co.uk
Badachro Inn. T: 01445 741 255.
Old Inn. theoldinn.net
Applecross Inn. applecross.uk.com
Skye Guides. skyeguides.co.uk
Misty Isle Boat Trips. mistyisleboattrips.co.uk
Sealladh na Mara. T: 01471 866 288.
Shellfish Safaris/Dry Island. shellfishsafaris.co.uk
Jann’s Cakes. T: 01470 521 730.
Where to stay
Three Chimneys. Doubles from £295, B&B. threechimneys.co.uk
Pool House. Doubles from around £200, B&B. Two-night minimum stay. No children. pool-house.co.uk
The Torridon. Doubles from £95 (low season) or £115 (high season), B&B. thetorridon.com
Skye: the Cuillin. RRP: £25. (Scottish Mountaineering Club)
Published in the September 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)