Recently, Mike and I came across a quote from Francis Mallman, an Argentinian chef famous for his Patagonian cuisine and over-the-fire cooking techniques –
“I think human beings need contradictions. We need opposites. We need to sleep in a five-star hotel and we need to sleep under a tree. The distance and the difference between those two extremes are what makes us happy and what makes us think and what makes us grow.” – Francis Mallman
We’ve been coming back to this concept of contradictions and extremes ourselves as we evolve in our travel habits. We very much appreciate luxury, and we look back fondly upon the amazing high-end experiences we’ve enjoyed. But, how we define luxury can vary immensely. Our trip to Italy last year, for example, was extremely luxurious and out of the norm for us. The cave hotel in Matera was likely one of the most luxurious hotel stays I will ever have, and I’m grateful that we were able to include this in our itinerary. However, I also view our wild camping in the Brecon Beacons as a luxurious experience as well. I rarely feel more at peace than when I wake up breathing crisp morning air, unzip a tent, and enjoy a fresh, hot coffee with Mike, surrounded by nature and silence. Being outside and experiencing beautiful natural environments is fantastically luxurious.
Given our consideration of these two extremes, we decided to split our trip to the Isle of Skye into two parts. We spent the first half of the trip camping around the Cuillins [COO-linz], a harsh and dramatic volcanic mountain range that traipses across Skye from east to west, so we could experience Skye in its most raw form. The second half of the trip was spent at my Uncle Andy and his partner Dorothy’s beautiful home on the southern tip of Skye, where we were welcomed by warmth, comfort, and incredible home cooked meals. The contrast allowed us to appreciate each experience far more than if the whole week were dedicated to one or the other.
This trip required more planning than usual, mostly because we had to have some idea of where we wanted to wild camp each night. Our friend James, who has spent a lot of time on Skye, cautioned that we should have a back-up accommodation plan for each wild night of camping in case the weather took a turn for the worse. He warned that bad weather on Skye is not just your average run-of-the-mill “bad” weather – it can be dangerous and incredibly miserable when a low-pressure system moves across the island and transforms a day of sun into a harrowing environment in less than an hour (or even just a few minutes). To make matters more interesting, compasses tend not to work in the Cuillins due to the magnetic properties of gabbro, the primary rock making up the mountain range. Fog + no working compass + sudden ridge drops = no fun.
I spent a few weeks studying our trusty OS maps of Skye, identifying potentially ideal wild camping spots (ideal meaning they weren’t in areas marked ‘boggy’ – there was no way of really knowing how suitable an area would be until we turned up). I used the trusty Walk Highlands website to find potential hikes we might enjoy. Of course, no set itinerary could be planned, because the weather could in fact change by the minute. We could only attempt to hike in the Cuillins if we had a semi-clear day, and we could only camp in certain spots if there was no risk of flooding. So we set out with a map full of possible plans and plenty of flexibility, ready for an adventure!
Late on Friday night we flew into Inverness, a small “city” on the northwest coast of Scotland, about two hours’ drive through the highlands from the center of Skye. We woke up to blue skies and sun in Inverness in the morning, and saw that the weather was predicted to be similar on Skye. We decided to seize the opportunity for clear weather and try climbing Bla Bheinn (pronounced “Blaven”), a Black Cuillin peak in the east of Skye.
Hiking Up Bla Bheinn
After an incredibly beautiful drive to the isle, we arrived at the car park at the bottom of Bla Bheinn. While some clouds had rolled in, the weather still seemed clear enough for a hike. We packed our bags with day-hike necessities, including water, extra warm clothing, maps, and sustenance (bread, cheese, and nuts…and beer, of course – what’s a summit without a beer?), and set out for the peak.
The beginning of the hike gradually ascended along a clear but rocky path, winding its way across a few streams and past a large waterfall. We encountered a group of people armed with hammers, shovels, and buckets, repairing and restoring a large portion of the path. They each greeted us with friendly smiles as we passed, and I thought to myself, only in Scotland will volunteers go out to a trekking trail and happily move dirt from one side to the other just so others will enjoy their hikes.
We wound our way further up the trail, which became increasingly difficult as the terrain grew more variable and the incline steepened. We came to the base of what suddenly turned into a very steep and very rocky portion of the mountain, which we assumed was the final stretch to the peak. We set our bags down for a break in the hopes that the cloud cover might lift so that we could continue our climb. As we munched on some snacks, we watched a few climbers scramble out of the clouds and down from the peak, turning from ants into human beings and then back into ants again. From afar, we noticed a lake to the east and decided make our way over to explore the lake and enjoy our beers.
The lake looked just like the lake at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, when Rey travels afar to a green and rocky island on a distant planet and finally finds [MC Ed. Note: I know the movie’s been out awhile but I’m exercising editorial liberty and removing spoilers nonetheless]. I was half-expecting Rey and some droids to peer out from behind a crevice. (Not a huge Star Wars fan?….I guess we can still be friends.) Sadly, no Star Wars characters appeared, but this was the first time that we really had a chance to sit still and appreciate that we were on.Freaking.Skye. The scenery was comprised of intensely vibrant blues and greens. The air was astonishingly crisp and smelled like moss and the sea. And there weren’t any other human beings in sight (just the way Mike likes it).
In the end, we decided not to complete the final 200m of the climb because the fog was rolling in, it was getting late, and we still had to find where we would camp that night. Honestly, it bugged me a little bit that we didn’t summit Bla Bheinn. But as my friend Kyle pointed out later when I was telling him about our trip, it was probably a great mental exercise in appreciating the journey and not the destination. We still had a memorable climb, one that I’ll remember forever, and the fact that we didn’t summit this iconic Cuillin doesn’t change that. (It does mean that later in the week we were determined to summit a Cuillin peak, and experienced quite an expedition in doing so, so watch out for a future post about that!)
On the way down, we saw so many roaming animals that my disappointment with our decision not to summit the mountain faded away immediately and I was consumed by animal excitement instead! [MC Ed. note: this is a confirmed fact.]
Back at the car, tired and sore (but not as sore as we would be the next morning) but invigorated by the surroundings, we surveyed the OS map and I pointed out all of the wild camping sites that I had marked. We decided to drive a little ways down the road to another car park, and hike a few miles to Camasunary Bay. I had seen the iconic bay in some articles on the Walk Highlands site, and it looked remote and magical.
Wild Camping at Camasunary Bay
We drove first to the small village of Elgol, looking for a car park that was marked on the OS map, from which it looked like we could follow a toe path north along water’s edge to the bay. We arrived at the Elgol carpark to discover that it didn’t allow overnight parking; I was relieved that I had formulated a Plan B for any obstacle. I had Mike drive back up the road a few miles to a different car park. Luckily, this one had no overnight restrictions so we could leave the car and hike across the peninsula to the bay.
More exhausted from our climb up Bla Bheinn than we realized, the hike across Elgol peninsula took us up and down a few rolling “hills” with all of our gear for the night. We trudged up and over the final hill to discover a view of the Cuillin ridge, the mountains cascading down to the bay, and the beginning of a sunset.
The steep path led us down to the bay, where we found a perfect campsite right on the water. Others had clearly camped there before, because there were a few fire pits and some logs for benches. There were three structures on the bay – a house (pictured below) that seemed to be occupied judging by the few lights that were on, although there were no vehicles in sight and hardly any drive-able paths on which to travel to and from this house; an abandoned structure on the western rim of the bay; and what looked like a brand new bothy. (Bothies are huts that are open to the public to provide shelter for hikers and back packers.) I had intentionally planned for us to wild camp within sight of a bothy on the first night, in case the weather took a turn for the worse. Although we stayed in our tent, we noted a few hikers made shelter in the bothy for the evening.
Honestly, it creeped me out to camp on the bay because the main house felt haunted to me (I know Mike is rolling his eyes again) [MC: Yep.]. Turns out it wasn’t the main house that was giving me the heebie jeebies. The next morning, we explored the bay before breaking camp, and casually strolled over to the abandoned structure half a mile away. As we walked up, a chill went down my spine and I made sure to stay very close to Mike. It was an abandoned former bothy, and had a sign on it instructing hikers to use the brand new bothy on the other side of the bay. Much of the structure was damaged, trash was strewn about, and creepiest of all: there was a human sized stuffed doll hanging in a noose, with some satanic red graffiti, “In God We Fail”.
I was really glad I didn’t know about this the night before when I was trying to fall asleep in the dark (and I’m sure Mike was too, otherwise I would have woken him up repeatedly!).
Dolphins on Loch Eynort, and Camping in Glen Brittle Forest
We chose Glen Brittle Forest as our next destination, and decided that we would hike a good five or six miles into the forest, camp for the night, and complete the remainder of the circular hike the next morning. As we drove to the Fairy Pools Car Park on the southeastern edge of the forest, the rain pelted our windshield and the sky turned a foreboding dark slate color. Just another five minutes of weather on Skye!
Armed with our waterproofs (British for rain jackets), we set out on the hike, which was on a wide and clear walking path around the 10-mile circumference of the forest. It struck us as odd how defined the tree-lines were. We later learned that Glen Brittle Forest is a man-made forest, and the trees are periodically cut down for commercial use. Learning that it was not natural honestly took a bit of magic out of the forest, but we still enjoyed being so remote nonetheless. We passed by a few hikers at the very beginning of our journey, but otherwise didn’t see any other people for nearly a full 24-hours, which was of course heaven for Mike.
About half-way through the hike, after passing numerous waterfalls and encountering several roaming deer, we set up camp on the edge of the forest overlooking Loch Eynort. It ended up being an ideal place to settle in – we watched wave and wave of stormy clouds roll past Loch Eynort. I felt like we were in a live version of Planet Earth, and it was so much better than watching it on a TV.
The next morning, we woke up with the sunrise. While Mike was making our coffee, I was watching the Loch, trying to store as many mental images of the natural setting as possible. I noticed some water splashes in the distance, with a trail of ripples slowly moving towards the shore in our direction. We realized that we were watching a pair of dolphins jump their way into the Loch, almost as if they were putting on a morning show for us. We sat in silence, smiling, and observed the happy pair play in the water while we sipped our hot coffee. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
The Fairy Pools
Every person we told we were going to Skye said that we had to make sure to visit the Fairy Pools. Since they were located on the edge of Glen Brittle Forest, it was an easy destination to work into our plans. We completed the remaining five miles of the Glen Brittle circuit after breakfast, dropped our bags at the car, and headed down to the famous site.
While the succession of waterfalls was beautiful, the photos we took of it don’t depict reality. The pools were teeming with people – hundreds of people. We visited on a rainy day in the off-season, so I can only imagine how busy this gets in the summer. We had grand plans of swimming in the pools, but the paths were so over-crowded that we abandoned that idea and decided to save our Skye swim for later in the week when we’d be on the more remote peninsula, Tokavaig. I think we were most shocked by the other people because we had spent the previous few days almost completely isolated in nature, but I still would only recommend going to the Fairy Pools if you’re already going to be in the area. Otherwise, Skye is full of equally beautiful waterfalls with far less tourists and traffic jams.
Dunvegan – A Castle, and RAIN
After two nights of wild camping in periodic rain storms, most of our gear was soaked through and my bones were pretty chilled. We decided to head up to a formal campsite in the northern region of Skye, near Dunvegan Castle, so we could take hot showers and dry our jackets slightly under hand dryers (this felt like cheating on real camping, but I’m OK with it).
We checked into the Kinloch Campsite which was situated right on the head of Loch Dunvegan, overlooking the loch and MacLeod’s Tables, two table-top mountains defining the northwest skyline. As I signed us in for the next two nights, the cheery campsite owner asked if we were sure we would actually want to stay for two nights. A vicious rainstorm with high winds was predicted to roll through the area the next day and night. Mike and I laughed, assuring her that we’d camped in blizzards and we’d be fine. (We would eventually learn the moral of the story – listen to the local.)
I suggested that we visit Dunvegan Castle after setting up camp, mostly because I wanted to take a photo of a Scottish castle for my friend’s eight year old daughter (mission accomplished). The castle itself wasn’t much to write home about (this sounds absurd, but once you’ve lived in the UK for a while, a castle is a castle), but we enjoyed strolling around the gardens and taking advantage of the rare hour-long period of clear skies.
When we arrived back at the campsite to cook dinner, the skies opened up and the winds began howling. This basically didn’t stop for the next 48 hours. We crawled into the tent and into our sleeping bags, and read our books for the next few hours while the rain beat down above. Mike, the saint that he is, managed to cook our dinners on the camping stove while the sky dumped buckets of rain on him and I stayed warm and dry in the tent (seriously, he’s a saint, and I also think he didn’t want me to forever dislike camping so it was in his best interest to help me stay as warm and dry as possible).
Neist Point and the Promise of Flying Sheep
We had originally planned to drive after dinner to Neist Point, an iconic peninsula with a lighthouse in the northwest of Skye. Though the weather was off-putting, we didn’t want to spend a whole evening on Skye hidden in a tent. So when the clouds offered a mini-break from the down pour (not so much a break but rather just slightly less rain coming down), we scrambled from our tent into our car and took an evening drive up the coast.
Neist Point is the most westerly headland on Skye, so in clear weather, we may have been witnesses to a spectacular sunset. The weather didn’t stop us from getting out of the car, though it did prevent us from doing the full hike recommended by Walk Highlands. Instead, we dashed out of the car and trudged through boggy wetland (and I mean BOGGY) to get a view of the peninsula, wondered aloud whether the wandering sheep ever get blown over the edge (later confirmed by a local as yes, often), and hopped back in the car to head back to our campsite and call it a night.
The Ultimate Contradiction of Wild Luxury vs. Traditional Luxury
On Tuesday morning, we awoke to a steady beat of heavy rain and more howling wind. We had a full day of luxurious food planned (lunch at The Oyster Shed in Carbost, a tour of Talisker whiskey distillery, and dinner at the famed Three Chimneys – all stories to come in the next post!), so we donned our waterproofs and set out for a short hike to Talisker Bay to get some miles and possibly a cold water swim in before #allofthefood.
Talisker Bay was stunning, but the storm had kicked up so much that we could barely stand still against the wind. We decided that a swim may not be the safest idea. We took a few moments to admire the elements beating down against the coast, and the cascading waterfall on the edge of the beach, before heading into Carbost to find some hot coffee and a dry spot to warm up.
Later that afternoon, after a full day of exploring Carbost and enjoying wonderful coffee, oysters, and whiskey, we arrived back at our tent to discover it was more or less waterlogged and struggling to stay upright in the constant wind. Since we had our evening dinner reservation to look forward to, we had to make a decision as to whether we were going to try to tough it out in these conditions one more night, and whether the tent would hold up to our plans. [MC Ed. Note: in the moment, I found myself reflecting on how more experienced husbands than I often refer to specific moments in their marriage when they were faced with two options: a more comfortable wife or a less comfortable wife. The answer always seems to be highly-obvious-after-the-fact. I am pleased to say I recognized the large, clearly spelled out writing on the wall and went against my stubborn and committed nature. #winning #notasdumbashelooks]. We admitted to the Kinloch Campsite owner that she had been right, and abandoned camp a night early in exchange for a warm bed and hot shower at my Uncle Andy and Aunt Dorothy’s house. Remember: always.listen.to.the.locals.