Weekend Excursions - Skye
The Hebrides are one heck of a place, if you can really class them under one umbrella that is.
Skye, perhaps the most accessible of the islands due to the opening of the Loch Alsh bridge in 1995, is very different to Harris and Lewis.
Likewise, Mull is different to the wildness of Barra and Muck offers a different aura to Coll and so on.
That said, if you were going to place them under anything, an umbrella would be quite appropriate. You can expect to get wet if you venture of the main land.
As the largest, and most Northern island in the Inner Hebrides, Skye had a population of around 9,000 at the last census and of that number, around 3,000 were gaelic speakers. The language may be in decline, but it still plays an important role in the culture of the Island.
Indeed the population of Skye was once much greater, but the devastating clearances of the late 1800's, with forced emigration (Many to Canada), cleared over 30,000 people from the Island over a 40 year period.
With crofting no longer an option for earning a crust (There are around 100 Crofts on Skye that are large enough to provide an income, but over 2000 exist) , the largest employment sector on the Island is Local Authority, followed by Tourism. While tourism is indeed a double edged sword for rural economies by it's very seasonal and low skill base nature, it's importance cannot be underestimated to Skye.
Indeed, you can expect to see hordes of European, Asian and American visitors from the Cullins to Dunvegan and anywhere in between.
However, while it is important to appreciate life on the islands and the cultures, what really interested Ben Cathro, Kenta Gallagher and myself was what we could find in a two day excursion to Skye.
This wasn't to be a multi day adventure - rather a nip-on, nip-off, ride some great trails and retreat back to Inverness.
We were at first attracted to Cullin range, inspired by Macaskill's "The Ridge" film, but with inclement weather at hand we took the decision to abandon that plan. The Cullins are not a mountain range to get caught short in, and death is a very real proposition should you get it wrong. I didn't fancy that.
After a quick bite at the Arriba Café in Portree we focussed on the obvious choices - We'd see what we could ride at the iconic Old Man of Stoor before driving the 10 miles North to the equally revered The Quiraing.
Arriving late, we took at hike up to the Stoor at night, before the biting winds got the better of us - bivvying in Skye in mid October requires a -10 bag at the least, and a warm flask of coffee. We retreated to the van.
Having checked the forecast at our last available signal location, we knew that the weather was looking to be in our favour. Yet, a 5 am ride up was still brisk enough to have us packing down jackets into our bags, along with customary jet boil and coffee. Banter, not often forth coming from either Cathro or Gallagher was surprisingly in abundance. Perhaps it was the rare appearance of the sun, or our friend-come-Taliban impersonator, NOG, moving through the shadows in his all back military get up that got them excited.
We weren't the only people up at this hour, with the Stoor being one the "classic" landscape photography shots of Scotland. However we were busy figuring out what we could point two wheels down, though finding some flow was proving a bit harder.
In fact, while the riding around the base of the needles was fun in sections it was really the view that made this enjoyable. There is great riding in bits, but we ended up going back to being teenagers again - hiking up chutes, searching for lines we could possibly ride - just exploring and seeing what was what.
In short, while The Stoor is a stunningly beautiful place, the riding there isn't quite what we were hoping for. That said, we're glass full type of guys and just being able to get our bikes onto a place like that was pretty special.
We decided that we'd move on, after a burnt breakfast that is. Turns out that I'm not as Michelin starred as I thought I was and Gallagher has a discerning palette.
As we moved North we got to witness the weather patterns of Skye for ourselves. I've been lucky enough to spend time on Barra during periods of horizontal rain, and while Skye feels much less lonesome, it carries its own weight of aura when the rain starts.
The drive up the Quiraing was pretty awesome, and this land-slip formed masterpiece of nature was a sight to behold. It was 2 PM when we finally put wheel to dirt, and with the winter sun fading at around 5 pm we thought we'd have a shot gun ride as far as the light would permit.
The trail along the slip was well maintained and while offering some harum-scarum exposure Kenta seemed to be able to fine some sections where he could put his Samurai skills into good effect.
As darkness encroached, and tummy rumblings took over from limited humour and cave pot-holing, we once again headed back for food. I could tell you how we set up camp, got the jet boil out and made things "epic" but actually, we just fancied a curry and headed back to Portree like normal human beings. Once that was gobbled up, we drove back, settled in and got used to various odours appearing most of the night......
With morning came more rain. While it wasn't cold, Skye was bloody wet. However, with Cathro now with us , we set off along the trail in search of something cool. This was blind territory for all of us, but the boys seemed to be enjoying playing on their bikes. Cathro, now a certified Vlogger (Video blogger apparently) spent most of the morning setting up Go Pro's, microphones and sticking things in our faces. With this in mind, we duly kept asking him for a weather update "up there" on higher ground.
Bringing two downhillers on a ride like this has it's advantages, as we spent a lot of time sessioning various parts of the trail, and the boys were good enough to oblige when I threw in my usual line of "Well, if I wasn't disabled I'd do it...." upon finding dubious features I was asking them to ride. I've found that's quite a powerful tool of persuasion, not that these boys needed much.....
We had another goal in mind while we were here: Not just seeing what was rideable and what wasn't and generally have a hack around. We also came to get photos - the aim being to show Scotland in its best light, and give us images that could change perception to the rest of the world.
Sadly, choosing an early November day meant we had to deal with, yep, you guessed it, rain. Poor Cathro must have been in one heck of a thunderstorm up at his height.
As the rain got heavier, we went higher. We decided that we'd see what was in around the area known as the "prison" . By this point we'd done a fair scramble on loose terrain but noting too severe. The boys had their eye on hucking into the narrow gap that separates the prison from the rest of the Quiraing. I was far from happy about this and turned from cheeky egger-on into grumpy teacher mode - after some gentle banter the boys decided they'd not huck in, but still ride it from past the small, but high consequence drop. I'm sure they had in mind that this was the bike equivalent of Corbetts Couloir and could cement their place in social media history. Meanwhile, our Taliban impersonator Nog decided he quite liked the prison, given its resemblance to parts of Tora Bora. Paddy was just upset that he hadn't brought trousers.
After a brief stop to eat our well provisioned lunches (Carrots, Humous and Haribo), being generally as wet as an otters pocket and sick of Cathro sticking his little black box in our faces, we decided we should head down and go home.
Aware we'd managed to only get to two places, barely 10 miles apart, we made a pact to get back here. In summer, with food and a general idea of where would be best to go. That said, the riding at the Quiraing, while not suitable for everyone, was riding that was to be savoured.
All in all, Skye was easily accessed and easily navigated. The roads are good with few potholes on the main trunks and the views aren't too shabby either. I'd recommend taking friends with a sense of humour with you, some good waterproofs and, of course, a bike.
Is it worth a 5-6 hour drive for a weekend? Probably, yes. Just be prepared to get out of you comfort zone, and whatever you do, don't look down........