Whisky Walks: Scrambling across Skye

Whenever I’m asked for a recommendation on where to go in Scotland, the Isle of Skye is without fault the first thing that comes to mind. While there’s plenty to see and do on the island, its the beauty and diversity of its landscape that is undoubtedly Skye’s biggest draw. From the lush green hills near the Storr to the jaw-droppingly sheer cliffs of Neist Point, with the dark, foreboding presence of the Cuillins a continuous backdrop, Skye really does have it all. And whisky fans won’t be disappointed either. While Skye stalwart Talisker has been producing quality whiskies since 1830, with Torabhaig distillery there’s a new kid on the block too. In short, plenty of reason for another visit! Of course I’m not the only one with this bright idea, and in fact Skye has been paying a price for its popularity. In order get away from the crowds and to experience the island as it was meant to be enjoyed, I set out into the wild with two friends. Armed with a tent, waterproof clothes and plenty of whisky, we would be spending some quality time on this handsome Hebridean isle.

I started this trip with some trepidation, given what the Scottish weather promised to have in store for us.  This was on full display as we boarded the ferry from Mallaig to Armadale. Soaking in the last few rays of sunshine on the top deck, ahead we could see the clouds over Skye looking nothing short of menacing. The changeable weather also provided moments of beauty though, with rainbows accompanying us most of the way.

Wild Camping on Skye

Once on Skye, it was only a short drive to Torabhaig distillery. Although we arrived after the last tour had already started, it was still nice to see the bustle of activity at Skye’s second distillery. Its location could hardly be more scenic, set on a rustic hill overlooking the water, the ruins of an old tower not far off. With an annual capacity of just 500.000 litres, Torabhaig is understandably protective of its limited stocks, so samples of raw spirit were unfortunately not on offer. Its barley is reportedly heavily peated, and Torabhaig will therefore produce a smokier drinking experience than its neighbour Talisker. Among the flurry of new distilleries opening in the past years, Torabhaig is definitely one to keep an eye on.

Torabhaig Distillery

Next we drove to Glenbrittle Beach, where we would be leaving the car for the next few days. Our aim was to camp on the Rubha an Dùnain peninsula, which is dotted with Viking remains. The lake where we would be camping in fact used to be a Viking shipyard, with a man-made canal providing access to sea. The lake really is quite an exciting piece of history, and as far as memorable camping spots go, it doesn’t get much more evocative than this!

Wild Camping on Skye

It was about a 6km hike to get there, on a trail hugging the cliffside, frequently crossed by streams and waterfalls.  The changeable nature of Scottish weather was on full display, with showers and sun following each other in quick succession. While I realise this post is starting to read much like a weather report, it actually did make for an unforgettably scenic experience. With the evening light illuminating the cliffs and the sunset shimmering off the sea, the constantly shifting clouds revealed new vistas at every turn. Rainbows dazzled the sky and the array of colours both on land and in the air was simply spectacular. With cows, sheep and deer grazing among the Viking ruins, it was hard to imagine a better start to our trip.

Wild Camping on Skye

Dinner was served without any of the decadence you might expect from a three course meal, consisting of chewy steaks, dehydrated chilli with only some carne, and powdered chocolate mousse. Then again, washed down with some Talisker Distillers Edition and consumed as the last rays of sun dipped below the horizon, anything tastes as if it were made by a Michelin chef.

It seemed that any of the rain that was spared us during the day came pouring down at night. With strong winds buffeting the tent, I have to admit that I awoke several times. Even so, after a refreshing 9 hours of sleep we were able to pack up more or less dry and set off for the day’s hike. The idea was to return the way we came, take in some provisions at the car, and then hike across the Cuillins to camp at the magnificent Loch Coruisk that’s hidden amongst its peaks. The initial 10km were easy enough, with a clear trail and some stunning scenery along the way. Much of the path led along the gorgeous Eas Mor waterfall, before following its source further into the mountains. The valley behind us was crisscrossed with streams and waterfalls, slowly making their way down in sparkling rivulets, before plummeting to the depths of Eas Mor.

Wild Camping on Skye

We were treated to some hail as we scaled the scree covered slopes of Sgùrr Dearg. Meanwhile it was becoming ever harder to keep track of… well the track. There were no markings, and the hike was becoming ever more of a rock scramble, our presumed path looking more and more like a series of waterfalls. A few sips of Talisker Port Ruighe did wonders for our morale, but even so, our heavy backpacks (some 12-15kg) were quite literally weighing us down. With the sheer basalt wall of Sgùrr Dearg towering over us, the day growing short and the path ahead unclear, we had a decision to make. I’m quite sure we’d actually gotten exactly to where we were supposed to be, and without the backpacks we would certainly have made the ascent. As it stood though, we decided to do the sensible thing and return the way we came. Really quite a shame, for I would have loved to camp along the shores of Loch Coruisk. Unfortunately though, the score was Cuillins 1, us 0.

Wild Camping on Skye

The steep slopes of Sgùrr Dearg facing us, with the path nowhere to be found…

But what a fantastic hike it had been. While the Cuillins might have defeated us, they also gave us plenty of incredible scenery in return. And let’s be honest, the prospect of a hot shower at Glenbrittle campsite was hard to ignore… Plus, there was always the next day for another foray into the hills. There was just enough daylight left for us to go for a short fishing trip on the shores of Loch Brittle, which yielded some mackerel for dinner, a welcome change from the dehydrated food pouches we’d been eating so far.

Skye Whisky Walk 06

The valley we walked up… and down again that day.

The next day we set off to see the Fairy Pools. Sure enough, they are very touristy, but it’s easy to understand why. Impossibly picturesque, the Fairy Pools are in many ways a more charming and accessible version of the raw beauty we’d seen the day before. As a pleasant surprise, the weather promised to be crisp but sunny. But of course this is Scotland, where some evil weather god has decided that you’re never to enjoy the weather too much, so the midges came out to spoil the party. Without backpacks though, it was easy to keep moving and stay ahead of the little buggers, completing the return trip in just under two hours.

Wild Camping Skye

Since Talisker distillery was just a few miles down the road, we decided to pay a visit. Having toured the distillery twice previously and with plenty of Talisker still in our backpacks, we decided not to indulge in a tasting or a tour, but instead devoured a venison burger at the local pub. Even so, Talisker distillery always leaves an impression, its whitewashed buildings a stark contrast to the briny waters of Loch Harport. It’s not hard to see why Talisker’s slogan is Made by the Sea, the smell of salt and seaweed mingling effortlessly with the vapours rising from the stillhouse.

Talisker Distillery

Our next target was Neist Point, a famous lighthouse located at the westernmost point on Skye. The journey there provided some tremendous views of the island, with the drive throwing amazing scenery at us with every new bend of the road. As we approached Neist Point, the cliffs became ever higher, with sheers drops into the ocean below and plenty of birds nestling among cracks in the rock. The lighthouse itself is set in a dramatic location, occupying a promontory that boldly faces the waves of the Atlantic.

Neist Point Lighthouse

Although the cliffs look impossibly sheer, it’s actually possible to scramble down, leading to the very edge of the water. There you’ll find one of the most magical fishing spots in the whole of Scotland. Even if the fish don’t bite (and they always do), Neist Point has to be one of the most scenic spots imaginable for fishing. Facing the sunset, the Outer Hebrides are laid out before you as if on a map, with the lighthouse watchfully towering over you from behind. The seabed immediately drops to great depth, without any rocks or seaweed in the way to tangle your gear. We caught several sizeable pollock, a handful of mackerel and even a small school shark (tope) in less than two hours. Great fun!

DJI_0134

Our camping spot for the night was on a hill overlooking Loch Mor, with Neist Point just beyond. Again we had fresh fish for dinner, served with a generous helping of Talisker Dark Storm. While our third day on Skye had been much less physically exerting, it had been none the worse for it. We said goodnight to the sheep surrounding us and went off to sleep more than satisfied with our adventure so far.

Wild Camping Skye

That night the weather turned truly awful. Perhaps drinking all that Dark Storm was asking for it… We were camped out on some relatively boggy ground, and I was somewhat worried that come morning time, we’d be waking up in a lake. While that didn’t turn out to be the case, the rains showed no sign of abating and indeed the poor weather was forecast to continue all day. After a quick breakfast, we packed up and decided to make use of the day by driving closer to Glasgow. The idea was to squeeze in a hike before our flight the next day, when the weather was supposed to be better. Of course, there was nothing stopping us from making a detour along the way, so we soon found ourselves in Oban distillery to refuel. We’d left Skye behind us, so clearly it was time for some mainland whisky. Although we (again) arrived too late for a tour, the distillery cafe was more than happy to serve us a few drams, stylishly presented on the stave of a cask that once held Oban whisky. While the stave included the usual suspects (Oban 14 year old, Distillers Edition, Little Bay), it also featured a distillery exclusive. Bottled at 48% and aged in heavily charred casks, this whisky provided a little more punch than we’re used to from Oban, but in my mind could still not top the ever-excellent Distillers Edition.

Oban Distillery Tasting Stave

After camping near the foot of Ben Arthur (better known as the Cobbler), we set out bright and early to tackle this distinctively shaped peak. Of course I’d seen some pictures before and I was looking forward to some great views, but alas the Cobbler was shrouded in fog. A persistent drizzle made matters worse, but the hike was still quite spectacular, with the Cobbler’s grey slabs of granite eerily peeking through the fog. The whole thing made for quite a spooky scene, particularly as we descended the Cobbler and made our way up Beinn Narnein. The final few kilometres to the car were both wet and slippery, as the trail eventually degenerated into nothing more than a small waterfall. Despite the poor visibility, it was still great to explore this part of the Arrochar Alps, and to get some exercise in before turning homewards. We completed the drive to the airport, finished our whiskies before the security check and enjoyed a comfortable flight home.

Wild Camping on Skye

The peak of the Cobbler slowly coming into view

For much of the photography in this piece I’ve relied on the awesome talents of Giuseppe Cipriani. Thanks buddy!

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