Exploring the Isle of Skye and the Highlands with Heart of Scotland Tours

No visit to Scotland can be complete without a few days in the Highlands. A place of rare beauty, the Scottish Highlands are famous as the home of Loch Ness and the Isle of Skye. However, getting to Loch Ness and Skye from major cities such as Edinburgh can be complicated. Although some public transportation options are available to get to Skye, exploring the Isle requires renting a vehicle. While on the Isle, you would need to navigate narrow one-lane, two-directional roads. These roads can wash out in inclement weather – a common occurrence on Skye. With these logistical difficulties in mind, many travelers choose to take a luxury 3 day Isle of Skye and the Highlands tour instead. One of the most luxurious options for a 3 day Skye and the Highlands tour is the Heart of Scotland tour company.

Day 1

Although you can explore Skye on a larger tour bus, I opt for the more luxurious 16 seater van option with the Heart of Scotland. “The wee red bus” is more intimate and flexible. We can make unscheduled stops and drive to places larger buses can’t. This added flexibility is important on an island where most roads are only one lane but the traffic goes two ways.

My guide’s name is Kevin. He is a life long resident of Skye and a prominent member of the MacLeod clan, one of Skye’s oldest clan families.

“Scotland is divided into two parts”, Kevin says as we begin the journey out of Edinburgh. “The Highlands and the Lowlands.” I learn that the two areas are different geographically and culturally. In fact, they were always different because the country of Scotland was formed when two ancient continents collided millions of years ago. One continent became the highlands – the other, the lowlands. This explains the change in topography and nature.

Queensferry

Our first stop is the small town of Queensferry. “Here, you’ll see three bridges,” Kevin says. “Built in the 19th, 20th and the 21st centuries respectively. Each a marvel of engineering, in their day.” Established in the 11th century, the first crossing here served to connect the lowlands to the kingdom of Fife. One of the bridges, called the Forth Bridge, was built 125 years ago and today is a UNESCO heritage site. We drive over the middle bridge, open only to buses and vans.

Dunkeld Cathedral and town

Next, we approach the picturesque village of Dunkeld. Centered around Cathedral Church of Dunkeld, this 8th-century village is the first official stop of the day. The Cathedral, constructed in a mixture of Gothic and Norman styles and build over three centuries in the middle ages. The town, charming and sparking is exactly what you might picture when you hear the phrase “traditional Scottish village.” Afterward, we proceed further into the highlands over narrow lanes into the Cairngorms National Park. We drive along the giant Loch Laggan and pause for lunch.

Eilean Donan Castle

As we approach Eilean Donan Castle, the imposing structure towers over the landscape around it. “Build on a site of a medieval castle, this is a clever one-hundred-year-old reconstruction,” Kevin tells the group on the wee red bus. “Castles that were continuously occupied were continuously updated. But Eilean Donan is frozen in time – around the 13th century.” Clever it is indeed. The Castle is also famous. Used as a backdrop for many famous movies – from Elizabeth to the Highlander, the Eilean Donon Castle may be one of the most famous images in Scotland. And touring Elean Donan is like stepping back in time. I found it very different from the modern luxury I would experience in the Dunfield Castle on Day 2 of the Heart of Scotland Isle of Skye tour.

Portree

After a few hours, we approach the Skye bridge – our path to the beautiful misty island, Isle of Skye. We pass the enormous Cuillin mountains and arrive in the colorful and quaint fishing village of Portree. Although accommodations can be hard to come by in Portree, Heart of Scotland takes care of all the arrangments. Kevin drives each one of my fellow travelers their hotel or bed and breakfast and during the long northern evening, we explore Portree.

Day 2

We spend day two exploring the Isle of Skye. It turns out the Isle of Skye’s nickname – the Misty Island, is well earned. Day two on Skye greeted us with relentless mist and occasional rain. Dressed for the weather, I was quite comfortable in the wee red bus – and grateful I didn’t need to navigate the narrow mountain roads. My photographs from the day look like something out of a fairy tale. Covered in mist, on a green backdrop, the romance of Skye can be found in any weather.

Kilt Rock Viewpoint

We start our day in the majestic Kilt Rock Viewpoint. Named Kilt Rock because it looks similar to a pleated Kilt, the views are stunning in every direction.  And in every weather. To your right, the majestic Mealt Waterfall plummets to the rocky coast below. And to the left, endless Kilt Rock towers over the coast. The moody sky above only adds to the imposing effect.

Quiraing

Next stop is the Quiraing, a spectacular part of the Trotternish ridge situated in the north part of the Isle of Skye. Formed by massive landslide millions of years ago, the Quiraing is the only part of Trotternish that continues to move to this day. The road at the bottom requires repairs every year. We wander amongst the imposing rocky hills and in the drizzling rain, we witness the true, severe beauty of the Misty Isle.

Skye Museum and graveyard

Our next stop, the Skye Museum of Island Life. is a fascinating glimpse into the traditional Skye lifestyle. Here, I find tiny thatched-roof shacks known as ” a black house,” outfitted with traditional tools. The small, self-guided museum offers a wealth of information and can take about an hour to explore.

Next, my Heart of Scotland group makes the journey to the graveyard adjoining the museum. Among the 19th-century burial grounds, we stumble onto an ancient resting stone. Here, a figure of a knight in full fighting gear lays carved in a rock. “The stone is authentic” Kevin explains, “But the person under it is not. “It was stolen from a lost medieval burial ground and placed over the grave of someone who died in the 19th century.” Although this sounds Macabre, apparently a common practice in the day.

The Dunvegan Castle

Perhaps one of the most famous attractions on the Isle of Skye, the Dunvegan castle, is the oldest continuously operating structure on the island. Inhabited by countless generations of the MacDougal (my guide’s) clan, the castle is known as much for its rich history as its beauty.

Continuously restored by the subsequent generations who have lived here, the Dunvegan castle is richly decorated in the style of the late 19th century. The well-manicured castle grounds include several acres of gardens. It takes hours to do a proper tour of the Dunvegan gardens and castle – so this is a great place to spend an entire afternoon on the Isle Skye.

Fairy Pools and the Old Man of Storr

The highlands are known for unpredictable weather, and some of Skye’s most famous landmarks can only be viewed on clear days. Based on the climate that day, the Heart of Scotland guide decides which attractions to visit on Day two. Kevin, a life long resident of the Isle of Skye, encouraged us to come back to Skye one day so that we could see the marvels we didn’t get to see that day – the Fairy Pools and the Old Man of Storr.

Day 3

On the third day of Heart of Scotland’s Isle of Skye tour, we travel from the world famous Loch Ness.  We drive past the stunning mountains of Glencoe and eventually back to Edinburgh. Although the journey back to the city takes an entire day, there are plenty more rolling green highlands and sites to see along the way.

Kyleakin village

Our first stop of the day is the Kyleakin Village, located on the east of the Isle of Skye. This sleepy little village is also the home of Castle Moil, an abandoned 15th-century castle. Legend says that the original structure on this site was built for a Norwegian princess nicknamed “Saucy Marry.” All day, she sat at the castle wall. Saucy Marry required a toll from any boats that wanted to use the narrow channel next to the castle. But, if she really liked the ship’s captain she would request other services as payment for passage.

Loch Ness cruise

One of the highlights of Day 3, the Loch Ness Cruise is a bucket list item for many. You may believe you know all about the legend of Loch Ness. However, after you board, the crew will show you several radar images taken earlier this year. Some of the images clearly show 3 very large, moving objects on the bottom of the lake. In addition, there is also the fact that Loch Ness is located on an old fault line and that it is as deep as many parts of the ocean. The water in Loch Ness is so dark that there is no visibility only a few meters below the surface.

Maybe you’ll even be one of the lucky ones who get to see the large moving objects on the radar for yourself. Whatever is down there – whether a giant fish or a sea monster, the mystery remains.

Glencoe

Unable to solve the mystery of Loch Ness, we proceed to our next destination – the mountains of Glencoe. Here, another legend awaits. The Glencoe Massacre is perhaps one of the best-known events in Scottish history. In the 17th century, during ongoing negotiations between the English and the Scottish leaders, the clan of MacDonald spent a few nights hosting English soldiers. The first several days passed without incident, but one night the guests turned violent and began to slaughter members of the clan, in their sleep. 38 people died that night and countless others perished in the wilderness as they attempted to escape. The story of the Massacre of Glencoe has affected the relationship between Scots and English.  Later on, the incident made it difficult to open a line of communication.

Today, the National Trust of Scotland cares for Glencoe’s pristine wilderness. Hikes of all lengths and skill levels start from the visitors center. During my Heart of Scotland tour, I take a short hike to get some pictures of the green mountains from a good vantage point.

Loch Lomond National Park

As we make our way towards Edinburgh and past the border that separates the highlands from the lowlands, we drive through the picturesque Loch Lomond National Park. Scottish weather, moody as always, picked this moment to create a clearing in the clouds. In spite of the relatively late afternoon hour, the sun sits far above the horizon. We make our way back to Edinburgh at 7 pm – with plenty of daylight to spare.

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