Gaelic: An t-Eilean Sgitheanach
|Area:||639 square miles|
|Highest point:||Sgurr Alasdair, 3,255 feet|
The island has most distinctive shape as peninsulas radiate out from a mountainous centre dominated by the Cuillin hills. The Isle of Skye is renowned for its spectacular scenery, vibrant culture and heritage, and its abundant wildlife including golden eagles, red deer and Atlantic salmon.
Skye has a rich heritage of ancient monuments from this period, especially castles. Dunvegan Castle has been the seat of Clan MacLeod since the 13th century. It contains the Fairy Flag and is reputed to have been inhabited by a single family for longer than any other house in Scotland.
The island has been occupied since the mesolithic period and has a colourful history including a time of Norse rule as part of the Kingdom of the Isles and a long period of domination by Clan MacLeod and Clan Donald.
The 19th century Clearances cut Skye’s population dramatically, which declined from over 20,000 to around 9,200 in the early 21st century. Nonetheless, in contrast to many other Scottish islands, this represents a 4% increase from the census of 1991. The main industries are tourism, agriculture, fishing and whisky-distilling. The island’s capital and only town is Portree, known for its picturesque harbour.
Skye has been linked to mainland Great Britain by a road bridge since 1995.
Name of the island
Skye's history includes the influence of Gaelic, Norse and English-speaking peoples and the relationships between their names for the island are not straightforward. The Gaelic name for the "Isle of Skye" is An t-Eilean Sgitheanach (or Sgiathanach, a more recent and less common spelling). The meaning of this name is not clear. Various etymologies have been proposed, such as the "winged isle" or "the notched isle": no definitive solution has been found to date and the placename may be from a substratum language and simply opaque.
Writing in 1549, Donald Munro, High Dean of the Isles wrote: "This Ile is callit Ellan Skiannach in Irish, that is to say in Inglish the wyngit Ile, be reason it has mony wyngis and pointis lyand furth fra it, throw the dividing of thir foirsaid Lochis".
There are, however, earlier references which may refer to Skye by name. Roman sources refer to an island named Scitis (as in the Ravenna Cosmography) and Scetis can be found on a map by Ptolemy. A possible derivation from *skitis, an early Celtic word for "winged", which may describe the island's peninsulas that radiate out from a mountainous centre, has also been suggested.
In the Norse sagas Skye is called Skíð, for example in the Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar saga and a skaldic poem in the Heimskringla from c. 1230 which contains a line that translates as "the hunger battle-birds were filled in Skye with blood of foemen killed". According to other authors, it was referred to in Norse as skuy (misty isle), *skýey or skuyö (isle of cloud). It is not certain whether the Gaelic poetic name for the island, Eilean a' Cheò "isle of the mist" precedes or postdates the Norse name.
Some legends also associate the isle with the mythic figure of Queen Scáthach.
At 639 square miles, Skye is the second-largest island in Scotland, after Lewis with Harris. It is also the highest: the island's highest point, Sgurr Alasdair is the fifth highest mountain in the British Isles and 12 mountains exceed 3,000 feet.
The coastline of Skye is a series of peninsulas and bays radiating out from a centre dominated by the Cuillin Hills. The main peninsulas are Trotternish in the north, Waternish, Duirinish, Minginish and Strathaird to the west and Sleat in the south.
Malcolm Slesser suggested that its shape "sticks out of the west coast of northern Scotland like a lobster's claw ready to snap at the fish bone of Harris and Lewis" and W H Murray that "Skye is sixty miles long, but what might be its breadth is beyond the ingenuity of man to state".
Martin Martin visited the island and reported on it at length in a 1703 publication. His geological observations included a note that:
There are marcasites black and white, resembling silver ore, near the village Sartle: there are likewise in the same place several stones, which in bigness, shape, &c., resemble nutmegs, and many rivulets here afford variegated stones of all colours. The Applesglen near Loch-Fallart has agate growing in it of different sizes and colours; some are green on the outside, some are of a pale sky colour, and they all strike fire as well as flint: I have one of them by me, which for shape and bigness is proper for a sword handle. Stones of a purple colour flow down the rivulets here after great rains.—
The Black Cuillin are mainly composed of basalt and gabbro. Trotternish is underlain by basalt, which provides relatively rich soils and a variety of unusual rock features.
Beyond Loch Snizort to the west of Trotternish is the Waternish peninsula, which ends in Ardmore Point's double rock arch. Duirinish is separated from Waternish by Loch Dunvegan. It is ringed by sea cliffs which reach 967 feet at Waterstein Head. Oolitic loam provides good arable land in the main strath. Lochs Bracadale and Harport lie between Duirinish and Minginish which includes the narrow valleys of Talisker and Glen Brittle and whose beaches are formed from black basaltic sands. Strathaird is a relatively small peninsula close to the Cuillin hills with several small crofting communities. The bedrock of Sleat is Torridonian sandstone which produces poor soils and boggy ground, although its lower elevations and relatively sheltered eastern shores produces a lush growth of hedgerows and crops.
The Cuillin mountains form the dramatic backbone of the island and can more than equal mainland Inverness-shire for grandeur, as indeed they match those mountains for height. Black Cuillin includes 12 Munros and provide some of the most dramatic and challenging mountain terrain in Scotland.
Sgurr Alasdair is the highest mountain of the island, at 3,255 feet.
The ascent of Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh is one of the longest rock climbs in Britain and the Inaccessible Pinnacle is the only peak in Scotland that requires technical climbing skills to reach the summit. A full traverse of the Cuillin ridge may take 15–20 hours to complete. The Red Hills (Irish: Am Binnean Dearg) to the south are sometimes also known as the Red Cuillin. They are mainly composed of granite that has weathered into more rounded hills with many long screes slopes on their flanks. The highest point of these hills is Glamaig.
In Trotternish are some unusual rock features. The Kilt Rock is named for the tartan-like patterns in the 350-foot cliffs. The Quirang is a spectacular series of rock pinnacles on the eastern side of the main spine of the peninsula and further south is the rock pillar of the Old Man of Storr.
Towns and villages
Portree in the north at the base of Trotternish is the island’s town, and main service centre on the island, with a population of 1,960. Broadford is on the east side of the island and Dunvegan in the north-west. Kyleakin is linked to Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland by the Skye Bridge that spans the narrows of Loch Alsh.
A Mesolithic hunter-gatherer site dating to the 7th millennium BC at An Corran in Staffin is one of the oldest archaeological sites in Scotland. Its occupation is probably linked to that of the rock shelter at Sand, Applecross on the mainland coast of Wester Ross. Surveys of the area between the two shores of the Inner Sound and Sound of Raasay have revealed thirty three sites with potentially Mesolithic deposits. Finds of bloodstone microliths on the foreshore at Orbost on the west coast of the island near Dunvegan also suggest Mesolithic occupation of the area. These tools probably originate from the nearby island of Rùm.
Rubha an Dùnain, an uninhabited peninsula to the south of the Cuillin, has a variety of archaeological sites dating from the Neolithic onwards. Loch na h-Airde, which is situated close to the ruins of a promontory fort, is linked to the sea by the artificial "Viking canal" and there are remains of prehistoric settlement dating from the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages nearby. Dun Ringill is a ruined Iron Age hill fort on the Strathaird peninsula, which was further fortified in the Middle Ages and may have become the seat of Clan MacKinnon.
Adomnán's life of Columba, written shortly before 697, portrays the saint visiting Skye and Adomnán himself is thought to have been familiar with the island. The Irish annals record a number of events on Skye in the later 7th and early 8th centuries, mainly concerning the struggle between rival dynasties which formed the background to the Old Irish language romance Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin.
The Norse held sway throughout the Hebrides from the 9th century until after the Treaty of Perth in 1266. However, little remains of their presence in the written or archaeological record on Skye. Viking heritage is nonetheless claimed by Clan MacLeod and Norse tradition is celebrated in the winter fire festival at Dunvegan, during which a replica Viking long boat is set alight.
Clans and Scottish rule
The most powerful clans on Skye in the post–Norse period were Clan MacLeod, originally based in Trotternish, and Clan MacDonald of Sleat. Following the disintegration of the Lordship of the Isles, the Mackinnons also emerged as an independent clan, whose substantial landholdings in Skye were centred on Strathaird. In the 16th century, many of the MacInnes clan moved to Sleat.
The MacDonalds of South Uist were bitter rivals of the MacLeods, and an attempt by the former to murder church-goers at Trumpan in retaliation for a previous massacre on Eigg, resulted in the Battle of the Spoiling Dyke of 1578.
After the failure of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, Flora MacDonald became famous for rescuing Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, from the King's soldiers. Although she was born on South Uist her story is strongly associated with their escape by way of Skye and she is buried at Kilmuir in Trotternish. Her journey is commemorated in The Skye Boat Song ("Over the sea to Skye").
Skye was visited by Samuel Johnson and James Boswell during their 1773 Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Boswell wrote of their visit to Kilmuir that, "To see Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great champion of the English Tories, salute Miss Flora MacDonald in the isle of Sky, was a striking sight; for though somewhat congenial in their notions, it was very improbable they should meet here.
Written on her gravestone are Johnson's words that hers was "A name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour". In the wake of the rebellion the clan system was broken up and Skye became a series of landed estates.
Of the island in general, Johnson observed:
I never was in any house of the islands, where I did not find books in more languages than one, if I staid long enough to want them, except one from which the family was removed. Literature is not neglected by the higher rank of the Hebrideans. It need not, I suppose, be mentioned, that in countries so little frequented as the islands, there are no houses where travellers are entertained for money. He that wanders about these wilds, either procures recommendations to those whose habitations lie near his way, or, when night and weariness come upon him, takes the chance of general hospitality. If he finds only a cottage he can expect little more than shelter ; for the cottagers have little more for themselves but if his good fortune brings him to the residence of a gentleman, he will be glad of a storm to prolong his stay. There is, however, one inn by the sea-side at Sconsor, in Sky, where the post-office is kept.—
The islands became peaceful after the 1745 rebellion and the disarming of the clans. The chiefs could then build grand residences, such as the 18th century Armadale Castle, once home of Clan Donald of Sleat. (It was abandoned as a residence in 1925 but now hosts the Clan Donald Centre.) Nearby are the ruins of two more MacDonald strongholds of rougher days; Knock Castle, and Dunscaith Castle, the legendary home of the mythical Queen Scáthach. Caisteal Maol, built in the late 15th century near Kyleakin and once a seat of Clan MacKinnon, is another ruin.
From the latter part of the 18th century up to the mid-19th century, the inhabitants of Skye were devastated by famine and clearances. The "Battle of the Braes" involved a demonstration against a lack of access to land and the serving of eviction notices. The incident involved numerous crofters and about 50 police officers. This event was instrumental in the creation of the Napier Commission, which reported in 1884 on the situation in the Highlands. Disturbances continued until the passing of the 1886 Crofters' Act and on one occasion 400 marines were deployed on Skye to maintain order. The Clearances had a major impact on the population of Skye and the ruins of a cleared village can be seen at Boreraig, Strath Swordale.
Skye has historically been a very strong Gaelic speaking area. Both in the 1901 and 1921 census, all parishes in Skye were reported to be over 75 per cent Gaelic speaking. By 1971, only the Kilmuir parish still had more than 75% Gaelic speakers, the rest of Skye ranged between 50-74%. At the time, this made Kilmuir the only area outside the Outer Hebrides which had more than 75% Gaelic speakers.
By the time of the 2001 census Kilmuir had 47% Gaelic speakers, with Skye overall having an unevenly distributed 31%. The strongest Gaelic speaking areas are located in the north and south-west of the island (Staffin 61%, Tarskavaig and Achnacloich 54%,). The weakest areas are in the west and east (Galtrigill 18%, Luib 23%, Kylerhea 19%). Other areas on Skye range between 48% (Earlish) and 25% (Kyleakin).
The largest employer on the island and its environs is the public sector, which accounts for about a third of the total workforce, principally in administration, education and health. The second largest employer in the area is the distribution, hotels and restaurants sector, highlighting the importance of tourism.
Key attractions include Dunvegan Castle, the Clan Donald Visitor Centre, and The Aros Experience in Portree.
There are about a dozen large landowners on Skye, the largest again being the public sector, the Department of Agriculture owning most of the northern part of the island. However, small firms dominate employment in the private sector. The Talisker Distillery produces a single malt whisky, manufactures beside Loch Harport on the west coast of the island. Three other whiskies--Mac na Mara ("son of the sea"), Tè Bheag nan Eilean ("wee dram of the isles") and Poit Dhubh ("black pot") are produced by blender Pràban na Linne (literally "a smugglers den by the Sound of Sleat"), based at Eilean Iarmain. These are marketed using predominantly Gaelic-language labels. There is also an established software presence on Skye; Portree-based Sitekit has expanded in recent years.
Crofting is still important, but although there are about 2,000 crofts on Skye only 100 or so are large enough to enable a crofter to earn a livelihood entirely from the land. Cod and herring stocks have declined but commercial fishing remains important, especially fish farming of salmon and shellfish such as scampi.
The Hebridean coast has a considerable renewable energy potential and the Isle of Skye Renewables Co-op has recently bought a stake in the Ben Aketil wind farm near Dunvegan. The unemployment rate in the area tends to be higher than that for the Highlands as a whole, and is seasonal in nature. The population is growing and in common with many other scenic rural areas in Scotland, significant increases are expected in the percentage of the population aged 45 to 64 years.
Skye is linked to the mainland by the Skye Bridge, while ferries sail from Armadale on the island to Mallaig, and from Kylerhea to Glenelg. Ferries also run from Uig to Tarbert on Harris and Lochmaddy on North Uist, and from Sconser to Raasay.
The Skye Bridge, linking Skye with the mainland, opened in 1995 under a private finance initiative. The high tolls charged (£5.70 each way for summer visitors) met with widespread opposition, spearheaded by the pressure group SKAT (Skye and Kyle Against Tolls). On 21 December 2004 it was announced that the Scottish Executive had purchased the bridge from its owners and the tolls were immediately removed.
Train services run from the mainland; from Kyle of Lochalsh at the end of the Skye Bridge to Inverness and from Mallaig to Glasgow. There is also a small aerodrome at Ashaig near Broadford, which is used exclusively by private aircraft.
The A87 trunk road traverses the island from the Skye Bridge to Uig, linking most of the major villages and townships. Many of the island's roads have been widened in the past forty years, but there are still substantial sections of single track road.
Students of Scottish Gaelic travel from all over the world to attend Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, a Scottish Gaelic college based in Sleat.
Shinty is a highly popular sport played throughout the island and Portree-based Skye Camanachd won the Camanachd Cup in 1990.
The Hebrides generally lack biodiversity in comparison to mainland Britain, but like most of the larger islands Skye has much to offer the naturalist. Observing the abundance of game birds Martin Martin wrote:
There is plenty of land and water fowl in this isle - as hawks, eagles of two kinds (the one grey and of a larger size, the other much less and black, but more destructive to young cattle), black cock, heath-hen, plovers, pigeons, wild geese, ptarmigan, and cranes. Of this latter sort I have seen sixty on the shore in a flock together. The sea fowls are malls of all kinds - coulterneb, guillemot, sea cormorant, &c. The natives observe that the latter, if perfectly black, makes no good broth, nor is its flesh worth eating; but that a cormorant, which hath any white feathers or down, makes good broth, and the flesh of it is good food; and the broth is usually drunk by nurses to increase their milk.—
Similarly, Samuel Johnson noted that:
At the tables where a stranger is received, neither plenty nor delicacy is wanting. A tract of land so thinly inhabited, must have much wild-fowl; and I scarcely remember to have seen a dinner without them. The moor-game is every where to be had. That the sea abounds with fish, needs not be told, for it supplies a great part of Europe. The Isle of Sky has stags and roebucks, but no hares. They sell very numerous droves of oxen yearly to England, and therefore cannot be supposed to want beef at home. Sheep and goats are in great numbers, and they have the common domestic fowls."—
Today, the birds of the isle include the Corncrake, Red-throated Diver, Rock Dove, Kittiwake, Tystie, Atlantic Puffin, Goldeneye, Golden Eagle and White-tailed Sea Eagle. The Chough last bred on the island in 1900.
Mountain Hare (apparently absent in the 18th century) and rabbits are now abundant and predated on by Wild Cat and Pine Marten. The rich fresh water streams contain Brown Trout, Atlantic Salmon and Water Shrew. Offshore the edible crab and oyster are also found, the latter especially in the Sound of Scalpay. There are also nationally important Horse Mussel and Brittlestar beds in the sea lochs.
Heather moor containing Ling, Bell Heather, Cross-leaved Heath, Bog Myrtle and Fescues is everywhere abundant. The high Black Cuillins weather too slowly to produce a soil that sustains a rich plant life, but each of the main peninsulas has an individual flora. The basalt underpinnings of Trotternish produce a diversity of Arctic and alpine plants including Alpine Pearlwort and Mossy Cyphal. The low-lying fields of Waternish contain Corn Marigold and Corn Spurrey. The sea cliffs of Duirinish boast Mountain Avens and Fir Clubmoss. Minginish produces Fairy Flax, Cats-ear and Black Bog Rush. There is a fine example of Brachypodium-rich Ash woodland at Tokavaig in Sleat incorporating Silver Birch, Hazel, Bird Cherry, and Hawthorn.
The local Biodiversity Action Plan recommends land management measures to control the spread of Ragwort and Bracken and identifies four non-native, invasive species as threatening native biodiversity: Japanese Knotweed, Rhododendron, New Zealand Flatworm and Mink. It also identifies problems of over-grazing resulting in the impoverishment of moorland and upland habitats and a loss of native woodland, caused by the large numbers of Red Deer and sheep.
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