Crossing Lands | Bikepacking the Isle of Skye

8 min read

Guest Post by Jack MacGowan

aka Bicycle Touring Apocalypse
In mid-December, Jack started a bikepacking journey across the majestic Isle of Skye

Driving in Britain can be incredibly frustrating - I’m sure we’re all familiar with that rush hour crawl. However, driving up the West Coast of Scotland couldn’t be more different with hundreds of miles of empty roads snaking through some of the most impressive scenery in the UK. It’s always a bonus when the journey to your starting destination was an adventure in itself.

It took the best part of two days, but I finally arrived at my destination, the Flodigarry hotel ( the owner kindly let me store my camper, whilst I was away ). I spent the first night recharging in the van and plotting a rough route around the Isle, whilst working out the best way to pack my gear. I woke up early the next morning, said goodbye to my home-on-wheels and cycled into the wilderness.

Throughout the initial planning of my trip I had countless friends, family and fellow riders reporting that it is a risk taking on this ride in December, and I’m pleased to report they were all completely right.

I must have ridden for about twenty minutes before the heavens opened above me, wind almost pushing me off the bike and whilst the temperature plummeted multiple degrees. However, I’m a hardened explorer - possibly a descendant of Achilles himself - so I took the elements in my stride. Kind of. I did keep going, but more like Wormtongue in Lord of the Rings than Brad Pitt in Troy.

Crucially, it wasn’t long until I was made aware of the Isle of Skye’s tough weather conditions - and the truth is I loved it. It’s not an adventure if everything is easy all of the time. It’s the challenging moments, the times when you shout obscenities at your broken bike, when you personify a hill just so you can try and negotiate your route with it, and it's when the midges bite you to smidgens that the sense of adventure really takes hold.

Those are the times that you look back on your adventures and smile; thankfully the Isle of Skye was so full of horrendous struggle that I’ll remember every bloody minute! However, Skye was as beautiful as it was formidable and had me completely mesmerised from the moment I set foot on the island.

Journey's Beginning

I began my ride in Flodigarry and made my way North, following trails along the coast. This was a particularly harsh looking part of the Isle characterised by huge jagged cliffs, large expanses of untamed grassland and a number of bedraggled looking hamlets. Thus, it’s a fitting location for the creepy ruins of Duntulm, perched precariously on the cliff and overhanging a colossal drop into a turbulent sea.

It’s incredible to think this was once a functioning castle, the sound of the wind battering the walls each night must have been harrowing. After convincing myself I was about to run into Macbeth himself, I left Duntulm and continued on my journey. Skye is certainly an island steeped in myth and legend, from its haunted castles and abandoned villages, to its magical locations and vibrant history. There’s nothing that makes you feel more like you’re on a proper adventure in search of some secret treasure than a good myth or epic story embellished by the locals - which in my case was the famous Skye Pie Café. It is therefore fitting that I made my way south towards the famous Fairy Glen.

The Fairy Glen | Tourist Highlight

A meal with a view. Jack tucks into Wayfarer Meal Packs
Prepared for anything. Always ensure you take adequate lighting, such as a head torch, and stay always stay hydrated - Jack used the Camelbak Lobo 3L Hydration Pack

The Fairy Glen is located slightly inland from the coastal town of Uig and is one of Skye’s most popular tourist destinations. The whole area surrounding the Fairy Glen is characterised by bizarre hills that are completely unique to the rest of the landscape and somewhat similar to the Shire in Lord of the Rings. The Fairy Glen itself is positioned a few hundred metres uphill from the road, hidden behind some larger rock formations. The Glen is well worth the hike, but in wet weather it’s very slippery, I must have stacked it ten times getting the bike up there. However, once you’re at the top, you really do feel like you’ve entered the fairy kingdom, whether you believe in the myths or not, it’s a stunning location.

I’d recommend checking out Castle Ewen (a tower of rock, considered to be the fairy castle), the fairy circles (don’t be fooled by the newer circle made by tourists, the original is far less perfect and only a few metres away) and the doorway to the fairy kingdom (a shallow cave highlighted by a single white tree that grows from the top of the entrance).

I spent the next few days exploring singletrack on the north west of the Isle and visited the beautiful Dunvegan Castle, the supposedly haunted village of Borreraig (my phone, DSLR, GoPro & 35mm camera all stopped working, which was pretty weird), Orbost and onto the Iron Age Broch Dun Beag. It was in this last location that I had to make the difficult decision not head to the most southerly point of Skye and instead cycle back to the VW a few days early due to my DSLR suffering from water damage.

However, thanks to my nomadic/freelance lifestyle I figured I’d just revisit, perhaps this autumn to explore the rest of the isle. Fortunately, I also shoot all my adventures with my trusty film camera, which is why the photography accompanying this article is 35mm. I hate not finishing a ride, but I cut my losses and made haste towards the Cuillin Mountains.

The Cuillin Mountains | The Wanderers Pilgrimage

The Cuillin Mountains are one of the most iconic landmarks on Skye - and for good reason. The mountains stand out due to their rock composition, which is a very rough black indigenous rock. This makes the Cuillins look incredibly formidable, and thanks to their massive size, an incredible challenge for any hill-walker.

Approaching the Cuillins was epic, with such low light in December they cast an imposing shadow over the flatlands and you couldn’t help but feel very small indeed. The next stop on my recalculated route was the Sligachan Bridge, which offered an incredible view into the Cuillins and an idyllic location to stop and simply enjoy the wonderful scenery.

I think it’s so important on any ride like this to take time off the bike to just appreciate what an incredible world we live in, photography is a great way to get out of the saddle and explore beautiful areas a little longer.

Although Sligachan looks like a small village on the map, there’s actually nothing there except for the hotel & distillery. I was lucky enough to get a tour of both, before heading north to Portree.

Towards Civilisation

Portree was to be the first and last place I visited on Skye that was actually pretty busy. I’d been away for almost the entire run up to Christmas, so it was nice to experience a bit of time in a quaint Scottish town during the festive season. I had my first pint of the trip that evening in a very beautiful little pub, bought my first coffee and generally relished some of the perks of civilisation. One of the toughest aspects of bikepacking Skye this time of the year is the lack of daylight, with the sun rising after eight in the morning and setting just after three in the afternoon. I guess this wouldn’t be such an issue if you were riding with a companion, but on your own it meant a seriously long time confined to the tent. Thus, it was nice to spend just a few hours chatting with other human beings! The next day was to be my last and I intended to cover as much ground as possible.

An Island Monument | The Old Man of Storr

I packed down and headed off in darkness the next morning, I felt rejuvenated after my night of rest and excited about finally seeing arguably the most famous geographical landmark on Skye, the Old Man of Storr. I love pushing myself to both physical and mental limits and therefore decided to make the 250m scramble to the top of the Storr with my loaded bikepacking rig. It was certainly one of those moments you wonder what the hell you were thinking by the halfway point! I had intended to get the bike to the very summit, but had to leave it about six metres short when I came to the conclusion that in the wet I was risking serious injury climbing any higher. However, I was pretty chuffed to have carried my bike to a point that fellow climbers were actually crawling!

I celebrated the achievement with two meal packs before my perspiration turned cold with the freezing wind and I cautiously made my way back down. I finished off the ride by visiting the impressive Lealt Falls, the 165 million year old dinosaur footprints on Staffin beach (they’re older than the Cuillin Mountains, how crazy is that?) and most importantly the Skye Pie Cafe! At this point I want to get real serious. This is no joke. The ‘ Highland Beef ’ was the best damn pie I have ever had. I mean this thing was ‘ turn a vegan into a cannibal ’ good. I’d heard about the café from a friend, but had never checked exactly where it was located. Thus, to stumble across it on the last day, after such physical excursion, was just about the best way to end the trip.

On Reflection

The Isle of Skye is one of the most incredible places I have ever ridden and offers all outdoor enthusiasts the perfect landscape for exploration. Whether you’re a hiker, kayaker, runner, cyclist (road or MTB), climber, kite surfer - or any adventure sport for that matter - you’ll find what you’re looking for on the Isle. I left Skye completely smitten and already longing to be back in the Cuillin Mountains. This land does not cater for convenience, but instead challenges you to dig deep and reignite your primal instincts. It beckons you to step out of your comfort zone, revaluate your physical and mental limits and crucially rediscover how it feels to be truly alive.

Meet Jack aka Bicycle Touring Apocalypse

Jack is a bikepacker, explorer and man of the mountains with a genuine thirst for anything outdoorsy. In his youth, holidays were never sitting around the pool, they were spent trawling up mountain sides, and as an adult, Jack owes his life and stability to the outdoors environment. Jack's personal site, Bicycle Touring Apocalypse, aims to inspire and encourage others to get out on their bike and discover both the physical and mental rewards of cycling.

Follow Jack

Website: Bicycle Touring Apocalypse

Twitter: @The_Apocaloon

Facebook: Bicycle Touring Apocalypse

Inspired to get outside and take some travel shots on your latest adventure like Jack? Let us know in the comment section below or on our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.


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