The distance between Edinburgh, Scotland, and Uig, Isle of Skye, U.K., is roughly 250 miles with a total travel time of eight hours via three modes of transportation. Unlike most students in my class, I went abroad alone. No one from my home university of Boston College went with me to Scotland.
After an initial orientation session hosted by the directors of the program I was on, I met quite a few new friends from all over the U.S. Upon arrival, we quickly learned that the sun in Scotland does not stay out for too long and the weather gets cold all too quickly. Because of this, we decided what better time than mid-September, when the weather was more likely to be nicer, to travel. School wouldn’t be starting for another week so we could take as much time as we wanted and go somewhere a bit further. The Isle of Skye was somewhere we all knew we wanted to go to after doing a bit of research about Scotland during the summer before we left.
On Tuesday, we booked hostels and train tickets and early Wednesday morning we left. Wednesday also happened to be my 21st birthday and I desperately wanted to do something fun, especially considering 21 isn’t a big age to celebrate in the U.K. While I was initially annoyed to be spending the whole day travelling on my birthday, my friends promised it would be worth it.
The first leg of the journey started with a short train ride from Edinburgh to Glasgow. On the train, two of my friends, Emma and Isabel, surprised me with mimosas. They pulled out plastic flutes, the ones where you have to screw the cup the base, and orange juice. At 8am, I tiredly and jokingly popped the champagne while trying not to disturb the other passengers and make a mess. The day was off to a wonderful start! While we were having a blast in our seats, the ticket agent approached us. We learned that, in Scotland, alcohol was not permitted on trains before 10am but we could finish our drinks. We laughed and joked about how ridiculous a rule that was (especially in Scotland!) and finished our mimosas before the next train.
After a quick change to another train and we were on leg two of our journey, Glasgow to Mallaig also known as the West Highland Line. The West Highland Line is often referred to as the most scenic railroad line in the world. While the Isle of Skye was our destination, this train ride made the trip worth it. We sat back for the five hours ahead of us and watched Scotland roll by.
The Scottish Highlands is the Scotland of your imagination. Big skies, green pastures, misty mountain ranges, and mysterious lochs. In 1745, the Jacobite Rising led by Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Highland Clearances saw the decline and eviction of Scottish Highlanders and clans. Today, the Highlands remain relatively unpopulated except for a scattering of small villages and crumbling castles. You can see red deer, orange hairy cows (pronounced coos in Scotland), and if you’re lucky maybe even the infamous sea monster of Loch Ness.
It was a typical Scotland day with grey skies and scattered rain showers which made the train ride all the cozier. As the train roared through the landscape either side displayed an impressive landscape. While the inside of the train remained the same with ugly purple seats and fluorescent lighting, the world around us was quickly changing, constantly different and yet still similar. Mountains surrounding small lakes covered in greenery to both the left and right. The day was turning out to be a beautiful one as we all shared stories surrounded by windows boasting panoramic views.
About half way through our journey a woman with long curly blonde hair and glasses on the top of her head came down the aisle pushing a trolley. She asked, “Anything off the trolley?” while motioning towards tea and snacks. I wanted to ask her if she had any chocolate frogs but opted against, figuring she had probably heard that joke more than once. After all, we were riding on the same train journey that the Hogwarts Express, the steam train with its red exterior and steam clouds spouting from the black locomotive, takes in Harry Potter. I was in heaven.
Keeping with the Harry Potter theme, we soon passed over the Glenfinnan Viaduct built in 1901, seen in the second film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The viaduct, built entirely from concrete, has 21 consecutive semi-circle arches that pan across Loch Shiel, and was built to transport materials more efficiently across the valley. The entire car moved to the left side of the train sticking phones and cameras out the window as we passed over the viaduct in hopes of capturing the perfect photo and maybe spotting Harry and Ron in a flying car above. It was surreal to see the view of the viaduct in real life after seeing it in movies so frequently. We quickly passed over the viaduct and took in the scenery for the last hour of our ride. While I was excited to get off the train and stretch my legs, I wasn’t sure I wanted the train ride to end because the motion was peaceful and the views were spectacular.
When we pulled into Mallaig station we were 15 minutes behind schedule which meant we just missed the ferry to Skye. As frustrated and exhausted as I was, I took it as an opportunity to relax and eat before the next long leg of our journey. Waiting an hour before the next ferry departure, we ventured into the nearest restaurant that looked like a cross between a middle school dining hall and a nursing home. The tables, covered in table cloths with cartoon farm animals, were filled with people over the age of 70 enjoying the early bird special. One ordered from a counter near the kitchen at the back and the menu consisted of five items on a small chalkboard, most of which were breakfast related. I ordered scrambled eggs and toast but it was difficult to eat the scrambled eggs as they were rich with butter, the traditional Scottish way. Hunger won, however, and I wolfed them down.
In typical Scottish fashion, the skies stopped trying to hold in the rain and Mallaig was spontaneously consumed in a rain storm. This was the last thing I wanted at the time as my body yearned for a nap. But, zipped up in rain coats, knowing how useless an umbrella would be, we waited in line for the ferry. The dampness and cold penetrated our jackets as the wind blew. The ferry, named Coir’Uisg’ after a nearby loch, was white, adorned with three red and gold Lion Rampants, from Scotland’s old royal coat of arms. When the ferry docked, we rushed inside the warmth, thankful for an opportunity to get dry. However, as the ferry pulled out of the station and crossed Loch Hourn I knew I had to go outside, even in the rain. I need to feel the rain on my cheeks and the wind sting my eyes to make sure it was all still real. Once we got out onto the water the rain had calmed down but the mist and wind were strong. Still, the foggy view behind us of jagged cliff edges was beautiful. And yet directly in front of us, I could barely make out the shore line of the Isle of Skye port. The captain appeared to be steering the ship from memory as the fog was dense. A few friends joined me and we sat on the cherry red seats, in silence, on the upper deck, shivering in the cold as the ferry docked in the Skye port, Armadale.
Because of our earlier train delay, we missed the last bus from the Armadale ferry station to Uig. We knew of a small cab company, Kyle Taxis, from our research the day before and called them hoping they could accommodate eight people. Luckily, they had a large van available and were able to pick us up. It was late in the afternoon and the Armadale station was closed so we explored around the small pier to stay warm as it was still raining, though no longer as heavy.
At the end of the pier was a randomly placed small white building with few windows and a giant sign reading “The Leather Shop.” At the front of the pier was a small boutique selling knitwear and jewelry named Ragamuffin and a small circular café with wooden picnic tables. All were closed. It was as if the world was playing a cruel joke. We needed covering from the elements and yet everything was closed. At this point, all I wanted was a warm cup of hot chocolate and fire to sit in front of. Across the empty parking lot was a sign for the Faerie Glade and Woodland Walk. Toy faerie dolls were surreptitiously placed hiding in bushes, swinging in trees, or perched on oversized wooden mushrooms. Carved in tree trunks were faces of wise old men and Gaelic symbols. I couldn’t help but laugh because we had apparently arrived to the heart of fairy folklore.
Skye has a long history with fairy myths most of which originated from the legend of the Fairy Flag at Dunvegan Castle. Legend states that a long ago a chief of Clan MacLeod met and fell in love with a beautiful woman who turned out to be a fairy princess. Her father only allowed her to marry the chief on the condition that she return to the fairy land after a year and a day. Soon, the wife and her husband gave birth to a son. After a year was over, the wife returned to the fairy lands leaving behind her husband and son. In order to console the grieving chief, Clan MacLeod threw a party. However, during the loud noise, the son’s nurse was unable to hear him cry. The fairy wife did hear her son and immediately came back to console him, wrapping him up in a special fairy shawl. Years later, when the son grew up, he told his father of his mother’s visit and that the shawl was magical. The shawl could be waved three times by Clan MacLeod and fairy help would come, on the fourth time it would disappear. To this day, the shawl has only been waved twice, saving the clan from invasion and plague. It still hangs on a pole at the top of Dunvegan Castle. Because of this, many landmarks in Skye are dedicated to the fairy people and are also called fairy because of their uniqueness or magical nature.
When our taxi finally arrived, Caitlin, our local driver picked us up and we embarked on the final leg of our journey. After informing us that we still had about an hour to go before reaching Uig, she gave us information and told us stories about Isle of Skye traditions. Glamaig mountain is a steep cone shape with a height of roughly 2,500 ft. Each year Skye residents race to climb to the top of the “hill” and back trying to beat the famous time of just 55 minutes, set in 1900. Catilin, with a thick Scottish accent, pointed out famous landmarks, whiskey distilleries, old castles, the only Gaelic-language college, and provided us with advice of where to go and what to eat.
After a long day of travel, when we finally arrived in Uig we all immediately got out of our wet clothes and fell asleep in our beds at the Cowshed Boutique Bunkhouse. Waking up from our naps, we were desperate to find somewhere to get dinner. Upon stepping outside of the hostel, the view in front of us took our breaths away.
Cowshed was located on the top of a hill and looked out onto the small village of Uig, Uig Bay, a single large pier, and the cliffs behind them. Across the bay in the middle of Loch Snizort are the Ascrib Islands. Overlooking the water, the sky had cleared and the sun came out just in time to watch it set. As it disappeared beyond the horizon, the most beautiful sherbet sunset was in front of us brightening the lingering clouds. I immediately balanced myself on the porch railing and gazed in awe.
I watched as the sun slowly dipped behind the islands and the sky went from pale blue to cotton candy pink to creamsicle orange. What was one of the longest days of travel quickly saw a beautiful end. Even though the journey was tiring, grey, and rainy, enjoying the Scottish Highlands with beautiful mountain scenery and lake views was fantastic. However, watching one of the most beautiful sunsets overlooking a loch in the Isle of Skye is picture I will never forget.
As the sky darkened, my friends and I gathered up and headed down the hill to town to find a bar where I could buy my first legal drink. A day of travelling turned out to be an unbelievable 21st birthday.