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Scotland & Its Rugged Isle of Skye

I’m standing in a cluttered minefield of sheep shit on a grassy bluff above the wild Atlantic Ocean on Scotland’s rugged Isle of Skye. A week ago I was tip-toeing across the sheer face of a cliff 2,000 feet above Switzerland’s Lauterbrunnen Valley, the edges of my feet standing precariously on half-inch wide iron rungs, so the sheep shit is a marked improvement. I’m not complaining.

This is what you expect when you visit this iconic island. In fact, it’s what you come for. Maybe not specifically the sheep pies, but all of it: the unapologetic winds that punch you in the gut; the temperamental rains that start and stop and then start again, sometimes in a nearly invisible drizzle, other times a violent and soaking attack of nature. The Isle of Skye needs to make sure that you really, really want to be here.

This leg of our European trip began with the usual ups and downs—a two-hour wait for our rental car in Edinburgh; a good meal in attractive and clean St. Andrews; a memorable night’s sleep on a boat in its tiny harbor. In the morning, we had breakfast at a great little coffee shop called The Black Sheep before visiting the Old Golf Course—the world’s first, actually—and then hit the road for an all day’s drive across this small country, from St. Andrews in the southeast to the Isle of Skye in the northwest.

Smartly, we’d rented a two-bedroom house on airbnb, giving the three of us—my wife, my brother, and myself—space to relax after the day’s long drive and after a wet tour of the island the next. Aside from the small town of Portree, there is little in the way of amenities on the Isle of Skye. Outside of Portree, you’re not going to find much in the way of restaurants, coffee shops, or even grocery stores. But we had our own house, with laundry and a kitchen, and so we settled in.

Looking at the map in my guidebook, one would get the impression that Skye has a half dozen or so natural wonders to be seen. Certainly the strings of cars parked on the sides of the road at these attractions back this up: The Old Man of Storr, Kilt Rock and Meade Falls, the Fairy Glen, to name just a few. But the reality is, like Ireland’s Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula, Skye is by no means just about its greatest hits. The real magic of Skye is in its secluded surprises: the striking view of the sea that presents itself while driving around a random corner; the crumbled ruins of an old stone farmhouse sitting lonely in a grassy basin populated with sheep and grazing long-haired cattle.

Skye is about these moments above the others. Stretches of land that remind you just how big the world sometimes is, green hills and valleys as far as the eye can see, the scope so wide and far that it becomes difficult, impossible, to judge distances and sizes. You pull the car over on a random shoulder and leave the road behind, hiking down a rocky, unstable slope, and within minutes you are alone if you don’t include the suspicious, glaring sheep. It’s a little chilly and there’s a fine mist clinging to the air, and your shoes are a little wet, but it’s beautiful. Even the sun is trying its hardest to poke a hole in the stubborn gray sky. It’ll fail, but it’s trying.

I’m wet and my core is getting cold, but it’s hard to turn away from the beauty. My brother later said that Scotland at times reminded him of a lot of other places he’s seen—Ireland, of course, but also Iceland at times and even Hawaii. And I have to agree.

My eyeglasses are speckled with fine rain until I can’t see too well anymore, so it’s time to make myself turn back. I’m tired, and maybe even getting a little bit sick. It’s hard to tell. But I’ve managed to avoid the sheep shit, and so that’s a victory. And just a few miles ahead is our rented home. Hot showers await, and a fireplace, and soon the kitchen will come alive with the smells of the Scottish meat pie we’d picked up at the store earlier. A couple dark local beers, too, from the Isle of Skye Brewing Company. And later, while we’re watching a movie, my eyes are going to drift to the front window, the sun not quite set yet at eleven p.m., and I’m going to gaze past the rain streaks tracking the glass and the slanted houses that slope away down the hill and dot the green landscape, the Scottish mountains hazy in the far distance, like gray ghosts.

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