You’re planning your first trip to Scotland. You intend to spend as little time as possible in the cities – you want to see picture-book Scotland. Your dream destination: the Isle of Skye. You’ve seen it in films, read about it on blogs and got yourself high on pictures off Pinterest. The dramatic approach through the Highlands; the rising peaks of the Cuillin mountains; the colourful harbour front of Portree and the bizarre rock formations of Kilt Rock or the Quiraing. Surely, the Fairy Pools alone have made you chose the Isle of Skye for your holiday. Time for a reality check…
While Skye is indeed a beautiful place, Scotland is so much more than the Isle of Skye. Here are some reasons why you should kick the Isle of Skye off number 1 on your Scotland bucket list and some alternatives for your itinerary instead!
The Isle of Skye is probably Scotland’s most accessible island, because it’s connected to the mainland by a bridge – so what am I talking about?
- It’s a long drive from Glasgow or Edinburgh. Doable in a day, but hardly worth spending so much time on the road, zooming past the Highlands, just to spend a day or to on the island…
- It’s like taking one of those coach tours – the main attractions on the classic Isle of Skye Itinerary (Quiraing, Kilt Rock, Old Man of Storr) are more or less places where you stop for a picture and then drive on. To get off the beaten path, you need more time!
- It’s bigger than it looks and some main attractions are actually quite far apart. You’ll spend a lot of time on the road if you want to see it all!
View from our B&B in the middle of nowhere…
2) Accommodation is expensive
Many guided overnight trips to the Isle of Skye include accommodation on the mainland, rather than staying on the island – because it’s pricey. Camping is your cheapest option, and there are some hostels too – but bed & breakfasts or hotels are expensive!
When I visited with my family during high season (May), the only affordable B&B we could find was far off the beaten track at the end of a pretty long single track road. The views were gorgeous, but the added driving time meant less time to actually explore.
Three tourists “ruining” my mum’s photo of our boat guide…
3) It’s touristy & oversaturated
Especially during the summer months the island is buzzing with tourists. Coaches and mini-vans clog up the car parks, people stand in the way of your picture-perfect photographs, restaurants are full and accommodation is even harder to get.
Everyone is heading to the Isle of Skye. They drive along the same roads, they take the same photos and they do the same walks. Admittedly, they are picturesque, but when I plan my own itineraries I generally like to include more off-beat destinations. Furthermore, ticking off the Skye bucket list takes its toll on the environment in an unnecessary way.
4) It’s overrated
Skye is pretty – there is no arguing with that. But one of those bucket list worthy places is in fact incredibly overrated: the Fairy Pools. I get it, photos like these make many people believe that this is an absolute must-see in Scotland. The tough truth? They are heavily photoshopped.
The Fairy Pools make for a nice walk when the sun is out, but to be honest, they are really not all that special – it’s just a stream. There are nicer walks with better views all over the Highlands and islands!
Fair enough – bad weather is a risk all over Scotland. Yet having driven for hours just to reach the Isle of Skye for an overnight trip, and then it’s pouring down, really puts things not perspective… Scotland can be beautiful in the rain, but if your plan is to visit Skye for the money shots, then you better be flexible with your timing!
Read more: What is the best time to visit Scotland?
Now, don’t get me wrong – the Isle of Skye is also an incredibly beautiful place and I don’t want to say you definitely should not visit. All I’m saying is that there is more to Scotland than the Isle of Skye and it’s worth to put a little more thought into researching the best destination in Scotland for you. In fact, many local Scottish people I know have never even been to Skye, because they find all they need someplace else.
Skye is not your only chance for a complete Scottish experience with ruined castles, bizarre rock formations, colourful harbour fronts, streams that form little pools and dramatic mountain ranges. Here are some alternatives to consider when planning your itinerary.
Isle of Rum
The Isle of Rum is a small island just south of the Isle of Skye – the Cuillins are visible on the horizon. This is a hiker’s or mountain biker’s paradise, but also the castle in Kinloch can be visited. I recommend camping for a weekend, climbing the munroes, walking across the island to the beach of Kilmory and making a bonfire with the blinking lights of mainland Scotland in the distance.
On your way to the ferry port in Mallaig you will follow the ‘Road to the Isles’ – arguably the most beautiful road in Scotland – and come past the Glenfinnan Monumet and Viaduct, where the Jacobite Steam Train crosses twice a day in high season!
√ Dramatic natural landscape
√ Bonfire romance
√ No tourists in sight
+ See the Jacobite Steam Train
Read more: A Weekend Trip to the Isle of Rum
Admittedly, the Outer Hebrides are a bit out of the way – 2.5 hours by ferry from Ullapool to Stornaway, or a quick flight from one of the main city hubs like Glasgow or Edinburgh. But they are worth the effort.
You might have heard about Harris and Lewis before, but the Outer Hebrides also span the islands of Barra, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist and Berneray, as well as numerous smaller islands. Arriving by plane you can land at the only airport in the world that uses the beach as a runway. Camping here, you might be woken up by beautiful white horses grazing in front of your “door”. This is where Stornoway black pudding is from and Harris Tweed is produced until today. Even Gaelic is still spoken here!
√ Beaches like the Caribbean
√ Standing stones
√ Gaelic culture & language
+ Land on a beach!
Cairngorms – Royal Deeside – Speyside
The Cairngorms is a mountain range in the eastern Highlands of Scotland and is the perfect destination for anyone who’s looking for outdoor activities in the hills or on water. Make sure to take plenty of time to explore the beautiful Scottish forests and find a perfect picnic spot by a loch.
Just east of the mountains history buffs get their castle fix in the Royal Deeside valley, where Queen Victoria used to spend her summer holidays at Balmoral Castle. The castle can be visited in the early summer months, but shuts its doors in August for the current Queen of England to visit.
North of the national park lies Speyside, the area of Scotland with the highest whisky distillery density and home of classic single malt whiskies such as Glenfiddich, Macallan or Glenlivet.
√ Dramatic mountain range
√ Fresh local produce & food scene
√ Balmoral Castle
+ More whisky than you can drink
Isle of Arran
The Isle of Arran is also called Scotland in miniature. This is the perfect island getaway if you are pressed for time and you can even reach it by public transport – rail&sail tickets ftw! (Although you can also bring your car across with you.)
Arran has everything you might want to add to your Scotland bucket list – a family-friendly hike with great views (Goatfell), castles, a distillery and a brewery, wildlife watching and boat trips to the Holy Isle.
There is no need to spend a lot of time on the road to reach a fab Scottish island – the Isle of Arran is just there!
√ Beautiful scenery
√ It’s own little “fairy pools” on the way up Goatfell
√ Seal & bird colonies on Holy Isle
+ Super accessible by car & public transport
Related read: Hiking up Goatfell on the Isle of Arran
Loch Lomond & the Trossachs
In Scotland, you don’t have to drive long to reach the mountains. The peaks of the Trossachs might not be as high and dramatic-looking as the Nevis Range by Fort William or the Cuillins on the Isle of Skye, but the national park surrounding Loch Lomond is nevertheless a great outdoor destination.
Why not visit Stirling Castle, have a dram at Glengoyne distillery and then head for a road trip around Loch Achray and Aberfoyle? Ben A’an is a challenging, but quick hike rewarded by amazing views, but even from the smaller hills you can often enjoy fabulous views over Loch Lomond.
√ Lochs & hills wherever you look
√ Excellent road tripping conditions
√ Boat cruises on Loch Lomond
+ A dram at the distillery
When you plan your trip, don’t just sheepishly follow the crowds as they flock to the Isle of Skye. Take some time to shop around and find the perfect Scottish experience that fits your type!
With the Isle of Skye off the table, what is on your Scotland bucket list?
All photos by Kathi Kamleitner (except instagrams).