Skye is an almost unbelievably beautiful place: the Cuillin are the mountains of our childhood imaginings, great black pyramids and spires, still spattered in snow when I was there last week. The nearby Red Hills rise steep and barren: again there is nothing quite like them anywhere else in the Highlands. Then there’s the cliffs and spires of the northern hills, the sea cliffs, the shimmering lochs, the small white cottages …
It’s easy to see why the place is a magnet for tourism, with the roads thronged, Portree rammed with people… and yet my visit there last week left me wondering just what the visitors really get out of it.
I had heard before that a few select spots such as the Fairy Pools have become overrun with visitors, but nothing quite prepared me for seeing perhaps 200 vehicles parked in every possible (and a few not-so-possible) places on the main Staffin road below the Old Man of Storr.
One group of young guys had got out their car and were standing, shirts off and slung over the shoulders, looking up at the hills from a fine vantage point in the middle of the road, while traffic slowed and drove around them. It’s not a single-track or anything: it’s a main A-road.
Sure, the Old Man is a fine place for a wander, and I’ve been up many winters ago for a scramble round; then there was no other soul there. But go there with perhaps 400 other folk? I might as well be out in Kelvingrove Park on a sunny Saturday.
Skye is blessed with a decent road network, plenty of access to many wonderful places, plenty of great sights; why on earth people think it is essential to see the ‘five best’ or the ‘ten best’, the place that featured in a film or on telly, when almost every square mile of this island provides another natural wonder, is beyond me.
Maybe if the tourists are stuck in the honeypots it’s a blessing. I was shown a fabulous spot on a sea-cliff top not far from the Storr by a couple of locals who use it to watch otters and whales, dolphins and porpoises. Not many people go there, and those who seek out the less-easy, less pre-digested experience, can find plenty of these places. If they become popular they could be ruined.
But I can’t help thinking that the ant-like visitors are missing out when they stick to their guide-books and follow the rest of the mob to the same old spots to take the same old pictures. Lift up your eyes, look around and see where else you can go: your life will be richer for it. I don’t know if tourist guides and information sites point this out, but maybe they should lay a bit more emphasis on it for the sake of locals, tourists and the places themselves.