A circuit of treasures
Balmacara – Sheil Bridge – Glen Elg – Brochs – Glen Elg Ferry –Kylerhea Otter Haven – Skye Bridge
Sometimes, the lack of roads in the Highland means you have to follow the same route there and back. That’s usually not a problem – the scenery is worth a second look – but circular tours are always good. This tour takes you on some of the less travelled parts of Skye and the Glen Elg peninsula and provides a wonderful mix of scenery, history, and wildlife spotting.
As the authors holiday house, Varis, sits above the A87 at Reraig, Balmacara, that is where we will start but as it is a circuit, so long as you catch the ferry while it is still running, you can start anywhere. At Reraig, there are super views across Lochalsh to the Glen Elg narrows and along Lochalsh to the Skye Bridge.
We head away from the Skye Bridge on the A87 and at Sheil Bridge keep a look out for the feral goats who take a casual attitude to crossing the road. Kintail Lodge here has a good reputation for local game and seafood (bar food available until 2.30pm and 9.30pm.)
From here we take a right the turn to Ratagan. A narrow alpine-style mountain pass, constructed in the 17th century takes the traveller from Shiel Bridge to Glenelg. This was the main route onto Skye until Victorian railways reached Mallaig and Kyle of Lochalsh. Rising from sea level, the road twists and turns towards the summit of Mam Ratagan.
Do stop at the viewpoint and look back onto the Five Sisters of Kintail, a view known for its ‘grandeur, its magic beauty, its terrifying splendour’ (travel writer H. V. Morton).
After the steep ascent, the road gradually descends to Glen Elg. We enjoy looking out for the remains of the original road and its stone bridges and are doubly thankful for the more modern road. As we approach Glen Elg village there is the ruins of a once imposing 4 storey building, Benera Barracks, to the right; mute testimony to troubled times when a military presence was needed to control the important crossing at Glen Elg and subdue possible rebellion.
Glen Elg Village is mainly a pleasant single street including the Glen Elg Inn (serving good local food 12-2.30 and 6.30 to 9.30pm, dog friendly). Overlooking the bay is the War Memorial, a fantastic vantage point for panoramic views up to Kylerhea, across to Skye and down towards the Point of Sleat.
Head south to the Glen Beag Brochs, Dun Telve and Dun Troddan some of the best preserved Iron Age structures on the Scottish mainland. These fortified round houses were built some 2000 years ago and still stand 10m tall.
Brochs are found all over the north of Scotland and made without mortar are impressive structures telling of a sophisticated culture and a need for defence. We like to imagine the lives of those living within the protection of the Brochs and working out where in the Brochs were places for people, food storage and animals.
At Sandaig, the beach and islands are worth investigating, with a moment of homage at this site where Gavin Maxwell lived and wrote Ring of Bright Water.
Returning to Glen Elg village, we then head along the coast north to the delightful Glen Elg Ferry. The Glenachulish is the last manually operated turntable ferry in Scotland carrying just 6 cars at a time. This is a hand operated turntable ferry and at over 40 years old is part of our heritage. The ferry belongs to the charity the Glenachulish Preservation Trust and operated as a community venture. The 2017 fare £15 for a car and four passengers is worth it to preserve this ferry, probably the oldest route onto Skye from the Scottish Mainland. The Ferry runs Easter to mid October 10am to 6pm, weather permitting.
Glen Elg is a narrow strait between the mainland and Skye. Traditionally this was where cattle were swum across to the mainland at slack tide. The tide here is fierce so boats tend to only go through the strait at slack water or with the tide so boats gather north or south of the narrows waiting for the tide to change. The tidal activity means that the narrows attract seals and otters so a typical 20 minute wait for the ferry is often a delight.
On the Skye side, watch out for a sign to the short track to parking for the Kylerhea Otter Haven. Here there is a Marine Mammal Trail to the hide and short loop walk nearby. The route to the hide is suitable for wheelchair users with assistance. We almost always see seals hauled out onto the rocks and a range of birds – oystercatchers, sandpipers, herons, dippers, rock pipits, cormorants, shags, eiders, guillemonts, gannets, kittewakes, fulmars and many gulls, and occasional white-tailed sea eagles. When we are lucky and patient, otters hunt and play on shoreline below the hide. Very occasionally, schools of dolphins can be seen swimming through the narrows.
The old drove road then takes you through Glenn Arroch on Skye with Ben Aslak (605m) and Sgurr Na Coinnich (739m) on either side before turning onto the A87 towards the Skye Bridge.
For many years, Malliag-Armadale and Kyle of Lochalsh-Kyleakin were the main ferry links to Skye. However in 1995, a toll bridge was finally built by private finance. The high levels of tolls were very unpopular and the bridge was bought by the Scottish Government and tolls abolished in 2004. This was a great boon to locals and tourists alike – including visitors to Varis who have free access across to Skye.
Eilean Bàn (White Island), connecting the Skye bridges (pictured in the centre), is a six-acre nature haven. Originally home just to the lighthouse keepers and their families, it later became the residence of the author and naturalist, Gavin Maxwell. Eilean Bàn supports a wealth of wildlife and natural heritage including, of course, otters. Nature trails some suitable for wheelchair users wind around the island leading to different points of interest, including an award winning wildlife hide, a viewing platform and a sensory garden, making a fine stop on our tour.
Finally, Balmacara Woodland Garden hosts Himalayan and far eastern plants, with views of Skye. The garden also includes some sub tropical plants from New Zealand and Tasmania. A pleasant rounding off of a busy day – or you might need two days for the circuit if you investigate all the nooks and crannies.
The original version of this article was published by EmbraceScotland, the home of independent self catering property owners in Scotland at http://www.embracescotland.co.uk/2014/07/the-glen-elg-circuit/
Varis is a comfortable 3 bedroomed bungalow that sleeps 6 overlooking Loch Alsh and Kylerhea owned by the author of this article, Debra Storr. More information at www.varisholiday.co.uk