Standing with my sons Beneath The Old Man of Storr
Trotternish Peninsula, Isle of Skye
I've sometimes been accused of being a little crazy when it comes to vacation planning. Most people choose to go on normal vacations where everything is convenient and the weather is sunny and warm. Somehow, most of my vacation-planning goes in the opposite direction. I blame Scotland. My idea of "vacation" was completely reinvented the first time I stood amidst the castle ruins of Dunnottar, perched on a cliff overlooking the North Sea. Granted, the brisk weather was enough to freeze anything under a kilt, but I was captivated by the moody colors and the windswept terrain littered with the ancient architectural remnants of history. My FAN-Z-fied love affair with Scotland had begun. Which is how my family and I wound up on the Isle of Skye.
You've probably seen The Isle of Skye in a movie. It's been featured in films like Prometheus, Snow White and the Huntsman, and The BFG. But I became aware of Skye before those films were released. That's because I stumbled across a Japanese blog post while planning a circle-the-UK cruise for our family. The post featured photos of a hike to a rocky landslip (the Storr) with mammoth rocks jutting towards the sky. The most renowned one being The Old Man of Storr.
Well, I was gobsmacked. It was like no place I'd ever seen or been. Unfortunately, it was a little bit out of the way, but I was determined to get us there, even though it would require "jumping ship" between the Scottish ports of Greenock and Invergorden and skipping the "day at sea" portion of the trip. Which was fine by me. Who wants to just look at a Hebridean Island when you can be hiking it instead?
Obsessed by The Old Man, I did some quick calculations.
"Hmmm, if we jump ship in Greenock, we just have to find a way to get to Skye that day. Then we could hike on the following day while the ship is sailing north. Then we just gotta find someone to drive us to Invergordon to catch the cruise ship by the following evening. That gives us less than twenty-four hours on Skye—but it'll totally be worth it."
I have since come to learn that "totally worth it" may mean different things to different people. Different people being my family members. For some (problematic) people, "totally worth it" has to take into account what it actually takes to get to the place you want to go.
Here is what it took to get to Skye:
We crossed an ocean by plane, boarded a cruise ship in the south of England, sailed to Greenock, Scotland and jumped ship early in the morning to catch a taxi to Glasgow where we caught a train for a five-plus hour journey through the Scottish Highlands to Mallaig, where we had about ten minutes to sprint to the port to catch the last ferry to cross the Sound of Sleat to reach the port of Armadale on the Isle of Skye where we jumped into the rental car waiting for us to make the hour-and-a-half drive to our charming B&B, The Glenview.
It was during the looooooong drive (in the dark) (on the left side of curvaceous, mountainous roads) (that frequently narrowed to one lane) that my family began questioning whether a visit to the Isle of Skye was really "totally worth it".
"Mom! How much further is it?"
"Um, we should be getting close."
"Boy, it's so dark out here." my hubby muttered, squinting behind the wheel. "Check the distance on your phone,"
"I'm not getting any service out here."
"Grrrr-aaaate!" (Group growl.)
After what seemed an eternity, we pulled into the parking lot of our delightful B&B, The Glenview. After apologizing for arriving at such a late hour, we were told by the inn's owners that the chef had kept dinner ready for us. Exhausted and grateful, we sat down and were immediately served a first course of Tomato Basil Soup that literally blew our minds.
"This is amazing!"
"The flavor! So fresh!"
"Best soup ever!"
"See?" I chimed happily, between slurps. "Totally worth it so far!"
But when morning came, I was afraid that I may have been wrong.
"Oh, no," Dan moaned when he got out of the bed and looked out the window. "It's raining buckets!"
"Crap. Maybe it will blow over though."
"It doesn't look like the kind of weather that just blows over."
We had breakfast and then peeked out the front door. Sheets of rain greeted us.
I turned to our hosts.
"I thought the weather in May was supposed to be nice."
"Well, usually it is. But this year we had our typical May weather during April. It was lovely! But now it seems that we are getting our April weather in May."
"Oh man. We came all this way just to do some hiking and we're only here for one day."
"Don't worry," our innkeepers chirped. "It'll blow over in no time. You'll be fine hiking!"
We remained dubious, especially after we got drenched just walking to the car.
"They said it'll blow over!" I proclaimed, trying to be optimistic. "Let's drive to the Old Man of Storr. That's the hike I want to take you guys on."
Soon the iconic Old Man came into sight, but then it began raining hard again.
The Old Man of Storr as seen from the highway below.
"We are NOT hiking in this." Dan asserted. The boys concurred.
"Okay, let's head north. We'll outrun the storm. We'll see the other sights and head back after the rain has blown past. Let's start with Kilt Rock."
It was still drizzly when we arrived, but Mealt Falls was stunning.
Mealt Falls cascading over Kilt Rock into the sea.
But storm clouds and rains were approaching from the south, so we jumped in the car and headed inland towards the famed Quiraing. Before long, we entered a landscape that took our breath away.
"Wow, it's like a different planet! Like Mars—only green!" I exclaimed.
Excited to do a little exploring, we leapt out of the car and began scrambling up the side of a steep hill that lead to a plateau. Once we reached the first level, the wind picked up and it was all we could do to keep from being blown over the edge. The winds were biting, the kind of bitter cold that stings your flesh.
"It's FREEZING!" Dan bellowed.
"Mom, why didn't you tell us to bring a hat and some gloves?"
"Because it was supposed to be warm in May!" I screeched. "This is the stupid April weather! Careful near the edge! You'll blow off it you get too close!"
crouching to keep from being blown over the edge
The winds were so strong that you could lean forward or backwards into it and not fall down. It felt a bit like being a kite. On a really, really, really cold day.
"MAY DAY! MAY DAY!
This is NOT the "Day in May" weather we were expecting!
But despite the bitter cold, we kept rambling because the landscape was so stunning and otherworldly. We felt like we were in the movie The Lord of the Rings. But after about half an hour, our measly windbreakers just weren't cutting it.
Eventually, it became a little TOO MUCH like Lord of the Rings—like when they were about to freeze to death on the Pass of Caradhras and Boromir was shouting . . .
We raced back to the car to stave off the onset of frostbite. Our fingers, toes, and faces were frozen and numb.
"Now what?" Dan asked as we hunkered down in the car for warmth.
"Well, it looks like the sun is coming out in the West. Let's cut across the island to Duntulm."
"What's in Duntulm?"
"Castle ruins by the sea."
Remarkably, we were greeted with sunshine when we arrived at the western coastline. This was when we began to realize that part of the magic of this beautiful isle is truly in the sky itself. The shifting shades of color brought about by the ever-changing weather are really something to behold. You never have to wait long for the next rainbow.
Walking to The cliffside ruins of Duntulm Castle
Once the seat of the chiefs of the Clan MacDonald of Sleat in the 17th Century.
Despite the onset of sunshine, the winds were very strong and quite chilly, forcing us to take refuge in the ruins until the winds died down a bit. But the water was a magnificent, sparkling shade of blue and the ruins were majestic. I fell madly in love with the place.
Soon the dark clouds began to roll in, so we made our way back to the car.
The cold had whetted our appetites, so we drove back across the island to the picturesque town of Portree to find some sustenance. During lunch we had a discussion that went something like this:
"Why don't we just call it a day," my husband suggested. "Let's head to the castle we're staying at in Plockton."
"No way!" said I. "We jumped ship for one reason and one reason only—to hike up to The Old Man of Storr."
"But we've already hiked a bunch."
"But not to The Old Man!"
"What we've already seen is pretty amazing. We don't need to see anymore."
"YES WE DO! Trust me! You haven't seen photos of this place. It's unreal. We HAVE to hike it. I'm not leaving here till we do. It's why we came here!"
All three of the menfolk sighed, quietly surrendering. (My inner Sarah Connor was beginning to emerge and no one wanted to go there.)
After lunch we headed north to The Old Man of Storr. It was raining again, but not in sheets.
"Are you sure about this?" my hubby grumbled.
"Positive! Trust me, even if we have to hike the whole way in the rain, it'll totally be worth it."
"How far is it?" asked a concerned son.
"Oh, I think it's probably takes about thirty minutes to hike to The Old Man." I mean, you can see it from here. Can't be that far."
"Okay, that's doable in the rain."
And off we trotted. Straight uphill. Into a forest. A dark forest. So dark that it was almost hard to see at times.
"Whoa, this is like hiking into Mordor!"
Eventually, we decided that we should try to find a way to hike outside of the forest so that we could actually see our destination. We climbed up a steep bank until we reached an opening and were rewarded with a breathtaking view!
looking down at the road below and the sea beyond.
in the opposite direction was our destination:
The Old Man of Storr—the tall pinnacle on the lower ridge.
We walked for a time above the forest, then found our way back down to the main path. Eventually we came to a gate. The Old Man was just up the hill. That's when we noticed that all the other hikers were rapidly making their way DOWN the hill, probably because of the heavy mist rolling in. One passerby was kind enough to stop and take a photo of the four of us before we began our ascent.
Here we are . . . So Happy That the rain had let up.
And so clueless about what the mist above really meant.
"Okay," Dan noted, "that took half an hour just to get here."
"Yeah," I admitted. "But it looks like we only have about twenty minutes of hiking left to get there."
"Let's just remember that we have over an hour's drive to get to the castle."
"No worries. The Old Man isn't much further. And isn't it COOL?"
"It is pretty epic." commented one son, as he leapt across a massive puddle.
"Yeah, pretty cool." agreed the other son, balancing on a slippery rock.
We began scrambling upward, while everyone else trotted downhill past us. After about fifteen minutes, we looked back to see how far we had come.
"Wow. You can't even see the road from here."
We hiked and hiked. And hiked. Then we looked back again.
"Whoa! Now you can see the sea and the mainland."
"We are really high up!"
"But wait . . . Um, is it just me or does The Old Man NOT seem any closer."
We all looked up. It seemed close. But not any closer than it had seemed about fifteen minutes earlier.
"Just keep going!" Dan barked. "It looks like it might start to pour at any second."
We hiked. And hiked. The path meandered. Sometimes The Old Man seemed to disappear from view altogether.
Slowly we began to realize that The Law of Distances works differently in Scotland. Things are always higher and further than they appear. But there was no way we were turning around. We were determined to make it to The Old Man, come what may.
And something did come. Heavy rains.
In addition to hiking in my super-slippery, not-made-for-hiking boots (I accidentally left mine at home) I had the added task of taking photos while trying to keep the camera dry. It was not going well. Then suddenly, the heavens opened, releasing a deluge.
"Just run ahead without me!" I screeched. "I'll stay here and get photos and try to protect the camera".
The menfolk began sprinting up the path.
Minutes later they reached the final stretch leading to The Old Man.
Suddenly, the rain became a waterfall and I couldn't see anything except for the tiny red blur of my husband's coat.
"Almost there," I chanted. "Run, run, run! Before the camera gets waterlogged."
Then I lost sight of even my husband.
"Whoa. How big is that dang rock? I can't even see them anymore." I began to worry that they had slipped and fallen over the other side of the mountain.
As I scanned the area, looking for my lost boys, the deluge let up, becoming a heavy drizzle, which allowed me to make out a red spot nearing the base of the rock. I zoomed in and that's when the sheer size of The Old Man really registered.
"Holy cow," I croaked. "It's massive!"
(Later I would learn that The Old Man is over 160 feet tall; well over twelve stories high.)
Using my zoom lens I was able to watch the guys clamber their way up to The Old Man's base.
Eventually, they made it! I was envious—but a mom's gotta do what a mom's gotta do to get pictures for posterity. Besides, I was already making plans to come back and hike it myself. (Which I did.) (Twice.)
The menfolk didn't loiter long because the heavy drizzle got worse. They sprinted the whole way down. It was like watching Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli chasing the Orcs and Uruk Hai in The Two Towers. Or a super-soggy version of Chariots of Fire.
The conquering heroes paused long enough for me to snap one last photo with The Old Man and then we slid and skidded down the muddy path, back into the dark forest, and on to the car in just under an hour. (Down was faster than Up.)
After shedding our soaked coats and climbing into the car, I turned around and asked my sons, "Well? What did you think?"
And then I heard the words that my inner vacation-planner loves to hear:
"Wow Mom! Best hike EVER!"
"Totally worth it!"
And—even better—my husband was like, "We gotta come back!"
Happily exhausted, we turned the car towards the Scottish mainland, where we would spend the night in a real castle—a dreamy ending to what I would call "a perfect day".
Alas, what transpired next was not a dreamy ending.
Stay tuned for part 2
when your dream of sleeping in a castle becomes your Worst Nightmare
(I promise it will be Totally worth it!)