Travel: Skye, Lewis and Orkney

Portree on the Isle of Skye. Picture: Getty
Portree on the Isle of Skye. Picture: Getty
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The wilds of Scotland are more magnificent when it’s your job to see them through a stranger’s eyes, writes Neil Wilson

DESPITE 25 years of writing guidebooks for foreign destinations as diverse as Malta, Malaysia, the Czech Republic and Azerbaijan, there’s still something special about writing a guide to my own country. In the words of GK Chesterton: “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” Trying to see Scotland through the eyes of a visitor is both challenging and refreshing; it’s all too easy to forget what a special place we live in.

Skara Brae on Orkney. Picture: Getty

Skara Brae on Orkney. Picture: Getty

Every second year, my co-author and I hit the road for two months to update the Lonely Planet guide to Scotland. We travel all over the country and visit hundreds of tourist attractions, hotels, B&Bs, backpacker hostels, cafés, restaurants and pubs. We update all the perishable information, cut the places that are closed or no longer up to scratch, and seek out the new and the exciting. We don’t list every possible eating place, attraction or B&B; only what we consider to be the best.

A good guidebook should be like an experienced travelling companion, suggesting how to make the best of your time, offering context and advice, and always telling it like it is, without fear or favour. There’s a constant balancing act to be achieved between covering the highlights in depth and encouraging the reader to explore off the beaten track. It’s a challenge that always keeps you on your toes.

The Isle of Skye is always number one on our list of Scottish highlights because it has all the qualities that make Scotland as a whole such a great place to visit – stunning scenery, deep history, dramatic wildlife and outdoor adventure. From the rocky ridges of the Cuillin to the improbable pinnacles of the Quiraing, the landscapes of Skye are a constant delight, enhanced by the ever-changing Hebridean light. And just across the water, stretching north from Kyle to Cape Wrath, lies the desolate beauty of the northwest Highlands, whose pillared peaks and lonely lochs are a magnet for photographers, hill walkers and anglers.

Wildlife is one of the biggest attractions for visitors. The Highland skies are home to iconic Scottish species like the white-tailed sea eagle, with its huge 2.5m wingspan, the equally majestic golden eagle, and the rare and endangered hen harrier. You can watch otters tumbling in the kelp all around the coast and see red deer roaming the hills. But it’s the seas around Scotland’s west coast that provide the most intense Scottish wildlife experience – whale watching. The waters of the Minch are one of Britain’s richest marine habitats, and boat trips out of Skye, Mull, Gairloch and other places offer the chance to get up close and personal with porpoises, dolphins and minke whales and even get a glimpse of a humpback whale, sperm whale or killer whale.

Scotland’s great outdoors also provides one of Europe’s biggest adventure playgrounds. Walking the West Highland Way is at the top of many hikers’ tick lists (around 50,000 people walk at least part of the trail each year), following 96 miles of old drove roads, hill paths and military roads amid glorious scenery. Rising above its northern end, Ben Nevis provides an additional challenge for keen hillwalkers, many of whom get bitten by the Munro bug and return year after year to tick off Scotland’s 282 summits of 3,000ft (914m) and above.

Over the last decade, the country has become a world-class mountain-biking destination, with everything from purpose-built cross-country and downhill trails to remote and challenging off-road experiences, and new trail centres, such as BikeGlenlivet near Tomintoul, spring up every year. Since 2001, Fort William has hosted a round of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup, and the amazing videos made by Skye-born stunt cyclist Danny MacAskill have provided superb adverts for Scotland’s scenery; The Ridge, released in October 2014, is simply mind-blowing.

But what sets Scotland’s landscapes apart is the history that lies embedded there like fossil shells in stone. The outlines of a clearance village in a now deserted glen, an unobtrusive cairn marking the site of a clan battle, or 5,000-year-old neolithic houses emerging from the dunes at Skara Brae. Glenfinnan’s sweeping vista of loch and mountain finds a focus in the monument to the ’45, while the hills of Glen Coe wouldn’t have the same brooding atmosphere without the tragic tale of the 1692 massacre. And there’s barely a corner of the country where a castle, ruined or rampant, doesn’t lend a picturesque foreground to the view.

One of the most enjoyable parts of guidebook research is seeking out the best places to eat. Not just upmarket restaurants, but also cafés and bistros that make the most of local produce. We do lots of research before we hit the road – scouring the internet, reading local magazines, and sifting through readers’ emails – but often it’s word-of-mouth that leads to hidden gems such as the Red Roof Cafe on Skye (home-baked bread and scones, and salad leaves grown just along the road), or 88 Degrees in Kirriemuir (delicious omelettes, handmade chocolates and the best coffee in the east).

Checking out accommodation is a big part of the job, and it’s great to see the energy and creativity that is going into the best of Scotland’s guest houses, B&Bs and holiday cottages. Places like Auberge Carnish in Lewis and Calgary Farmhouse in Mull are up there with the best in Europe.

Despite having worked on seven consecutive editions of the Scotland guidebook, exploring my homeland still feels like a privilege. There’s always something fresh to discover, another trail to hike, a hill to climb, a new café or restaurant to enthuse over. In fact, the most difficult part of the job is deciding what to leave out. Long may it remain so.

Lonely Planet Scotland (new edition), Neil Wilson, Lonely Planet, £13.99 (