The scent of Scotland changes as damp rains roll across the land. Throughout the small city of Portree, located on the Isle of Skye, the earthy smell of grass and the fresh scent of wet flowers dominates the air, overriding the powerful scent of deep-frying fish and chips. When the rains come, the town becomes a collage of smells mingling together, pulled on a current of mist.
After having spent rainy days exploring Stirling, and with plans to head to other places in the Highlands, I had hopes that the sun would peek through the clouds during my time on the Isle of Skye, the most easily visited of the Hebridean Islands. Instead, the fickle August weather in Scotland brought a dampness that alternated between whimsical droplets tickling your face to huge, fat, plops slowly drifting downward.
In my every story of Scotland, rain features prominently. Native Scots are quite blasé about the rain, but as a traveler, well, it’s good to know that it’s not an exaggeration! It really does rain. But I was relieved to see that it merely added new dimensions to my trip, and there were plenty of things to do in Portree (and indeed every Scottish city that I visited) that were enjoyable in the rain.
Hiking Near Portree
There are two beautiful walks and hikes around Portree that make for a short couple of hours and very little advance organization of transport. The other hikes are listed next, those are ones that are further afield but still easy day trips from Portree. Although I waited a few days before hiking (I had hoped the rain would abate), eventually I set out anyway and ended up thoroughly enjoying it all.
The Old Man of Storr
The most iconic walk in Scotland is likely this two hour hike to the top of a hillside holding towering volcanic rocks. Since the trailhead is just seven miles from town, it’s the most accessible hike for backpackers, not just those with rental cars. I absolutely adored hiking The Old Man of Storr and the sweeping views from the top are among my favorite memories from this region. Although it was misting a bit when I left town on the bus, the fickle weather changed a lot in the handful of hours it took me to get there, hike it, have lunch, and return. So, even if it’s raining, know that you might just see the clouds part once you’re actually on Trotternish Peninsula and enjoying the landscape. It can be quite muddy in the rain, so only know that you’ll want waterproof boots and a rain jacket, too. My post on the Old Man of Storr covers everything you should know to make it enjoyable and safe.
Portree Harbor Walk
This short walk lasts just an hour and is doable from Portree itself. I stayed at the Portree Youth Hostel, and the owner drew me a map (because, yeah, I have a track record of getting lost!), and then kicked me out of the cozy common room to slosh around in the mud and explore the island. If you’re heading out on this walk, you’ll surely find the path pretty easily from the harbor, but I recommend asking your guesthouse for recommendations on which paths are likely clear and less muddy at the time of year you’re visiting.
The walk parallels Portree Harbor for a while and then loops around the coast to the spot where small ships chug around the corner to take refuge in the harbor. The paths branch off into varying length walks and since I am useless as a navigator (I knew I should have been a girl scout!), I took the longest walk possible which ended in a steep uphill climb with a few last sweeping views of the ocean before cutting across cow pastures and taking in the hairy Highland cows!
These long-haired cows are an ancient breed of cattle that evolved in the Highlands and islands of Scotland. Seeing these was a real highlight of my time on the island as they are just picture perfect. This walk is also remarkable in that it gives you a lot of time near the harbor and many changes to spot the Sea Eagle, the largest bird of prey in Britain.
Hiking Around the Isle of Skye
Portree is the main town on the Isle of Skye and the place from which most people organize their time on the island. There are definitely other accommodations on the island, but to stay there you would need a car for sure. That said, it’s a small island and you can easily see or do any of these hikes no matter where you were staying—some will just take more legwork if you’re using public buses. Here are some of the best ones on the Trotternish and around. While there are more, I aimed to list the ones that are best accessible by both car and bus.
This is a challenging 6.8km hike that is popular with photographers because has stunning views over the area and offers a nice diversity of landscape throughout the hike. It takes up to four hours if you go at a slow pace and stop for photos. Although you could attempt to navigate here on public transport, you’re likely better using the one shuttle transfer service in town if you want to make this happen. Or use your car as it’s quite easy to stop for views here, even if you don’t take the hike. More on how to find and navigate the hike here and this is a pretty post about a family who did part of the walk before turning back on account of the weather.
Rubha nam Brathairean (Brother’s Point)
Technically, you’ll probably not make it here unless you’ve rented a car, or if you’re adept at, and comfortable with, hitchhiking, then you can get there that way. That said, I am told it’s one of the better hikes as it’s less well known but has gorgeous views. Oh! And it has dinosaur prints at low tide. You’ll encounter far fewer tourists here than on the Old Man of Storr hike, and it’s pretty views for days. This page details the best way to undertake this hike, which is about 3km round trip from the road south of Staffin. As an added bonus, the Glenview Hotel has vegetarian (and non-vegetarian) food!
Exploring the Fairy Pools & Talisker Distillery
These two options are nearby enough to each other that if you’re sans car, then you can visit via the shuttle. There are no public routes to the Fairy Pools, however, and really you won’t want to visit on a rainy day—they are at their aquamarine prettiest in the sunshine when you might also take a quick dip if you’ve remembered your swimsuit. The pools are a series of waterfalls and are quite stunning if you’re lucky to visit in good weather. In poor weather, however, just head to the Talisker Distillery.
The Talisker Distilerry is the oldest working distillery on the Isle of Skye, and has a picturesque setting on the Loch Harport, with sweeping views of the Cuillins. Book the tasting tour in advance so you can enjoy the history and explanation of the single-malt whiskeys its famous for producing. It’s pretty much the perfect way to spend a rainy day on the Isle of Skye.
Wandering Around Wentworth Street
Even in the rain, Portree town itself has a lot to keep you entertained. Remember, locals live here year-round, so there are plenty of cozy pubs and cute boutiques. For a great vegetarian lunch, head to Isle of Skye Baking Co, and for tasty coffee and good vibes you can pass a rainy afternoon just hanging out in Cafe Arriba—this place is a go-to spot for vegetarians in Portree since it has an extensive selection of tasty eats.
Quick Tips: Planning Your Trip to Portree
Where to stay: The Portree Youth Hostel is the best budget option in town—book well ahead during high season, however, as all of Portree fills up quickly! The Oronsay B&B is particularly nice for those on a mid-range budget.
Rent a car: Driving a rental car is the most popular way to explore the island and it’s exceedingly easy to hire one from one of the shops in town. If you really want to see the different hiking spots, then even a backpacker should consider a single day rental as the day tour and shuttle costs really add up. Many of the backpackers pooled resources at the hostel and shared rentals for a day of exploring.
What to wear: No matter the hike, wear layers even if the sun is shining when you leave Portree. The weather changes quickly not only in Scotland as a whole, but on the hillsides as well. You’ll be glad for waterproof boots and a raincoat, and I was grateful for the travel umbrella I carried with me around Scotland—it made waiting at bus stop more enjoyable, so I highly recommend bringing one if you’re backpacking the area and not renting a car. Bring a scarf as well so you can protect yourself from the midges if they’re out in full force. And if you’re bringing nice camera gear, heed the warnings that it can be wet—bring your camera’s rain jacket and even consider a small dry bag.
Onward travel: Check out my guide to top things to do in Portree, and consider buying the Scotland Lonely Planet before backpacking the area—I found the transportation advice invaluable in helping me backpack Scotland.