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Skye
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Writer Robert Kiener travels to the Scottish
isle of Skye in search of an idyllic holiday
destination—and the fiery whisky made there

Portree, the island’s largest
town, offers views of the
rugged Cuillin Hills.

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PHOTO: © MACDUFF EVERTON/ GETTY IMAGES

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“A

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3000 miles for a glass of Scotch?” I
ask myself as I drive my rental car
onto the Caledonian MacBrayne car
ferry at Tarbert on Harris, one of
Scotland’s outer islands. In less than
two hours I will land on the remote
island of Skye, home to one of the
world’s most famous Scotch whisky
makers, the Talisker Distillery, and
the object of my week-long international trek. If I am, I’m in good company. In his poem “The Scotsman’s
Return from Abroad,” Robert Louis
Stevenson referred to Talisker as
“The king of drinks.” And in the
James Bond movie, “The World is
Not Enough,” 007 is seen drinking
Talisker, not his trademark martinis,
neither shaken nor stirred. Who am
I to argue with those guys?
Although there was a bridge built
from the mainland to Skye in the
1990s, I will arrive by sea. Scottish
friends told me that was the purest,
most romantic way to see Skye for the
first time.
Locals are fond of boasting about
their island’s scenery, claiming, “It is
proof that, sometimes, God was just
showing off.” I think of them while I
cling to the upper deck railing of the
ferry, anxious for my first glimpse of
Skye. A strong southwesterly wind,
heavily laden with moisture drawn up
from the Atlantic, whipsaws across my
face. Then it starts raining, hard. A fog
rolls in.
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Area of
detail

Less than an
hour later the
rain has disappeared. Suddenly,
Skye appears in the
distance and it does not disappoint.
Straight ahead the tiny village of Uig,
home to about 200 islanders, is tucked
neatly into a hillside on the Trotternish
peninsula, the most northerly of several that radiate out from the island’s
mountainous center. Lush fields, dotted with sheep and whitewashed cottages, tumble down to sheltered Uig
Bay. Colorful, battered fishing trawlers
bob gently in the slate-gray waters.
Other passengers line the railing and
snap pictures. After I take a shot for a
middle-aged couple posing along the
railing, the husband says to me in a
Scottish brogue as thick as a Highlands
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MAP: 5W INFOGRAPHICS

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“Am I crazy to have traveled over

fog, “It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?”
down for breakfast. “There is no place
“Breathtaking,” I answer as the ferry like Skye; we have the world’s friendlienters the bay and cuts its engines.
est people, best scenery, hiking….”
“Aye, that it is,” he says. “But things
And food. Lots of it, judging by the
change with a blink of the eye. We have real estate taken up on my table by my
a saying in the islands: ‘If you don’t like “Full Scottish Breakfast:” bacon, black
the weather, wait twenty minutes and pudding, pork sausage, mushroom, toit will change’.”
mato, haggis, tattie (potato) scones,
coffee and a fried egg. As I bite into the
He was right, give or take a half hour. rich pork sausage, Stoddart reminds
As I drive through peat bogs and wind- me I should also sample grilled ringswept moors on my way to the island’s net-caught kippers from nearby Mallargest town of Portree, the skies hun- laig with lemon and herb butter. “Our
ker down once again and pelt my car breakfasts, like our scenery, is what
with rain. Now I understand why some we’re famous for,” she explains.
say the Isle of Skye was named after
And, as if on cue, the island’s most
the Old Norse word for “cloud” (skuy) famous attractions, the majestic, sharp
and in Gaelic, the local language, it is snowcapped peaks of the Cuillin Hills,
known as “Island of Mist.”
appear out of the mist like a mirage.
Blackfaced sheep graze alongside The Cuillin, described by some as
the two-lane road. Their thick, rich “Britain’s only true mountains,” domicoats are “branded” with swirls of nate the island. More than 20 peaks
fluorescent spray paint to identify their test the climbing skills of even the
owners. Sheep farming contributes to most experienced mountaineers. As
the local economy, as does the fishing one climbing guidebook notes, these
industry with salmon farming and rugged, dangerous hills “are not for the
catches of shellfish, mackerel and pol- ordinary pedestrian.”
lock. But the island’s biggest earner is
I thank Stoddart for the hearty
tourism.
breakfast and remind her of my quest.
I am reminded of that at the next “I’ve come all this way for a sip of Talbend in the road where a sign adver- isker on the spot where it’s made,” I tell
tises “Tasting Tours” at the Talisker her. “Sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it?”
Distillery. As I drive past the sign, I ask
“Only if you limit yourself to just a
myself, “Neat, with water or ice?”
sip,” she replies without missing a beat.
When I arrive in Portree, Janet Stoddart, manager of the Cuillin Hills Hotel, Driving south from Portree into the
explains that Skye, along with the the Cuillin Hills, the landscape changes
Highlands, is Scotland’s most popular again. The road winds gracefully
tourist destination after Edinburgh. “I through miles of harsh but beautiful
was born here and came back after ten moorland, interspersed with fencedyears away,” she tells me as we sit off groves of conifers, with sheep
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F O T O / I L L U S T R AT I O N C O P Y R I G H T

P H OTO S, C LO C KW I S E F R O M TO P L E F T: © K I N LO C H LO D G E
H OT E L x 2 , M A RC S C H LO S S M A N / G E T T Y I M AG E S, M G M /
C O U R T E S Y E V E R E T T C O L L E C T I O N , C O U R T E S Y TA L I S K E R ,
P AT R I C K D I E U D O N N E / G E T T Y I M A G E S , C O L U M B I A
PICTURES/ THE KOBAL COLLECTION

dd,

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Facing page, clockwise
from top left: Lord and
Lady Macdonald, who
manage the Kinloch
Lodge Hotel (pictured);
many movies have been
filmed at Dunvegan
Castle, located on the
west coast, including
Made of Honor (2008)
starring Patrick Dempsey
and Michelle Monaghan
(pictured).
This page, top to bottom:
Pinnacles and cliffs
known as the Old Man of
Storr are a feature of the
Quiraing landscape;
Pierce Brosnan as James
Bond (shown in Die
Another Day) trades his
martini for whisky; stills
at the Talisker Distillery.
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roaming freely. This landscape was far Sitting in his office, just above the
different a century or so ago; it was 181-year-old Talisker Distillery on the
covered with great woods that western side of Loch Harport, Mark
stretched across the 639-square mile Lochhead welcomes me and explains
island. There were countless sea ea- I am not the first to travel so far to exgles, buzzards and deer then. And perience the single malt whisky. Talthere were more islanders.
isker gets a steady stream of visiting
Skye’s population topped 23,000 in Scotch “fanatics” from around the
the 1840s, before forced eviction dev- world, who want to see, smell, touch
astated the island’s population. Land- and taste everything that goes into
lords forced thousands of farmers, or making Talisker the drink it is. Says
“crofters,” to leave their rented homes Lochhead, “You are in good company.”
and farms during what was known as
Lochhead, a 24-year veteran of the
“The Highland Clearances,” so they distillery business, offers me a tour of
could use the land for sheep farming. the distillery, where visitors learn how
Many emigrated to North America and barley, yeast and water are combined
Australia and by the 1930s there were to produce single malt Scotch whisky.
less than 10,000 residents left on Skye, First the barley is “malted” by soaking
about the same number as today.
it in water for two to three days and
Although Skye was once domi- allowing it to germinate, releasing its
nated—and most of it owned—by pow- starch.
erful clans such as the MacLeods and
“We have plenty of water here,” says
Macdonalds, the large estates have Lochhead as he shows me the Carbost
mostly been sold off bit by bit. The Burn, the mighty stream that runs
present Lord Macdonald, 34th heredi- alongside the distillery and supplies
tary Chief of Clan Donald, sold most 60,000-70,000 liters of water an hour
of his 45,000-acre estate on Skye to pay for the cooling process. The water
death duties and other taxes. Today, he used in the Scotch itself comes from
and his wife, the noted chef and author closely guarded springs on the hill beClaire Macdonald, run the Kinloch hind the distillery.
Lodge Hotel in Sleat. At the Lodge,
Next the barley is dried in a kiln and
their daughter Isabella, surrounded by a “secret amount” of peat smoke is
centuries of portraits of former Mac- added to give Talisker its unique rich,
donald chieftains, tells me, “Times smoky flavor. The malt is then crushed
change but the tradition lives on.”
to grist, hot water is added and the
After a quick detour to visit the barley’s natural enzymes get to work
Gaelic college in southern Skye, I re- converting starch into fermentable
ceive the phone call I have been wait- sugars. The liquid is then cooled, yeast
ing for. It’s from Mark Lochhead, man- added and fermentation begins. After
ager of the Talisker Distillery.
several days this mixture, called “wash,”
“Can you be here in an hour?” he asks. is transferred to a copper still where
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the alcohol is boiled off and then con- peaty, fruity, even of sea air. Lochhead
densed back into liquid form.
surprises me by telling me to add a
Lochhead points to the copper still “splash” of water. “Water opens the
and tells me that each distillery closely bouquet, the aroma, and helps you
guards their exact design. “Much of the taste more layers of the whisky,” he
body of our Scotch comes from the explains. “Never use ice. It contracts
precise size and shape of the still.”
the whisky and holds in the flavors.”
From the still the spirit is placed in
The scotch first explodes with a
oak casks to mature from three to BANG! But it soon simmers in my
thirty years. As the oak is porous, it mouth. It’s as if my palate is on fire,
allows the maturing whisky to then quickly soothed. The single malt
“breathe,” releasing some into the has a firm, complex body, a bit creamy
warehouse atmosphere every year. but rugged. As I swallow it, it hits me
“We call this ‘the angels’ share,” says again—full force. The whisky’s famous
Lochhead. The final step is the bottling. “long finish” lingers in the back of my
throat. I’m reminded of a Scotch expert
It is time for my sip of Talisker. Al- who wrote, “Talisker is not a drink, it
though Lochhead is reluctant to name is an interior explosion…it bangs doors
his favorite bottling (“It’s like asking and slams windows.”
me which of my children I love the
Lochhead smiles as he watches me
most”), he points me toward the 45.8% take a sip. “You just had a taste of Skye,”
10-year-old single malt.
he tells me with a smile. “It’s powerful,
I raise the golden orange single malt robust and, as some say, volcanic. Just
to my nose and inhale. It smells a bit like this beautiful island.”

Travel Tips
GETTING THERE A toll-free

bridge links Kyleakin on the
eastern tip of the island and
the Kyle of Lochalsh on the
mainland. Car and passenger
ferries to Skye also run from
the mainland port of Mallaig,
and there are ferries from the
islands of Harris and North
Uist to Uig (tel. +44 (0800)
0665000, www.calmac.
co.uk).
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WHERE TO STAY Visitors

have a wide choice. In Portree
the Cuillin Hills Hotel offers
fine dining and knockout
views (tel. +44 (01478)
612003, www.cuillinhills-hotel-skye.co.uk). Two excellent
choices for food and lodging
at Sleat are the Hotel Eilean
Iarmain at Isle Ornsay (tel.
44 (01471) 833332, www.eilean-iarmain.co.uk; and Lord
and Lady Macdonald’s Kinloch Lodge Hotel (tel. +44
(01471) 833333, www.kin-

loch-lodge.co.uk).
FOOD Near Dunvegan, the
Three Chimneys restaurant
is noted for its seafood and
“hot marmalade pudding”
(tel. +44 (01470) 511258,
www.threechimneys.co.uk).
DON’T MISS The Talisker
Distillery, the island’s only distillery, offers tasting tours
(tel. +44 (01478) 614308,
www.discovering-distilleries.com/talisker).
INFO AND BOOKINGS www.
visithighlands.com —R.K.

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