7 Historical Places to Visit on the Isle of Skye

Discover clan stories hidden among the ruins of brochs and castles as you look back at 1,000 years of Gaelic, Celtic, and religious history on the Isle of Skye.

Mar 12, 2024By Katie Parr, LL.B. Law
isle of skye historical places

 

The Isle of Skye, the largest island of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, has a population of around 10,000 people and is only 50 miles long. Yet, it is filled with history, from fossils to Highland Clearances, to Clan warfare and the Jacobite Rebellion. It is home to two Clan castles; Castle Dunvegan in the north belonging to Clan MacLeod; and Armadale Castle in the south belonging to Clan MacDonald. Peppered with ruins and riveting history, here are the top seven historical places to visit on the island.

 

1. Learn About Clan MacDonald at Armadale Castle

isle of skye armadale castle
Armadale Castle, by PaulT (Gunther Tschuch), 2019, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

This ruined country house is situated on a 20,000 acre estate, in the south of the Isle of Skye, looking over a narrow sea channel called the Sound of Sleat. Clan MacDonald occupied castles and properties close to Armadale in Dunscaith and Knock before taking up residence in Armadale in 1650. A white mansion house was built in 1790. Later in 1815, a square building, designed by Edinburgh architect James Gillespie Graham was added to the original construction. The Tudor-Gothic type castle was built more for show than for defensive purposes. The castle had many visitors over the years, including Flora MacDonald.

 

A fire ripped through the house in 1855 and the damaged area was replaced by a new wing, and by 1925, Clan MacDonald abandoned the property and the place fell into ruin. After 50 years of wind and rain, it was purchased in 1972 by the Clan Donald Lands Trust, who made the painful decision in 1981 to demolish the west part of the Castle, which was derelict beyond repair.

 

Current works are underway with the hope that the structure can be stabilized so that visitors may eventually enter the building. The Castle sits among 40 acres of gardens, which now receive regular maintenance and are home to several microclimates promoting exotic plant varieties and trees that are over 100 years old. The museum and gardens are open year round.

 

2. Gaze Upon the Ruins of Cill Chriosd Church 

isle of skye cill chriosd church
Cill Chriosd Church, by M J Richardson, 2016, Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Cill Chriosd Church is a ruin of a parish church that is situated in the parish of Strath. The ruin, known locally as “Kilchrist” or “Cill Chriosd” no longer has its roof, but its walls, first erected in the 16th century, are largely still intact.

 

The parish of Strath includes villages of Boreraig and Susinish that were cleared during the Highland Clearances, also known as the “eviction of the Gaels.” This was a strategic eviction that took place between 1750 and 1860. The first stage was driven by landlords wishing to improve their agricultural prospects and consequently their income. Displaced tenants lost their status as crofters and became farmers or were shipped off to other industries such as quarrying, fishing, or the kelp (seaweed) industry.

 

The second stage of the clearance process occurred following the impact of the first: crofting communities had become overcrowded and their lifestyles were no longer self-sustainable: industries were collapsing and famine became widespread.

 

The village of Boreraig was cleared in 1853, and by then, Cill Chriosd had been replaced by the Broadford Parish Church. Although Cill Chriosd has stood since the 16th century, it’s believed it replaced an earlier building that was erected in medieval times. Today, it is possible to ascend the mound on which Cill Chriosd stands and read the inscriptions on the gravestones within the graveyard and enclosed burial grounds.

 

3. Tread the Beaches of Staffin Where Dinosaurs Once Walked

isle of skye staffin coastline
Looking down the coast toward Staffin slipway, by Chris Morgan, 2015, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Although the Isle of Skye holds very few fossils, there is one stretch of coastline where, in 1976, teenager Dugald Ross stumbled across signs of dinosaur tracks. Since that discovery, several species have been found.

 

Today, you can walk the beaches at An Corran to seek out the tracks yourself. An Corran Beach is also home to a Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) hunter-gatherer site. It is one of the oldest archaeological sites in all of Scotland, dating to the 7th millennium BCE.

 

South of An Corran beach is the Staffin Dinosaur Museum, which tells the story of Dugald Ross’s discoveries of Stegosaurus, Megalosaurus, Cetiosaurus, Hadrosaurus, and Coelophysis. Set in a small stone building, the museum contains details of the nearby archaeological excavations and items found. It is open from April through October.

 

4. Visit Flora MacDonald’s Grave at Kilmuir Graveyard

isle of skye grave of flora kilmuir graveyard
Flora MacDonald’s grave, by Bert Kaufmann, 2004, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Flora MacDonald was interred in Kilmuir Cemetery at the end of the 18th century. Her life is a remarkable story, one that involves the Jacobite uprising, imprisonment, and emigration to America.

 

Born in 1722, on the Isle of Skye, Flora’s life took a turn in 1746, when she was visiting another island in the Outer Hebrides called Benbecula. It was here that she would meet Prince Charles Edward Stuart (born 31 December 1720). Prince Charles, known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, was fleeing thinking he had been betrayed. He took refuge in Invergarry Castle, hid in the moors of the Scottish Highlands, and flew to the Hebrides, finding himself on Benbecula. On June 28, Flora MacDonald sailed with Prince Charles, disguised as one “Betty Burke”, her maid, from Benbecula to the Isle of Skye. Flora, like many other Highlanders, never turned him in, despite a £30,000 reward (equivalent to £3.5 million today).

 

After Prince Charles left for the mainland, Flora MacDonald would never see him again, and two weeks later, she was arrested for aiding his escape and taken to the Tower of London. Following intervention by influential figures, she was permitted to live outside the Tower and released about a year later, following the 1747 Act of Indemnity.

 

sunny day kilmuir graveyard
Kilmuir Graveyard on the Isle of Skye, by PaulT (Gunther Tschuch), 2019, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Much of Flora’s legacy stems from literature surrounding her support of Prince Charles’s escape. But this event marked only a page in her rich life. She would go on to marry Allan MacDonald in 1750, emigrating with him in 1774 to North Carolina, joining other Clan MacDonald emigrants. In 1775, the American Revolutionary War began, and Flora’s husband rallied 1,000 men in the Anson Battalion of the Loyalist North Carolina Militia. Their two sons, James and Alexander also joined the battalion.

 

In 1776, Flora addressed the Anson battalion in her native Gaelic tongue, a Scottish tradition of incitement to battle called “brosnachadh-catha”. Following her riling speech, the battalion set off for battle. They were ambushed, her husband was captured, and in 1777, the North Carolina Provincial Congress confiscated all Loyalist-owned property, leaving Flora with nothing. The family would later move to Nova Scotia, where her husband was posted upon his release. In 1780, Flora returned to the Isle of Skye and lived with her family. She died in 1790, a mother to seven children, and was laid to rest at Kilmuir Graveyard.

 

What makes Flora’s story so enthralling is her gentle yet strong character, often remarked upon by those who had the pleasure of knowing her. Samuel Johnson, the poet and essayist, met her in 1773, and later recounted that she had “soft features, gentle manners, kind soul and elegant presence.” He wrote her memorial’s inscription, which states: “a name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.”

 

5. Discover an Ancient Burial Ground at St Columba’s Isle

isle of skye st columba aerial
St Columba’s Isle, by PaulT (Gunther Tschuch), 2019, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Unlike Flora MacDonald’s tomb which stands tall and proud, the remnants of the Cathedral Church of the Bishop of the Isles from 1079 to 1498 are engulfed in thick green grasses and hidden along the banks of the River Snizort, which wraps its way around the small isle of Columba.

 

Along with Skye residents, there are 28 chiefs of Clan MacNicol or Nicolsons buried in the holy grounds of the island. Named after Saint Columba, who, according to tradition, had preached from a nearby rock, the sacred burial grounds are thought to have history that traces back to the pagan era.

 

Columba’s Isle held a prominent role in the history of the Diocese of Sodor and once housed both a cathedral and an abbey. Archaeological evidence and historical records show that the church had an 80 foot transept, constructed in the style of the Iona Abbey. Between 1079 and 1498, the cathedral church was perhaps the most important religious building in all of Scotland.

 

Today, it’s possible to walk along the river banks and visit the mortuary chapel on the island known as “Aite Adhlaic Mhic Neacail” meaning “MacNicol or Nicolson’s Aisle.” There are various gravestones and effigies laid among the grass that give small snapshots into the centuries of history tied to the place.

 

6. Walk Within the Walls of Dun Beag Broch

isle of skye dun beag broch
Dun Beag, by PaulT (Gunther Tschuch), 2019, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Dun Beag Broch at Struan is an iron-age broch, also known as “Dun Beg.” Brochs are hollow-walled circular structures, native to Scotland and categorized as a type of complex roundhouse. Broch stems from the word “brough” which means fort. Of 571 candidate broch sites across Scotland, some are thought to date back to the first century BCE.

 

The remnants of Dun Beag include a drystone tower protruding from the ground at around two meters (six feet) in height. The base of the walls is around four meters (thirteen feet) thick, and the internal space holds a diameter of eleven meters (36 feet). When visited by Welsh naturalist and writer Thomas Pennant in 1772, the walls were believed to be four meters high (thirteen feet). Internally, there are three separate openings leading to a chamber, a stone staircase, and a narrow gallery within the wall.

 

An excavation between 1914 and 1920 uncovered objects made of bronze, gold, antler, pottery, iron, glass, bone, and lead. Some of these items were formed into items and utensils, such as a gold ring. Additionally, coins of kings Henry II, Edward I, James VI, George II, and George III were found during the excavation, suggesting that the broch was in use from as early as the 12th century, and right up until quite recently. Overlooking the Cuillin Hills and Loch Bracadale and sitting upon a rocky knoll, the broch is accessible on foot and open year round.

 

7. Tour Dunvegan Castle and Gardens

isle of skye castle dunvegan
Castle Dunvegan, by Lobster1, 2012, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

“Caisteal Dhùn Bheagain” stands proudly over Loch Dunvegan. It is home to the Chief of Clan MacLeod. Erected first in the 13th century and then restyled into a medieval-style castle in the 19th century, the castle sits on a rock 50 feet above sea level.

 

The castle sits on the 40,000-acre estate belonging to the Clan MacLeod. The estate includes the Cullin mountains, fairy pools, and Dunvegan pier. The MacLeod family is one of the oldest families on the Isle of Skye, with a history that traces back to 1265. Olaf the Black, the last of the Norse kings of Man, died that year, and his younger son Leod inherited the islands of Harris and Lewis, as well as several areas upon the Isle of Skye.

 

The castle offers a fascinating insight into the MacLeod family history. Some of the heirlooms kept at the castle include: Sir Rory Mor’s Horn, a drinking horn belonging to a previous chief; the Fairy Flag, a tattered flag thought to have magical properties and be associated with Celtic fairies; and the small, ceremonial, wooden Dunvegan cup.

 

The castle is a Grade A, listed building and has received substantial amounts of money to fund its ongoing repairs, maintenance, and restoration. The castle and gardens are open daily between April and October.

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By Katie ParrLL.B. LawKatie holds a First Class Law Degree LL.B. from the University of Kent, Canterbury. She is a professional writer and owns a small copywriting business. When she’s not creating content for different projects, she’s planning her next travels. She has a keen interest in history and culture of both Great Britain, where she is from, and abroad. She enjoys exploring old bookshops, visiting new places, and walking her dog.