Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Eagles back in Skye

Majestic birds, exterminated a century ago, have been reintroduced from Norway

Stopping his boat in choppy water off the face of a cliff on the Isle of Skye, the skipper reached into a box and pulled out a dead hake. This he began to wave over his head.

"Here she comes," he yelled a moment later, as a sea eagle - apparently female and bigger than its male nest-mate - soared from the cliff toward us.

The skipper heaved the fish overboard, but not before injecting air into its belly with a hypodermic to ensure it would float.

The enormous yellow-beaked bird swooped down, zigzagging through a series of hairpin turns, snatched the fish in its talons without getting so much as a feather wet and flew back to its nest a couple hundred metres away to enjoy lunch.

It all seemed a bit like feeding time at the zoo. Not true, said the skipper, a short man in a black tuque who, when asked for his name, replied: "They call me Squirrel."

"They're wild birds, not pets. It's not a zoo," he said hotly, adding that success was not guaranteed.

If the birds have recently eaten, "they don't want to see me," Squirrel said.

Big birds, big moorlands and weirdly big rock formations are among the attractions on Skye, the largest of the inner islands off Scotland's west coast and one of its most popular tourist destinations.

Tour boats leave from the town of Portree, where pretty pink, blue and yellow houses line the harbour, to view Britain's largest birds of prey. Known as "flying barn doors" because of their 2 1 /2-metre wingspans, sea eagles (also called white-tailed eagles) have been reintroduced from Norway after being exterminated in the U.K. as lamb-eating pests a century ago.

"We've now got 57 breeding pairs in Scotland, and 12 of them are on Skye," said Chris Tyler of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds at an exhibition outside Portree describing the eagle reintroduction project.

Single-track roads cut through Skye's treeless terrain where sheep graze everywhere. Some of the views from a car window are so expansive, across wideopen landscapes to distant hills, that the sheep appear as tiny specks of white. It's only when you get closer that you notice the specks each have four feet.

"There are basking sharks, minke whales and dolphins in the summertime," said sheep farmer Linda Jackson, standing in the crafts shop on her property and describing what she sees nearby, in the area of the Neist lighthouse at Skye's most westerly point.

"I've got two resident golden eagles and peregrine falcons. You name it bird-wise, we've got the lot."

On the northern Trotternish peninsula, a walking path traverses the lunar-like Quiraing region. On one side there's a high ridge that slopes down to the sea. Straight ahead is a rocky outcrop that leans precariously, seemingly on the verge of crashing down upon you. In the distance, islands and the mountains of the Scottish mainland complete the breathtaking vista.

To the south of the Quiraing, high on a ridge reached by an arduous one-hour hike, stands the Old Man of Storr, a massive natural pillar that defies credibility, even - or perhaps especially - from up close.

The pinnacle is visible, somewhat phallically, from many kilometres away.

Climbers come to the island for the jagged peaks of the Cuillin Hills, and casual hikers explore trails through rockstrewn terrain near the base of the slopes.

"We're walkers, not climbers," said 72-year-old Brian Drury of Northamptonshire, England, after completing a four-hour hike in May with his wife Janet, 66, into the snow-capped Cuillins from the coast.

"It's very dramatic up there, it's wild, all ice-broken rock under the big peaks," he said, pointing with one of his walking poles to a plateau several kilometres away, barely visible in the mist shrouding the mountainside.

When it rains, which it does often on Skye, the indoor options include learning about the bloodsoaked history of Scottish clans.

Dunvegan Castle, northwest of Portree, is the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland and has been the ancestral home of the MacLeod chiefs for 800 years. Apart from the living quarters of the current chief, it's open to visitors.

At the opposite end of the island, about 1 1 /2 hours to the south, the Museum of the Isles focuses on the MacDonalds, the largest Scottish clan.

The two histories intersect, most disturbingly, at Trumpan Church, a gloomy, roofless ruin on a hilltop overlooking the sea north of Dunvegan.

A plaque at the site explains that in 1578 a band of MacDonalds killed a group of worshipping MacLeods by setting fire to the church - one in a series of retaliatory slaughterings by each clan.

The museum delves into the story of emigration from the Scottish Highlands, noting that those who went to Canada, faced with endless forest, called it "the land of the tree."

Prince Edward Island was seen as a refuge from religious and cultural persecution, and successive waves of emigrants travelled there from Skye in the 19th century.

Near one of the Cuillin access points - and serving as a good alternative to hiking in bad weather - the Talisker distillery offers tours explaining the various stages of the whisky-making process.

"We're especially popular when it rains," said Michael Goodall, lead guide, on a day when it was pouring outside and the waiting room was packed with tourists. The wee dram he offered a visitor had the seaweedy aroma and "peat reek" that Talisker is known for.

Skye also has its own brewery, which makes beer out of porridge oats, of all things.

"It's not a normal thing to do, is it?" acknowledged Norrie MacLeod, brewer at the Isle of Skye Brewing Co. in the village of Uig, as he minded a shop filled with bottles.

He described the unusual product, called Hebridean Gold, as being similar to an English bitter, "but the porridge seems to smooth the edges."

"We'll make beer with haggis next," he quipped, then reconsidered. "That may be going a step too far."


- Entry requirements: Passport. Visitors may be asked to provide proof of sufficient funds for the duration of their stay, proof of onward passage, and paid-up reservations in writing. A visa is not required for visits up to six months.

- Currency: Pound sterling. Recent exchange rates:

$1 Cdn = 0.6401 pounds

1 pound = $1.5622 Cdn

- Getting there: From Vancouver, Air Transat flies to Glasgow, Scotland.

A bridge has connected Skye to the mainland since 1995, but getting to the island is more enjoyable via the ferries that still operate from Mallaig (30 minutes) or Kylerhea (five minutes).

- Base in Portree: The winding road from Armadale in the south to Skye's northern tip is about 100 kilometres long. Portree, about two-thirds of the way up the island, can serve as a base to explore much of Skye.

- Accommodation: Portree has numerous accommodations ranging from B&Bs to quality hotels, as well as several good seafood restaurants. Places to stay elsewhere on the island include pubs, inns, cottages and campgrounds. A good source of info is

- The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs has compiled travel advisories for countries around the world. For details, go to: