Hikes on Skye: Oronsay Island

This is a stunning easy walk of around 5km total , to a tiny tidal island in Loch Bracadale. It includes a short circuit of the island amid ever changing and dramatic coastal views. Oronsay is most safely accessed as the tide recedes so check the tides/tide tables before setting off.

We had only a few hours to spare for a walk on a sunny but cold Easter Monday given family commitments. I had a real notion to re-visit Oronsay after a ten year or so gap(how on earth had so much time passed? Just too many walk options on Skye!) Cliffs, headlands, the ocean, islands – that is the landscape of this wonderful, less visited part of Skye where the only sounds are sheep and birdsong.

Looking across The Strand to Oronsay

It took us 40 minutes to drive from our family home on North Skye to the tiny cluster of houses at Ullinish and the parking area for the sigposted walk.(Ullinish is just off the Sligachan – Dunvegan A863 road).

Ullinish

We were the only car and emerged into a bitter north easterly breeze.It was barely 4C , unseasonally cold for April,  though the forecast suggested a bright day ahead.There are many ‘Oronsay’ islands in the Hebrides, including two on Skye.It is an Old Norse name meaning tidal island.

It’s was a flattish stroll of 2.5km (1.5 miles) to the tidal causeway across the dry short cropped grass of a crofter’s field , where sheep grazed quietly. What a glorious outlook, even from here, with the Black Cuillin smothered in white across the silvery grey sea loch! It had been a hard cold winter and Skye’s peaks were still snow covered.

Then a slightly boggy, short rubbly track down to the pebbly beach of the causeway (The Strand) and although the tide wasn’t long on the ebb, the way across was very wide and clear.It was a wonderful scene ahead with the turquoise water of the bay and the deep golden grass of the island itself which rises to about 70m (260 feet) in a series of low cliffs.

We picked our way across the dark shore of small boulders and pebbles.There are few white sand beaches on Skye – it is too volcanic an island and the shore tends to be quite rough and rocky.

Beyond Wiay island , the big headland of Idrigill reached out a long rugged arm into the dark blue of Bracadale’s deep waters and the open ocean. The slightly unnerving,  almost giant sized human figure at the end of Idrigill is one of Macleod’s Maidens  – The Mother –  a 70m high sea stack. It had a Lord of the Rings look about it from here, a giantess emerging out of the sea.

Wiay lay immediately to the fore, cliffy and uninhabited.Beyond Idrigill, the Outer Hebrides from Barra to South Uist lay lilac blue and bathed in sunshine.

To the south, our view was of the serrated peaks of the Black Cuillin mountain range, wreathed partially in cloud.

 

I had one of those moments when my heart fills with joy at the sheer beauty of ethereal Eilean a’ Cheo or the Isle of Mist, as Skye is known.Ever changing light and atmosphere are a feature of the Hebrides, wild islands on the edge of the North Atlantic  – or as it is more romantically referred to in these parts , the Sea of the Hebrides.Larks were singing their hearts out sweetly above us, so high up in the air that we couldn’t see them.Their evocative song is such a herald of spring and early summer in the west.

We spent the next hour just strolling along the edge of the island’s low cliffs, (going clockwise or sunwise, which Chris always insists upon.) Here he is with his traditional shepherd’s crook, which long ago replaced the more mundane trekking pole he used to use.

 

 

Towards Ullinish.
Loch Bracadale

It was beautiful, easy walking, dry underfoot and with endless interest.Here, sunlight on Beinn Mhor of South Uist;

there, fleeting shadows across the crofts of Fiscavaig before the cloud cleared and the whitewashed houses seemed as bright as lights against the dark moorland. Fiscavaig is a small township originally settled in the 19th century by crofters and fisherfolk from Harris.What views they have across the sea from that quiet corner of the Isle of Mist!

Then a short uphill track which took us to the top of the island, above precipitous cliffs where sheep grazed on impossibly sheer edges and ledges.The wind had whipped up a bit so we kept well back, admiring the wonderful vistas all around us.Even the familiar pyramidal top of The Storr on the Trotternish ridge was now visible, snow dusted.And there were Macleod’s Tables, those distinctive flat topped mountains overlooking Loch Dunvegan and the scene of yesterday’s excellent (if much tougher!) walk.

Macleod’s Tables

We were descending a steepish section of the grassy path when I spied a huge bird making its way towards a rocky bay ahead of and below us.

Crows and seagulls had set up a raucous cry. It was a sea eagle! The white tail and wings like barn doors were unmistakable. I tried to  focus the camera whilst negotiating the short descent, just as the big predator landed on rocks but in an instant he had taken off again and in seconds had disappeared across the bay towards Wiay island. I say ‘he’ because at this time of year, it is likely that the female was on the nest, on eggs and he had been sent out to bring back something tasty for them both.

Since arriving on Skye 3 days ago we had seen 5 sea eagles and 2 golden eagles.They are all very regularly seen here and often at close quarters.

The tidal causeway was very wide as we made our way across the pebbles onto a small sandy beach exposed by the receding sea. It made for a lovely spot to sit on a rock and contemplate the Cuillin across the wind-whipped green sea, now dotted with white horses.

Another 20 minutes of strolling and we were back at the car, just as a crofter and his young son arrived in a pick up van.Greetings were exchanged and he asked us , with that lovely soft accent of the Gael, how our walk was. I think he recognised Chris’s own Gaelic lilt when he responded.Turns out, he was heading to the island to retrieve his sheep because they were due to lamb in a few days time and had to be brought indoors.I mentioned the sea eagle and he confirmed that they did attack the young lambs, for which he (and other island crofters) received £1300 compensation every year.  As all this was going on his son was sitting (impatiently no doubt) on a Quad Bike, ready to head off for the day’s work with his Dad.Nice to talk to a local crofter, living, I am sure , a life of hard work and long hours with little time for holidays and leisure.But  – what an environment to call your workplace every day. At the risk of romanticising what must be a hard life at times, I often think working close to the land as our forefathers did, must bring with it other compensations perhaps, other riches which are not monetary. A strong connection with the natural world and the elements which I know I long for often and which makes me feel ‘whole’ again; calmed; at peace and fulfilled.

Oronsay will be on my (ever increasing) list of ‘Great Walks on Skye’  –  a balm for the soul under wild, ever changing Hebridean skies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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