attested form



Skye or the Isle of Skye (Scottish Gaelic An t-Eilean Sgitheanach ), is the largest and most northerly island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. The island's peninsulas radiate out from a mountainous centre dominated by the Cuillin hills. Although it has been suggested that the Gaelic name describes this shape there is no definitive agreement as to its origins.

The island has been occupied since the Mesolithic and has a colourful history including a time of Norse rule and a long period of domination by clans Leod and Donald. The events of the 19th century had a devastating impact on the human population, which today numbers around 9,200. In contrast to many other Scottish islands this represents a 4% increase from the census of 1991. The residents are augmented in the summer by large numbers of tourists and visitors. The main industries are tourism, agriculture, fishing and whisky-distilling. The largest settlement is Portree, which is known for its picturesque harbour. Just over 30% of the residents on Skye speak Gaelic.

Skye is part of the Highland Council local government area and is now linked to the mainland by a road bridge. The island is renowned for its spectacular scenery, vibrant culture and heritage, and its abundant wildlife including the Golden Eagle, Red Deer and Salmon.


Skye's history includes the influence of Gaelic, Norse and English speaking peoples and the relationships between their names for the island are not straightforward. The Gaelic name for the Isle of Skye is An t-Eilean Sgitheanach (or Sgiathanach, a more recent and less common spelling). The meaning of this name is not clear. Various etymologies have been proposed, such as the "winged isle" or "the notched isle but no definitive solution has been found to date and the placename may be from a substratum language and simply be opaque.

For example, writing in 1549, Donald Munro, High Dean of the Isles wrote: "This Ile is callit Ellan Skiannach in Irish, that is to say in Inglish the wyngit Ile, be reason it has mony wyngis and pointis lyand furth fra it, throw the dividing of thir foirsaid Lochis".

This was by no means the first written reference. Roman sources refer to the Scitis (see the Ravenna Cosmography) and Scetis can be found on a map by Ptolemy. A possible derivation from *skitis, an early Celtic word for "winged", which may describe the island's peninsulas that radiate out from a mountainous centre, has also been suggested.

In the Norse sagas Skye is called Skíð, for example in the Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar saga and a skaldic poem in the Heimskringla from c. 1230 which contains the line Hungrþverrir lét herjat hríðar gagls á Skíði which translates as "the hunger battle-birds were filled in Skye with blood of foemen killed". According to other authors, it was referred to in Norse as skuy (misty isle), *skýey or skuyö (isle of cloud). It is not certain whether the Gaelic poetic name for the island, Eilean a' Cheò "isle of the mist" precedes or postdates the Norse name. Some legends also associate the isle with the mythic figure of Queen Scáthach.

The problems with the proposed Gaelic etymologies can be summed up as follows. Firstly, the Gaelic word for "winged" is sgiathach and sgiathanach is not attested in Gaelic except in the place name and the ethnonym Sgiathanach "person from Skye". Secondly, the recorded pronunciations all point towards a clear [a] preceding the -ach ending: [s̪kʲiəhanəx], [s̪kʲiə.anəx] or [s̪kʲiaːnəx]. This means the form Sgiathanach is very unlikely to be based on the Gaelic plural of "wing" (sgiathan), which contains a schwa ([s̪kʲiəhən]) and would represent a highly unusual adjectival form based on a plural noun. Thirdly, the diminutive/nominaliser ending -an would result in [s̪kʲiəhan] but the form sciathán is only attested in modern Irish. The Old Irish attested form is scíath (cognate with modern Welsh ysgwydd "shoulder") with a reconstructed Celtic form *skeito-, which suggests the Irish form sgiathán is an innovation and an unlikely root for Sgiathanach. Finally, deriving the name from Scáthach involves two main problems: there would be a case of unexplained palatalisation of [s̪k] to [s̪kʲ] and an unexplained extra element -an-.

The roots of the Roman and Greek forms, Scit- and Scet- (meaning unknown), could be the root of Sgitheanach as they would regularly develop into Old Gaelic [s̪gʲiθ-] and be an entirely logical source for the attested Norse Skíð. It would also lead to modern Sgitheanach via a regular suffigation of -an and -ach to form an ethnonym and adjective. This would also explain the use of an apparent root form in An Cuan Sgith(e) the Little Minch (the strait separating the Outer Hebrides from the Inner Hebrides) and the older Irish form of Scíth rather than the modern An tOileán Sgiathanach, for example: Do ṡiuḃal sé Scíṫ agus an dá Uiḃeast agus Beinn a’ Ṁaola... "He travelled Skye and the two Uists and Benbecula...". In this case the interpretation of the name as "winged" may simply be a case of folk-etymology.

In April 2007 it was reported in the media that the island's official name had been changed by the Highland Council to Eilean a' Cheò. However, the Council clarified that this name referred only to one of its 22 wards in the then impending election, and that there were no plans to change signage or discontinue the English name.


At 1,656 km² (639 mi²), Skye is the second-largest island in Scotland after Lewis and Harris. The coastline of Skye is a series of peninsulas and bays radiating out from a centre dominated by the Cuillin (Gaelic:An Cuiltheann) hills. The main peninsulas include Trotternish in the north, Waternish, Duirinish, Minginish and Strathaird to the west and Sleat in the south. Surrounding islands include Isay, Longay, Pabay, Raasay, Rona, Scalpay, Soay and Wiay. Malcolm Slesser suggested that its shape "sticks out of the west coast of northern Scotland like a lobster's claw ready to snap at the fish bone of Harris and Lewis" and W. H. Murray that "Skye is sixty miles long, but what might be its breadth is beyond the ingenuity of man to state".

Martin Martin visited the island and reported on it at length in a 1703 publication. His geological observations included a note that:

There are marcasites black and white, resembling silver ore, near the village Sartle: there are likewise in the same place several stones, which in bigness, shape, &c., resemble nutmegs, and many rivulets here afford variegated stones of all colours. The Applesglen near Loch-Fallart has agate growing in it of different sizes and colours; some are green on the outside, some are of a pale sky colour, and they all strike fire as well as flint: I have one of them by me, which for shape and bigness is proper for a sword handle. Stones of a purple colour flow down the rivulets here after great rains.

The Black Cuillin, which are mainly composed of basalt and gabbro, include 12 Munros and provide some of the most dramatic and challenging mountain terrain in Scotland. The ascent of Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh is one of the longest rock climbs in Britain and the Inaccessible Pinnacle is the only peak in Scotland that requires technical climbing skills to reach the summit. A full traverse of the Cuillin ridge may take 15-20 hours to complete. The Red Hills (Gaelic: Am Binnean Dearg) to the south are sometimes also known as the Red Cuillin. They are mainly composed of granite that has weathered into more rounded hills with many long screes slopes on their flanks. The highest point of these hills is Glamaig, one of only two Corbetts on Skye.

Trotternish is underlain by basalt, which provides relatively rich soils and a variety of unusual rock features. The Kilt Rock is named for the tartan-like patterns in the 105 metre (350 ft) cliffs. The Quirang is a spectacular series of rock pinnacles on the eastern side of the main spine of the peninsula and further south is the rock pillar of the Old Man of Storr.

Beyond Loch Snizort to the west of Trotternish is the Waternish peninsula, which ends in Ardmore Point's double rock arch. Duirinish is separated from Waternish by Loch Dunvegan. It is ringed by sea cliffs which reach 295 metres (967 ft) at Waterstein Head. Oolitic loam provides good arable land in the main strath. Lochs Bracadale and Harport lie between Duirinish and Minginish which includes the narrow valleys of Talisker and Glen Brittle and whose beaches are formed from black basaltic sands. Strathaird is a relatively small peninsula close to the Cuillin hills with several small crofting communities. The bedrock of Sleat is Torridonian sandstone which produces poor soils and boggy ground, although its lower elevations and relatively sheltered eastern shores produces a lush growth of hedgerows and crops.


The influence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Stream create a mild oceanic climate. Temperatures are generally cool, averaging 6.5 °C (44 °F) in January and 15.4 °C (60 °F) in July at Duntulm in Trotternish. Snow seldom lies at sea level and frosts are fewer than the mainland. Winds are a limiting factor for vegetation with speeds of 128 kph (80 mph) being recorded and south-westerlies the most common. High winds are especially likely on the exposed coasts of Trotternish and Waternish. In common with most islands of the west coast of Scotland, rainfall is generally high at between 1500-2000 mm (60-80 in) per annum and the elevated Cuillin are wetter still. Variations can be considerable, with the north tending to be drier than the south. Broadford, for example, averages more than 2,870 mm (113 inches) per annum. Trotternish averages 200 hours of bright sunshine in May, the sunniest month.

Towns and villages

Portree in the north at the base of Trotternish is the largest settlement, and main service centre on the island, with a population of 1,960. Broadford is on the east side of the island and Dunvegan in the west. Kyleakin is opposite Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland, the Skye Bridge now spanning the narrow strait between them. Uig is on the west of the Trotternish peninsula and Edinbane is located between Dunvegan and Portree.



A Mesolithic hunter-gatherer site dating to the 7th millennium BC at An Corran in Staffin is one of the oldest archaeological sites in Scotland. Its occupation is probably linked to that of the rock shelter at Sand, Applecross on the coast of Wester Ross. Surveys of the area between the two along shores of the Inner Sound and Sound of Raasay have revealed thirty three sites with potentially Mesolithic deposits. Finds of bloodstone microliths on the foreshore at Orbost on the west coast of the island near Dunvegan also suggest Mesolithic occupation of the area. These tools probably originate from the nearby island of Rùm.

Rubha an Dùnain, an uninhabited peninsula to the south of the Cuillin, has a variety of archaeological sites dating from the Neolithic onwards. Loch na h-Airde, which is situated close to the ruins of a promontory fort, is linked to the sea by the artificial 'Viking canal' and there are remains of prehistoric settlement dating from the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages nearby. Dun Ringill is a ruined Iron Age hill fort on the Strathaird peninsula, which was further fortified in the Middle Ages and may have been the seat of Clan MacKinnon.

Norse Rule

The Norse held sway throughout the Hebrides from the 9th century until after the Treaty of Perth in 1266. However, little remains of their presence in the written or archeological record on Skye. Viking heritage is nonetheless claimed by Clan MacLeod and Norse tradition is celebrated in the winter fire festival at Dunvegan, during which a replica Viking long boat is set alight.

The Clans & Scottish Rule

The most powerful clans on Skye in the post–Norse period were Clan MacLeod, originally based in Trotternish, and Clan MacDonald of Sleat. The MacDonalds of South Uist were bitter rivals of the MacLeods, and the attempt by the former to murder church-goers at Trumpan in retaliation for a previous massacre on Eigg, resulted in the Battle of the Spoiling Dyke of 1578.After the failure of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 Flora MacDonald became famous for rescuing Prince Charles Edward Stuart from the Hanoverian troops. Although she was born on South Uist her story is strongly associated with their escape via Skye and she is buried at Kilmuir in Trotternish. Skye was visited by Samuel Johnson and James Boswell during their 1773 Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Boswell wrote of their visit to Kilmuir that "To see Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great champion of the English Tories, salute Miss Flora MacDonald in the isle of Sky, was a striking sight; for though somewhat congenial in their notions, it was very improbable they should meet here. Written on her gravestone are Johnson's words that hers was "A name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour". In the wake of the rebellion the clan system was broken up and Skye became a series of landed estates.

Of the island in general, Johnson observed:

I never was in any house of the islands, where I did not find books in more languages than one, if I staid long enough to want them, except one from which the family was removed. Literature is not neglected by the higher rank of the Hebrideans. It need not, I suppose, be mentioned, that in countries so little frequented as the islands, there are no houses where travellers are entertained for money. He that wanders about these wilds, either procures recommendations to those whose habitations lie near his way, or, when night and weariness come upon him, takes the chance of general hospitality. If he finds only a cottage he can expect little more than shelter ; for the cottagers have little more for themselves but if his good fortune brings him to the residence of a gentleman, he will be glad of a storm to prolong his stay. There is, however, one inn by the sea-side at Sconsor, in Sky, where the post-office is kept.

Skye has a rich heritage of ancient monuments from this period, especially castles. Dunvegan Castle has been the seat of Clan MacLeod since the thirteenth century. The castle contains the Fairy Flag and is reputed to have been inhabited by a single family for longer than any other house in Scotland.

The 18th century Armadale Castle, once home of Clan Donald of Sleat was abandoned as a residence in 1925 but now hosts the Clan Donald Centre. Nearby are the ruins of two more MacDonald strongholds, Knock Castle, and Dunscaith Castle, the legendary home of Queen Scáthach. Caisteal Maol built in the late 15th century near Kyleakin and once a seat of Clan MacKinnon is another ruin.


From the latter part of the 18th century up to the mid-19th century, the inhabitants of Skye were devastated by famine and clearances. The "Battle of the Braes" involved a demonstration against a lack of access to land and the serving of eviction notices. The incident involved numerous crofters and about 50 police officers. This event was instrumental in the creation of the Napier Commission, which reported in 1884 on the situation in the Highlands. Disturbances continued until the passing of the 1886 Crofters' Act and on one occasion 400 marines were deployed on Skye to maintain order. An example of a clearance village can be seen at Boreraig, Strath Swordale. The clearances contributed to a severely depleted population, which measured less than nine thousand at the 1991 census.

Overview of population trends

In common with many Scottish islands, Skye's population peaked in the 19th century and has experienced a significant decline since then in the wake of the Clearances. By 1971 the population was less than a third of its 1841 peak recorded figure. The later years of the twentieth century saw a revival and the total grew by over 28% in the thirty years to 2001.

Year Population
1755 11,252
1794 14,470
1821 20,827
1841 23,082
1881 16,889
1891 15,705
1931 9,908
Year Population
1951 8,537
1961 7,479
1971 7,183
1981 7,276
1991 8,847
2001 9,232

The changing relationship between the residents and the land is evidenced by Robert Carruther's remark circa 1852 that "There is now a village in Portree containing three hundred inhabitants". Even if this estimate is inexact the population of the island's largest settlement has likely increased since then by about 600%. During the period the total number of island residents has declined by 50% or more.

Gaelic in Skye

Skye has historically been a very strong Gaelic speaking area. Both in the 1901 and 1921 census, all parishes in Skye were reported to be over 75% Gaelic speaking. By 1971, only the Kilmuir parish still had more than 75% Gaelic speakers, the rest of Skye ranged between 50-74%. At the time, this made Kilmuir the only area outside the Western Isles which had more than 75% Gaelic speakers.

By the time of the 2001 census Kilmuir had 47% Gaelic speakers, with Skye overall having an unevenly distributed 31%. The strongest Gaelic speaking areas are located in the north and south-west of the island (Staffin 61%, Tarskavaig and Achnacloich 54%). The weakest areas are in the west and east (Galtrigill 18%, Luib 23%, Kylerhea 19%). Other areas on Skye range between 48% (Earlish) and 25% (Kyleakin).

Government and politics

In terms of local government, Skye forms part of the Highland Council area (Comhairle na Gàidhealtachd) based in Inverness. From 1975 to 1996, Skye, along with the neighbouring mainland area of Lochalsh, constituted a local government district within the Highland administrative area. In 1996 the district was included into the Highland Unitary Authority, and formed one of the new council's area committees. Following the 2007 elections, Skye now forms a four-member ward called Eilean a' Cheò; it is currently represented by two Independents, one Scottish National Party, and one Liberal Democrat councillor.

Skye is in the Highlands electoral region and comprises a part of the Ross Skye and Inverness West Scottish Parliament constituency, which elects one member under the first past the post basis to represent it. Currently this is John Farquhar Munro for the Liberal Democrats. In addition, Skye forms part of the wider Ross Skye and Lochaber UK Parliament constituency, which elects one member to the House of Commons. The present Member of Parliament is Charles Kennedy MP for the Liberal Democrats, who is a former leader of the party and has represented the area since 1983.


The largest employer on the island and its environs is the public sector, which accounts for about a third of the total workforce, principally in administration, education and health. The second largest employer in the area is the distribution, hotels and restaurants sector, highlighting the importance of tourism. Key attractions include Dunvegan Castle, the Clan Donald Visitor centre, and The Aros Experience in Portree. There are about a dozen large landowners on Skye, the largest again being the public sector, the Department of Agriculture owning most of the northern part of the island. However, small firms dominate employment in the private sector. The Talisker Distillery, which produces a single malt whisky, is manufactured beside Loch Harport on the west coast of the island. Three other whiskies (Mac na Mara (lit. "son of the sea" , Tè Bheag nan Eilean (lit. "wee dram of the isles" ) and Poit Dhubh (lit. "black pot" ) are produced by blender Pràban na Linne (lit. "smugglers den of the sound ), based at Eilean Iarmain on Sleat. These are marketed using predominantly Gaelic-language labels.

Crofting is still important, but although there are about 2,000 crofts on Skye only 100 or so are large enough to enable a crofter to earn a livelihood entirely from the land. Cod and Herring stocks have declined but commercial fishing remains important, especially fish farming of salmon and shellfish such as scampi. The west coast of Scotland has a considerable renewable energy potential and the Isle of Skye Renewables Co-op has recently bought a stake in the Ben Aketil wind farm near Dunvegan. The unemployment rate in the area tends to be higher than that for the Highlands as a whole, and is seasonal in nature. The population is growing and in common with many other scenic rural areas in Scotland, significant increases are expected in the percentage of the population aged 45 to 64 years.


Skye is linked to the mainland by the Skye Bridge, while ferries sail from Armadale on the island to Mallaig, and from Kylerhea to Glenelg. Ferries also run from Uig to Tarbert on Harris and Lochmaddy on North Uist, and from Sconser to Raasay.

The Skye Bridge, linking Skye with the mainland of Scotland, opened in 1995 under a private finance initiative. The high tolls charged (£5.70 each way for summer visitors) met with widespread opposition, spearheaded by the pressure group SKAT (Skye and Kyle Against Tolls). On 21 December 2004 it was announced that the Scottish Executive had purchased the bridge from its owners and the tolls were immediately removed.

Bus services run to Inverness and Glasgow, and there are local services on the island, mainly starting from Portree or Broadford. Train services run from Kyle of Lochalsh at the mainland end of the Skye Bridge to Inverness, as well as from Glasgow to Mallaig from where the ferry can be caught to Armadale. There is also a small aerodrome at Ashaig near Broadford, which is used exclusively by private aircraft.

The A87 trunk road traverses the island from the Skye Bridge to Uig, linking most of the major settlements. Many of the island's roads have been widened in the past forty years, but there are still substantial sections of single track road.


Students of Scottish Gaelic travel from all over the world to attend Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, a Scottish Gaelic college based in Sleat.

In addition to members of the Church of Scotland and a smaller number of Roman Catholics many residents of Skye belong to the Free Church of Scotland, known for its strict observance of the Sabbath.

Shinty is a highly popular sport and Portree based Skye Camanachd won the Camanachd Cup in 1990.

Media and the arts

Skye has a strong folk music tradition, although in recent years dance and rock music have been growing in popularity on the island. Gaelic folk rock band Runrig started in Skye and former singer Donnie Munro still works on the island. Jethro Tull singer Ian Anderson owned an estate at Strathaird on Skye at one time. Several Tull songs are written about Skye, including Dun Ringil, Broadford Bazaar, and Acres Wild (which contains the lines "Come with me to the Winged Isle, / Northern father's western child" as a poetic reference to the island itself). The Isle of Skye Music Festival has been growing in recent years and has featured sets from The Fun Lovin' Criminals and Sparks. Electronic musician Mylo was born in Skye and frequently returns there to perform.

The poet Sorley MacLean, a native of the Isle of Raasay which lies off the island's east coast, lived much of his life on Skye. The island has been immortalised in the traditional song The Skye Boat Song and is the notional setting for the novel To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, although the Skye of the novel bears little relation to the real island. John Buchan descriptions of the island, as featured in his Richard Hannay novel Mr Standfast, are more true to life.

Skye has been used as a location for a number of feature films. The Ashaig aerodrome was used for the opening scenes of the 1980 film Flash Gordon. Stardust, released in 2007 and starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, featured scenes shot as Eilean Iarmain and the Quiraing. Another 2007 film, Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle, was shot almost entirely in various locations on the island (a small number of scenes being filmed on the mainland).

The West Highland Free Press is published at Broadford. This weekly newspaper takes as its motto "An Tir, An Canan 'sna Daoine" - "The Land, the Language and the People" which reflects its radical, campaigning priorities. The Free Press was founded in 1972 and circulates in Skye, Wester Ross and the Outer Hebrides.


The Hebrides generally lack biodiversity in comparison to mainland Britain, but like most of the larger islands Skye has much to offer the naturalist. Observing the abdundance of game birds Martin Martin wrote:
There is plenty of land and water fowl in this isle - as hawks, eagles of two kinds (the one grey and of a larger size, the other much less and black, but more destructive to young cattle), black cock, heath-hen, plovers, pigeons, wild geese, ptarmigan, and cranes. Of this latter sort I have seen sixty on the shore in a flock together. The sea fowls are malls of all kinds - coulterneb, guillemot, sea cormorant, &c. The natives observe that the latter, if perfectly black, makes no good broth, nor is its flesh worth eating; but that a cormorant, which hath any white feathers or down, makes good broth, and the flesh of it is good food; and the broth is usually drunk by nurses to increase their milk.

Similarly, Samuel Johnston noted that:

At the tables where a stranger is received, neither plenty nor delicacy is wanting. A tract of land so thinly inhabited, must have much wild-fowl; and I scarcely remember to have seen a dinner without them. The moor-game is every where to be had. That the sea abounds with fish, needs not be told, for it supplies a great part of Europe. The Isle of Sky has stags and roebucks, but no hares. They sell very numerous droves of oxen yearly to England, and therefore cannot be supposed to want beef at home. Sheep and goats are in great numbers, and they have the common domestic fowls."

In the modern era avian life includes the Corncrake, Red-throated Diver, Rock Dove, Kittiwake, Tystie, Atlantic Puffin, Goldeneye, Golden Eagle and White-tailed Sea Eagle. The Chough last bred on the island in 1900. Mountain Hare (apparently absent in the 18th century) and Rabbit are now abundant and predated on by Wild Cat and Pine Marten. The rich fresh water streams contain Brown Trout, Atlantic Salmon and Water Shrew. Offshore the Edible Crab and Oyster are also found, the latter especially in the Sound of Scalpay. There are also nationally important Horse Mussel and Brittlestar beds in the sea lochs.

Heather moor containing Ling, Bell Heather, Cross-leaved Heath, Bog Myrtle and Fescues is everywhere abundant. The high Black Cuillins weather too slowly to produce a soil that sustains a rich plant life, but each of the main peninsulas has an individual flora. The basalt underpinnings of Trotternish produce a diversity of Arctic and alpine plants including Alpine Pearlwort and Mossy Cyphal. The low-lying fields of Waternish contain Corn Marigold and Corn Spurrey. The sea cliffs of Duirinish boast Mountain Avens and Fir Clubmoss. Minginish produces Fairy Flax, Cats-ear and Black Bog-rush. There is a fine example of Brachypodium-rich Ash woodland at Tokavaig in Sleat incorporating Silver Birch, Hazel, Bird Cherry, and Hawthorn.

The local Biodiversity Action Plan recommends land management measures to control the spread of Ragwort and Bracken and identifies four non-native, invasive species as threatening native biodiversity: Japanese Knotweed, Rhododendron, New Zealand Flatworm and Mink. It also identifies problems of over-grazing resulting in the impoverishment of moorland and upland habitats and a loss of native woodland, caused by the large numbers of Red Deer and sheep.

See also



  • Boswell, James (1785) The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. London.
  • Fraser Darling, Frank; Boyd, J.M. (1969) Natural History in the Highlands and Islands. London. Bloomsbury.
  • Haswell-Smith, Hamish (2004) The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh. Canongate. ISBN 1841954543
  • Murray, W.H. (1966) The Hebrides. London. Heinemann.
  • Slesser, Malcolm (1970) The Island of Skye. Edinburgh. Scottish Mountaineering Club.

Further reading

  • Isle of Skye - A Walker's Guide, Terry Marsh. Cicerone ISBN 978 1 85284 366 3

External links

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