Kyleakin was once the gateway to Skye. Until 1995 the ferries that ran back and forth across the narrows of Kyle Akin from Kyle of Lochalsh used to land at the slipway at the east end of the village. As a result Kyleakin was always a busy place, and at times it could be a crowded one.
Everything changed with the opening of the Skye Bridge: and the end of the ferry service. The bridge now comes ashore a little west of Kyleakin, and visitors only come to the village if they positively choose to do so. As a result, Kyleakin is a quieter and very much more attractive place than it used to be. Nowadays the old ferry slipway is simply the end of the road, and has a slightly closed-off and forlorn air. Much more attractive is the harbour that shelters in the arm of land carrying the road leading to the slipway, under the protective gaze of the ruins of Caisteal Maol.
Caisteal Maol is Kyleakin's own castle, the stumpy remains of a keep built in the 1400s. Not much is left of it today. Parts of the ruin collapsed in 1949, and there was another collapse in 1989: what is left has been consolidated and secured for the future. In 1951 repairs on the outer face of one of the castle walls revealed a hoard of coins hidden between two stones.
It's not obvious today, but until relatively recent times, the only way to get around in the Highlands and Islands was by sea. And if you wished to pass up or down the country's western seaboard it was a very much shorter and safer option to do so by passing between the Isle of Skye and the mainland, rather than taking your chances in the exposed waters west of Skye.
Legend tells that in about 900 a Norse princess, popularly known as "Saucy Mary", married Findanus, the 4th Chief of the MacKinnons, and they lived together in the predecessor of the Caisteal Maol whose ruins you see today. They enforced tolls on ships passing through Kyle Akin by stringing a chain of boats from Skye to the island of Eilean Bàn, and another from Eilean Bàn to the mainland.
Though Kyleakin has a history as old as its castle, most of what you see today dates back to a planned village created in 1811, forming, in most visitors' eyes at the time, the most attractive settlement on Skye. You can still see why.
The ferries have not entirely deserted Kyleakin. It is still possible, in Summer, for foot passengers to travel to the mainland by boat from the harbour. But most make the trip to Kyle of Lochalsh and its railway station by the frequent buses linking the two.
Not far past the White Heather Hotel overlooking the harbour is a relatively new addition to the landscape in Kyleakin. This is the Bright Water Visitor Centre, celebrating the heritage and wildlife of the nearby island of Eilean Bàn, which now forms a stepping stone for the Skye Bridge. The island was the home for a while of the naturalist and author Gavin Maxwell, though well before the bridge was built. It's hard to imagine he would be thrilled by the transformation of his island; despite the beauty of the bridge. The island and the visitor centre are owned by the Eilean Bàn Trust, which gives guided tours of the island.
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