Some people will be surprised to find out that you can still travel "over the sea to Skye". Yes, most know that there's a ferry operating from Mallaig to Armadale at the toe of Skye. But how many also know that from Easter to October there's a vehicle ferry that still provides a much closer alternative to the Skye Bridge, and one every visitor should consider taking?
The Glenelg to Kylerhea Ferry crosses the shortest gap between the Isle of Skye and the mainland, across the Kyle Rhea. For more information about timetables and fares, see the operator's own website.
The Kyle Rhea was the earliest regular crossing point to the Isle of Skye. The crossing was so important that after the 1715 uprising the Government built nearby Bernera Barracks to guard it. A regular ferry was well established here by 1773 when Boswell and Johnson made their tour of the Hebrides. The cobbled pier used then can still be seen close to the slipway used by the ferry today on the Glenelg side. (Continues below image...)
Although this is the shortest crossing point to Skye, it can also be a daunting place because of the tidal flow funneling between Skye and the mainland. The 1878 Edition of the Royal Tourist Handbook to the Highlands and Islands warned that in Kyle Rhea "the tides race at 7 and 8 miles an hour, and with a head gale might baffle the steamers to force a passage. In southerly storms the wind against the tide creates an extraordinary uproar".
The Kylerhea ferry is reached on the mainland side by a ten mile road that leaves the main A87 at Shiel Bridge. This follows a magnificent route that is almost alpine in character over the Mam Ratagan Pass. This road was built in 1815 (and rebuilt in the 1980s) to replace the earlier route used by the military to get to Bernera Barracks.
On the Skye side the road from Kylerhea connects to the main Broadford to Kyleakin road via a not so long but equally mountainous single track road. For more information about Scotland's single track roads and how to drive them, visit our feature page on driving single track roads.
The ferry used on the crossing is the Glenachulish, which can transport up to six cars plus standing-room only for foot passengers. She was built at the Ailsa Yard in Troon in 1969 to serve on the Ballachulish ferry crossing. After the opening of the Ballachulish Bridge in 1975 she went on to act as a relief vessel on the ferry crossings at Corran, Kylesku and Kessock, near Inverness, two of which have also since been replaced by bridges. The Glenachulish has served on the Glenelg to Kylerhea route since 1982 and is the last turntable ferry in operation. (Our thanks to John MacLeod for the story of the Glenachulish.)
Every visitor to Skye should consider going by ferry. After all, although the Skye Bridge is a wonderful structure, crossing it only takes you to Skye. To get to the Isle of Skye, you need to travel by sea. The two Skyes are equally wonderful, but somehow the Isle of Skye feels just that little bit more special. With the removal of tolls from the Skye Bridge, a question mark hung over the viability and operation of the Glenelg to Kylerhea Ferry until a community buyout was confirmed in early 2007. The ferry has since been operated by the Skye Ferry Community Interest Company. It deserves to succeed, and visitors who care about maintaining choice in the future will want to support the ferry in the most practical way possible: by using it.