Portree is the main town on Skye. Its name comes from the Gaelic Port-an-Righ, which translates as "King's Port" and dates to a visit by King James V, plus a fleet of warships, in 1540, to persuade the island clans to support him. It had earlier been known as Kiltraglen.
The main street running parallel to the back of the harbour is Bank Street. This is perhaps best known for the Royal Hotel. In an earlier guise, as MacNab's Inn, this was where Bonnie Prince Charlie bade farewell for the last time in 1746 to Flora MacDonald, who had famously conveyed him "Over the Sea to Skye".
Portree saw other sad departures later in the 1700s, when Skye folk, fleeing poverty and overpopulation, boarded ships bound for North America. James Boswell, visiting Skye in 1773 noted: "Last year when the ship sailed from Portree for America the people on shore were almost distracted when they saw their relations go off. This year not a tear is shed. The people on the shore seemed to think they would soon follow."
More would have left had not an unusually enlightened laird, Sir James Macdonald, developed Portree as a fishing port from 1771. From 1826 Portree hosted weekly steamers from West Loch Tarbert via Tobermory, Isleornsay and Kyleakin, while from 1851 the weekly ship between Glasgow and Stornoway called here. In the 1820s Thomas Telford built roads across Skye linking Portree with Uig and Kyleakin. He also built Portree's pier.
1846 brought potato famine to Skye, and during the following fifty years clearance and emigration of a large part of the population, many through Portree, took place. Better times followed, and by 1894 there were daily steamer services to Strome Ferry, and other links to places as far afield as Ullapool, Oban, Lochinver and many ports in the Western Isles.
Modern Portree offers visitors all the necessities of life, plus a great deal more. The town has a wide choice of accommodation ranging from upmarket hotels through guest houses and B&Bs: and those looking for hostel accommodation will find no shortage here either. There is also a campsite nearby. The excellent Cuillin Hills Hotel, which is glimpsed in views across the harbour from Portree, is located on the eastern edge of the town and offers iconic views back across the harbour to the Cuillins.
The centre of life in Portree has to be its harbour. This is in a superb natural setting, being surrounded by high ground and cliffs. The peninsula to the south is unflatteringly knows as "The Lump", and once provided a spectacular setting for public hangings on the island. Today the harbour continues to be used by fishing boats, but is also home to other vessels, from pleasure craft to the lifeboat.
Built around the harbour at harbourside level are a range of buildings which have featured in more than one calendar photograph down the years. The run of brightly painted buildings down the south-west side is especially striking; but for us, the natural stone and whitewashed buildings on the north-west side are even more attractive.
The main town of Portree lies above and behind the harbour. The main focus is Somerled Square, home to the mercat cross and war memorial, some car parking, and most of the bus stops in the town. Much of the shopping is to be found in the roads leading from Somerled Square towards the harbour: and Wentworth Street offers a range of those "interesting but not essential" shops that make any visit worthwhile.
In recent years Portree has spread out from its traditional centre, with newer buildings including housing, supermarkets and the island's main secondary school. Also on the southern outskirts of Portree is the Skye Heritage Centre and the associated Aros Experience, designed to bring to life the history and experience of Skye.
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