Most of the settlement on Skye's Sleat Peninsula lies along its south eastern coast, ovelooking the Sound of Sleat and mainland Scotland beyond. But not all of it. A line of small, scattered crofting settlements stretch along four miles of the rugged north west coast of the peninsula, and these can be accessed by roads that cut across the peninsula from either end of the line of settlements. The result is three sides of a square of narrow and tortuous single track road, two of whose sides cut across the peninsula, while one runs parallel with its north west coast. The fourth side of the square is formed by a stretch of the A851 down the south east coast of Sleat.
The more south westerly of the roads across the peninsula leaves the A851 at Ostaig before climbing over the shoulder of Sgurr na h-Iolaire (the Hill of the Eagle) then descending to Achnacloich, where it meets the sea at Tarskavaig Bay. The views north from here are superb. They are also quite complex because, depending on the exact angle and height you are looking from, what seems to be a single piece of land in the north can comprise up to four different elements.
The nearest of these is the far side of the same bay, which concludes at Tarskavaig Point. This can easily blend with the south west coast of Strathaird, the peninsula which is home to out-of-sight Elgol. The line of crofts that make up Glasnakille, a mile this side of Elgol, can however be made out. Strathaird can, in turn, easily blend into the magnificent arc of mountains that lies beyond a considerable distance beyond it, comprising the Black Cuillin, Bla Bheinn and the Red Cuillin. And just to add a bit more complexity, the island of Soay can also appear to form part of the land mass in some views.
Tarskavaig is the largest of the settlements along this coast. The views over it from the "main" coast road are some of the most striking in Scotland even when the jagged peaks of the mountains in the background are lost in cloud. The village itself is a classic crofting community, spread out across a shallow valley that stretches down to Tarskavaig Bay.
The map will tell you that the next settlement along this coast is Tokavaig. Frankly, this is so sparse and dispersed as to be easily missed, even in this remote landscape. You know you are close, however, when the road descends to run behind a pebble beach facing onto a bay. On the headland on the far side of the bay are the ruins of Dun Sgathaich, or Dunscaith Castle. Dating back to the 1300s this is thought to be the oldest standing castle on Skye: though not much of it is actually still standing. The castle was originally built for the MacAskills, but it passed quite early in its life to the MacLeods.
The MacDonalds tried and failed to capture the castle in 1395 and 1401 before succeeding a few years later. More sieges followed in 1431 when James I captured the castle, and in 1515, when the MacLeods failed to do so. It was eventually abandoned by the MacDonalds in 1618 in favour of more modern accommodation elsewhere on Skye.
The pre-history of the castle is still more interesting. It was said to have been built in a single night with the help of a witch. This headland was also said to have been the location for the legendary "School for Heroes" run by the Celtic warrior queen, Scáthach, whose name is reflected in that of the castle. This is where, it is said, the Irish hero Cúchulainn learned the art of war. His name lives on in that of the Cuillins.
The next place the road strikes the coast is Ord. Here you find the ruins of St Comgan's Chapel dating back to the 700s. It is also an excellent place to watch the summer sunsets over the Cuillin; or the seals on the shore at any time of the year. The poet Alexander Smith spent much of the summer of 1864 at Ord House while exploring the island. The result was published in 1865 as the enduringly popular "A Summer in Skye".
From Ord the road makes its way back across the Sleat Peninsula, first following the line of the Ord River, then descending through forestry plantation back to the A851.
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