The landscape of the Isle of Skye is dotted with ancient castles, colourful villages, and the hairiest cows you’ll ever see, and its famed beauty has it on many bucket lists, especially for photographers. 

However, both the island’s environment and its population experienced overtourism before the COVID-19 pandemic and although the industry has slowly been welcoming visitors back, there is still concern about the way tourists treat the landscape and local businesses.

A path through the mountains of Skye. The clouds are grey and low, hiding the mountain.
Skye in the off season has its own moody charms © Rosa Kumar/Lonely Planet

Tourists tend to flock to Skye in the summer months, when it is warm enough to swim, hike comfortably and picnic outside.  In normal times, local economies can struggle to accommodate the crowds in the summer months, then experience such a steep decline in tourism in winter that many businesses completely shut down for the season. Line-ups for food can be hours long and driving becomes an ordeal with many places accessible only by single-lane roads; especially problematic with an overabundance of big tourist buses and camper vans. Pathways and popular sites are eroding, and many tour groups disturb the sites by stacking rocks, going off approved pathways, and bothering local wildlife and farm animals.

One major change that can help both the environment and local businesses is to travel off season, between October and March (particularly this year to offset the fall in visitor numbers due to the pandemic). You may have to wear a raincoat, gloves, and boots, but the island is covered in a stunning layer of mist and fog, making the views otherworldly; these are the scenes filmed in movies like Skyfall (2012) and Macbeth (2015). There is always ample parking, dining options (though many close earlier off season, so do check), and accommodation on the island as well. The greatest benefit would likely be seeing famous sites like the Old Man of Storr and Quiraing almost empty of visitors.

A man sits on a rock in a deserted Highland landscape. In the background is a loch and mountains covered by fog.
The mist and fog of the Highlands can make for wonderfully moody photos © Rosa Kumar / Lonely Planet

It is also more sustainable to spend the night on the Isle of Skye and not do a hop-on-hop-off tour from Edinburgh or Inverness. This way you’re plugging in money to the local economy during a time when very few tourists are. The island is connected to the mainland via the Skye Bridge, or a ferry service – make sure not to miss the last ferry or you’ll be on a very long detour!

Editor's note: check local travel restrictions before booking any trip and always follow government health advice.

Instagram Tips for Skye

1)      Shooting in low light is a great photographic opportunity because you pick up much more of the landscape when it’s overcast. Try a low exposure shot for a moodier photo.

2)      Head out in the early morning or at dusk to experience the main tourist points with almost no people – it’s not only a great photo opportunity but a very tranquil experience.

3)      The Isle of Skye has a surprising number of waterfalls – bring a portable tripod and take the photo with a slow shutter speed and a small aperture.

4)      Be prepared to pull over to photograph Highland cows and sheep wandering around – this is another great reason to not have a strict itinerary and to take your time.

A hairy cow stands in the middle of a field. Stone buildings are visible in the background.
Scotland's gorgeous cows make for great photography subjects whatever the weather © Rosa Kumar / Lonely Planet

Most Instagrammable Places in the Isle of Skye

1)      Old Man of Storr – this one is a bit of a hike, but the walk is gorgeous, with 360-degree views. Be prepared to slip and slide a little if you’re going during the rainy season, but there are plenty of little rivers to wash your boots in.

2)      Quiraing – this hike is about a two-hour loop from the car park, and has some of the most spectacular landscapes Skye has to offer.

3)      Neist Point Lighthouse – the Lighthouse feels as if it’s on the edge of the world, and is only about 30–40 minutes from the car park, but beware of the evening tourists who flock for the iconic sunset photos; it can get crowded.

Rocks emerge ghost-like from a thick layer of mist.
The Old Man of Storr as you rarely see it © Rosa Kumar / Lonely Planet

4)      Fairy Pools – this can be a bit tricky outside of summer because you have to cross rivers by stepping on rocks to complete the walk which can be covered in water, but the ethereal views are worth a bit of extra caution.

5)      Dunvegan Castle – the castle interiors are historically interesting, but the main attraction are the lush gardens surrounding the property. It’s a great place to take a warm breather after a day of hiking.

6)      Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls – these ancient cliffs resemble a Scottish kilt, and from the viewpoint which is steps from the car park you can even see mainland Scotland on a clear day.

7)      Fairy Glen – as magical as the name, this beautiful terrain is accented with grassy cone-shaped hills, ponds, and waterfalls.

A pool of clear water with stones visible at the bottom. A small stream flows into it and mountains loom in the background.
It's rare to see the Fairy Pools without a crowd, but it is possible © marcoisler / Getty Images

8)      Portree Harbour – the colourful strip of businesses and sailboats dotting the harbour make it both a perfect rest stop for lunch, and a photography opportunity.

9)      Glenfinnan Viaduct – this is an honourable mention as it’s not actually on Skye, but if you’re taking the Skye ferry to the island it’s a great pit stop on the way there.

It’s best not to approach your trip as a list of tick boxes on an Insta-itinerary, but to experience it slowly, savouring the rugged beauty, brilliantly humorous locals, and unexpectedly delicious gastronomic culture of the island. Enjoy your sustainable trip to the Isle of Skye, and know that although you can’t swim in the Fairy Pools (unless you fancy a polar dip), making a little change in the way you travel makes a big difference in the health of a beautiful region’s economy, environment, and sustainability. And your Instagram grid will thank you for it!

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This article was first published Mar 16, 2020 and updated Oct 9, 2020.

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