The Isle of Skye is beautiful but with its thousands of, often disrespectful, tourists arriving in plentiful coaches, it has ruined many parts of the small island. If you’re looking for that wild and rugged beauty but minus the gaggle of people, Glenelg might be just the perfect alternative. It’s also the only place in the entire world that is twinned with Mars.
Where Is Glenelg?
Glenelg is described as a ‘scattered community area’ and if you visit you’ll understand why. Approximately four hours from Glasgow, Glenelg is rural. With only one single track road leading in, most houses still benefit from house deliveries from local food suppliers.
The main village is actually called Kirkton of Glenelg although referred to widely as Glenelg however there is a smaller hamlet less than a mile to the south by the jetty and skirting Glenelg Bay known as Quarry and there are several other clusters of houses and farms scattered up Glen Beag (small valley) and Glen More (big valley) and on the road leading to the ferry at Kyle Rhea. It has a full-time population of just 291 people. In fact, there are probably more sheep there than people.
Glenelg is located south of Loch Alsh, by the fiercely tidal Kyle Rhea narrows, where the Isle of Skye is closest to the mainland. Between November and February, the only access to Glenelg is by road over the 339 metres (1,112 ft) Mam Ratagan Pass from Shiel Bridge.
It’s a remote area alright and the true beauty is, you’ll only ever meet people who actually want to be there! Genius!
It Almost Touches The Island of Skye
Glenelg’s proximity to Skye meant that Glenelg was formerly of greater strategic importance and had a significantly larger population. Glenelg appears on the first map of Scotland published in 1662 and is just 534 metres from Skye – although I definitely wouldn’t try swimming it!
The rolling, hilly landscape provided shelter and food for the vast quantities of cows and sheep there and also an easy route across to the Island of Skye which had no bridge until 1992. Originally cattle from Glenelg were taken to Uig in the north of Skye for pasture and were tied together by a nose ring to tail and were guided across the sea by a rowing boat!
Between March and October, there is the option to cross the Kylerhea Strait by ferry which is the only remaining hand-operated turntable ferry in the world. It’s quite impressive to watch.
Why is Glenelg, Scotland twinned with Glenelg on Mars!!
Glenelg is the only place on Earth to be twinned with a namesake on another planet. It started back in 2011 when NASA launched a rocket to land the rover ‘Curiosity and named one of the geological features on Mars ‘Glenelg’. Glenelg in Scotland sprung into action planning its twinning party ‘Space, Stars and Mars’ which included construction of a 500 seater venue, catering marquees, a Glenelg Geocache registration point and a gazillion miles of cables.
You see Glenelg doesn’t have the best mobile network coverage and its broadband is pretty slow, so in order to live stream the landing of the rover, the town required a 300-foot cable stretched across the village football pitch into the nearest cottage where they hijacked the wifi router. Ingeniously it worked!
The Town of Glenelg Itself
The actual town is pretty small and consists of white-washed, stone cottages dating back to the 1700s. They were built at the same time as the Barracks to house the Officers. Blantyre Terrace is named after the former landowner, the Master of Blantyre.
The war memorial in Glenelg was erected in 1920. Designed by Sir Robert Lorimer, sculptured by Louis Deuchars and presented by Lady Scott of Ellenreach the first name of the list of fallen soldiers is Valentine Fleming, proprietor of Arnisdale and father of Ian Fleming, the novelist.
Drive through the village down to a small tidal lagoon (which is frequently visited by otters) and which gives you the first spectacular view across Glenelg Bay, down the Sound of Sleat and over the sea to the Isle of Skye. Here is a jetty and moorings for visitors wishing to bring their own boats.
How to Get Around Glenelg
Glenelg is pretty rural and although there is a regular bus service the easiest way to get around will be driving. You can also hire both adult’s and child’s bikes from a local bike business. Also offered are organised bike tours and cycling guides for the region.
Once past the Mam Ratagan pass the road becomes a single lane track with frequent passing places. The road is in good condition and able to accommodate some motorhomes. The roads are not overly busy but do be mindful as the locals drive quite fast!
Where To Shop & Eat In Glenelg
Glenelg has a licensed, village shop and a combined post office which actually has a good range of everything! We were really surprised that it stocked a large range of vegan produce too. The local pub is the Glenelg Inn and it has great reviews, focusing mainly on locally sourced produce. It describes itself as traditional with a cosy character and hosts music events too. The Way Out West cafe can be found in the Glenelg and Arnisdale Community Hall on the road leading into Glenelg, near the football pitch. They also screen films at the Picture House there.
Further away, there is a very limited selection of snack food at the Shiel Bridge Petrol Station. A large co-op with a huge selection of food can be found at the Kyle of Lochalsh (just after the Skye bridge) but this is a fair old distance from Glenelg. Fort William which is over an hour away has a Lidl, Farmfoods, M&S Food & Morrisons.
There’s even a secret social food club. Eolach food, which offers a sustainable approach to local food, offer ticketed events. Dates and tickets found through Eventbrite. You can check out some of the photos on their facebook page.
Other Things To Do In Glenelg
- I didn’t get to see it but I was told that the waterfall of Culindune is an impressive sight, especially when full.
- The kids’ play park at the back of the community centre is great for pre-teen kids.
- Take a Highland Sewing Workshop and learn how to make Kilt Cushions.
The Barracks can be accessed from both the village and a small, wooden footbridge leading over the salt-marshy river. The Bernera Barracks are now abandoned and ruined and access is blocked by a high wire fence although you can walk around the fence.
Following the Jacobite rising of 1715, Glenelg was chosen along with Fort George, Fort Augustus and Fort William as one of four sites in the Highlands for military barracks.
These barracks were built between 1719-23 at the time of the abortive Spanish invasion: a regiment of Marines from Naples landed at Eilean Donan to support a larger landing in the south of England which never materialised. The Spaniards and the Highlanders who joined them were defeated in Glenshiel and the marines were repatriated with honour.
The real purpose of the Barracks seems to have been to guard the road to Skye, subdue the local clans and discourage rustling and blackmail. The barracks served as a police station for Highland companies who introduced the entirely novel idea that it was wrong to pop over to Glenshiel and steal cattle. Mind-boggling.
Ultimately unsuccessful in preventing the 1745 uprising and not needed after the Highland Clearances and by 1797 the facility had been abandoned and was left to become derelict. The Bernera Barracks are completely ruined but fun to have a look at.
There’s Even A Munro!
For the keen hikers amongst us, there’s a Munro (and a Marilyn) and it actually walks past two of the Brochs.
Beinn Sgritheall (or Beinn Sgriol) at 3,196ft (974m) is the steepest mountain in the Glenelg area. The main approach is via Arnisdale on the shores of Loch Hourn however the other approach is via Gleann Beag and the brochs to the north. The view from the summit was described by Sir Hugh Munro as “perhaps the most beautiful I have seen in Scotland“.
Directions and a map as well as other people’s comments can be found here on the WalkHighlands Site.
Other Walks in The Area
|Sandaig (Camusfearna)||4.25km||1.5 – 2 hours|
|Old Coast Path, Corran||7.5km||3 – 4 hours|
|Gleann Beag and the Glenelg Brochs to Suardalan||14km||4 – 5 hours|
|Ardintoul Circuit, near Glenelg||14.25km||4 – 5.5 hours|
|Gleann Beag brochs, Suardalan and Glenelg circuit||22.25km||6 – 8 hours|
|The Lochalsh Dirty 30 Challenge||47km||12 hours+ or 2 days|
|Beinn Sgritheall||10km||4 – 6 hours|
|Beinn na h-Eaglaise and Beinn nan Caorach||11.5km||6 – 8 hours|
Broch Towers, Hut Circles & Neolithic Cairns
There are three, almost 3,000 year old, iron-age, Broch towers in the Glenelg area. It is estimated that some seven hundred brochs once existed across Scotland although most are now in a poor state of repair. Built somewhere between the last BC centuries and the first AD centuries, brochs combine features of fort, fortified house and status symbol, and could feasibly have served several different purposes in different places and at different times. So really they’re a bit of a mystery! The most complete examples have been said to resemble the cooling towers of modern power stations.
Dun Telve and Dun Troddan are both in the beautiful, flat valley of Gleann Beag. They are unusually close together for brochs, standing just 500m apart. Their excellent state of preservation attracted attention and they are also noteworthy for their design, scale and quality of build. Dun Telve still stands to more than 10m in places. Dun Troddan is shorter, at 7.6m, but is better preserved and has an internal staircase.
It’s not as well-preserved, it’s not as evocative but the broch of Dun Grugaig is 45 minutes further into the rugged and rising Glen. Dun Grugaig is a D-shaped fortification with at least three doorways. It once measured about 17 by 12 metres although is looking a little bereft and unkempt now.
Look Up Into The Dark Skies
With virtually no light pollution, Glenelg is famous for its night skies – that is between October and April and of course if it’s not snowing because during the summer months it doesn’t really get dark up there. Scotland’s latitude mirrors Stavanger in Norway and Nunivak Island in Alaska, making it the UK’s best place to see the Aurora Borealis.
The Aurora is triggered by collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun, due to flares on the sun’s surface, that enter the earth’s atmosphere. The resulting strength of the Aurora depends on the power of the solar flares and the angle relative to the earth. Due to the vast patches of unpolluted skies, the area directly west of Glenelg boasts four Dark Sky Discovery Sites.
Here are our top tips for your chance to catch a glimpse of those dancing limbs:
- Planning is the best way to increase your chances of seeing the northern lights. Follow @Aurora_Alerts and @aurorawatchuk for Twitter alerts.
- The softserve website gives you the detail of when to expect the biggest magnetic storms.
- Check the weather for clear skies near where you are or prepare to drive to a location where clear skies are possible.
- Get the Aurora Alert App
Aside from the copious amounts of livestock grazing next to the road and frequently obscuring the road, another local attraction are a pair of resident sea eagles. During the summer, sightings are almost daily as they fish by the ferry crossing trying to feed their young.
There are otters in the lochs around Glenelg, however you can also catch the Skye ferry as foot passengers to visit the Kylerhea Otter Hide. There are regular sightings of otters, seals, dolphins, basking shark and other sea life.
Beaches Around Glenelg
- Bernera beach is a kilometre wide, white-sand bay with scrambling rocks to the north, a long sandy beach to the centre and a more mud beach with algae-covered rocks to the south. The waters to the north of Bernera Beach are clear and turquoise; perfect for paddleboarding and if the temperature is right you might consider snorkelling (with a wetsuit!). Photos of Bernera Beach are above.
- Glenmore Beach hugs the Glenmore River and is less aesthetic! Watch out for the currents and tide here.
- Glenelg Bay is a wide, curvy shingle beach with some scrambling rocks to the south. We saw animal bones and jellyfish here.
The Kylerhea Skye Ferry
Between March and October, a small ferry crosses to Kylerhea, Skye. The ferry used on the crossing since 1982 is the MV Glenachulish and it is the last hand-operated turntable ferry in operation in the world. Built in 1969 for the Ballachulish crossing by the Ailsa Shipbuilding Company in Troon, it is now operated by a local Community Interest Company. The ferry can transport six cars plus foot passengers on the open deck.
It is unusual to watch and the first I’ve ever seen. The ferry actually ties up alongside the slipway and the crew manually turn the deck turntable for cars and passengers to embark and disembark. The Glenelg Ferry slipway was designed by Thomas Telford in 1818 and is Category B listed. The Sandaig Lighthouse formerly on the Sandaig Isles was restored in 2002 and moved to the ferry terminal where it is now a souvenir shop. The Light was built in 1910 by Charles Alexander Stevenson, (cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson), for the Northern Lighthouse Board.
The ferry area is flanked by rocks perfect for clambering, watching birds and admiring the view.
The Isles of Sandaig
South-west of Glenelg lie the small, tidal islands of Sandaig.
Sandaig is famous for being the retreat of author Gavin Maxwell – who wrote Ring of Bright Water – and his rescued otters. The eponymous Sandaig Islands are a small group of islets just off the point in the Sound of Sleat and are known for their fine silvery shell sand beaches. Gavin Maxwell described the area “nowhere in all the West Highlands and Islands have I seen any place of so intense or varied beauty in so small a compass.”
His dwellings were burnt down in 1968 and there now remains a memorial stone where his ashes were placed and another stone for Edal, one of his famous otters. Sandaig is a challenging place to visit but worth the walk that starts at the right of Upper Sandaig Cottage. There are two paths one easily accessible whilst the other traverses a rope bridge! It is best to visit the first Isle at low tide (check tide times) where the view to the Sound of Sleat and Glenelg Bay is stunning, as is the white coral beach. The walk is detailed here.
Arnisdale and Corran
The incredibly rural but beautiful twin villages of Arnisdale and Corran lie, literally, at the end of the road. This area is often described as “Britain’s last wilderness” and it’s not hard to appreciate why! Corran is one of my favourite places in The Highlands and I hope it becomes one of yours too.
The large white-painted lodge at the end of Arnisdale is Arnisdale (Lodge) House and it was built in 1898 by Valentine Fleming, father of Ian Fleming. If you venture further down the road you’ll find Corran’s modern Ceilidh House Heritage centre and wild beaches full of fascinatingly coloured rocks.
The walls of Ceilidh House are a mesmeric storyboard of the history of the village and area which used to have a much larger population of over 600 people. It also puts on regular events such as quizzes, plays and music gigs . The car park allows camper vans to spend a maximum of two nights there and give a donation of £10 per night. Toilets are available to use but they request you don’t put any chemicals down them as they’re eco-friendly.
Where To Eat & Drink In Corran & Arnisdale
Almost opposite the Dun Trodden Broch is Corray Farm, an organic poly-tunnel growing venture which owns The Wagon Cafe with a Yurt, Dun Brewing Beer and Dun Inn. The Café is open every day except for Saturdays between April & October, 10am-5pm. Dun Brewing Beer produce a number of beers with unusual names. I think we’ve tried four so far; Dun Light; Dun & Dusted; Dungeon & Dun4. The beers are also sold in The Glenelg Shop and definitely worth a taste.
At the very end of the road in Corran is the famous Sheena’s Tea Hut. It is open Easter to October, 10 am-5 pm, closed Saturdays.
River Spots to Play In
Heading past the brochs and towards Balvraid, there are a number of places where you can park on the grass verges and get down to the river. I’ve attempted to mark them on the map below. Here the river is quite flat and shallow and although the water steadily flows it’s a hospitable area for kids to paddle and build dams.
I’d recommend taking a decent pair of beach skin shoes.
Other Local Activities To Try
- Glenshiel Pony Trekking is roughly 20 minutes away between Shiel and the Ratagan Pass.
- Glenshiel Chocolate Shop sell handmade chocolates, some including Gin, Whisky, Marmalade, Heather honey and Highland roasted coffee.
- The Shiel River near the Moyle Campsite is roughly 15 minutes from Glenelg and perfect for building dams and paddling.
Day Trips from Glenelg
- The Eilean Donan Castle sits on a small tidal island where three sea lochs meet: Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh. It’s a picturesque castle but there are coach loads of tourists! Open every day from 1 March – 31st Oct.
- Author Gavin Maxwell also owned and lived on Eilean Bàn, the “White Island” that supports the Skye Bridge. You can visit his restored cottage, the lighthouse and wildlife hides booking via the Brightwater Centre.
- Visit the Kyle of Lochalsh and Kyleakin where there is a lifeboat station, a railway museum and glass-bottom boat trips on the Seaprobe Atlantis.
How To Visit Glenelg For FREE
If you’re interested in visiting Glenelg and don’t mind skill swapping, there are a number of local businesses that offer workaway and wwoofing.
- Sheena’s Tea Hut and Sheena’s But n Ben accept volunteers through Workaway. Contact directly for information.
- Corray Farm near Corran offer WOOFing.
- Stay at a Scottish Farm in Glenelg through workaway.
- Suardalan Bothy is roughly 7 miles from Glenelg and you can stay here for free with no skill swap.
Book Your Trip To Glenelg
You can book your next budget holiday to Glenelg with these four cheap self-catering, holiday providers. We have found accommodation in Glenelg with these five providers – who we use regularly.
Ready to visit Glenelg? Get cheap car rental with RentalCars and self-drive to your heart’s content.
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