However fraught your journey (ours is seven hours, fretting as our electric car battery dwindles), reaching Kinloch Lodge is a joyful corrective. As you cross the bridge to Skye, it’s instantly apparent you’ve escaped the grind – soft ranges of peaks, each fainter and hazier than the last, in shades of lavender and smoke. The sea is everywhere, lapping wild, seaweed-strewn shorelines and filling rock pools. This is why Skye attracts 650,000 visitors a year – it’s legendarily beautiful, a land of fairy pools and exquisite light. In late autumn, however, on the gentle Sleat peninsula in the south, tucked away down a private track, Kinloch has an extra asset: absolute peace. As we get out of the car, stiffly, a shaft of sun pierces the clouds and the sea loch glitters. There’s a smell of damp peat and brine; the only sounds are waves and curlews calling.
The lodge looks sturdily approachable, not grand. Inside there’s a crackling fire and a welcome glass of fizz in the tiny bar. Staff are smiley and utterly relaxed about our crumpled, crumb-covered appearance. It’s miles away from my childhood Hebridean holidays in spartan self-catering cottages, but also from the constipated jacket-and-tie stuffiness of traditional country house hotels. In the lounge, people curl quietly on fat sofas, doze, eat cake and gaze outside, books forgotten on laps. Our calm, cosseting room has the view, too, from two window seats overlooking the loch. It’s haute comfort; nothing cold, fussy or intimidating.
That’s not accidental, it’s the product of two generations of experience. Kinloch celebrated its 50th birthday this year and Isabella Macdonald, a presence warmer even than the fires, is celebrating 20 years at the helm. She grew up here – Kinloch was opened by her parents, cook and author Lady Claire and Lord Godfrey, chief of the clan Macdonald – and returned in 2002. It was a different place back in 1972: shared bathrooms, long-stay return guests, regularly frozen pipes and Claire baking bread every morning. “I remember lying on people’s beds and just chatting to them,” Isabella reminisces.
That unpretentious, enveloping welcome is still alive, if upscaled, and food is a huge part of it. We agonise choosing from dinner menus packed with local seafood, game and veg. There are scallops and langoustines, venison that ran wild on the surrounding hillsides, locally foraged chanterelles and treats from the on-site polytunnel. My Lochalsh crab rarebit – rib-sticking richness cut through with a touch of chilli – basically ruins me for toasties ever again and my husband gets misty-eyed at his Skye black pudding porchetta with smoked peat oil. It’s all what Isabella calls “a plate of delicious food” – good portions and no tasting-menu flummery of foams or flavoured air. That’s even more apparent at lunchtime, when you can order a bowl of soup or fat mussels, one of Kinloch’s legendary pies or langoustine mac and cheese (yes, it’s as good as it sounds).
“Now everybody uses local and seasonal; she was a pioneer,” Isabella says of Claire, who has co-authored a cookbook to mark the anniversary with current chef Jordan Webb. The menus and the book champion Kinloch’s suppliers, many of them tiny Skye producers. Webb got the foraging bug when he arrived in 2020 and almost every night there’s something picked or found: mushrooms, sea vegetables, herbs and fruit.
Wintry weather and short days are the perfect excuse to hole up by the fire, digesting vast breakfasts of hot-cured salmon, creamy scrambled eggs and proper porridge, gloatingly imagining our next meal. We try a whisky tasting, too, with infectiously enthusiastic barman Dan, who explains the various iterations of the smoky local Talisker and new-kid-on-the-island, distiller Torabhaig. But all of glorious Skye is outside and we need to get hungry again, somehow.
Down in the toe of the peninsula, a blustery walk towards the turquoise waters and white sand of the Point of Sleat is curtailed by rain, so artist Peter McDermott sells us a postcard of it instead, in the Aird Old Church gallery. We wander the Victorian arboretum that surrounds the ruined Armadale Castle and explore 1,500 years of Highland history (much of it featuring the Macdonalds’ ancestors, some of whom I recognise from Kinloch’s walls) in the pint-sized museum.
A foraging and wildlife outing with local ghillie Mitchell Partridge and his delightful dog, Ghillie, is another kind of Skye magic. We watch a school of porpoises playing in the loch. They’re a regular sight, as are red deer, seals and sea eagles. In the woods, Partridge points out where the chanterelles grow (in season, he brings a stove and cooks up the spoils). My hardy husband swims in the loch, observed by a curious seal. I stick to the shoreline, hoping to spot the resident otter. I’m wistful to see her gallivanting on Partridge’s Instagram days later, but it deepens my resolve to return.
After another blowout dinner (Skye scallop ceviche with crispy salmon skin, and chicken with an experimental black truffle cultivated near Edinburgh, intriguingly), we sink happily into the sofa and stare at the fire. “You look very full and comfy and happy,” one of the staff says, dropping off some totally unnecessary petits fours – we are.
The Hebrides are addictive. Once you’ve tried one island, you’ll want to collect them all, like Pokémon. Below are three must-sees to add to your list.
A double room at Kinloch Lodge, including B&B and dinner, costs from £210 per person. Wilderness Experiences: from £260 for two. To buy The Kinloch Lodge – Fifty Years cookbook, £35, go to kinloch-lodge.co.uk
Island hoppers: three other heavenly Hebridean isles to explore
Eigg This wild tiny outcrop has been community-owned since 1997 and is fully powered by its own renewable energy: a taste of the future for this part of the world, hopefully. When I stayed as a teenager, the cottage was lit by oil lamps. Now there’s everything from a 4-star restaurant with rooms at Lageorna, to self-catering cottages, a yurt, a bothy with ‘excellent wifi’ or £7-a-night camping.
Coll The turquoise waters and fine white sand on Coll feel tropical. It’s not quite that warm, but the Gulf Stream takes the chill off the water and like neighbouring Tiree, it’s blessed with an un-Scottish amount of sunshine. Divers and wildlife lovers come to swim with the basking sharks that gather around the coast in summer. The pint-sized Coll Hotel has big, comfy rooms with wonderful views and unfussy local seafood.
Iona St Columba arrived on the holy isle of Iona in the 6th century. Just 1.5 miles wide and 3 miles long, it’s the burial place for medieval kings of Norway, Ireland, and Scotland, including a certain Macbeth. That history feels tangible, and the abbey still welcomes guests for contemplative community retreats. It’s also home to the rare and elusive corncrake. If you get lucky, you might hear their creaking song.