travel - the isle of skye - skye's the limit

jonathan crouch follows bonnie prince charlie's route from inverness to the isles of skye in search of the perfect motoring break

Swap the stress of urban life for the space, freedom and tranquillity of Scotland For the cost of a good night out!The Motor 'N' Rail brochure sounded appealing. And hadn't Katie, little Caris and I done enough to deserve a short break? It took a second to decide: we would go.

'Motor 'N' Rail' was not, as I had expected, a traditional Motorail service where you drive on one station and drive off at another. "That finished years ago," a bored looking station attendant told me "when they privatised everything. They charged the earth and no-one was using it". Don't fall into the trap of remembering nationalised rail travel with rose tinted memories; it wasn't like that, truly it wasn't.

I wouldn't try and pretend that the Scotrail service that I used from London to Inverness was perfect (it left an hour late for a start), but I was agreeably surprised, as someone who uses trains as a necessary inconvenience, by how comfortable and convenient it was.

'Motor 'N' Rail', it turned out, was a deal whereby, at the time of writing, you could get a two birth sleeper cabin from as little as £99 return. That gets you to Glasgow or Edinburgh. If, as I did, you want to go to the Highlands (Inverness, Fort William or Aberdeen), you'll pay a little bit more. The 'motor' bit comes when you arrive. Wherever you turn up, Arnold Clerk rentals will give you a 20% discount on car hire. No wonder the Motorail went out of business.

The sleeper service, as I've said, is a surprisingly agreeable one - at least if you use the Highland services; they give you enough travelling time to get a decent night's sleep. In my case, that meant leaving London at 8.30pm and arriving at 8.30am the next morning.

The plan was to head off to the Isle of Skye, but before doing so, we took the opportunity to spend a day in Inverness, capital of the Highlands. It's a beautiful city with an enviable location at the head of the great Glen and on the Shores of the Moray Firth. Viewed form the span of the Kessock Bridge or from the heights of the Drumossie Moor as you approached from the south, it's easy to see why generations of Picks, Celts and Gaels have found this site at the mouth of the River Ness so attractive.

Drive a few miles west of Inverness and the Great Glen opens up to reveal the dark, mysterious expanse of the Loch Ness. At over 750 feet deep and 25 miles long, the Loch contains enough water to fill every lake, reservoir and river in England. It's an amazing place and would command interest even without the enduring rumours of something monstrous.

Another key attraction on the outskirts of Inverness is the eerily quiet expanse that is Culloden Moor. This windswept moor played host to the bloody conclusion of the doomed Jacobite Rising of 1745. The Battle of Culloden (1746) was the last major skirmish fought on British soil and it proved to be a massacre of the poorly fed, tired and demoralised Jacobite army. Although the battle was over in less than an hour (the Jacobites losing 2,000 men to perhaps 300 Hanoverian loses), the slaughter continued for several days and the reprisals went on for months afterwards.

The Jacobite leader, Bonnie Prince Charles, fled west, hotly pursued by government troops, but aided by a resourceful Scots woman named Flora Macdonald. It was their route we followed Southwest of Inverness, heading down the banks of Loch Ness to Invermoriston, then heading west to the Kyle of Lochalsh. At the Kyle, the Bonnie Prince was smuggled aboard Flora's boat disguised as her maid 'Betty Burke' for the voyage to Portree, halfway up the East Coast of Skye.

For modern travellers, the route is rather easier. When I visited the island years ago, you had to wait for a rickety old ferry, which, nonetheless, gave something of a sense of occasion to the 'trip across the sea'. Now, rather disappointedly, there's a huge modern bridge that blights the landscape and charges exorbitant tolls to the motorists who must now use it.

When the Prince Flora parted in Portree, he presented her with a locket as a sign of his gratitude. Hopefully this sustained her in the years she subsequently spent in the Tower of London when her role in his escape became known. When released, she returned to Skye and headed, as we now did, north of the little fishing town of Portrice to the much smaller hamlet of Flodigarry, 30 miles further North along the jagged coastline.

The cottage she settled in, to give birth to her seven children, is now part of the Flodigarry Country House Hotel and it was there that we settled for the rest of the memorable week.

Northeast Skye is about a remote resting-place as you can drive to the British Isles. It's worth the trip; I can see why Flora settled here. Had not this column dragged me back, I'd probably still be there, sipping morning tea on the terrace or taking long, easy drives along the bleak but breathtaking coast.

As a place to rediscover the joy of driving and the art of relaxation, Scotland is difficult to beat. For me, the road and rail combination is one I'll be repeating.


RAIL TRAVEL: Scotrail (0345 55033)

SCOTTISH TOURIST BOARD: 'Autumn Gold' (Brochure Phoneline - 08750 511511)

ARNOLD CLARK CAR RENTAL: (0131 228 4747)