Skye or the Isle of Skye (Scottish Gaelic: An t-Eilean Sgitheanach or Eilean a’ Cheó), is the largest and most northerly island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. The island’s peninsulas radiate out from a mountainous centre dominated by the Cuillin hills. Although it has been suggested that the first of these Gaelic names describes a “winged” shape there is no definitive agreement as to the name’s origins.
The island has been occupied since the Mesolithic and has a colourful history including a time of Norse rule and a long period of domination by clans Leod and Donald. The events of the 19th century had a devastating impact on the human population, which today numbers around 9,200. In contrast to many other Scottish islands this represents a 4% increase from the census of 1991. The residents are augmented in the summer by large numbers of tourists and visitors. The main industries are tourism, agriculture, fishing and whisky-distilling. The largest settlement is Portree, which is known for its picturesque harbour. Just over 30% of the residents on Skye speak the Gaelic language.
Skye is part of the Highland Council local government area and is now linked to the mainland by a road bridge. The island is renowned for its spectacular scenery, vibrant culture and heritage, and its abundant wildlife including the Golden Eagle, Red Deer and Salmon.
Skye’s history includes the influence of Gaelic, Norse and English speaking peoples and the relationships between their names for the island are not straightforward. The Gaelic name for the “Isle of Skye” is An t-Eilean Sgitheanach (or Sgiathanach, a more recent and less common spelling). The meaning of this name is not clear. Various etymologies have been proposed, such as the “winged isle” or “the notched isle” but no definitive solution has been found to date and the placename may be from a substratum language and simply opaque.
For example, writing in 1549, Donald Munro, High Dean of the Isles wrote: “This Ile is callit Ellan Skiannach in Irish, that is to say in Inglish the wyngit Ile, be reason it has mony wyngis and pointis lyand furth fra it, throw the dividing of thir foirsaid Lochis”.
This was by no means the first written reference. Roman sources refer to the Scitis (see the Ravenna Cosmography) and Scetis can be found on a map by Ptolemy. A possible derivation from *skitis, an early Celtic word for “winged”, which may describe the island’s peninsulas that radiate out from a mountainous centre, has also been suggested.
A map of the island chain of the Hebrides that lie to the west of the mainland of Scotland.
Skye is the northernmost of the Inner Hebrides, coloured red on this map of western Scotland.
In the Norse sagas Skye is called Skíð, for example in the Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar saga and a skaldic poem in the Heimskringla from c. 1230 which contains a line that translates as “the hunger battle-birds were filled in Skye with blood of foemen killed”. According to other authors, it was referred to in Norse as skuy (misty isle), *skýey or skuyö (isle of cloud). It is not certain whether the Gaelic poetic name for the island, Eilean a’ Cheò “isle of the mist” precedes or postdates the Norse name. Some legends also associate the isle with the mythic figure of Queen Scáthach.