2/19/2024     by Amy Mutscher

Walk on the Wild Side

Spend a summer week getting to know the Scottish Highlands. Scotland’s craggy, black-bouldered west coast has witnessed Viking raids, Norman conquest and Highland clearances, but today it’s all incredibly peaceful. On the west coast of Scotland lies an island that encapsulates much of the country’s mystique — though it has a famous distillery, its best produce can be found on a guided foraging walk. Follow along as we take a wild walk on the Isle of Skye.


Introducing Mitchell

Clad in waterproof boots and hooded jackets, my extended family and I have gathered here for our annual overseas odyssey. On this balmy August summer morning, after months of planning, email exchanges and Instagram tracking, I finally meet local guide Mitchell Partridge and his black-and-white border collie. Before we arrived, Mitchell and I had discussed a fishing excursion, but scuttled the idea when we amassed more travel companions. Instead, he suggested foraging for mushrooms and edible plants on a forest trek, which intrigued my teens, so we signed up for a walk to explore Scotland’s wild coast, which included a history of the Isle of Skye.

Our adventure begins at the doorstep of our guesthouse, the ancestral hunting lodge of Clan Macdonald, one of Scotland’s largest clans. By way of introduction, Mitchell clarifies that he’s no tour guide, but a ghillie, the difference being that ghillies accompany guests on fishing, hunting or deer stalking expeditions in the Scottish Highlands and live the lifestyle they’re demonstrating. Mitchell has a strong ethos of self-sufficiency, eating with the seasons and sourcing his own meat and seafood. Indeed, he has the tactical skills to live sustainably off of his homeland in ways that city-dwellers like us can only dream about. He learned bushcraft during his time in the military. After leaving the army, he developed his expertise by studying the local flora and fauna. When it comes to foraging for mushrooms, his advice is “don’t munch on a hunch,” and he’s even listed as a chanterelle supplier on our lodge’s dinner menu.

As we step carefully along the rocky shoreline of Loch na Dal and enter the dense woods, Mitchell describes his everyday life. At his home on a nearby cove, he operates lobster traps for his own sustenance and as a valuable trading commodity. He’s an expert fly fisherman and takes out groups of anglers in search of salmon, rainbow trout, sea trout and wild brown trout. His handiness on the water is well known in the local community, and he’s often summoned for rescue efforts — like a recent stranding event that didn’t end so well for a pod of beached whales.


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Quiraing Mountains on the Isle of Skye

Foraging for Mushrooms

Hiking in Scotland is distinctive for that squish you feel when you step into the peaty soil. You’d think the ground would be dry — given that it’s August and the weather is sunny and warm — but the land holds on to the coffee-colored groundwater, evidenced on our shoes after even the briefest trek. As we walk, Mitchell teaches us about mushroom anatomy and how to tell if a mushroom is a friend or foe. The cap is one of several characteristics — from a typical convex form to conical and bell-shaped — but it’s an important one. Flip it over to examine underneath the cap, and notice if you see gills, ridges or pores. Gills can be deceptive, as there are both true and false gills, so it’s a good thing we’re being guided by a professional.

In fact, being with a field guide, we’re in compliance with the Scottish Wild Mushroom Code, which mandates that people should contact the land manager before collecting for any purpose. True to the spirit of community land use, we only gather about a dozen chanterelles for our group to have a taste, and leave plenty in the ground to nourish the ecosystem.

My sister Ashley locates the first hedgehog fungus, to our knowledge at least, of the season. Mitchell congratulates her for spotting this edible mushroom, which grows best during the autumn months. We pause to observe a horse’s hoof fungus growing from a dying, moss-covered birch tree. This gaudy fungus is inedible but useful as tinder for starting fires.


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Portree harbor, Isle of Skye

Scottish Wildlife

Meanwhile, we’re also keeping an eye out for signs of red deer activity: mainly hoofprints in the mud and scrapings on trees. The Scottish Highlands are home to this majestic animal that is the largest land mammal in the UK. Mature stags boast an impressive rack of antlers, of the kind that we’ve often seen displayed over building entrances and fireplace hearths.

Mitchell points out some blueberry bushes. The birds have stripped them clean on the highest branches, but we can reach berries that beaks can’t. Soon, our fingers and teeth are stained purple, and we’ve had our fill of tart wild blueberries. Walking and talking outdoors, sharing a taste of the forest, dodging miniature flying pests, I can’t help but feel this is a bonding experience we’ll relive around the dinner table for years to come.

As we enter a clearing, Mitchell spots campervans parked illegally along the private road. Hikers have the “right to roam,” meaning they can access the land, but it’s forbidden to park on privately owned acreage. In the summer, streams of loaded campervans seeking a remote spot base themselves on the Isle of Skye. It’s a conflict becoming more common as travelers search for an idyllic vista without understanding local ownership rights. The #RecreateResponsibly movement seeks to educate travelers about the use of public lands and how to practice sensible stewardship abiding by “leave no trace” principles. In Scotland, the right to roam is an established tradition enshrined in the Land Reform Act of 2003 that encompasses care for the environment aligned with shared interests and individual accountability.


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Highland cow on Skye

Reaching the Isle of Skye

For day-trippers, traversing the Skye Bridge across Loch Alsh to the Isle of Skye is an unmissable experience. It’s a long drive from cities like Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness to this remote seaboard — home to enchanting fishing villages, salty breezes and expansive views. One of Scotland’s best-known castles is located just off the road a few miles from the iconic Skye Bridge. Based on the pictures, I expected Eilean Donan Castle to be an abandoned outpost, but it’s actually a well-developed tourist attraction with an enticing cafe, a gift shop supplied with locally made goods and a helpful information center.

We head inside and discover Irn-Bru, the carbonated, orange soda considered Scotland’s other national drink, after whisky. What does it taste like? That’s part of the lore. No one can agree on a common description — but it’s definitely not orange-flavored, nor is it as sweet as American sodas.

The next day, half the group heads for a whisky tasting at Talisker Distillery in the seaside village of Carbost, on Loch Harport. Those under age break off to visit the hilltop home of Louise Mackenzie — proprietor of Lou Lou Designs — who repurposes vintage Harris tweed fabrics into purses, travel bags and hair accessories.

Louise usually displays her inventory at different farmers’ markets, but today she’s letting us browse her studio shelves for souvenirs. She relates the ongoing saga of renovations to her home that started life as a schoolhouse and was converted by her joiner husband. He also built her workroom, accentuated with bright yellow windowsills and a front door in the same shade.

Portree is the capital town of Skye, attracting lunchtime diners perusing menus, influencers framing their shot of the pastel-colored buildings fronting the harbor, and campervans resupplying at the nearby grocery store. Somehow, we’re hungry again, so we seek out the Isle of Skye Baking Company for sandwiches and shortbread. There’s also cranberry and sultana bannocks, pumpkin seed oat cakes or feta and spinach scones. With our sweet and savory pastries, we congregate on picnic benches out front to recap and plot our next move. The Irn-Bru donut is a surprise hit, and the buttery lavender shortbread is heaven on a plate.


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Skye Bridge

Our Grand Finale

With foraged chanterelles tucked into a leather shoulder bag, Mitchell scouts level ground for a bush fire. Ever the ghillie, he’s packed his own burner and propane tank, so we’ll leave no evidence after our cookout. He’s learned some important mushroom preparation tips from his time delivering ingredients to the kitchen of our lodge. The chef advised him to bring plenty of salted, grass-fed butter.

We’re not roughing it right now. Our bounty sautéing in sizzling butter blends with the fresh seaside air producing an all-consuming scent. As we pass the warm pan around our family circle, each taking forkfuls of roasted chanterelles, I recognize this as one of those cherished moments that I’d like to live over and over again.

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