There can be few locations anywhere in Scotland where the welcome in winter is so wonderful, as Ailsa Sheldon finds, when she sojourns on Skye as a guest of The Three Chimneys and House Over By

Skye in winter is a gift. Single track roads glint like a silvery spool of unfurling ribbon over the dark peated landscape. The mighty Cuillins disappear and reappear in an endless game of hide and seek with the clouds. The campervans have retreated and in these colder months Skye is reclaimed by locals and those who love these weather-washed days when the light is low. 
My destination this year, on what I’ve decided is an annual pilgrimage, is The Three Chimneys. Often cited as the best example of ‘destination dining’ in Scotland, people travel far to eat here, and have done so since the doors opened in 1985. Now run by Gordon Campbell-Gray and The Wee Hotel Company since Shirley and Eddie Spear retired, much care has been taken to preserve and continue the magic. 

It’s a place I’ve dreamed of visiting for three decades, since my mountaineer dad was taken here as a guest and told me about everything he ate. It’s probably where my interest in fine dining originated, long before I ever experienced it. I’ve packed my partner; it’s our first weekend away without kids in three years and we’re a little giddy with the freedom. It’s a lot of anticipation to pin on a place, but I’m confident The Three Chimneys can handle it. 

After a nosey at surely the country’s smallest, gutsiest gin distillery – 57° SKYE in Kyle of Lochalsh – we cross the Skye bridge in lashing rain. It’s a good hour’s drive from here to The Three Chimneys in Colbost, just a cluster of houses near Dunvegan in the north-west of the island. Waterfalls tumble beside the road and we stop frequently for sheep. Often the end of a journey is the stressful bit but today it’s almost meditative, with the twisting road and the rhythmic window wipers.

We finally arrive at The House Over By, the hotel rooms beside The Three Chimneys. There are six suites, including one that’s fully accessible. We’re warmly welcomed into a calm Scandi-style lobby with a vat of help yourself kombucha, flickering candles and a selection of chic souvenirs for sale.

As we check in we’re asked if we’d like a wake up call if the Aurora Borealis is visible. It’s an emphatic yes. “Last week all the diners were standing in the garden watching the lights,” we’re told. I cross my fingers on both hands; that’s another as yet unrealised dream, despite growing up in the Highlands. 

After a glass of fizz in the spacious guest lounge, we head into the restaurant, and any fears of over-formal stuffiness evaporate. The staff are young, cheery and enthusiastic about what they do. It’s warm and bright, with the old stone walls of the croft preserved. The wall art suggests a few creative differences of opinion, but it all adds to a homely feeling. Settling in, we pull apart the house rye sourdough. The starter has been going for eight years, you can taste the aged goodness in the malty rye crust.  It’s served with pots of both seaweed and smoked juniper butter. I think the smoked juniper has the edge but I dunk back and forth to check.  

We order Champagne and oysters three ways. One topped with gin granita makes the oyster very cold and hard to appreciate, much nicer is the creamy classic with shallot and seaweed vinegar, but the unexpected winner is a hot oyster battered in Skye Black beer and served with a smoked mussel ketchup. Usually I’m an oyster purist but this crispy smoky combination is delightful. 
Loch Dunvegan crab is my ‘snack’ course but it would make a generous starter. The shredded crab is sweet and fresh, paired with crunchy Jerusalem artichoke crisps, toasted hazelnuts and a creamy brown crab sauce. Seasonal, considered and delicious. Double dived Sconser scallops are up next.

The Herald:

These are a Three Chimneys speciality, dived first by David Oaks, then finished slowly and sustainably in his seabed fishery in Loch Sligachan until they are sweet, fat and ready to be dived for a second time. 

“They live most of their lives in shallow waters so they get more sunlight and more nutrients, they go beautiful, big and sweet,” executive head chef Scott Davies tells me, and he’s right, you can really taste the difference. The scallops are simply cooked, and today served with crunchy hazelnut topped potatoes, venison salami and baked potato dashi.  Roasted curry monkfish arrives deconstructed, components artfully arranged around the plate. This style has the potential to be annoying, but here it is magical. A juicy fillet of monkfish with crisp skin, fat mussels some in and some out their shell, coriander seed dukkah crusted cauliflower, an apple puree and a pool of curried sauce. It’s real a joy to eat, each flavour bouncing off the next, the combined effect a triumph. An unnecessary but enjoyable side of crispy potatoes taste like the very best bottom of the frier chips, with plenty of seaweed salt and vinegar. 

Pudding is again deconstructed and I’m slightly less enamoured, but also very full. I can’t fault the woodruff burnt cream, like a slightly less wobbly creme brulee, the crisp almond and pink peppercorn crumble and the Granny Smith apple ice cream, but even for this greedy eater the mini doughnut was a stretch. Each dish on the menu has its own wine pairing, replacing choice with expertise which I’m very happy to do. Standouts were a Domaine Champalou Vouvray with the scallops, and ‘The Agnes’ a South African chardonnay which helped the curried monkfish sing.  
A signature of a Three Chimneys is the marriage of ingredients from the land and the sea: crab with Jerusalem artichoke, scallops with potatoes, monkfish with apples and cauliflower. Huddled by the edge of the loch, it seems only right to embrace both the land that protects and the sea that sustains us on every plate. 

Scott Davies says: “As a chef, it’s quite easy, especially when you are in the central belt and the cities, you don’t think about where the food’s coming from. You don’t really have that connection with the land or sea. But at The Three Chimneys we speak to the fishermen, the farmers, the growers, the crofters on a daily basis.  I’ve learned a lot about what grows together, goes together and to respect the seasons, like you can’t have prawns on when it’s stormy weather.” 

It’s been an wonderful meal, even better than I hoped. Less fussy, more heart, soul and enthusiasm: an immensely skilful celebration of Skye’s edible larder. I’m glad I’m staying just a short stagger next door, judging by a neighbouring table’s long wait for a taxi it’s the best option. It also means you get to stay for a very good breakfast. The rooms are spacious and designed for relaxation, with huge beds cosied up with Skye Weavers rugs, a comfy couch and big bathrooms with custom Laura Thomas products. Tea and cake magically appear every afternoon, and in the mornings sheep graze outside the window. On our last morning we watch dolphins from our bedroom window – hard to believe even in a film, but true. 

While on Skye we take the opportunity to visit some of the restaurant’s suppliers, including the new young owners of Isle of Skye Sea Salt, Elisa and Antoine, who have moved from France to run a business based in chilly polytunnels at the end of a rutted farm track. They are loving it. 
“We get to work here,” Elisa says, gesturing at the sweeping views of Loch Snizort. I see her point, and the salt, collected from the sea and harvested using only the sun and the wind, is incredible. Weeks later I find a small piece of the unprocessed salt crystal in my pocket, a rough diamond that catches the light. 

The Herald:

I visit Skye Weavers who made the cosy blankets that cover the beds in The House Over By. It’s technically closed this time of year so they can get on with weaving while the island is quieter, but open by appointment.  “We’re really proud of the hotel blankets,” says Andrea Holden who runs the weavers with her husband Roger. “The tweed looks grey but up close you’ll see that the fibres are actually all white and brown like the sheep.” 

Andrea also tells me of the pride and ownership that the local sheep farmers take in seeing their finished products, their hard work valued. After a tour of this cottage industry, and a nerve-wracking go on the bike powered weaving machine (all the work I’d ruin if I pedal backwards by mistake!) 
I treat myself to a pair of tweed cushion covers, tightly woven in the colours of healing sphagnum moss. Then as light falls it’s back to The Three Chimneys to change out of wellies, and coorie in.
There’s a pull between staying in the cosy lounge at The House Over-By, ordering a hot toddy, reading a book – and packing as much as we can into our days on the island. With daylight in short supply, we do both: fill the daylight hours with activities, and lounge without guilt when the sun goes down. 

We walk along the bottom of the Quiraing ridge, watching the sun obscure then illuminate the ridge, and walls of weather moving in. We have the iconic fairy pools almost to ourselves. The paying carpark has helped with the traffic pressure in recent years, but I’ve seen how hoaching the place is in summer. Today it’s just us and a handful of others, no rush or crush, and the mighty Cuillins towering majestically above us. We walk through birch woods to the black volcanic sands of Talisker Bay, a tall waterfall thundering to the sea. 

We follow the road to the end at Neist Point and watch the late afternoon sunset from the lighthouse. Mostly, we just marvel, taking turns to drive so the other can drink in the mountains, the peatland and the silvery light. We leave the island just before dark, heads and hearts full of Skye and The Three Chimneys. Eating and staying here was a dream fulfilled, and even better than I’d hoped. I’ll be back next winter for the Aurora.