Friday, 24 July 2015

The Cuillin of Skye: Sgurr Alasdair

Many years ago, I decided to traverse the whole Cuillin Ridge in one go. This isn't something to do solo unless you are hard as nails, but luckily a friend Simon, who had dabbled in climbing and owned a rope, also wanted to fulfil this ambition - the finest mountaineering expedition in the British Isles. We set off for a few days camping in Glen Brittle. The weather was glorious. Our first day was leisurely, acclimatising ourselves to the exposure with a round of Coire Lagain. Up a steep and boggy path, the dark, naked skyline above. Before Coire Lagan, a branch path leads off to the Cioch. Small bivvy shelters dot the landscape, the most 'luxurious' a cave with the entrance largely bricked up with stones to form a cosy neuk. It has a name scratched in the rock outside - 'The Ritz'. Simon told me he had been onto the Cioch the previous year. I looked long and hard at it. I did not really fancy it.

Higher up, a scrambly route leads onto Sgurr Sgumain. After dropping off Sgumain, the way is blocked by a fierce cliff, but drop a little way towards Coire a Ghrunnda and an easy chimney leads onto the ridge and a final scramble to Sgurr Alasdair. This shapely 992m peak is the summit of Skye. The way onwards leads to the Great Stone Chute, the only walking route to Sgurr Alasdair, and the steep face of Sgurr Thearlaich. On a previous visit, I had ascended Alasdair via the Chute - an unpleasantly loose gully - then the rope had come out for Thearlaich. However the face of Thearlaich is easily scrambled up, and we did not need the rope the whole day.

The Inacessible Pinnacle and Coire Lagan screes from the Great Stone Chute:

At this point we came across a fit, fast fellow, clearly entirely at ease in this difficult environment. He had a walkie-talking and was being directed around by an unseen photographer somewhere in the distance. I had never heard of him, but have since seen his book - Gordon Stainforth's The Cuillin. "I'm heading down this way," he said, "see ya!" and bounded off as if he were crossing a flat field. He headed off towards Sgurr Dearg, turning a difficulty in the ridge on the right. We turned it on the left. This led down a gully, then a heart-stopping step over a ledge sloping unpleasantly above infinity, before returning to the relative safety of the Bealach Mhic Choinnich. If the last move has drained you of your nerve then tough - there is no easy way down from the bealach. A few awkward moves had us established on Collie's Ledge, and the rest was relatively easy, if still stimulatingly exposed. After summiting on Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, we ambled down to the bottom of the ridge below Sgurr Dearg, where we left some water bottles for our attempt the next day. Here, some superb screes (mainly now eroded) allowed us to surf to the bottom of Coire Lagan, a drop of nearly 300m in two minutes. A fine day's preparation.

Knoydart from Sgurr nan Eag:

The next day we left frustratingly late in the heat of a sweltering afternoon. But there was no hurry, as our plan was to bivvy halfway along the ridge. There was an important reason for this - we wanted to have a good amount of time and energy when we completed the ridge to get as drunk as possible in the Sligachan Hotel.

There is no shelter from the sun on the Cuillin ridge, and we felt the heat, rocks squeaking underfoot and scuffing our boots as an eagle soared high above. It took an age to contour round into Coire a Ghrunnda and make our way up the rubbly flank of Sgurr nan Eag. Finally achieving the ridge was a relief, and we headed south for the elegant spire of Gars-bheinn, the southernmost peak. From now on, we were doing the traverse. Sgurr nan Eag is fairly easy, then a detour off-ridge to Sgurr Dubh Mor, a new Munro for me. In mist this route would be difficult. From here we avoided the T-D Gap by dropping into Coire a Ghrunnda and contouring round to Sgurr Sgumain, where we picked up the previous day's route. At the top of Sgurr Alasdair we met a couple of American girls. "Can you tell us the easiest way down?" they asked. "We came up that gully - there is no way we are going back down it." Simon and I looked at each other. The Great Stone Chute is the only easy route up and down Sgurr Alasdair. They would have to go back down that way whether they liked it or not. Had we been gentlemen we would have gone with them - but we weren't. We were mountaineers.

Sgurr Dubh, Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, Sgurr Thearlaich, Sgurr Alasdair, and Sgurr Dearg from the bivvy site on Bealach Bannachdich:

I was keen to visit Sgurr Coire an Lochain, reputedly the last peak climbed in Britain in 1896. It wasn't that difficult from the Bealach Mhic Choinnich, and we enjoyed the novel sight and sound of figures on the main ridge, close enough to listen to yet separated from us by cliffs and drops. Back on the main ridge, we continued on underneath the fin of the Inaccessible Pinnacle - but having both been up it already, were in no hurry to do so again. It was getting time for us to decide where to stay the night. We had earmarked the Bealach Bannachdich as a likely spot, as it is one of the few easy escape routes from the ridge. We ate tea - a sandwich and tins of peas and sardines for me - and scrambled on the ridge of Bannachdich, enjoying the spectacular reddish glow of the Cullin in the setting sun. What a day we had had, and what a day tomorrow would be! We settled into our sleeping position, two carry mats over the only flattish six foot of rock we could find, and a foil blanket Simon had brought. (We didn't have sleeping bags - the extra weight wasn't worth it.)

Cuillin sunset:

At midnight we awoke to thick mist and heavy rain. The famously changeable Skye weather had caught us out. It was dark and we had no torches. There was nothing else to do but to wait for daylight, shivering in our waterproofs under the foil blanket which provided no heat at all. As soon as we could see enough in the grey half-light of dawn we packed up and headed down the bealach, searching out with difficulty the tiny cairns which are the only marker of the safe route, glad of our foresight in choosing this spot to bivvy.

It rained for the rest of the week. I never did do the full traverse of the Cuillin ridge - an ambition that remains to be fulfilled.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Cuillin of Skye: Sgurr nan Gillean

I arrived at Sligachan at teatime. On a summer's evening, there was still plenty of time to climb the three northernmost Cuillin Munros - Bruach na Frithe, Am Bastier, and Sgurr nan Gillean.

Sgurr nan Gillean from Sligachan:

Sgurr nan Gillean sits at the termination of the jagged Black Cuillin ridge, facing across to the worn, rounded Red Cuillin. There are three routes to the top, all difficult. The climbers-only Pinnacle Ridge, the terrifying scramble of the West Ridge, and the deceptively named 'Tourist Route'. I was keen to tackle the West Ridge, and headed up a boggy path from Sligachan - all bog myrtle and midges - into the naked, rockier world of Coire a' Bhasteir, being careful to stick to the boiling black slabs and avoid the deep slot gorge of the All Dearg Beag. Above, the Basteir Tooth hung menacingly. To the left, the pinnacles of Pinnacle Ridge revealed themselves. Obscured in roadside views by being head-on, Pinnacle Ridge consists of four huge pinnacles, each bigger than its neighbour: culminating in the fifth pinnacle of Sgurr nan Gillean itself.  I scanned the West Ridge looking for Nicholson's Chimney - I had read this was the easiest route onto the ridge. It was going to be key to a successful ascent.

Pinnacle ridge from Coire a' Bhasteir:

Steep but easy ground leads to the Bealach a' Bhasteir, where the real work of the evening begins. The West Ridge starts with an impassable face, but a short traverse round to the north leads to a couple of gullies. I investigated and attempted them, making sure I was comfortable with reversing each move. At the top of the gullies I popped out onto the West Ridge proper, and clung tightly to the rock. To take another step would be like stepping out onto a tightrope over the Niagra Falls. I reeled, gravity tugging at my feet. Suddenly, the vision of my mother weeping by my graveside popped into my head. Sick with awe, I carefully returned to the safety of the gully and descended.

Had this been Nicholson's Chimney? If so, it had led me straight to the narrowest and most terrifying part of the Cuillin Ridge. I was sure it was a further traverse along... but I looked, and nothing seemed obvious. Could I traverse all the way round to the gap between the summit and Knight's Peak on Pinnacle Ridge and try there? No, I had had my fill. I would content myself with Am Basteir and Bruach na Frithe, and tackle Sgurr nan Gillean via the Tourist Route next morning.

Back at the campsite I fell into conversation with a man who was pissed off. The hotel staff, he informed me, had unpitched his tent whilst he was away and thrown it in the river. He had no proof of this, but had had an altercation with them the night before about camping next to the hotel. The trouble is it is not really a campsite - just an area of wild ground next to the Sligachan Hotel. The owners don't like people camping there for free and fouling the river with human waste, but this being Scotland and still stuck in the feudal age, they have no powers to create an official campsite. I had a few pints and decided that to be on the safe side, I would just sleep in my car. Changed days from when the elderly Cuillin pioneer Norman Collie would sit in the lounge of the Slig, looking up in melancholy reminisce at the hills he was now too infirm to climb, but not changed enough.

Eastern Cuillin from path to Camasunary:

And so next morning I set off early from the Sligachan Hotel, following the rough, boggy path along the Sligachan River; the day fine, warm, and full of promise. The path in the glen continued on for some way below the sunlit pinnacles of Pinnacle Ridge, until the summit itself was passed and the path turned uphill. Four points of contact were necessary at times, and the trail wasn't the easiest to follow. I wondered what else lay above. I hoped the Tourist Route would not defeat me as the West Ridge had done.

Eventually the southern ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean is reached. I headed upwards and, each time I thought the ridge couldn't get any narrower (controlling my breathing, telling myself "slow and steady gets you there"), another even more exposed section appeared. I kept my head however, even over the hardest part: an awkward, undignified step over a precarious ledge. Sensationally exposed, yet a piece of pish compared to the West Ridge.

Sgurr nan Gillean from Blaven, later the same day:

At last I reached the tiny summit with a sense of relief and achievement. This is one of the very finest summits in the British Isles, surely the airiest outside a sea stack. The entire main ridge of the Cuillin stretches away west and south, a complicated, densely sculptured area where the ordinary 1:50,000 scale Landranger map is entirely hopeless. The whole Cuillin Ridge covers less ground area than the single Munro Ben Wyvis.

East of Sgurr nan Gillean, across the deep trench of Glen Sligachan, lie the smoother, rounded Red Hills, and the long, jagged spine of Blaven. I looked at it. I looked at my watch. It was early enough in the day. I fancied climbing it too. Thus I gingerly retraced my steps over the Tourist Route, breathing more easily the lower I descended, yomped along Glen Sligachan out to the road, and drove to Torrin for my second Munro of the day, the joy of youth and movement in my veins.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Impressions of the Faroe Islands

Let's go for a drive in the Faroe Islands.

The roads are well-made, and quiet.

The Faroese don't fuck about - back home, what would merit a winding single track road sputtering miserably to a dead end and a long detour, has a big tunnel bored through solid rock and a twin lane road.

There's subsea tunnels connecting the main islands, but sometimes it seems they've built a tunnel just for the hell of it. This is Gasadalur, 17 houses in the arse end of nowhere.

In Scotland it would have been long abandoned. In Faroe, millions have been spent on a tunnel and a wide, smooth access road.

We'll pass dozens of picturesque villages on our drive, colourfully painted, turf roofed.





The views speak for themselves.

And the best kept secret? Not the tunnels. The access road going to the radar station on the summit of 749m high Sornfelli.

Maximum views, minimum effort.

I particularly like this picture below. can you see the solitary house in the dale? Back home, this would make a great bothy. Here, no doubt some mad bugger in the Faroese government is planning a tunnel and an access road right now...

Vagar from Sornfelli:

Monday, 22 June 2015

Faroe Adventure: The Torshavn Marathon

"Fancy doing the Torshavn Marathon?" said my friend Graham, famous for the Island Peaks Race, Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon, and Reykjavik Marathon.

Now I've always wanted to go to the Faroe Islands.

"We'll have to find a pub to watch the Scotland v Ireland qualifying match," I said. Two days later Graham got in touch again. "The Faroes are playing Greece the same day. Shall we get tickets to that?"

And so two men, two kilts, running kit, two tickets to Faroes v Greece, and a tent wound up in Torshavn on Friday.

Torshavn harbour:

Torshavn in June sunshine has the vibe of an attractive small Northern European town with a bit about itself. It bills itself as the world's smallest capital city, but doesn't feel blowhard about it. It would be hard to be bigsy when your government buildings are turf roofed!

Government buildings of the Faroe Islands:

The day of the race was sunny and clear, with a cutting north wind and fresh snow visible on the hills of Eysturoy. I enjoyed my half marathon - only the second time I've run more than 5km since the Reykjavik Marathon the previous August. I've been carrying a long-term injury and was sore, but not debilitatingly so. Is my fate to be in chronic pain whenever I run?

After the race I wandered about the old harbour, taking photos. Torshavn really is a pretty place in the sunshine.

Pleasure harbour:

Old and new, Torshavn:

When Graham finished the full marathon - a knackering achievement over some steep hills - we returned to the campsite to eat and change. We'd met an Irish couple the night before, and joined them in a pub along the waterfront for Scotland v Ireland. And then for the big event! Faroe Islands vs Greece UEFA 2016 qualifier.

"Everybody says we will win," said Doris, the woman who arranged our tickets, "everybody except the manager." We were lucky to get tickets as this was a sell-out game. "Five thousand people," said a man in the sports shop in the Faroe Islands' biggest - probably only - shopping centre. "Ten percent of the population will be at the game. That's like Denmark getting a crowd of five hundred thousand!" We heard accordion music en route, and popped into a rickety hall with no sign outside. Inside, we were immediately centre of attention. "Scottish!" said a lady, giving us both a hug. Her friend played Amazing Grace. "I'm Irish," said our companion. "Play the Fields of Athenry," said her boyfriend to the accordionist, as Graham and I slipped out for the game.

Torshavn back street:

We had barely settled down when the Faroes were 1-0 up to a cracking strike, the Greek defender nowhere to be seen. And it got better - 2-0 in half time. The place was going bananas. I shouted myself hoarse. The Greeks pulled one back towards the end to add some tension, but when the final whistle blew, it was 2-1 to the Faroe Islands. The team took a bow to each stand. This being the Faroe Islands, the players probably personally knew a large proportion of the crowd.

In the stadium:

"Have this flag as a reminder of an incredible night!" said an ecstatic Faroese supporter, handing me a huge beast that looked like it was flying outside the government buildings just a few hours earlier. We took it to the pub, found the - now drunk - Irish folk, and continued carousing until home time. Half past midnight and still daylight.


"A late night," I croaked to a young American lad in the campsite next morning. "That's not late!" he replied, my pride stung. Well, you try it mister, I thought, after running a marathon and drinking ten pints!

Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Fantastical Faroes

You get used to unlikely sights in the Faroes. In an archipelago that combines the vulcanicity of Skye with the vertiginousness of St Kilda, some of the islands seem to defy reality.


It starts innocently enough with Litla Dimun. Looking like Ailsa Craig's harder brother, this uninhabited grassy cone is skirted by sheer cliff.

Litla Dimun from the air:

This would be a notable sight anywhere else but so far, so normal - for the Faroes.

Koltur from Midvagar:

It starts getting weird with Koltur. This island was inhabited in the past, but with sheer cliffs on one side, very steep, banded-cliff grass on the other, it is hard to see where to put a house.

Koltur from the air:

Did the inhabitants of Koltur have to tether their children, a safety measure reputedly required on the cliff-girt village of South Havra in Shetland? Today Koltur is home only to storm petrels and twenty thousand puffins.

Koltur from Nordadalur:

But it is the improbable island of Tindholm that makes you stop the car, get out, and exclaim: what on earth is that?

I mean, wtf?

Welcome to the Faroe Islands - where the fantastical is mundane.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Cheese Well

The Minch Moor road is an ancient cattle droving route between Innerleithen and Galashiels. As well as being on the Southern Upland Way, it forms part of a newly designated path called the Cross-Borders Drove Road, an off-road route for cyclists, horse riders and walkers that starts on the northern side of the Pentlands at Cauldstane Slap. Centuries ago cattle were driven between the massive annual trysts at Falkirk and Crieff and markets south of the border. I'd always fancied a daunder over this piece of it, returning to the start by bicycle. So one fine day we parked at Traquhair, heading straight up the well-made track, alone except for the distant throb of the machines of the Midlife Crisis Motorcycle Club out for their weekend spin.


The route is well-made and after Minch Moor bothy, steepens towards the top. Just at the point when a wee rest seems in order, The Point of Resolution appears. This is an outdoor artwork, the first and so far only one mooted for the Southern Upland Way. I unworthily wondered if the reason for an artwork was for the same reason the M8 motorway has its heavy horse and pyramids - is it because the route is boring, and needs something to spice it up? There are no artworks on the West Highland Way, for example, where the scenery speaks for itself. However this is unfair. *This* section of the Southern Upland Way doesn't need artworks to be of interest. Perhaps artworks would be more appreciated along some of the western parts of the SUW, to break the monotony of endless conifer plantations.

Looking through the Point of Resolution:

Close to the Point of Resolution is the Cheese Well. At this spring I gratefully refilled my bottle with cool, clear water. In ancient times people left offerings of cheese to the fairies here. The practice continues to this day, but oh dear! People have left objects made of iron. As anyone who knows anything knows, ferrous metals are kryptonite to fairies. I fear they will have been all chased awa'. It would be doing the fairies a favour to remove the metallic objects and, to be on the safe side, the money - nearly £5 worth. It could go to a local charity.

The Cheese Well:

A small detour takes you to the summit of Minch Moor, with wide views of surrounding moorland. The hills here are long and flat-topped, like the northern Pennines, towns and villages hidden at the bottom of steep dales. The area around Innerleithen is criss-crossed with mountain bike trails, Glentress and Seven Stanes making this the busiest off-road biking area in the country.

North from Minch Moor:

We saw some mountain bikers around Minch Moor, and a pair on the Three Brethren, but no one at all for the entire rest of the way. The Southern Upland Way is little walked. Of Scotland's three traditional long distance routes - the Speyside Way is the third - only the West Highland Way has captured the public imagination. The Southern Uplands in general are Scotland's secret, often quieter than wilder looking landscapes in the Highlands.

It looked a long way to go, but glorious, high-level walking on a good path, sometimes stony, usually turf, took us effortlessly towards the distant Three Brethren, where three giant cairns mark the march boundaries of three estates. This is good striding country. Good thinking country too.

On the Minch Moor road, looking towards the Eildons and Three Brethren:

To the north, the village of Clovenfords nestles in rolling green Borders countryside. The view, wind turbines included, is typical of the area.


On descent, treats with wild flowers under the new forest canopy - cuckoo flower, wild hyacinth, primrose, wood sorrel. Treats with wildlife too - a fox up close, a mouse legging it across the path in front of us, buzzards up high and palmate newts in pools along the path. Our legs felt well stretched by the time we returned to the river. An hour's cycle took us a little longer than expected, but the Tweedside scene was mellow and pleasant.

The Tweed at Yair:

There's a good feeling about walking a route in the Southern Uplands. The lack of crowds makes it feels you are doing something off your own initiative, despite in this case our way being marked. And the enclosed nature of the glens and their invisibility from the hilltops gives this the air of an undiscovered country. Give it a go yourself.

Enjoying early evening light along the Tweed:

Monday, 1 June 2015

Oronsay: the Old Sanctuary

Early on a grey morning we left our house on Colonsay and walked down to the Strand. Our schedule was dictated by the tides, for Oronsay is a tidal island, the crossing only possible an hour or two either side of low tide.

Robert MacFarlane would make this crossing barefoot, all the better to connect with the landscape. Instead I got sand on my walking boots, watching hermit crabs in the pools that remain even at lowest tide.

Beinn Eibhne on Colonsay across The Strand:

Once on Oronsay, the sun burst out from behind Jura. The whole of Oronsay is surrounded by beautiful white shell sand. We beachcombed and watched the seabirds.

This area is rich in 'shell mounds' - nondescript bumps in the landscape containing ancient rubbish tips. Archaeologists have learned a lot about Scotland's earliest people from these. Imagine coming ashore here ten thousand years ago, foraging for shellfish, building a shelter, lighting a fire, and telling stories.

Breakfast at Seal Cottage:

However the main attraction of Oronsay is not prehistory but Oronsay Priory. Legend has it this was founded by St Columba. Exiled from home, his first landfall was Oronsay. But he could still see Ireland from Beinn Oronsay, so left to travel further on to Iona.

Oronsay Priory:

Nothing so old remains though. The priory, crosses and graveslabs are no older than the 14th century, including this magnificent late example.

The Oronsay Cross:

The situation is delightful, in well-maintained grounds next door to Oronsay Farm - the island's only inhabited building - with the steep, suntrap flank of Beinn Oronsay to the north and open views to machair and the Paps of Jura south.

The small cross, Oronsay:

With no entry fee, literature or other information, two discoveries are made when exploring the priory - the first delightful, the second macabre. In a restored stone barn stand the collection of recovered medieval graveslabs, as fine as any on the west coast.


The second discovery is quite unexpected - human bones. The priory has a number of alcoves containing human remains. Some are empty - but not all. The remoteness of Oronsay keeps them undisturbed. Who were these people? And for how many centuries have these bones been out in the open?

Empty ossuary alcove:

I was very keen to climb Beinn Oronsay, but time and tide were against us. This is not a place to rush, and the best plan is to go prepared to spend the whole day or night on the island. A couple of hours either side of the tide is not enough.

Halfway across the Strand, an unusual feature - a crude, recumbent cross made from broken stones. This is the Sanctuary Cross, marking the boundary between Colonsay and Oronsay. Oronsay was considered a particularly sacred site in medieval times, and the protection of God shielded any lawbreaker who could outrun his pursuers and pass this boundary. How many desperate men, I wonder, have sought sanctuary in this way over the years?

Looking back to Beinn Oronsay from Colonsay: