Sunday, 12 September 2021

The Skye Cuillin: Dark Rampart of Mountaineering Desire

Beyond misery, despair, hatred, treachery,
beyond guilt and defilement: watchful,
heroic, the Cuillin is seen
rising on the other side of sorrow.

An Cuilithionn, (The Cuillin), Sorley Maclean

Landscapes get the poets they deserve. Lakeland had Wordsworth, ('bliss it was in that dawn to be alive') and the Grampians Byron ('away ye gay landscapes, ye gardens of roses') but there is one landscape in Britain that stands braes apart from the rest of this rounded and well-tramped archipelago. This is the Black Cuillin, the ultimate place; not the highest perhaps but the steepest, rockiest and most naked, out of bounds except to rock climbers and the most intrepid scramblers, washed with 4m annual rainfall and guarded by sudden disorientating sea-mists and fierce midges.

Such a landscape deserves an equally outstanding poet. It has one: Sorley Maclean. If you aren't aware of him, there is a good reason. He wrote in Gaelic, a language as sadly inacessible to most of us as some of Skye's more difficult peaks. But the English translations of his work give a taste of what you are missing:

In ascent from the corrie,
foot on shelf, finger on little edge,
chest to boulder, mouth to jutty,
on crack step head not dizzy,
tough arm strong unturning
till it grasps the skyline of your fifth peak,
where will break on the struggle's head
the great dim sea of gabbro waves,
knife-edge of high narrow ridges,
belt of the dark steel surge:
an ocean whose welter is tight in rocks,
its yawning mouths permanent in narrow chasms,
its spouting everlasting in each turret,
its swelling eternal in each sgurr.

We are a long way from daffodils here.

These dark ramparts of mountaineering desire lie beyond ordinary walkers, but my friend Graham and I recently hired the services of Skye Guides to take us along a part of the ridge. The Inaccessible Pinnacle was behind us: Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh lay ahead. 

Many years ago I had attempted the Cuillin Ridge in one expedition with a friend, abandoned at the Bealach Bannachdich due to bad weather. I separately climbed Sgurr na Bannachdich myself but didn't fancy the look of carrying on to Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh alone. The Skye Munros were all bagged, but the full ridge linking Sgurr na Bannachdich and Sgurr nan Gillean remained virgin territory, barring a teenage expedition in winter up Bidean Druim nan Ramh that I have no wish to repeat!

On Sgurr Thormaid with Graham and Tom from Skye Guides:

Our route seemed modest on the map, over the four Munros of the Inacessible Pinnacle, Sgurr na Bannachdich, Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh, and Sgurr a' Mhadaidh, but Tom showed us how moving over technical terrain is a slow and methodical business, requiring constant communication to keep the rope between us taut. I had never moved together on a rope before, and found the teamwork aspect enjoyably absorbing. The difficulties melted away, moves made that I would never attempt solo. With Tom's encouragement, we maximised the scrambling by sticking to the stimulatingly exposed crest as much as possible, a process that was not just not terrifying, but actually fun

Sgurr a' Mhadaidh from Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh:

By Sgurr a' Mhadaidh it was clear that we had had a good day out and there was no prospect of going further. Content with the new terrain we had visited, I looked along the ridge. The rest of the way towards Sgurr nan Gillean would have to be tackled in another trip, maybe even two.

We turned downhill for the punishing descent into Coire a' Ghreadaidh and to slake our thirst in the burn.

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

The Inacessible Pinnacle

The Inacessible Pinnacle. On one side this narrow fin of rock overhangs with an infinite drop, according to WH Murray in Mountaineering in Scotland, with a drop on the other side even steeper and longer. Murray was being hyperbolic: in reality the drop is only 1,500ft on one side, and 3,000ft on the other; and if you fell you would bounce off various slabs and ledges much sooner.

Figure on the In Pinn:

It has been twenty-nine years since I climbed the In Pinn, and twenty-five since I was last on the Cuillin of Skye. It is one of life's mysteries that I have left it so long. Sure, it is far away, midgey, and always raining, but that doesn't quite explain why I haven't been back to one of Scotland's finest hillwalking areas. I suppose the real reason is the technical difficulty of the terrain.

But that's not a problem when you are guided by Skye Guides. Each year my friend Graham and I like to do an adventure (last year was camping on top of Suilven). This year he was keen to hire a guide to go up the Cuillin, and I was keen to do a part of the ridge I hadn't done yet. I was perfectly happy not to go up the In Pinn again, but Graham was desperate to climb it for the third time!

Graham tops out:

What hadn't changed in twenty-nine years was the weather! I was glad of it back in 1992, as it meant I wouldn't be able to see the drops. To make it even easier psychologically, I elected to climb the shorter west ridge. This is considerably harder technically, but in my mind preferable as less exposed. 

In those days a rusty karabiner bolted to the summit rocks provided an anchor to abseil off. When my climbing partner came down after me, he told me he had left his own gear up there as the karabiner I had roped off had been visibly flexing. Hair-raising if true. Today, our guide Tom explained, a chain is maintained by the guiding companies and regularly replaced.

Tom and Graham abseil off:

I enjoyed watching and photographing the pair of them on the In Pinn. But my part of the adventure was coming up next: a part of the Cuillin ridge I had never been on!

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Search and Rescue Dogs

Search & rescue dogs! 

Had an enjoyable day out recently acting as a 'body' for search dogs to find. All a body has to do is hang out on a hillside for the day and a succession of cool dogs come and say hello. I met the rescue volunteers at the end of the road in Glen Doll, was given a walkie talkie, climbed halfway up The Dounalt, and waited to be found.

View from my perch:

We got a puppy ourselves recently, who will hopefully be joining us on lots of outdoor adventures. I loved watching the grown-up rescue dogs doing their thing. Would this kind of activity interest our dog?  

Our dog, Skye:

It was also interesting to see search drones practicing, especially as the technology is not yet good enough to match the keen senses of search dogs. Lie down in a camouflage bivvy bag, and a drone won't see you. Lie by a rock in summer, or use a foil bivvy bag, and the drone's thermal camera won't see you either! 

"The drone works only if you want to be seen," said an operator.

I don't have mountain rescue experience, but that's not necessary to be a body. Just a willingness to lie out on a hill for a few hours in potentially midgey rain.

They are always looking for new people to act as bodies! So if you fancy a go, get in touch with Search and Rescue Dogs Association or SARDA Scotland. I found getting away for the day so relaxing I'm surprised they don't charge for the experience!

Sunday, 20 June 2021

The Sands of Uig

Debate rages over which beach is the finest in Scotland. Common consensus says it is somewhere in the Western Isles, and those who know these beaches only from photographs often vote for the photogenic white sands of Traigh Sheileboist in Harris.

Those who intimately know these places in person however, usually have another favourite.

Approaching Crowlista, Uig:

Uig is special. An inlet of the sea like Cata Sand in Orkney, Uig bay is really several beaches in one, joined at the centre by the airfield-sized expanse of Traigh Uige. From the saltings and shallow reflections of Traigh nan Sruban at Crowlista, to the eruptions of gneiss from the dunes at Cappadale Sands, creating tucked-away picnic spots out the wind, each beach has its own atmosphere. The reason this place is not terribly well-known is simple: even for the Hebrides, it's miles from anywhere. 

Overview of Uig from Forsnaval:

Thirteen years ago, we cycle-camped the Hebrides: Oban - Vatersay - Butt of Lewis - Tarbet - Armadale - Kilchoan - Craignure - Oban. Barra and Vatersay were small enough to explore completely on bicycles, but Lewis wasn't. We wanted to see Uig and Mangersta, but decided it was too big a detour, 28 miles down a single-track road, and 28 miles back. We'd come back one day with a car.
That trip was thirteen years ago. 

  Uig at last:

What a place this is! Our first few days had mixed weather, the pale sands brightening and softening the grey surroundings. But the sun briefly burst out from behind the cloud one evening, and we were entranced. 

One of the joys of exploring the Sands of Uig are the rivers that cross the sands. Near the island broch of Dun Borranais, a bridge crosses the river issuing from Loch Suaineabhal: the rest of the time you must seek out the shallows and wade across barefoot. 

About to wade across: 

On the sands you look at the seaweed and corrugations, and wonder what fun you could get up to before the tide comes in again. A touch rugby or beach volleyball tournament. A mass barbecue. A land yacht race. Or land a plane...

You can't travel far in the Hebrides to realise the locals have a taste for picturesque burial grounds, and the manse at Timsgarry is no exception. I took my hat off out of respect and we looked around.

Timsgarry graveyard:

This seems a peaceful place today, but the name Uig is the Gaelicification of the Norse Vik, meaning bay. This sheltered bay was an important settlement for those restless sea-rovers, the Vikings. According to tradition, several whale tooth and walrus ivory chess pieces were brought ashore by a shipwrecked trader. His rescuer saw the chess pieces, and turned to murder to acquire them for himself, confessing the crime years later when on the gallows in Stornoway for another misdemeanour. The pieces remained lost for centuries until they were discovered in a sand dune 1831 by Calum an Sprot, and eventually bought by the British Museum in London.

Replica chess piece:

If that story is not strange enough then, if you are lucky, at high tide you might see an actual mermaid out in the bay... or in reality, local swimmer Kate Macleod (source: BBC).

The Sands of Uig. Contender for the finest beach in Scotland?

Monday, 14 June 2021

The Day We Got to St Kilda!

Two years ago, I didn't go to St Kilda.

Nil desperandum, we rebooked for May 2020! But we all know what happened next...

The booking was re-arranged to May 2021, but the weather was bad, and our trip cancelled.

Would we ever get to St Kilda? Never mind, our holiday base on Lewis was nice enough.

Compensation: Above Reef, Lewis:

Then came a call out of the blue. Someone had cancelled - could we make the trip on Friday? Could we ever! 07:45 on Friday saw us at Leverburgh pier full of anticipation on a day of promise.

The journey to St Kilda needs preparation. Wet-weather gear for the boat deck, sunscreen in case the sun comes out, food and drink for the day: there's no shops or water stoups on St Kilda, and just one toilet for the public. Our boat was a giant RIB with a cabin, but with views and seasickness in mind, we spent the entire journey on deck. The boat bashes through the waves at 20kt, so it's 'hang on till you see the stacks!'

The unfamiliar western shore of the Long Isle disappeared out of view to the east, and still we hadn't seen St Kilda ahead. Where was it? And then, approaching a fog bank, a dark line of cliffs appeared.

The Enchanted Isles approaches foggy St Kilda:

Sea-mists covered all but the lower 50m of St Kilda, hiding the magnificent sea cliffs from view. I was disappointed, but we approached the cliffs of Boreray and the sensual assault of thousands of gannets screaming and circling overhead, the overpowering smell of their guano, brought back the sense of awe, as did seeing the cliffs rise unnaturally out of the sea into the fog.

Stac an Armin:

As a Marilyn-bagger, I'm interested in the sea-stacks of Stac Lee and Stac an Armin: they are both well over 150m, and so count as Marilyns in their own right. The most challenging Marilyn I've climbed to date is the Inacessible Pinnacle on Skye: but in the mist, these sea stacks made the In Pinn look as accessible as a stroll in Princes St Gardens. 

"There's the landing spot the St Kildans used on their expeditions to gather guga," pointed out our guide Iain Angus.

"Where?" I couldn't see any landing spot, just cliff face.

"There," pointed Iain at a marginally less sheer ledge that would require co-ordination jumping out the boat at the right moment then clinging on.

Feck me!

Leaving Boreray:

Then we motored to Village Bay and took the surreal action of landing on Hirta! I have always wanted to climb Conachir, St Kilda's highest summit. The National Trust for Scotland warden warned us not to leave the bay due to the mist. I had a map and compass and am familiar enough with the inside of clouds on the edge of windy cliff faces. However on such a foggy day there didn't seem much point, especially when there was so much else my wife wanted to see: I would have to return on a clear day. Four hours ashore is nowhere near enough.

Village Bay:

In some ways the most unusual aspect of St Kilda is not the dramatic cliffs and stacs, but the fact that people used to live here. Eating dried gannet every day and only ever seeing your nearest neighbours must have been a particularly tough life. When Victorian tourists in steamboats started to appear to gawp at the St Kildans' Iron Age lifestyle, it was the beginning of the end, hastened by their introduction of money. The last islanders were evacuated at their own request in 1930. Hirta is now home to an MoD base, its road, vehicles, earthworks, and cabins an incongruous note on an island the National Trust literature exhorts us is special and needs to be protected. The Soay sheep, looking half sheep, half deer, are cute though! 

Soay sheep:

Eleven hours after we set off, we were back at Leverburgh. It had been glorious all day back here on the 'mainland'. 

Approaching Harris: 

Friday, 11 June 2021

County Tops: Roxburghshire

 A while back I wondered how many historic county tops I still had to visit. There are 33 of them, and it turned out I had done most of them: only Morven (Caithness) and Rona's Hill (Shetland) required anything more than a daytrip, so they seemed a great project as we slowly moved out the levels of lockdown.

Craig Airlie Fell:

Blackhope Scar (Midlothian) was beautiful in unseasonably hot March weather: Innerdouny Hill (Kinross) and Craig Airlie Fell (Wigtownshire) in April and May were more perfunctory, bagged in pishing wet weather. South of the Tay only West Cairn Hill (Roxburghshire) remained, so I set off, confident it would not take long. How wrong I was!

I arrived in glowering weather, the promised rain never quite materialising, but something about the day felt heavy and sluggish. I parked at Sourhope, where a notice described two border terriers that had been stolen. We were about to get a dog ourselves, and I was outraged on their behalf. The spirit of the Border reivers lives on in this quiet backwater, the last human habitation before England.

On the England/Scotland border:

The way from Sourhope up to Auchope Cairn on the Anglo-Scottish border was hard going, boggy terrain and a lack of sleep the previous night slowing me down. I couldn't help thinking of Pennine Way ultra-runners reaching this point and wanting to throw in the towel! I poked my head around the door of the Auchope mountain refuge and recoiled. Was the smell of human waste anything to do with the odd-looking man I had seen earlier in the day wandering around Town Yetholm? The Pennine Way is a tough route, and doesn't attract the dilettante.

Annoyingly I had already almost done West Cairn Hill years ago: it lies high on the shoulder of The Cheviot, which I'd previous walked over from Wooler, visited Cairn Hill half a mile from today's target, and headed back to the car, leaving West Cairn Hill unbagged. But as The Cheviot was so close I decided to revisit, a line of paving stones making the route across the bog easy. This would be very tough terrain without them!

On The Cheviot:

I decided to follow the Pennine Way for a bit along the ridge of the Cheviots, England on one side, Scotland the other, high, boggy country that did not feel welcoming this gloomy day. It was here I saw the only other people of the walk, a couple of Englishmen who asked if The Cheviot was the highest hill in the massif. They were three weeks into a long distance walk across some of the most infamous bogs in Britain and looked fairly discontented. It was not surprising they didn't seem particularly full of bonhomie. 

I headed back down towards Cocklawfoot, surprised at how long the walk had taken me and how much effort it had been. The Cheviots are not terrain to mess with.

Sunday, 6 June 2021

The Cairngorms Lyric

Browsing Merryn Glover's website, I came across the concept of the 'Cairngorms Lyric'.

The Cairngorms from the North:

Merryn's an author and educator who lives near the 'gorms, and her Cairngorms lyric is a poetry form of fifteen words, at least one of which must not be English. Oh, and it must feature Cairngorms nature in some way. Examples on her website include:

Spring rises from her kip to find her bed filled with snow.
Winter willnae go.
      Merryn Glover

Redpolls and siskins upside down in the birkin branches; 
In the forest many lifetimes deep. Carolyn Robertson

I'm a sucker for novel poetry forms (see 'Thingabouts'), so decided to have a go of one myself!

Thick soups of clouds
tastes of moss and mineral
sustenance for ghosts
on Beinn Macdhuibh.

Why not have a go of a Cairngorms lyric yourself, and post the results to Merryn?

On Braeriach:

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Beach and Brae

For the first time in 2021, we're allowed out our local area!

Aberlady Bay:

I've been having video catch-ups with fellow hillwalkers, and assumed my first trip would be to the Highlands. But it's hard to describe how important the seaside is to me. On Saturday morning we set off for Gullane and Aberlady in East Lothian, entranced by the clear air and sunshine, sandy beaches and rockpools, links soil and fascinating rocks. The great sweep of Aberlady Bay, looking like something out of the Med. As we approached the beach and smelled the salty air, I got a bit emotional.

I love the hills. It's where I go to escape. But the sea is where I go to come home. ❤

That did not mean the hills were going to be neglected!

On Càrn an Tuirc, Glenshee:

The next day brought a contrast weather-wise, but a return to familiar things I'd missed. The companionship of a good friend. The smell of a damp ham sandwich made the night before. The sight and feel of a lichen-covered piece of quartzite, set in a bed of heather.

There was so much wildlife! Ptarmigan, mountain hares, red grouse and the occasional field vole scurrying into a hole in the grass.

A rare moment below the cloud, looking into Coire Kander:

Sunday was a bit blowy with low cloud and sleet/snow on the tops east of Glenshee. Still, it was great to get out of Midlothian after four months!

Monday, 5 April 2021

The Weekend Fix, Take Two

It looks like we might soon be allowed further afield again, and I can't wait.

In the meantime I've got news for you! The second, improved edition of my hillwalking book, The Weekend Fix, is coming out on Thursday 8 April 2021!
I'm doing a launch event on Twitter at 1pm on Thursday with the hashtag #TheWeekendFix, and you're welcome to pop along. If you can't wait till then, you can buy a copy from the following places:

* Order on Amazon
* Order on Blackwells
* Order at Portobello Bookshop (support your local independent bookstore!)
* Order on Waterstones

Perhaps I will see you on Thursday and in the meantime, take care!

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Confessions of a Tump Bagger

Lockdown has lead to some desperate measures.

A friend confessed he was bagging the Tumps of West Lothian, all the 'hills' with a 100ft all-round drop. This is a man who once did a first route in the Andes! ­čśé

But then it got me thinking. How many Tumps are there where I live? So here I am on Arniston Colliery bing, wondering what on earth I am doing.

This post was going to be highly derogatory about the Tumps, the hillwalking equivalent of skip-diving bottle banks for dregs off discarded alcopops.

But in fact it has led to a couple of lovely days. Skylarks and brown hares, lapwings in the Moorfoots, snowdrops in farmyards, the kind of lowland countryside I would never normally visit on a hill walk. The Tumps may be pretty obscure, but there are over 17,000 of them in Britain. No matter where you are stuck for lockdown, there are some Tumps nearby.

Still, let us up the Highlands soon please. Because after the Tumps, there's nowhere legal to go.