It felt a bit like cheating to arrive at Glengarrisdale on the isle of Jura without battering our way around the coast for five hours from Kinuachdrachd or schlepping through the bog from Road End, but I could get used to arriving in such style in future. I think the rest of our party might agree. Myself and Fiona had collected Andy and Jen from Glasgow Airport at 9am that morning and by 2pm that afternoon we were disembarking in a rather exciting manner from the bow of the Farsain directly onto the rocks of Sgeirr Mhor in Glengarrisdale Bay. Duncan Philips, the evergreen skipper of the Farsain, had steered us through the infamous Gulf of Corryvreckan just as the slack tide gave way to flood tide and the small boat rode the rolling waves pulsing into the narrow strait. The Corryvreckan whirlpool was just beginning to stir itself, giving us just a glimpse of its formidable potential.
It was a beautiful day, the whisky-hued islands warmed by the golden autumnal light. The forecast for the next couple of days was ‘gobsmacking’ – in a good way – according to Duncan, which made me feel a bit more relaxed about the challenging walks planned for the coming days.
Once we’d scrambled ashore from the Farsain, we installed ourselves at Glengarrisdale bothy – which had been left immaculate by the last occupants – then went out in search of firewood along the coast heading north. The Glengarrisdale River was high – testament to the heavy rainfall of previous days – and it was quite tricky crossing the outflow were it fans out along the shore.
We’d walked for nearly an hour and found almost nothing before deciding to give up and return to the bothy. It was the end of October, and the supply of driftwood thrown up along the shore in the previous winter’s storms had been completely gleaned by people staying at the bothy since then. The stormy season is on its way once more, so hopefully the west coast’s supply of combustible material will soon be replenished. On the way back empty-handed I got Andy, Jen and Fiona to demonstrate the grandeur of these quartz veins in the quartzite cliffs.
Back at the bothy, we hauled out a couple of logs that had obviously been too much of a challenge for previous occupants and myself and Andy set about belabouring these with a very blunt axe and a very rusty bow saw. It took a while, but eventually we produced a sizeable supply of hearth-ready loglets. Andy – who is originally from Leigh in Lancashire, but has lived among ‘shandy-arsed southeners’ for the last 20 years – is quietly proud of his supposed Viking heritage; I can only imagine that centuries of genetic intermingling have produced the pint-sized Norseman we see before us today.
I feel that he looks more like Anders Johansson the 19th century Swedish reindeer farmer in the above picture than Thorfin Skullsplitter the horny-helmeted beserker pillaging his way around the Western Isles.
Anyway, good effort with the axe, Anders. A mighty blaze roared in the hearth that evening and there was still plenty of wood left for the next folks. Venison steaks for tea were washed down with a slightly sickly combination of Whyte and Mackay’s and Drambuie, which Fiona says is known as a ‘rusty nail’ here in Scotland. Not quite able to get his head around the concept of Caledonian cocktails, Andy continued to refer to ‘whisky nails’ for the rest of the trip.
As you can see, the morning was very lovely. We were up early and away by 8am as we had a big, big day ahead of us and ten hours of daylight to do it in. Our first day’s walk was a route I’d first undertaken in profoundly murky conditions back in May; it was a bit of a navigational nightmare because of the complex terrain combined with the poor visibility. Today I’d be able to enjoy the views I’d previously been denied and I was glad that I hadn’t dragged everyone here for a murky marathon on the hills. The 12 mile route heads SSW from Glengarrisdale and involves some very challenging terrain, taking in five sizeable hills – three of which are Marilyns, that is British or Irish hills of any height, but with a relative height of at least 150 metres – and involving around 1500 metres of ascent and descent. All this while loaded up with camping kit, food etc.
The sun was yet to clear the hills bounding Glengarrisdale to the east and it was still a little chilly as we set off. Within a short while, however, we were all working up a sweat, hauling our packs up along the flank of Grianan Mor. We soon emerged from the shade into dazzling golden sunlight that suffused the landscape around us with an incandescent orange glow.
The views opened up magnificently as we climbed towards the westernmost of Ben Garrisdale’s twin summits; we could see Scarba, Mull, Iona, the Garvellachs, Coll, Tiree, the Dutchman’s Cap, Barra, South Uist, Colonsay, Dubh Artach, Islay, Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland, Kintyre and Arran,as well as the mainland mountains to the north with snow-capped summits.
An hour and a half after setting out and we were atop the summit of our first Marilyn of the day: Ben Garrisdale (365m), with its lovely ‘Vanessa’ triangulation pillar. As you can see, Andy and Jen had opted for easy gender recognition colour coding.
So far everything had gone swimmingly. We headed SE towards the outflow of Loch Fada Ben Garrisdale and followed the burn down through its squelchy declivity to a large, level open area. I remembered from my previous walk here that this area was extremely boggy, and there had been a lot of rain in recent days, so I felt it would be best to skirt around to the west on raised ground. This was not a good choice, for here was the realm of the worlds biggest boggy tussocks. I’ve lived in Scotland long enough to know about the phenomenon of the perpendicular bog – higher ground offers no escape! It was a real nightmare crossing this tussocky, boggy morass – especially with hefty packs. When we’d finally got across the Bog of Doom, Jen eloquently summed the experience up – ‘that was really shit!’ she opined with some justification.
Continuing on our way, we followed the burn as it flowed into Gleann Airigh Mhic-cearra, keeping to the higher ground flanking the glen as the gorge steepened. The Allt Loch nan Caorach flowed wider and faster, descending in a series of cascades through the narrow, steep-sided gorge where birch and other deciduous trees cling to their existence, sheltered from extremes of weather and the depredations of the island’s numerous red deer. These trees provide some relief in a landscape clothed in the rusty and washed-out hues of autumnal bracken and moor grass.
We soon descended into Gleann Baidseachan, passing through some ruined sheilings where a confluence of burns flows into what becomes the Lussa River. We made a detour to admire the lovely Srath Long waterfall, which involved the first of many ‘exciting’ river crossings that involved hurling our rucksacks then ourselves across various bodies of water with varying degrees of success. On this occassion, Fiona managed to plunge one leg into the nascent Lussa before Andy grabbed her and pulled her onto the bank. Thought I’d best not photograph that. Anyway, the waterfall was very bonny and is much bigger than it looks in the picture.
Continuing on our way again, we plodded at length up the glen between Cruach an Uillt Fhearna and Beinn Bhreac. At the head of the glen we headed east over Coir’ Odhar Beag and made for the summit of Beinn Bhreac (467m). The terrain is very complex around the long summit ridge of Beinn Bhreac and a number of rocky knolls have a similar height to the actual summit. On my previous mist-shrouded visit I’d wandered around checking map, compass and altimeter trying to find the summit, but eventually had to retreat defeated. In bright, glorious sunshine, however, the summit Vanessa pillar perched perkily atop our second Marilyn for all to see.
There were more fine views to be enjoyed while we tucked into our sarnies.
Even in the sunshine it was chilly up top so we didn’t hang about. Descending a shallow gully, we passed to the west of Cnoc Tigh-sealga and skirted around Loch tigh-sealga before beginning to climb once again towards the summit of Marilyn number three: Dubh Bheinn – at 485m, the largest of the day’s hills. Having only descended to 300m, the climb wasn’t so bad, but in truth it felt like a bit of a slog and by the time we were at the top no-one was interested in climbing the last 20m to the summit; instead we descended to the series of lochs nestling between Dubh Bheinn and Rainberg Mor at 330m.
We took the direct route up the middle acclivity between Rainberg Mor’s four tops, before skirting around to descend the westernmost declivity. There were great views south to the Paps of Jura and the fantastically complex landscape beneath us festooned with numerous lochans. The descent was long, tricky in places and pretty tiring. By the time we crossed the outflow of the Loch bealach na h-Imriche to begin our fifth and final climb, we were all feeling pretty tired – except the formidable Fiona who was in fine form for some reason – possibly the ‘whisky nails ‘from the previous evening.
The climb from the loch at 200m to the summit of Cruib (318m) and nearly 2km distant is very modest indeed, but towards the end of a long and tiring day it felt a lot tougher. Still, we reached our last Vanessa with an hour of daylight left to make the steep, tricky descent towards Loch Tarbert and the sanctuary of the Cruib Lodge bothy. I think we were all looking fairly geriatric with our walking poles as we reached the summit.
It was hard work getting down and we had bog, bracken and tussock to negotiate before we finally reached the bothy after nine and a half hours’ walk. The bothy was a bit of a shambles so we pitched our tents outside. The visitors’ book showed that most of the recent visitors had been yachties who couldn’t be bothered to take their crap away with them in their sea-going caravans. Too important. Anyway, Andy and Jen struggled heroically and successfully to get a fire going with a meagre haul of twigs and some lumps of peat. A small fire made all the difference to the forlorn little shelter and we enjoyed a much needed feast of venison, rice and veg – washed down with a couple of ‘whisky nails’ of course.
We had another long day to come, what would the morning bring…