A daunder around Sanday in the sunshine

There was no chance that the day after our circumperambulation of Canna could be any more eventful. The Eurohike had stayed up, the wind had dropped over night and dawn was heralded with sunshine and blue skies traversed by lazy flotillas of fluffy white clouds. Perfect conditions for exploring Canna’s tiny, tide-separated sister island of Sanday.

Happily, a new footbridge connects the islands so we didn’t have to wait for low tide to get across. I was intent on an anti-clockwise circumperambulation (the last time I’ll use this word, this year. Promise) of Sanday while the girls and Dougal were content to potter along as their collective whim took them.

Through a gate, across a lovely little sandy beach and I was soon atop the cliff top summit of Tallabric (59m), looking out along the south coast of Sanday to its easternmost headland with the isle of Rum beyond.

Dropping down to the shore again, I  caught a familiar whiff. Several years ago I found a small whale’s skull on Jura and bought it home in my rucksack. It exuded a lot of oil that gave off a very distinctive and not entirely unpleasant odour; a bit soapy, perhaps. That was what I could smell now. I didn’t have the time to search for the source of the smell as we were catching the 2pm ferry to Eigg, but I subsequently learned that a dead whale had been washed ashore and its bones are gently bleaching away on the shore.

The light was lovely, shifting and sparkling, with clouds scurrying across the heavens in evident haste. Sanday was looking very bonny indeed; what a lovely place to be able to call ‘home’.

I saw the girls being dragged along in Dougal’s slipstream near the north coast and Sanday being so small I was able to skip from coast to coast in half a minute to join them briefly. We agreed to rendezvous by the south coast cliffs looking onto the rock stacks of Dun Mor and Dun Beag;  I then set off to continue my route once more. I followed the coast around, followed a dry stone wall to a gate and went through. The ground was pretty boggy around a small reed marsh, where cattle had also churned it up. I picked my way across the morass and was soon able to take to the cliff edge again. Very soon I had my first sight of the remarkable rock stacks.

I upped and downed and upped again along the cliff tops until I was soon stood at the perfect view point onto the stacks. There came the sound of barking from the direction I’d come. I turned to see the girls and Dougal stood on a high cliff top a few hundred metres back. Below them to landward was a small herd of young bullocks who seemed somewhat galvanised by Dougal’s barking. He’s scared of cattle and has yet to grasp that this being the case it’s best not to alert them of your fearful presence. Awruf! Awruf! Barked Dougal in his suprisingly deep tones. Amoo! Amoo! Responded the pesky ruminants as they thundered up the slope towards my stock-still companions. A quick piece of mental arithmetic pointed to impending catastrophe. I threw down my pack and hurtled towards the ill-intentioned bovine phalanx, waving my arms and emitting a roaring, gargling scream that would have put the bejabbers up Stanley Baxter in Zulu. This had an instant effect.

With the coos now safely departed, we were able to continue our walk unmolested. Apologies to the owner of said cattle, but at worst they were mildly perplexed by the whole business and much as the fox enjoys the chase, they too seemed fairly stimulated by the pursuit.

Looking across to Dun Mor, we could see various sea birds nesting on its sheer sides. Puffins nest here from late April, but they make deep burrows so aren’t always apparent around the actual stacks. However, a few hundred metres off-shore several hundred sea birds were floating in several large rafts numbering a hundred and more birds each. Through the bins we could clearly see that they were  indeed puffins. I’d never seen  a solitary one before and then here were hundreds at once. Deep joy.

After extensive observation of our small feathered friends, we set off again. The girls cut straight across the neck of the headland to the north coast and I continued around the headland at a trot.

Looking back on Dun Mor

Lighthouse at Sanday’s eastern tip

I soon caught up with the girls along the north coast – in time to get battered by a sudden and intense hail shower (June, fer chrissakes!). After that it was an uneventful stroll along to St. Edwards church…

St. Edwards is deconsecrated and in the early ’90s it was officially opened as a hostel and visitor centre linked to the archive of Gaelic tradition, song and folklore amassed by the island’s former owners, the late John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw. However, the centre has remained locked and unused since. I don’t know, but I suspect and hope that this won’t be the case for many more years.

I continued along the track that skirts around the shore of Sanday’s tidal sand flats, while the girls returned to the bridge via the ‘overland’ route. The route along the shore is passable at low tide.

At the Sanday side of the bridge stands a rather fetching Marian shrine:

My mum is of Irish Catholic descent and I remember there being lots of plaster statues of Jesus and his relatives around the house when I was wee. Frankly, all that stuff used to give me the willies, but I like this stained glass shrine. You don’t have to believe to appreciate religious-inspired art when it’s good.

Anyway, I should have sought divine intercession at the shrine and then maybe the lovely Gille Brighde cafe/restaurant would have been open, but this was a Sunday so we sat outside and pretended we had coffee and cake instead.

Soon enough we were on the ferry enjoying a relatively unbumpy voyage to Eigg. Ah! Lovely Eigg.

We were met at Galmisdale pier by Phil, a tall and immensely good-natured chap from Altrincham who had relocated to Eigg a year and a half ago with his partner Claire. They have a couple of yurts in their garden and we had one booked for the next four nights. Phil ferried our bags and our Fiona yurtwards and the rest of us walked the two miles along the road towards Cleadale to yurt central.

The yurt made for a great billet for our stay, not least because of the excellent stove, but also because of Phil and Claire’s warm and jolly hospitality.

Late that evening we walked over to Laig Bay at Cleadale to watch the sun set behind Rum. Sunset didn’t really happen, but  the evening was imbued with a pleasant pinky-purpleness, which made the walk worthwhile.

The forecast for the next day was good and we had plans, oh yes…



Gone with the wind: a refreshing walk around the wonderful isle of Canna

The ferry journey from Mallaig to Canna was a bit of a rollercoaster to say the least. It was a blowy old day and the ride was a bit bumpy, not least on the Sound of Eigg. The skipper of the CalMac ferry MV Loch Nevis took one look at the approach to the harbour at  Port Mor on the isle of Muck and decided that this one port of call that wouldn’t be made today. Unfortunately there were a fair few folk aboard who were intending to visit the island including several families with young children. The ferry heaved around and bumped and rolled its way back towards Eigg. It was a bank holiday weekend in Scotland and the half term school holiday in England, so the ferry was teeming with children many of whom were compounding their own misery – and that of their parents – by throwing up all over the ship’s carpets and soft furnishings. Oh well, nothing for it but to tuck into a large plateful of CalMac fishcakes and chips. I fear that the smell of my dinner and the enthusiasm with which I was consuming it proved too much for the queasy-looking lady on the next table who lay prone on her seat retching pitifully into a sick bag. Apologies.

Anyway, full and contented I enjoyed the rest of the journey around the east coast of Rum and before you knew it we were easing into the calmer waters of Canna’s deep water harbour. As we disembarked, there were plenty of folk ready to board the ferry, many of whom had been attending a Gaelic festival on the island. Canna House was formerly home to the island’s previous owners John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw who had amassed an archive of traditional songs, stories and folklore gleaned during their extensive peregrinations around the Hebrides. They left the island to the nation and Canna and Sanday are now maintained by the National Trust for Scotland. The deconsecrated St Edwards church on Sanday was converted into a hostel and study centre linked to the archive in the 1990s, but has been left locked and unused ever since – perhaps there are moves afoot to move the project forward?

Anyway, the departing festival-goers looked full of vim and good cheer and as we walked up the track road from the pier we were hailed by Stewart Connor, the island’s NTS warden and a very fine fellow to boot – he pointed us in the direction of the island’s camping ground and that’s where we headed.

It was a wee bit blowy, but we found a good pitch in the lee of Coroghon Mor, a large rock stack standing sentinel by the shore and crowned by a rather structurally unsound-looking stone turret of ancient origin that looked just like it might make a suitable prison for a wicked witch – which as it happens is what it once was…

I was accompanied on this trip by The Lovely Fiona, Dougal the dog and our friends Clare and Sarah – teachers both, who had decided to let themselves in for a bit of Hebridean weather rather than going to Spain… Dinner cooked and consumed, we retired to our tents; this was Dougal’s first night in a tent and I’m glad to say he made an excellent foot warmer and didn’t snore nearly as much as The Lovely Fiona.

The night had been a bit blowy – though nothing to write home about – and the morning dawned with conditions much the same You can’t be letting a bit of weather stop your outdoor activities in Scotland, so we set off to scale Compass Hill as the first way station on our intended circumperambulation of Canna. We got all of 300 yards from the tent before we were hit by a torrential downpour. We put our backs against it and waited for it to pass, which it did gratifyingly swiftly. So, on and up over Compass Hill, a large lump of volcanic tuff that distorts the compasses of passing ships – perhaps this was why a french trawler captain ran aground on Rum in January

Anyway, we continued along to the north coast cliffs and it was a little while before it was safe enough to get the camera out without fear of drowning it.

Clare and Sarah sporting gloves in (almost) June

We followed a narrow path – part sheep path part footpath I reckon – that does a pretty good job of forging the best route along the towering cliff tops; the heather cover is kept short because of the exposed position, so apart from a bit of bogginess here and there, the going is quite good.

The view back to the east

We continued on our way, crossing the odd stock fence by way of handy step stiles and crossing an occasional wee burn. Suddenly there was a large feathery kerfuffle off the cliffs below and to our west – not one, but two sea eagles! We stood on our lofty vantage point taking turns with the binoculars to enjoy this fine avian spectacle – the birds were to-ing and fro-ing along the cliffs for so long we almost got bored watching them! They eventually drifted off, irritated by the attentions of some hooded crows that were gamely mobbing them – a bit like Charles Hawtrey taking on Mike Tyson in his pomp, I feel.

The weather was improving, it was still a bit blowy and an occasional shower would sweep in, but there were also some welcome outbreaks of sunshine to enjoy. We continued on our way, marvelling at the fine views along the cliffs to the west.


Somewhere in there, Clare slipped and bashed her knee on a piece of wood, causing a sore-looking raised bump on her patella, which made her limp. Luckily we weren’t far off the narrow, low-lying isthmus at Canna’s wasp-waist, which meant that Clare would be able to bail out and return to A’Chill by crossing over to Tarbert on the southern side of the isthmus and following a well-maintained track along the raised shore platform along the south coast.

Once we had descended to the beach on the north side of the isthmus, a heavy shower swept in and gave us a bit of a pummeling as we huddled beneath a low cliff. Our drenching was over before w’d actually drowned and blue skies appeared once more. With glad hearts we found a suitable picnic spot and tucked into some sarnies, fortifying ourselves for the next leg of our circumperambulation. Lunch over, we said goodbye to Clare who limped off to A’Chill. Our depleted team continued on its way, climbing back to the cliff tops.

A raised shore platform is visible beneath these north-western cliffs from some distance; on the map it looks as if you might just be able to get right along to Garrisdale Point – Canna’s westernmost point – although it looks tenuous in a couple of places. Still, I was here to test the bounds of the possible – even if my trusting companions were oblivious of this fact. So, down we went with great ease to gain the shore platform. We got all of about 500 metres along the platform before a steep-sided gully dropping a cascading burn precipitously into the sea cut short our promenade. A scramble back up to the cliff tops, along a bit more and try again. We had to pass under a wee waterfall and zig-zag down to the platform this time, but it was a lot of fun.

This time we didn’t get very far at all. Sometimes I just refuse to believe what the map is strongly suggesting, but in truth I wasn’t that surprised to encounter the sheer cliffs that meant we would have to return to the cliff tops yet again.

It was worth it just to enjoy the waterfall being blown back up the cliff:

Back on the cliff tops, I was convinced our third attempt would bear fruit. Amazingly, my companions didn’t object. Perhaps it was the view down to the lovely sandy beach that we’d glimpsed from afar that did it.

The route down was easy and we were soon in an undercliff world that time had forgot. Here there were the vestiges of shielings and stone enclosures and what might have been grave markers. The greensward was corrugated by the undulations of ancient lazy beds, testament to Canna’s earlier inhabitants’ battle to eke a living from the land. After exploring a while, we continued on our way and were indeed able to walk as far as Garrisdale Point. Here there were fine views over the agitated seas around the island and, nearby, the once-fortified rock stack of Dun Channa. Ten kilometres to the south-west, Hyskeir – or Oigh-Sgeir – lighthouse stood proud upon its rocky domain.

We retraced oor steps a few hundred yards to take the easiest route back to the cliff tops and once up we continued climbing gently to arrive at the cliff top summit of Sron Ruail (129m) with its commanding views over the southern cliffs and far and wide beyond.  After admiring the vista of islands around the Sea of the Hebrides, we continued along the cliff tops. The going was that much easier along the springy turf of the southern cliffs and we were glad of this as we were all beginning to feel a wee bit tired – not least Dougal who had already walked further than ever before in his furry young life and there were still a few kilometeres to go.

Approaching the cliff top summit of Am Beannan with Rum beyond

Below and east of Am Beannan lie the remains of what is believed to have been an Early-Christian monastic hermitage – possibly a nunnery, which gives the site its name: Sgorr nam Ban-naomha (cliff of the holy women). A fixed rope facilitates access to the site from the cliff tops, but today we’d give it a miss as there was still a way to go and getting down with the dog wasn’t feasible. Another reason – as if any were needed – to come back to the wondeful isle of Canna!

We continued on our way and soon enough we were heading into the wasp-waist of the island at Tarbert. From here we picked up the track and sauntered along enjoying the views across Sanday.

We were glad to arrive back at A’Chill with tired legs, having had a fantastic day’s walk. The girls took advantage of the facilities near the farm buildings and I was just wondering where we’d find Clare when she came bursting out of a nearby house accompanied by Julie, the wife/partner? of Stewart the NTS warden. Clare was fine, she said, but when she’d got back to our campsite she had encountered Julie who had discovered that mine and Fiona’s tent had blown into the sea. Boo. Hoo.

Julie and Clare had rescued most of our stuff and were drying our sleeping bags and down jackets on the washing line. They thought the tent might be salvageable. Julie kindly made tea for everyone, but I felt the need to go and check the damage.

Clare and Julie had indeed saved almost everything, but after an initial inspection of the salvaged tent it was clearly a write-off. It’s only stuff, but it was expensive stuff and it had let us down and now we had no shelter. Fear not though, for soon enough Stewart, Julie and a couple of their friends turned up with a tent and sleeping bags for us and we were soon having a right old laugh pitching a Eurohike tent.

Say what you like about Eurohike tents, this one would have cost a tenth of what we paid for our Terra Nova Voyager XL, but at least it stayed up that night, which was also rather inclement on the weather front. Sarah and Clare were pitched next to us in my Voyager, which was entirely unaffected; our lovely neighbours from Teeside, David and Moira, were in a Crux tent that was also unmoved by the conditions.

I’ve emailed a comprehensive account to Terra Nova and have offered them the chance to make redress. Three days later, I’ve not heard anything; I suspect I may not, given past experience of complaining to them about poor quality tent bags. I’ve always loved Terra Nova’s Voyager tents, but you need to be able to trust a manufacturer if you’re going to give them repeat custom. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Anyway, our mishap was made up for by the generosity and all-round thoroughly decent behaviour of Stewart , Julie and friends; David and Moira popped by with some wine for us too, which took the edge off matters – it made cooking in the rain quite enjoyable!

It was quite late by the time we turned in – 10pm maybe! Tomorrow we’d be visiting Sanday, come what may…

For a far superior account of an excellent walk around the coast of Canna, see Alex and Bob’s posts at blueskyscotland.

Coll, sand and castles

I’d had four excellent days on Tiree, but after four nights on my own in my tent, I was looking forward to meeting up with The Lovely Fiona, Dougal the Dog and our friends, Andy and Giulia on the isle of Coll. Coll is just a 50 minute ferry journey from Tiree, so I had time to enjoy a cup of tea and a bowl of Calmac chips and a chat with some very excellent folk from ScotWays, an organisation that protects and develops access to the Scottish countryside for all. Their’s is a noble – and sometimes onerous – task indeed.

We were soon alongside the pier at Arinagour where I was the sole departing foot passenger. The gang would have arrived a couple of hours before me on the inward bound ferry, but sadly there was no reception commitee to welcome me. I shouldered my pack and started the walk across the island, to where I wasn’t entirely sure. I didn’t have the address of the cottage we were staying in and I had no phone signal; furthermore, the horsefly bite or whatever it was that had been affecting my ankle had started giving me a fair bit of pain. Still, nothing to do but get on with it.

I’d onlywalked a few hundred yards when our little green Corsa, rammed to the gunnels with people, dogs and luggage came bowling over the brow of the hill. Hurrah! somehow we managed to squeeze me and my pack in there too, a bit like the old how-many-students-can-you-fit-in-a-phone-box/Mini etc. Turns out the gang were lost, having driven around half the island looking for our billet. So we set off to drive around the other half before we finally worked out where we were meant to be going. Luckily, Coll is only about 13 miles long by 3 miles wide.

Anyway, we eventually arrived at the cottage which has a fine location at Clabhach on the island’s north-west coast. The cottage itself was a good, honest Western Isles crofter’s house, but the owner was charging top dollar for a pretty dog-eared place really. This would have been less of an issue if we’d been out the whole time, but the weather did keep us in a bit. To the owner’s credit, however, he was Dougal-friendly.

Anyway, grumble over. Once we’d got over the 1970s (and not in a good way) decor, we headed out to the nearby beach. A small but lovely sandy bay strewn with kelp fronds, which Dougal discovered were excellent for chasing and chewing.

A little later on our first evening, we walked a kilometre down to Hough Bay, an astoundingly beautiful broad sweep of dune-backed white sand beach, and marvelled at the fantastic gloomy light.

Dougal with his new best frond

The next morning was overcast, but dry and after a relaxed start we headed down to the south-western end of the island and parked up at the Coll Nature Reserve car park. Ours was the only vehicle. Heading north, we arrived beneath Ben Feall after a kilometre. Coll’s answer to Kanchanjunga is all of 66 metres high, but with a little effort you do get a view from the top.

Looking south-west  onto Feall Bay

We skipped up then down the hill and then walked along to the eastern end of Feall Bay and began the long and sublime walk along its mile-long white sand fringe.

A dog otter (I’d say, by its size) broke cover from the dunes rising behind the beach and loped down to the sparkling, amethyst green sea lapping along the shore. He was in the water, then gone. Only his tracks confirmed that he wasn’t in fact a mirage.

We continued along the lovely bay through a gate, where a sign warned to ‘Beware of Bulls’, and parked ourselves for a sarnie above its western end. A signpost – a rarity in Scotland –  pointed us in the direction of Calgary Point, making a generous allowance of  four and a half kilometres to said destination. I feel sure that we’d have found the point without a signpost, compass, map or even daylight, but coming from Sussex, I don’t find signposts offensive unless there’s loads of the blighters.

We continued on our way and unfortunately Dougal saw some sheep (still a novelty) before we did and he was off to make friends like a shot. My very sternest admonitory tone was deployed and Dougal saw the error of his ways, returning without any harm done. On the leash henceforth young dog. Strangely, there was no ‘livestock grazing, keep dogs on a leash’ sign accompanying the  ‘Beware of the (non-existent) Bulls’ sign, but we’d learned our lesson.

As we ambled along, the cloud cover gradually lifted and we were met with a fairly stiff breeze as we came out of the lee of the dunes. We crossed a couple of fences and were soon descending a short way to a crescent-shaped sandy bay that I found to be indescribably beautiful on this fine May afternoon.

Traigh Halum

We perused this lovely bay at length before continuing on our way around the low-lying peninsula coastline and in short order we arrived at the famous Calgary Point.

The trig point at Calgary Point perched on a pink gneiss outcrop

The views across Caolas Ban to the sandy shores of Gunna and beyond Gunna Sound to Tiree were perfect. What could top that? Oh, look, yet more incredibly beautiful white sand Hebridean beaches fringing jade-green waters…

Tiring of all this relentless natural beauty, we thought we’d better head across country and negotiate a few stock fences and some boggy ground before we subjected ourselves to yet another vast expanse of fantastically beautiful beach.

Traigh Chrossapol

The lovely beach fringing Crossapol Bay is about a mile and a half long, but seems longer – in a good way. When we eventually got to the end of it, we followed a track up through the low-lying dunes and back to the car park. A very fine afternoon’s walk indeed.

That evening, after dinner, the evening sky looked as if it was shaping up for one of those incredible Hebridean sunsets. Armed with Dougal, I headed up Ben Hogh (104m), Coll’s highest point, which happened to be directly behind our cottage, the better to admire the light show over the Atlantic. We waited an age and nothing happened. Dougal was very patient, but you can see the look of disappointment:

The weather was ‘changeable’ over the next few days, so we mostly made shorter excursions by automobile, usually to promenade up and down a preposterously beautiful Hebridean beach or three. I was a bit hampered by my painful shin also, though I needed to get some routes walked for the impending guidebook.

A few days in, after a morning of wind-driven rain, the weather lifted somewhat and we scampered out of the cottage and up Ben Hogh.  Near the summit of the hill, a large boulder perches on three small rocks – where it was deposited by the retreating ice sheet at the end of the last glacial period. Tradition has it that the Clach na Ban-righ (the queen’s stone) came to rest here during a game played between a giant and his mistress. Folklore, eh?

The Clach Ban-righ with our wee cottage below

It was another blowy and bracing sort of day, but it was definitely good to get out.

Descending from the summit of Ben Hogh, we walked through the inland sea of sand dunes behind Hough Bay to Totronald RSPB visitor centre. All around us corncrakes crex-crexed their unmistakable call. They’re great ventriloquists as every time you try to locate the source of their call it appears to be coming from a Canada goose or a cow or somesuch. I did actually see one of these shy, retiring little fellers on Tiree though.

We continued across the island on the rustic road to the Fantastically ugly Breacacha castles at the head of Loch Breacacha, the one vying with the other to see who could be least appealing.

Dougal knew exactly what to do… …run away!

We retraced our route to Totronald…

Totronald RSPB visitor centre, with the dunes beyond

Past Totronald, we ran into a herd of cows with calves, so we had to make a big detour as Dougal is given to barking at cows, which is a very bad idea when they have calves. The detour was worth not being trampled, I feel. We returned via the ever-lovely Hough Bay, which was looking especially fetching in the brooding evening light.

Tiree circumperambulation part 3

Wind rattled the tent and heavy rain beat down on the rip-stop nylon during the night, but I was feeling relaxed about it. I’d see what the morning would bring and make a decision then. In fact the rain went off with the arrival of dawn and the rain-washed early morning light was lovely. I decided that I’d leave the tent pitched and try out a route that would retrace my steps from the previous day back up the west coast, but also taking in Tiree’s three highest points – the twin summits of Ben Hynish (126m) and Carnan Mor (146m); Beinn Ceann a’ Mhara (103m) and Beinn Hough (119m). The out and back route looked to be about 18 miles, so I was keen to get started while the weather looked good.

First up, I climbed out of Port Snoig and continued up the flank of Ben Hynish, which provided a great view of the radar ‘golf ball’ on the summit of Carnan Mor.

I continued over to Carnan Mor and surveyed the scene from the trig point a little way west of the golf ball. An access road winds up to the summit from West Hynish, but that looked too dull for words; no, I’d much rather stagger through heathery bog down the hillside to Balephuil. Actually it wasn’t too bad at all and a better option than the road – good views over Balephuil to the eponymous bay, the sands of Traigh Bhi and the headland of Ceann a’ Mhara.

I set my sights on a red telephone box in Balephuil as I could get no mobile signal anywhere on the island (Vodafone works apparently, so get a Vodafone sim card when visiting Tiree) and I wanted to call The Lovely Fiona. No dice; the phone would accept neither coins nor cards, I could pay £1.99 for 30 seconds reverse charges though. Thanks BT. Only one out of seven payphones I tried on the island would take coins. Thanks again BT.

Ayway, I descended to Traigh Bhi and retraced my steps from the previous day. While walking along the marram grass-thatched dunes I felt a pain in my lower left shin; cramp? shin splints? or was that a stinging bite I’d felt? No bother, I’d just carry on, I can take a bit of pain after all; still, it was making me limp a bit. Never mind. I carried on around to the western extremity of wonderful Traigh Bhi, then followed a track off the beach onto a grassy area at the foot of the headland. I then climbed up to the high point at the southern end of Ceann a’ Mhara to look for the remains of St Patrick’s Chapel. I couldn’t really tell if I’d found it or not – was it a pile of stones or was it a significant pile of stones? Anyway, what was significant was the fine view back across Traigh Bhi.

I headed north and made the short climb of Beinn Ceann a’ Mhara. More fine views, none more so than the wonderful vista from the north end of the summit over Traigh nan Gilean.

I scampered down the north-east ridge of the hill to rejoin the coast; I then retraced my steps from the previous day for about four or so miles as far as Traigh Hough, but this time in bright sunshine.

From about half way along Traigh Hough I headed north-east following a pebble-metalled track which led through an inland sea of sand dunes for about 1km to the foot of the north ridge of Beinn Hough. This island hinterland is dotted with bunkers, emplacements and observation posts – the long abandoned structures associated with Tiree’s role as a strategic airbase during the second world war.

Just before reaching a cattle grid, I left the track and launched myself directly up the north ridge of the hill. I paused half way up to admire the view from an abandoned observation post.

Though it was a bit early yet for the full-machair flower experience, the island’s orchids were already beginning to put a good showing in.

From the top of the hill I continued over to the radio mast on the second summit, then took the access road down the hill. On the way I bumped into this odd worm-like critter struggling across the road in the blazing sunshine – anyone know what it is?

At the bottom of the hill I picked up the road to Sandaig, passing the ruins of St. Kenneth’s Chapel en route.

St. Ken’s with Beinn Hough in the background

From Sandaig I retraced my outward route of the previous day all the way back to my tent at Port Snoig. On the way through West Hynish I bumped into Hector MacKinnon once again who was rounding up his sheep with his hyperactive collie-cross, name of Lassie. We chatted for a bit before I continued on my way.

I spent an enjoyable late afternoon and evening back in the environs of Base Camp Alpha, exploring the coastal landscape – very lovely too.

It was a windy and rainy night once again, but the worst of the weather had lifted by early dawn. I had a ferry to catch at the back of 11am and nine miles to walk, so I packed up and set off early. It was a short, but eventful walk to join the road at East Hynish; first I walked along a gentle declivity known locally as Happy Valley, that runs inland from the inlet at Cleit Mhor, very lovely it is too.

I then had to negotiate some very boggy ground before getting a bit snarled-up in a maze of stock fences. I then ran into the very unpleasant owner of the stock fences who was a bit like an uglier version of the Tasmanian Devil in the Sylvester the Cat cartoon of old. I subsequently learned that he’s known locally as ‘Arsehole’, which cheered me up.

Anyway, I passed by the old signalling station for the Skerryvore lighthouse, which stands atop a rock some ten miles or so south of Tiree.

It was then a case of striding out along the rustic road and expansive sandy beaches along Tiree’s southern coastline until I arrived at the Scarinish ferry terminal a few hours later.

That was it – I’d completed a circumperambulation of the entire 46-mile coastline of Tiree, some of it two or three times! Who cares!? Not me, but contrary to my expectations I’d hugely enjoyed my time walking on Tiree and I can’t recommend this lovely island enough to those of you who like a fine Hebridean beach or ten. Just need to sort out those few fence situations to make walking the coast of Tiree a minor classic.

A Tiree circumperambulation part 2

The forecast for the coming day wasn’t good. In fact, Don, whom I’d met the previous day had said that the meteorological prognosis was all manner of grim with high winds and lashing rain predicted. I decided to strike camp as my pitch was a bit exposed, but also I thought I’d try walking west along the island’s north coast then south down the west coast and aim to camp among the dunes behind Traigh Bhi, the vast Hebridean beach fringing Balephuil Bay. I wanted to check out the viability of the coastal route for the guidebook and I also felt sure Tiree was ripe for a circumperambulation.

The early morning weather didn’t seem too bad as I set off around the white sand crescent of Balephetrish Bay, rucksack on my back. At the far end of the bay I went through a gate and followed a track past houses and through a farm. The terrain was flat and the going was easy as I skirted along just back from the shore, passing through occasional stock gates along the way. This was all looking straightforward and a bit of a doddle when I arrived at the outflow of a burn by a farmhouse at Clachan Mor. It was too deep to cross so I had to cross some boggy ground, stock fences and a small footbridge up stream to gain the far side. This then entailed walking through a farmyard to get back to the shore. A large farm collie came bounding towards me all hackles, snarls and barks. I tried the ‘hey! how’s it goin’ dude’ approach, but Rover wasn’t impressed. A woman yelled at him from the farmhouse and with a ‘next time, buster’ look over his retreating shoulder, Rover bounded back whence he came. As I continued down the farm track a chap in a blue boiler suit appeared and eyed me with restrained misgiving. I waved and called out a greeting. No response. I tried again. Same as before. I made straight for him and as soon as I was in range I said that I was trying to get back to the shore. He indicated a gate and said to go past some sheds. Which I did. Not openly hostile. But… Tiree is a farmed landscape and at times this means access for walkers and the need for stock fences etc come into conflict. That said, there are only a couple of places where the walkers’ progress around the coast are seriously impeded. With a little effort this could be changed to provide walkers with the opportunity to walk around the entire coastline of the island.

Anyway, I continued on my way and I was soon passing a house near Barna-Sgeir; just beyond the house the vague path was lined for several hundred metres with an assortment of sea bird feathers.

This simple yet very lovely piece of environmental art led down to the outrageously beautiful sandy beach of Traigh Chornaig.

The weather had begun to deterioate; the wind had picked up and bands of rain swept in intermitently, but I wasn’t even slightly put out as the conditions seemed to enhance the sublime coastal landscape as much as the glorious sunshine of the previous day had. I was feeling quietly ecstatic as I strode on along the beach. At its far end I climbed up onto the headland and passed through a couple of gates to continue along the coast.

The walk along this section went okay at first, but then I encountered a few electric stock fences. Well, no bother I’d just be careful and continue on my way skirting the fences where possible and climbing gingerly over where unavoidable. I noticed that an expanse of stock fence had an electric wire running along the inside – presumably to keep stock in – but then also on the outside. Why? I was pondering this when, to avoid a boggy section, I made to edge along the outside of the fence. I got a shock. I’ve got quite a high pain threshold, having experienced a bit over the years, but the the shock I got from this fence provoked a cry of anguish. Not the kind of ‘ouch!’ when you whack your thumb with a hammer, but a throaty, guttural ‘AAAAAAARRRRRGGGHHHH!!!’ that issued from somewhere deep within. I might add that I was a little pissed off about this. I really couldn’t see the need for this sort of sadistic measure on the fecking OUTSIDE of the fence. Furthermore, I then had to cross another electric fence inside a barbed wire fence to descend to the next bay. I thought I was in the Hebrides not behind the Iron Curtain.

Moving swiftly on, literally and metaphorically, I crossed the very lovely beach of Traigh Baile a’ Mhuilinn, before heading a short way up and around the headland of Rubha Boraige Moire. Thankfully this was less fence-infested than the previous headland.

Beyond the headland the coastline turned south and I continued through some dunes to arrive by Traigh Hough. An expanse of large pebbles was built up on the northern end of the beach so I carried on along the dune edge.

Looking back along Traigh Hough with Beinn Hough (119m) in the background

For the next few miles I continued on my way along a succession of wonderful sandy bays adorning Tiree’s west coast – their formidable natural beauty lent extra majesty by the buffeting wind and squally showers.

After a brief section along the little road running through the scattered settlement of Sandaig, I followed a winding track across the machair – which looked ready to erupt into bloom imminently – and then descended to the sublime beach of Traigh nan Gilean, with the headland of Ceann a’ Mhara looming above its southern end.

The wind-driven rain was fairly battering down by now, so I put my head down and strode to the far end of the bay. A path leads up across the neck of the headland and at it’s high point there is a great view down onto the dunes and beach at Traigh Bhi, fringing Balephuil Bay. This has to be a contender for finest of all Tiree’s many splendid beaches – you wait ’til you see the sunshine pics!

So I scuttled down the hill and picked up a track running through the dunes towards the beach and then continued along the dune-edge on a vague path, keeping a look out for suitable camping spots. Nothing doing. The wind was whipping around all over the shop and nowhere was sheltered. I sat down and munched on a cheese and salami sandwich, which I’d cunningly prepared earlier in the tent and realised I’d lost my – well, Fiona’s actually – lovely blue-framed sunglasses. I’m a bit of a sartorial disater area, but these sunnies were really cool, man. ‘Oh bugger’ I thought and resolved to retrace my steps to find them. Leaving my pack I walked back a couple of miles to no avail. They probably fell off my hood on a beach and were nabbed by the incoming tide. Never mind, it’s only stuff and at least the sun wasn’t shining!

Having decided against spending a wind-rattled night amid the dunes I consulted the map and set my sights on an inlet along the craggy south coast a few miles away between West Hynish and East Hynish. I retrieved my pack and beetled along through the marram grass and down along Traigh Bhi before climbing a short way to the road at Balephuil. I then headed south down the road passing a few houses scattered along the way that collectively constituted West Hynish. I went through a stock gate  to pass the last house and was greeted by it’s occupant, a very warm and hospitable gentleman whose name I think is Hector MacKinnon. Hector filled my water container and offered tea and we had a chat about things including the Gaelic names of the rocks and skerries round about. Hector is a shepherd and I passed his flock in the sheepfold along the way from his house as I left the track road again and rejoined the coast.

This section of the island’s coast is much more rugged than the rest of the island and I kept high to avoid difficulties – following Hector’s counsel – and was soon looking onto the Iron Age dun – or fort – of Dun Shiader, perched on its rocky promontory. I checked the map and saw that a nearby dry stone wall could be followed to the summit of Ben Hynish (126m). As the weather had taken a sudden turn for the slightly better, I dumped my pack and legged it up the hill to admire the view of Tiree laid out beneath me. Well it was a bit murky in truth and scarcely worth the effort, but I skipped back down the hill, shouldered my pack and carried on my way.

The coastline along this stretch has an impressive, rugged beauty to it and I was soon looking down on what would make for a fine camping spot. I descended carefully into Port Snoig and pitched my tent, beginning to feel dog-tired after a long day.

I was a little worried about what the night would bring in terms of weather – remembering Don Maxwell’s doom-laden forecast, but there wasn’t a lot to do about it except brew some tea, rustle up theevening’s tuna fandango and retire to my sleeping bag with Slaughterhouse Five to see how Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack were getting on in their zoo on the planet Tralfamadore…

A circumperambulation of Tiree part 1

A good thing about having preconceptions about a place is that you can often find yourself surprised and delighted with the reality that confronts you when you’re actually in amongst it. So it was with my visit to Tiree a couple of weeks back. Adouble-whammy trip to Coll and Tiree – the Hebridean Twins, lying south-west of Ardnamurchan and west of Mull – had been looming for a while, but when the time came to depart I felt a little reluctant.

I needed to visit these isles to walk the routes planned for the forthcoming guidebook to Walking on Rum and the Small Isles, to which Coll and Tiree have been tacked because of geographic proximity. I wasn’t really looking forward to the Tiree bit, which was the first part of the trip, though I normally love walking trips on my own – I’d be spending four days walking around the coast and camping – I thought the walking would be uninteresting as the island is low-lying, not very rugged and relatively densely populated for a Heb.

The second part of the trip would take me to Coll where I’d be staying in a holiday cottage with The Lovely Fiona, Dougal the dog and our friends Andy and Giulia; I was really looking forward to the Coll bit, the island looks more rugged and interesting and I enjoy the company of my wife, dog and our lovely friends, so this made me feel like the Tiree part would be a bit of an annoying necessity.

How wrong can you be? Sure, Tiree is low-lying, not very rugged etc, but it’s certainly blessed with some magnificent coastline, tremendous views, plentiful wildlife and usually a bracing breeze. Furthermore, the folk I met were – with one exception – warm and friendly in an unassuming way.

So, after a long journey from Glasgow – 3 hours train, 3 hours wait, 4 hours ferry – I disembarked at Scarinish and walked the few miles across the island on a very rustic road to Balephetrish Bay. Above the eastern end of the bay, there is a farm and a couple of houses – one of which is decked out in a fine collection of net floats, marker buoys and other such man-made flotsam.

I asked at the furthermost house if it was ok to camp in the dunes behind the bay and I was told in a soft, lilting accent with a faint Irish hue – which would become familiar over coming days – that that would be fine. So I found me a spot sheltered from the stiff breeze – which would become familiar over coming days – and pitched my tent. I brewed some tea, rustled up some tuna fandango and went to admire the bay.

I retired to the tent and read Kurt Vonnegut’s excellent Slaughterhouse Five which is about a gangly and weak young American lad  by the name of Billy Pilgrim, who gets captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. Billy is eventually transferred to Dresden where he survives the firestorm resulting from Allied bombing, which killed 25,000 people in a series of raids between February 13th and 15th 1945.

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1994-041-07, Dresden, zerstörtes Stadtzentrum.jpgDresden after the bombing

Thus far the novel is based on Vonnegut’s own wartime experience, where the narrative begins to diverge from the semi-autobiographical is when Billy is kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and is kept in a zoo there with a kidnapped blue movie (that’s what they used to call them) star by the name of Montana Wildhack. Needless to say it’s a hugely entertaining read…

I digress. I was up promptly next morning with the bright early light, the breeze was still there, though not as stiff as the previous evening. My plan was to walk around the entire coast of the eastern part of the island – around 15 miles or so – and return to Balephetrish for a second night. I set off at the back of 8am and pottered along the coast; after a few miles I spotted the famous Ringing Stone. Here’s a description from the forthcoming guide book:

The Ringing Stone, known as Clach a’ Choire in Gaelic, is so called as it emits a range of resonant metallic tones when struck with stones. It is an erratic boulder carried from the isle of Rum, 56kms to the north, by the ice during the last glacial period. The light grey granodiorite boulder is much younger than Tiree’s ancient Lewisian gneiss – some of the oldest rock in the world. The Ringing Stone is decorated with dozens of cup marks – 53 to be exact – which date back 4000 years and are believed to have religious significance, though their precise purpose and meaning is unknown. Tradition has it that the stone was thrown by a giant from Mull – should it ever be removed from Tiree the island will sink below the waves and be lost forever.

It seems that some pagans or hippies or hippy pagans (with full respect) had decorated the stone by placing pebbles in the cup marks and adorning it with a small piece of knitting.

I wanted to see what the stone looked like with its cup marks on show so I’m afraid I removed the pebbles…

I did put the knitting back though. The Curse of the Pagan Hippies struck me a couple of days later…

Anyway, after my brief interaction with this splendid glacial erratic, I continued on my way along the coast. After a couple of miles of bouncing along on springy machair turf and squelching through some slightly boggy ground, I found myself at the western end of the lovely Vaul Bay.

I scampered around the bay keeping to that stretch of sand freshly stranded by the receding tide, which is always the most solid part of a sandy beach. Up and over a low rock and dune outcrop traversed by a stock fence – a soon to be familiar phenomenon. I dropped down to continue along the possibly-even-more-lovely Salum Bay and near its eastern end I parked myself at the edge of the dunes to scribble some notes. No fancy palm top computers for yours truly! It was then that I noticed a tall, tanned figure in shorts striding along the bay in my footsteps – unmistakably a walker! I took a picture – as the publishers like to have the scenery pics populated – then approached to ask if he minded (shoot first, ask questions later). He didn’t and asked when he might expect a royalty cheque in the post – ho ho!

So, I spent a very enjoyable hour walking in the company of this fine gentleman, name of Don Maxwell who hails from the north-east of England and was holidaying on Tiree with one of his sons. I would say that Don was some way beyond retirement age, but I would also say that he looked a lot fitter than the majority of men half his age. A keen hill walker, Don had been a member of the Chamois Mountaneering Club for years and regaled me with a few tales, including an account of an epic trip to Rum in the early ’70s. We strolled on together, around the island’s  north-eastern tip at Urvaig and then gazed across the Sound of Gunna to the eponymous small island with Coll just beyond.

We continued on our way along the coast with sparkling vistas of sunlit sea and sand in every direction.

The breeze-whipped concoction of sand, salt and sun was wonderfully invigorating. We carried on walking and talking for a while as the coastline turned south, Don told me that although he’d climbed the majority of Munros, he’d quit when one day he found himself having a miserable time in miserable weather on a miserable hill. I admire a man who can stand back from the tyranny of the hill-collectors’ list and say ‘actually, no…’. Don also told me with no small amount of quiet pride about his sons, keen athletes all. The son he was holidaying with is a keen kite surfer – Tiree is a Mecca for enthusiasts of the sport and windsurfing too – and had invited his dad on holiday as a xmas present.

After a while I realised that I needed to scribble some more notes, so Don and I parted company. A little later I saw his lofty figure loping along in the distance; a fine man indeed.

I continued along the coast, around Rubha Dubh – Tiree’s easternmost point – passing a couple of remote houses along the way. On passing the lonely cottage at Port Ban, I was into some slightly rougher terrain, though a little heather and rock is as nought to a veteran of Jura’s wild west coast. I followed the rocky coastline as it turned west and soon enough I passed through a wooden gate to join a path. The path became a track, then became a road and I follwed this around to the small pier and harbour at Milton. From the pier I followed a serpentine landrover track at length before crossing a few stock fences and emerging onto the beach at Skipinish. A short stroll around Rubh’ a’ Phuirt Bhig – at the landward end of a sandy isthmus connecting the tide-separated islet of Soa – and I was striding out along the vast  sandy expanse of Traigh Mhor fringing Gott Bay. This beach is almost 4km long!

Half a dozen kite surfers were zipping to and fro through the wind-whipped waves, occasionally jumping several metres out of the water. It looked to be enormous fun, but you could tell that a lot of skill was involved.

I traipsed along the endless beach – it certainly felt longer than 4km, though I’m not complaining! – and eventually climbed to the road just near Gott. A quick foray into Scarinish for some supplies and then I tootled back along the road to Balephetrish.

I was happy bunny as I sat cooking my evening’s tuna fandango, feeling all wind burnt and sun blasted. As the sun finally sank below the horizon with minimal fuss, I repaired to the tent to plan the following day’s campaign and to catch up on Billy Pilgrim’s progress.

A quick daunder up Hallival and Askival

It seems like a long while back when I was on the isle of Rum last with my friends Andy, Jen and Kirsten. In fact it’s just a few weeks. Much has happened since. Anyway, in my last post I wrote about our walk around the coast of Rum, so I thought I’d get up to date, so to speak, with a brief account of a fine walk to the summits of Hallival and Askival in the Rum Cuillin. Incidentally, I’m hoping that Cicerone Press will use the above picture as the cover image for my forthcoming guidebook entitled Walking on Rum and the Small Isles, which will be out next spring.

Anyway, it was the last day of our trip to Rum and as we were catching the 4pm ferry back to Mallaig, we would have enough time to knock off a brace of Cuillin before departure. We’d spent a convivial evening with assorted loonies at the Kinloch Castle bar the previous evening and once the mayhem had become a minority pursuit, Andy and Jen had repaired to one of the castle’s grand if slightly grizzled ‘oak rooms’, while I’d tottered off to my tent early doors. Kirsten went MIA. Hearteningly, everyone seemed reasonably perky the following morning all things considered. So after a large cooked breakfast at the castle we pulled on our boots and headed for the hills. unfortunately after a few hundred yards Kirsten had to give up as the blisters she’d developed walking round the coast were causing her some pain.

Despite having suffered 25% casualties within minutes of setting off, we vowed to soldier on to the summit of Hallival. Up along the Allt Slugan we strode and soon enough we were at the Coire Dubh looking on to the Barkeval bealach; a short steep climb and we were on the saddle with Hallival in our sights.

Climbing to the bealach from Coire Dubh, Kinloch in the distance

We continued south-east along the ridge towards the summit of Hallival; from below a band of cliffs – formed of a unique variety of gabbro known as allivalite – which can be seen running around the summit and appear to present something of an obstacle. However, a route through these cliffs can be found without difficulty by keeping to the northwest ridge – not the north ridge as stated in another guidebook, which will remain nameless. Unfortunately, a chap called Graham I met a few times had taken the book’s author at his word and had had engaged in fruitless combat with the north ridge, eventually retiring defeated.

Equipped with a superior guide (ahem) we were able to skip up the NE ridge with no bother and were soon standing by the summit cairn rejoicing in wonderful views across to Eigg, the impressive north ridge of Askival…


…and beyond Askival, the summits of Trollaval, Ainshval and Sgurr nan Gillean shimmered resplendently in the slight haze. Having made good time we thought we might as well leg it up Askival as well. Soon after beginning our descent of the south-east ridge we were met with a steep and rocky section that required a little concentration to negotiate, but it presented no real problems.

This is the easier bit lower down Hallival’s SE ridge

A window onto the Atlantic Corrie, just above the bealach

Down to the bealach between Hallival and Askival, over a rocky knoll and we strode off in the direction of Askival’s fine north ridge.

Jen and Andy in full stride with Ainshval and Trollaval providing the scenery

The north ridge of Askival is a very fine ridge indeed, though a little scary in murky conditions. However, today we had the benefit of clear conditions as we began the climb up the narrow, airy path along the ridge.

Some hardy souls tackle the summit of Askival via a fruity little scramble straight up the north ridge –  good for them! We were content to turn the tricky bit to the east and follow a vague, winding, cairn-marked path to the summit – that was really quite interesting enough.

Andy and Jen feigning nonchalance on the summit of Askival

Fast-moving clouds were whipping in off the sea and it looked like we might lose our visibility, so after a brief pause we headed back down the hill. Back at the bealach, we dropped a short way into the Atlantic Corrie and found some shelter to have our sandwiches. It was then a matter of contouring around the flank of Hallival to regain the Barkeval bealach before retracing our steps back to Kinloch once again.

Once back at the castle, we mooched around a bit before getting a lift to the pier from the lovely Rebecca. Aboard the MV Loch Nevis shortly after, we enjoyed lamb stovies and reflected on another excellent trip to the wonderful isle of Rum. Can’t recommend it enough.

35 Shots of Rum

It’s a little challenging thinking up post titles when you’ve written hundreds of posts about the same place in a few months. So I took the opportunity to name this post (and all those that sail in her) after a film by the excellent French film director, Clair Denis. The tenuous link being that this post contains 35 (photographic) shots of Rum.  You’ll be glad to know that my next trip is going to take me somewhere different – Coll and Tiree to be precise.

Anyway, two weeks ago my lovely friends Andy and Jen, together with Kirsten who I’d not previously met, came up from sunny Brighton and we set  off from Glasgow to Mallaig very early on the Monday morning to catch the 10.15 ferry from Mallaig to Eigg and Rum. thanks to Kirsten’s highly accomplished overtaking of sleepy dawdlers and erratically driven articulated lorries, we arrived in Mallaig by 8.30am; time enough to get fleeced £6 each for an egg and bacon roll and cup of tea at the cafe/backpackers’ hostel. Boo. Should have waited for the Calmac breakfast.

This being the Easter hols, the ferry was utterly rammed with folk; a complete contrast to my last couple of visits where the crew outnumbered the passengers. We enjoyed a calm and sunny crossing and most of the peeps disembarked at Eigg, including a very excellent guy I’d been chatting to, name of Peter Khambatta – a mountain guide living in Morar. I also enjoyed talking to a couple of guys who were off to visit Rum for a week with a group of fellow environmentalists; good bunch of people who I kept bumping into around the place – it is a Small Isle after all.

Arriving at Kinloch, we dumped some spare clothes at the castle and set off around the Dibidil pony path to Dibidil bothy. I won’t talk you through it as there’s already a couple of earlier posts about this walk, so instead here’s a couple of pics:

The walk over was lovely and we saw a golden eagle to boot. Three hours after leaving Kinloch we were at Dibidil bothy. Shortly after arriving, Andy and myself headed off up Glen Giurdil, making a beeline for the Bealach an Oir between Trollaval and Askival; the girls had decided to stay home and catch up on some knitting. After 45 minutes’ yomp we arrived at the bealach.

Andy looks at me sideways

From the bealach we launched ourselves up the west ridge of Askival, which unsurprisingly is much harder going up than coming down as I had done on my last visit to this fine mountain a few weeks before. Up and up and up and up we went; it’s only 810 metres, but it seemed much more.

We eventually got to the summit and this is the view over to Hallival, east along the main Rum Cuillin ridge:

On the way back down, the light did something lovely:

We decided to scramble around the western flank to the bealach between Askival and Beinn nan Stac, but then we couldn’t be bothered to follow the reverse of the Dibidil Horseshoe route back into the glen. From above there appeared to be a viable steep but even slope running from the bealach into the glen that avoided the crags on Beinn nan Stac’s western flank; we went and investigated. It was a good ‘un. We managed to slide 200 metres downhill on our arses, accruing only a little dampness on the way. What larks!

Back to the bothy where Kirsten and Jen were ravenous; quick, cook the venison steaks and crack open the Whyte and Mackays:

The following morning was hazy, but dry as we set off around the coast bound for Harris Bay by way of Papadil.The first part of the walk benefits from having the old pony path to follow around to Papadil. It’s a little sketchy in places, but a great help in some complex terrain.

Loch Papadil

As reported in previous posts, the first part of the second half of this walk from Papadil to Harris is quite tough going, but manageable if you work your way up to the 25om contour after crossing the Allt na Gile.

Coastline near Allt na Gile

The walk over was fine and I left everyone having a break by a cairn sited on the flank of Ruinsival just where the view opens up onto Harris Bay with Orval and Ard Nev rising to the north of the bay and the high cliffs climbing north-west away from Harris before dropping away to the prow-like point of A’ Bhrideanach, Rum’s western extremity.

From the cairn, a rough path contours then gradually descends around the northern flank of Ruinsival; I followed this and eventually crossed the Abhainn Fiachanais by hopping and skipping across boulders in the river, then continued on to the Abhainn Rangail, which I crossed by way of a fine and sturdy new bridge. From here it was but a short walk past a massive raised beach which sits above the bay and some huge old dry stone walled enclosures before dropping down to an excellent bivouac site by the beach.

The rest of the gang arrived a little later and the afternoon was spent pitching tents, gathering driftwood for a fire, wandering around marvelling at the geological phenomena and worrying the resident wild goat population.

Harris Bay with the westernmost of the Rum Cuillin to the south and the wacky Bullough Mausoleum in the foreground

Worried goats

Next morning dawned hazy, but it was still dry and the sun lurked behind the slight murk.  After breakfast, packing up etc we continued the route around the coast, climbing north-west away from Harris Bay and up along the high cliffs of Rum’s north-west coast.

After pausing for some snacks on the high cliffs above Wreck Bay, we continued around the flank of Sron an t-Saighdeir and through to the bealach between Orval and Bloodstone Hill. From the bealach we skirted along the NE flank of Bloodstone Hill before descending very steeply into Glen Giurdil.

Soon enough, we were crossing the Giurdil River to arrive at Giurdil bothy.

Giurdil bothy sit back from the beach below Bloodstone Hill

After a spot of lunch and a little light malingering in the vicinity of the bothy, we decided to make the short hike over to Glen Shellesder to gather driftwood for the fire and to explore the wonderful undercliff world of caves, subterranean tunnels, rock arches and other such geological phenomena. Soon after we set out, a huge coastguard chinook came clattering overhead and thudda-thuddered around at the head of Glen Giurdil. Were they rescuing an injured climber or walker? Needless to say, my pics of the ‘copter were pants.

Down amongst the undercliff world  as like being in the Land that Time Forgot. As well as being all-round excellent company, Kirsten had done her degree in geology, so she was merrily instructing us about sills and dikes, metamorphic rocks, isostasy and vulcanology. She’s a great laugh too and my dog likes her! Cheers Kirsten.

First up for exploration was a wonderful subterranean tunnel;

The tunnel was filled with water to a depth of a two or three feet for much of its length, but Andy employed his rock climbing skills to work a way through to the other side.

The rest of us joined him by going through another tunnel, which has a pitch black, cavern at one end; sorry no pics. Out the other side and there was Andy standing in front of a huge rock arch, the size of Marble Arch.

Wee Andy is lower left in picture. Notice the crossed sills at the apex of the arch.

We scrambled around the shore some more, gathered some driftwood and returned through the big cave.

We headed back to Giurdil, laden with wood; I continued south-west along the shore a while and the rest of the team went back along the cliff. Back at the bothy we met an exceptionally nice lad called Tim, who’d walked in from Kinloch via Glen Shellesder, having arrived on the earlier ferry. The rest of the afternoon was spent doddering around the bothy environs, drinking tea and chatting. In the evening we put some of the driftwood to good use.

I pitched my tent away from the bothy so that my snoring didn’t keep the company awake.Shortly after I turned in, the patter of rain on  rip-stop nylon ensued – the first rain we’d had and it was at night. Excellent! The following morning dawned sunny and clear. The haze had lifted. This was our fourth day on Rum and the weather was still good and getting better; something was amiss! We bade the lovely Tim goodbye as he set off straight up the very, very, very steep NE flank of Bloodstone Hill, hauling a 25kg pack. Tim says it was less, but I don’t believe him. If you read this, Tim, I’d love to know how you got on.

Tim and pack psyche themselves up for the ascent

Our team set off soon after, continuing around the coast from Giurdil to Kilmory; it was a fine walk – the weather was lovely, the views sublime.

Wrecked French trawler

After a couple of hours we had Kilmory bay in our sights. What a lovely bay it is. It’s reputedly Betty Windsor’s favourite beach, so we were glad she wasn’t there as the place would have been closed off with Special Branch snipers positioned in the dunes.

We had our sarnies in this most sublime of settings. There was not another soul in sight; at least for a little while, which was bizarre seeing as it was already 11.30am and this was the Easter hols and the weather was glorious. Perhaps everyone was at the shops. We mooched around a bit and the went for a wander up the coast to admire the fine weathered Torridonian sandstone outcrops.

Soon after, Andy, Jen and Kirsten headed back to Kilmory to return to Kinloch via the landrover tracks along Kilmory and Kinloch glens. I continued around to the lovely bay at Samhnan Insir.

I found a weathered and sun-bleached whale vertebra on the beach and got a phone signal for the first time in days. I spoke to my lovely wife, back in Glasgow. The sun beat down. All was well in writesofwayworld. So there was just the small matter of climbing up and over Mullach Mor (304m) on my way over the hill to Kinloch.

I followed a spur climbing parallel and east of the Allt Samhnan Insir and the terrain wasn’t too bad. Gradually up, then a bit of a climb to the broad top of the hill, past Loch Samhnan Insir, on to Boat House Loch and thence to the Vannesa pillar atop Mullach Mor.

The descent was a royal pain in the arse (hoho, one of several in recent weeks!), largely because I should have stuck to the rocky ridges dropping obliquely into Kinloch Glen, but no; I thought I’d be clever and go for a direct descent across the ridges and got myself involved in knee-twisting, ankle-jarring tussock-world instead. Will I ever learn?

Once down in the glen it was but a gentle if slightly lengthier than anticipated pootle up a scenic path and soon enough I was back at Kinloch Castle. That evening, beers were drunk in the castle’s Common Room bar.

There’s still the final day of the trip to relate, but that can wait ’til later.

Rum ponies and the Giurdil Horseshoe

I woke early, as is my wont, after another rip-roaring night’s sleep. The previous evening I had decided that today I would continue around the coast for a few miles before crossing the bealach between Sron an t-Saighdeir and Bloodstone Hill then descending into Glen Giurdil and making for the lovely Giurdil bothy – one of Scotland’s very finest. This should take three or so hours – I had another plan for the afternoon.

The boys were still sleeping as I slipped out of my tent and got a brew going on the trangia. The morning was dry, bright and cloudy and it looked as if it might stay that way for a while at least. James and Rich had planned a slow start before tackling Ard Nev and Orval from the Harris-Kinloch track road; I aimed to get away fairly sharpish, but I thought I’d have a wee wander around before breakfast. I was extremely glad I did; virtually all of the island’s tiny herd of 20-odd Rum ponies were grazing on the vegetation around the massive raised beach sitting above the bay. These are a wonderful breed, which are likely descended from ponies brought to the island by Norse settlers around the tenth century. They are very distinctive looking species; stocky with a dark eel stripe along their backs and zebra stripes on their forelegs. They are also very friendly beasts and it was a curiously moving experience standing all alone above this wild and remote Hebridean shore as these beautiful animals gathered around me claiming pats, strokes and soothing words. The Rum ponies are used to carry deer carcasses off the hill during the stalking season, but for the rest of the year they are free to roam wild. Here’s a link with a bit more info.

I went back to the tents and the boys were soon stirring. I packed up and I was off by 9am, crossing the outflow of the Glen Duian River and passing  Sir George Bullough’s imposing and ever so slightly bombastic mausoleum.

A herd of rather handsome Highland coos were grazing the environs of the mausoleum. They’re very big beasts with huge pointy horns, but as they had no calves I knew not to be afraid. Years ago, The Lovely Fiona had asked a farmer on Skye whether his Highland coos presented any danger to ramblerkind; ‘Ach no hen’, he replied, ‘they cannae see you through all that hair’.

I set off up the wee hill climbing above the north-western end of Harris Bay; my pack felt heavy and my calf muscles were grumbling – it must have been the previous days’ walks taking their toll. I staggered along making hard work of a not especially demanding route above the high cliffs of Rum’s north-west coast; the light remained bright as the view on to Canna and the Outer Hebs opened up.

Eventually, I’d worked my way around to the bealach where I enjoyed a fine view on to Orval and Fionchra, which is the hill to the left of the Bealach a Bhraig Bhig in the picture below.

I couldn’t make up my mind whether to dump my pack and whizz up and around Sron an t-Saighdeir and Orval, returning via the bealach to collect it before descending the glen to the bothy or whether to go to the bothy first. In the end I opted for the latter, which entailed more walking, but at least I could have a brew and stuff my waterproofs etc in my emptied pack.

I’d read a recommended route that suggested following the course of a burn that flows down into the glen from a small lochan on the bealach. I tried it and it was hard work even in relatively dry conditions; I think it would be positively dangerous after heavy rain, so no points to whoever came up with that one. Anyway, I battled my way down the glen and arrived at the wonderful bothy slightly irked, but otherwise intact.

Nobody was home at the bothy and it had been left in immaculate order, which is always a gladdening experience. However, some eejit or eejits had left a supply of firewood, which they had obviously removed forcibly from a nearby enclosure where the young trees and shrubs have a tough enough job of surviving as it is.

Pondering the dichotomies of human nature, I lurched back up the glen; this time I climbed steeply up the NE flank of Bloodstone Hill before contouring around to the bealach once more. From here I followed the old pony path that skirts around the head of the valley for a short distance before choosing a line to launch myself up toward the summit of Sron an t-Saighdeir. The north-east ridge provided an obvious choice though there was no sign that anyone else had felt the same in recent years. The climb was an even, steepish gradient on moderately rough – boggy, tussocky, rock strewn – terrain; not the most edifying of climbs, but no real bother.

The broad, boulder-strewn summit plateau is marked with a cairn and there are fine views along the ridge to Orval and the Rum Cuillin to the south. The weather was still holding up as I scampered along the ridge before climbing a short way to the lovely rounded summit of Orval, which is marked with a cairn and a ‘vannessa’ pillar trig point. To the south-east, across a fairly shallow bealach stood Ard Nev. Rather than being a heavily-tattooed tough nut, Ard Nev is in fact a rather lovely whale-backed hill, which provides surely the best views on to the Rum Cuillin to be found anywhere on the island.

Ard Nev with the Rum Cuillin beyond

As I gazed admiringly at the splendid mountain panorama, two figures popped up on to the summit of Ard Nev; James and Rich for sure. I didn’t quite feel I had the legs to go to join them, so I loitered around on Orval admiring the views in every direction. This was the view back down Glen Giurdil, with Bloodstone Hill and Canna beyond:

I saw the boys descending to the bealach, so I loitered some more, but somehow  we managed to miss each other. Mountains eh? So off I jolly well descended to the Bealach a Bhraigh Bhig, which lies between Orval and Fionchra and which is crossed by the pony path that snakes a course from Malcolm’s Bridge to Bloodstone Hill. Reaching the bealach, I initially followed the pony path before diving directly into the glen, keeping to the right of the river.

I was back at the bothy in the blink of an eye, half expecting that the boys had out-flanked me, but there was no-one home. I got a brew on in time to hand a steaming mug of tea to Rich as he came through the door. James was a little way back, his knee having decided to give him a little grief on the way down from the hill. I went a short way back up the glen to shoulder James’ pack for the last stretch (aren’t I good!) and he handed it over in the manner of a man in discomfort. Poor lad. He’s definitely not a moaner though. I caught a couple of discreet winces from him over the course of the trip and he kept it in. I do love a good stoic.

The evening in the bothy was a relaxing and enjoyable affair and we all tottered off up the wooden hill to Beddington, early doors. What would the morning bring weather-wise? The forecast wasn’t good…

Indeed, the day dawned inauspiciously and proceeded to deterioate as the morning wore on. I needed to check out a couple of paths for the guidebook research so I really had no choice other than to go out and get wet. Rich did have a choice, but he rather gamely decided to come along with me. James wisely opted to stay home and rest his troublesome knee.

What to tell? We walked back up the glen – it was wet; we crossed the bealach – it was even wetter; we descended along the track to Malcolm’s Bridge – wetter still; along the Kinloch track – extremely damp; down the Glen Shellesder path – absolutely saturated. No pics on account of the wetness. However, at the outflow of the Glen Shellesder Burn we descended to the shore and spent a while exploring a marvellous region of caves, tunnels, rock arches and waterfalls – which put me in mind of the west coast of Jura.

We’d hoped to find some driftwood, but left empty handed. On the way back along the coast to the bothy we bumped into James who had just emerged from his morning’s idling. He sauntered off the way we’d come and returned to the bothy a couple of hours later with a rucksack full of goat poo encrusted driftwood. Good work Mr Boulter.

The weather lifted in the afternoon and we variously explored the environs of the bothy. The late afternoon light was deeply lovely.

If anyone would like to read an account of our last day’s walk out to Kinloch, I would refer you to James’ vastly superior blog. You can read about the last day’s action in the second part of this wonderful post. However, James didn’t take any pics so here’s a couple to go with it:

Ghosts, horseshoes, wild goats and a roaring blaze

Feral goats at Harris Bay

After the day’s endeavours, I had a cracking night’s sleep at the bothy. However, I did have something of a spooky nocturnal experience (there’ll be none of that, thanks). James had delighted in telling me about various ghostly experiences people had reported while staying at Dibidil bothy – three blokes being rotated 160 degrees while they slept, foot-tugging presences and spectral apparitions. That kind of thing. So there I was aslumber, when I was woken by someone standing next to the bunks – I was on the top bunk, James was below and Rich was in the other room. I was a bit groggy with sleep and had the vague impression that it was Rich standing there. The figure reached out and took my hand – I had a clear impression of the contact and then I drifted off to sleep. Rich avers that he never left his bed that night. It could have been a dream, but if so it was a very lucid one. Spookeeeeeey.

Anyway, aside from this phantasmagorical interlude, I woke well rested at 6am and the weather looked ok. I brewed up as quietly as possible, pulled on my boots and headed out the bothy door and back up the glen.

Trollaval, above the head of Glen Dibidil

I made good time, reaching the Bealach an Oir in about 45 minutes. The remaining peaks of the Dibidil  Horseshoe, those I’d not managed in the murk the previous day, were  cloud free. I had an incident-free saunter up Trollaval…

…and was soon atop the east summit looking onto the west summit that had looked so menacing in the murk the previous day.

The view across the Bealach an Fhuarain to Ainshval gave a good insight into the route up from bealach to summit.

Firstly, however, was the small matter of getting down to the bealach on Trollaval’s south ridge. It was difficult to find the vague path down and I ended up sliding myself down a few slippery slabs on my arse. Brrrrr, I was really glad we hadn’t attempted this section in the murk the previous day. Once down, it was a simple matter of turning the buttress rising above the south side of the bealach to the west and following a vague path up to join the east ridge. From here, the path is discernible as it climbs in the lee of the ridge above the Grey Corrie to the summit. I could feel it in my legs, but the path made matters considerably easier than had it not been there.

Once up, I paused briefly to take in the splendid vista before cantering along the whalebacked ridge to down-and-up over the summit of Sgurr nan Goibhrean, then along to the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean.

Sgurr nan Goibhrean and Ainshval from Sgurr nan Gillean

The views were tremendous, but I didn’t linger long as there was still a big walk to come in the afternoon. I descended initially south from the summit to avoid the crags on Sgurr nan Gillean’s east ridge. Swinging east after a while, I continued a traversing descent into Glen Dibidil. From on high I could see Rich and James outside the bothy and a little later I saw James loaded up and heading off along the pony path to Papadil.

I was soon back at the bothy, where I caught up with Rich who denied having held my hand in the night. I packed, had a brew and some food and half an hour later we were off on the trail of James. It was hard going along the serpentine path laden with a heavy pack, especially after springing around packless on the Cuillin ridge. Rich was ahead of me and suddenly he disappeared as if vapourised by a Martian death-ray. Happily, his vanishing act was temporary and terrestrial in nature – he’d lost the vague path and wandered off into the convoluted terrain before spotting a cunningly-sited cairn, which put him back on track. This was something of a relief as once he’d been swallowed up by the wild and rugged landscape, it could have taken an age before we found each other again.

Gladly reunited, we stuck adhesively to the path and were soon descending towards Loch Papadil. Here we found James, skulking behind the small area of mixed woodland growing around the ruins of Papadil Lodge.

James had made the walk over from Dibidil without too much trouble from his knee and felt ok to continue, so after a short break we hoisted our sacks and climbed away from the beautiful loch once more.

The terrain between Papadil and Harris is fairly rough, steep and largely pathless, but by carefully picking a route through the complicated terrain we made good progress without too much trouble. Myself and Rich cantered along, while James kept up his own steady pace.

We’d climbed to about 250m along the seaward flank of Ruinsival and just where the mountain drops its shoulder to reveal the broad sweep of Harris Bay, we arrived at a large cairn which – we discovered – marked the start of a distinct track that gradually descended around the NW flank of Ruinsival before skirting to the rear of the bay. This made life much easier, but after a while we decided to abandon the comfort of the path to take a more direct line towards the shore.

This made for a tussocky descent and is not recommended for those carrying a knee injury. Happily, James elected to stay with the path as he was in no particular rush. Myself and Rich crossed the Abhainn Fiachanais and the Abhainn Rangail without problems and picked our way along the shore, delighted to see that there was an enormous amount of driftwood washed up. We arrived at a beach just by the outflow of the Glen Duian River where we pitched our tents by a very welcoming expanse of level grassy ground demarcated by a collapsed low wall.

James soon rolled up and we set about gathering some firewood. A small herd of perhaps twenty feral goats, including a few of this winter’s kids, were hanging out on the beach eating kelp; they seemed largely unbothered by our presence, so the vague aroma of fromage du chevre hung around our campsite for the rest of the evening. We soon got a fire going and sat for a long while reflecting on the day’s endeavours and hatching plots to tackle the following day. It had been a grand day – what would the morning bring?

For a vastly superior account of the second half of this day’s walk, read James’ masterful account here.