Skye’s the limit in the hills


I couldn’t let Matt come to Skye and not get a taste of the Red Cuillin.

He’d ‘enjoyed an exhilarating’ romp over a small section of the Black Cuillin ridge yesterday; in fact readers might recall that we’d been walking in winds that forbade any serious scrambling, especially on any of the narrower ridges. Overnight the rains had return with a vengeance, by morning the wind had abated only very little.

Matt had commented on the beauty of Glamaig as we’d climbed onto Bruach na Frithe; as we stared out of the Hostel window at breakfast the next morning, the rain still hammering on the glass and black cloud dancing not much higher than Munro height, I suggested that hill for the day’s foray.

I assured him it that wouldn’t be a doddle.

Things looked very unpromising as we drove to Sligachan. The cloud remained dark and low as frequent showers bore down on us from the southwest. But that had been the case yesterday, and what a glorious day that had unfolded for us.

From Sligachan, Glamaig’s dominant peak Sgurr Mhairi, rises almost straight from the road in one virtually uniform sweep, brutally steep looking and uninviting first thing in the morning. From roadside to summit cairn, in little over a mile, we were faced with a climb of 2542 feet. “Do you think we can get to the top in less than forty minutes?” I asked Matt.

“You mean, an hour and forty minutes, don’t you?” He answered. I told him about the annual hill race. The record stands at around forty five minutes…up and down. The first guy to set a time was a Ghurkha soldier, back in 1899; his name was Havilda Harkabir Thapa. He ran to the top in thirty seven minutes and then back down again in eighteen. He did so with his feet unshod or socked!

We crossed the road and began our own pains taking ascent. First we had to struggle across boggy heathery ground; but it didn’t take long to reach the grassier slopes for the lung busting slog upwards. The secret is simply to take your time and stop often for backward glances.

And it surprised Matt how quickly those backward glances grew in grandeur. Sligachan, with its white buildings, fell away rapidly, soon giving us fine views north toward the Trottenish Ridge with The Old Man of Storr and the cliffs of The Kilt Rock, etched sharply against the morbid looking sky in that direction.

The ascent is very steep. There’s much scree, in fact it’s this extensive pink granite debris that gives the hills in this range their name. As much as we could we sought out more comfortable grassy rakes; even these, being wet, required careful footing.

Matt complained of aching thighs, a legacy of yesterday’s efforts, no doubt. My thighs ached too, but I kept that little fact to myself. Sgurr Mhairi, Mary’s Peak, is, at 2542 feet (775 m), a Corbett.The Ghurkha did it in less than forty minutes? We reached the little summit cairn in that plus another sixty.

As happened on Bruach na Frithe, so it happened today; the clouds had shredded as we’d ascended. The sun poured out its warmth now and gave us stunning, (if somewhat watery), views, especially out to sea. In fact the Black Cuillin behind us, still held a good deal of swirling mist; few of its tops were wholly free of the smoke. But the seaboard views were magnificent. Blue sea dappled liberally by fleeting grey cloud patterns was full of the darker forms of the islands in the Sound. A ferry thousands of feet below us left a milky white thread of wake behind it.

The toughest part of the day was over. Matt loved the next bit! Heading southeast we fairly shot down the steep scree slope that terminates on the little secret saddle of The Bealach na Sgairde. Ahead loomed a monstrous looking climb, on more scree, of fully 1000 feet! (Was that Matt groaning I could hear?). Happily it’s not nearly as arduous an ascent as it looks; plenty of bouldery scree and secure rock had us bounding upward like a pair of gazelles (albeit it geriatric ones!). And again those beautiful views to sea.

Beinn Dearg Mhor (The Big Red Hill), scrapes the ether at 2399 feet (731 m), and is thus not a Corbett. So what! The hill is no less fine for that.

We followed the mountain’s stony ridge down to another bealach, this The Bealach Mosgaraidh. Now there’s a name to ponder over.It translates from the Gaelic as, Pass of the Dry Rot Shieling. Next it was up again though less steeply this time, onto Beinn Dearg Mheadhonach, (The middle Red Hill). If the Red Cuillin san boast anything like a narrow ridge it’s here. Not quite an arête, the ridge stretches for only a few hundred yards or so, but it does make for a pleasantly contrasting amble above a wild looking Coire na Sgairde and a Sgurr nan Gillean, at last ridding itself of its annoying cloak of mist, beyond.

Beinn Dearg Mheadhonach’s cairn sits at 2136 feet (651 m). In the south, a mere giant’s stride away, Marsco, that other giant of The Reds, loomed almost as impossibly steep as Sgurr Mhairi. From our cairn-side seat that hill looks grassier than any other of the Red clan; though 128 feet lower than Glamaig, she’s still every bit a Corbett worth the climbing.

Mheadhonach’s cairn was the last of the day, apart from the way marker heaps of stones we’d shortly encounter on our way back down. So here was a grand spot for cups of tea and a half hour stare at a Black Cuillin ridge slowly emerging, in its entirety, from sun banished clouds. The Black Cuillin really is a mountain range in miniature, and from up here we could see the lot. And today, with still enough cloud to cast deep shadows, the Cuillin really did look black!

And so for that line of cairns down and off for Sligachan. Beinn Dearg Mheadhonach’s west ridge drops on a broad boulder field, quite awkward under boot I’d imagine in mist, were it not for those reassuring little cairns that plot the course of, not so much a path, as a well worn scrape through the pale pink scree.

We walked in breezy sunshine so didn’t need ‘the signposts’. Below us the better turfed Druim na Ruaige, alias The Ridge of the Hunt, levelled off to give us a lovely gentle tramp towards the still distant watering hole at Sligachan.

Further down we were faced with a choice: either we could drop directly down (west) onto the main Glen Sligachan track for a quick march back; or we could turn off the opposite side of the ridge for a slightly longer, though more aesthetic approach to the hotel.

We opted for the more interesting Coire na Sgairde. This took us down to the banks of Allt Daraich, a lovely mountain stream with its own little wooded gorge complete with waterfalls and sparkling pools. We stopped often along its course and drank to our hearts content.