Where the eagles dare...

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The most satisfying way to reach Sgurr na Stri, alias The hill of strife, is from Sligachan, a long but not too arduous tramp amid some of the finest of Skye’s scenery. Across the road from the famous hotel cum climber’s watering hole a green signpost points the way to Coruisk; that’s the way we went.

At last the weather had changed for the better. The skies were still as full of cloud as yesterday though there’s been no heavy overnight rain. The change was in the wind strength; a far gentler breeze meant comfortable walking and atmospheric views. Nor did we have to wait for those views. On our right, as we took to the well kept path, Sgurr nan Gillean and her acolytes soared gracefully, flanks of autumn bronzed grass and dark gabbro dappled by the shadows of those passing clouds.

Ahead loomed big Marsco, a member of the ‘red’ clan of Cuillin hills. With considerably more grass than most of her granite pink siblings, she looked inviting despite her steepness.

The Allt na Measarroch journeys down from the heart of the Red Cuillin to meet the River Sligachan; today, after the recent heavy rains, it rushed along faster and fuller than I’ve seen it in many a year. It wasn’t so easy to hop across to the opposite bank dry shod. A little further along stands Clach na Craoibhe Chaoruinn, (Stone of the Rowan tree), a somewhat scruffier version of the well known Rannoch Rowan of Argyll.

In the gaping mouth of Harta Corrie, which we were soon passing over to our right, stands another stone. Some thirty feet high, “The Bloody stone”, commemorates an ancient dispute over land, the quarrel was not amicably settled. Around this stone were once piled the bodies of feuding MacDonalds and MacLeods.

But it’s the Cuillin ridge that really holds your eyes as you pass deeper into the fastness of Glen Sligachan. Blaven is an outlier, a huge gabbro blade very much aloof from the main ridge, yet the deeper we probed the glen the more the mountain filled the view ahead.

Beneath Marsco and the little red hill, Ruadh Stac, we arrived at a junction in the path; our way forward was south-west, across wonderful grassy flats and up onto the Bealach Hain, the pass that takes the walker over to Coruisk.

But Blaven! In all of Britain there cannot be a more Alpine sight than this. Rising sheer from the waters of Loch na Creitheach, framed elegantly between Ruadh Stac and Sgurr Hain, the mountain presents a great wedge of precipitous gully rent gabbro. That gabbro, wet in its myriad nooks and crannies, glistened in what overhead sun managed to pierce the cloud like some dragon’s pile of treasure.

Till now the path we trod had been virtually level; after a little more burn hopping, however, the path began to climb in proper Cuillin style. It’s a steady but gentle mile or more alongside a heather fringed burn into the bealach with its big red cairns. On the way up we were entertained by a big Golden Ringed Dragonfly, a species I haven’t seen in a number of years and probably late on the go for the species. With its three inch body of black and yellow stripes and its ‘widow lace’ wings, had it not flown I’d have thought it made of porcelain!

On a previous visit here a year or two ago, I came across a profusion of the big hairy caterpillars of the Northern Eggar moth; on another occasion it was those of the Emperor moth that waylaid me. As I stopped to drink from a nearby burn I was tormented by the belling of a Ring Ouzel, that white bibbed blackbird of the mountains so easily heard yet frustratingly elusive.

At the bealach the path dives down to Loch Coruisk, a lonely and lovely gem of a loch set in a clasp of soaring black gabbro. Connecting the loch to nearby sea, a mere few dozen yards in length, is Britain’s shortest river.

A fainter trod untangles itself hereabouts and heads across Sgurr na Hain’s stony flank en route for the gentle slopes of Sgurr na Stri. Another forty minutes of so would see us at the summit.

We dropped a little until we could finally get to grips with the slabby north ridge. Stri is a complex little hill; plenty of gabbro slabs giving simple scrambling had us weaving in and out of little crags all the way to the mountain’s airy summit. We might have reached the summit sooner had we not been waylaid by yet another dragonfly.

The view from the top is out of all proportion to the mountain’s lowly 497 metre status! South, across a sea the colour of lead, to Rum and its own Cuillin, was unbelievable. Way out there, through the autumn gloom, floated the ghostly shapes of other Hebridean islands.

And in every other direction, mountains. To our one side soared Blaven and his minions, backed by the pink hulks of the Red Cuillin. Way below us to our left, the green waters of Loch Coruisk lay surrounded by her end of the Black Cuillin chain, a chain of the most raggedly sharp ups and downs which ended, all the way back we’d come near Sligachan, in the pinnacles of Sgurr nan Gillean. We gazed upon a walker’s and climber’s paradise, a place where hard men come to train for the Alps and Himalayas and us lesser mortals come to dream.

It was hard to leave but with seven miles plus still to tramp it was time to turn for home. Sgurr na Hain lay above our path; we made the easy traverse onto its ridge and let the hill lead us back to the bealach. The Ring ouzel was still there, adamantly loud but still in hiding.

There were other walkers to-ing and fro-ing between Coruisk and Sligachan; the belated sun, now well at work on the clouds, must have brought them out. Back down by the Allt Measarroch it was good to stop and remove our boots and socks, let the cool breeze soothe our aching feet in readiness for the final couple of miles Sligachan-wards.

Even as we laced up our boots there came to our ears the sound of commotion on the air. We heard the angry sounds of hooded crows somewhere across the river. Something had annoyed them! Looking up we watched an eagle, huge and majestic, slowly spiralling on an updraft. Higher and higher she rose, smaller and smaller she became until, with a lazy flap of her golden pinions, she turned and drifted towards the Sligachan hotel.

One thing I was sure of, as I looked down on the white walls of that inviting Inn, the eagle would be there before us!