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I’ve had some rather difficult things to deal with this week. I needed to clear my head. And I can think of no better head-clearing landscape than Skye, where we have been this weekend. More specifically, we have been walking in the incredible Black Cuillin. These are legendary mountains, and deservedly so. All the walkers and climbers I know who have encountered the Cuillin speak of them with reverence, respect, and passion – and I think I now understand why.

I have been to Skye before, when we went walking on Trotternish a couple of years ago. I remember being quite spooked — it is a unique landscape unlike any you will see elsewhere in Britain — or really anywhere for that matter. The land itself seems mocking in its outlandish forms: all crazy fists and spires and pointed fingers. If so much of Skye seems to defy the human, then, the Cuillin really epitomise that defiance. The basic geology of the Cuillin itself resists the map and compass (black gabbro is magnetic) and while the Gaelic vernacular seems to have no problem rendering this landscape normative, the English names for the peaks and their features all suggest the insurmountable or terrifying: the inaccessible pinnacle the peak of torment, the bad step, the executioner, &c &c. Some of these names are predictably inaccurate or questionable translations . . .

altdeargbeg

. . .and in any case, the force of words is nothing to that of the mountains themselves. I had been looking forward to the walk, but, as we started our approach beside the Allt Dearg Beag, I was a little afraid as well. We began by scuttling up Meall Odhar, which was very pleasant. We found a couple of others up there enjoying the view back across Skye to the sea. . .

sheep2

After that it was more scrambling than scuttling up on to Sgurr a Basteir. Here is the face of someone about to climb up onto that nice ridge.

bealach

Once you get up onto the arête, things get really bonkers. I thought I’d sort of prepared myself last week, but Blencathra has nothing on this kind of sustained and complex exposure: nice yawning chasms to the left and the right! Crazy rock formations everywhere you look! However, I could turn rather than scramble most of the diffficult bits, the little crags were actually fun, and the landscape is just so bloody amazing I could barely believe I was there. Here is Tom on Sgurr a Basteir, with the Basteir ‘tooth’ peaking out behind him.

tombastair

And here (in a first) is a wee clip from atop the ridge. Here we are, 900 metres up in the air! I was trying to film the tiny human figures moving along Bealach nan Lice, but as you will see I became distracted by Tom dancing on the arête. (Warning! clip contains mild bad word as befits crazy mountain landscape and precipitous fooling).

Daftness notwithstanding, we were both completely blown away by just being up there. It is a genuinely thrilling and otherwordly space. We scrambled about exploring and were blessed with amazing views of the entire Cuillin ridge and range – for which I really do lack words except to say that they are more spectacular than you can ever imagine from down below at sea level.

wazzbastair

We were very lucky with the visibility on our ascent: twenty minutes later the cloud came down, and this happened.

summit
(checking bearings by the trig point at the top of Bruach na Frithe)

We came down out of the cloud and looked back at where we had been. . .

bruachnafrith

sheepandridge

meallodhar

Then the storm broke in earnest, and we rushed back to Sligachan along the Alt Dearg Mor. There really is only one beer to drink after such a walk.

reward

I only had six hours in the Cuillin and I already find myself wanting to go back to explore more of this mysterious and compelling landscape. I also find myself wishing I’d been around in 1773 to tell Boswell and Johnson to get off their horses and up into the hills.

PS I am currently reading this which has some interesting things to say about the language of natural description (and its history) in particular reference to mountainous landscapes. It has certainly made me hyper-aware of my own mountain-vocabulary. . .

23 thoughts on “into the cuillin

  1. Ah, yes,
    Robert Macfarlane’s book. I read it in the Spring (after having grappled with parts of his (‘proper’ academic) book on originality in the 19th c. I enjoyed it – though he got some of Johnson’s itinerary wrong :)

    I envy you your mountain breaks. I’ve just had three 2 1/2 weeks of North Wales (castles and country houses and cities), Germany (very urban) and London (argh!)…

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  2. Wow, what a truly awesome landscape. It’s just occurred to me that I need to read back through your archives for itinerary ideas for when I finally make a trip to Scotland!

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  3. Without being too nosy, I’d like to ask how far from your home you have to travel to reach these magnificent destinations?

    Your photos make me feel like I need to explore my own surroundings more thoroughly. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing that impressive near here, but there must be *something* to get out and do!

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  4. Makes me miss Skye, such incredible landscapes. Must plan a return. I only managed to get up Ben Tianavaig near Portree, not being as good a rock monkey as you and Tom.

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  5. Great photographs and film, Kate. I’m sure the climb did the necessary blowing away of cobwebs. That storm hit us in the afternoon too. Absolutely amazing! Just like a tropical storm.

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  6. Oh, wow. We are going to Skye at the beginning of August for our honeymoon – we went last year but hadn’t been walking in years and lacked the equipment and confidence to tackle any of the cuillin (black or red). That was in April, so there was still quite a lot of snow high up. But this year we’re much better equipped and back in practice – I don’t know if we’ll tackle any of the Black Cuillin but we’re staying near Bla Bheinn, so hoping to have a go at that.

    Thanks for more wonderful pictures and hillwalking stories! You’re inspired me to at least consider attempting some of the Black Cuillin…

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    1. In fact, some cursory Googling reveals that Bla Bheinn is one of the Black Cuillin – I’d got it into my head that it was one of the Red…

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  7. what a wonderful weekend! My aunt lives near Carbost and I spent every summer during my youth close to these mountains – gathering the sheep for shearing mostly or fishing for salmon. Magical times!

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  8. What an amazing walk, everytime I read your blog I want to either get knitting or pull my hiking boots out of hibernation!!! The knitting always wins though as with 3 small (and scarily lazy) kiddo’s walking is a bit of an effort. Stunning photo’s… X

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  9. We are planning a trip to Scotland next year, and every new blog post you make I end up writing down more places to go and things to see….. You make us very envious of your surroundings!

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  10. Good way to clear your head – surrounding yourself by something much bigger, older, grander and perhaps more jagged than whatever it is that’s been troubling you. Hope things are settling down! :-)

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  11. Your opening paragraph reminded me of one of my favourite books – The Golden Arrow by Mary Webb which has descriptions of the Shropshire hills and their mythical meaning. I am full of admiration, both for the beautiful photos and interpretation, and your tenacity.

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  12. Ah, I do love Robert Macfarlane’s books. The Wild Places excites me every time I open the front pages. I’m working on Skye just now, with Bla Bheinn for a view is lovely, though frustrating only getting to look at it, not walk up it.

    Lovely stuff, though the Gaelic names don’t really render the nature of the hills normative, rather their undeniable dominance over said landscape and acceptance as part of it. Direct translations of Gaelic terms don’t do justice to how wonderfully descriptive names they are. I feel their names show due awe of the hills and their magnificence. Otherwise, great stuff!

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  13. oooh – I have been meaning to read that book for a while so I look forward to hearing what you think of it. Skye looks fantastic and I love the fact that monkey dancing was done 900m in the air! Hope the difficult things become easier this week and that the cobwebs were blown away by your lovely trip. So lovely to meet you and Tom last weekend and lets plan another adventure soon! Lx

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