Think you need to be a mountaineer to enjoy the sharp bits of the Isle of Skye? Think again. Here in part one of your guide to Skye for everyone, we explore the Red Cuillin...
Created by fire, sculpted by ice, there really is no place like the Isle of Skye. The legendary peaks of this once explosive volcanic island have been luring geologists and adventurers to its shores for over two centuries, all desperate to get a piece of one of the world’s truly great mountainous regions.
Despite being disconnected from Scotland’s west coast by just 600 metres, Skye couldn’t feel further from mainland UK. Its alpine landscape oozes beauty, menace and drama at every turn, feeling more like it was created in the pages of a fantasy novel than by the brute force of nature. The vast green plateaux and shadowy cliffs that scatter the island’s northern reaches are punctured by a series of devilish, dagger-like spires; but it’s the southern coastline that really sets the pulse racing.
Separated by the wide trench of Glen Sligachan, in many ways the peaks of the Black and Red Cuillin have nothing in common, but also everything. Both can trace their origins back some 60 million years to the same giant magma chamber, which crackled deep below the Earth’s crust. The molten rock that rose from that fiery hollow eventually burst above land, leaving behind piles of cooled lava that now form the shattered ring of summits known as the Black Cuillin. But the island wasn’t finished there. The heat from the rising magma also melted a lighter layer of rock, which floated up in balloon-shaped globs before bubbling above the surface to create what we now call the Red Hills.
Eventually the fires relented, which is when the ice moved in. The advance and retreat of glaciers over the last million years has beaten, fractured and twisted these two great ranges into its current distinctive profiles, albeit with hugely differing results. The Black Cuillin, forged mainly from volcanic basalt and gabbro, splintered beneath the force of the attacking ice, creating an awesome sweep of turrets, rock faces and saw-toothed arêtes. Across the Sligachan River, meanwhile, the granite mounds of the Red Hills rise in a series of domed summits, caressed and shaped over millennia into vegetation-cloaked hills that glow crimson beneath the sun.
What we see today is a landscape of huge contrast. To the west, the spiky arc of the Black Cuillin rises more than 3,000ft above sea-level, complete with
11 Munros connected by a 12km ridgeline that many consider the UK’s greatest mountaineering challenge. To the east, the Red Hills meander and roll, never quite reaching Munro height, but offering a wide range of hillwalks that wouldn’t feel out of place in the English Lake District.
As a result the black peaks are mostly coveted by climbers and scramblers, while the red offer a softer alternative for those wanting to experience Skye’s spectacular landscape without needing to get their hands on rock. But since Trail has a foot firmly planted in each camp, we craved a bit of both. We wanted to create the kind of ultimate walking weekend we could boast about in the pub for decades, full of airy summits, grand mountain vistas, exposed edges, fine ales and spectacular wildlife. So we dug out some old maps, dusted off some old guidebooks and headed for the remote settlement of Sligachan, nestled neatly to the north of both ranges.
Our plan was to build up to an assault on Sgurr nan Gillean (964m), perhaps the most distinctive peak on the Black Cuillin ridge with the kind of pointed summit that mountain purists drool over. Picture The Cobbler or Tryfan, then mentally inject them with a truckload of steroids and you should
be just about halfway there. Although – we should point out – it would be folly to attempt a full traverse of the Cuillin Ridge (see page 38) without the services of an experienced guide, many of the individual Munros can be summited without one, and although the final few moves towards Sgurr nan Gillean’s top veer tantalisingly close to Grade 3, it remains just about within reach of experienced scramblers. But the jagged rawness of ‘The Peak of the Young Men’ would have to wait until the following day, because we had an urgent date with a trio of its shapely red neighbours….
DAY 1: RED CUILLIN
From our base camp at the flawlessly located Sligachan Bunkhouse, the conical outline of Glamaig – the highest of the Red Hills at 775m – rose directly from the front door. The mountain’s close proximity to Loch Sligachan means that any ascent must be attempted from sea-level, making it a suitably daunting challenge in its own right. As a result it attracts all comers, including just about everyone staying in our bunkhouse. The slightly irritating toff who interrupted my butty-making ritual dismissed Glamaig as an “afternoon Corbett” he’d knocked off the previous evening, while the haunted-looking American lady I encountered in the shower block told tales of an “excruciating hike” with an “awful, terrible descent”. However tough Glamaig is – and the fell race record of blasting up and down it in 44 minutes suggests not very – we were desperate to climb it, because it provides the gateway to a grand circular walk that snakes for six miles through some of the UK’s most seductive scenery.
The early-morning excitement soon turned to anguish, however, once we set foot on Glamaig’s western face. The punishing combination of scree chutes and grass terraces meant it was a hands, knees and elbows job almost all the way to the top, a tortuous experience we christened ‘turf scrambling’. The climb was incredibly fierce, but with over 600m of height gained in less than 1km, it was also an incredibly efficient route to the summit, and the resulting views over Skye, plus almost the entire western coast of Scotland, were absolutely mind-bending.
While Glamaig was undoubtedly the day’s prize scalp, the appeal of the Red Hills became even more apparent as we delved deeper into the range, with mountains engulfing us from every angle. The beauty of Skye is that when you get high, you can see everything. In a landscape littered with wide, gaping glens and giant, stand-alone peaks, there isn’t an angle that remains concealed once you stand tall in the rugged heart of the island. The distinctive summits of Marsco, Garbh-bheinn and Blabheinn galloped into view as we followed the broad ridgeline south, while the surrounding sea lochs shimmered like stained glass windows beneath a golden afternoon sun. Then, as we stood on the rocky summit of Beinn Dearg Mhor and drank in the surroundings, a lone golden eagle silently drifted out of the clouds, traced the edge of the ridgeline no more than 10 feet below us, then vanished gracefully below the crags. It was so close I could have reached down and patted it on the head.
But despite the magical surroundings, Skye continually reminded us that nothing’s easy in the wilds of western Scotland. Each descent involved slaloming down cascades of deep scree, each ascent delivered abrupt gradients and an unhealthy jumble of ankle-shattering stones, and each glance across the glen reminded us what awaited tomorrow. While we’d spent the day in sunlight, the dark battlements of the Black Cuillin had remained shrouded in cloud – as though surrounded by its own impenetrable force field. The rest of Skye radiated calm and serenity, but that thorny sweep of summits couldn’t have looked less welcoming. If we thought today had been spectacular, we knew we hadn’t seen anything yet.
We rested our legs and swapped stories with fellow mountain lovers in the famous Sligachan Hotel that night – a delightfully rustic watering hole with more than 300 whiskies behind the bar. Every wall was plastered with paintings and photographs of Sgurr nan Gillean, which looms over the hotel like an evil watchtower. Many of our fellow revellers had been forced back from the mountain’s upper ramparts the previous day by low cloud and high winds, so we went to bed praying for better weather…
NEXT WEEK: DAY 2 – THE BLACK CUILLIN
WORDS: OLI REED
This article was first published in Trail Magazine.