Category: mountains

Winter is over

I can say with some certainty at this moment that winter is over here in Scotland. The weather will deliver up its usual flavours of wind and rain, no doubt, but I can be confident that it will remain mild, perhaps unseasonably so, right through until summer takes hold. How do I know this? Well because in our living room we have now have a wood-burning stove providing lots of warmth to the house and an embarrassment of hot water too. stove in actionAll winter we waited for the moment when the big white van would stop outside our door and Robert the stove fitter would stagger in the door with the heavy steel beast to begin the installation. All through the coldest months, the gales and storms, the floods, the hail, we sat on the sofa and warmed our hands before an imaginary fire, wishing we could have a real one before winter ended, but our prayers going unanswered. Nothing we could think of doing would bring it to us any quicker, no magic words, no strategy nor financial incentive. We had placed our order and just had to wait our turn, wait for this moment to arrive. All this time we knew we could be certain of just one thing; that it would happen eventually. And so it did, just as the weather warmed. But fortunately we live in a place where the first signs of spring are accompanied by chilly afternoons and nights so our new acquisition does add the sudden benefit to our lives that we’d expected. And thus it is that I find myself slipping into the morning routine of clearing the ash, laying the paper and kindling in joyful expectation of the afternoon or evening to come when I can strike a match and watch the flames spread.

Rather than become too single-minded, however, for some weeks now we have been hatching another plan; to load up Ducky with provisions and head off northwards, in the general direction of the North Pole. A brief glance at a map reveals that there is a sizable chunk of Scotland that sits between us and the Arctic Ocean and it is this that we are keen to explore, right up to the very edge of the last piece of  land. So we abandon Carradale one wet morning, after taking fresh food parcels from house to campervan, stuffing warm clothes into cupboards and filling water containers to the brim, then just turn north along the edge of Kintyre and keep going.

The heavy overnight rain still falls as we charge through deep puddles which drench every inch of the van with mud-stained spray and it still falls heavily as we lurk in the car park outside Oban’s Lidl. But no sooner have we finished our shopping, stocking up on Campo Largo baked beans and Crusti Croc paprika flavoured crisps like we hadn’t seen a Lidl for months (which is true), when suddenly the clouds part and the sun shines down. In the blinking of an eye Scotland performs the magic trick we love, winter becomes spring, rain becomes shine, dark becomes light, wet becomes dry. My dark glasses are resting on my nose once more as I gaze out at Mull’s looming peaks across a sparkling sea. Ah yes, this is why we left our lovely new stove behind.

We do not intend to travel quickly as there is much to see along the way, loads of scenery to take in, so when I write the words “250 miles later” it needs to be said that nearly three days have elapsed since leaving home. We move along at a gentle pace.road to Ullapool

But as it happens just 250 miles distant by road from Carradale (Ducky choosing to use imperial measurements) there is a mountainous chunk of rock going under the name Stac Pollaigh (which is pronounced ‘stack polly’). It stands 613 metres (according to our metrified map) above sea level and 549 metres above the car park that lies just below. More than thirty years ago when I visited this part of Sutherland I charged up Stac Pollaigh, as I was wont to do in those days when a summit looked as though it needed to be conquered, then danced along the summit’s rocky ridge, before galloping all the way down again and driving off somewhere else. I made a promise, as do so many others who climb this iconic hill, that I would one day return. stac-450Which explains why Kate and I find ourselves in assault mode tackling the steep path which winds its way to the top, not alone, but in the company of both old and young, first timers and old hands like me, many of whom are also returning for the first time in thirty years. The summit’s very proximity to a road as well as its isolated position in the landscape make it into a ‘must do’ climb that traps many who come this way. It is just that sort of place.

It turns out to be a windy climb, the air cooling noticeably for each upward step we take, and we are not disposed to hang about on the summit ridge nor indeed dance along it. The strength of the wind makes this unwise. Instead we find a little shelter and wolf down the cream cakes that have made the ascent in my backpack, before pointing ourselves downhill again. With little warning a rain squall chooses this moment to attack and what seemed like an easy path becomes somewhat trickier as the wind tries to pluck us off the hill. Within minutes we are drenched to the skin and thoroughly chilled but away to the west we can see a line of blue sky so this is where we head, knowing we’ll be dry again in minutes once the rain stops. Scottish weather never disappoints.

Skye

We drive Ducky one hundred and thirteen miles in a northerly direction before turning off the road down a steep track heading towards the River Coe then park on a flood bank just a stone’s throw from the water. The air is warm, and were it slightly warmer we might have been tempted to swim here for there is a deep inviting pool of dark water in the otherwise shallow river but just as we come to rest the rain arrives, so we postpone such foolish notions for the moment. The Red Squirrel campsite has served us before as a convenient resting place and once again it provides us with a quiet night and plenty of sleep. The driving has been easy, as it so often is in the Highlands, on almost traffic-free roads with just the bends and the views to contend with and we sleep well, with ale inside us bought at the Clachaig Inn. In the morning with a light drizzle for company we drive on, shopping for food in Fort William, then turning west for the Isle of Skye heading for a Glen called Brittle where there is a beach of grey sand and the most dramatic mountains in Scotland.

Although we have both visited Skye before, together and separately, Kate has never been to this place. For me, however, I am returning here after an absence of more than forty years for this was once a much favoured climbing spot of mine. Strangely though, at first I recognise nothing. Cuillins in cloudcropI have no recollection of the road beyond the Sligachan public house, set on its own wild piece of moorland, to which I would inevitably have travelled from the campsite in Glen Brittle, nor can I recall the camping ground itself. The memories I do retain are of the mountains that drew me here all those years ago but the only hint that they are looming over us today are the steep grass-covered slopes which disappear up into the cloud. The Black Cuillins seldom reveal themselves entirely.Mal&KateonGlenBrittlebeach

We walk the grey sandy beach to escape the campsite midge population which, in the absence of anything of a breeze, swarm around our campervan. Since these tiny creatures can make life singularly unpleasant the trick is to know their limitations and plan a strategy around this so as to avoid them. They thrive in damp vegetation which they leave only when the air is almost calm and the sunlight not too bright. These two simple facts tell us that sitting outside on a calm evening may not be a wise thing to do so we avoid this by shutting ourselves inside our campervan. A million or so of them have followed us in because, of course, here the air is still and they are not in bright sunlight. What is more they have a captive feeding ground, our skin, to feast themselves on till they drop. Part two of the midge avoidance strategy involves a glass or two of wine (for us, not the midges) so soon we care little for their appetites. Perhaps the fact that this onslaught does not deter us is evidence of how the last twelve months has left us reeling and desperately in need of this holiday away from home. Our son Mike is now well enough to take a holiday himself so we have headed in the opposite direction to satisfy our own urges, to find somewhere remote and beautiful where we can lay low for a bit.

We are parked just a stone’s throw from the beach and awake to a rare hot and sunny day. moth on SkyezmSome time ago Kate was scanning the Internet and found a description of a gentle walk starting at the campsite and exploring the headland on the western arm of Loch Brittle, a place which many thousands of years ago was home to a substantial community who lived and farmed there. Only faint traces of these people remain today, a broken boundary wall, some stone foundations, areas cleared of stones and once cultivated, but we feel the echoes of their presence as we sit eating our lunch before returning along the shore path. Tiny flowers wink at us in every direction from amongst the lush, well-watered vegetation, uniformly green until you look closer and see the colour within, and all such a contrast with the distant looming dark shapes of the Cuillin range.

Glen Brittle camping ground is quite full, at first mostly with Germans and French holiday-makers. Their weekend departures coincide with a day of torrential rain and a gale of wind giving us plenty to watch as we huddle inside Ducky’s cosy interior. We feel sorry for those having to pack away wet canvas but the next day it is clear from the broken tent debris which fills the rubbish bins that many have simply not bothered. We are under no pressure to go anywhere and have more walking to do here if the weather improves.

Morning comes and steeling ourselves for a day of effort we shrug on backpacks and begin an assault on the Cuillins. Kate walking up to Corrie LaganOccasional rain squalls blow us up along the path and it becomes cooler as we rise higher. Above us, appearing tantalisingly through breaks in the cloud, there is a wall of black rock capped with the jagged-edged ridge that I remember attempting to walk in its entirety many years ago. The Cuillin ridge is a rarely-completed classic which needs a day of good visibility or else route-finding becomes impossible. Taking a wrong turn in this complex range of hills presents dangers too great to contemplate and I was thwarted by low cloud in my attempt back then. Kate and I have something far more modest in mind, a visit to Corrie Lagan, one of the most impressive places in Britain, some would say the world. The glacier which last flowed here some 12,000 years ago left scratches in the rock which can be seen today as clearly as the day they were made. Huge rock faces are rounded off like someone has taken a vast plane to them, worked and shaped them till they are smooth.Kate in Corrie Lagan They lie about like beached whales in this windswept world far above the sea, barely eroded at all by the elements. It is as if the ice has only just melted away and time has stood still in this spot, hidden from view by the ring of dark summits rising with impossible steepness around us. So long have I been away that I have forgotten almost everything, but not the magic this place holds. I linger here to top up my reserves of wonder and awe.

Arriving back at the campsite we are amazed to see a convoy of around twenty-five Italian campervans arrive all at once, big ones that make our Ducky look tiny by comparison. Glen Brittle seems an unlikely destination for the average tourist. There is a small camp site, a remote place to get to, at the end of an eight mile single track road, and the thought of all these large vehicles queuing up in the passing spaces makes us cringe. Although one might expect the air to be full of Italian voices we notice these arrivals make little effort to leave their vehicles and at eight thirty the next morning there is a rumble of diesel engines as they all depart, en masse, back along the single track.

We time our own departure from Glen Brittle so as to avoid the convoy and move on westwards Kate by Broch at Bracadale on Skyetowards Dunvegan. Kate poses beside an ancient Broch, a two thousand-year old hill fort, at Bracadale, before we drive out to Neist Point navigating yet another single track road. For a place where there is nothing really to see except the lighthouse this place is surprisingly popular with tourists. It is the most westerly point on Skye, there is a lighthouse, and…. well not much else apart from some spectacular cliffs – the MacLeod Tables fall into the sea here – but there are plenty of equally impressive sea cliffs on Skye. Cairn forest at Neist PointWhat we do find is another example of something we have seen closer to home on Arran, something I can only describe as a ‘Cairn Forest’. Neist Point lighthouse&cairnsThere is no sign or indication to say why this installation exists, it just does and has grown here fuelled by crowd enthusiasm. It serves no practical purpose yet hours of labour must have gone into its construction. Walking ‘through the forest’ is an unearthly, moving experience, not dissimilar to being in a graveyard, although there are no bodies buried here. Quite why I should feel such emotions I find hard to explain, but perhaps each cairn was built to remember some person, or some event and the thoughts of the builders linger on after they have left. Here is a popular tourist destination, a lighthouse on a point of land, which has a surprise bonus feature, something no holiday brochure can mention because its existence relies on human urges that cannot be controlled.

I have heard others speak of ‘Cairn Forests’ elsewhere and wonder if there will ever be a list of their locations or perhaps specialists who visit them, documenting them in some way. Is there an ‘ology for cairn building?

So let us recap. In just a week we have seen eagles hunting, gliding on the breeze yet stationary above the ground with their feathered legs dangling beneath them. One evening we watched the birth of clouds in a valley, the sides of which were green with damp vegetation, clouds that drifted slowly upwards on light airs. Footpaths have led us to settlements peopled by ancients vivid in our imagination or back to a time before man came to these isles, a time when the ice was still retreating. One road has led us to a corner of this land where piles of stones convey mysterious meanings and another to the best campsite showers in Scotland at Glen Nevis Camping Ground. We also discovered the sleeping place of ‘Snore the Scarecrow’ outside Glen Brittle Youth Hostel. Truly an amazing seven days.Scarecrow at GlenBrittle

The otters of Kilberry

A journey of less than forty miles from our house, a drive of nearly two hours as it is almost exclusively along single track roads, brings us to a spot where Ducky can stop on a patch of grass just ten metres from the sea and, it being a camping site, we can spend as long here as we wish just gazing out westwards across the Sound of Jura. Ducky close by the sea at Port BanThe famous Paps dominate our horizon with the isle of Islay hiding just behind them and away to the south there is Gigha floating on a sunlit sea. The breeze gently nudges at our van but it is the sound of wavelets tumbling onto the tiny patch of sand which we hear as we drift off to sleep. This tiny cove of white sand gives the place its name, Port Bàn.

Seen through twenty-first century eyes this is one of the remotest places on these isles, on an isolated peninsula of land almost, but not quite cut off by long sea lochs which slice into the rugged coastline. There are isolated houses dotted about – at Kilberry (the accent is on the second syllable, by the way) there is what tries to pass as a village; well, there is a small bar – but nothing around here approaches the size of what could be described as a township. The single-track road meanders on and on endlessly as it circumnavigates the land making access by road a slow and painstaking process. Blind corners and summits follow one another, simple passing places providing the only refuge when meeting a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction. To drive as far as the most westerly piece of land, Kilberry Point, requires determination and in poor weather something else again, a risk-taker’s temperament perhaps.

What tempers our thinking today is that we get about on roads, strips of tarmac artificially constructed to enable us to travel across land which would otherwise be almost impassable. So, faced with a single long and winding road, wide enough throughout most of its length for just one vehicle, we tend to regard destinations far along that road as remote, difficult of access, isolated. But it was not always thus. Man has lived in this place long before anyone thought of building roads, long before anyone even thought of putting one wheel beside another one to take the weight of goods or family on a journey. People arrived here from the sea, such an obvious trunk route that why would you even bother to construct anything on land. Difficult land too, full of hills and forests, mountains and valleys. So putting on ‘ancient eyes’ enables us to see this place differently, not as a remote point of land but as a convenient hub, a stopping place on a longer journey perhaps, a place to trade, to live and farm. If the waterways, the deep sounds that separate the islands, are the trunk routes then this place becomes a service station, a place to rest awhile and re-provision, a place to make a home, to spend your whole life. Thus our remote camp site is not remote at all, it is merely our modern way of living that makes it so.Seals at Ormsary

None of which makes getting Ducky to the campsite at Port Bàn any easier, of course, but we are determined, not least because we are reliably informed that the place is home to the one particular creature that Kate has long wanted to catch a glimpse of. Once persecuted almost out of existence these elusive mammals now thrive best in places where there is an absence of humans, places just like Port Bàn in fact. So where are they? Seals lie about in full view on the rocks. Buzzards soar all along the raised cliff line, calling to each other and showing off acrobatically in the air. We pause for lunch on a walk inland and hear the roar of a rutting stag echoing around us then again close by in the forest. A heron drops out of the sky close to our van just as the sunlight fades away but still there is no sign of the creature we most want to catch a glimpse of.

One evening we take a stroll along the shore, walking into the wind so our scent does not carry, and scan the rocks and kelp beds for a small dark head peeping above the waves.Otter prints I sense that maybe they are watching, for I spot a line of footprints in the sand next to my own, small ones with tiny claw marks, a row of them heading towards the sea. We even find a scat, a fishbone-filled residue, which we are certain our animal must have left behind. We are surrounded by such a variety of wildlife that you would think inevitably sooner or later one small otter would come into view somewhere along this coast. But no, it is not to be. And when finally we take our leave of Port Bàn we are still otter-less, devoid of otter, otter free, with neither sight nor sound of the beast. Otterly disappointed, one might say.

There are compensations, however, for the absence of otters. The land, sea and sky to the west of us together put on a endless show of colour second to none. The Paps of Jura, volcanic remains with scree-covered slopes, look almost snow-covered and the deep Sound beneath them swirls with powerful tidal currents. The clouds are in a world of their own.Paps of Jura

Moment by moment the scene changes. Rain showers over JuraRain squalls drifting along the Sound create this bizarre scene looking like something T M W Turner might have painted. He would have placed some small boats in the foreground, painted the sea in wild turmoil and might then have faced criticism for being too surreal or impressionistic. But we know better as our camera cannot lie.

Returning home after all this is tough but we know we have to come down to earth, to face reality and not complain. We have a boat to sell so we spend the day at Tarbert removing all the personal belongings and detritus we have accumulated over the twelve years of our ownership. Strangely Cirrus Cat floats no higher above her waterline after all this effort. Click anywhere here to see what is now on offer.

Time off on Cirrus

We start our wee break on Cirrus (not a holiday, of course, as retired people don’t get these) by having a close encounter with a paddle steamer, none other than the newly restored steamship, Waverley.Waverley leaving Campbeltown She was making a brief stop in Campbeltown, just as the steamers would have done a hundred years ago, and her departure, reversing away from the quay at speed, her decks lined with waving passengers, was exactly how it would have been on any of the Clyde steamers. Out in the centre of the loch she performs the nautical equivalent of a handbrake turn before steaming off south (forwards) around the Mull and heading off north to Oban. As it happens we time our own departure just before she got underway and thus we have the best view possible of this little slice of living history.

The rest of the day passes more gently as we drift north trying to persuade Cirrus’ sails that there is enough of a breeze to fill them. Unlike on our two previous encounters with Kilbrannan Sound, both in strong winds, we now have a chance to sail and then motor close by the shore, dipping our twin bows into each bay in turn. First we pass the ruins of Kildonan Dun, where we are surprised to note how the tiny Ross Island creates a good sheltered bay, an attractive place for the ancient people who settled here to build and set up their home. The relationship between land and sea is not evident from on shore – only from a boat does this place become a logical stopping point.

Saddell castle from the bayAt Saddell Bay the castle peeps out from the corner in fine style as we creep in as close as our echo sounder tells us is safe. The sun beats down on us as we cross Torrisdale Bay then finally we slip slowly to anchor in Carradale Bay, just a short distance from our home. Three and a half metres of water is all that separates us from the bottom but it feels like we are in a world of our own here, bobbling gently up and down on the slight swell. Those on land are no doubt suffering the midges, which are particularly troublesome just now whenever the wind falls light, but these little insects are poor flyers so we have every hope that they find it difficult to cross the short stretch of water that separates us from land; and so it proves.

After a peaceful night we wake early to find the motion of the boat has changed. Now Cirrus is wobbling from side to side as waves pass beneath her although the wind is still very light. Whatever is happening it is getting uncomfortable so we decide to leave, early though it is, but as soon as we leave the shelter of the bay the true wind hits us, a north-easterly blast at 15 to 20 knots, and the waves driven by this are rolling down Kilbrannan Sound. The nearest shelter from this wind is Lochranza on Arran, some 10 miles away, so we motor upwind as best we can and attach ourselves to a blue visitor buoy there. This place, which lies west of the most mountainous part of the Isle of Arran, has a reputation for ‘williwaws’, strong wind gusts which can occur to the lee of high ground, and these now sweep down on us throughout the rest of the day and through the night, creating much noise and fuss. Cirrus takes all this in her stride, however, so we feel safe and secure.

The following day is a Sunday, and to our surprise we notice buses running on their usual routes around the island. So after pumping up the dinghy we scuttle ashore and soon find ourselves on our way south to the settlement of Blackwaterfoot which lies in the Lowland part of the island. Like Bute, Arran is also bisected by the Highland/Lowland divide and the character of the south of each island is typical of the Lowlands in both places. There are steep cliffs of red sandstone here, identical in every way to the rocks we noticed just south of Rothesay on Bute only a few weeks ago yet the two islands are separated by the waters of the Clyde. Kings cave on ArranIn both cases these are all old sea cliffs, formed before the land rose up above its present level and on Arran around 6,000 years ago the ancient sea cut massive caves, one of which was reputed to have been once used as a hiding place by Robert the Bruce. This would have been around the same time as he visited Port Righ (royal port) just across the Sound in Carradale. Of course Uamh an Righ, or King’s cave as it is locally known, is bound to have seen human habitation prior to King Robert’s time, it being such an obvious choice for someone needing shelter from the elements but lacking the time or the skills to build. This imbues the place with almost mystical significance, in my view. Of what other places of human habitation can it be said that so little has changed. The walls, the floor, the smoke-stained ceiling, are all exactly as our ancestors left them. Beach pebble towersAnd as if to emphasise this quality just along the shore only a short distance from the cave there is a ‘grove’ of stone cairns, each stone magically balanced on the one beneath and somehow surviving despite the ravages of wind and rain. Created by some unknown artist, perhaps, or else by ancient man and lying undisturbed ever since. And maybe there is some critical alignment of the stones that I missed for out across the sea to the south lies Sanda Island off the tip of Kintyre and beyond this, Ireland, another country. Arran is full of mystery, it seems.

When the morning brings us lighter winds we motor off across Inchmarnock Water to the island of the same name. Uninhabited, unless you count the cattle, there is a small cove on the eastern shore in which a boat like ours can drop an anchor so the crew can eat their lunch. We take shelter from the powerful sun for a time then raise sail to float away northwards again up the West Kyle. White sails are now to be seen in most directions, although this place can never be called crowded, but as the Kyle narrows we begin to wonder whether our chosen anchorage at An Caladh will be full. Not to worry, of course, for there is always Wreck Bay on the ‘Buttock’ of Bute with space for us to drop the anchor, pause to ensure it is well dug in, then settle down for the night.

Come the morning, Cirrus is still in exactly the same place, which is always a comfort when you are attached to the land only by a slim length of chain. The day started cool so we light our diesel heater (the same troublesome stove we were swearing at only a few weeks ago but which now has a ‘New, Improved’ chimney attachment to carry the waste gases higher than ever before into less turbulent air) and just as it was supposed to, the temperature inside our boat begins to rise. A heron lands with perfect grace on the edge of the shore beside us then stands motionless waiting for fish to come its way. This is the most patient of birds and lives by proving the adage, ‘Dinner always comes to those who wait’ and is a treat to see at close quarters.

Our local weather forecast promises some south-easterlies so a plan is hatched that might give us some decent sailing a little later and we motor off down the East Kyle towards Rothesay.Ocean Countess in Rothesay Imagine our surprise on arrival, however, to find the substantial Victorian houses here dwarfed by a mighty cruise ship, the Ocean Countess, which has dropped its own anchor in the bay. I wonder whether the captain goes through the same procedure as us when anchoring – let the boat run back until jerked to a halt by the anchor biting into the sea bed, let out some more chain, check the boat has enough room to swing, set a depth alarm, light the anchor light – or does he just give orders and let someone else worry about these things. I rather fancy things might be dealt with rather differently on a ship of this scale.

After passing Rothesay, Bute’s principal harbour, there are two more islands, Great and Little Cumbrae which we motor past because the wind has not as yet performed as the forecaster promised. Indeed we soon begin to feel he was having a little joke with us for instead of a ‘south-easterly backing easterly’ the wind is set firmly in the south, exactly the direction we had decided we might like to head. Since beating upwind is not something we choose to do with any relish, and having the whole of the Clyde at our disposal from which to pick an alternative destination, we bear away (a nautical term for steering away from the direction from which the wind is coming) for Lochranza and soon find ourselves charging along at 7.5 knots with all our sails straining hard. Massive dark clouds blot out the horizon and are creeping ever closer so that by the time we pick up a mooring in Lochranza the rain has overtaken us.Lochranza swan

Thus it continues throughout the night and early morning, to the disappointment of many, no doubt, who would have arisen early to try to catch sight of the transit of Venus across the face of sun. Our own position, with Arran’s biggest hills to the east of us, gives us no chance at all of seeing anything close to the horizon no matter how clear the sky.

So instead of Venus, here is a nice picture of a swan.

Ready for launch

The bottom scraping is now complete and fresh antifouling paint applied. (In reality all that has occurred is an exchange of layers of costly, but old paint for more expensive new ones but we boat-owners do this sort of thing, willingly, year after year.) Ready-for-the-water4Once Cirrus’ sails are bent on she takes on that fresh, ready-for-the-water look again, but regrettably not before Kate climbs on board over the stern and falls foul of the boom as she stands up on the deck, cracking her head on a sharp edge protruding beneath it. This is an embarrassing thing to do at the best of times but whilst the boat is still on dry land it takes some explaining to understand how this could happen. The boom was lashed up for winter, not in its normal position, and Kate’s momentary lack of attention, whilst not damaging the boom Just kidding, has left her with a nasty cut and mild concussion. All my fault, of course.

All is now ready for when, over Easter, Cirrus will be lifted gently back into her natural element and we can go sailing again. We are both (Kate included despite her altercation with the boom), keen to explore further the fabulous area we live in and we can only hope that the weather will be kind enough to us so we can make a start.

Kate’s poorly head prevents her from joining me and friends David and Hilary on a long walk along the sea cliffs down at the Mull, the headland at the southern tip of the Kintyre peninsula. Sanda and Ailsa CraigTo get to the start we drive along the scary bit of single-track that leads to the Mull until we reach a point where we can cut across rough country towards the sea. From this angle the volcanic plug of Ailsa Craig appears to be just behind Sanda Island although in reality they are separated by many miles across the Firth of Clyde. It is a ‘too bright, too soon’ day and by 10.30 in the morning the sun has retreated south to a thin strip on the horizon but the three of us launch ourselves across Borgadale Water, traversing around the hillside until we find the ruins of the dun, an ancient fortified settlement standing on a high point which still today affords good visibility across the Channel to Ireland. While the sky is overcast and the view is predominantly grey, the greys come in so many shades that there is an ethereal feel to the place, haunted as it is by its past.Sron Uamha fort

We now traverse west on difficult terrain following the line of the cliff as best we can, past another ancient monument, the fort at Sròn Uamha (try saying it like ‘uva’), the southernmost point of the Mull, where we stop to eat our lunch within the 2000 year-old walls of what must once have been an imposing stronghold. No less than three defensive walls once protected this place on the landward side and vertical sea cliffs running along the seaward edge still form a natural barrier second to none.

Walking on we arrive at a point where the inland crags of An Gobhann descend to meet the sea cliffs. There is only one passing point here, a grassy slope beneath a sheer rock face with another steep drop to the sea on the left. With no alternative apart from retracing our footsteps across miles of open country, we tread cautiously onwards to reach the relative safety of slightly more level ground just around the corner. Hilary on An GoghannStrictly for the goats, this one.

What I find most intriguing about this whole area is that there is evidence on the ground, even to our untrained eyes, that a considerable settlement existed here, amongst the cliffs along the shore, on terrain which most of us would regard as totally inhospitable. These people cultivated crops on the few reasonably flat patches, they kept livestock, built fortified dwellings; the marks of all of this are still evident on the landscape today. There must have been better, easier places to live but they chose this spot, for very good reasons, no doubt. We just can’t imagine what they were.

Over five hours after we started we are back at the car resting our weary legs. Somehow the forecast rain has held off although we were in cloud for a time on the top of the Mull above the lighthouse. This place attracts cloud like a moth to a flame so we consider ourselves very fortunate to come away dry. The ground is surprisingly dry just now after several weeks with no substantial rainfall at all. The air is still cool but spring is definitely coming now.

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