Rum has long been on my wish list. The Rum Cuillin, while not quite of munro height, must rank as one of the best mountain ridges in Scotland: a long, challenging day with spectacular views. And all of this on a smallish island of around 10 miles square with wildlife, beaches and an over-the-top Victorian hunting lodge. So adding this to my 14 for 2014 was an easy decision.
Cuillin (Scottish Gaelic: An Cuilthionn or An Cuiltheann): a range of rocky mountains.
For this trip I teamed up with a former work colleague and we headed up to Arisaig after work one Friday in my camper van, staying at a favourite wild camping spot. We were treated to a fantastic sunset with views out towards the islands of Eigg and Rum.
Next morning we were up early for the 7.30am Saturday ferry from Mallaig. While we’d already had a (very early) breakfast we were delighted when it turned out that the ferry was also providing breakfasts, so it was seconds all round !
In contrast to Eigg’s flat-topped ridges Rum’s mountains stand out clearly, and the early morning cloud was beginning to clear from the tops as the ferry entered Loch Scresort, the sheltered loch with Kinloch Castle at its head. The Castle deserves a separate post (which I’ll write shortly) since this lavish Victoria hunting lodge, owned by the Bullough family, really is a bizarre but fascinating experience.
Rum has a thriving and slowly growing community. Around 30 people live there today and while the island as a whole was gifted to Scottish Natural Heritage in 1957 by the Bullough family, SNH in turn enabled a community buy-out of the buildings and land around the tiny settlement of Kinloch. So today you’ll find that the community own and run the community hall/cafe, the campsite and the shop. A new community-owned hostel is also being built (which should be finished very soon) and the place has feels like it’s ‘on the up’.
Having taken notice of the ‘What’s On’ board for our return to Kinloch, we lost little time in finding the path at the back of the Castle which leads up into the hills to Coire Dubh. We made good time as the clouds parted and the sun came out, enjoying the steadily widening views as we climbed up the slopes of Hallivall, the first peak on the Cuillin ridge.
We were really lucky with the weather for on such a clear, sunny day the views were just stunning. Eigg and its low-lying neighbour Muck were most prominent, with Eigg about 5 miles off to the southwest. Due west were the hills of Knoydart, Morar and Moidart, with the Ardnamurchan peninsular jutting out due south. Morar’s white sand beaches shone brightly with Loch Morar snaking westwards in the background. Looking north we looked down on to Loch Scresort and Kinloch. When a cruise boat sailed into the loch we could hear the sound of the ship’s tannoy from our vantage point high above and two miles away ! To the northwest the mighty Skye Cuillin ridge, the UK’s greatest mountain ridge, punctuated the skyline. And out to the west, just visible below the distant clouds a full 30 miles away, were the Outer Hebrides from Barra and its neighbouring islands up to South and North Uist. Just superb !
If you’re hillwalking in Rum you’ll soon realise that there are endless permutations of routes. I’d done quite a bit of route finding research to try to work out the best options for climbing the ridge and seeing some other parts of the island. Much of this was weather-dependent of course, but on a clear, sunny day such as this there were just so many options. Plan A was to camp out high on the ridge and try to catch the sunset. Plan B was to drop down to Dibidil Bothy (at the southern end of the ridge) or to Harris (on the coast, due west). And Plan C was to stay in the Bothy – but only if it was very wet and hopefully not too crowded (I would much rather stay in a tent any day …).
Luckily, Plan A looked very hopeful. Bealach an Oir (the ‘pass of gold’) is one of only a couple of places on the ridge with access to water and we had a good view down to the grassy ledges.
We picked our way down through Hallival’s rocky slopes and climbed Askival, another equally steep peak and the highest on the ridge at 812 metres (both Askival and Aishval are Corbetts).
Askival’s summit gave yet more great photo ops. By this time we’d met quite a few other walkers, mainly either solo or in pairs but when meeting a walking group from Glasgow on the summit it seemed – literally – to be as busy as Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday afternoon.
We dropped down from Askival, taking a southwesterly line avoiding the most direct and rockiest crags on the ridge to Bealach an Oir. This was a long descent and certainly showed that climbing the ridge from north to south is by far the best option. We pitched our tent on the bealach and left our overnight gear then headed up to the twin summits of Trollabhal. By this time it was about 4 o’clock but we figured that we would have time to climb Trollabhal and Ainshval and return to the tent in time for our evening meal.
With gradually softening light, lengthening shadows and still warm sunshine, the views to Eigg and Skye were stunning. I counted the islands I could see from the summit of Ainshval: Eigg, Canna, Sanday, Muck, Skye, Barra, the Uists, Coll, Tiree and Mull. Wow ! I hadn’t seen the Skye Cuillin from the south before but the jagged peaks really stood out against the clear sky. It felt a bit of a pull to get up to Ainshval, our final summit of the day. The steep peaks are quite unforgiving and a full circuit of the ridge is a long and tiring day.
Back at our wild camp for the night we enjoyed the views out to Skye as the sun slowly dipped, setting just after 9pm with an absolutely glorious sunset over the Outer Hebrides. As you can see from the photos below, the soft orange light illuminated Askival and the sky behind us in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen (and no, I haven’t ‘Photoshopped’ the colours !).
I had hoped to see a meteorite shower that night but the clouds rolled in (you can’t have everything …) and during the night we awoke to a squally shower. The next morning it began drizzly and we opted to drop down west into the Atlantic Corrie and follow the stream down Glen Harris to the coast. Truth be told, we hadn’t originally planned to go as far as Harris itself but to skirt Barkeval then turn northwards towards Kilmory Bay but my companion had an inkling to see the mausoleum at Harris, so off we went.
So what does a rich island-owning family who live in an ostentarious Castle need when they kick the bucket ? An over-the-top grave site of course. The mausoleum is the last resting place of three members of the Bullough family, a remote spot looking out to sea. In fact, there’s not a great deal to see but a nearby cove made for a pleasant lunch spot. There are a number of wild horses here, descended originally from horses the Vikings brought over. This makes them the horses with the longest ancestry of any group of horses in the UK (thanks to SNH for this fascinating fact).
Perhaps of most interest is Harris’ social history. Back in the early 19th Century Rum had a population of around 400 (compared with 30 today). As is the case for many remoter parts of the Highlands and Islands, the local population were cleared from the land in the Highland Clearances to make way for large sporting estates. In Rum’s case, the 400 tenant farmers, together with the 150 inhabitants of neighbouring Muck, were replaced by 8,000 sheep and evicted on boats in 1826 and 1828 to Nova Scotia in Canada. After Kinloch Castle was built in 1900, the Bullough family and their rich house guests would often spend just a week or two a year on hunting trips to Rum. But the evidence of the crofting population in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries is very much in evidence with the crumbling walls of croft houses and the ridged fields on the low-lying coastal land.
So the plan for the rest of Day 2 was to end up wild camping at Kilmory Beach on the north of the island. From Harris this meant a 5 mile walk along tracks – a change from yesterday’s climbing and pleasant enough in the warm sunshine (the morning drizzle had passed by lunchtime).
Knowing that any driftwood would be in short supply (for our campfire that night) we collected some wood from the small fenced woodlands in Kilmory Glen, just short of the beach.
And what a beach it was – a large sandy beach with a fantastic view directly out to the Skye Cuillin. Other than a couple of seakayakers tents out at the far side of the bay we had it to ourselves. (Well, that’s not strictly true … there is one cottage here inhabited by the SNH Warden who looks after the long-running red deer project in Kilmory Glen. Now, if you don’t mind the solitude, the lack of any modern communications and you’re not too put out by the prospect of being 5 miles from the nearest people then this is the perfect place to live. A simple table and chair stood at the back door looking out to the Skye Cuillin … who needs a TV ?).
I spent quite a while soaking up the views and pottering along the beach collecting up odd pieces of firewood. We were lucky indeed to have blue skies and greeny-blue seas.
That night we were treated to yet another great sunset – a little cloudier but with nice reflections in the sea. We stayed by the warmth of the campfire until after dark, sheltered in among the rocks on the beach.
On the morning of Day 3 we walked back along the track up Kilmory Glen, taking the left fork for Kinloch where we felt we had earned ourselves a lunch at the cafe in the community hall. Having been out in the hills for a couple of days, and having had a campfire the previous night, you can imagine that we by this time smelled a little …. outdoors-y. So we visited the campsite shower block (open to the public for a £1.50 donation in the honesty box) to freshen up before our tour of Kinloch Castle (look out for a separate post on this).
Keen fans of Rum will by this time have observed that I haven’t once mentioned midges. The island is notorious for the little blighters but I am pleased to say that it was only when we took a shower at Kinloch did we encounter any at all. I think we were just lucky since this is a bad year for them (after a mild winter) and they are apparently pretty bad in the summer months.
The ferry back to Mallaig was pretty much full, it was a Bank Holiday … and it felt like a holiday. I think the skipper must have felt the same since it seemed that we dawdled our way back at half-throttle. Since the ferry serves all of the Small Isles (ie Rum, Eigg, Canna and Muck), the journey back stopped off at Eigg which gave us a good chance to see it at close hand.
All of the Small Isles were originally formed by volcanic activity and it’s easy to see how Eigg might have formed the edge of a crater with its prominent single peak, An Sgurr, sticking up to almost 400 metres. The views of both Eigg and Rum were great and we were surprised at how wooded the eastern side of Eigg is. From the Rum Cuillin ridge we assumed that Eigg’s harbour would be at the sandy beach on the western side (the Bay of Laig) but the sheltered harbour is in fact on the eastern side of the island just below An Sgurr. With a larger population that Rum, Eigg also looked well worth a visit on a future trip.
I can thoroughly recommend a trip to Rum. It’s only 80 minutes by ferry from Mallaig, a real get-away-from-it-all location and fantastic walking: a real gem of an island.
I’m using my 14 for 2014 to help raise funds for the Naomi House Children’s Hospice in Hampshire. Naomi House cared for the young daughter of a friend and ex-work colleague who died of an incurable brain tumour on the 21st January. There’s a very touching tribute – and link to Chiara’s fund raising site – in this article in the Salisbury Journal. Naomi House clearly made a real difference to the last few months of Chiara’s life, and that of her family, and so this is why I want to use my 14 for 2014 to raise awareness and additional funds for the great work that they do. If you have enjoyed reading my blog and feel inspired in any way please consider giving a donation to this extremely worthwhile charity.