There’s something about islands. Maybe it’s the wistful sense of adventure that comes with travelling by boat. Or perhaps the physical and psychological separation that gives islands their unique character, setting them apart from the familiar mainland. Even, perhaps, it’s the feeling of ‘commitment’ in the sense that having arrived – come rain or shine – you’re there to stay … Eigg was all of these things.
I’m catching up with blog posts after a busy summer and this is the first of a two posts on my short, two-night stay on Eigg. I’d planned a birthday trip away with my Mum – neither of us had previously visited – but a brief illness meant that I arrived alone.
In fact the influence of ‘island life’ started in Mallaig harbour. Eyeing up other passengers I noticed a mixed assortment of families, luggage and personalities. Some were Eigg folk returning; others heading out on holiday. Friends and family were reunited and parted in between ferries arriving and leaving.
The jagged outline of the Skye Cuillin and the slightly more rounded Rum Cuillin provided a superb backdrop for the land and seascapes on my journey to Eigg. The Small Isles – Rum, Eigg, Canna, Muck – were all transformed by intense volcanic activity about 55 million years ago. The basalt lava and gabbro rocks give the islands their unique and bold character, most notably with the Sgurr on Eigg being formed by an ancient lava flow.
I stayed in one of the camping pods owned by Eigg Adventures. They’re literally just a stone’s throw from the harbour, the café and community-run shop and have a fantastic view looking back out to sea to the mainland. While just providing the essential amenities I found them comfortable although it would be good if that the plans for new community hub include dedicated toilet and dishwashing facilities for campers.
That evening I ventured along a cliffside track west from the harbour at Galmisdale, following a marked footpath to investigate the two large caves. It was here in around 1577 that the massacre of around 400 islanders of the Macdonald clan took place at the hands of the warring Macleod clan from Skye. It’s said that after a series of skirmishes the Macdonalds hid in a large cave, thinking that the Macleods had left the island. But the Macleods spotted a lookout and followed his footsteps in the snow to the mouth of the cave, then lit a fire. Almost all of the islanders perished in the cave, now called Massacre Cave. Over the years skulls and other bones have been found and even as recently as last year more than 50 bones were discovered.
The next day I set off to climb An Sgurr, fortunate to have fine weather forecast for the whole weekend. (Not really believing the forecast, I hadn’t bothered with sun cream and forgot to take my sunglasses … The shop was sold out of sun cream and needless to say I returned a fine, sunburned colour …).
The track from Galmisdale emerges from woods to give a great first view of An Sgurr, the hill that dominates the southern end of the island and that clearly distinguishes Eigg from the mainland. The prow of the Sgurr rises vertically and from a distance it seems impenetrable, but a narrow defile half way along the northern side gives easy access. It’s hexagonal rocks and twisted shapes are a geologists’ dream and there’s much to see if you’re into rocks. 55 million years ago what is now the Sgurr was part of a river valley. After the massive volcanic eruptions hard lava (called pitchstone) flowed along the valley. Millions of years of weathering wore away the softer rocks around the valley until eventually, the ‘valley’ became a shapely hill protruding boldly above the island. Fascinating!
Although the weekend I visited was the busiest of the summer so far (in terms of ferry and accommodation bookings) I was puzzled to know where everyone was. I didn’t see a soul all morning, which is quite strange since I would have thought that climbing the Sgurr would be near the top of the ‘to do’ list for most visitors to Eigg. No matter: I had the hill to myself.
Superb views to Rum and the northern end of Eigg opened up. To the south the Ardnamurchan lighthouse was clearly visible with Mull beyond, and past Muck I could see out to Coll and Tiree with the Outer Hebrides showing up through the haze. I stayed on the summit for almost an hour taking photos. I could never tire of the view to Laig Bay and the croft houses at Cleadale; this must surely be one of the finest viewpoint in all of Scotland.
I was thrilled to spot a large raptor – I think, a juvenile golden eagle – soaring on the thermals above An Sgurr before flying north to the cliffs above Cleadale. I’ve shared mountain ridges before with eagles, just me and these magnificent birds, and it’s really an amazing sight.
The circular route from An Sgurr descends via a very steep path to the south (from the same bealach that gives the easiest access from the north). Guidebooks warn that this route is only for experienced hillwalkers and I’d echo that: it’s steep and potentially dangerous in wet weather. But this route does give the best close-up view of the amazing geology (click on the photo below for better detail), and comes out at Grulin bothy which was in the process of getting a new roof. From the bothy it’s an easy walk along the Grulin track back to Galmisdale, giving fine views out to Muck and the Ardnamurchan.
There’s been so much to say, and so many photos to share on this post, but after my walk up An Sgurr it still wasn’t lunchtime ..! In my next post I’ll describe my afternoon’s sojourn, a walk around the beaches and cliffs on the northern end of the island, ending with an amazing sunset.