3rd July 2015
I remember from my first visit to the Isle of Skye my eyes being drawn to a pudding basin shaped hill standing loftily over the town of Broadford. In those days access to the island was via ferry. Even from the slipway at Kyle of Lochalsh the shape was unmistakeable – uniform boulder covered slopes with a massive cairn on top. This was Beinn na Caillich (otherwise Beinn na Cailleach) or, in English, Hill of the Old Woman.
What this angle does not show is a shapely ridge that runs off behind to its lower neighbour, Beinn Dearg Mhor, and then swings around to the final and lowest top, Beinn Dearg Bheag.
Julie and I were on Skye to celebrate Sue’s 65th birthday. A very pleasant evening at the Duisdale House Hotel had been had the previous evening. So an early start the next morning was not on the cards. So it was a good thing that the starting point for the walk was not that far away from where we had been staying – though we had a slight hold up when a minor traffic accident closed the road out of Broadford. We were able to side step this by taking the old road out of town (which was marked as a “no through road”).
The start is at a small settlement at Coire-chat-achan near to the site of an ancient battle between the Mackinnons and the Norse (at Goir a’Bhlair). Looked at from here the apparent height of the hill is misleading because of the foreshortening of the perspective. Another couple were just about to start off when we arrived. A curious cat was wandering around the cars.
Initially the height gain is relatively gentle as the moorland is crossed. A path appears by a stream which is followed towards the steeper ground. There the gradient increases markedly. The ground also became stonier the higher we went and the stones became boulders. A couple of hundred meters of ascent were spent scrambling and teetering on the irregular blocks as the car receded into the distance. A crag was passed to the right and a shallow corrie followed on its left. The views back over Broadford, its bay and the mainland behind opened up.
As the summit was neared the slope eased and became grassier again. A couple of hours after we set off the massive summit cairn was reached. A stiff breeze was blowing but it was relatively warm. The couple whom we had met by the cars had grabbed a good sheltered spot. The trig point stood 30 meters away.
Zoom to the Skye Bridge
Beinn Dearg Mhor and Blaven
Wow what a view. Here is a short video of the panorama.
Now the full extent of the Black and Red Cuillin had come into view as well as the full extent of the sweep from The Storr to the north around to the Torridon, Applecross, Knoydart hills in the east and distant Ben More on Mull to the south. Blaven, in particular, stood brooding beneath dark cloud with the main Cuillin ridge to the right.
Legend has it that a Norwegian princess was buried under the summit cairn or (as Thomas Pennant, the 18th century naturalist, would have it) “a gigantic woman in the days of Fingal”. I am not aware of any excavations having been undertaken, but the cairn is certainly large enough to have been capable of serving this purpose.
Thomas Pennant climbed Beinn na Caillich and described it thus:
“Walk up Beinn na Caillich, or, the hill of the old hag; one of those picturesque mountains that made such a figure from the sea. After ascending a small part, find its sides covered with vast loose stones, like the Paps of Jura, the shelter of ptarmigans; the top flat and naked, with an artificial cairn of a most enormous size, reported to have been the place of sepulture of a gigantic woman in the days of Fingal. The prospect to the west was that of desolation itself; a savage series of rude mountains, discolored, black and red, as if by the rage of fire. Nearer, joined to this hill by a ridge, is Beinn-na-grain, or, mountain of the Sun; perhaps venerated in ancient times. Mal-more, or, the round mountain, appears in the north. The serrated tops of Blaven affect with astonishment: and beyond them, the clustered height of Quillin, or the mountain of Cuchullin, like its hero, stood like a hill that catches the clouds of heaven. The deep recesses between these Alps, in times of old, possessed the sons of the narrow vales, the hunters of the deer; and to this time are inhabited by a fine race of stags”.
Another single (and rather “large”) man arrived as we continued to look around. He had ascended from the north. The couple left their sheltered spot and we quickly replaced them there in order to have some lunch. It was almost 1pm.
No sooner had we started to tuck into our food than a familiar face appeared. It was John. We had told various members of the party the previous evening what our intentions were and John had stirred himself into action and had decided to find us!
So we would do the rest of the circuit with him. It was good of him to share his birthday with us.
After taking the obligatory photos we set off towards the linking ridge to Beinn Dearg Mhor (which I assume is the Beinn-na-grain of Pennant’s description). After the boulders it was most pleasant to have a nice shapely ridge to follow. Less than an hour later we were at the next summit where, of course, we had the necessary sit down for more food and a look at the views. Here Blaven and Clach Glas loomed larger than ever. Garbh Mhor stood out as a pyramid, a contrast against the other rounded Red Cuillin. Like Beinn na Caillich, this summit was rather rounded so the better views were had by walking 50 metres or so from the cairn.
En route to Beinn Dearg Mhor
Beinn Dearg Bheag
As time pressed, we needed to move. The next section, the descent down to the col with Beinn Dearg Bheag, was a most unpleasant, steep plunge on unstable scree requiring considerable care. I managed the descent without falling though one or two slips had me flailing. Both John and Julie made contact with the ground with their posteriors!
It was a relief to reach the col. I perched on a rock, my gaze fixed largely on the still prominent Blaven and a sandy beach down on Loch Slapin whilst occasionally looking up at the other two descending towards me.
There was then a straightforward 60m climb up to the broad summit ridge of the final top of the day. The highpoint is crossed before the cairn is reached at the southern end. Looking back, I wondered how we had managed the scree descent. From here it looked impossible.
Beinn Dearg Bheag
The screes of Beinn Dearg Mhor
At the cairn the views become more expansive to the south and east and, therefore, there was a further excuse to stop, admire and eat! The sun continued to beat down. Rhum and Eigg floated in the sea to the south west. In the haze a distant Ben More on Mull could just be seen to the south.
Looking back to Beinn Dearg Mhor
It was 3.30pm and time to leave. The descent along the east ridge was nice with a path most of the way. There was then a short, if largely wet, steeper drop down to the Allt Beinn Deirge before a final slog across occasionally boggy moorland to the start point. Here, the midges that had been kept off higher up by the breeze, tried their best to feast on me. By the time I reached the car my bare skin was flecked with the small black specks of dead bodies.
This is a great round with fantastic views. Keep it for a good day on that account. It took us 6¾ hours, but with over an hour of stops. Apart from the largely trackless moorland and the scramble up the boulders, there are paths all the way around.