Keeping our intended route secret
Having read a tongue in cheek e-mail from Mike about climbing every conceivable hill in Sutherland I decided to make it an early night and retire to bed with a copy of “The Corbett’s and other Scottish Hills”. After no more than five minutes I declared to Shirl that I’d sorted it! To which I was told to be quiet and let her go to sleep. There was only one thing for it. I’d have to go do the research right away, and with that I jumped out of bed and turned on the PC. The plan to climb an amazing lump of rock on the Isle of Eigg by the name of An Sgurr was great, but there was one major consideration. How would we get to the island? The obvious answer was via Caledonian MacBrayne, however on enquiry it transpired that although they could get us there and back we would only have two and a half hours on the island. Clearly that wouldn’t be enough time to do the climb. Back at the drawing board I came up with an alternative, if much smaller ferry from Arisaig, made a phone call to confirm it would be running on a particular day and Hey Presto we were sorted and had a plan. Last year on our Scottish trip the highlight was undoubtedly the day when we made the trip over to Skye, so if the plan for Eigg worked half as well we’d really have something to look forward to. As a result of the Munro pact that Mark and I had made many years ago and the fact that An Sgurr isn’t a Munro I’d have to let Mark know my intentions. The result was that Mark, Paul and I decided to keep it a secret from Mike and John. Many a hint was dropped, many a question asked and apart from one great big clanger dropped by yours truly nothing was known of the surprise until arrival at Arisaig.
Unbelievably we’d been really lucky with the weather and of all the days we needed this luck to continue it was today. Well, we awoke not just to a gloriously sunny day, but also the promise of day long sunshine. Surely we couldn’t expect that? For some reason I’d landed the job of driving to Arisaig. The journey there was a mixture of pure pleasure (the scenery) and total agony (the after effects of last nights beer and whisky and the resultant urgent need to find a toilet stop). Never before have I been so glad to see the inside of an old railway station toilet. On arrival at Arisaig a few knowing glances were made between Mark, Paul and myself. Mike in the meantime had now guessed that we were to take a trip to one of the islands (this may have had something to do with a slight slip of my tongue whilst at Voringfoss, when I asked Sheana for some boat times) and John had yet to pass comment. Given that we had to buy the tickets to Eigg and that the boat only went to Eigg and the rather flat island of Muck it was now pretty obvious where we were heading. At over ten miles distant the great volcanic plug of An Sgurr was obvious from the pier. Talk about excitement. We were all like little kids. Ok, some of us more than the others.
The encounter with the submarine
Walking down onto the already busy boat I eagerly looked around for an appropriate vantage spot. The others had sat down somewhere in the middle away from the edge and this was clearly not going to suffice for me, I simply had to be next to the water where I could have an unobstructed view. So, when we set off out of the small harbour and past the multitude of islands I found myself right at the back of the boat and in prime position to look to either side of over the stern. I had earlier read with hope that there would be a good chance of seeing plenty of seabirds and perhaps a few dolphins on the crossing and sure enough, once we had left land there were seabirds everywhere. The presence of a party of ornithologists meant that all manner of previously unseen or even unheard of birds could be ticked off a list. Not only that, but as we made our way into the open sea we managed a few distant glimpses of the odd porpoise. It transpired that if I’d have stayed with the rest and taken a seat at the front I’d have had a much better view of the porpoise riding the bow waves of our boat. Perhaps that will teach me? It wasn’t just critters that could be seen in the sea, the odd fishing boat, a few pleasure yachts and something that looked like an oil rig was picked up in the distance. As this object became clearer we couldn’t believe our eyes. It was a submarine. Not only that but as we came close enough (within one hundred yards) we could just about make out the crew standing on deck and raising the German naval flag and saluting it. It was a U-Boat! Surely things like this only happened in fiction. If that was the case where were the Stuka’s, Graf Spey and the Bismark? There was no wonder that our boat changed direction and veered off at a sharp angle in order not to cross the bow of this submarine. Having carried out this manoeuvre we slowly past this sub, all the time looking at it as though we had seen a mirage. As Mike would say, absolutely incredible.
A disagreement over our ascent route
With this excitement behind us we pulled into the small harbour of Glamisdale. It was a strange place, partially caught up in a time warp (a bit like the sub) and partially a modern hive of actively due to the contractors working away on the new breakwater. A quick look around the local amenities (there weren’t that many), a conflab over the route, off with the shirts and then we made our way out of the only real village on this island. Our route would take us past several buildings, which as a result of the purchase of the island from an absentee German landlord (with the sub patrolling offshore who says he’s still absent?) back in 1997 now appeared to be receiving some form of facelift. The islanders had made a successful appeal to raise a total of £1.5 million to enable this groundbreaking scheme to go ahead. It was sheer brilliant. As we ambled along the old tracks, past the big old house with its palm trees and ornate gardens it seemed to me that we were in a different world. Nothing could have been further away from my day-to-day existence. Having past another old ruin and walked along the bank of a small stream we came to another track. The map didn’t show the location of the path to An Sgurr and so we were faced with a choice of taking a right turn to potentially nowhere, a left turn to the same place or we could simply climb out of a small gorge through the deep heather. Perhaps I was a little insistent. Either way with a little persuasion I pressed on, dragged Mark with me and thankfully eventually the rest followed. The gorge gave way and all of a sudden we were faced with a head on view of this absolutely amazing piece of rock. It was like a cathedral, with its great spire standing proud and looking unclimbable. Due to the odd graze, the heat, and the lack of a track Paul had been winging all the way up through the heather and if anything was going to make him turn back the sight of this great rock would surely do the trick. He didn’t say a great deal, but thankfully continued upwards until we were just a few hundred feet from its base. It was at this point that we heard a distant shout. It was coming from the matchstick figures on top of An Sgurr, but due to the breeze it was really hard to understand what they were saying. It was clear that they were ok and our understanding was that they were simply trying to point us in the right direction. Our route continued alongside but underneath the length of the ridge until we reached an obvious shallow beallach from where we were able to ascend over the unusual volcanic rock. In this beautiful weather it was a real pleasure to hop from one mound onto the next and slowly make our way up towards the final summit.
The crowning glory
This summit, which crowned the top of this modest hill, was just about the best I’d ever stood upon. It was small, possessed some alarming cliffs that plunged over three hundred feet vertical and had just about the best mountaintop view you could ask for. Not only did we have the pleasure of the situation, but also the weather was just perfect. Not baking hot, just warm enough to ligg art without any shirt or socks on. The 360 degree views enabled us to see not only Moidart on the mainland, but also Muck, Coll, The Outer Hebredies, Skye and above all else a cracking view of the Rum Coullin. It really was a place to savour and thankfully we had the weather and plenty of time to do it. I can’t recall another such example of when a group of five of us took it so easy on a hilltop. We could either explore the scenery (Mark’s knockers came in handy) or simply sunbath and take in a few rays. It was just brilliant. During our hour at the top the clouds that had hung around the Rum Coullin slowly dispersed to reveal all manner of attractive ridges and summits. Maybe they would form a suitable target for another trip in the years to come. One other benefit of standing on the highest point for many a mile was the fact that we could clearly see the path that we should have taken on the way up. It transpired that we hadn’t missed it by that much on the way up, however Paul was quick to point out that if we had listened to him we wouldn’t have had to tramp through all that knee high heather. I can’t quite bring myself to admit that he was right, but then again he was talking a load of old bollocks.
Galmisdale and the whales
After spending an hour on this lofty perch and in particular with the need to make our connection with the only remaining ferry of the day we reluctantly had to make tracks back to Glamisdale. The route back down the path was a joy. There were no nasty heather bushes to catch out the unwary, simply an easily graded route that lead down to one of the many farm tracks that dotted this island. It was whilst walking down one of these that we caught our first reasonable view of the eagles. The first thing you would know would be when you heard them screech, you would generally then see them gliding around until they quickly disappeared over the sea towards the mainland. In this instance however, one bird was seen flying into some foliage around a rock face. Not just once, but several times. We watched it on and off for several minutes as if flew low over the field and nearby old disused quarry. What a pity we didn’t have more time or patience. With the birds somewhere behind us and John god knows where, the rest of us made our way back past the old house, down the old dirt track road and on the instigation of Mike managed a fine rendition of “We’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful….” In no time at all we were back at the café, drinking teas and scoffing coffee & walnut cake. Sitting there outside the shop, looking down the coast at the waves crashing in on the jagged coastline with the totally blue sky above seamed reminiscent of Cornwall. This little island really did have a lot going for it in conditions like these.
Back on the boat and this time all five of us managed to find a seating position next to the edge and in the open section of the boat. This would give us a great chance to relax and enthuse together over the highlights of this day. What we didn’t know yet was the fact that one of the real highlights was still to come. The group of ornithologists were now back on the boat having spent their day on the nearby island of Muck. Apparently they hadn’t seen a great deal. In fact their highlight was a long distant view of the eagles soaring above Eigg. They also commented that with their knockers and telescopes they could see a party of walkers perched right on top of An Sgurr. Fancy that, it looked as though we’d definitely made the correct choice in going to Eigg rather than Muck. It was about fifteen minutes after we set off for Arisaig when the guide from the bird-spotting group suddenly yelled out “Minke Whale”. And with such a claim everyone on the back of the boat stood up and craned their necks in the appropriate direction. Surely we couldn’t be that lucky. With one sudden flick of the wrist the pilot of our boat found the fast gear and off we went in pursuit of this great mammal. A member of the crew was posted on the bow of the boat and all manner of sonar gear could be seen to flicker away on the bridge. There was certainly a purpose in this quick dash. Admittedly we were heading in the wrong direction, but sure enough we managed ever-closer views of this whale. It was strange you’d initially see a small bow wave, the snout would appear and rather slowly the humpback and fin would slide through the water. A few seconds later this would all happen again. In fact we all felt like experts in no time at all. We quickly realised that you’d see it once and then again within thirty seconds. After that it would no doubt take a deep dive and disappear for a few minutes until it would carry out the same process once more. It was quite funny really; the boat seemed to be teaming with folk, all over the place were people craning their necks who appeared to be hanging onto any available anchor point and it all looked quite unsafe. I really did expect someone to loose their balance and at the very least take a fall onto the deck. The excitement was clear for all to see and when it finally looked as though we‘d lost it the little boat turned for home. That was until a few minutes later when the whole process was repeated once more. In fact on this occasion we managed to get within thirty yards of another whale. During the remaining half hour of the trip the further sightings of a few more porpoise and many more sea birds didn’t really get the attention that they deserved. I don’t suppose that it was all that surprising given what the day had included.
Arisaig was reached, a relaxing pub was found and we settled down to a decent bar meal over which we were able to discuss the day’s events. Apart from the fact that Stu and Clyde had missed out there was no better way of ending such a day. As you would expect the topic soon moved onto, what would we do next year and where would we go?