A return to the Black Cuillin of Skye

From an old tower, near this place, is an extensive view of … the Cuillin, a prodigious range of mountains, capped with rocky pinnacles in a strange variety of shapes. Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, James Boswell

A few years ago I walked into an outdoor shop in Aviemore to buy a rain cover for my Garmin GPS.

‘You don’t need a rain cover for a Garmin GPS,’ said the shop assistant. ‘It’s waterproof.’

‘But I’m going hill walking in the Cairngorms. It’s not likely to be waterproof enough for that.’

‘Nae bother. The GPS will be fine.’

‘Last year I was caught in a rain storm on Skye, and the GPS stopped working for a week,’ I replied.

‘Ach, you dinnae tell me you were using it on Skye. That’s another matter,’ the man replied with a hint of mock indignation, as though I’d been trying to trick him.

The Isle of Skye is, by many standards, the greatest of all Scottish islands. Lying off the north-west highlands and accessible by road bridge from the Kyle of Lochalsh, its crowning glory is the Black Cuillin, a jagged ridge of rocky pinnacles 12km in length, containing no fewer than eleven Munros (the 282 mountains in Scotland over the magic 3,000ft in height). The Black Cuillin are made from a type of firm, jagged rock of volcanic origin called gabbro that’s ideal for rock climbing and scrambling. The ridge also contains the only Munro, the Inaccessible Pinnacle, that is a technical rock climb.

The first known scramble in the Cuillin took place in 1835, when the Reverend Lessingham Smith and a forester called Duncan MacIntyre crossed the ridge on the way to Sligachan. Vicars often seemed to be the pioneers in those days (the first man to climb all the Munros was the Reverend A.E. Robertson). The following year, the famous alpinist and scientist Professor James Forbes hired Duncan MacIntyre as his guide. They climbed Sgurr nan Gillean and made the first known ascent of a Skye Munro (not that they were called Munros in those days). In 1845 the pair also climbed Bruach na Frithe.

Crossing a footbridge on the way up to Am Basteir. I might as well have fallen in the river there and then.
Crossing a footbridge on the way up to Am Basteir. I might as well have fallen in the river there and then.

The first full traverse of the Cuillin ridge from south to north was made in 1911. Leslie Shadbolt and Alastair McLaren started out from Glen Brittle at 3.30am on 10 June and reached Sligachan at 8.20pm that night.

This is notable history, but the other main thing that everybody needs to know about the Black Cuillin is that they seem to get most of Scotland’s rain (which is a lot of rain).

I went there for a week of Munro bagging with my friend Tony in 2005. I’m pretty sure that in those seven days, most of the Atlantic Ocean must have evaporated eastward and landed on top of us. Rock climbing uses all sorts of strange terminology to describe technical climbing manoeuvres, such as lay-backing, hand-jamming and leg-waxing. I can’t do any of these moves, but had we tried getting up any of the trickier peaks that week, breast stroke and butterfly would have been more useful.

On our first day out we climbed Am Basteir, one of the easier Munros that’s supposed to resemble a battle axe. The meaning of its Gaelic name is obscure, but by the end of the day Tony was convinced that it was merely a Scottish mispronunciation of the English phrase I’m a Bastard.

We were on our way down when the rain started, but there was still plenty of time for us to get drenched to the bone by the end of the walk, and probably even deeper than that. I had been intending to rely on the GPS for navigation because the gabbro rock was rumoured to have special magnetic properties that rendered a compass useless. However, the GPS had drunk so much in those first few hours that there was no waking it up until I got home to London more than a week later.

Tony and me on the summit of Bruach na Frithe. As you can see, it was relatively clear that day.
Tony and me on the summit of Bruach na Frithe. As you can see, it was relatively clear that day.

Over the following days, the Black Cuillin hung in cloud, but across the valley, the gentler peaks of the Red Cuillin looked OK. But Tony was an incurable Munro bagger, and he wasn’t interested in climbing anything 2,999ft or less in height. We waded up three of the easier Munros – Bla Bheinn, Bruach na Frithe and Sgurr Dubh Mor in thick grey mist that would have obscured an elephant no more than a trunk’s length away (it would certainly have been a fright had we stumbled into one).

With four Munros under our belt, Tony relaxed, and I was able to persuade him to look further afield. Skye is such a big island that even when the Cuillins hang in cloud, the weather can be fine elsewhere. We did a nice coastal walk along dramatic cliffs, climbed the Storr, explored the amazing hidden balconies of the Quiraing, accessible via narrow rock passageways, and went out on a boat to see some seals (who couldn’t be bothered to wake up for us).

Despite the weather, I thoroughly enjoyed the week. I knew I would return, but it’s taken until now. The scrambling was tricky though, a notch up from the sort I’m used to doing on my own. I vowed that if I ever returned to the Black Cuillin, I would hire a climbing guide. I would need one if I wanted to climb the Inaccessible Pinnacle.

So we’ve done just that. It’s the first time ever that I’ve hired a guide to go hill walking in the UK, but I have absolutely no doubt that it’s the right move. Our aim is to polish off all 11 Munros on the Cuillin Ridge in the space of a week. Whether we do is as much dependent on the weather as our own ability or the ability of our guide to chivvy me up the trickier sections (I’m sure Edita will have no problem).

I’ll let you know how we get on. In the meantime, here’s a fun video of the crazy Scottish extreme nutcase Danny MacAskill cycling (yes, cycling) along the crest of the Cuillin ridge. Not on your nelly will we be doing that.

Watch on YouTube

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4 thoughts on “A return to the Black Cuillin of Skye

  • September 27, 2018 at 12:36 pm
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    There are old climbers and there are bold climbers…but there are no, old, bold climbers.

  • October 1, 2018 at 12:34 pm
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    best wishes with the weather and keeping your GPS dry

  • October 10, 2018 at 8:26 pm
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    If you’re ever sitting in your tent bored while waiting out a storm, consider writing a post with a pronunciation guide for all these Welsh and Scottish place-names. It would be a nice bit of help for us former colonists.

  • October 11, 2018 at 7:11 am
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    Yes, they’re not the most memorable names, are they. You just have to make up your own versions based loosely on English, like Tony did. 😉

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