‘I haven’t read it,’ said Karl. ‘But do you know what, I think I will, because you’re the fourth client who has told me that I have to read this book.’
We were sitting on the col between Sgurr a Mhadaidh and Bidean Druim nan Ramh, gazing out at Loch Coruisk as we ate our lunch (see my previous blog post). The book in question was The Black Ridge by Simon Ingram. I was in the middle of reading it (not up on the col, obviously, but back in a comfy chair between adventures) and have recently finished it.
I’m only just starting to delve into the literature of the Black Cuillin. It has a surprisingly rich history for such a comparatively small and obscure range of mountains. I’ll be surprised if I come across a better book about the Cuillin than this one.
Published in 2021 and coming in at a decidedly weighty 500-600 pages it is a truly monumental work that is destined to become a classic of the genre. The only doubt is, which genre? For The Black Ridge defies classification. It describes one man’s obsession over a five-year period, with a single 12km mountain ridge on the Isle of Skye in northwest Scotland: the Black Cuillin. In doing so, it is part travel and memoir, part history. It also delves into science, geography, literature, and the myths and legends of Skye.
In places, it is not an easy read. The tone of the book shifts from chapter to chapter, and often within each chapter as he alternates from academic and educational to passages of personal experience. The writing is frequently erudite and cerebral demanding every ounce of concentration (well, it did for me, anyway). It is often poetic. There are descriptions of the landscape and nature where every sentence is beautifully crafted and evocative. Then there are passages of travelogue where the writing is marvellously accessible, peppered with humour and lashings of dialogue between its memorable cast of characters.
For example, Simon has a degree in geology, a subject not far behind quantum physics in the weirdness of its science. Towards the front of the book, he explains how the Black Cuillin was formed from the remains of an ancient volcano, not the rim, however, which has long since eroded, but the rocks that it belched up from deep within the earth. There were sections here that I couldn’t quite follow. But it was important to understand some of it, because the difference between its two predominant rock types – gabbro and basalt – is integral to the Cuillin’s climbing history and much of the dialogue.
He talks about the difficulties the Ordnance Survey had in mapping the ridge. In the first instance, this was a problem of accessibility: getting to the summits of the mountains in order to triangulate them. Only one summit, the relatively accessible Bruach na Frithe, has an Ordnance Survey trig pillar. More recently it had been a problem of design. The contours are simply too close together to illustrate the landscape in a meaningful way. Even today, the 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map of the Black Cuillin is virtually unreadable. For much of its history, the best maps of the Black Cuillin were drawn by amateurs (the most famous of whom was Norman Collie). Today the Harvey’s map, and not the OS one, is generally considered the best map of the Black Cuillin.
The history starts early, with Samuel Johnson, who travelled to Skye in the 18th century, in part to try and debunk the writing of a contemporary scholar, James Macpherson. Macpherson claimed to have travelled to Skye and uncovered and translated a series of ancient Gaelic texts about a legendary warrior king called Fingal. Johnson believed that Macpherson was a fraud who had merely written a work of fiction out of some local myths and legends.
There is a pretty comprehensive exploration of the Black Cuillin’s climbing history. This is more than just factual. Simon tries to bring the characters alive too. He starts with James Forbes, the Victorian scientist and climber, who was one of the first travel writers brave enough to climb up into the peaks, and was scathing about his fellow travellers who described them from afar.
The cast includes the genial and likeable lawyer and newspaper editor Alexander Nicolson, who made the first ascents of several summits and for whom the highest, Sgurr Alasdair is named (‘What, a likeable lawyer?’ some of you may be thinking, ‘and did you say a likeable newspaper editor?’). And it includes the naturalist Henry Hart, a contemporary of Nicolson’s who also completed a few first ascents, but who is largely forgotten because people found him annoying. Most of all, the cast includes Norman Collie and John Mackenzie, gentleman scientist and Skye guide, and best of friends who are now commemorated by a brand new bronze statue at Sligachan.
He covers the race to complete the first traverse of the ridge (by Leslie Shadbolt and Alastair McLaren in 1911). This race included contributions from women climbers who had to write under pseudonyms or using their initials in order to have their achievements recognised (these struggles continue to the present day where sections of the climbing community continue to judge the achievements of women climbers against those of men).
Where does history end and become news? In the case of the Cuillin’s climbing history, Simon considers it to be the great Hamish MacInnes, climber, inventor and grandfather of Scottish mountain rescue. He manages to interview him a few months before his death in 2020. Hamish relates two contrasting stories of a tragic rescue and the first winter traverse (which he was involved in).
Indeed, if there is anything missing from this history, it is the more contemporary stuff: the endurance challenges and speed traverses (often done by mountain guides who know the ridge backwards), and more quirky achievements such as Danny MacAskill’s cycle ride along the crest. These modern challenges are often derided as stunts and gimmicks, but we live in an era where most first ascents have already been done, so you have to be more creative. Simon alludes to these, but only briefly.
So much for the history, an equal (and for me greater) part of the book is given to Simon’s own personal quest to explore the ridge. This story runs throughout the book, and is the thread into which all the factual elements I’ve described above are woven. He is clear that while he has an interest in the Cuillin’s climbing history, he is not himself a climber, nor has he any aspirations to be. He hires a guide and attempts a full traverse before he has spent much time exploring its obstacles. The guide, Matt Barratt of Skye Adventures, becomes one of the book’s colourful characters, a wise and experienced mentor to Simon. Bit by bit Simon fills in the gaps on subsequent visits. These explorations reach an eye-watering climax in the form of a freakish accident and dramatic rescue. His injury threatens to derail not only his Cuillin journey but any more strenuous travelling altogether.
Ashamed about this turn of events and fearful for his future, there is redemption and catharsis when he returns one final time to complete one of the Cuillin’s most iconic ascents and comes face to face with one of his rescuers.
As books about mountains go, I can’t recommend this one highly enough. On the monumental scale it’s up there with Into the Silence by Wade Davis. The writing is difficult at times but always worth persevering with. It is poignant in places, notably the story of Collie and Mackenzie which runs throughout, and ultimately heart-warming.
Simon comes across as a humble and sensitive character, self-deprecating about his own abilities and full of praise for those of others. This is refreshing. There are an awful lot of books about mountains (and the Cuillin for that matter) written by people capable of doing things most of us wouldn’t dare, but who are not particularly good writers. This is not one of those books. This is simply a great book by a great writer. I look forward to reading more of Simon Ingram’s writing.