into the cuillin

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I’ve had some rather difficult things to deal with this week. I needed to clear my head. And I can think of no better head-clearing landscape than Skye, where we have been this weekend. More specifically, we have been walking in the incredible Black Cuillin. These are legendary mountains, and deservedly so. All the walkers and climbers I know who have encountered the Cuillin speak of them with reverence, respect, and passion – and I think I now understand why.

I have been to Skye before, when we went walking on Trotternish a couple of years ago. I remember being quite spooked — it is a unique landscape unlike any you will see elsewhere in Britain — or really anywhere for that matter. The land itself seems mocking in its outlandish forms: all crazy fists and spires and pointed fingers. If so much of Skye seems to defy the human, then, the Cuillin really epitomise that defiance. The basic geology of the Cuillin itself resists the map and compass (black gabbro is magnetic) and while the Gaelic vernacular seems to have no problem rendering this landscape normative, the English names for the peaks and their features all suggest the insurmountable or terrifying: the inaccessible pinnacle the peak of torment, the bad step, the executioner, &c &c. Some of these names are predictably inaccurate or questionable translations . . .

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. . .and in any case, the force of words is nothing to that of the mountains themselves. I had been looking forward to the walk, but, as we started our approach beside the Allt Dearg Beag, I was a little afraid as well. We began by scuttling up Meall Odhar, which was very pleasant. We found a couple of others up there enjoying the view back across Skye to the sea. . .

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After that it was more scrambling than scuttling up on to Sgurr a Basteir. Here is the face of someone about to climb up onto that nice ridge.

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Once you get up onto the arête, things get really bonkers. I thought I’d sort of prepared myself last week, but Blencathra has nothing on this kind of sustained and complex exposure: nice yawning chasms to the left and the right! Crazy rock formations everywhere you look! However, I could turn rather than scramble most of the diffficult bits, the little crags were actually fun, and the landscape is just so bloody amazing I could barely believe I was there. Here is Tom on Sgurr a Basteir, with the Basteir ‘tooth’ peaking out behind him.

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And here (in a first) is a wee clip from atop the ridge. Here we are, 900 metres up in the air! I was trying to film the tiny human figures moving along Bealach nan Lice, but as you will see I became distracted by Tom dancing on the arête. (Warning! clip contains mild bad word as befits crazy mountain landscape and precipitous fooling).

Daftness notwithstanding, we were both completely blown away by just being up there. It is a genuinely thrilling and otherwordly space. We scrambled about exploring and were blessed with amazing views of the entire Cuillin ridge and range – for which I really do lack words except to say that they are more spectacular than you can ever imagine from down below at sea level.

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We were very lucky with the visibility on our ascent: twenty minutes later the cloud came down, and this happened.

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(checking bearings by the trig point at the top of Bruach na Frithe)

We came down out of the cloud and looked back at where we had been. . .

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Then the storm broke in earnest, and we rushed back to Sligachan along the Alt Dearg Mor. There really is only one beer to drink after such a walk.

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I only had six hours in the Cuillin and I already find myself wanting to go back to explore more of this mysterious and compelling landscape. I also find myself wishing I’d been around in 1773 to tell Boswell and Johnson to get off their horses and up into the hills.

PS I am currently reading this which has some interesting things to say about the language of natural description (and its history) in particular reference to mountainous landscapes. It has certainly made me hyper-aware of my own mountain-vocabulary. . .