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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
The Glen Sannox Hills


THERE are few parts of Scotland which present to the climber a better field for the exercise of his favourite sport, than does the island of Arran. The exquisite beauty of the island itself, and the magnificent prospects to be obtained from its summits, form in themselves features sufficiently attractive; while those who seek in climbing a more purely athletic form of exercise, may find in its peaks and corries ample opportunities to test their skill.

I had passed many pleasant hours among the hills and glens of Arran, but it had long been my special desire to have a "big day" in Glen Sannox—to "begin at the beginning," as the children say, and to explore every peak along its ridges. When therefore it was proposed to me by my friend, Mr W. R. Lester, that we should make Corrie the scene of a brief holiday, I accepted the suggestion with alacrity, and one Friday evening in July found us inmates of its comfortable hostelry.

The following morning broke calm and clear; but we were lazy, and contented ourselves with a ramble across the moors which stretch between the back of Maoldon and the lower slopes of Goatfell, and through the castle woods to Brodick.

Sunday, however, found us eager for our work, and immediately after breakfast we took our way along the shore, pursued, as on the previous day, by an innumerable swarm of flies, who bid fair for some time to make our walk unbearable. Deaf to our objurgations, it seemed that rain alone had any power to damp their ardour. A heavy shower coming on before we had left the low ground, our tormentors gradually ceased from troubling, with the exception of one or two, more exasperating than their fellows, whom, however, we incontinently slew. After this we were allowed to possess our souls in peace.

The valley of the Sannox forms an almost complete amphitheatre of hills, the narrow entrance being guarded on either side by the sister peaks of Suidhe-Fheargas and Cioch-na-h'Oighe, the range culminating at the head of the glen in the magnificent hill of Cir-Mhor, the "Great Comb." The surrounding hills, though of no great elevation (the highest being under three thousand feet), present an appearance of greater height owing to the wildness of their character, and to the absence of other adjacent hills with which to compare them; and the glen itself, although from its size it cannot claim to equal its greater rivals, Glen Coe, Glen Lyon, or Glen Tilt, has yet a grandeur of its own from the very nakedness of its rocks and the desolation of its surroundings. No tree breaks its monotony, and the river rushes along its rocky bed unshadowed, save by the bracken and the purple heather, until emerging from the gloom of the hills into the softer beauties of the plain, it pursues its course to the sea through a deep channel, over which the hazels and birches droop their graceful forms.

Deciding to attack the north flank of the glen, we crossed the burn and struck right up the steep side of the ridge, through heather and rock and shingle. A short steep climb brought us to "Fergus's Seat," the first summit of the ridge, from which a magnificent view is obtainable of the shores of Bute, and of the Ayrshire coast, with the intervening stretch of sea.

Keeping along the very crest of the ridge, and scrambling among the loose blocks of disintegrated granite, which here, as elsewhere, form so distinctive a feature of the Arran hills, a rough walk of some forty minutes brought us to the "Witch's Step," called in the Gaelic "Caim-na-Calliach." Viewed from across the glen, the "Step," which was to be, so to speak, our piece de resistance, presents the appearance of a huge V-shaped cleft in the ridge, and has the reputation of being one of the most difficult bits of climbing to be found in the island. The approach from the ridge we had just traversed presents no features of difficulty, the summit of the north pinnacle rising some thirty or forty feet, and being approached by an easy ascent. Hence the character of this curious break is fully revealed. Both sides are built up of huge blocks of granite, some standing perpendicularly, and end on end; others laid horizontally, layer above layer, with the regularity of masonry, and eminently suggestive of an impregnable fortress. On either side of the ridge the rocks descend to the glen in tremendous precipices, inaccessible, to all appearance, to the foot of the climber. The summit of the pinnacle is formed of two or three enormous tooth-shaped blocks, separated from one another by deep narrow chasms, through the least forbidding of which we prepared to descend. A few steps brought us to the first difficulty. The aperture between the blocks narrows in one place to a few inches, affording firm hold for one foot, whence it is possible to jump through a sort of gap on to a shelf four or five feet below; but from the close proximity of the rock on either side, and the bad nature of the landing, a leap is not unattended with possible evil consequences, in the shape of a sprained ankle, or at least some nasty bruises. By placing the right foot in the cranny and swinging the body forward to that side, hold can be found for the left, and the descent to the first stage is then easy, if—and there is much virtue in your if—you can extricate your right foot. Lester was the first to try it, and reached standing-ground in safety. I followed exactly in his footsteps, and got very comfortably into "second position," my feet being at opposing angles, and quite out of sight of one another. Spread-eagled thus on the cliff, I found it quite impossible to extricate my right foot, which was firmly wedged between the rocks, and equally impossible to recover to "first position," owing to the peculiar angle at which my body was placed. Had I been alone, I should probably be there still, a standing monument of misplaced confidence, but as it was I was soon relieved from my predicament, and we proceeded on our way. I quote the incident, however, as any one essaying the descent for the first time might easily find himself, if alone, in an awkward and indeed dangerous dilemma.

Slipping through another gap, a short steep slope of turf and loose stones enabled us to accomplish rather more than half the descent, but left us still some forty or fifty feet above the saddle, the further descent to which appeared to be almost impracticable, although it proved less difficult than it looked. We were provided, fortunately, with some strong leather straps, which we formed into a long loop by buckling them all together. Passing one end of this loop under his arms, Lester went down, while I, with the other end round my waist, wedged myself between the rocks and prepared to "hold on." The upper portion of this mauvais pas consists of a steeply sloping rock, the depth of the drop on the other side being so far an unknown quantity; but slipping carefully over its edge, Lester succeeded without much difficulty in finding a good landing. I followed, untied, but assisted by him, and was quickly on solid ground, whence a few feet of easier work brought us to the saddle; the whole descent of the pinnacle having occupied half an hour or so.

The saddle itself, which is only some twenty feet in length, and no broader than the back of a horse, slopes abruptly down on either side to the valleys below. To Glen Sannox the descent, though perhaps practicable, would be hazardous; but to North Glen Sannox it is quite possible to descend, through a steep rough gully. It is a wild spot, the surrounding landscape being almost entirely shut off from view by the huge buttresses of rock which slope far down on either hand, and show only glimpses of the valleys, and of the opposing ridges across the glen. The great pinnacles of rock which form the sides of the cleft, complete a picture which may well have filled with awe the minds of the simple people who probably first endowed the place with its suggestive title.

Having regaled ourselves with a light luncheon, we climbed the opposite side of the cleft, which, although higher than the one we had descended—rising from the saddle to a height of over 100 feet—presents no particular difficulty, as the ground is more broken and not quite so steep. Still keeping to the summit of the ridge, and topping the several little pinnacles which intervene, we reached the "Castles" (Caisteal Abhail), with their huge Cyclopean walls. After scaling this height we again descended some 700 or 800 feet to the saddle leading to Cir Mhor. As we crossed this saddle we were startled by seeing some large white object drop from the precipice on the side of the hill, and fancying it might be a sheep or a lamb we made our way down for some hundreds of feet towards the spot where it appeared to have fallen. Though unsuccessful in our search, the digression gave us an opportunity of studying the nature of the climbing on this face, which in places is difficult, the angles being very steep and the ground broken and shingly. We decided, however, that the ascent on this side—that is to say, from upper Glen Sannox—is practicable for a good climber.

The mountain of Cir Mhor, though not the highest in the island, is really the dominating peak of the whole range. Three great spurs run out from it to north and south and east, while its sides slope down in grand lines to the three valleys it dominates.

The very summit of the mountain is formed by a slight depression in the rocks, filled with a bed of beautiful green turf; and lying in this little cup we could look over the edge far down Glen Sannox, to which the precipice falls in an almost unbroken line for over 2,000 feet. The rocks towards the other side consist of great broken masses, precipitous in places, but admitting of descent through black gullies to the saddle below. On the top we were rewarded with an exceptionally beautiful view—the coast of Ireland lying faintly outlined to the west beyond the shores of Cantyre, while northwards the mountains of Mull and Islay and Jura, and the more distant Highland hills, stood out in grand lines against the sky. Descending on to the "saddle," our next ascent was Malloch Buie. This is really one of the peaks of Goatfell, from the actual summit of which it is separated by a broken, but pretty level ridge, a quarter or half a mile in length. As we looked down its rocky sides into Glen Sannox, we little recked of the horrid drama of which it was so soon to be the scene—the ill-fated tourist, Mr Rose, having met his death there within twenty-four hours of our ascent.

From Malloch Buie we had a scamper across a stretch of green sward and heather, which formed a pleasant change after the continuous rock climbing which, up till now, had formed the staple of our work ; but as we neared the final peak of Cioch na h'Oighe, we had again to take to the rocks, the ridge becoming narrower and more broken, until it finally abutted on the steep slopes of the last-named hill. Viewed from the sea, this ridge presents a most formidable appearance, but beyond being very rough in character, there is no difficulty in its passage. The peak of Cioch na h'Oighe, although the lowest, being only some 2,200 feet in height, is one of the most interesting hills in the cirque, and I fancy, is not very often ascended. The face that slopes so steeply to the valley below, consists of great smooth blocks of granite, and towards the sea it falls away in walls of rock, more or less perpendicular, but clad with great quantities of luxuriant heather. By clinging to this, the descent in several places might be quite practicable. We descended into the glen, and found the work of a very interesting character, requiring us, in many places, to use our heads as well as our hands and feet, as the crevices between the rocks were very narrow, and ran at all angles, from the horizontal to the perpendicular.

We reached the inn about nine o'clock, after being out between ten and eleven hours, by far the greater part of which we had passed on the hills; and as we laid ourselves down to sleep that night, feeling, like the immortal blacksmith, that we had "earned a night's repose," we both resolved that the Arran hills had not seen the last of us.

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