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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
Three Days among The Cuchullins


Scuir-na-Gillean ...... 3167 feet Scuir-a-Mhadaidh... 2,950 feet
Blaven ... 3,031 and 3,042 feet Bruch-na-Fray....3,143 feet

PERHAPS no part of the three kingdoms offers to the crags- man such opportunities for sport as the "Black Coulins." The formation of those rugged mountains is a dark hypersthene rock, containing large crystals, which project by weathering and give grand holding for hobnails. The depression which crosses the Isle of Skye from Loch Sligachan to Loch Scavaig bisects the Black Coulins unequally. [The East and West divisions are well delineated in Sheets 70 and 71 respectively of the Ordnance Survey (1 inch scale).] The eastern and smaller division consists of the isolated mass of Blaven with its twin summits. The western range extends from Scuir-na-Gillean to Garsven, and includes six peaks above, and as many more nearly, 3,000 feet in height; most of them rising from a sharp ridge, which may be called the backbone of the range, and which during its whole length of eight miles never falls below 2,500 feet.

With the object of making the acquaintance of a few of those peaks, we arrived at Sligachan Inn one east-windy evening in April 1880, after a walk of thirty miles from Stenscholl vid the top of the Storr Rock. Next morning we strolled up Glen Sligachan in rain and fog, abandoning a previous intention of attacking Scuir-na--Gillean en face, and purposing instead to steer for Loch Corruisk by compass. After proceeding for some miles, however, the weather partially cleared, so that we got a glimpse of the Scuir through a rift in the clouds. We gladly altered our plans once more, and decided to try him by his S.E. ridge. The ridge was struck at the col named Bealach-a-Clas-Coire. There, to our dismay, the mist again shrouded everything, and so thick was it that we had to adopt the plan of leaving stone marks on prominent rocks, the longer axes of the stones indicating the course. These "stations" were usually within sight of one another, and were carefully numbered and entered in a notebook, compass bearings being also occasionally jotted down. Our precautions worked admirably during the descent; and, considering the density of the mist, and our complete ignorance of the mountain, were none too elaborate. The route from the col upwards was generally along either the top or the west side of a sharp ridge, that fell in sheer precipices on the east side, and in an easier slope in the Lota Corry direction. There were masses of snow on the top sides of the ridge, but not much on the arête itself. Indeed, considering the sharpness of the Coulin arétes, and their exposure to wind and sun (to say nothing of the Gulf Stream!), it is doubtful, I think, whether much snow is ever likely to be found on them. [A week later we found eight to ten feet of snow on the top of Ben Nevis.] Upon reaching the foot of the final peak, and about the place where the usual route from Sligachan joins the ridge, we were forced to leave the arête, and hold across the Lota Corry face. The climbing thence to the top was interesting; some sloping slabs (not unlike "the slabs" on the Zinal Rothhorn), covered with a few inches of fresh snow, having to be sprawled across.

There was no view from the cairn, except of boiling mist and a few yards of precipice. We only therefore stayed long enough to record the ascent in the "Visitors' Book," i.e., a paper deposited in a bottle. From this document we learned that the last ascent had been made in September of the previous year. Reference may here be made to Professor Forbes's ascent of Scuir-na-Gillean in 1836. He wrote,—

"Talking of it with an active forester in the service of Lord Macdonald, named Duncan Macintyre, he told me he had repeatedly attempted it without success, both by himself and with different strangers who had engaged him for the purpose; but he indicated a way different from those he had tried, which he thought might be more successful. I engaged him to accompany me ; and the next day (June 7) we succeeded in gaining the top ; the extreme roughness of the rocks rendering the ascent safe, where with any other formation it might have been exceedingly perilous. Indeed I have never seen a rock so adapted for clambering."

In the descent we followed our previous tracks, checking off the stone-marks, as each of them, looming through the mist, greeted us familiarly. At the col, in place of turning to the left into Glen Sligachan, we held straight on, and went down an abrupt slope of grass and rock into the Harta Corry, near the big boulder called the Bloody Stone. After visiting the Lota Corry—the inmost recess of the Harta Corry, and a scene of the most impressive sterility and wild grandeur—we scrambled over the ridge of Drumhain, and landed at the foot of Loch Corruisk. We then proceeded to walk right round the loch, passing the lonely corry at its head where the Ghost's Cave is. The numerous perched blocks, moraines, and ice-worn rocks round about us, told of extensive glacier operations on the site of Loch Corruisk in past ages. By the time we reached Loch Scavaig the night was drawing in; so, as we had a letter of introduction to the farmer at Camasunary, we made for that place by the short cut along the sea cliffs. There is no real difficulty, but at one point—the "bad step"; the way lies across smooth rocks, set at a high angle, and ending in the sea some fifty feet below. Before it was quite dark we reached the solitary farm-steading at Camasunary, where we were hospitably received, and regaled—besides other good things —with various forms of oatmeal, a right good food for mountaineering.

The second morning was gloriously fine, with a keen north wind that quickly dispersed the early mists, and left a cloudless sky during the rest of the day. We started at 7.30 and trudged across the moor to the famed (but now uninteresting) Spar Cave of Strathaird, to enter which we had to swim for a short distance, owing to the tide not having sufficiently ebbed.

From the cave we made a "bee-line" for Blaven by Kilmaree and the little tarn called Loch- Coi re- Uaigreich. We essayed to scale the giant by his eastern shoulder, but were stopped by a perpendicular cliff; so attacked him a second time at the point bearing S.E. from the summit. The slope here was steep but easy, consisting of slabs of rock with grass in the interstices. The southern summit was soon surmounted, but it was found to be cut off from the higher northern summit by a deep notch, with gullies filled with debris running from it on both sides of the ridge. The no itself was impassable, but on the east side a steep couloir full of chips was discovered, which emptied itself into one of the larger gullies. We descended the couloir, treading "gingerly" on its loose floor, and supporting as much of our weight as possible on its rocky sides, until we reached the gully. Taking a good spring, we dashed across, starting a small avalanche of stones in the process, and immediately arrived at the cairn.

I am afraid the view from a peak is, to enthusiastic climbers, a matter of comparative indifference; but I may perhaps be allowed to refer to the panorama from Blaven on this occasion. The atmosphere was marvellously clear all round the horizon. Almost every island of the Outer and Inner Hebrides was in sight, from Lewis in the north to Barra and Tiree in the south; while on the mainland, we could identify, with the aid of. map and compass, most of the mountains in the counties of Sutherland, Ross, Inverness, and Argyle, generally covered with snow. There was also a splendid bird's-eye view of Skye itself, and the neighbouring seas, lochs, and islets. We looked wistfully across to the long jagged chain of the Western Coulins, sharply outlined against the bright afternoon sky. Recrossing the gully, we descended by the ridge towards Loch Scavaig, but abandoned it and turned off to the right round the south end of the mountain, as soon as the rocks on the west side appeared to be practicable. We struck the Sligachan track near Loch-an-Athain, and wasted so much time there that darkness overtook us when still some miles from our comfortable quarters. The knowledge gained of the various burns, bogs, and boulders of Glen Sligachan, into or against which we tumbled during the next two hours, was, I may say, varied and extensive.

During the night the weather had again changed for the worse, and in the morning everything above 1,000 feet was blotted out, but prospects improved somewhat after breakfast. We set out by the Loch Brittal pony track, and by the time the large cirque named Corry-na-Creich on the Ordnance maps had been reached, the weather was sufficiently clear to show the whole western chain of the Coulins. The improvement was unfortunately only temporary, and soon rain began to fall ; but during the fair interval we had "marked down •' a fine pointed peak that appeared to be accessible by means of a long curved couloir. This was full of the usual debris, and led up to a col, whence we hoped to reach our peak by following the main ridge. Those "stone couloirs" are worthy of notice, because they are very characteristic of the Coulin Hills, and may often be used by the climber with advantage when the rocks on either side are difficult. They are filled with angular chips, of all sizes, from the weight of a ton to that of a grain. When the couloir lies at a moderate angle, the chips are tightly wedged, and afford a safe though rough path ; but when the angle is severe, the stones— especially those in the middle of the channel—are poised so insecurely that a touch is sufficient to start them off.

The couloir in question was one of the largest in the range, being probably 600 or 800 feet long, and eighty feet broad at the foot. We crept up its right (proper) side, holding on to the rock, and selecting the biggest and firmest looking blocks to tread on. After a stiff pull at the top of the couloir, we attained the col, and sat down to lunch in fog so dense that objects were invisible fifty yards off. Having taken the precaution of leaving a small cairn, in order to know the place when we saw it again, we attacked our peak by way of a long ascending ledge on the Corry-na-Creich side of the ridge. The ledge, however, got gradually narrower till it disappeared altogether, so there was no help for it but to return to the col and try the Corruisk side. The climbing here required care, as we were traversing for the greater part ledges that dipped outwards and afforded few hand-holds. At one place we had some trouble in crossing a short couloir which ended in a precipice not many yards below. Although only six feet wide, the landing on the far side was much too precarious to risk a leap.

The passage was accomplished in the following manner. We lay down, and, still keeping the feet planted on the rock on the near side, crawled across upon the hands until they got a grip of the rocks on the other side, and then drew in the feet. These gymnastics were necessitated by our natural anxiety not to disturb the repose of the stony floor of the couloir. We arrived at the summit without further adventure; it was a very acute point, with a patch of snow on the north side. There being no traces of a cairn, or of previous visitors, we erected a small stone-man.

So far as the mist would allow observations, our peak was situated opposite the point where the Drumhain ridge abuts against the western chain of the Coulins. In fine weather it must command a grand view of Harta Corry and Loch Corruisk on one side, and of Corry-na-Creich on the other; but on this occasion those depressions were simply cauldrons full of mist. The peak was subsequently identified as Scuir-a-Mhadaidh (the "Dog Peak ") of the Ordnance Survey map. Its height is not stated, but the contour lines indicate its altitude as somewhat under 3,000 feet. Can the surveyors have "funked" the passage of the little couloir? We returned to the luncheon place, jumping the gully from this direction without difficulty.

From our present position, Bruch-na-Fray (on which we now had designs) was hardly a mile and a half distant along the main ridge ; but the intervening part was sharp and serrated, and would in any case have occupied much time. Therefore, although we had a strong hankering to make our way along it, we desisted, as the attempt would have been unwise in such weather. We went down the big couloir, and steered across the level for the N.W. ridge of Bruch-na-Fray. To get there without a long detour involved scaling a smooth unbroken slope of wet grass nearly i3O0o feet in height. The upper part of the slope proved to be terribly steep,—much steeper, it seemed to us, than the well-known slope beside the Grey Mare's Tail,—and we were very glad when the angle began to ease off. An ice- axe, to serve as an anchor, and also to cut an occasional step with, would be of use on a slope such as this.

The N.W. ridge was followed to the summit. At one or two places the ridge dwindled to a knife edge. At others, where not so acute, the north side was covered with deep snow that curled over the arête in a very respectable cornice. While we were on the ridge the weather became very thick, and sleet and snow began to fall; a line of marks was therefore laid down, the same as upon Scuir-na-Gillean. From the cairn on Bruch-na-Fray three sharp ridges radiate—N.W., N.E., and S. respectively. The first of them we know; the second leads to Scuir-na-Gillean, and was followed by Professor Forbes in 1836; while the third bends in the form of a crescent towards Scuir-a-Mhadaidh.

The wind blew "great guns" over those desolate ridges; so, crushing down an insane desire to descend the mountain by a new way, we retraced our steps by the N.W. ridge. As soon as the slope on its north side permitted of our running down we left the ridge, and in less than half-an-hour joined the bridle path to Sligachan up which we had come in the morning.

There we emerged suddenly from the clouds, and found ourselves, to our great surprise, in comparatively fine weather. Seeing that we had been in cloudland and storm for nine or ten hours, we were quite disposed to say with Horace, "Jam satis", and doubtless the readers of this long paper will echo the sentiment.

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