I woke up in the misty drizzle of the morning with a sense of foreboding. Anyone researching the Skye Trail knows all about the Trotternish Ridge and how strenuous is can be, but this small section of only three or four miles between Elgol and Camasunary is the absolute death trap. Hikers fall and die here every year. Ones that aren’t carrying 10kg backpacks.
I was right to be nervous about it; the path was extremely narrow with a sharp drop off one side and the sheer cliff rising to the other, cast about with rocks and boulders and roots. It was not a stretch to zone out in and it wasn’t the flattest either – small scrambles would randomly appear making for some extreme heart in mouth moments – and sudden lurches downwards made shuffles on my arse a far better alternative than trusting my feet. If I could have, I’d have arse-shuffled the whole damn thing.
It was so instantly treacherous that when a large, tall collection of boulders appeared in front of me it didn’t even occur to me that that wasn’t the path. It seemed perfectly in character and I spent twenty minutes lurching around the side of a cliff before backtracking to see the scrubby little path bend off at at exact right angle where I had instead thrown myself at the wall of rock.
I could only take pictures when it was safe, as it seems would anyone else that had done the trail prior, so the true precariousness of it cannot really be appreciated, but let it be known that man was not designed to walk along said paths nor does it appear that said paths were designed for man. Mountain goats or snakes maybe. Not frail and stupid and oddly framed humans.
It hadn’t been all that wet in Skye in the days previous, and had only rained lightly throughout the night, but the parts where the path dipped down had become drains for the water falling off the mountains – muddy and fast flowing streams. I’m sure my pole saved my life more than once.
Slow going, I crept those miles. The bay by Glen Scaladal provided a short and flat relief. I studied the map. I looked at my watch. I looked at the map again. I was only halfway to Camasunary – two miles – and it had taken me over two hours. I was down to under a mile an hour and had the same trip again ahead after crossing the sand.
Prince Charles’ Cave
In England there are many ‘Robin Hood’s Caves’ lying around. Such is the case in the Scottish Highlands with Bonnie Prince Charlie and stony shelters. After the Jacobite defeat at the Battle of Culloden, the Prince went into hiding from the Duke of Cumberland and many places claim to have been one of those that aided his concealment.
Skye, of course, has its own Prince Charles’ Cave, and is now linked forever with him through the lyrics of the Skye Boat Song depicting his flight across the to the island. An event that is shrouded in layers of folklore.
When the Bonnie Prince had ran to Skye, chances are he would have had the fortune to be sheltered in a building amongst loyal supporters for the most part. But the cave associated with him and where he supposedly stayed the night before leaving the island, is a 2.5 mile out and back from Elgol, accessible for two hours either side of the low tide.
Part two would present a new challenge – small groves of short and gnarly trees that somehow had seen sense in rooting on the rocky sides of a cliff. Their branches would grab the brain of my bag and curl around any possible hanging loops or tags ready to knock me further off balance. I went even slower, the hand with my pole pushing anything in front away with the other hand fumbling at the pull of anything caught. I had a sudden sense of panic over what would happen if I met someone heading in the opposite direction here – there was absolutely nowhere for anyone to safely back into or pass by. Would one party literally have to go along with the other until one bay or the other was reached again?
For what it’s worth, I later learned that there was a Landrover track that headed out from a couple miles before Elgol to Camasunary without all this nonsense. If it has been badly raining, this would definitely be an alternative worth considering. That or just heading out at Torrin to go do the Bla Bheinn alternative because somehow scaling a 3000ft mountain in an infamously difficult range seems easier. This four mile stretch was definitely my least favourite and most taxing part of the whole trail. At no other point did I so consistently feel seconds away from dying, in fact I realised at one point my mind was beginning to just assume that I would die and that wasn’t very comforting.
Eventually, the land started to level out, Camasunary bay appeared and the blessed, beautiful bothy came into view like the ice cream van on a very hot day. Up behind it rose the Cuillins, but I would appreciate them later. Right now I wanted some shelter, a sit down, and some breakfast.
The bothy was spectacular. It was immaculate. It was as if a housekeeper had trundled up that coast path somehow just a couple hours before, cleaned it all up and headed off again which, of course, could never be the case. Like many bothies, it was Tardis-like, appearing tiny on the outside against the wide scope of all the wilderness around it, but then opening up to a surprisingly huge space. The bunk room would easily sleep ten people, and next to it was a whole dining room with benches and candles placed in shells. The counter along and under the windows that looked out to the bay had steel plates put in so stoves could be fired up on top of them. A small bookshelf and pile of boardgames, a few shelves of luxuries and forgotten essentials – camping soap, small sewing kits, unopened batteries – and a small tupperware sealed kitchen collection of additional seasonings, spreads and snacks. Those that maintained the bothy had left a donation box asking for a recommended donation of 50p per item used. I gleefully dunked three quid into it before I even took anything, I was so mesmerised by the magic of Camasunary Bothy.
I started to cook my porridge and foraged the shelves for additions. A spoon of peanut butter would do nicely thank you. I settled in on the bench beneath the educational posters and looked out to the rippling tantrums of the brooding waters outside in the misty bay.
I idled away an easy hour and a half here. My initial plans had been to stay here overnight with an out and back to the Bad Step. After surviving the coastal cliffpath, I didn’t want to push my luck and decided against the Bad Step. A decision which was wise but, obviously, I now regret. I wasn’t going to stay here overnight either – it was only 10am, and the valley to Sligachan through the Cuillins would come next.
I signed the visitors’ book after leafing through but, as usual entries (I admit) are often fairly boring. Just many people having lovely days with not much drama at all, which is, I suppose, something to be grateful for but not particularly entertaining. I considered writing a story that would bring the Grey Man of Ben Macdhui across here to Skye just as a favour to those reading in the future, and I might have done if I had the time. Instead I wrote about the coastal path and perhaps mistakenly included a couple of swearwords in my emotive retelling. I figured afterwards anyone bringing their kids out here has hardy enough children to be able to handle a handwritten ‘fuck’.
Leaving the sanctuary of the bothy, I faced north and the great mountains rose in front of me. The Red Cuillin to the east, and the Black Cuillin to the west. Those westerly hills appearing almost black with their igneous gabbro peaks creating both a blessing and a curse for climbers; the gabbro provides an excellent grip, but the basalt dykes that interrupt it become deadly slippery when wet. The paler granite of the Red Cuillin between the swathes of vegetation and scree is a more familiar Highland sight than the gnarled and ferocious range to the west. The Blacks are older, far more ancient, whilst the Reds were formed in the same explosions of granitic magma that created marble down at Broadford.
I do not know if I was just overjoyed at having not died that morning, but I absolutely loved this stretch. I walked along in complete, enchanted awe. Even in the mist and the drizzle, the waterways of the glen trundled over and through my path like the lines on a giant palm and the hills were the old and weathered fingers cupped above it. I surrendered quickly to getting wet as streams became deeper, and fording them took me down to my knees and then my thighs in the water, and I would be on tip toe lifting my lower back to keep the base of my bag where my sleeping bag was stored away from the wetness. There was no spate, but the water was heavy enough to create a push to be wary of and I kept two out of three points on the waterbed at any one point, at an angle and holding against the current. I was so small and amusing to all the great giants of nature around me.
The rockiness of the Cuillins made them an exception to the natural devastation of the agricultural era that saw so many of the mountains of the British Islands stripped down for the benefit of the sheep and the goats and the cattle as they were deemed totally useless for that kind of farming. Of course their rockiness and remoteness also meant they took a long time for man to venture into and to climb and they sat as a group with barely any individual names until the Victorians really kicked off with mountaineering. Thus, unlike many mountains, they rarely have names associated with local mythology, lore or history and many peaks are, instead, simply named after their earliest climbers. The seven miles of the Black Cuillin Ridge will take 15-20 hours to traverse from sea level at Glenbrittle to the bar at the Sligachan Hotel. The complexity of terrain and navigation, along with scarcity of water, creates the respected level of difficulty and many still see the ultimate UK mountaineering challenge as being a full traverse in winter conditions. I imagine the bar at the Sligachan Hotel seems like the best place on earth after that.
Collie and MacKenzie
The team of Victorian scientist and avid mountaineer Norman Collie and the crofter and mountain guide John Mackenzie are often credited with leading the way for climbers in the Cuillin ranges.
Between the two of them, they discovered, climbed and charted numerous routes and ascents in the mountains. In 1896 Collie made the first ascent of Sgurr Coir’an Lochain, believed to be the last peak to be climbed in the UK.
Whilst Collie would venture further afield, to the Alps and then to the Himalaya, Mackenzie established himself as the first Scottish mountain guide. Every summer Collie would return to Skye and eventually retired there. The two friends are buried next to each other and now their intrepid and inspiring teamwork has been commemorated in a bronze statue at Sligachan which sees the men looking out towards the ranges that they loved and brought others to love also.
I met a couple heading southbound with their dog on the Trail. The little brown pup was having the time of his life. They had apparently hit high winds up on Storr and their tent breached despite adding extra guylines.
“The ridge, well, I’m sure you know…” the man trailed off “It’s a hairy bastard”
“But apart from that” added the woman “it’s actually all fine”
“Well that’s good to hear” I said “The coast to Elgol isn’t fine. It’s really rubbish. It wants to kill you constantly”
“Oh” I could see it. I could see they were thinking what a naive little northbounder that has no idea what’s in store and thinks what she’s just done is difficult. She’ll be so much wiser in a few days. I don’t really blame them. “Well maybe we’ll put the dog on a lead then”
I’ll bet they did.
I stomped my way through a few more streams, passing by the lochan. I’m not sure what that word means; I don’t know whether it means ‘small lochs’ or ‘multiple lochs’ because it could have been either. After the great gloomy swathe of Loch na Creitheach there were several small lochs, though the guide simply referred to ‘lochan’. (Edit: small lochs. Guys, it means small lochs). As I tried to linguistically pull it apart, I heard a great low sound from the east. Like a bellowed, echoing slide of a old hinges on a heavy door crescendoing to a bray. I stopped, startled. I know I had jokingly considered writing about the Grey Man of Ben Macdhui/Skye earlier but was he really here? What the hell was that?
It came up again. Oh, I realised, I’m just a bit too city really to recognise this instantly. It was the red deer in rut. Something I didn’t think would start for a couple more weeks. I couldn’t see the stags at all, but I could certainly hear them. Their rumbling roars in the mountain valley amongst all the waterfalls and the rocks and the mist may have just pushed the measure for an evocative atmosphere way past the scale. It was both beautiful and hideous. I just needed an eagle or two… alas none appeared. This was as evocative as I was allowed.
I shuffled through another deep fording and emerged on the other side to find a southbound woman eating revels. It had taken her seven days to get this far, mainly because she liked to lie in, though she got through the ridge in a day because it was misty and rainy and just very miserable and she had just wanted it to be over. Fortunately, I was able to expect clearer weather. She had just left Sligachan an hour or so ago and only intended to go as far as Camasunary. I told her that was a good idea because the coastal path required morning energy.
What a naive little northbounder…
She gave me a heads up that the campsite at Sligachan was shut. This was a pity because after only two days of walking, I had slid around on my arse enough and forded enough bodies of water than I would have appreciated paying for the use of a washing machine. Even just a tumble dryer to get my socks dry. So be it. She went on towards the bothy and I finally went on to glimpse the stone bridge of Sligachan. I was sad that my valley path had ended. I had very much enjoyed it.
The alternative route from Camasunary would take one via the Bad Step up along Loch Coruisk. Many refer to it as being far more scenic which, considering how achingly and shockingly beautiful I found this section, I would be very interested in seeing. It seems for those on the Skye Trail there is no wrong answer when it comes to choosing between Glen Sligachan or Loch Coruisk.
I had a quick snack in the hotel bar and went on down Loch Sligachan to find a spot to wildcamp, setting up close to the rushing waters of another fall, up from the shore and looking out over the water. I ate my supernoodles and sat in contentment watching the sun set. At least in the night if I heard a deep and mournful roar I knew it wasn’t the Grey Man come to find me, just a bunch of horny deer.
- Distance: 12 miles
- Total Elevation: 1017ft
- Terrain: Rocky track, minor road, narrow clifftops, glens, fording
- Toughness: 8/10 (to Camasunary) 5/10 (to Sligachan)
- Maps Used: Harvey Maps XT40: Skye Trail, WalkHighlands GPX download: Sligachan to Elgol