Skye Trail, Day 4: Portree To Beinn Edra (17 miles)

I slept solidly for almost eight hours. I’d been expecting a windy night in my somewhat unsheltered pitch but my tent barely rustled at all. It was an easy straight path to rejoin the trail and the morning started on green, soft turf as I headed along the coastline.

Storr was in my sights, and I made excellent time of the path to it. This section seems to be one that is heavily weather dependent with those undertaking it in wet or foggy conditions having a considerably slower and more difficult journey than those like myself who were fortunate enough to be given a clear day and a bright blue sky. As the grass turns to hilly moorland, and then steeper hills after, the continuous ups and downs of it were a mild practice for what would come after.

The ground is often reported to be extremely boggy, but after my experiences in the Migneint Marshes of Snowdonia the previous month I had a whole new definition of the word ‘boggy’. The ground here would slosh and drag, but there was no endless struggle not to completely sink. The view out from the cliffs saw the clustered, busy cones of the Cuillins behind and the Isle of Raasay stretched out to the front. There were no paths, but the way was clear and I kept to higher ground to avoid the worst of the wet earth.

It was easy to trundle along, the Storr and the start of the ridge constantly foreboding in my sights. The escarpment saw three summits with a trig point at Sithean Bhealaich Chumhaing, after which the mountains that had been the focus of the last few days disappeared behind to now only be seen in occasional blue glimpses far, far away.

The First Settlers of Skye

The first settlers are believed to have come to Skye around 8000 years ago. Sea levels were lower then, and Skye and the Hebrides were likely not islands yet.

A Mesolithic settlement at Staffin Bay holds the An Corran rockshelter where tools were stored and worked stone and bone has been found. The remoteness of Skye lead to a restricted diet that required resourcefulness and frequent movement from those early settlers who would have likely travelled between small settlements set about the island throughout the year. Hazelnuts appear to have been a firm staple with huge deposits of shells discovered with every archaeological dig.

I reached the Storr carpark in four hours. It was ten in the morning and busy day hikers were taking advantage of the clear skies to visit Skye’s most famous landform. I sat in a parking space and breakfasted on noodles and oat bars, which are perfectly reasonable choices when backpacking.

There are many legends surrounding the twisted needles that tower and stare out to sea. The most famous being that of the corpse of a giant that died. Eventually, the earth covered him, leaving only his thumb exposed. However the original story didn’t really state it was his thumb, it was a different body part altogether, but that’s not the story they wanted the kids to hear.

Another tale tells of faeries who observed a couple that would walk together up and down the hills each day through the many years of their life together. As they aged, the wife started to struggle to complete their daily ramble and could no longer make it to the top and this saddened both her and her husband. The trickster faeries told the husband that they could make it so the two could always accompany each other with ease and, on his agreement, turned them into stone to stand together forever on the hillside they loved so much.

It’s strange sometimes, seeing something in the flesh that has been shown in art and film and media and the subject of endless photographic inspirations, yet the needles of Storr are just as dramatic, just as outlandish and odd and fantastical as all these depictions project. After the steep clamber to their base, I moved beneath the great stones to continue up onto the shoulder of the hill, and round.

There were no faeries or giants here really, or maybe there were, but they didn’t create these pinnacles. The craggy Jurassic cliffs, formed of sedimentary stones were subjected to a landslip of basalt lava as the Tertiary age came around. One of many landslips that would create the warped earth that stretches up through Trotternish; the otherworldly cliffs and cups and twists and roars of the stone formed through millions of years on the edge of this wing of an island.

I self consciously and gracelessly pulled myself up the few shear scrambles onto the shoulder, myself and my backpack a point of interest for several amused tourists. Along the shoulder, and then down into the great swoop of the valley that I had gulped at from a distance the previous day. There was no obvious way down it and eventually I resorted to the action that now seemed to be my secondary mode of transport – to sit down and just glissade down the side of the hill. It’s unfortunate that there was no equivalent alternative for getting up the other side but eventually I made it to the top of Hartaval. I was instantly faced with another 600ft drop and a similar clamber up the next hill.

I was already starting to doubt myself and consider stumbling back. And maybe if the next thing in my sights had been yet another plummeting descent and aching ascent then I would have done. As it was the ridge levelled out for a while and slowly I began to allow myself to enjoy it.

The grassy clifftops were springy and the views huge; out to the coast and sea. Along the edge one could see the sheer sides of the ridge slamming down, dark and growling like bared teeth, but on a clear day the top was like some fairytale meadow with the blue skies above.

The oldest rocks of the ridge are 190 million years old, laid down in the warm bed of a shallow Jurassic sea when our islands were floating somewhere far warmer than the icy north Atlantic. The basalt lava that came afterwards, piling up in great stacks and vicious cliffs, weighed down on the weaker stone below causing the land to slip and tilting it to the west. An estimated 24 flows of basalt occurred, creating a 300 metre thick layer on top of the sedimentary foundation. The enormous pressure caused the Jurassic underlay to shear north to south, creating the severing and dropping of the earth in the dramatic slides.

It feels half frozen for just a second, like it is just on an inhale. On the next exhale it will move again. In fact, it is still moving and regular road repairs in the Trotternish area attest to this.

The Dinosaurs of Trotternish

The tracks of long necked sauropods and bipedal carnivorous dinosaurs have been found all over the Trotternish peninsula, most famously at Staffin. These finds are of huge archaeological importance as there are surprisingly few fossilisations discovered from the mid Jurassic era. Discoveries on Skye have accumulated 15% of the entire world’s evidence of that period.

The island was once home to a large range of dinosaurs – from well known large carnivores like Megalosaurus and the hefty herbivorous Stegasaurus right down to holding the record for the tiniest dinosaur footprints made by a miniscule bipedal creature.

Evidence has also been found of an ichthyosaur unique to Scotland known as Dearcmhara shawcrossi.

I came across a couple doing the ridge south as a day trip and we watched three eagles dance in the high breezes. They asked about my experiences so far. I then made the absolutely devastating error of saying how lucky I had been with the weather.

What idiot ever says that?

Not two miles further, the mist came down quickly and the drizzle started, and all landmarks disappeared. The clarity of the ridgeline and the route ahead vanished entirely. It wasn’t long before I found myself off course, but in trying to head back the right direction ended up confusing myself further in the featureless grey void that the brilliant meadow had become. I knew I was near Creag a Lain, I had just pushed through the drop and rise before it. but I did not know where on the summit I exactly was and the next descent would be decidedly more difficult if I wasn’t where I needed to be. Without the visibility, I wasn’t sure where that was.

I sat near some rocks and pushed off my bag, prepared to just tent up right now. I stood and stretched my shoulders, chomping a forlorn little kitkat, staring out to the thick mist when a figure started to materialise through it. Dressed in superb overtrousers and a raincoat made for the arctic, a man came into view, battered by the wind. I yelled at him and went towards him. He looked completely alarmed.

“Are you OK?! Do you need help?!”

“What?” I suddenly realised that he didn’t see my backpack on the ground a few metres back and thought he had just come across some madwoman with just a bumbag gripping a chocolate bar. “Oh no! That blue thing over there? That’s the raincover on my bag. I’m safe, I’m fine.” He audibly breathed a huge sigh of relief. “I just lost the path in the mist and was seeing if it would rise to clarify things”

Of course, as I said that, I felt profoundly stupid as we were now standing on what was very clearly a worn track indicating the path. He said he needed a break anyway and we sat sheltered amongst the rocks and heated up some tea.

“It turned quickly” he said, we both stared into the desolate veil around us, the splatter of the drizzle on our faces. The sort of drizzle than never feels like very much, but manages to soak you through.

“I may have jinxed it” I confessed “I told a couple I’d been lucky with the weather”

“You’re an idiot”

“Yep” We took deep sips of the warm drinks in our hands and the steam quickly sucked itself away in the wind and into the mist.

“I feel like I’m lost on the way to fucking Mordor and left the ring at home” he said “Wouldn’t surprise me at all if a whole army of orcs appeared out of that greyness”

“Would be amazing if the trees talked though”

“What?”

“That’s a Lord of the Rings thing right? Chatty trees? Don’t know. I’m more of a His Dark Materials girl”

“Now armoured bears and zeppelins might be pushing it”

He asked where I was aiming for. That morning I had been optimistically hoping to get to the Quiraing but now I wasn’t sure that would be possible. He himself had left his camp at the Quiraing four hours ago in the clarity of the previous weather and with the current conditions, it was unlikely I could make the same distance by six. He asked about water further on, I said there was a burn at his next descent if he went in from the ridge. I knew there was another for me in after three more ups and downs and I would have enough water until then.

Whilst sourcing water throughout Skye is rarely an issue, up in the high places it becomes difficult and something to be thoroughly planned for. Those that head out in midsummer can easily get through six litres on a crossing and knowing where to leave the ridgeline to find water becomes something better not left to chance.

We parted ways as he headed south and I continued north. The winds picked up, though now mercifully, the mist would occasionally lift. I knew it was four more rises and drops until I reached Beinn Edra; the highest point of the ridge. I lasted the three until I reached the burn to replenish my water. I looked up at the fourth and knew I had nothing left to give this ridge today. With each consecutive climb I had paced slower and slower and the last one I had basically crawled. While I had a well placed hillock back from the ridge to shelter my tent behind from the southerly winds, and a water source right here, it made sense to call my day to end now.

In a moment of lifted mist, I set up my tent and only then allowed myself to process how I was feeling. I was right on the edge of being overwhelmed, strung out as I had run out of energy and grown more and more tired. The ridge was just as relentless as described and my body had taken a complete battering and my mind was starting to fail, having started to become confused by compass points a couple miles back. Right then was one of the very few times in all my hiking it might have been nice to have company.

I fired up for a large dinner and with shelter, warmth, water and hot food I was soon far more level again. In fact I felt glorious. I was camping the night on top of this magnificent, brutal ridge and that, in itself, felt like something to be appreciated.

  • Distance: 17 miles
  • Total Elevation: 5,577ft
  • Terrain: Cliff tops, boggy and rough paths, open country, tough hillwalking
  • Toughness: 9/10
  • Maps Used: Harvey Maps XT40: Skye Trail, WalkHighlands GPX download: Storr to Portree & Flodigarry to Storr

5 thoughts on “Skye Trail, Day 4: Portree To Beinn Edra (17 miles)

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