I woke at one in the morning for no other reason than that I was still absolutely ravenous and the groaning from my stomach was demanding more food. I eventually found myself crouched over my stove in the dark on the eerie sky-high plain cooking up pasta before scurrying back to the warmth of my sleeping bag with the Jetboil clasped in my hands. Two incredibly different worlds; the great huge expanse of sliding, exposed geology, shimmering and crying in the dark, and my safe, sturdy little cosy bubble in the midst of it all.
When the south wind hit, I could hear the gust rush down the ridge and swoosh and hit every rise before it finally connected with the one my tent hid behind. I could hear it slam and rush around me, my fabric shelter in its small safe crouch avoiding the worst of the impact. A great giant breathing a moody and hostile temper over the grasses and the hills of the ragged land.
I eventually fell asleep again, waking just before morning to a clear sky. I knew I had to move quickly. DarkSky had predicted it would remain clear until ten, then the mist would drop again worse and thicker than before.
I broke camp fast, went up and down the last of the four hills and then hit the base of Beinn Edra. Already somewhat breathless, and still tired, I started to drag myself up to the highest point of the ridge. At just over 2000 feet high it got the full impact of a brewing wind, gearing up for a bigger show. At the trig point my hair flung about my face as the orange of the rising sun smeared gold across the glassy sea beyond.
Down the other side, a steep and long descent lay in front of me out to a rough shovel of a head. the pleated stone cliffs running straight from the ragged edges. A plane had crashed up here in World War II, a new American crew in a B-17G bomber flying via Iceland to Wales. Having lost their bearings in bad weather, they had tried to get under the cloud for better visuals and slammed into Beinn Edra, all of them losing their lives. A harrowing end and an austere grave.
I thought if I head straight, I would cut across the back of the head to the bealach and save time and energy before the next smaller rise and drop and then the steep behometh of Biodha Buidhe sitting heavily about two and a half miles ahead. I should have trusted the map as my shortcut took me through the maze of peat hags that fumbled the landscape, concealed in the grasses as frequent as the balls on bubble wrap and nowhere near as fun. When I tried to rectify, the appearance of another hag would push me back. Eventually I crossed the bealach with far soggier shoes and a greater smack of hubris than before.
I could see the Quiraing now; the haunting turmoil of the claws of the landslip ahead. My energy this morning was not what it had been yesterday, and I pulled heavily on my trekking pole, levering myself up the side of Biodha Buidhe. The height gain here from the bealach was similar to that I had done to ascend Beinn Edra, but far steeper and far slower. Below the ramshackle and turbulent earth had crashed around and slid hither and thither; The Cleat was a curved wave of dark rock and fading grass that appeared somewhat detached from the sea beyond and suddenly petrified at its height.
The sky was starting to darken, and the one road that crossed the ridge, between here and the Quiraing came into view. It was nine thirty now and the mist started to descend, as did I. I let momentum take me and I flailed downwards towards the road. By the time I hit tarmac, the top of the ridge was thoroughly obscured through the grey and the rain and bluster had really begun.
I was here, on the one exit of the ridge between the start and the end. I looked up where the other side ascended to the Quiraing. I had two choices. I could go up, and up again, to go along the rest of the ridge for only a mile and a half more before descending triumphantly to Flodigarry, or I could walk along this nice, safe road.
I retreated to a bus shelter. I waited for half an hour, just staring up at the grey and awful clouds and the escalating rain. Some part of me was reasoning that if it cleared, I would carry on along the ridge but, eventually, I realised that absolutely no part of me had either the energy nor the truthful will to do so. I would get to Flodigarry, but it wouldn’t be along the ridge. A huge weight lifted in me as I made peace with the decision and I suddenly had a spring back in my step as I walked onwards beneath the Quiraing.
Cattle and goods were once hidden here in the folds of the Quiraing to conceal them from Viking raiders long, long ago; the labyrinth of buttresses and cliffs a confusing and alarming place for an unsuspecting intruder. Black, murky ponds and grass mending the tears of the sliding earth. Bitter, fantastical and far, far stranger than fiction.
It takes a moment for me to get my head back to place and time after a while out alone and remote. Like I’ve been out to a different world, to Narnia, and I can’t quite explain it to others or find a way to resemble how I might have been a day or two ago. Like I’m trying to reset all the primal instincts that guide me through the wilder and lonelier parts of the world to something more acceptably humanly cognitive again.
The road to Flodigarry was simple and straight, the sea on one side and the ridge on the other. Villages were more scattered settlements up here and there was no bustle, mainly just quiet. The drizzle landed softer down here, the wind not so sharp, and the glum, dark fog was clinging only above me, up to the ridge.
I finally stumbled into Flodigarry at around midday. The hostel that so many would stay at before the pandemic was closed indefinitely, but I needed to top up the small bit of charge I’d managed to give the power banks in Portree. Instead I lumbered my dirty, windswept and bedraggled self to the doorway of what looked like the fanciest hotel on all the island, bumbled and bashed my way into the majestic entrance hall and looked utterly forlorn as I explained to a nicely uniformed gentleman that I just needed somewhere to sit near to a plug socket for a while. He swept me round to the bar, all full of wood and leather, shelves of whiskey and walls full of mounted deer heads, pulled up a plushly stuffed windsor chair that sat next to three plugs and insisted I took all the time I needed.
Whilst I did proceed to order the world’s most expensive hot chocolate to justify my presence, ultimately I ended up taking a short but lovely nap in the comfortable chair and woke with both myself and my power banks refreshed to continue onwards.
It was just the final push along the coast to the headland now.
I mentally prepared for the last wet and boggy miles, put my head down and hiked onwards. This stretch here to Rubha Hunish was most people’s first day as they travelled south and, indeed, it posed as minor a challenge as my first day all the way down south. It wasn’t long before the path went inland again to Balmaqueen and left the coast at the ruins of an old church.
Now a gate took me onto grazing hills and I hoped fervently for no cows to block my final paths. I peeked nervously over every small rise but the greenery lay clear of cows or any other beasts. It was now just a determined march across and up the headland.
I bumped into a couple of Germans freshly heading south. They had boundless energy right now, their heads wrapped in clean bandannas and they smelt of soap.
“How is the ridge?” One asked.
“The ridge is hard, you already know that, but its the coast path from Camasunary to Elgol that will kill you if you let it”
That horrible coast path was still sitting unredeemable in my memory.
Eventually I saw it; a tiny box way up and out on the headland crag, the rough, black cliff down straight from its base; the Rubha Hunish bothy. So seemingly miniscule against such a wide and wild scene and I trudged the final trudge across the battered and peat strewn fields until finally arriving at its door. I went past it, flung down my bag and sat looking out at the headland; the flat plain after the cliff drop and the Minch out beyond to the misty horizon and the hazy ghosts of the Hebrides. I had found my way north to what felt like a shed on the edge of the world.
In time I would make my way into the bothy where I would be greeted by an MBA volunteer who had had his work party at Orrisdale cancelled and, later in the evening, by seven Irish climbers that had missed the weather window for the Cuillin and were now out exploring. The night would get late and boisterous lit by candles and fuelled by whiskey and the next morning I would wake early and tiptoe across the mass of sleeping bodies to get my bag and leave, going down to the red phone box near Shulista and hitching a lift away from the headland.
The island that fans like a splayed wing from the mainland will never reveal all of itself to anyone. From the clustered black mountains seen for so long as unbreachable, the icy waters prone to spate, heather-racked moors that are dense and squat against a seething wind. The land moves and slides still under the mist that gave the place its name, and I could visit a thousand times and walk hundreds of more miles here and I will never fully know it. To fall in love with Skye is to accept a permanent enigma, an uninhabitable devotion, and to never fully trust it.
To fall in love with Skye is to be content with never being loved back, and finding only bliss in its disregard. It shall take a part of your heart, crush it somewhere between the basalt pinnacles, the crumbling ruins, and the deep blue sea to then watch you leave, knowing you shall never quite feel whole again.
- Distance: 16.5 miles
- Total Elevation: 1,968ft
- Terrain: Escarpment, open country, tough pathless hillwalking, boggy coastal walking, stream fording
- Toughness: 7/10
- Maps Used: Harvey Maps XT40: Skye Trail, WalkHighlands GPX download: Flodigarry to Portree & Rubha Hunish to Flodigarry