A Rum One

This is what backpacking feels like.  I remember now.  A blistering hot day with a headcold on the Rum Cuillin Traverse.

A week before that, we came in on the ferry.   Connections between places are made suddenly obvious with water travel, that are not apparent until you leave dry land.

Out from the village, and south to Dibidil, past gaping fissures in the rock and diagonal water falls into the sea.  The hirsel here was built in 1848, after the clearance, and lived in by 'Johnny Come Over' and his wife, her sister and 6 children.

So we took Johnny up on his offer, and stayed the night.  Old Norse forms the basis of most place names on Rum. Dibidil simply means 'deep dale'.

 The sun left the hills blushing, and Eigg rested under moonlight.  There's a cuckoo in the glen.

We walked round to Papadil, the priest's glen, on a soaking wet path.  Feral goats gazed and grazed lazily as we picked our way across the marshy places.

After Papadil, an exhausting few hours of contouring under Ruinsival and it's upthrust plateau - off path and sidefooting and covering a km an hour or less across a rocky nowheresland, finally to Harris, with its strange raised sea shore, which we took for man made, but isn't.

The weather came in, and I went to visit the Bulloughs, the old owners of Rum, at the Mausoleum.  Skye Air Sea Rescue buzzed the tent in the gloaming at 10.30pm, I remembered not to wave at them.  Looking for a couple who had come unstuck coming down from Hallival, dehydrated, we later heard.

My girlfriend calls this 'forcing art to nature' which makes me laugh out loud, but all I did was place the antler - it's not a stage set, only a prop.  I'm not sure it's art or nature, either.  But there are ghosts here on Rum, and lots of them, and that is worth an intervention, an acknowledgment of some sort or another.  A ceremony for memory.

More hills, hills and goats, walking north now, always the sea on our left flank, across open moorland in the sunshine, past future wild camps by hidden lochans.

Slowly to the rounded summits of Orval and Fionchra, a sweeping inverted S of a ridge with a pleasing logic in relation to our destination.  The Rum Cuillin are now behind us, as we hide from cold winds behind our bags to eat.

Down to Guirdil bothy before the storm hit, and the rafters shook, and the walls sweated cold water from rain pushed through by the gale.

In between successive weather fronts I went outside to listen to the Sound of Canna.

Deer graze in the shelter of the ruins, goats eat kelp on the beach.  A few moments of stillness in between gusts and squalls.  There's a cuckoo in the glen.

More heavy memory:  ''An 'immemorial isle of graves' for, as an anonymous writer says, 'there is nothing left to mark the presence of its old population save the foundations of their dwellings. Their lives and their legends have no other memorials but the nettles growing in waste places." (Waugh 1883).  

Slow to clear in the morning and a river to cross, in spate and my partner is frightened.  Running fast but knee deep at the beach, then more rolling moor.  Then, quiet smiles as bodies chime with gentle contours - it's day 3, and we are in motion.   In the distance we see Ranger Mike, who lives at Kilmory.  Later on at camp, he approaches to talk.  Ranger Mike is the only person we meet in our 4 day circuit of the Island.

The huge beach at Kilmory, where the red deer project is based, and then round the headland a little further, to somewhere that shall remain nameless here, because it is too finely balanced to manage too many visitors.  A beach camp, a driftwood fire, watching eiders and oyster catchers glide into land at bird's eye level, nesting gulls on the dunes and the Skye Cuillin drawing clouds like a magnet from the four quarters of the sea. 

 The 'golden' hour, and a Minky whale skull. 

 Heaven, an empty gas canister, and burnt fingers in the fire.

To go further south east around the coast I had heard was not easy, so another line was chosen.  A straight line this time, up and over, steeply through waist high heather and narrow crags and yet more quiet water lochans big and small, following a burn that once fed the sheilings, a line used by calving deer to hide their newborn whilst they come down to the shore to feed.  Yes, this is what backpacking feels like, I remember it now.

Back to the village past native trees planted by the Bulloughs and the NCC.  Successfully identifying a Stone Chat, a big deal for big city dwellers.  Not onto the Kilmory track.  We take an older path, a memory line, soaking wet but better used to keep it open.  A corner store that welcomed us back, an island people, a new community Trust, some room around the collar at last.  Then a day spent thermarest surfing, nursing a cold.  There's a cuckoo in the glen here too.  A visit to the hunting lodge built by an eccentric Edwardian millionaire, a tour shared with contemporary millionaires straight off private yachts.  ''Could this item be purchased?''  ''No, I'm sorry, this is a museum.''  ''Pfft, I'm sure someone could make an exception!''  It's another universe.  Kinloch so far is lost in time, well worth your time, I want to believe it will heal in time.

But we have work to do before we leave - the central mountains beckon.  The Rum Cuillin is a long, 13 hour day out.  On the way we walk past hundreds of tiny burrows.  There are no rabbits on Rum, these are Manx Sheerwater nests.  Rum hosts 1/3 of the world population.  Hallival looking to Skye. 

Following a massive sweep of crumbling rock across 6 summits, another inverted S, the complex and shattered descents harder than the climbs, but most of the scrambling is easy enough and not exposed unless you choose the harder lines.

Up before Askival's Pinnacle, Sheerwater beaks scattered on a ridge betray an Eagle's feeding place. By the time we reach the pass of gold, before Trollabhal, we are ourselves as shattered as this high wild line.  Joined at the hip, at the side of the mountain.  As it should be.

Ainshval looks like it won't go at all, but it does.  Slowly.  We reach the last hill and look out to sea.  Yes, this is what backpacking feels like.

And Eigg, calm and welcoming, seems to acknowledge our efforts on a thirsty descent, down hard and steep from Sgurr nan Gillean.

Let's stay at the bothy in the deep glen again tonight.  We can walk to the ferry in the morning. 

Our Rum Cuillin traverse is now a route on Walk Highlands

The Priest's Glen

Papadil in old Norse, means the Priest's Dale.  A dale is another word for Glen, or Valley, but maybe shorter.  One of the more remote places on Rum, an Island without a road system in the Inner Hebrides.  Papadil is on the south-west coast, around 5 hours walk from the only village of Kinloch.  Around 40 people currently live on Rum.  None currently live at Papadil.

Papadil faces Iona, the notional seat of early Christianity as Scotland was painfully birthed from tribal factions.  According to Irish sources, St. Beccán of Rum, a hermit and academic, may have lived here around 680AD.  Crofting followed, history is vague about exactly how and when, but remains of a  shepherds house, kelp kilns and a church are believed to exist.

Later on, the Island was bought and sold a few times, cleared of all but 1 family by 1826, and finally restocked as a deer hunting estate after the wool market collapsed.  The island may have returned to its Medieval roots, 'good for hunting with few inhabitants'.  For 100 years in the 1800's Rum was known as the Forbidden Isle, whose successive owners were hostile to visitors not on the guest list.  Papadil became the site of a new hunting lodge, built by the Bulloughs.

Lady Monica Bullough took her honeymoon at Papadil, but apparently did not like the lodge.  She sold the island in 1957 for £23,000, £12,000 less than her father-in-law had paid for it in 1888.  Keen as the Good Lady was to see the Island in proper hands, the Nature Conservancy Council were the recipients.

In the first days of the new reservation, it took some time for the 'permit only' culture of the Forbidden Isle to relax.  The NCC suspected that the hunting lodge was used by deer poachers, and so tore off the roof.

Despite this intervention against unwanted visitors, The NCC left imported Victorian rhododendrons intact, to swallow whole the policy woodland the Bulloughs had planted.

Now, Papadil is being eaten by itself.  It's full of Deer ticks, and the lodge is a ruin.  The stove may say 'Invincible' for now, but the rhoddies will consume everything in a few more decades.

Variety Pack #2

The last month has been very busy indeed.  I'm running behind I'm afraid...

Arran, and some time spent walking with my mother.  This is the Gorge at Eas Mor, full to bursting with spring potential, latent and waiting for the thaw.  In between walks we made fresh burn trout and wild garlic stew, and stoked a wood fire.  Complicated by some work that wouldn't go away and the high winds and rotten snow that put paid to my plans for a 3 day trip over the tops to Lochranza and back.  The convention here is to tell you about what happened after I reached Goatfell and got turned around on the Saddle, but the time has past for that.  The moral of the story is to always have a clear head in the hills, and always carry winter hardware in the winter.  Far better to go back to the cottage and hang out with the family anyway.  Time far better spent.  This trip can wait.

Then, bless my cosmopolitan self, Italy!  Abruzzo, a 2 hour drive from Rome, a tiny hill fort town at 1400m, and a press trip of all things.  Uncomfortable flight, my first time in a plane in four years, a head cold, good food, strong coffee, warm Mediterranean breeze and hospitable people.  And most of all, light with a different texture - A dry light.  What a luxury.  So good to be away.

Oh yeah, there was some gear to look at too, but not in this shot.  This was where we camped.  I'm not even making it up.  It really did look like this.

And there was a mountain to climb, with a quiet Himalayan legend from Gran Sasso.  Grazie mille, Giampiero di Federico.  My kahtoolas balled up quite badly, so I've bought some proper spikes for next year.  I was slowing everyone down, this guy fairly ran down from 2,500ms.

Taken shortly after dawn, this is a garrison fire fort used to warn against Muslim invaders from the Adriatic.  Built on limestone, with water stores under each tower, it survived a huge earthquake in 1461, but the Saracens never came.  I've just been in London where I found myself amongst lots of real photographers (the ones who went to art school, I feel stupid around, and who make great work) and shots like this would give them a headache, I'm sure.  But it is there, and do I lie if I point the camera at something else instead - without context, without the relationships, isn't anything convention and cliche?  This isn't a criticism, it's a question.

Maybe I should photograph some Lamas, in paradise?  Kintail, at 8.30am, after driving from the airport and losing my phone on the M8.  These places do exist, as real as the mother and child, found in an abandoned farmstead on Skye...

One of the striking things about going straight from Italy to Skye, for me at least, was the similarity in the ecological story.  In Abruzzo, centuries of overgrazing have desertified the limestone mountains and robbed them of all tree cover.  This led to the acidification of the soil, which in turn led to an almost total loss of grazing and agriculture that sustained small mountain communities.  People moved to Rome, or starved, the habitat was changed forever.

On Skye, we went to the Camas Malag, a place where the Clan Macdonald sold out to the man and cleared the land of all inhabitants, preferring to farm sheep.  Rotten walls and a solitary derelict building stood where villages once were.  People moved to Canada, or starved.  Skye was beautifully forlorn in a way that Italy wasn't, but only because I don't speak the language.  Talk to the locals in both places (as we did - in Italy it just took longer) and you hear the same concerns about upland economy, community, sustainability.  The same story in both places - what we do to the soil, we do to ourselves.  Still, I'm the one in the damned aeroplane, right.

The weather tried to wipe the slate clean across Loch Eishort, and we turned our backs on the past.  There's little point arguing with either.  We walked back towards the Marble Quarry at Torrin, the brooding east face of Bla Bheinn, and a more than fancy pad on Sleat, before the ferry in the morning.  On the way home we stopped at the sands of Morar, where each and every grain seemed to reflect the world back into the sky.

In Italy, Giampiero had told us a story about the meadowland basin at the foot of the mountain we climbed.  With the change of political fortunes under Mussolini, the 'the shepherd's meeting place' had been transformed into 'the emperor's camp'.  Made possible by the linguistic similarity of these words in Italian, and deemed necessary because the place was historically important for the hill community that worked there.  Land, language, power, constantly circling each other.

Back in London, I heard the travel writer Nick Hunt tell a story about a boy he met on the road, on his 2,500mile walk across Europe in 2012.  The kid knew the names for all the different types of tree in his home valley, but had never stepped a foot outside it.  The writer knew the names of all the places he had visited in Europe, but didn't know the word for tree in the country he was walking in, let alone the names of each species.  How do I want my knowledge - broad and shallow, or deep and narrow?

There's more from some of these trips in upcoming editions of The Great Outdoors, and Outdoor Enthusiast Magazines.  But it's not all 'work'.  Next time out, it's Rum.  In the meantime, here's the previous variety pack, #1

Edge and Centre - Harris and Lewis by camera

In October 2012 we visited the Isles of St. Brides for a week.  Here are the last of the photos from the trip.

Impossible to better the anticipation of an windy Atlantic sea journey to an unknown land.  A pod of dolphin chased the bow of the ship, I had a mocca and T was sea sick.

The fabric of Harris is woven from waking dreams, it looks out to everywhere.  But especially the Uists, and Skye.

Isolated?  Not from the water.  The home of the Gall Gael, truly strangers in a strange land, all run through since long before you and I son  - Gaels, Norse, French, Eygptian even, say some.

And the incomers keep coming.  Americans and the non landed gentry to pop off a few deer during stalking season, and families for the beaches in the summer.

You've heard about the beaches, right?  The best in the country.  Summer barbeques, holding hands and wild camps, sands littered with the egos of dead photographers.  But what's not in the brochure?

It's where the dry edge of this world meets the wet edge of the next, where it all slips away.

T is somewhere ahead.  Without understanding why, I stop walking and start to collect animal fragments.  I question this, then continue anyway.  Here a crab shell, there a sheep horn, a leg bone.  I place them here, on this stone.  I put them here carefully, to remember.

Fuzzy edges and flotsam, thin veils and fish scales.  A window into Time's tide.

By Hushinish there's an inky black bottomless well, clear water springs out the green ground at our feet - standing stones and skeleton bones, sea eagles and casual Gaelic at the butchers.  A

bard with sparkling eyes

onboard is bound for the


on the mainland, a messenger from a land oozing stories.  He has a new book in the old tongue, the first on Kindle.  The glue of community, in binary.  But the technology is only a tool, a trifle.  It'll be gone tomorrow, next week, along with us and the rest.  They'll still be here though,


These islands are afloat, remember.  And all the while, the rocks and bogs go on and on repeating themselves,

but that reality is thinly drawn, my anchors nearly rusted through.  How does it feel?  It feels tenuous, spongey.  I'm thinking of the edges of a computer gaming space,

a pixelated avatar stuck in repeat in a corner where the render runs out.  For a week we walk in circles around the island, always different and always the same.  The end of the line, the beginning of waves.

Enough melting, enough morphing dreamworld:  We face ourselves inland, there are mountains here too.  An Clisham - the atom heart of Harris, plus rutting stags in stereo, the high centre of the bleeding edge.  Safer here on the high ground, than all out to sea.  Something familiar in all that windswept rock.

We drove the Golden Road that unfurls around the east of South Harris.  A Mobieus strip as single track, a double helix with passing places.

There are artists here. Tiny crofts and farmsteads who scratch out a living, from the sea, sheep farming, bed and breakfast and weaving.  They call this home.  One calls it 'Fraggle rock'.

Best keep to the yellow brick road, Dorothy.  Stay in the god damned car, lest you fall off the edge.

More photos of the Outer Hebrides are