The plan focussed mostly on the Five Sisters of Kintail, camping and then finding other walks in the Glen Shiel valley. I arrived at night and set up my quick, light, minimalist Tarptent in the beam of my car headlights. The following morning was bright and sunny; I decided not to undertake a major walk but have an easy day after the long drive. It’s exciting exploring a new area and I felt that urge, more than any desire to set off walking. I decided to drive around and over to Skye, with the possibility of a wild camp if I found somewhere attractive and suitable. I liked what I was seeing of Glen Shiel very much but Skye would tempt me also.
Inevitably I suppose I went further and further around Skye, drawn especially by the sight and growing proximity of the Cuilins: iconic mountains, sometimes described as the finest in Britain because of the unique Alp-like challenge they pose. This led me all the way to the Glen Brittle camp site, far across the island, where I immediately felt peaceful and relaxed. It was the sea that did it and the vast, flat, watery blue; the open space of water which I’d not seen for years. I’d neglected lunch as I often do and decided to park up, eat, and enjoy the sunshine beside the sea.
The longer I stayed, the more I liked it. I decided to undertake a small walk up the hill and then, perhaps, return to Glen Shiel late in the evening to make a satisfying day. ‘Up the hill’ from Glen Brittle means flirting with the base of the Cuillins. On one side you have the sparkling sea, on the other side precipitous rocky heights. As always – I kept saying just a bit further, just to see beyond that hill, extending further than the plan and eventually meeting two nice girls returning from a full day out. “Is there any point going up to that hill to see any further?” “Not really” they said. “Is it technically difficult up there?” I enquired further. “It’s a bit scrambly but it’s OK”. They were friendly and fun and helped me evaluate my situation: it was very beautiful, and if I didn’t do it now and came back on a rainy day I’d be very disappointed. So that was that. I’d sleep the night at Glen Brittle, and go up to the Cuillins the next day. I walked back down the hill with the girls who looked like students but were not; one from Aberdeen and one from Southampton. They went off to the nearby Youth Hostel, I went down to set up my tent.
Paying for the site the next morning and buying a map I said “this is only my second time in Scotland, is it rare to be like this?” – beautiful blue skies again. “Rare? It’s miraculous!” he said, grins all round. I can well understand this. I know what British mountains are like – any of them – and this was Skye, on the edge of the mainland exposed to the further brutality of the sea. The walk up to the Cuillins is straightforward, along the coast and then turning inwards along mostly clear paths. You eventually reach a small lochan and clamber up a scrambly height to reach the Cuillin ridge, which is also not difficult. A walk takes you along a section of the ridge quite comfortably, where the views are immense across the island and out to the ever present sea. Then back down to the lochan, and return the way you came. The skies hazed and clouded in the afternoon, but I wasn’t too bothered by this because I’d seen the best of it. It wasn’t a particularly big walk, though it took me about nine hours and I was tired and sore, glad for another pleasant night on what was, I realised, an exceptionally attractive camp site in these conditions. With wind, cloud and rain, camping at Glen Brittle would I think be somewhat challenging.
The next day was cloudy and rainy; I’d planned for this possibility and decided a drive around the island would be a good plan. I went up to the Quirang, and reflected on another tip from the girls: walking here, they said, was beautiful. I felt differently. Skye certainly has its unique attractions, but on the whole I prefer the mainland. As an island, the scenery lacks the variety of being in the heart of a hilly area; rather, you are constantly in view of the sea and surrounded by big open views. Very pleasant, but different from hill walking as such unless you immerse yourself in the Cuillins. And even then – even on the ridge – the views are relatively unchanging. Walking the entire ridge requires at least two days, ropes, and rock climbing skills; no doubt a satisfying technical achievement but you can get a very good taste of it from a more limited traverse and realise, actually, the views won’t vary enormously from end to end. Views are everything. Views are, essentially, why I climb the hills.
I drove back to Glen Shiel in the evening and investigated an alternative camp site at Morvich. It was superior, with fresh green grass and better facilities. But the other site, at Shiel Bridge, is more convenient for the Five Sisters walk so I returned there for a second and third night. One factor with the Five Sisters of Kintail and the Glen Shiel Ridge is they are linear routes, so you have to plan for the beginning and end of the day accordingly. There is a bus service, which I caught up to the start of the walk at about 9.15 after a rushed breakfast. This was the day of the famous wedding and apart from some ridiculing banter from the bus driver (towards the latter not me and other walkers) that was all I heard or knew of it. Rather satisfying, and emblematic: the event in London concerned pseudo culture, celebrity psychology, and all the nonsense of political distraction when the Prime Minster said it was something “the whole nation could celebrate”. Rubbish. It was a dream, a manipulation, mere escapist nonsense we’re supposed to fawn over but with no relevance to my life and my non Royal struggle with it.
As an idea, the contrast was stark and one which I’ve expounded on in my various hill related writings. Millions of people – most of the population – were undoubtedly glued to the television and oohing and aahing over the pageantry, the pomp, and inevitably the bridal dress. It does, I acknowledge, send a shiver down to my spine seeing such things because it testifies to such power. You can taste this just walking in London on an ordinary day, marveling at the historic buildings near the Mall which not so long ago were the centre of a formidable Empire. You taste it even more when the Windsor family makes an ordinary Friday a holiday, London comes to a thematic stop, and the entire country is watching beautiful Westminster Abbey filled with starched and glittering military emblems and a pretty babe in an expensive frock that at £250,000 (according to one report) would buy me a house, saying “I do” – aaaah. This is Britain, they are trying to say, and my isn’t it formidable and smart and imposing, stretching back through connected centuries of Kings, Queens, and imperial power. We are still, at heart, Great Britain. Bah. Humbug. Didn’t see any of it. I was in the hills, affirming my life rather than escaping from it through the means of pseudo spectacle.
The walk starts up a steep hillside and it pays to work out which is the designated path. I fell in with two couples and we all went wrong. Once on the ridge another group of about six had made the same mistake. If you find yourself traversing a path high up the hillside going back down the valley, you need to strike uphill – it’s very steep but otherwise not difficult. Such moments are disconcerting if you’re not used to the hills, or even if you are, because with unfamiliar terrain you don’t know for sure what you will find and if it will work out. Conditions also play a part in such judgements and how easy it would be to retreat, or not, should it be a mistake.
When you reach the ridge it all becomes clear, the plan and concept of the walk visible and obvious. The Five Sisters of Kintail is described as a ‘classic’, and rightly so. That means, it’s a great attraction and one you shouldn’t miss if you enjoy mountain walking. The views are wonderful with a similar beauty to the Lake District, but the greater scale and remoteness of Scotland. Route finding gets slightly complicated towards the end, because it’s not easy to know which peak you are on – which of the Five Sisters. In my case, I consulted with a few others and we worked it out together. If you walk the full ridge it takes you down to quite near the Morvich camp site, but it’s possible to strike downhill and arrive back in the valley near other camp site, making for a convenient circuit. There’s no path, but in easy conditions it’s easy to work out. This leads to a broken bridge impossible to cross normally, but easy enough if you care to hang from a steel cable. There’s a knack to it, but if you understand what it is it’s not difficult. Otherwise, you have to cross the deep and fast moving river some other way. I was told there is another bridge, near the camp site, but didn’t see it.
Shiel Bridge camp site is well located quiet area next to the hills, but it’s near the road and I didn’t like the traffic noise. Additionally, wind can funnel down into it quite ferociously, and I had an appalling night where the noise alone stopped me from sleeping. In the early hours I decided retreating to the more peaceful but uncomfortable back seat of my car was a necessary choice. I was too tired the next day for any serious walking – I drove to the start of the Glen Shiel Ridge and assessed the situation, deciding that even if I pushed myself I was too tired to enjoy it. I spent the day driving around, walking the Glen Shiel valley for photographs, and enjoying a leisurely car boot picnic.
I contemplated a wild camp for the night and found a decent spot beside a river in a woodland area, but decided to enjoy the comforts of Morvich. It’s a good camp site: very peaceful, good showers (with radiators!), more expensive than Shiel Bridge but worth it. I chatted with a family from Glasgow on a long weekend (I enjoy seeing young people enjoying this activity; they had a young teenage daughter)and a hardened Scotland enthusiast, who said if he could never go abroad again he’d happily continue to explore all the corners, islands and heights of Scotland. I know what he means.
The next day turned out to be the best. The Glen Shiel Ridge is considerably quieter than the Five Sisters, with a greater feeling of remote wildness. The whole route is a very long day or you can take it in sections, or camp somewhere overnight. I have a feeling the section I undertook is the best part, starting below the Cluanie Inn and not beside it. Parts of the ridge are as interesting and beautiful as anything I’ve seen in Britain; although I no longer feel the rapture of my early walking days when such experiences were relatively new, I ranked this ridge currently one of my best days in the hills.
I had to return the next day, after a morning ramble up a valley behind the Shiel Bridge camp site and then lingering on the journey, taking photographs by lochs and having a car picnic.
Glen Shiel is a terrifically attractive area, with extensive walking opportunities and even more slightly further afield, across to Skye in particular. There were one or two more outings I wanted to undertake; I would have walked the Saddle and the Forcan Ridge if I’d had time and not been so tired one of the days. But, as I said to a chap who was walking the entire Glen Shiel Ridge, it’s nice having a reason to return to an area you’ve enjoyed, because you don’t go there just to walk but also to enjoy a beautiful place. Paradoxically, although hill walking is inherently very strenuous, at the heart of it what I value most is qualities of being rather than doing: being in places of wild beauty, natural harmony, and uncorrupted peace. This was a wonderful trip, my second in Scotland, with sunshine most of the time and yet cold early season evenings and thus no midges.