Dis­cov­er­ing the beauty of Rùm

Join us for an ad­ven­ture on the Scot­tish Isles’ other Cuillin.


Fac­ing into the tor­rent, we clung to­gether in our three­man scrum. Inch by inch we crabbed across the swollen river, packs un­buck­led and ready to ditch should we slip. Rocks rolled un­der our feet. The surg­ing wa­ter tugged at our thighs. Grad­u­ally, we rose out of the wa­ter and onto the far bank. Packs re­fas­tened and boots poured empty, we set off down the track. A glance back at our cross­ing point brought a ter­ri­fy­ing rev­e­la­tion. Me­tres down­stream, the Allt nam Bà cas­caded over an un­sur­viv­able fall, plung­ing in a col­umn of foam and fury as it rushed vi­o­lently to the ocean. “We prob­a­bly shouldn’t have done that,” pho­tog­ra­pher Tom (TB) sug­gested. He was prob­a­bly right.

It’s not an easy place to get to, Rùm. If you live in the south-east of Eng­land, it’s a long way away to start with. Add in the dif­fi­cul­ties of a spo­radic ferry timetable and you might won­der if it’s worth it. After all, Skye has moun­tains and a bridge. But it’s this re­mote wild­ness of Rùm, along with the dra­matic ge­ol­ogy of its moun­tains, that pulls peo­ple of an ad­ven­tur­ous na­ture to its shores; peo­ple like us. But death-de­fy­ing river cross­ings? We’d not been en­tirely pre­pared for that ex­pe­ri­ence...

To be fair, we had been warned. “The is­land can’t get any wet­ter” was the opin­ion of the lady in the Rùm shop. Just to clar­ify, the Rùm shop is a small shop on the is­land of Rùm, not a shop sell­ing rum. Although, the Rùm shop does sell rum. But then, the Rùm shop sells most things: gro­ceries, house­hold sup­plies, out­door equip­ment, tourist gifts (in­clud­ing the all-im­por­tant fridge mag­nets) – you name it, chances are they sell it. The Rùm shop is so much more than just a shop. It’s also a post of­fice, meet­ing place, com­mu­nity hub, and a great place to seek ad­vice about the is­land. Watch­ing the ferry chug away, know­ing that we were ma­rooned on the is­land for the next two days, had been a slightly dis­con­cert­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. The wel­come at the shop had served to re­mind us that we weren’t en­tirely alone, even if our ar­rival had led to an pop­u­la­tion boom of 15%. The walk along Rùm’s east coast to Dibidil is a lit­tle over nine kilo­me­tres. It should have taken three hours. It took us five. It had soon be­come clear that Rùm was in­deed sat­u­rated. Streams flowed down paths, paths ran un­der rivers, and fords only ex­isted on the map. The first cross­ing had been knee-deep. Sev­eral more had been an­kle-high. Then had come the treach­er­ous and, with hind­sight, ill-ad­vised wad­ing of the Allt nam Bà. By the time we’d rounded the head­land be­low Beinn nan Stac and spied the bothy over the folds of Glen Dibidil, we too were sat­u­rated, and grate­ful for the clammy warmth of the au­tumn weather. But there was a soggy sting in the tail. Hid­den in a chan­nel at the base of the glen flows the Dibidil River. While not as un­re­lent­ingly rapid as the Allt nam Bà had been, it was none­the­less deep and fast enough to war­rant care­ful se­lec­tion of our cross­ing point.

You don’t get to choose your bothy mates. If you open the door to find it al­ready oc­cu­pied, you ei­ther share, or move on. Dibidil was empty. Not that we’d have ob­jected to com­pany, but by the time ev­ery item of sod­den cloth­ing had been peeled off, wrung out, and hung up around the iron stove, there was barely enough room for the three of us, and any­body else would have had to be com­fort­able shar­ing the in­creas­ingly steamy room with three men in their pants. That morn­ing, my brother, Tom (TW) and I had de­clined the of­fer of a com­pli­men­tary copy of The Sun from the Spar shop in Mal­laig, on the ba­sis that we’d al­ready packed toi­let pa­per. But TB had ac­cepted his, think­ing it might be use­ful for get­ting a fire started. As it hap­pened, it was just the job for stuff­ing into wet boots to dry them out. Say what you like about The Sun, but it is su­per ab­sorbent. That evening, as we set­tled into dry and warm sleep­ing bags, Tom told a tale of ‘The Ghost Mouse of Dibidil Bothy’ that haunts the dark­ness, keep­ing both­iers awake with its scam­per­ing and scratch­ing. “Is it pos­si­ble,” my brother ven­tured, break­ing the pro­found si­lence that had fol­lowed the story with a query­ing tone, “that it’s just a mouse?”

The di­rect pull up to the sum­mit of Sgùrr nan Gil­lean from Dibidil would be tough at the best of times. First thing in the morn­ing, after a sleep plagued by dreams


of spec­tral ro­dents, it was close to tor­ture, climb­ing 700m in just 1km. It was cold too – above the 500m con­tour the turf was still crispy and frozen with icy droplets. But even the re­lent­less steep­ness even­tu­ally re­lented, al­beit not un­til the sum­mit. The top of Sgùrr nan Gil­lean (an­other name Rùm shares with Skye) pro­vided us with our first views. The pre­vi­ous day’s im­pen­e­tra­ble clag had lifted, and the low pro­files of the neigh­bour­ing Small Isles, Eigg and Muck, could be seen across the Sound of Rùm. More ex­cit­ingly, our day’s jour­ney was laid out in front of us. The twist­ing, con­joined chain of peaks, coloured by a patch­work of greys and greens, looked ev­ery bit the gnarly moun­tain jour­ney we’d hoped for. And, rather re­as­sur­ingly, the re­main­ing three peaks of the Rùm Cuillin didn’t look too tax­ing. Ex­cept… “Shouldn’t there be more of them?” I asked. TB scanned the vista, tick­ing


off the peak names from his map as he went. “That’s Ruin­si­val – we’re not go­ing there. That’s Ainshval, that’s Aski­val, and peek­ing out be­hind that’s Hal­li­val. Where’s Trol­lab­hal?” We con­cluded that Trol­lab­hal must be ob­scured by Ainshval, as it seemed un­likely to have moved.

As we crossed Sgùrr nan Gil­lean’s long, curved sum­mit, an icy north-east­erly blew up from the Name­less Cor­rie, numb­ing our faces un­til they ached. The Name­less Cor­rie doesn’t de­serve to be name­less. Or rather, the name ‘Name­less Cor­rie’ doesn’t do it jus­tice. It’s dark, in­tri­cately bru­tal, and deeply fas­ci­nat­ing – the sort of place you’d love to ex­plore, if only you were a lit­tle bit braver. The short de­scent and re-as­cent to Ainshval was eas­ily dis­patched, and in seem­ingly no time at all we’d bagged our first two of the Rùm Cuillin. At this point, though, it be­came clear that we couldn’t ex­pect such an easy ride all day.

From the sum­mit of Ainshval a dark ridge drops north. This fin of rock ap­peared black, wet, and in­creas­ingly steep with an all too abrupt end. Shun­ning this de­scent for a drier day (or bolder folk), we took the rough path wind­ing down to the right of it. The sum­mit of Ainshval had given us our first view of Trol­lab­hal. From afar, there had not ap­peared to be any ob­vi­ous way to the top. And as we clam­bered over boul­ders and into the Bealach an Fhuarain, we still had no idea how we were go­ing to get up it. “That’s Troll­bas­tard, huh?” my brother asked. “Trol­lab­hal,” I cor­rected. “What­ever. See what you’re call­ing it by the time we’ve made it up that.” He ges­tured to the wall of rock ahead of us. “There’ll be a line of weak­ness some­where,” TB of­fered, head­ing into the rocky in­ners of the moun­tain’s south­ern flank.

Find­ing a way up through the crags was far from straight­for­ward. By en­gag­ing in some ir­reg­u­lar but easy scram­bling, we even­tu­ally emerged from the maze of gul­lies and ledges onto the ridge be­tween Trol­lab­hal’s twin sum­mits. Sit­ting in the cen­tre of the Rùm Cuillin, Trol­lab­hal of­fers per­haps the best view­point from which to ab­sorb the sur­round­ing moun­tains. Its sum­mit is ex­cit­ingly nar­row, and a joy­ously thrilling scram­ble from end to end. For fu­ture ref­er­ence, the western top is marginally higher. We only re­alised this once we’d clam­bered up to the eastern end. In the in­ter­ests of, as I put it to the Toms, “do­ing this prop­erly”, we made our way over to the western edge, be­fore re­turn­ing to the eastern top from where we de­scended to Bealach an Oir.

The climb to the sum­mit of Aski­val was the re-as­cent of the day. From the 702m Trol­lab­hal we’d lost 247m in the de­scent to the bealach at 455m. From here, there were 357 not in­signif­i­cant me­tres to be re­gained. Aski­val’s west ridge is steep and rocky and the jour­ney up it hard work. But its sum­mit is the high­est point on Rùm, and it felt right that it should re­quire some ef­fort. By the time we ar­rived on top of the is­land, we were no­tice­ably start­ing to lose the light. It was just 2.30pm. Look­ing back, Ainshval’s north-west face ap­peared stark and slabby and in­creas­ingly gloomy in the dim­ming af­ter­noon. This is its aptly named Grey Cor­rie, a place that seems likely to be as harsh and un­wel­com­ing as it looks.

The de­scent from Aski­val is no eas­ier than the as­cent. Bro­ken crags lay­ered with slick grass must be care­fully


ne­go­ti­ated, even­tu­ally bring­ing the would-be es­capee to the start of a long ridge that links the moun­tain to its north­ern neigh­bour, Hal­li­val. The start of this ridge presents as an ar­range­ment of pin­na­cles and stubby rocks. Ap­pear­ing en­tirely man­age­able from afar, these rock for­ma­tions are re­vealed to be dan­ger­ously steep and treach­er­ous. We skirted its eastern side, clam­ber­ing down more ledges be­fore paus­ing to in­spect small bur­rows that pock-marked the turf. There are no rab­bits on Rùm, but what else could be re­spon­si­ble for these tun­nels? “Birds” the or­nitho­log­i­cally-minded TB in­formed us. “Manx shear­wa­ters, to be pre­cise.”

Dur­ing sum­mer, Rùm is home to over 30% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion of Manx shear­wa­ters, an im­pres­sive statis­tic given that it’s only home to 0.0000003% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion of peo­ple. These ocean-go­ing birds are vul­ner­a­ble on land, so the colonies hide out in bur­rows on the re­mote ground of Rùm’s Cuillin hills. The eerie calls of the shear­wa­ters were be­lieved by Vik­ings to be the cries of moun­tain trolls, lead­ing them to name one peak on which the birds breed the ‘Hill of the Trolls’. Their guano feeds the lush green veg­e­ta­tion that coats even the high­est of the moun­tains, while the birds them­selves feed Rùm’s golden ea­gles.

North­wards, the ridge soon eases into a nar­row grassy prom­e­nade, which in turn broad­ens into a rock-strewn sad­dle. The light was fad­ing fast as we made the scram­ble up our fi­nal as­cent. At our backs, the sun dropped into the sil­hou­et­ted ‘V’ be­tween Trol­lab­hal and Ainshval. By the time we slumped on to Hal­li­val’s cairned sum­mit for a Jelly Baby break, it had all but dis­ap­peared and the thin sliver of a cres­cent moon teetered above Aski­val’s sum­mit. To the north, be­yond Rùm’s lower lumps and bumps and across the sea, Skye’s own Cuillin tore the hori­zon, a sharp-toothed mass of dark­en­ing vi­cious­ness, lightly dusted on their high­est points by snow.

Nav­i­gat­ing the rocky de­scent off Hal­li­val in the dim­ming light was slow. By the Bealach Bairc-mheall we were in dark­ness. Be­yond the bealach is a fi­nal peak: Barke­val. It’s rarely in­cluded in a tra­verse of the Rùm Cuillin, be­ing lower than the other moun­tains and awk­wardly placed. Add to those the fact that it was now well and truly night, and we had no plans to ex­tend our day. There was a brief pause while head­torches were re­trieved from packs, and as we rum­maged, dark shapes moved around us in the opaque gloom. Flick­ing the lamps on, the light caught the dozen or so cu­ri­ous deer, who turned and skit­tered off over the rock upon re­al­is­ing they could be seen. We left the deer to their play and the moun­tains to their sleep and dropped into Coire Dubh to be­gin the jour­ney back to­wards Kin­loch.

The next morn­ing, we stood on the up­per deck of the ferry as it pulled away of Loch Scre­sort, ad­mir­ing the is­land’s moun­tains from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. Dur­ing the night, silently and stealth­ily, their up­per slopes had been blan­keted in snow. Whether it was the al­ter­na­tive view or their new win­ter dress, de­spite the day we’d spent among their hills Rùm’s Cuillin once again felt like strangers. As we sailed back to the real world, I col­lected my thoughts, at­tempt­ing to put my feel­ings of Rùm into some kind of or­der. It has an all-but-aban­doned Vic­to­rian man­sion and a clas­si­cal Greek-style mau­soleum. It was home to Vik­ings and lairds. Tun­nelling sea birds haunt the hills they’ve phys­i­cally changed. It is an is­land burst­ing with sto­ries. But it was the hills my mind, and my eyes, kept drift­ing back to. They might lack the spike and fe­roc­ity of Skye, but – like the is­land as a whole – Rùm’s Cuillin are sat­u­rated with char­ac­ter. A Small Isle it may be, but only by name. In heart and spirit, it’s as big as they come.


On the sum­mit of Aski­val with Skye just vis­i­ble in the fad­ing light.



The rolling out­line of the Rùm Cuillin, as seen from Mal­laig on the main­land. Win­ter light over the snow-dusted top of Aski­val.



The as­cent of Trol­lab­hal from the bealach be­tween it and Ainshval is not the sim­plest.

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