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
“OUR ARRIVAL LED TO AN INSTANT POPULATION BOOM OF 15%”
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
“AINSHVAL’S NORTH-WEST FACE APPEARED STARK AND SLABBY AND INCREASINGLY GLOOMY IN THE DIMMING AFTERNOON”
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
“A SMALL ISLE IT MAY BE, BUT IN HEART AND SPIRIT IT’S AS BIG AS THEY COME”
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.