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Pilgrimage

“I never thought I would get here”, I said to myself as I pulled up on the tiny quay at Elgol. This statement was not a reflection of the time it takes to get from Coventry to Skye but more a recognition of a life long ambition to get to the island that all mountaineers must go to at some time in their career. And what a welcome the place gave me. It was 8 pm in mid Summer and the sun was still high on the western horizon but beginning to redden the cloudless eastern sky. The Cuillin were laid out like cardboard cut outs in receding shades of grey with shafts of light forming and falling on the spinal ridge of the central valley. From left to right I began to name them from the maps and guide books I had studied for years - I still found it hard to believe I was here.

The fortune of finding myself looking at this scene under clear conditions held me spellbound and made me momentarily forget the aims of the trip - walking and pictures. I soon came to life and began to take pictures, first from the quay and then from the beach. I went out as far as I could round the shore and tried all possible combinations of filter to ensure that I had the range of interpretations that I wished to make. A small fleet of fishing boats was active in the bay and they provided occasional foreground interest and then a subject in their own right. For two hours I watched the light and made pictures until the sun hit a distant western cloud bank that heralded a change for tomorrow. The scene lost its intensity and contrast so I resorted to simply wondering at the scale of the mountain architecture in front of me.

As I finally packed my camera away the driver of the car next to me was doing the same. His passenger spoke to me - “ John and I have been coming the Skye for thirty years and we’ve never seen it as magnificent as this “, she said. “We really are lucky tonight”. I told her that this was my first visit and she advised me to make the most of it. “ Evenings like this are rare here - you may have to wait thirty years to see it again.”  With this I was reminded of the advice a photography tutor gave me a few years ago - “Film is cheap - opportunity is priceless”. At 10.30pm I left the quay to get back to Broadford Youth Hostel before it closed - stopping only briefly to phone home and enthuse about what I had just seen. As I stood in the phone box I was reminded of a similar scene in the film ‘Local Hero’.  Before retiring to bed I read the weather forecast for my first full day on Skye - “Occasional showers, some heavy with bright spells and fresh South Westerly winds.” I decided to have a low level day and walk into Loch Coruisk from Elgol.

I first read about this walk in WH Murray’s book ‘Mountaineering in Scotland’ and its frequent appearance in guide books suggested it was a good choice to get a sense of the atmosphere that pervades the Cuillin. The walk basically follows the coast round from Elgol into the heart of the mountains at Loch Coruisk and includes an awkward section called ‘The bad step’.
 

The forecast was right and I woke up to a dullish overcast morning with quite low cloud. I got away fairly early and drove the ten miles to near Elgol passing Blaven on the way. The cloud prevented me from seeing the superb ridge that had been a dark silhouette on the previous night. I pulled into the lay-by at Kilmarie next to a white BMW - I was evidently not the first to set out today. The usual ritual of sorting out the food, the clothes (Definitely full waterproofs in the sack) & the camera gear took a short while and I was off. My first footsteps on a walk on this Island of Dreams were steady and purposeful along the stony road that led off across the land towards the ridge that forms the spine of the Elgol peninsula. In the distance I saw some Highland cattle and not knowing their temperament I was a little apprehensive as I noted that they were on the route. My approach to a gate was accompanied by these animals who seemed magnetised to my presence. A hesitant test of their intention established that they were nervous beasts who probably thought I was going to feed them - nevertheless I closed the gate behind me with relief.

The road continued its roller coaster progress for a good mile or so (I believe the Army built it originally - perhaps the squadies had trained on Blackpool pleasure beach) until it peaked at a slight dip in the ridge which revealed the view to the West across the bay towards Camasunary. There were two habitations on this South West facing strand of pebbles, a fisherman’s cottage and the bothy whose romantic location I had aspired to visit as a result of all the armchair study. The view itself was somewhat limited by the low cloud but the shore was clear and the hills were detectable as a darkness in the mist. The descent to the shore was pregnant with anticipation and I finally crossed a bridge to gain the grassy area at the back of the beach. The immediate impact was appalling - it was a tip! The back of the pebble beach was strewn with plastic litter - cups, bottles, nets, boxes and acres of polystyrene in many forms. This was a mess that took the edge of the magnificence of the position. I walked past the fishing house and on towards the bothy where the rubbish was slightly less prevalent. In fact the shore in front of the cottage was clear and a sense of remoteness returned as I nervously opened the door to the building

Why nervous you may ask - well perhaps there were occupants and I felt uneasy about disturbing their isolation - that is after all the draw that these mountain refuges have for people. Bothies are fascinating places with mixed memories for me. I am not a devotee of their accommodation but I sense two contrasting circumstances in which I have visited them. Firstly there is the wild party with many friends - hot food, mugs of tea and a tot of whisky which released song and merriment leading to sound sleep. Secondly there is the lone visit haunted by a presence of another force ( probably only in the imagination ) that made me sit up all night tending a meagre fire to keep up the morale. During the day and unoccupied you could be forgiven for being critical of their sparseness and dereliction but a careful inspection of the contents reveals a loving attention to essential detail by its visitors.
 
There is a single camp bed in one room - left for those in need perhaps, a few tins of food, a box of matches and some fuel form the basis of an emergency meal which is alluded to by a note which says “ Please leave a little sustenance for those who take refuge”. There is dry wood set out as the basis of a fire in the grate with instructions on where to find more and  an official looking document drawn up by the MBA (mountain Bothies Association) sets out the detailed procedure for environmentally friendly toileting. An open book on the window sill invites the comment of visitors - customer service feedback, but for whom? The answer is clear. The book exists for pilgrims to record their thoughts on reaching the promised land and it overflows with love for the place. I add my comments using the pen kindly supplied and as I lay the pen down my eye catches a small card on the sash window frame. ‘In Memorium’ it begins then goes on to pay last respects to Peter Lockhart McDonald of  Watford who was cremated on 27th April 1999 and wished his ashes to be spread on the shore at Camasunary. An official letter next to it authorises the bereaved to carry out those last wishes. Sad thoughts to some but also warming to one who knows what it means to feel a passion for locations like this - I would be happy here. They do not haunt this house that have died at peace and where better to seek peace for your last rest.

I eat a little food and drink, take a few pictures  and hear occasional spats of rain on the roof then set off to continue the walk. A look at the shore is essential and there laid out on the grass at the top of the beach is a stone picture of a snake. Its sinuous body and head are made up of carefully selected flat black stones laid on the green turf and three small white pebbles form a forked tongue to complete the icon. It provides a thought provoking foreground to my picture of the bothy with a grey mist and looming hill behind. It is time to move on and there is a great sense of relief at finding the stream to be easily crossable by the stepping stones. Several guidebooks refer to them as being washed out in high tide and flow conditions. There was once a wire bridge here which was also Army built but all that now remains is the two concrete towers at either end and some rusty cable on the ground. On the far side of the stream there is a reed bed which sways rhythmically in the wind and allows a slight pause for photography. The movement is mesmerising and they look really out of place here but I suppose I should not be surprised to see reeds in such a wet place as this.

The path weaves its way along the coast staying a few metres above the water and as it turns the headland there is no longer a beach but a small cliff as the interface between land and sea. The hillside becomes more steep and eventually I am walking a ledge-like path in heather and now heading Northwards towards the Cuillin. ‘The Bad Step’ approaches. As a reasonably confident rock climber I should feel no fear of a few moves on good gabbro at an easy angle above the sea , nevertheless my pulse raises as I turn a corner and it is revealed at last. Can I get past it to the Mecca beyond.
 

As I get closer I see that a small cave is formed in the rock from which a good ledge leads left towards the sea. I decide to sit for a moment, have a drink and transfer all my camera gear from round my neck into my rucksack. This tidying up and mentally winding up complete I set out along the ledge. The cave roof recedes and in perfect balance the ledge rises slightly to reveal a slab with a deep horizontal gash in it for the feet and a flake for hand holds as the gash slowly rises upwards to the left. There is one awkward move to transfer from one gash to a higher one but it is exhilarating rather than fear inducing and I let out a slight “Whoopee” as I clamber over easy ground to a large platform. Not to lose sight of good practice I look at the return moves and establish that they are tenable in reverse. Paradise is gained as I set off up the good path towards the mouth of Loch Coruisk passing some extensive slabs of rock lurking in the mist to my right.  As I reach the beach at the head of the inlet  I note some large black boulders on the beach that glisten with recent rain and record them on film. There is then a short pull up to the neck of land that is split by the Scavaig River flowing out of the inland Loch. Another site of special passionate interest has been gained.

There is a slight eminence just to the East of the outfall and I set up shop to take some pictures of the scene in front of me. An inky black loch is the foreground to a brooding scene of moving mists that imply the presence of large rock formations. There are occasional thinnings that allow a spire to appear and just as quickly hide again. The grey sheets swirl around and the word cauldron comes to mind to describe the melting pot of water vapour circulating around one of the most vaunted corries in Scotland. Whilst waiting for a development of the scene I get out some food and have a cup of lemon tea but after half an hour I decide that it is if anything getting thicker and certainly not improving so I choose to move on. A group of four people comes into view on the far bank at the stepping stones near the end of the loch. I wait for them to cross and note that they are very heavily laden with rucksacks and ropes. “Not a good day to be on the rock” I suggest as they gather on my side. “ Oh we’ll give it a go if we can find the crag” comes the retort. Their enthusiasm impresses me. Climbing a cliff you have difficulty finding means you haven’t been there before and in worsening weather with habitation about 10 miles away the prospect seems quite challenging - or am I just getting jaded? I wish them well and set out across the sinuous stepping stones to the far bank.

The main reason for crossing is to explore the Coruisk Memorial mountain hut situated near here. It comes into view after a few minutes tramp by the Scavaig river, huddled beneath a small cliff and proudly flying the Blue Cross of St. Andrew to identify it as an SMC property. An upturned sea kayak and mountain tent are close by so someone is around but the hut is shuttered suggesting that it is not occupied. I look out to the small bay and note an interesting picture but as I frame it in the viewfinder I see a strange light coloured vertical straight line that looks very unnatural. A second look explains all - it is the mast of a boat in the bay. I move closer to reveal a catamaran moored out in the bay and a tender on the beach. There is however no sign of life. What a way to get to this place, to sail in at night, drop anchor and wake up in the morning surrounded by ridges and pinnacles. 
My concept of the remoteness of this bay is about to be shattered as the dull thud of a marine diesel engine gradually gets louder. But there is worse to come as a loud hailer announces that the journey is about to end as the boat lands to discharge its passengers at the jetty that only now appears as I crest the ridge behind the beach. I skulk behind a tussock of grass as the boat ties up. What happens next upsets me as a crowd gets off the boat and one youth runs shouting and waving a can of coke up the path from the jetty - “Beautiful here innit”,  he says as he throws his can away. I can’t stand any more so I scurry off along the path to the stepping stones to get there before them and set off back along the coast.

The climbers have found their cliff and have established camp at the base of it. One brave soul has set off up the climb and is currently inspecting an overhang that guards the lower section of slabs. I watch them for a while but the nut will take some cracking as he retreats a few feet to find some protection. A band of rain is developing out to sea - the forecast was right - I bet that slab collects all the water from the upper section of cliff.

The walk back seems so different to the walk in, perhaps it is the view, or the fact that I now begin to meet lots of other walkers coming towards me. It is about midday and I forget that with daylight until nearly eleven o’clock there is no need for early starts unless you like seclusion or photography. Back at the river crossing by the bothy a  fisherman is casting his spinner in the water  - a wild place to come for angling. I cross the river and head back into the bothy for a drink as a sheet of rain catches up with me.

I am not alone this time. A purring sounds belies the presence of a primus stove as somebody is heating up a soup. “Hullo there” he says as I walk into the lounge. I pull up a seat and get out my flask whilst listening to his tale. He is a weather beaten Scot who tells me his recent itinerary. Last night was spent near Coruisk under his bivvy sheet and today he was headed for Elgol, but the list of places he reels off suggest he has tramped most of the island in his two week vacation. Not one hotel figures in his sleeping sites. I leave the Stirling Strider to his soup and start to pack up and move.

Heavy footsteps are heard outside as three large walkers loom  big in the doorway. They are a wild bunch of long haired lads with huge straggly beards - looking like something from a Hells Angels movie. The first one throws his rucksack on the settee  as a full bottle of Glen Morangie falls out - luckily without mishap. The conversation that ensues suggests they all have different bottles of malt whisky in their baggage. Camasunary bothy is in for a wild night tonight.

The rain had stopped whilst I was in the hut but as I set out across the beach head more sheets pour down and I resort to waterproofs for the sharp pull up to the ridge. This really is penetrating rain coming in straight off the sea and lashing at my face. A moment of melancholy takes over as I crest the rise and leave the view behind me. A poem takes shape that sums up the feeling of always having something left to do.

 
Unfinished Business

The hills still constant lie,
Though I move on to die,
Adventures still to come,
Projects yet undone,
Pictures left unmade,
Footsteps never laid,
Unfinished business.

Back at the car I strip off the wet gear and put on warm, dry clothes and set up the stove for a real brew of tea. The car park is now very full and I try to match cars to the owners  I may have met on my journey. Just as the kettle boils two walkers arrive beating a demanding rhythm with their ski poles. Sweat is pouring off them despite the fact that they are in shorts and tee-shirts. I speculate that they must be the owner of the white BMW that was there when I arrived and I am correct. As they are next door to me I offer them a brew which they accept willingly whilst recounting their two nights of lightweight camping up in the corries. We all come for different challenges but the shared cup of tea unites us all - not a bad way to end a pilgrimage.

© Keith Ratcliffe - March 2000

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