Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Island time

Early morning, near the end of a week of family camping on Harris, I sneaked out to the car while the children slept the deep sleep of tired, sore legs and fresh air. Minutes later I was swooping along, riding the rollercoaster road from beach and sea loch-head saltmarsh, following tilting rows of telegraph poles up to barren, slabby mountain passes. I was aiming for the cloud-swathed heart of Harris where wild mountains climb from sea to summit and dark rocky glens curve into the interior. The Clisham is the crowning hill, the highest on the Outer Hebrides, but I didn't want to just 'raid' it from the highest point on the road.

The bridge over the Abhainn Sgaladail, which drains the northwestern aspect of Clisham and its satellites, is a much more sporting 50 metres above sea level.

Wet moorland gives way to slabby pavements on the first top, Tomnabhal. Huge Loch Langhbhat wends north from its mountain cradle into the flat watery maze of inland Lewis. This is recognisably Scotland but something more, something elemental and slightly alien to a mainlander. Maybe it's in the shapes and textures of the hills, maybe the island light from above and below - the silent shining ocean. Maybe it's in the Norse oddness of many of the names (the Western Isles are a relatively recent addition to what we now know as Scotland); maybe those names play tricks on the mind, add filters to the eyes.

Clisham beckons next, brushed by clouds. I head up in a straight line, hoping to find a weakness in the crags flanking the summit. The climb seems to steepen exponentially until I'm struggling through a steep, shallow gully that pops me suddenly out on the draughty ridge a short way from the top.

The world comes and goes. It's warm in the sun, cold in the cloud. I'm glad to crouch in the summit shelter for a bite and a drink.

This is just the start though. I want to make a traverse of this, and follow the spine of the hills west.

The cloud descends stealthily. Perspective and scale are gradually blurred. I scramble on, handrailing the drops, but the ridge is so sharp it's hard to go wrong.

Finally I pull to a halt, and listen, disembodied. Dead calm now, and the endless churning of water on either side, down in the misty depths, is the only clue to the true scale of the place.

Endless boulder-hopping leads to the end of the ridge, which merges suddenly and steeply with the moor. Then it's a familiar tussle with bogs and tussocks and heather back down the Abhainn Sgaladail, beneath the mountains' ampitheatre. Up in the clouds, time seemed to stretch out, nothing but me and my breathing, hands and feet and rock. Down below I snap back into place. It's only early afternoon.


  1. Fabulous writing and great pictures, Stefan.
    Thank you.

    1. Thanks Alan, that's lovely to hear :-)

  2. Great writing and superb pictures really bring to life the adventure. Harris, definitely on the list to explore.

    1. Thanks Fin. An amazing place to explore, by bike and kayak/packraft, as well as on foot.