Seaside Special - Skye is the limit: west Highland


I’m surrounded by a jigsaw of blurry photo prints, OS maps and website screen-shots spread out across the office desk. It looks like an evidence board for a murder drama. I’m trying to piece together a youth hostel trip to Scotland from the late 80's/early 90's. None of the prints are dated or annotated. I recognise the faces of our group and some of the buildings. And even some of the landscapes. But not all of them. They were chucked in an album with pics of the Peak District and the Norfolk Broads from 1991. So that’s the year. But wait. The photos were in the wrong album. After a bit of checking, it’s definitely 1989, the year after I graduated. 

Geographically, the trip fits well in the blog series at this point as we go clockwise round the UK, but the recollections are going to be as patchy as a politicians autobiography. Picking out a few highlights and strong memories, whilst skating over the rest.

The trip was a big deal at the time. Our most ambitious youth hostel adventure yet, since we’d got the bug back in college. The furthest north I’d been until then, despite my Dad’s ambitious use of his BR employee family rail passes, was Edinburgh. I remain grateful for the expedition which opened up a whole new series of magical landscapes for me, which have served as motivation and inspiration ever since. More prosaically it also tested the tolerance of public transport, mechanical fixups and friable friendships.

Bizarrely, I remember the planning element quite well. Lee and I were flatmates. After a couple of beers in a pub in Peckham and a few phone calls, we were entrusted with making the logistical arrangements. The distance between the youth hostels in Scotland and the demand for beds in the dorms was such that we had to book up well in advance.

We had a map spread out on the living room floor with pins on hostel locations and bits of string to work out how far we could walk in a day. The positioning of railway stations and the relative reliability of post-buses and community transport were also factors.

How many more calls it took to finalise arrangements with the gang and with hostel managers escapes me, but somehow in a world before the internet and mobile phones, seven of us had planned to converge on Inverness from different parts of England on the same day in early June.

And then those assiduously plotted plans were blasted in to the air like streamers from a party popper. A train strike was announced for the date of our departure and beyond. Getting to Inverness by rail was not happening, nor was the onward journey on the train via the Great Glen to the Isle of Skye.

Gareth had a car. He was happy to drive the whole monster route. And Dave had a driving licence, he would hire a car and was equally happy to take the wheel. The holiday had turned into a road convoy!

We would have to stick with the hostel itinerary. That element was so much built on a house of cards that it was easier to leave the hard-won group-bookings be and let the hatchbacks take the strain instead. Thus Inverness remained the rallying point.

Lee and I took the train to Liverpool on the day before the rail strike to rendezvous with Gareth. Dave was in Stafford having recently finished up his Finals. Jerry and Ollie were just up the road at the Stoke site of the Poly. Pat was a Stokey boy and still lived there. So Dave hired a Ford Sierra - after considerable negotiation - from a well dodgy outfit on an industrial estate in Stafford and the four of them hit the road from the Midlands. 

I can’t recall anything of that long haul. My next clear image is of the seven of us miraculously arriving at Inverness youth hostel in two batches that evening, separated by only minutes. We drank beers in the town centre pubs; stuck into the greasiest, lard-laden fish and chips I've ever eaten – a particularly cherished memory; and then finished off with a few cans overlooking the River Ness from the grounds of the youth hostel high above the town. We marvelled at the ever-lasting light of that high summer evening and probably talked bollocks into the early hours. (Worth noting here that Scottish youth hostels didn’t have the same archaic 10.30pm curfew that their English counterparts upheld at that time.)

The hostel has gone now. As part of the research for this piece, I found a website stating that the hostel, a distinguished building on corner of Old Edinburgh Road and Culduthel Road called Viewhill House closed in 1998. It is now derelict and fire damaged. Google street view indeed confirms the image of a dejected building semi-clothed in scaffolding, overgrown with shrubs and decaying grounds. 

Next day, we headed out for the west coast. The original plan would have been the railway that terminated at Kyle of Lochalsh and then pushing north via public transport. But with cars we cut off the corner and wound our way through Achanalt, Achnasheen and Anancaun. Fantastic scenery all the way which we accompanied with some Bohemian Rhapsody air guitar moments synchronised between the two cars in some kind of rock n roll semaphore. I can only assume that Mike Myers was travelling in the opposite direction because a very similar scene was played out in Wayne’s World when the movie came out the following year. Copyright!

Music was front and centre on the trip. We were all gig buddies and alongside classic rock and metal sounds (I can remember an argument with Ollie about whether ‘Speed King’ or ‘Black Night’ was the best Deep Purple track ever), there was a lot of grunge and American new wave being played. Dave had a bunch of cassettes which featured now classic material from bands like REM, The Lemonheads, Pixies, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, The Chilli Peppers all on heavy rotation in his Sierra. Pat liked The Smiths but we tried not to dwell on it.

If I’ve assembled the bewildering array of photos in the right order, our first west-coast stop was Carn Dearg youth hostel outside the lovely village of Gairloch. The youth hostel sits above Loch Gairloch on the side of the road and there are fantastic views in either direction. Allegedly, anyway. It rained a lot. And Gareth’s Nissan Micra caught a cold. Coughing and spluttering outside the youth hostel in the bad weather, but refusing to spring in to life. Mechanics eventually arrived from Kyle of Lochalsh - ironically, where we would be heading in a few days - and fiddled about a bit with the electrics. Alternators and stuff.

So Carn Dearg was a quiet introduction to the Highland coastline. Board games, tea, pub. There’s a photo of a deserted village that we visited and another of us playing crazy golf somewhere. Another pic is of me outside the hostel that I tried to recreate on the North Coast 500 trip that Mrs A and I completed in June this year (more of that later).

We then drove south through the magnificent Torridon range to stay a couple of nights in the new-build concrete bunker of a youth hostel on the banks of the loch. Again, I want to cover this landscape in more detail when I come to write up this year’s NC500 adventure. Such a dramatic area. I will say here that we took on some challenging walks from Torridon. Though the weather remained pretty grim, we plothered through wet and boggy foothills and up across bald and austere passes. I can’t now remember which of those mountains we tackled, though Dave has subsequently reminded me that one was right behind the youth hostel, so I assume it was Meall Dearg. Not sure. I do know that I didn’t see any of them again for another 34 years.

The drive from Torridon south was stunning. Crossing the bridge onto Skye was memorable. But as we swung left into Kyleakin, the youth hostel was disappointing. So many hostels are in great buildings or superb locations. This one felt like a 70’s utilitarian office block thrown up by a car park on the edge of the village. In fact it  closed in 2007, according to my youth hostel website, and looks like it might be turned into social housing. Tourism in Kyleakin is in decline, apparently, as visitors cross over from the mainland and keep going.

The harbour was pretty enough, Caisteal Maol castle presented a fine backdrop and we found a bar to chill after the long journey.

We had a couple of nights here and used it as a base to get out to the Black Cuillins. I didn’t know much about these magnificent peaks at the time and I’m sure it was Lee who wanted to explore them. We headed out in convoy to Elgol, a tiny fishing village on the windswept shores of Loch Scavaig and loitered in the rain. Apparently, we could get a boat out to Loch Coruisk from there, gateway to the Cuillins. It didn’t look promising. The detail escapes me, but I know we didn’t book or pre-arrange any of this, and miraculously a fisherman turned up on the slipway and agreed to take the seven of us in his red inshore creel boat to the loch, hang around for a bit and then ship us back.

The cloud was down to our eyebrows and the air damp and heavy, but the crossing was still invigorating. Waterfalls spewed and frothed out of gullies in the looming mountains. Fat grey seals lay about on dark rocks at the water’s edge. Our captain didn’t say much as we moored on the tiniest of landing stages. He lived with this landscape on his doorstep, but the seven of us were a little awestruck.

Clambering up the small incline revealed the narrow, freshwater Loch Coruisk, separated from the sea by only that small rise of land, but completely hidden from view on the boat crossing. The black and green mountains, swathed in battleship cloud, closed in around the loch at extreme angles. Precipitation dripped from the skies and from our coats. The loch was dark, reflecting perfectly the environment. The sea behind us already seemed closed off and remote. It needed only a spark of imagination and maybe a conical mountain gushing smoke and sulphur to believe that this was actually the entrance to Mordor.

I’ve been to very few places quite so affecting as Loch Coruisk. The silence was enveloping. Our breath seemed to hang in the air. And then Pat fell in the loch.

I didn’t see it happen. Clearly adrift in the moment and absorbing my surroundings, all I heard was a yelp and a sploosh. He went properly right in, having lost his footing completely, and emerged with water spouting out of pockets and clothing recesses. Remarkably he had a grin on his face. Talk about puncturing the atmosphere, though...

Even after an hour or so rambling round the perimeter of the loch and the boat trip back to Elgol, Pat was still wringing wet. How we laughed. I imagine even the Captain cracked a smile. 

There is a pic of Ollie filming the sopping-wet Pat before he got back in the car. I had forgotten about this cine camera until unearthing these memories. It was actually Pat’s own camera and it was usually him behind the lens. He shot a good few spools on this trip. Some of which included our poorly-conceived attempts at moody 80’s alt rock videos on cliff tops that usually descended in to something closer to a sketch by The Monkees. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the developed footage. Must find out if it still exists.

On the morning of our departure, the Nissan Micra’s poorly chest broke out again. The same mechanics turned up from Kyle to fix it. They asked with a wary eye where we were headed next. Thankfully, there were no further incidents throughout our trip. The weather improved significantly after Kyleakin and I’m no mechanic but that co-incidence is pretty irrefutable, I reckon. 

Portree is the main town on Skye. Again we used it as a jumping off point, this time principally for the Trotternish peninsula. There was some fantastic hikes up in The Quiraing, and around the Old Man of Storr with rock formations like fingers of granite reaching skyward out of smooth, time-weathered grassy slopes. Quite remarkable. It is the most photographed landscape on Skye and we had good enough weather to enjoy the structures in their true glory.

We shifted up to Uig, which was my favourite youth hostel on Skye. After a full day’s walking and a few restorative beers, we played cricket on the field behind this former hospital (which is still in use as a hostel). We were astounded to find bat and stumps in the games room, so this was an opportunity not to be missed. There was no ball, so we made use of a washing powder ball from the laundry room. (Thanks to Jerry for that nugget of deep-dived memory!) The make-shift pitch was definitely giving sideways movement and the square made the slope at Lord’s look like a billiard table, but the views from the crease over the harbour were world beating. I seem to remember Dave and Pat having fearsome yorkers.

Our gang retraced the 50-odd mile length of Skye and then pressed on south back on the mainland, down the west coast. Although some of the details of the Skye trip are inevitably hazy, the impact of those mountain ranges - by turns, wild, sinister, glorious and cinematic – have never left me.

Whilst those upland treks around the Quiraing were taxing, the rewards were magnificent with clear days and sure-footed walking. At Ratagan, we took on a hike where the balance between pain and pleasure was not so favourable. Ratagan youth hostel overlooks Loch Duich, a mere well-lobbed stone over Glen More to Skye. It was our last stop before travelling out of the Highlands to more level coastal terrain.

Tucked up in our dorm, there was some debate about what to do with our last full day. The youth hostel warden had dangled the prospect of a good walk over the Five Sisters of Kintail that ‘fit young lads like us would have no trouble with’. Jerry, Pat and I were not so keen. We’d had some pretty stiff walks already and quite fancied hiring some bikes and pootling around low-level landscapes. Lee and Ollie were all for the day-long hike. Dave and Gareth were somewhere in the middle. I floated the idea of a splinter group. We didn’t have to do everything together, did we? That didn’t get much of a hearing, and in the end we all voted for the walk. Me included, so I can’t complain too much about shooting agony I feel in my thighs right now, just thinking about that insane trek again. Tempered (of course!) by the memory of the thrilling ascents revealing views over half of Highland Scotland.

The five Sisters of Kintail is one of the great ridge walks of Scotland, taking in three Munros and two other peaks over 900 metres with a combined 1,500 metres or so of ascent. For the record, the peaks are:

- Sgurr nan Spainteach, 990 m

- Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe, 1027m

- Sgurr na Carnach, 1002m

- Sgurr Fhuaran, 1067m

- Sgurr nan Saighead, 929m

We adopted a two-car policy, leaving the Micra at the end of the range and then a couple of trips in the Ford Jellymould so we could assemble at the start together. The day was overcast and a bit moist. We couldn’t see any of the summits.

Off we set. The real challenge of the hike was not the ridge walk itself, but the steep climb up to the first peak.  There is no question that this was a vicious slog. From the road to one of the staging posts at the Bealach am Lapain there was a climb of 480m in less than a kilometre - an eye watering, lung busting 1 in 2 gradient, some of it scrambling and plenty of tricky, greasy going on rocky ground.

We were soon in the cloud and whilst there was some satisfaction at scaling the first peak, there was not much of a view to be had. We dropped away from the top and I could feel my spirit sapping as the next muscle-mangling ascent kicked in. The good-natured banter and humour-in-adversity had turned in some quarters (mine) to down-right mutiny and open dissent. ‘What the fuck are we doing up here?  We can’t even see anything?’ One miserable, murky foot plonked in front of and above the other in thigh-burning manner. Where’s the joy in that, eh?

But how fickle are the taut emotions when under duress. As we approached the zenith of the second mountain, nothing short of a miracle occurred. The sky opened. Strands of cloud blew away from craggy outcrops, mist swirled out of corries and bit-by-bit the landscape was unveiled. With this transformation, my very being soared. We all felt the same. The world was briefly filled with colour. Lochs, hills, coastline, islands and horizons were revealed in sparkling detail. Loch Duich showed itself off in shimmering ripples. The ridge line – our route away north-west – was like a knife-edge, flanks picked out by the breaking sun in light and shade. A good metaphor for the whole adventure.

Clouds were already scudding across the vista. It was only a short time before the illuminated window closed again, so snaps were taken, views were drunk in and we all agreed that the toil was worth it after all. As grandiose as it sounds, this was genuinely one of the most uplifting moments of my life.

The same happened, though less dramatically on the third sister. At one point, there was a fissure across the path and we could see all the way to the foot of the mountain several hundred metres below. Soon after, the trek plunged back into thick cumulonimbus. Progress was a grind under such conditions and limbs seemed to ache exponentially more. Lee, Ollie and Dave up front, set the pace, me, Pat, Gareth and Jerry were at the back alternatively moaning, encouraging, groaning and supporting. And swearing.

Ultimately, there was enormous satisfaction in completing the trek. The descent brought us back below the cloud line and put the strain on the backs of legs rather than the front. We regrouped at the bottom of the final sister, seven of us in a crumpled pile, knackered but pleased with our efforts. Then a young couple and their dog trotted by us looking fresh in body and mind, waving to us and saying something about the five sisters being a nice afternoon stroll. Bastards.

I’m not really a seasoned mountain walker/munro-bagger, though I’ve done a few in my time. I would put the Five Sisters of Kintail that day amongst the toughest walks I’ve ever done. Up there with the endurance feat of the London to Brighton schlep and an over-ambitious section of the North Cornwall coast path in miserable rain with an overloaded pack.

Oban was the final stop on that trip. Very different in nature to the Highlands. More like being bussed out for a bucolic, seaside rest cure. Under other circumstances we would have loved the resort, ice-creams and all.  As it was, having had a fortnight in youth hostels, living out of ruck sacks, away from centres of population, we were feeling smelly, grizzled and maybe a little wild. A family-friendly tourist hotspot was always going to be a wide of the mark. So heading homeward after only a brief overnighter in that gentle Argyll and Bute town was probably the right move. Arriving back in London was quite the culture shock. Some trip. 

As a footnote, its worth saying that I returned to Ratagan and Skye 17 years later. This time with Mrs A, Daughters No 1 and 2, together with my Mum and Dad and Mrs A’s Mum, all wrapped up in a little house in the woods behind Glenelg. We saw otters in Kyle Rhea, a pine marten in the cottage back garden and a full grown stag next to our picnic table in a cafĂ© in Corran. The kids built dens, played shops and opened a pretend museum in the woods. We visited the Glenelg Inn, run by notoriously surly landlords and got on with them like a house on fire. We had a horse-racing video game on the telly and we played cards. My Dad cheated at both. We saw so few people that my Mum and Helen’s Mum, who between them never knowingly let a silence brew, actually ran out of things to say. This was a more sedate, comfortable holiday than the Highlands youth hostel trip, but I came away loving that corner of the Scottish coast even more.

Series navigation: Intro and chapter guide

Previous episode: Diary of  Caledonian Sleeper

Next episode: NC500 part 1


Popular posts from this blog

Seaside Special - NC500 part 2: north and north-west Highland

Seaside Special - NC500 part 1: North Lanarkshire, Falkirk, Stirling, Perth & Kinross, east Highland