Monday 13 June 2011

Wild Camping on the Island of Rum

The following account of a rather dramatic trip appeared in TGO magazine five years ago. The picture shows the camp on the slopes of Ainshval.

Stormy nights in a tent are one of the joys of backpacking. Or so I told myself as I lay in my tiny shelter listening to the wind rush down the mountainside lashing the tent with rain and shaking the thin nylon walls. I was camped in Coire Dubh on the island of Rum below the mist-shrouded walls of Barkeval and Hallival on the first night of a four day trip during which I hoped to traverse the Rum Cuillin, the finest Hebridean mountains outside the bigger Cuillin on Skye. Like their larger namesake the Rum Cuillin are the jagged remnants of an ancient volcano.

Earlier in the day I’d arrived on the ferry from Mallaig after a pleasant trip spent watching birds and staring at the ominous dark cloud hiding Rum. In the little village of Kinloch, the only one on the island, the midges were biting in the calm humid air, ending the temptation to camp on the site here rather than start my walk in such, dull misty weather. Instead I passed by the grand Edwardian pile of Kinloch Castle, a rather incongruous feature on this wild island, and climbed a muddy path into the cloud to camp on a breeze catching knoll in the mouth of the corrie.

That evening, in the hope of a clearance and a sunset, I climbed 591 metre Barkeval, a rugged hill built of peridotite, an extremely rough red-brown volcanic rock. I clambered up rock and bog in thick mist and steady drizzle. The summit came and went, barely noticed in the increasingly stormy weather. A compass bearing led to the Bealach Bairc-mheall from where I dropped back down into Coire Dubh and shelter from the wind. Immediately clouds of midges swarmed round me and I had to run to escape them, producing copious condensation inside my waterproof. Wet rain jacket, wet windshirt, wet shoes, wet socks, wet trousers. I stripped off and dived into the merely damp confines of the tent and an already clammy sleeping bag. The gusty wind kept the midges at bay, though they sprang up whenever it dropped for more than a few seconds. During the night the strengthening wind woke me several times. By morning the strongest gusts were reaching 30mph. The tent was shrouded in damp mist and the flysheet was soaked inside and out.

Adopting my wet weather strategy – stay in the tent and hope it clears – I put on another brew and settled down to read my book, the story of Scottish plant collector David Douglas, who put up with far more than wet nights in search of seeds in the Rocky Mountains. Eventually I was rewarded for my sloth with a brief clearance and a sudden view down to the woods in Kinloch Glen. I started packing. The clouds soon closed back in but I went anyway, climbing back up through the dark mist to the Bealach Bairc-mheall. Standing was difficult here and the anemometer recorded a gust of 57.7 mph. It took only seconds to realise that the traverse of the Cuillin would be foolhardy, if indeed possible, in such weather and I was soon descending steep, rough slopes into huge Atlantic Corrie, then on east down Glen Harris, a lovely, wild valley with a noisy river crashing down in a series of waterfalls and water slides, culminating in one big white foamed fall dropping straight into the matching white foamed sea. Here, on the south-west coast of Rum, I camped on the beautiful flower-strewn machair above a wild sea, the grey water breaking in ragged white waves, their crests ripped into spinning foam by the wind. A herd of wild goats stared down at me from a ridge, their shaggy coats, curved horns and manic eyes appropriate to this elemental place. Four curlews circled above the camp, their rippling calls ringing through the roaring wind.

The crossing of the ridge had only taken half a day. Reluctant to spend more hours than necessary in my damp camp I spent the afternoon exploring the coast with its pebble beaches and little cliffs and visiting the big strange Greek temple style mausoleum built here by the Bullough family, former owners of the island. Far out to sea the ferry to South Uist bounced past. I was glad I wasn’t on board. Inland the hills were still cloud-shrouded, dark masses looming in the dull air.

The wind and rain finally eased at dawn, just right for the midges to come out as I was breakfasting. Out to the south-west thin lines of blue sky wavered below the steel grey cloud. Gradually the cloud rose, revealing 528 metre Ruinsival with bands of cloud drifting below the summit. The surging sea was gentler and more rhythmic rather than a storm driven staccato crashing. The world was beginning to look brighter and more colourful.

As the sky continued to lighten I climbed up beside lovely white waterslides on the Abhainn Fiachanis to Loch Fiachanis, set in a wonderful corrie backed by the great walls of Trollaval and Ainshval. More wild goats watched me from a rocky knoll. Steep slopes led up to Ruinisval and a long ridge to Ainshval, second highest summit on Rum at 781 metres and one of the islands two Corbetts. Good views on the approach faded as the clouds descended again. A walker was just leaving the summit, the first person I’d seen in two days. I took a bad line on the descent to the Bealach an Fhuarain and ended up on some very steep, loose, slippery, broken ground that ended in a stubby crag. As I was trying to traverse back to easier terrain the clouds lifted again and I had splendid views down Glen Dibidil and across a blue sea to a sunlight isle of Eigg. Across the glen the intimidating steep screes of the south-west face of Askival, the highest Rum peak at 812 metres, rose into the cloud. Skirting the base of a rather too loose boulder field I reached a little stream on a grassy sward high on the mountainside, hanging far above Glen Dibidil. It was a magnificent situation and I knew immediately I wanted to camp there. I could see the bealach away to the left and realised I had descended too far to the east, fortuitously finding this grassy ledge, from which relatively easy ground led back to the ridge I should have been on.

Showers and midges between the gusts soon drove me into the tent, where I massaged my toes, which were grey and cold after three days in wet shoes and socks. My spare dry merino wool socks felt luxurious and I soon slipped my legs into my sleeping bag to further warm my feet. Outside the cloud thickened and visibility was barely 20 metres. The sense of space and depth was gone and the world had reverted to a patch of wet grass and dense grey mist. The temperature in the tent was 13ยบ but it felt colder due to the dampness.

Bursts of rain and a hammering wind woke me during the night. Looking out I could see the distant lights of Mallaig shining below the cloud. Then as the storm eased briefly I could hear strange, throaty shrieks and cries, masses and masses of them. These were the calls of Manx shearwaters, sea birds that nest in burrows high on the hillsides of Rum, only coming into to land after dark, when they are safe from predation by skuas and gulls. Over 70,000 pairs nest on Rum. The Vikings who ruled these islands 1000 years ago thought that the weird calls of the Manx shearwaters were the voices of trolls in the mountains. They named one of the hills Trollaval – mountain of the trolls. Most of the hill names on Rum are Norse. “Val” comes from “fjall”, which became “fell” in Northern England. Askival is hill of the ash spear, Ainshval is hill of the rocky ridge, Ruinisval the hill of the heap of rocks, Hallival hill of the ledge and Barkeval the hill of the precipice. Prosaic but descriptive names all, letting you know just what these hills are like.

The storm continued at dawn. The Bealach an Fhuarain was very windy and swirling with mist. Having had enough of wet rocky slopes in minimal visibility and with a ferry to catch that afternoon I decided Askival would have to wait for another visit. Turning downhill I descended long Glen Dibidil, another lovely valley with a rushing stream and many waterfalls. At its foot a bothy sits in an idyllic situation looking over the sea to Eigg. Fine cliffs surround Dibidil Bay from where I followed a wet and muddy but very scenic path around the coast to Kinloch where the sun shone between showers. From the ferry I looked back at the dark silhouette of Rum, the Cuillin now visible below a clearing sky. I would be back.


  1. Bad luck withe the weather. The scrambling is superb when available. Also got some great sunshine and silhouette photos - just like SW USA.

    Has there been a change of policy? I was only allowed to camp on a sloping, tussocky horror near the ferry landing. Couldn't get in a bothy because of school parties then had trouble getting away because of a ferry strike. This is some years ago, when having just one place to stay made for some long days.

    However, while running down a hill, I had a very close encounter with a golden eagle which noticed me at the last minute.

    Must go back.

  2. The change of policy was back in 2003 when wild camping was made a legal right in the access legislation. All the regulations about access and camping on Rum went then.

  3. Great write up of your wild weather trip. I really must go back to Rum as I've not been there for years.

  4. That was a lovely read Chris, thanks for posting. I've yet to get out to Rum, tho' Pete at Writes of Way has been making many a tempting foray recently. Needs to be done on another trip to the Skye Cuillin, the last one of which was a washout for me a few years back!

  5. I like how that started, stormy nights in a tent are one of the joys... I can say from a great deal of experience, that stormy nights in my bed are wonderful, a kettle downstairs, lol.
    Nice, well, that not "right" word, but you know what I mean, to see you get "misplaced" on occasion.
    Great story, I hope we get more of them. Very well written.

  6. Stormy nights and wet wild days can be amazing times in the hills. The waterfalls come to life and the weather often means your route changes and you find things you had not planned to see. Glad you found this story Chris. It was a fantastic read when it was published and is still now.

  7. Thanks for the comments everyone. And thanks Martin for reminding me about this piece.

  8. Great write up again Chris! I'm reading Bernard Cornwell's trilogy about the Danish / Norse / Viking occupation of Britain during the time of Alfred the Great, so it was lovely to learn about the etymological roots of the hills on Rum.

    I wasn't aware of the evolution of fjall, val, fell but will be looking out for similar language clues on maps in the future.

    I've always been struck by the celtic similarites of words like corrie, cwm and coombe; bealach and bwlch. Now I've got a little bit more knowledge to be able to spot other cultural influences on our mongrel heritage!

  9. Your article brings back memories. I was on Rum with my two lads, aged 5 and 8, in that scorching summer of '76. We camped by the shore where the midges were terrible. Everyone had seaweed fires going to create loads of smoke to keep the wee blighters at bay. We later moved to Eigg where the notorious Keith Schellenberg drove us to the only place on the island he'd allow us to camp. Round about midnight a cacophony of weird screechings had me thinking a witch's coven must be having an orgy, or something. It was Manx Shearwaters flying over our tents back to their nesting sites. I'd never heard them before. Surprisingly, the kids slept through it!

  10. Richard Dawkins talks about Manx shearwaters in 'The God Delusion' - apparently their calls were attributed to the Devil Himself (Herself?) by someone he knew who turned to God after hearing them in the wilds...

    Can't wait to hear one one day!