THE roaring of stags is an unearthly sound that sends shivers across skin. It echoes from the rock walls of corries like the groans of the tortured. People passing along the A87 are unaware that a few hundred feet above their cars is a world that has changed little since the glaciers retreated, a world where animals bellow mating calls and raptors soar. I feel I am crossing a line between one epoch and another as I climb patiently up Druim Thollaidh ridge towards the summit of Sgurr Coire na Feinne. The distant hum of engines has faded. Here there are animal noises and whispers of wind in brown grass. And that’s all . . .
This is a retro post for Because They’re There. It’s a letter from the past featuring a memorable walk and the contemporary events surrounding it . . .
The Cluanie Ridge stretches from Loch Cluanie in the east and forms the rocky southern wall of Glen Shiel, almost mirroring the northern wall and the Five Sisters of Kintail. It incorporates seven Munros and is one of the classic walking routes of the Western Highlands. For the fittest walkers, Sgurr na Sgine and The Saddle can be added at the western extremity, taking the toll of Munros to nine. That’s a big day out.
My plan for today is not so ambitious. I’ve walked the eastern end of the ridge and climbed the two western outliers, but not the middle section of three Munros. So once on the summit of Sgurr Coire na Feinne, which at 902 metres (2,959ft) falls disappointingly short of the magic 3,000ft for Munro status, I set off towards Sgurr an Doire Leathain.
This is a beast of 1,010 metres (3,313ft) altitude. Hidden from view behind its shoulders are Sgurr an Lochain (1,004m or 3,293ft), Creag nan Damh (918m or 3,011ft), and some lumpy pieces of ground which fail to reach Sir Hugh’s 3,000ft benchmark but remain formidable obstacles nonetheless.
All goes well until a blizzard sweeps in and envelops the summit of Creag nan Damh. I’m not concerned by this development because I’ve climbed my peaks. So I slither down a stalkers’ path into Corie Toiteil and follow the stream towards Glen Shiel and the road.
Down in the valley the snow turns to rain as night falls. It’s nearly three miles back to Shiel Bridge and another mile to our holiday chalet at Ratagan. The A87 is a fast road, and cars and lorries rush past in the darkness, spraying filthy water from puddles and gutters. I’m not in a pleasant or a safe situation, so I stick my thumb out in an attempt to persuade a driver to give me a lift.
Eventually a van pulls up and I climb into the back and settle down in a heap of old clothes and rags. Two men and a woman occupy the front seats. They belong to the traveller community, they tell me, and live in a caravan on an industrial estate a few miles up the road at Kyle of Lochalsh. Rags are their livelihood. They collect old clothes and sell them on. They are rag and bone people.
After they drop me at Shiel Bridge I wander towards Ratagan in the pitch black night as rain falls cold and steady. And I think: it’s a strange world this. It’s a world where wild beasts roam the hills, beyond the walls of our warm houses and the limits of our knowledge. And it’s a world where those who have least to give will share what little they possess to help a fellow wanderer.
Travelling on the Cluanie Ridge, October 20, 2003