BEINN Alligin lifts itself out of Upper Loch Torridon with the casual assurance of a big beast among a clan of big beasts. With walls of bare striated sandstone and ridges that slice the wind, Alligin is a monument to brutal mountain architecture, eclipsed only by its immediate neighbour, Liathach. The sprawling Beinn Eighe, away to the east, completes the triumvirate. Some mountains are beautiful and serene but these three are menacing and hostile. They dominate and intimidate. If you like your uplands green and flecked with bleating sheep, steer clear of Glen Torridon because this is a land of fossilised dinosaurs of the stegosaurus and triceratops varieties. Big unfriendly giants . . .
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 . . .
Like a triceratops, Beinn Alligin possesses three horns. I don’t know much about them, or what to expect when I reach them, but after passing over the double summits of Alligin itself, I must negotiate Na Rathanan – the Horns of Alligin – before commencing my descent. It all sounds very unsettling. But when you’ve set yourself a target to climb every Munro (Scottish mountain in excess of 3,000ft or 914 metres), it’s no good bottling out on the big, ugly, dangerous ones.
Today is a pleasant spring Wednesday with a cool wind streaming off the sea. I strike out across a broad moor towards a steep corrie called Coir’ nan Laogh. If I climb right up its middle it should deliver me to the first of Beinn Alligin’s twin peaks, the curiously named Tom na Gruagaich (922m or 3,025ft) which, my guidebook tells me, means peak of the maiden. It’s a long, steep and uneventful climb.
Hey, here’s something to occupy the mind. The Daily Mail website this morning carries the headline: “Was this the most shocking TV scene ever?” With a headline like that you feel obliged to read the story to see what the people at the Mail consider shocking, because you know it’s not going to be bombs dropping on Afghan children or body-bags being stockpiled for the very likely forthcoming invasion of Iraq. Here we go:
“BBC1’s MI5 drama Spooks has become the latest television show to spark complaints after featuring controversial scenes. More than 100 viewers complained when a leading character was killed off after having her head plunged in a deep fat fryer.”
Actually, I think Kenneth Williams went one step further in Carry On Screaming, while sinking into a vat of boiling oil uttering the immortal line: “Frying tonight.” What amuses me about the Mail story, though, is it gives its readers an option to be even more shocked and outraged:
“Click below for more shocking scenes you may remember.”
Ha ha. Noddleheads. But at least this bright though blemished interlude has taken my mind off the muscle-burning tramp up the steep slopes of Coir’ nan Laogh.
I stand on the summit of Tom na Gruagaich in a flood of crisp Atlantic wind. By God, this blows all traces of trepidation and fawning Daily Mail negativity from my head. I can smell the sea and Hebridean heather; taste salt and bog flowers and the dampness of ancient rocks. I can see the massive bulk of Liathach and the vast hinterlands stretching wild and lonely into the north; and Alligin’s second and highest peak, Sgurr Mhor, with the deep black gash of Eag Dhubh scarring its front; and the Horns, the three mysterious Horns of Alligin, bristling like the arched spine of a stegosaurus and looking pretty damned formidable. This is turning into a good-to-be-alive day.
The wind carries me to the top of Sgurr Mhor (986m or 3,235ft), carefully skirting the lip of Eag Dhubh, which looks for all the world like a doorway into hell – and probably is. Wouldn’t want to tumble in there and bounce to the bottom.
From Sgurr Mhor I scramble east down a dip onto a windswept col – and the first of the Horns rises before me in successive bands of grey rock and wiry grass. It looks pretty bleak and menacing, but a ribbon of pathway snakes its way from my battered boots to the crest of the spine, and I follow it without deviation.
On the top, relief and exhilaration. The ridge is wide enough to accommodate a decent track, which dips and lurches over the remaining Horns. This is spectacular walking indeed – a high-level spine of cracked crags offering spectacular views of Alligin, Liathach, and a bunch of stratified peaks to the north and east. All this and a glorious wind that smells of sea and distant places.
Another faint path picks its way uncertainly down the rocky slope at the end of the ridge to join a stalkers’ path and a pleasant tramp to the road. I march along it in one of those thoughtful moods that descends upon mountain walkers at the close of an energetic and thoroughly satisfying day.
I decide that Beinn Alligin, with its impossible crags, deep deadly gashes and bristling Horns, is not as ugly and hostile as it initially appeared. There is a stark beauty in its sandstone architecture and a friendliness that comes with familiarity. Perhaps I’ll feel the same about Liathach one day. That remains to be seen.
Beinn Alligin and its Horns of Plenty – May 22, 2002