|First time visitors to the wondrous Isle of Skye may, upon heading west from the graceful bridge spanning Kyle Akin, be forgiven a certain sense of deflation, perhaps even mild self-admonishment at having apparently been seduced by the legend, the myth... the mystique... that clouds a rational appraisal of 'The Misty Isle' as comprehensively as the all too frequent cumulo-nimbus obscures its landscape. Where is all the keenly anticipated scenic splendour? Persevere, however, for such disappointment is short lived.... Yeah, Beinn na Caillich sees to that, offering a strikingly elegant, granite domed - dare I say mamillar? - profile to travellers approaching the bustling town of Broadford. Some stop for petrol and provisions, some 'stoneheads' may make the diversion northward toward Corry and the massive chambered cairn of Liveras; many more tourists will take the Torrin road, passing the An Sithean tomb, to Loch Slapin and Elgol, some of the finest coastal scenery I've seen. All, regardless, can not fail to notice the 'Hill of the Old Woman' looming overhead, appearing much taller than its 2,402ft. I, for one, have rarely seen as aesthetically pleasing a mountain, so graceful, so curvilinear of line, so unlike the jagged black gabbro summits of The Black Cuillin for which Skye is, ironically, justly famed. It is easy to see why Beinn na Caillich has been termed a 'sacred hill' by some, such is its dominance of the locality, the mountain the apparent focus of a quartet of chambered cairns. However I reckon the placement of a massive cairn near the summit seals the argument, this the definitive feature leaving this Citizen Cairn'd in dire need of enforced restraint. Fetch the strait-jacket.
Now I've wanted to find out what it was like to be on top of Beinn na Caillich since, ooh, about a year. Doesn't sound long, I know... but having witnessed the sun sink behind its enigmatic black profile last year, I choose to return to once again spend the night beneath the shattered chambered cairn of An Sithean, lulled to sleep, caressed by such a welcoming vibe as if within the womb. Sure, conscious thought may not recall the feeling, but no doubt my subconscious does? In fact the only disturbance is caused by lambs 'bonking' into the car during the night. No damage done, however, the creatures equipped with natural padding for such an eventuality. Anyway, dawn arrives true to forecast, wraith-like early morning mist forlornly clinging to the summit of the mountain before quickly dissipating, succumbing inexorably to the heat of the rising sun. Gazing wistfully at the ridiculously steep-looking flanks and seemingly razor-sharp ridges of the mountain I suddenly realise that, like our first time visitors, I've been seduced by the 'older woman', tentatively discussing with myself the possibility of an approach from the north, or there-abouts. Give me a break.... climb that? But the seed, now sown, begins to germinate at a prodigious, accelerating rate. 'After all, you aint getting any younger', snipes the outwardly silent voice of introspection. Damn it to blazes.... and praise it to the 'heavens'... concurrently. Needless to say I'm by no means the first (relatively) modern antiquarian to wish for an aerial perspective, Thomas Pennant having done so in 1772 and noting 'the prospect to the west was that of desolation itself; a savage series of rude mountains, discoloured, black and red, as if by the rage of fire. The serrated tops of Blaven affect with astonishment: and beyond them, the clustered height of Quillin (sic)'.
So... a minor road signposted 'Old Corry' leaves the A87 a little Sligachan-side of Broadford, plenty of parking space available before an electricity sub station (incidentally two of the aforementioned chambered cairns are apparently to be found in forestry to the left, beyond the pylons). The mountain towers above prompting last minute thoughts of backing out. Only c2,400ft eh? As any experienced upland wanderer will confirm, starting from near sea level makes all the difference. Anyhow, there is currently (late May 2013) a break in the forestry that cloaks the rough north-eastern slopes of the peak, the route an assault course of ankle twisting tree stumps and timber residue, but nonetheless passable, as is the deer fence which has clearly seen better days. Traversing open hillside now, a westerly bearing sees me arrive at the prosaically named Lochan Beinn na Caillich, a pleasing body of water set within extensive bog. The eastern flank of the mountain overwhelms above and beyond, two steep ridges defining Coire Fearchair. I decide to go with that to the right, for better or worse, although in retrospect a direct approach across boulder fields is probably not the best option (suggest looping to the right to take advantage of the grass, as I did in descent). Cresting the ridge the magnificent vistas to the north (Scalpay) and north-west (the fabulous Glamaig etc.) ensure the sweaty struggle is more than worthwhile. From here 'the only way is up', as Yazz euphorically sang back in 1988, the onward route narrow and very steep, particularly in the final stages, but with none of what the more tedious mountaineer would term 'technical difficulties'.
Clambering - at last - onto the curving summit plateau the pent-up anticipation of arrival, of seeing the cairn at close quarters somewhat ironically evaporates as, like Pennant before me, I'm totally awestruck, completely blown away by the stark, magnificent vista to the west. Sinking to the ground I stare, spellbound, the sheer overwhelming impact of the imagery akin to being hit by the allegorical freight train, the curvaceous Red Cuillin drawing the gaze, beyond Bla Bheinn, to the magical, serrated skyline of Britain's finest mountain range, bar none. The Black Cuillin. If ever there was a vision to enjoy for eternity, this has a pretty good claim. Speaking of which.... ah, yes, the cairn. Regaining my composure I head toward what is clearly a very substantial monument indeed. The approx northern arc is held in situ by several massive blocks of what I assume to be natural outcropping, smaller slabs having apparently been utilised at other points of the circumference as kerb stones. Folklore holds the monument - according to Canmore apparently never 'opened' - to be the final resting place of a Norwegian female dignitary (of some description, dependent upon source) reminiscent, perhaps, of the appropriation of the sentinel peaks of Snowdonia's Y Carneddau to the memory of the Welsh Princes. Whatever the truth, significantly placed a little to the approx north-east of the OS trig pillar, this is clearly no walker's cairn (I literally see no other soul during c10 hours upon this mountain, under peerless conditions) and I have been able to find no reference to historic erection.
The sun beats down from a pristine blue sky. Yet it is bloody freezing thanks to a forceful wind requiring the wearing of full kit. Somewhat surreal. Wandering around the summit plateau I note the approx positions of numerous prehistoric monuments which cluster around Beinn na Caillich like chicks to the hen. The fabulous coastline of Skye offsets the predominant green and grey of the landscape to great dramatic effect.... drama.... yeah, that is the key note, what this mountain is all about. Such theatrics needed to be artificially contrived at places such as Stonehenge - and how! - but there was no need here. Isolated from the main bulk of The Red Cuillin and significantly lower than The Black Cuillin's numerous munros, the location of Beinn na Caillich accords the traveller a unique, even privileged, bird's eye view of this wonderful Isle, land and sea in close proximity. Perhaps it was deemed suitable for a Bronze Age VIP? For what it's worth, I believe the evidence would seem to support such a view.
Reluctant in the extreme to leave, I stay on summit for some 6 hours before finally bidding the 'old woman' a fond farewell.
Posted by GLADMAN
27th July 2013ce
Edited 30th November 2013ce