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.
A very slightly different version is given by Archibald Geikie in his 'The story of a boulder: or, gleanings from the note-book of a field geologist' (1858 p149):
The top of Beinn na Cailleaich is flat and smooth, surmounted in the centre by a cairn. Tradition tells that beneath these stones there rest the bones of the nurse of a Norwegian princess. She had accompanied her mistress to "the misty hills of Skye," and eventually died there. But the love of home continued strong with her to the end, for it was her last request that she might be buried on the top of Beinn na Cailleaich, that the clear northern breezes, coming fresh from the land of her childhood, might blow over her grave.
And in 'the Gentleman's Magazine' for the first half of 1841, King Haco of Norway's wife, or his nurse, is named specifically. As the article says, "this is a point, however, which, I suspect, we must leave the old ladies to settle between them." I guess suffice to say that the hill hides an auld wife, and an important one - or at least one with Connexions.
This site should not be confused with Skye's other Beinn na Caillich, although admittedly this is difficult since not only do they both have the same name, but also each has a cairn on the summit which is said to be a woman's grave.
"The road to Sligachan winds under the shadow of Beinn na Caillich, on whose summit a cairn can be seen. It marks the grave of a Norse princess who lies forever gazing out to Norway, which she loved and whence she came. How was she ever laid there? What devotion she must have inspired in one at least in a foreign land. It was believed that if she saw danger approaching she would return to warn her children's children."
- Otta F. Swire, Skye: The Island and its Legends, 1962, p. 13.
Swire also records a story (pp. 9-11) in which a priest from Pabay was walking through this region of Skye on his way to meet with some parishioners, when a crowd of 'little people' waylaid him in the forest. An old man came from amongst their ranks and explained to him that they were the Daoine Sithe (the fairies) and that:
"...we have come to beg you to pray for us, that we may become once more God's children and recover our souls. For a long time we have repented of our sins but we dare not say the Pater Noster or any other prayer unless we have your forgiveness."
The priest, in his overwhelming generosity of spirit, refused to forgive them, having been taught that "the 'little people' belonged to the Evil One", and declared to them "as soon would my stick become a tree again as God forgive you". The grief of the Daoine Sithe was tangible, audible:
"Everywhere round him he could hear as he went a soft, despairing wailing, as of a people without hope. It spread through the forest and up the slopes of Beinn na Caillich on into the hills and did nothing to lessen the trouble in his mind."
He went on his way, met with his parishioners and baptized their new-born child. But when he was done there he realised that he had left his staff at the place where he had met the 'little people', and since this crook was both his badge of office and his only possession, he returned to find it. There he discovered that it had transformed itself into a mighty ash tree, taller than every other tree in the forest. Remembering his words to the Daoine Sithe, about his stick becoming a tree again, he fell on his knees and prayed, then began wandering around the forest calling to the 'little people'. Yet he was answered with only their hopeless wailing. So he returned to Pabay and sought permission to live in the forest, permission which he obtained. On returning to the trees:
"...he preached continually, day and night, the forgiveness of God to all who would listen, birds, beasts and trees. Men called him mad and he never saw the 'little people' again, but slowly the wailing ceased in the hills."
Rather non-commital Canmore description of the summit cairn:
On the summit of Beinn na Caillich, the conspicuous hill rising to a height of 2403' about 2 1/2 miles west of Broadford, is a cairn of stones measuring some 50' in diameter. The body of the cairn measures 8' in height, but seems to have been originally higher, as the top is surmounted by a cone of stones rising another 6' in height, doubtless of late construction. Although local tradition says that it was erected over the grave of a Norwegian Princess, without excavation it is impossible to say if it is a prehistoric monument. Hill top cairns of large dimensions and at considerable altitudes are found in many parts of Scotland.