Sunday 5 July 2015

On the Isle of Rum

The last stop on my trip of the half of the Small Isles was the largest of the four islands - Rum. The day on Canna had been wild and windy. Even in the sun, the wind had been strong and I had struggled at times in the sporadic sharp showers and hail storms. The evening ferry to Rum had been delayed by almost a couple of hours, even instilling the fear of a cancellation. I had been tired out by the weather and was unable to see as much of Canna as I had wished for. Had left with a desire to be back soon, to do the place justice - The Small Isles - Canna.

On the ferry to Rum, Martin and I stood on the deck as we recollected our experiences of the day. Compared to the morning, we were on much more calmer waters. He asked if I would like to go to the Ceilidh at the Rum Community Hall in the evening as he pointed at the musical instruments lined up. The delayed ferry had delayed the arrival of the band as well which meant they would be starting around midnight now. This was quite normal for island life, the daily routine of the inhabitants decided by the ferry timings. Later on the island I heard the stories from last winter when the persistent bad weather had resulted in cancellations throughout the week. The local shop had ran out of supplies and soon people realised soy milk was not a bad alternative. But eventually they ran out of them too. It had been a hard winter.

I was staying at the Rum Bunkhouse, one of the very few accommodation available on Rum. The others being the Kinloch hostel and an only Bed and Breakfast on the island. People visited Rum to experience its wilderness and wildlife, with the Cuillin range providing the adrenaline for the hundreds of hillwalkers who flock the island throughout the year. The island has a local population of about thirty, all of that settled around the village of Kinloch. The summer months see this swell to well over hundred. Finding an accommodation becomes a challenge. When I had to cancel my earlier bookings due to my injury and replan, it was bang at the start of the summer months. Jed, at the Bunkhouse had been really helpful with the rearrangements. My experience tells that accommodating a single person in a mixed dorm arrangement is not that difficult, but it was not in this case. Eventually I had to plan my trip around the sparse availability.

I had to run to the local shop right after I had checked in. Jed warned that the shop would close soon and I still had to buy my food. Normally the shop opened around ten in the morning till the last ferry had arrived and today it was late. The short walk to the village centre took me past the Kinloch castle. I had seen it earlier from the ferry and it looked looked majestic. Upclose, it was still pretty, the red sandstone structure standing out in the grey evening. It was almost a castle, a very modern castle. The path was lined with trees, a perfect avenue. After spending the day in treeless Canna, walking under the green canopy uplifted my spirit. Droplets from the earlier rain showered on me. It is amazing how these islands all part of the same group are separated by only a few kilometresand yet each have their own distinct character. I was already in love with Rum.

The village centre had a community hall, a fire brigade, a post office and the village shop which also served as the village cafe. In this quiet village, I can safely take the liberty of calling a gathering of more than ten people as busy and so this was. Could hear the band preparing themselves for the night in the community hall. A few other late arrivals were at the shop stocking up on food and drinks for the night. The shop was incredibly well equipped to support the locals and visitors. With cans, bottles and packets stacked on shelves running all around and upto the ceilings, under the faint glow of the incandescent lamps, the place somehow reminded me of the local shops back at my subarbian home. Even the local 'adda' had its presence in its Scottish incarnation. Jed had finished his duties at the hostel and was chilling with his friends, people I had seen earlier at the pier. As in Canna, the locals shared their responsibilities of the island life - bringing in the ferry, helping the visitors and their luggage to their accommodation (the Kinloch hostel offers a buggy service from the ferry terminal). I wanted to be at the Ceilidh. However, by the time I had showered, cooked, had my food and done the dishes, walking those ten minutes in the dark and the rain no longer felt appealing. Tired from a long day, I went to bed.
Woke up next morning to beautiful sunrays filtering through the tree branches, birds chirping and the sound of the stream flowing by my window. It was a beautiful morning, but the forecast said it would not stay like this for long. The day and half I had was definitely not enough to take in what Rum had to offer and the weather was not helping. Harris, on the west coast of Rum was high on my list with its imposing Bullough family mausoleum in its atmospheric surrounding. However, the 26Km traverse it required was not possible in a day shortened to half by bad weather. I decided to visit Kilmory bay instead to the north of the island. This is on a straightforward Landrover track about 9 kilometres each way.

I was preparing my breakfast when I noticed the group I had met on the ferry on way to Canna. They were having their breakfast as well. They were visiting the Kinloch castle tour in the morning (Saturday and Sunday only has a morning tour, afternoon on other days) and convinced me to join them. 'You cannot miss this' they said.
I am not a museum person, but on this occasion I am glad that I agreed to visit the castle. Ross, whom I had met the earlier evening transporting luggage from the ferry terminal and later at the shop, was our tour guide. The entry fee was £9. The castle had once been used as a hotel and then housing the Kinloch hostel which is now located in a separate building beside it. A bit of history here - the Kinloch castle had been built by the Bullough family with money made in the cotton industry. Construction started towards the end of the 19th century. The sole purpose of the castle was to provide a grand hunting lodge for the family and their friends. Since the workmen only had experience in building cotton mills, apparently that is what they built here as well. The turrets were the magical addition to transform the mill to a castle. When Lady Monica handed over the castle to National Trust, she made sure they retained the castle's contents. Thanks to this condition, we still get to see many of the interesting artifacts her husband collected or being the eccentric inventor, set up himself in the castle. A visit to the castle is definitely recommended. Unlike many state mansions, the place retains its character - the stuffed animals, fish, birds adding to the atmosphere. Though be warned that the very colourful life of the Bulloughs as was presented by Ross, may not be appropriate for children! However, along with the interesting visit, it also became apparent that the place was in dire need of repair. There has been some work done, but they are desperately looking for funding at the moment before the damage becomes irreparable. More information on this site The Life and Times of Kinloch Castle

The tour ended about eleven. The sun was still out as I headed for Kilmory bay. Once out of Kinloch, there isn't any human habitation on the island. The hills rose around me, but the path was proper.
Kilmory bay is the site of the longest running study on red deer and obviously, they can be spotted everywhere. The deer were still in their winter coats, almost camouflaged by the dry grass as they grazed. The bright red colours were due to appear in a few more weeks. The stags had left the families to their own hides. They would be shedding their antlers and regrowing the velvets. During autumn, they make a majestic sight to behold. I passed a Landrover with a girl perched on the front seat, eyes glued to a long lens camera. She was part of the research team and was looking out for any newborns. They were late making an appearance this year she said and the walkers were being asked to report any sighting as well. As I was leaving she told me about a large group of ponies further up the road. 'Don't let them smell your lunch' she warned, I wasn't sure why she said that.
I was trying to figure out when I had changed my camera setting to the 1/3rd crop factor, when I realised that the deer had stopped staring at me and had their attention focused elsewhere. I turned around to find this group of cute, long haired ponies staring fixedly at me. They seemed very interested in something, and then the assault started. I don't know if they had smelled the sandwich I was having earlier or they were just inquisitive. As each one came down the road, they headed straight towards me. I was petrified and backed up on the hills. To my relief, as I moved away from the road, they stopped pursuing me. I realised why the girl had asked me to be careful, they were indeed very persistent.
There were sharp, intermittent showers throughout my walk up to the bay. Now as I was reaching the coast, the weather improved. The sun was out and the sea was blue and the Skye Cuillins rose beyond it. Looking back, the Rum Cullins were still shrouded in dark cloud. No wonder Rum is one of the wettest islands, the hills trapping the clouds on it. A couple of cottages stood at the end of the path. These were used by the research team and had been the location of the BBC Autumnwatch team in 2012. Once close to this place had stood the laundry house of the Bullough family, separated by 9kms from the castle as the lady of the house did not fancy the sight and smell of laundry being washed and dried in the vicinity.
The white sand beach of Kilmory is surrounded by cliffs, providing the perfect shelter from the strong wind. The view was incredible with the Skye Cuillin, blue waters and the white sands all glistening under the clear sky. I took a look around and made sure none of the ponies were around, and opened my lunchbox.
Kilmory beach is considered as one of the most beautiful beaches. It is even a favourite with the Queen. With the Britannia anchored by the shore, this used to be her favourite picnic spot on holiday. I came down the cliffs and sat for a while by the white sand, absorbing the views. It is possible to walk down further the length of the beach and reach another secluded white sand stretch further north and from there walk over the hills to get back to Kinloch rather than taking the path back. There are few times on my travels when I miss a company and this was one of them. Even with a map and compass, I could not gather the courage to tread into the wilderness more so with forecast of bad weather soon on the cards.
I looked back and could see dark clouds rushing in from the west and felt the sudden chill in the wind. It was time to leave and I was walking back the way I came. Barely had I walked a couple of kilometres when the rain clouds hit.  I packed in my camera and put on the waterproof as the rains came down viciously. And so it remained for the rest of my way back as I got soaked to the bones in torrential rain, the water even getting inside my shoes making me wet from inside. The hills had disappeared in the low clouds and I was glad I was on a proper path (though now mostly crisscrossing streams of various width). It was a long walk back to the hostel.

The rains did not stop the whole evening or the night. My clothes were dripping and my boots soggy. The drying room wasn't the best but still that was all I had. The forecast for the next day was bleak. I had the whole day to dry them before the ferry at 3pm. The lounge was full with the boarders, everyone returning early due to the wet weather. Previously strangers had found a friend with a common interest and everyone spent a pleasant evening as the rains lashed outside.

With the forecast of incessant rain through the day I did not feel the need to set my alarm for next morning. Woke up and was still lazing in bed when after a few minutes realised that it wasn't raining and actually, the sun was out! The forecast had been fooled again by the island weather. I had to be quick. Pack and vacate the room, make my breakfast and pack my lunch. It was well past nine when I left the hostel. I was hoping to go up at least one of the hills on the Cuillin range and Barkeval was in my mind. Rum doesn't have any Munros (hills above 3000ft in Scotland), and only two Corbetts (hills between 2500ft and 3000ft, the Askival and Ainshval which form the characteristic silhouette of Rum along with the rest of the range). But what brings hundreds of hill walkers to Rum is the sheer challenge of these hills and traversing the whole range. What these hills don't have in height, they make up in character. Though Barkeval is much lower than these hills, it would suite me in the limited time I had.

The Viking influence on Rum is still prominent in the names of its hills - Askival, Ainshval, Barkeval, Hallival, Orval, Trollaval as well as in the locations - Dibidil, Papadil and Gurdil. It took me a while to be able to say these names aloud and keeping a straight face.

I had dumped my belongings in the hostel corridor. Would be packing them before I left for the 3pm ferry. Since I was starting late, my plan was to turn back from wherever I was at half eleven giving me ample time to pack and walk down to the pier and hopefully, to deal with any contingencies. I soon found out that the rain from yesterday and the night had not only left its imprints in my boots but also on the path. I started off squishing in the mud which soon was ankle deep and I was struggling to find footholds. As the mud stopped, I was walking through streams. This was not at all helping with my tight time schedule and it took me over an hour just to reach the dam which supplies the power down to the village. The next part was to find the coll, get on the ridge and then turn right to reach the Barkeval. I followed a faint trail which did take me up on to the ridge, but I realised I was now closer to the much higher Hallival on the other end of the ridge than to Barkeval.

Was undecided for a few moments on whether to proceed or not and then made up my mind to head up the more unconventional path to Hallival. This involved some high spirited scrambling and soon I was among rocky boulders topping the hill. Barkeval was right in front of me on the other end of the ridge and the Cuillin range more prominent and inviting. I wished I had more time and for the second time on the trip felt the need for a company. The traverse across the ridge was very tempting. I scanned the skies for a glimpse of the magical golden eagle, but there wasn't even a spec. Looked at my watch. It was already half eleven and I was in a dilemma whether to continue scrambling to the top of Hallival or to turn back. I was under time pressure and worst, on my own. A little slip in my rush or a sprain and I could be stranded here in this wilderness. I didn't have any mobile phone signal either. It was tough decision but I decided to turn back.

On my way back saw some red deer on the slopes and then lower down a couple of wild goats with their huge, curved horns. By the time I reached the plains, I was not sure whether it was the ground that was squishing or my boots.
I had not needed the contingency I had kept and was back by one. Went down to the village shop where they also serve coffee and got one. Had my lunch sitting in the sun on one of the benches.

Rum Bunkhouse
When I got back to the hostel, everyone leaving by the ferry had either already packed and left or were just about to. I managed to take a shower before packing my bag. I hung the wet boots from my bag and wobbled on my flip flops to the pier. The boots would dry on the ferry - putting the high winds to use on the three hours journey back. Just like Canna I was leaving Rum without seeing much of what I wanted to. Jed had earlier told me it is too short time to see Rum and I wanted to be back on this spectacular island. Next time I hope I have better weather.

A brief stop at Eigg
Back toMallaig
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