Conquering the tower

The climb looks impossible from the path towards Galmisdale Farm but there is a chink in its rocky armour on the hidden northern side.

Lying off the west coast of Scotland between Arisaig and Mallaig are four islands which form the group known as the Small Isles. These four islands have quite an unusual cocktail of names and comprise of Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna. For this walk I am heading for the second largest which goes by the name of Eigg. The name Eigg is Viking in origin and means notched island. Dominating the island is An Sgurr, which looks impossible to climb without ropes but it is easier than you think.

Its a fine sunny summers morning as the MV Sheerwater arrives at the Old Quay on Eigg.

My plan is to visit Eigg on the day prior to going to Knoydart but the weather forecast for that day seems not to be wonderful so I decide to bring the trip forward by one day despite having a half hour less to explore the island. I commit myself to the trip on the Sunday by booking the ferry and ensuring a place on the MV Sheerwater which plies out of Arisaig.

The day is starting out a bit cloudy but the forecast is good and sure enough having arrived at Arisaig, blue skies are much in evidence. The boat doesn’t leave until 11am so I have plenty of time to spare. It’s a smooth crossing on the boat which is only partly full and I disembark at the old quay. It has been many years since my last visit to the island and now a new jetty had been built nearby for the Caledonian Macbraynes Ferry. Many day trippers are heading to the tea room and probably won’t venture much further but I have a schedule to keep to. I want to get to the top of An Sgurr, the highest and most spectacular summit on the island and despite the fact that the summit is only 393 metres high, it will be a tough climb.

The daunting route ahead. These vertical cliffs rise sheer up to four hundred feet on three sides.

I’m setting off at a steady pace soon entering woodland before taking a track towards Galmisdale Farm which is located at the top end of some pastures. Beyond, the distinct outline of An Sgurr dominates the scene. From this angle the climb looks impossible with all sides forming sheer smooth cliffs. An Sgurr is formed of pitchstone lava which is harder than the surrounding basalt. It was formed around 58 million years ago by lava filling an old river bed. The surrounding rock has been worn away to leave is mile long rock ridge with sheer cliffs rising four hundred feet and in places overhanging on three of its four sides.

After taking a few photographs I reach the heather moorland and I take a path leaving the track to ascend the hillside. There are plenty of people making the ascent and a few descending and one man who has been to the top says it is the first good day of several to climb to the summit. The path ahead is heavily eroded with watery peaty areas. On my previous visit some forty years earlier I didn’t recall that there was even a path. With so many people climbing An Sgurr it is easy to see how the path has become eroded and I wasn’t looking forward to the return descent via this route. I toil onwards and upwards before finding the obvious chink in the armour on the north facing side of the ridge. A steep narrow scramble soon takes me to the crest of the ridge where I turn left to double back along the rocky ridge to the summit. It is lunchtime before I am on the lofty top and many other people are having lunch including a group who are on a ‘Wilderness Scotland’ holiday. I get chatting with them, and as they were staying on Knoydart, it was likely that I will bump into them during my visit there later in the week. I offer to take a group photograph of them on the summit before they leave. I find a spot to have lunch on this perfect day and the view takes my breath away. To the south is the tiny island of Muck with the view beyond to Ardnamurchan and Mull whilst to the northwest, Rum and Skye dominate the view whilst to the east, the horizon is dotted by many peaks. I have certainly picked a good day to this walk.
Time is ticking away and I really only had time to visit Massacre Cave on the way back. I would have liked to have visited the Bay of Laig and its ‘singing sands’ but this will be an excuse to come back. The famous ‘singing sands’ is the sound emitted when walking across the white shell sands.

A view from the top towards the Bay of Laig with Skye beyond.

This view is taken from the eastern end of An Sgurr where there is a sheer drop of four hundred feet on three sides. The peaty path I ascended via can be seen on the left of the picture.

The summit trig point on one of those rare moments when no one was there. The view looks towards Knoydart on the Scottish mainland.

I set off back along the narrow ridge and soon catch up the ‘Wilderness Scotland’ group but instead of staying with them, I opt to descend south from An Sgurr which proves a very steep option but feasible if I want to visit Massacre Cave. I edge my way down slowly through the deep heather before the vegetation changes to bracken and the gradient eases. From this side there are spectacular close up views of the rock structure of An Sgurr with basaltic columns at all angles which is rarely seen. I eventually reach the deserted settlement of Grulin above Eigg’s south coast where I good track leads east. It is now a good mile of walking with views up to An Sgurr on my left. Reaching the new wind farm which now generates most of Eigg’s power, I turn right and head down across easy ground towards the coast. I spot a path leading down the steep coastal cliffs which will lead me to Massacre Cave. The cave was once a secret hiding place for the islanders but in 1577 after a lengthy feud between the Macloed and resident MacDonald clans, the islanders took refuge in the hidden cave with a small entrance when they saw the MacLeods sailing towards their island. All the islanders went to hide in the cave and after a lengthy search by the MacLeods clan, the Macdonalds were only spotted when the Macleods were departing. The Macloeds clan returned to lit a fire at the entrance of the cave which resulted in the suffocated of the whole island’s population with the deaths of three hundred and ninety five people. Nearby is Cathedral Cave but today, time is too short to venture along the foreshore to this.

The less known southern side of An Sgurr. I descended via the steep slope on the extreme left of the picture. It is difficult to appreciate the scale.

Massacre Cave on the southern shore of the Island of Eigg is where the island’s population were suffocated in 1577 by the raiding MacLoed clan.

I have just time to visit The Lodge, the former home of the Laird on the island before heading back to the ferry.

I start out on my return walk to the jetty as the boat is departing at 16.30pm but I do have time to venture up to take a look at The Lodge on the island. Built in the 1920’s this house was once the home of the Laird but is now in a rather sorry state of repair and much funding is required to bring it back into use. With a loop around to the north I join the road back towards the quay. The high cloud in the south has turned the sunshine milky by now. I reach the ferry with around ten minutes to spare and I am last to board a much more crowded vessel for the return to Arisaig. It has been a day well spent but there is just not enough time to explore the island in more depth. Well it’s an excuse for another visit and perhaps a stay of a few days.