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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
Sgurr Alaisdair


BY CHARLES PILKINGTON.

OF all the peaks of the Coolin Hills, Sgurr Alaisdair (the Peak of Alexander) is perhaps the most interesting. Its name does not occur on any map—there is a mystery hanging around it like the mists which so often veil its precipices. [Sgurr Alaisdair is said to be so called after Sheriff Alexander Nicolson, LL.D., a distinguished Skye man, who was one of the pioneers of mountaineering among the Coolins, and is said to have made the first ascent of this mountain, about 1873.—ED.] The ordinary tourist ignores its existence. He may see its sharp peaks peering over the other ridges, but he fails to understand that they belong to some higher and more distant mountain. It even seems to hold itself aloof from the remote Glen Brittle, above which it stands, for the nearer and rounded form of Sgumain comes into undue prominence.

Yet it is a fine mountain on every side, steep precipices fall in all directions, weird pinnacles serrate its ridge, and three of the wildest and most lonely corries in Scotland guard it on every hand. To my mind, these desolate storm-swept hollows of the Coolin Hills, strewn as they are with great rocks, yet showing here and there patches of exquisite green, overshadowed by crags,—black, precipitous, and destitute of vegetation,—form one of the most fascinating featutes of the scenery; fit base for the splintered peaks above.

No one yet knows whether the rocky summit of Alaisdair is the highest point in the island or not, for there appears to be little difference between it, Sgurr na Gillean, and the "Old Man of Skye" on the top of Sgurr Dearg. The mountain has three summits—the pointed N.E. peak stands on the main semicircular ridge of "the Coolin"; the central or highest, and the SW. one, or Sgurr Sgumain as it is locally called, rise from a secondary ridge, branching off to the S.S.W., and separating Corrie Labain from Corrie na Ghrunnda. There is a deep clean-cut gap between the north-eastern and highest peaks, from which a great wall-sided stone shoot runs down, straight as an arrow, to the head of Corrie Labain. Above the gap the highest peak rises finely; the ridge then falls to a wide depression, on the other side of which stands Sgurr Sgumain; farther on it becomes broader, and, still trending S.S.W., falls gradually to the moors.

The upper part of the S.E. face of the central peak is steep, but is broken up by ridges and screes, and can be traversed anywhere; it is, however, completely cut off from Corrie na Ghrunnda by a line of cliffs, which extend from the main ridge on the east, to the depression between Alaisdair and Sgumain, where alone it can easily he passed. The N.W. face is precipitous, but much broken up, and can doubtless be climbed in many places.

To the man who does not like rock-climbing, but who does not object to toil, I recommend the ascent from the head of Corrie Labain, [Corrie Labain is about 2 hours from Sligachan Inn.] by the great stone shoot already mentioned. It is true that he will go nine steps back to ten forwards, but time will see him through, and he will have good excuse for a halt in the gap between the peaks, to admire the splendid scene which will suddenly burst upon him.

Having regained his breath and his temper, a short easy scramble along the ridge will place him on the sharp rocky summit, which is comfortably and curiously covered with soft moss. It is a lovely spot for a long halt on a fine day, let him give it at least an hour of his misspent life, he will see no finer view in Scotland,—and, if he admires colour and variety more than size, and is a Scotsman, he may honestly say—in Europe.

Another easy ascent is from the S.S.W., over the top of Sgumain, keeping to the ridge the whole way. It is a lovely walk on a fine day in June. You can all imagine, better than I can describe, how, on the ascent, the beautiful islands and sea of Thule gradually become extended below you like a map, whilst to the S.W. the eye may rest on the blue Atlantic beyond.

Leaving the top of Sgumain, you must descend into and traverse the gap between the two peaks. The ridge of this saddle is perhaps the most wonderful in the island. Curious towers and jagged pinnacles uprear along its crest, but seem too rotten to stand much longer. Passing these, the first rocks of Alaisdair rise rather steeply (this being the western end of the line of cliffs above referred to); but by descending a little to the right, an easy passage can be found, and the S.W. ridge may then be gained and followed to the summit.

A sporting variation of this ascent is to gain the top of Sgumain from Corrie Labain by the great buttress of rocks which comes down a little to the west of, but close to the loch. The lower rocks are very large, and much rounded by glacial action. Though smooth in form, they are, like most of the Coolins, rough in texture; they give capital hold, and can be climbed almost anywhere,—to the right, more easily, to the left, affording more interest. On reaching the top of the buttress, you are surprised to find that it stands well away from the mountain, to which it is joined by a narrow and rotten ridge; following this, you will find yourself immediately under the steep upper rocks of Sgumain. A narrow ledge on the face to the right will take you out of all difficulties, but by turning up over some steep rocks when half-way along the ledge, the top of Sgumain can be gained by struggling up an awkward and conspicuous crack.

This is perhaps the finest ascent; but another interesting way is to pass beyond the loch, and strike up the screes between Alaisdair and Sgumain. These can soon be left, the rocky face of the central peak taken to, and the summit gained, either by the S.W. ridge, or by working up under the ridge till near the top. The saddle between the peaks can of course be reached by this route, and also from Corrie-na-Ghrunnda on the other side.

The ascent of the N.E. peak can be made in a few minutes from the head of the great stone shoot, and is well worth a visit, when climbing the main peak, the view into the head of Glen Couruisk being very fine. A capital scramble can be made on it, by leaving the stone shoot when half-way up and taking to the rocks to the left; you must climb where you can, aiming a little to the N. of the summit.

Mr Hart climbed along the ridge from Sgurr Mhic Coinnich to this peak, and, I believe, found the drop from Mhic Coinnich rather difficult; it certainly looks very steep. To the man who wants a long and interesting rock climb, I would suggest that he ascend Sgumain by the buttress, cross Alaisdair, and descend over the N.E. peak and Sgurr Mhic Coinnich.

None of these climbs are dangerous, or even difficult to practised climbers; I cannot, however, speak of the ridge between the N.W. peak and Sgurr Mhic Coinnich from personal experience. It is not like a Swiss mountain; you are not forced to climb difficulties, you can generally avoid them, and "temper the wind to the shorn lamb." But I do not advise an inexperienced friend to go there alone, especially in doubtful weather, for Sgurr Alaisdair, though not so high, is a true mountain, and not a hill like Ben Lomond or Skiddaw.

[An excellent photograph of the mountain, taken by Mr H. Woolley, should have accompanied this paper. It was, unfortunately, received too late, but will be published in the May number, so as to be bound in its proper place in the volume.

Along with this interesting paper, Mr Pilkington forwarded for inspection a map of the Coolin ridges, drawn by himself. It gives a good idea of the ground, and has been pronounced by competent authorities to be more correct than the Survey sheets. Intending climbers in the district will be glad to hear that the author contemplates having it reproduced by photography or otherwise, and that it will then be available.—ED.]


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