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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
Ben Screel


By WILLIAM DOUGLAS.

WHEN asked by the Editor to write something for the Journal about Ben Screel, I at first thought that an account of its ascent would have little interest for any one, offering as it does, like many of our best hills, nothing in the way of danger or difficulty in reaching the summit; but as every excursion among our mountains has a distinct and peculiar charm of its own, and as no description of this hill has to my knowledge been previously written, I willingly venture on the task.

It is highly probable that many have never even heard of this mountain; but all who have enjoyed that lovely sail from Oban round the wild and barren point of Ardnamurchan, cannot but be familiar with its well-shaped outline, raising its hoary head to an elevation of over 3,000 feet, on the north side of Loch Hourn There it stands. Many a time has it received our adoration when sailing up the Sound of Sleat; and the desire of making the ascent was certainly not the least of the many inducements which attracted R. T. and myself to the charming district of Glenelg last summer.

August 10th, the day fixed, opened bright and clear, without a cloud o'erhead or a breath of wind to ruffle the polished mirror-like strip of the ocean stretching before us over to the dark shore of Skye opposite which duplicated itself in the reflecting expanse, with "just a trace of silver sand marks where the water meets the land." Such was the choiceness of the day, that it inspired another party, a lady and two gentlemen, with the hill-climbing mania, and we saw them start, accompanied by a ghillie to act as their guide, as we smoked our morning pipe and lazily enjoyed the lovely scene from the hotel door.

About eleven o'clock, half an hour after they had gone, we were on our way along the road that runs southwards from the hotel. Keeping for a mile the edge of the seashore on our right, we turned into Glenbeg, down which flows a small salmon river, a difficult stream to fish, as it is wooded on both sides. Here we got an occasional glimpse of Scour Ouran's silvery peak, a cold bright vision, far beyond the head of the glen.

Forty minutes' walk brought us to the Pictish towers, still standing in almost the same state of preservation as when Pennant sketched them more than a hundred years ago. Having duly inspected those ancient relics of the past, we walked on to Balvraid farm; and soon after the road merged into a mere peat-track about six miles from the hotel, or three from the towers. This we left, picking our way across the river, climbing over a low ridge, and entering a broad valley that opened up to the south, and not till then did we get our first view of Ben Screel. We kept the burn that flows down this valley on our left, but made our way high above it, along one of those delightful hillside tracks partially hidden with heather. This led us to the base of the centre shoulder of the hill, at whose foot runs a little streamlet dashing and foaming over its rocky bed. Tackety boots are good for hill walking, but not for crossing stony burns, as my companion realised when he found himself in a sitting position in the centre of the stream, luckily with no worse consequences than a wetting.

What had become of our friends with the guide we were at a loss to conjecture, as we certainly had expected to overtake them before this. It turned out, however, that their guide had laughed to himself on hearing us talking of our intended route, it being ever so much longer and stiffer than the usual one, of which we knew nothing.

The climb to the top of the shoulder (2,750 feet) was rather a stiff one and necessitated frequent halts to recover wind. Each step, however, gave an ever-widening view of a grand amphitheatre of hills, and the stoppages were appreciated in a double sense.

Near the top we saw a covey of ptarmigan, not a dozen yards from us, quietly stealing among some grey stones of their own colour, that rendered them almost invisible. Of this fact they seemed to be quite aware, not hurrying themselves in the least, till they came to a patch of green turf, when away they flew with a whirr, and were lost to sight in an instant.

Between the top of this shoulder and the summit (3496 feet) runs a mile of a narrow ridge, on the east of which there is a steep slope of scree, and on the west a splendid range of precipices, not unlike those of Lochnagar. Pushing along this, over loose stones, we soon attacked the byno-means steep cone of the mountain, and reached the top breathless and panting, but, to our delight, evidently before our fellow-travellers.

The name Ben Screel, I am informed by a Celtic scholar, appears to be the English phonetic rendering of the sound of the Gaelic word Sgreim/ieil,—meaning abhorrent, frightful, or disgusting. We say "Bu sgreirn/teil an seal/ad/il—it was a shocking sight." It therefore means in English the abhorrent mountain, or, to put the cart before the horse, Ben Frightful; and its torn and weather-beaten appearance, from many points of view, certainly justifies its being thus designated.

As seen from Loch Hourn, its sterile precipitous slope, descending from a long straight back nearly to the water's edge, has a very bleak and desolate aspect; while from the sea, it presents a corrie clothed with verdure almost to the top, and crowned with a noble grey peak, the highest point on the mountain. On the north lie two immense corries, almost entirely destitute of vegetation, with a big shoulder separating them. The main ridge tapers off to the east in a slightly north direction.

The view we had of land and sea was magnificent. Not a cloud in the heavens. The serrated range of the Coolins was silhouetted sharply against a cold blue sky,—a wonderfully beautiful outline,—and that wild and un-get-atable district south of Loch Hourn lay mapped out at our feet in all its rugged and picturesque grandeur. Ben Nevis also is there, from base to peak, a great ponderous mass; while Winans' deer forests, showing a sea of billowy mountain tops of all shapes and sizes, and the Ross-shire peaks, close in the beautiful panorama to the north—" so wondrous wild, the whole might seem the scenery of a fairy dream." Such was the clearness of the atmosphere, that, aided by Bartholomew's ten mile to the inch orographical: map and a compass, we picked out the Arran hills, Ben Aulder, Ben Wyvis in Ross-shire, and of course most of the mountains that lay between.

We had just finished our sandwiches, when the party from Gleneig arrived, their guide not looking over well pleased to see us at the top before them. They however did not remain any length of time, and soon disappeared down the corrie they had come up, on the west side of the hill.

By 3.30 we were moving homewards; and making for the north-west peak, we descended from it by a precipitous. little gully filled with slate-like stones, which afforded a very precarious and slippery footing and slid with a noise like an avalanche from a crockery shop at every step. We had to use the utmost caution to prevent ourselves sliding with them to the bottom more quickly than we cared for. The noise they made attracted the attention of the party ahead, to whom their guide mentioned that he had once descended there, but as he nearly broke his neck in so doing would never attempt it again. It was not so bad as that, however, and we reached the foot sound in wind and limb; and a brisk walk of four or five miles, in which we crossed the Glenbeg river by a bridge close to the shooting-lodge, brought us to the hotel shortly before seven.

The more usual route from Gleneig is to follow the Arnisdale road for five miles (not turning up Glenbeg) this brings one opposite a grassy corrie, which is reached by crossing a tract of moorland about a mile broad, and affords an easy access to the top.

To us, mountaineering in Scotland, and the love of mountain scenery, have long been a passion. Even drenching rain and driving mist have not deterred us; for although the tender beauty of a summer's day, such as we had on Ben Screel, can hardly be surpassed, yet the atmospheric effects of mist and cloud have often a far more grand and more majestic effect than anything the most picturesque of undraped hills can pretend to. Long then may we delight in our loved and romantic Highlands, and long may we be able to roam there in that health and strength begotten of time well spent among their breezy moors and mountains.


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