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Unto The Hills
A Hill-Tramp in Skye

WE had walked across the hills from Loch Ainort, and scrambled down into Glen Sligachan over dead brown heather and black, soggy peat that yielded treacherously under our already soaked boots. Now, climbing up the rough track towards Sgurr na Stri, we had wandered into thick cloud, and only the frequent cairns reassured us as to the right path.

Behind us, the mist closed down over the hills we had but lately left. The murmur of swift waters sank to a sibilant whisper, a sound so soft and mysterious that it continued rather in imagination than reality. The stones slipped and slithered under our feet as we climbed. They were wet and cold, many of them half-submerged in yellowish mud, affording, at best, an insecure foothold for our nailed boots. But the infinite variety of their colours more than atoned for their efforts to retard our progress. Many were of a dark, sinister red, as ifstained by the spilt blood of the clans in some forgotten waffire. Others, smooth and rounded for the most part, appeared to be covered by a bluish-green moss, until one stooped to examine them more closely, and found them cold and unyielding to the touch. In amongst the red and green were scattered hundreds of large and small pebbles of every conceivable shade, with an accent on the yellow ; all wet and slimy, their strange hues brought to vivid life by the moist, cold atmosphere. Ahead, their colours faded and softened as the narrow track was absorbed into the mist.

Suddenly, we were struggling up smooth grey rock, down which water coursed in a dull silver stream. Beyond this, the track climbed again-even less distinct now into the clouds. There is an excitement about walking in the clouds that is undiminished by time or familiarity. The eye probes vainly into the swirling mass all around, searching for something upon which to focus, and the slightest delicate vibration or change in the atmosphere sends delicious shivers through the whole being of the climber.

It was our first walk over this particular path, and we could see absolutely nothing of our surroundings. The glen behind had now fallen away into a cauldron of boiling vapour, and we were completely shut off from the world. Yet, we sensed the grandeur of the scene all around -- the great, wakeful hills and sweeping glens rolling away in tortured waves to the sea.

It was all just as it had been since these hills were born-the sad, cruel, beautiful face of Nature, over which the hand of time had played lightly, like a caress. There they were, invisible, but close around us-the perilous scree-slopes guarding the naked heights; the treeless crags flaunting the silver ribbons of their waterfalls-all safe, all hidden from our prying eyes by the soft veils of protecting mist. And we could do nothing but wait -- until the jealous hill-gods should relent and offer us a glimpse of unutterable beauty. We were hot and breathless as we fought blindly to reach the summit cairn -- yet, when we finally did so, and paused for a brief rest, we were immediately shivering with cold. A biting wind swept the clouds around us in soft, wet folds, and our clothes clung clammily to our bodies. We sat on a flat-topped rock beside the cairn, and ate a quick meal, waiting for the clouds to part.

We did not wait in vain. Suddenly, without any warning, the miracle happened. Vast curtains were drawn aside, a flicker of sunlight danced across the mist, and the fantastic ridge of the Black Cuillin, incredibly near, stood starkly against a clear sky. They were like something in a dream-cruel, jagged, inviolable. Peak upon peak, fold upon fold, unending vastness stretching away into an infinity of terror and delight. And they were blacker, against that soft, watery sky, than any hills we had ever seen-like nightmare silhouettes drawn with a madman's pen on a paper of smoky grey.

When our dazzled eyes could leave their weird beauty, we looked down, and saw Loch Coruisk, long, dark and still, lying in the green glen below, reflecting the savage contours of the surrounding hills. Near to the shore, it was like a pool of ink. A tiny breeze ruffled its polished surface, making miniature waves dance in and momentarily shatter the black reflections of the hills. At its head was a waste of brown peat, vivid green moss and shining ebony pools where the waters had ebbed with the ebbing tide. We could just glimpse the head of Scavaig where it joined its sister loch, but the mist-or a bend in the hill-hid its exit into the sea.

There was no sound save the crying of sea-birds and the soft murmur of distant waters. In five minutes, even these were muffled, and we were alone again in the cloud. (So quickly had the gods relented of their generosity!) Where Loch Coruisk had gleamed was now nothing save dense white fog, and the Cuillin had disappeared as completely as if they had been spirited off the earth.

It was getting colder, and we turned to go. The road to Broadford was long, and we had no wish to spend a night on the hills. Somehow, we felt in our bones that the clouds would not part again.

The mist seemed thicker than ever as we began our descent from the ridge. Under our feet, the stones rolled and leapt as if they were alive. Several times, we wondered if we were on the right path, until some remembered landmark, looming dull and shadowy through the cloud, set our doubts at rest.

Crossing Glen Sligachan, we went over our knees in black mud. Icy water, seeping into our soaked and heavy boots, numbed all feeling until we stamped our feet back to life.
Dead heather beat against our knees as we began the climb on the other side. We were tiring a little now, and the roots and stems of it were elfin hands snatching with fiendish strength at our legs as we went by.

Gathering what remained of our endurance, we broke away from the clutching fingers and plunged up the slope. Rocks, cunningly hidden among grass and heather, caught at the nails in our boots (odd, that we had hardly noticed them on the outward journey!).

Behind us, the glen faded and was lost, and the sound of rushing waters once more gave place to heavy silence.

At last, a cold wind struck our perspiring faces, and the ground levelled beneath our feet. We were on the plateau, under the shelter of Marsco; and nothing remained now but the descent into the Corrie of Dreams and the long cycle-ride back to the hotel.

We took a deep breath and started recklessly downward. The mist accompanied us for a while, and soon we could look back to see it pouring over the top of the ridge. We followed the swift burn down the hill, crossing it by stepping-stones below the fall. Here, the last trails of cloud left us, and sunlight poured on us like a benediction, drying our wet clothes and sending the warm blood coursing through our veins.

We could laugh again now-sing, if the spirit moved us. Cloud and cold notwithstanding, it had been a magnificent climb -- and we could hardly complain that the hills had been ungenerous in their reward!

Loch Coruisk, amid the Cuillin Peaks of Skye

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