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Unto The Hills
The Call of the Cuillin

A FAINT mist hung over the sea, and the road from Broadford Bay was steel-grey in a grey morning. The islands seemed distant and unreal, save for a trembling ray of sunlight brought them to warm life, and lit silver fires on the calm face of the water. From the dust of the city we had, indeed, come to a new world-a world wherein we could take hold of life at its roots again, and be at peace.

We cycled swiftly along the shore road, past the white crofts, the solemn-faced children, the shaggy cross-bred cattle, the dark tangle of nets hung out to dry. Faint threads of' cloud lingered over Raasay, and even the nearer island of Scalpay was quiet and sad, devoid of all but sombre colour.

Yet-we had come to Skye with a song in our hearts, and the song persisted. The dogs chased us, the people stared gravely out of the little houses, the long-horned sheep bleated protestingly as they lumbered into the ditch at our passing; but the road flashed ever faster under our wheels-and it was a grand day!

Presently, the sun took courage a little. At once, all the surrounding landscape glowed with warmth and colour. The blue shadows faded from the grass; the earth became a deep, friendly brown -- even the sad peat absorbed and gave back a little of the glorious golden light. Ahead of us, the road was a white garland around the brow of a little green hill; and, beyond and to our right, the islands took on a strange and dream-like beauty.

But there was no time, now, to stop and admire the wonderful expanse of the sunlit sea, with its ever-changing lights and colours, its shades of turquoise and aquamarine, its sparkling shallows and dark depths streaked with green and purple. The road before us was long; and we had to make our choice and act accordingly. So, with a memory of colour and distance to console us, we turned our faces resolutely away from the enchanted isles, and followed the road over the curve of the hill.

We reached the head of Loch Ainort in good time, and "parked" our cycles under the first grey-stone bridge. To our left, on the path we would take, a waterfall leapt down the brown hillside, and sea-birds flashed in swift arcs of light through the soft Spring air. Heron and red-shank, cormorant and grey gull, courted, fished and dipped among the dark weed upon the shore. It was a fascinating scene -- but, like them, we had our own business to follow. We lost no time, therefore, in getting on to the hills.

At the first few steps across the dead heather, our feet sank deep into black mud, and we laughed with a queer sense of relief That was over. We were wet. Now we could walk!

Up the long stretch of Coire nam Bruadaran, and over the rise at the end, our boots. So fast, so hopeful was our pace at first that we were very soon exhaustedand that with the topmost ridge of the hill hardly in sight!

At last, by common consent, we flung ourselves down in the wet grass, and drank deeply from a little bubbling burn, the source of the waterfall we had admired from below. The water was pure gold, icy and clear as crystal, with the unmistakeable flavour of peat. We bathed our hot faces in it (unwise, no doubt, but none the less delightful!), and lay for a long moment on the cool grass, consciously drawing new life from the earth.

Then up and on again, with fresh vigour in our stride and fresh heart for the tramp we had planned for so long.

The hill rose more sharply now; the grass was smooth and slippery under our feet. Soon we were breathing fast again -- perspiring as freely as before. Then, when we were beginning to wonder if we were growing old, the climb came to a sudden end, and we had our reward.

We were on a gently-sloping plateau scattered about with smooth grey boulders, marked with the lonely tracks of rabbit and deer. To our right, the proud head of Marsco leaned against a tranquil sky. On our left, the black knife-edge of Blaven rose into clear air from a bed of woolly cloud. But this was only a foretaste of what was to come. A few hundred feet further on, a dizzy slope of grass rushed pell-mell down to a pebble-filled glen. The rusty heather blew in soft waves of browndown and down to the white glimmer of tumbled boulders, over which foamed and tinkled a tempestuous burn. The soft, incessant music of it was wafted up on the cool wind; and, if we listened closely, it seemed to come, not only from this steep, secret glen, but from everywhere at once, as if the very air about us were filled with the sound of rushing waters.

We stood on a rise and shouted, and our voices, drowning the song of the burn, echoed and re-echoed among the hollow hills. Directly ahead, the great company of the Black Cuillin glowered down at us from their cloudy throne.

I think we could not have seen them under conditions that better revealed their breath-taking majesty. Dead black, jagged, seemingly impregnable, they towered up into the soft grey air, their stark crags streaked with the last of the winter snows. Pinnacle upon pinnacle, sheer, terrible, everlasting. The clouds swirled about their breasts, melted around their feet, a changing, shifting wall of vapour, accentuating the stillness of the massive peaks above. The heads of them all were clear; but the curtain of mist that draped their shoulders rolled in great white waves deep into Glen Sligachan, shutting the hills away in their own dread spheres of silence.

Once more, we stood spellbound, silent, staggered by a beauty almost outside our comprehension. And, even while we watched, the scene changed and changed again, and the hills put on new faces over the old scars. A ray of sunlight touched the top of Sgurr Alasdair, and he stood proud and alone, a king among princes. Then the light shifted sideways and downwards, piercing the blanket of clouds round the knees of the hills -- and there below us lay Glen Sligachan with its moss and boulders, and the stream running like a thread of silver through its tapestry of shaded green.

Then we could see no more, for the ray of light shivered and died, and we were once again alone with the Cuillin.

They offered us no comfort now. They had withdrawn once more into their own cold world of majesty, and neither knew nor cared that we existed. And yet it was harder than we had ever dreamed to leave them…

And then, as we still stood there in silence, gazing at those stark and haunting peaks, now quiet and remote among their clouds, we were suddenly aware that something had happened to us, and we would never be the same again. The spell of the Cuillin was upon us. We, too, had become the willing prisoners of a grandeur defying words -- a soulless, heartbreaking beauty which should have power to call us back, always, from the ends of the world…

Mists over the Coullin. Sgurr nan Gillean and the River Sligachan in flood

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