In Search of The British Wilderness
Discovering The Isle of Rum | by Jack Anstey
True wilderness is hard to find these days. It seems mankind has managed to make its impression everywhere you turn, and whilst I love my home in the Peak District, I long for the isolation that comes from exploring remote mountain ranges. Maybe it’s the knowledge that with no one for miles around each moment is yours alone or the satisfaction that comes from forging your own path, knowing that there’s no one around for miles if anything goes awry. My pursuit of the wild led me to the Isle of Rum, a remote and desolate island 30km off the west coast of Scotland.
The island has a history more fitting to Jane Austin novel than a wild Scottish island; inherited by George Bullough, an eccentric English millionaire, it was used as a hunting retreat to entertain the British aristocracy. Following his death in the early 1900’s the island was rarely visited and remained completely shut off to the public until his widow’s death in the 60’s, at which point it was entrusted to Scottish Heritage. The island is now home to around 25 people, who all live in the small settlement of Kinloch, which boasts a small shop, community centre and handful of houses. Beyond the village is 40 square miles of open country, with just two dirt tracks dissecting the landscape, the only footpaths are the rough trails made by the 900 wild Red Deer that roam the island. I was looking for the wild, and this sure seemed like a closest the UK has to offer.
I was taking the trip with two close friends, and our voyage to the island began on the west coast of the Scottish mainland, boarding a small boat that sails around the Inner Hebrides twice a week. There’s a certain spirit of adventure that can’t be achieved by simply driving to your destination, and we all felt this excitement as we watched the coast disappear into the morning’s mist. Our anticipation increased over the two hour journey until the Rum Cuillin came into view, and we stood in silence inspecting its harsh ridge lines and rocky outcrops. With the summits shrouded in cloud, we slowly sailed into the natural harbour on the Eastern coast.
We had two expeditions planned for our time on the island. Using the shoreside campsite in Kinloch as our base we aimed to make it to both of the island’s bothies, spending a night in each before returning to our camp. Guirdil Bothy was on the opposite side of the island, and our route took us across the islands relatively flat middle before a brief up-and-over climb into into the Guirdil Valley. We would then head back via the south-western side of the island, taking in the spectacular mausoleum built for Bullough’s family. The second trip took us along the coastal path to Dibidil Bothy which lay in the large valley beneath the Cuillin, our second day we planned a route up onto the ridge, making several summits before descending back into Kinloch.
With our plans set we spent the evening in the Community Centre, drinking and laughing with some of the island’s locals. Our wild impression of Rum was heightened as the locals reinforced the island’s hostility and unforgiving nature to us. They reiterated the importance of being prepared; the weather can change suddenly as storm fronts roll in off the Atlantic, and with no mountain rescue team the nearest medical aid is a 2 hour helicopter journey away. Later, and certainly merrier than we intended we made our way back to our tents to get some rest for the day ahead.
My favourite time to be out walking is first thing in the morning. Not only are you often blessed with beautiful sunrises, but you are often the only one out on the hills, and I love the isolation that this brings. Out on Rum, you don’t have to be the early bird to catch the worm. With so few people on the island, you can almost guarantee that you won’t see any other walkers all day, with your only companion being the nature and wildlife. We set out from Kinloch, and were soon alone in the centre of the island; the only movement coming from a herd of wild Red Deer across the moorland to our right, or from the Golden Eagles circling the clifftops to our left.
We walked the width of the island on our first day, making our way to Western coast and descending down to Guirdil Bothy. Because of the Bothy’s position in the valley, you don't see it until you are right on top of it, at which point the scenery takes your breath away. The steep sides of Bloodstone Hill tower over the small stone cabin, which looks out over a narrow beach to the ocean. Whilst the day had been spent walking on relatively low ground, with no real mountains, we were tired from the walk and were pleased to find one of the most homely bothies I’ve seen. Unlike some of the more frequented wild cabins on the mainland, Guirdil felt much more like a private retreat. A wood burning stove sat at one end of the small building, which housed a table and chairs, some basic survival equipment, as well as a loftspace for sleeping. It soon got dark, and with the wind rolling in off the ocean, and a roaring fire warming us, we opted not to take advantage sleeping space, and instead slept on the stone floor in front of the fire.
We had a gentle morning eating breakfast and watching otters running through the rock pools at the southern end of the beach. A large stag stood on the hill behind the cabin, silhouetted in the morning sun. The weather had been kind to us, and the island’s raw beauty shone in the sun, with full 360 degree wilderness almost entirely untouched. Our route for the day was tougher than the previous, with an unbathed hike through long heather up to the valley’s head. We made the steep ascent up to Orval, the highest peak of the Western Range, and felt overwhelmed by how difficult the terrain was. We were all fit, used to climbing and walking off the beaten track, but the route out of the valley was unforgiving. Each step was placed through knee high heather, onto uneven ground beneath.
Stopped for lunch at Bullough’s specular mausoleum, built as his final resting place, gave us an opportunity to reflect on how one man has influenced the islands landscape. The mausoleum’s alien presence in the scenery makes for some incredible views, that wouldn’t look out of place in a blockbuster movie. It’s a stark reminder of how man feels the need to make its mark on the world. An imposing and empowering building dominating the landscape, and although the architecture may resemble the ancient world, it doesn’t compare to the age of the mountains, moorland and sea that surround it. Leaving the dramatic views behind, we made our way back to our camp at Kinloch on one of the two dirt tracks on the island, hoping to save what was left of our energy for the following days expedition.
The sound of rain woke us in the night, and it seemed apparent that the sun that had accompanied us on our first trip wasn’t going to come along for the second. A damp mist hugged the mountains, shrouding the summits from view, as we departed for the day, walking around South-eastern coastline. Scotland’s usual weather had returned, and there was no amount of waterproof clothing and gore-tex boots that was going to handle a days walk through the low clouds. A marginally trodden path guided us between the ocean and the imposing mountains, and after crossing the river flowing out of Glen Dibidil we found ourselves at the bothy.
Larger than the previous bothy, and being situated at the foot of the Rum Cuillin, Dibidil felt a lot more experienced than Guirdil had. It seemed to be more lived in, and visited on a more frequent basis. It featured two medium sized rooms, both boasting fireplaces, tables and chairs, one of which was used by a group of kayakers who approached the shoreline as the sun was setting. The other room we used to make our camp, setting up our sleeping bags in an alcove by the fire. Despite there being two fireplaces in the cabin, the landscape around was much more bleak and barren than other areas on the island. There wasn’t the nearby woodland or driftwood on the beach that was present at Guirdil, and we soon realised we would be unable to get a fire going to dry our wet boots and clothes.
The prior day’s rain stopped during the night, and we awoke to another sunny day, which gave us some hope that we might be able to dry out during our hike back to our base camp that evening. Unlike Guirdil Bothy, Dibidil sits in an exposed position in the middle of the open valley, and we stopped throughout the morning’s climb to check our progress against the shrinking cabin. The Cuillin was a much more formidable day’s walk than previous days, but we felt acclimatised to the island’s rugged nature and we summited Beinn nan Stac much earlier than expected.
Having to choose your own path and find your own route can be exciting and rewarding, but also has its risks attached as well. Scouting a route up Askival proved to be difficult, and soon the navigable ridgeline gave way to steep cliffs, and we found ourselves climbing up large rock faces. It’s much easier to visualise a course up from a distance, but we soon lost our path as we climbed, traversing around the side of the peak more than we had wanted to. The rock face was steep enough that even though we had realised our error, we were unable to head back down again, and had no choice but to continue upwards. At several points the climb became hazardous enough that we removed our bags, and chose to form a chain up the steep sections, passing our bags between us. Askival is Rum’s tallest peak, and when we finally reached the summit we were rewarded with full panoramic views of the island. We could see the Outer Hebrides far off on the Western horizon, the Isle of Skye’s Cuillin to the North, and the Scottish mainland to our East.
Golden Eagles soared level with us as we made our way along the craggy ridgeline to Hallival, where for the first time we got an aerial view of Kinloch and the natural harbour of Loch Scresort. Rum really is an incredible place; somewhere so rife with history, that has been perfectly preserved and rarely visited until recent times, it feels like one of the last true wildernesses of the UK. Where deer outnumber people 30/1, where mountains appear unpathed and untamed, and where barren moorland is wandered by herds of highland cattle and wild ponies.
I definitely felt saddened to know that my time on the island was drawing to a close, and although I welcome a change into dry clothes, I was going to miss the peace that comes from isolation and solitude. Leaving the island on the same small boat we travelled on only a few days before, I felt I had gained so much more than could be offered in such a short amount of time, and felt humbled from this encounter with the wild. May Rum remain wild and free until I one day return to rekindle my love for the wilderness.