A Night to Remember

Another tale of derring-do by former President Nick Hamilton, involving a titanic struggle on the way to Coruisk. The photo is of Coruisk from Elgol.

The 11th of September 1981 was a Friday and the IMC had arranged to spend the weekend at Coruisk Hut on Skye. It may have been planned that Coruisk was booked for a weekend with a full moon but it might just have been a coincidence. Our plan had been to take advantage of the expected moonlight and walk directly in to Coruisk on the Friday night. None of this wimpish staying at Camasunary followed by a comfortable finish to the walk early on the Saturday morning. Oh no, not for us, we would push on with fortitude in the dark and reach Coruisk whatever the cost.

‘We’ was not the group you might suppose by the bold plan outlined so far. Myself of course, intrepid and resolute as you would imagine. The rest of the group was female and a shapely crew it was too. Mary Mackenzie, a flower of Scotland, Shirley, my wife, an English rose and finally Amber our Golden Labrador there to provide stability to an otherwise flighty and headstrong team.

The drive from Invemess to Kilmarie was not an uplifting experience. The rain came down in sheets and the prospect of a long, wet, muddy, dark walk with a number of fearsome obstacles to overcome began to seem less of an adventure and more of a trial as the miles passed by. Only Amber was unaware of the toil to come. She sat serenely in the back of the car occasionally putting her pink tongue down Mary’s pink neck to remind us all that she was central to the plan.

We left the car at about 7.00pm; plenty of daylight left, but not enough to see us through to Coruisk in comfort, particularly on a gloomy night. The rain continued to fall and the prospect of a river crossing, almost certainly in the dark played upon my thoughts as we passed out of the tiny plantation block and headed up the path to the Am Mam col and down to Camasunary. A jolly walk, despite the rain and the dark forebodings. Vigorous bodies full of energy and enthusiasm for the challenge. What bother a bit of rain. Ha! We laugh at it. No problem to us.

There was no question of stopping at Camasunary for the night. We were not carrying cooking gear so it would have been a cold and cheerless stay if we had bedded down at that stage. Anyway it was early, not much after 8.00pm. We pushed on and made for the bridge. Ah yes, in those days the wire bridge was still in place. A bit dilapidated but serviceable and we used it gratefully. No wading the river that night. Looking back at events it might have been timely if we had been forced to try and wade the river and been repulsed. We would have been obliged to stop at Camasunary and been saved the bother and inconvenience to come.

The map shows a rather modest distance around the headland from Camasunary to Coruisk. A couple of miles perhaps, maybe a little more. The ladies in the team scoffed at such a simple walk but having done it before I knew that there was slightly more to it than the map showed. It is not the Bad Step or the river crossing at Loch Scavaig that is the problem, although they can cause difficulties. The real barrier to good progress on the walk is the going underfoot. There can be no other walk that has so many twist and turns, steps up, steps down, bogs, puddles and awkwardly placed boulders to hinder progress. It is impossible to get along at a good clip and it is never safe to put hands in pockets or admire the fine views.

By 9.00pm it was rather dark and progress had slowed to a snail’s pace. Amber was clearly of the opinion that it was time to get back in the car which presumably must be just around the next boulder. We had been walking for long enough and she had rather lost her bounce. The rain had eased off a bit by this time but there was little sign of the full moon and the head torches were in use. We turned the point at Rubha Ban and headed north-west with the dark line of the Cuillin Ridge just discernible forward and to our left. A black edge against a black sky cut off by black clouds that quickly faded into a deeper and more consistent blackness. Now the ladies had become slightly more aware of the scale of the challenge we had embarked upon and the lively banter of the daylight hours had slackened somewhat.

At last we came towards the Bad Step. I was not fully confident that I could find my way to the correct starting point for the traverse in the dark That minor problem was overshadowed by other more pressing issues that seemed to have taken on a far greater significance than had been the case a few hours earlier. Would a head torch be any use? The fact that it is at the wrong end of the body for convenience on a narrow ledge might be really important! Would we be able to do it with weekend-sized rucksacks? How were we to get Amber across it? Who should go first? What would we do if someone dropped off it into the sea? It was a bit of a nightmare. In fact it was a real nightmare because it was real and it was at night. It was also wet, and by this stage surprisingly cold, just to make things even more interesting.

We found the start of the traverse at about the same time as we lost Amber. She was quite agitated by this time. Her situation was not what she was used to. Normally at about 10.30pm she would have been curled up in her nice warm basket dreaming about chasing the cat next door up the tree next door. Instead she was in the dark, in the rain, in very unfriendly country, cold, tired, disorientated, frightened and denied even a head torch for comfort. It is not really surprising that she decided to take off. Perhaps she sensed that the Bad Step traverse was a very unsuitable place for a dog and that the low-level alternative involved swimming; an activity that Amber had no regard for even in ideal conditions. The high level route was her choice. We shouted and roared and at last we heard her barking away up the hill on the almost vertical ground that rears up directly out of the sea to form Sgurr na Stri. Our best hope was that she would find her way over to the other side of the Step and rejoin us there. As it happens Amber’s departure proved to be a very useful diversion. We all but forgot about our own situation and started across the traverse with no time to dwell upon difficulties, real or imagined. We made it without too much drama and Amber met us joyfully at the other end with much tail wagging and leaping about.

Loch Coruisk and the Scavaig river in benign conditions

The final push to the Scavaig river stepping-stones seemed interminable despite its short distance. As we approached we realised that there were people in front of us. Head torches were flashing and eventually we could hear raised voices. At last we came upon Dave and Pat Barr. Dave had knotted a rope around Pat’s waist with a view to providing her with security whilst crossing the river. A heated argument was in progress because Pat did not think much of the rope idea in the face of a desperate crossing with no sign of any stepping stones in the light of the torches. Dave was convinced that they could make it. After all he argued he was big bloke and Pat was only a little lass. If necessary he could drag her bodily through the torrent once he was over the other side. Quite reasonably Pat saw a number of disagreeable consequences arising out of this strategy not the least of which was her untimely passage into Loch Scavaig in the middle of a dark and stormy night.

Much to Pat’s relief our unexpected appearance gave rise to alternative plans for crossing the river. After some investigation we discovered that the tops of the stepping stone were not too far under the water. We reasoned that if people could confidently step from top to top it should be possible to use the stones even though they were below the surface. With Dave and I in the river, on the upstream side of the blocks, we could provide the reassuring hand that would allow the ladies to step across the tops of the stones. We would use the stones themselves to stop us being swept downstream. From a perspective of nearly twenty years later this plan seems foolish in the extreme. Of course the alternative, sitting on the riverbank until morning, was not an attractive prospect either particularly when the hut was only a few minutes away from the other bank.

Before dealing with the ladies we had to get Amber and the rucksacks across. Dave and I went into the river as planned and worked our way across via the stones amid much anxious shouting and advice from the bank. The fast flowing water reached waist level in the middle and we could not possibly have made it but for the large stepping stone blocks to brace ourselves against. Crossing the gap between blocks was the risky bit of the manoeuvre but we managed it somehow. Amber was a bit more difficult to deal with than the rucksacks because of her determination to leap out of my grasp and take her chances in the river. Finally the ladies came across. In many ways theirs was the more alarming journey. They had to trust us to guide their feet onto each stone and walk forward like Jesus on the Sea of Galilee. In fact our situation had many similarities to that earlier event. Depending upon which authority is consulted the walk was at night and across stormy waters but the most striking analogy is of course the complete faith the walkers on the water had in the hand that guided them.

We were a sad looking bunch that staggered into Coruisk a few minutes later. Soaked to the skin, freezing cold and traumatised by the events of the previous five hours. It had taken us that long to make the journey and it felt like we had been out all night. Much drinking of tea accompanied exaggerated tales of the monstrous obstacles we had overcome. Quite quickly tiredness drove us to sleep.

What a night! Twenty years later Shirley and I remember it well. I expect Mary does too. Amber? Well she is probably still telling tall stories to her friends in that other place.