Looking through Glen Brunabhal towards Ardhasaig and our current civilisation.
By now, on day three of my solitary exploration through SW Lewis I had settled into a heightened alertness to signs in the pared back minimal landscape. Before changing course or choosing a route forward, I was looking for confirmation from the many erratic boulders apparently randomly dumped as the last ice sheet retreated. I knew rationally that these enormous boulders had not been placed by people of the past to aid navigation, but I was convinced that they had never the less been used for this purpose. I knew that folk who had traversed these now lonely hills in centuries preceding had no knowledge of ice ages and the action of glaciers. Even in possession of this knowledge I was still very tempted to believe in the supernatural qualities of ancient ancestors who might have placed these boulders to guide and protect me.
I was walking in their footsteps, and I was keen to do so, all the way home. I was now finally in Harris.
The smooth rounded shelves of the gneiss river bed were now behind me, and the obvious thing to do was follow the river all the way to Loch Chleistir, which lies under the austere shadow of Stulabhal, my peak for today. A glance at the map showed me an awful lot of wiggles in the river, and a tedious circumnavigation of the loch before I could start my climb in earnest. I scanned the skyline from my low position in the tightening glen. Yes! Up to my right; three very prominent boulders perched against the blue sky, one of them with a small pile of smaller rocks on top, and showing light beneath it; speaking of only a few points of contact with the bedrock on which it rests. Bedrock is easy to walk on. Let's head up there! I filled my camelback bladder from the river before departing. There was a whole mountain to climb and descend before I would have the chance again.
A 10 minute uphill march took me to my guiding boulders, and from there I headed SE on easy gnarled swirling bedrock, hopping over a few pools, to the foot of Stulabhal. Just before starting the climb in earnest I crossed the stalkers' track coming up from Bhoisimid, (now below me to the west). I was so convinced that I was on a far more ancient track, guided by rocks alone, that the modern track appeared to me irrelevant, and I was amused that my invisible path took me straight across it, paying it no heed at all, and headed straight up the mountain.
I beetled my way up the steep NW ridge of Stulabhal, known as Creag Chleistir, looking up ahead continuously for the next tell tale prominent rocky shape against my horizon to head for. The rocks to hold in view are always a curious shape. The one that looks like a raven, or dog, or a pixies hat etc. When you reach the conspicuous rock you have been pin pointing, you look up for the next one. You fancy that by following them you are being guided away from the steep precipice which is now yawning to your left...but you have to creep to the edge anyway, to peer down at deep dark Loch Chleistir, already a couple of hundred metres below.
When I reached the summit of Stulabhal I didn't hang around long. The sky was gradually filling in with grey cloud and the wind was cold. I pulled the cord tight on my lucky hat, and it stayed secure, providing warmth now rather than protection from the sun's rays. I rested my pack on the summit cairn and took out the phone. I should send Daryll a message so he knows I am safe and will be home this evening. The phone has plenty of battery - and signal. Instantly I am reconnected to the current world. As I can already tell from the sky and the wind, the weather is changing. I don't need the weather app to tell me that there will be significant wind and rain by this evening. I want to be home by 7, or 8pm at the latest. But still, Stulabhal offers a fantastic view over Lewis, and from this position the mountains of NW Scotland are clearly in view across The Minch. I took a couple of photos and slurped some tea from my flask, but I couldn't linger.
Aligning myself with map and compass, I scanned south into the wild empty glen which was to be my route home. I have peered down into this intimidating place many times; whilst climbing the Cliseam Horseshoe, or from the summit of our own beautiful hill Uisgneabhal Mòr. The sides are steep and scree laden. The narrow pass rises to a beallach and then gently falls away on the other side towards Bun Abhainn Eadarra. You may have seen it looking beautiful and imposing to the north as you drive through Ard Aisaig on the only road to Lewis.
Striding down Stulabhal's south flank was much easier going, and I soon reached the saddle at NB132 114. I could make out the start of an old path heading down into Gleann Langadail, the first leg of which heads south. I decided to take it for a couple of hundred metres, leaving it at the first bend to continue on the same trajectory southwards. At the start of the path I took a bearing along it. Due south. Looking ahead into the valley, guess what I spotted on that perfect bearing? You got it. An absolutely enormous boulder. Still lying there in the exact same place it came to rest after bouncing and rolling down the precipitous shoulder of Teileasbhal many thousands of years ago. Or maybe it was deposited by the glacier that ground its way slowly across this region breaking off boulders and using them to scour and shape this landscape into deep glens and fjord like lochs. Whichever it was, it beckoned me and reassured me. I set off in a straight line towards it, tackling the off camber descent eagerly.
At the bottom I crossed a burn and took a moment to look ahead and study my boulder. Still a good 200m away, it is not alone. Three others, only slightly smaller, lie beside and behind it, and in front of them, a tidy green lawn stretches towards me. It all looks very homely! A few easy strides took me to the next river cascading down from a lofty corrie to my right. By now the boulders were towering over me and, under my feet, to my joy, I noticed the tell tale raised circles of an old beehive sheiling. No wonder this felt like a home from home.
My huge boulder is brooding a clutch of smaller ones, creating a straw lined cave beneath. The sides of this natural shelter have been walled in, plugged with rocks by skilful hands. It was so tempting to put my tent up here and make myself ready for the poor weather approaching, but Daryll was expecting me back and the promise of fish pie and a bath pushed me on. I did stop and eat a quick pasta, stashing an emergency Yorkie in a convenient pocket feeling sure I would need that before reaching Miabhaig.
I tore myself away from this wonderful place. It is not marked on the map at all, but I will easily find my way back here, to camp in this idyllic spot, so close, and yet so far from everything.
From here I continued taking my signs from rocks and boulders to pick the path of least resistance through the mountain pass, watching the river Alt a Sgail diminish, and feeling tiny myself as the U shaped sides of the glen closed in on both sides. I stared up the green scree laden near vertical expanse to my left, and judged it possible to climb and scramble up onto the Cliseam Horseshoe, noting that for a further adventure.
Finally the little river petered out completely and I discovered that 'Clach Sgail' marked on the map, is in fact an impressive cairn marking the climax of the beallach. Of course. This has been a thourough-fare almost forever, despite the lack of path or road. This is a major link route by foot. Why else would I be walking it now?
I was keen not to lose too much height from here, and in an effort to avoid descending into the floodplain and having to climb out again, I attempted to contour around the foot of Uisigneabhal Mòr, cutting under Creag Uilisgeir and heading towards Loch Brùnabhal. I found myself being carried ever higher by sheep and deer paths, and at one point I had to resort to descending a couple of levels on my bottom to re-join a safer and more sensible route. It was exciting being so close to the looming terrible crag which I have so often admired from the road, but it was also tiring and time consuming, and I could feel my energy ebbing away. Where was that Yorkie? I needed it now, but could I find it? I could not. I became extremely annoyed with myself. How could I have dropped it? And how awful that I had caused some litter having been so careful for my whole expedition not to have left a trace!
Finally I reached Loch Brùnabhal and paused to pull on waterproofs. The wind was whipping up, already sparsely laced with large raindrops. In unpacking my waterproofs and finding my compass, the errant Yorkie came to light. A jolt of happiness and relief brought a tear to my eye as I gave myself a talking to. "You see? You're not an idiot. You've got this. You're just tired. Eat the Yorkie and get on with it!"
From the western tip of the loch I took a bearing for my house. I couldn't see it yet, but I knew it was there. Following the bearing would take me up and over the long foot of Uisgneabhal Mòr and down roughly 300m into Miabhaig Nam Beann.
Dressed for the weather, and with confidence and sugar levels restored, I stomped upwards for the last few hundred metres until my final descent to home could begin.
Soon, with the wind snatching at the brim of my hat, and waterproofs rattling, I was standing at the edge of a steep but doable drop, overlooking a completely familiar finger of sea. Loch Mhiabhaig* fitted, like the last piece of a puzzle, perfectly into my image of home. And there, less then 2km away to the SW, was my house, looking, to me, exactly like the next big boulder to head for.
*Miabhag, Meavaig, and Maraig are common names around the coastline of this island. They derive from the Norse for 'narrow bay' and so are given to areas where a sea loch extends its marine habitat deep into the surrounding hills. The village where I stay is named Miabhag Nam Beann (as spelt on the sign post). 'Nam Beann' is Gaelic and roughly translates as 'of the mountains'. The Norse who settled here around a millennia ago seem to have named a lot of places after areas they remembered back home, and there has been a bleeding of meaning both ways between the languages to describe the features in the landscape, as well as partnering up, as they have done in describing my village.