It took me a long time to recognise the Isle of Rùm the first time I saw it. On top of Garbh Bheinn on the Ardgour peninsula, standing proud above a stunning vista stretching out towards Mallaig and thence to the Isles, I was confused because Skye seemed to be in the wrong place. I'd heard about the Rùm Cuillin though, and it only took a few more minutes of gazing at the cloudless horizon for the lightbulb to come on.
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I'd seen it again several times since then. From the wavy yellow-and-black sands of Laig Bay on Eigg, where I once stayed for a week, Rùm looked different every day. Sometimes it appeared to erupt, as multi-coloured clouds billowed out from behind the conical peaks at sunset; at others it lay dormant, calmly standing guard over the gently-lapping Sound of Rùm. At others it sat hidden behind cloud that only added to the mystique. There's a story that J.R.R Tolkein came to Eigg and took inspiration from the view across the water, and it's very believable - the Viking-named Hallival, Askival and (seriously) Trollvall could easily occupy the pages of one of his epic tales. Later still, from Glen Brittle on Skye, the Rum Cuillin appeared as a distant mirror image of the bigger peaks right behind me.
Still later, I finally got round to going there. Ferry times don't allow a trip to Rùm on a straight-up Friday-night-to-Sunday weekend, so it had taken a while to find a suitable few days. This inconvenience, however, merely adds to the aura of inaccessibility about the place, and leant a greater sense of achievement to finally stepping off the Small Isles ferry from Mallaig, bringing with me four friends and a bulging rucksack of supplies from Morrisons in Fort William.
Rùm is more than twice the size of its close neighbour Eigg, but still has less than half its population, at around forty people. Apart from the strung-out settlement of Kinloch, that occupies the head of a Sea Loch on its Eastern shore, the island is virtually empty. This hasn't always been the case, the population reaching a late-eighteenth-century peak of around 450, before waves of Highland Clearances sent many to North America and eventually paved the way for the island's purchase by the rich and eccentric George Bullough, who built the stately yet totally out-of-place Kinloch Castle in 1900. The castle's grounds included aviaries for tropical birds, a nine-hole golf course, and heated pools containing turtles and alligators, all maintained by gardening staff who were apparently paid extra to wear kilts. Oh and the common spelling of the island's name as 'Rhum' was Bullough's doing, being unenthusiastic about the alcohol-themed jokes that would abound with the title 'Laird of Rum'.
It was in Bullough's castle that we spent our first evening on the island – not in a comfortable room in the East Wing, mind (although you can do that), but in the "Courtyard Bar", hidden in a corner of the castle's inner grounds but on entrance revealing a haven of ale and good cheer. The star attraction, and the most animated patron of the establishment on this night, was a shaggy-haired, excitable and fun-loving white Westie (I think) by the name of Zappa, who would periodically career across the bar-room, almost knocking drinkers off their feet. In the cosy corners of the pub, people recalled the day's adventures or planned one for the following day, faces aglow with the bracing maritime-mountain air. Having passed the night just along the shore at the public campsite we walked back through Kinloch in the morning, this time passing a car bearing the number plate ZAPPA 1. His influence reaches far and wide round these parts, it seems. The dog, obviously, not the psychedelic "Yellow snow" troubador.
Of course, a blue-sky day on the Rùm Cuillin is the dream of many a dedicated Scottish hillgoer. We hadn't quite dared to think of that as any more than a dream, to in any way write it into the script. Just as well. As we all probably predicted, deep down in that section of our brains marked "realistic thoughts", the weather was just one mist-enshrouded Scottish crap-fest. Still, at least the wind was keeping calm, and it was too early in the year for midges. We shrugged and made our way up into the clouds, half expecting Zappa to come bounding after us like a whirling dervish, salivating at the prospect of another non-view of the surrounding Isles and peaks.
You'll be pleased to know that the Rùm Cuillin holds one's interest even in these pea-soup conditions. A 1:25,000 map proved useful for picking our way up the intricacies of the lower slopes of Hallival, whose ridge then soars majestically down before rearing up again towards Askival. This is the most exposed section of the whole Cuillin, and the most fun. You can by-pass the crest of the ridge on the well hacked-out path, but the best way is to stride and hop across the only-slightly-slippery Harrisite blocks that rise like a jaggedy staircase to the island's highest point. The rock is really called Harrisite, by the way – it's a form of igenous rock similar to the Gabbro on Skye, named not for the mountainous Western Isle but for the tiny settlement of Harris at the other side of the Cuillin.
Having summited the most exciting peak and surmised that the rest would merely provide more stunning vistas of the inside of a cloud, the decision was reached to descend to the bothy at Dibidil, still on the Kinloch side of the island, and leave the rest of the ridge just in case tomorrow was a better day.
And well... It is rare that such a decision proves so unamimously wise with hindsight. The sight from the bothy window had us pulling on our boots in Zappa-like rapture. BLUE SKIES!!! A Sapphire-blue dream of a day had come riding in off the Sound of Rùm! Was this really happening? Were we party to some unpublished Tolkein work of art? Was this the ghost of George Bullough playing party games with this bunch of mainland scallywags? We emerged from the bothy, sniffed the air, pinched ourselves and confirmed this was indeed reality.
Sadly, however, our progress back onto the ridge was less than zappa-like, involving as it did the unbroken steep, grassy slope that took a direct line straight from the bothy to the first (or last, for most people) peak, Sgurr Nan Gillean. "Steep and tedious", declared a brief description in a dusty guidebook in the bothy, and I couldn't have put it better myself. Our endless slog was punctuated, however, by glances at the ever-improving view. A maritime vista opening up of Mull, Eigg, Coll and Tiree, the remote peaks of Knoydart, and the vast stretches of what appeared to be the entire West Coast. We thought we saw a Sea Eagle swooping down from the peaks at one point (and that wouldn't be so strange – Rùm was chosen as the place for their re-introduction from Norway's Lofoten Islands in the 1970s). Eventually the uncompromising slopes gave way to a fun scramble, that in a highlight-of-your-scrambling-life moment emerged at a narrow ridge bisecting that island-studded view to the South, and to the North a jaw-dropping exposé of the Askival ridge, where we'd been the previous day. "We were on that?!", we exclaimed, marvelling at how "hardcore" it looked but how hardcore we knew it wasn't, really.
Having done the "classic" bit, this was where our trip began to differ from most trips to Rùm. The little add-on that followed, however, once we'd descended from Ainshval, is thoroughly recommended, and really makes the most of the long weekend you have to take anyway. That said, having to walk over another range of mountains upon descending from the main Cuillin ridge was not the most welcome prospect. The mountain in questions was Orval, on the Western side of the island, which having taken in the beach, single cottage, and Bullough's slightly eerie mausoleum at Harris, we crossed en route to another cracking bothy at Guirdil. Having completed an entire crossing of the island, we arrived at this secluded coastal spot as the sun began to set over flat-topped Canna, and in the other direction the majestic Skye Cuillin thrust up from the gently lapping waters into a canape of purple clouds and magenta sky. Old fishing equipment hung from the walls of the bothy, and driftwood and a nearby copse of dead trees made for a roaring fire and a special end to an unlikely, long and memorable day.
The monotonous tramp back along tracks and paths to Kinloch the next day further added to the dreaminess of the previous. The mist and drizzle had returned, the mystical peaks once again enshrouded. As we waited three hours back in Kinloch for the ferry, with no food and no means of obtaining any, the memories gave us sustenance until the Calmac bar/café opened. And as we stepped off the ferry back in Mallaig, that magical island seemed distant and unbelievable. Was it really there? The suspicions began to creep back in...
It's there all right. Over there, across the Sound and up in the clouds - this Tolkeinesque fantasy world of fortress-like peaks, where eagles soar, where eccentric noblemen come to play with alligators, and where the most adventurous of hillwalkers come to lose the crowds....
Tips and More Info
Caledonian Macbrayne ferries (CalMac) timetable here. From March onwards, sailings to rum become slightly more frequent, but there are still no Sunday sailings, meaning that a Friday to Monday trip is the only viable option if you're planning to do the ridge. The ferry leaves from Mallaig, which is reachable by train from Glasgow/Fort William, as well as via the main A830 from Fort William.
There is also a community-owned ferry called the Sheerwater that sails to Rùm, marketing itself as operating 'wildlife crusies'. It runs during the summer from Arisaig, just off the A830 before Mallaig (website here).
Where to stay
The Isle of Rùm community trust campsite costs £5 per night and is located on the shore just before the main part of Kinloch, a five-minute walk from the ferry. Wild camping is possible anywhere, but you're encouraged to stay here for at least your first or last night (which you'd probably spend around Kinloch) since this part of the island has just become community-owned, and they could use the revenue! It has showers, toilets, washing-up facilities and a large wooden shelter with sea views.
Kinloch Castle has been turned into a quirky hostel, some rooms replete with four-poster beds and old-school classic artwork. Rates start at £18 per night for a dorm room, and various prices are available for renting a whole room. Again, it's a great place to spend your first or last night on the island. For more information on this and the campsite, see this website.
And then there are the bothies! Dibidil and Guirdil are both maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association. Grid refs on the website (http://www.mountainbothies.org.uk).
Maps and guidebooks
For a full route description of the Rum Cuillin traverse see Scotland's Mountain Ridges by Dan Bailey (pb.Cicerone)
An OS Explorer 1:25,000 is recommended for navigating on the ridge, that's sheet 397, 'Rùm, Eigg, Muck, Canna and Sanday'. A 1:50,000, however, can often give a better overall impression of a place, in which case it's OS Landranger sheet 39, 'Rùm, Eigg, Muck and Canna'.
There is a general store in Kinloch, which also houses the Post Office, as well as a village hall that serves as a tearoom, serving soups and home-baking, between 10am-4pm. Phone the general store on 01687 460328 to ask about its opening hours, as they seem a little vague and irregular. Remember whoever runs it is probably also a crofter and castle groundsman, so be patient! More information here.
About Andy Ruck
Andy Ruck lives in Aberdeen and still considers the Scottish hills to be his favourite place in the world. And he's taken time check out quite a few others. The last six years have seen brief and not-so-brief forays into the Alps, Norway, the Indian Himalaya and South America, about which he wrote his first book, (Así es la Vida: An Un-structured voyage of discovery in South America). He has also contributed to Summit, UKClimbing and Adventure Travel.