Climb the peaks of Mingulay: great Scotsman! – a photo report | Holidays in the highlands
I I thought the sun had blinked, but we had been caught in the shadow of a golden eagle passing low above our heads. There were five of them above the hill, Cnoc Mhic-a-Phi, two of them tumbling from the blue sky, lost in a playful, clawed dogfight.
I had been invited here to Mingulay (Miùghlaigh in Gaelic) by the famous climber and formidable mountaineer Stephen Venables. Mingulay is a small uninhabited island, the second most southerly of the Outer Hebrides. Four kilometers long and almost three wide, it has three distinct hills, grassy pastures and hardly any trees. Owned by the National Trust for Scotland since 2000, it is no longer grazed by sheep and the grass grows long there. We are part of a group of Northumberland climbers camping and climbing for a week above the ruined village, abandoned since 1912.
In 1988 Venables became the first Briton to climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. He reaches the summit alone. Descending at the end of the day, he decides to spend a night in the open air above 8,500 m, rather than risk a catastrophic fall in the dark, surviving the incredible experience but at the cost of several frostbite on his toes. .
“I have visited very exciting places, I have done many expeditions in the Himalayas, climbed in Africa, Antarctica and the Andes. Now I want to enjoy being in Scotland and enjoying what’s here. Mingulay is magical. Terrific wildlife. The Western Isles are unique and special, silver beaches, turquoise seas…it makes me think I can do without the Mediterranean,” says Venables.
The island is now mainly frequented by a summer procession of mountain climbers, adventurous sea kayakers, sailors and boats full of day trippers. It still bears the furrows and ruins of a community that clung on for at least 2,000 years. The population peaked in 1881, reaching 160 congested souls, but after much grievance and injustice from the owners, by 1912 they were all gone.
Eagles, skuas and corncrakes have the interior mostly to themselves now, but people’s voices aren’t muted. The naming of the coast and every element of the landscape – both in Gaelic and Norse – testifies to the communities that have thrived there for many centuries.
Our group camped south of Cnoc Mhic-a-Phi, under a large pirate flag and next to the old school. The skull and crossbones is the calling card of our team organizer, Tim Catterall. The 55-year-old Newcastle-based project manager first arrived in Mingulay in 1999 and was hooked, starting to lead trips from 2004.
What is the special appeal of Mingulay, I ask?
“Incredible rock architecture, spectacular flora, fauna and solitude. I especially like flowers, those that remind me of people. Like the tormentille because I remember the old climber who taught me that. Or the spring squill, the little blue one over there,” he says, pointing, “and the orchids, pyramidal, marsh and common.”
Although Catterall has visited many times, this is the first time for me and Venables. Climbing is done on the 100m cliffs of Sròn an Dùin, some small and slabby, but many overhanging heart attacks. Razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes, fulmars, shags and cormorants nest on the ledges of intricate ancient geology, making everyone dream of what a great cliff face should be. We enter the most beautiful undulating, marbled, modeled rock, which gradually becomes heavier and then rises in this immense band of overhangs.
“Lewisian Gneiss (on the cliffs of Sròn an Dùin) is this amazing rock that has been melted and twisted, buried and remelted over hundreds of millions of years to produce this beautiful rock architecture, which is the most wonderful thing in the world to climb on. And it’s just exciting.
“The beauty of moving to Scotland is that I’m only now starting to climb places I’ve dreamed of for decades. I haven’t been to many of the best places in Scotland yet,” says Venables.
“The sea cliffs have a special appeal – all that noise and rolling motion gives a slightly dizzying feeling. By their nature they tend to be steep, which as a climber you tend to look for,” he adds.
The history of climbing in Mingulay is not as modern as one might imagine. The original inhabitants hunted seabirds and collected eggs from cliffs and ledges for centuries. Writing in the late 1600s, Martin Martin, a Gaelic-speaking native of Skye, describes birds climbing the towering sea stack of Liànamuil in his book A Description of The Western Isles of Scotland.
“The chief climber is commonly called Gingich and this name implies a tall man of commensurate strength and courage…with the aid of a horsehair rope he pulls his companions out of the boat and onto this high rock and drag the rest after him with the rope, until they come to the top,” he wrote. Often the hunters were ropeless, alone on the steep ledges. There were rare casualties, the last recorded death being an eight-year-old child collecting eggs.
In his book Everest: Alone at the Summit, Venables describes negotiating the Hillary stage in the final stages of his epic ascent. Deprived of oxygen, he says: “Suddenly I was in a pub – a real pub…a glowing firelight and a girl with golden hair, someone was bringing us two pints of hot Guinness…”
I asked if he had had similar visions while climbing those cliffs? “Nope!” he protests happily.
“I wasn’t hypoxic; I wasn’t about to die, I was having a glorious time and there was no need for fantasy! he adds, slightly disapproving.