Guest columnist in Scottish Islands Explorer


Re-produced below is the text of a column I wrote for the now-available November/December 2011 edition of Scottish Islands Explorer. Written while travelling on the London Underground – the very antithesis of the Hebrides – the column discusses some of the island’s literal high points, from Conachair on Hirta and Skye’s Sgurr Alasdair to Clisham on Harris and Mull’s Ben More.

I had a book published in September. The UK’s County Tops will, I hope, guide walkers to the summits of the UK’s 91 historic counties. Ronas Hill, the millions-of-years-old roof of Shetland, and Ward Hill, from where all but one of the Orkney islands can be glimpsed, along with well-tramped Goatfell on Arran, are represented.

The Hebrides are unavoidably overlooked. As scattered fragments of the traditional counties of Argyll, Inverness-shire and Ross and Cromarty, the archipelago’s highest mountains are dwarfed by mainland rivals.

But it got me thinking about Scottish island summits. Could they all be climbed? There are hundreds, many obscure and remote; it would be no easy undertaking. I have done a few: Barra’s heavenly Heaval, a marble statue of the Madonna holding aloft a baby adorning a rampart; the upturned boat of An Sgurr on Eigg; Rum’s Askival while plunged in clag; Beinn an Oir on Jura during a fell race over the Paps; the scintillating, cliff-rimmed Conachair on Hirta; and, most recently, the 38-metre summit of Easdale.

There are many more: Sgurr Alasdair, the zenith of the Skye Cuillin; Raasay’s Dun Caan, where James Boswell ‘danced a reel’; South Uist’s Beinn Mhor, a formidable presence greeting those travelling west across The Minch. The list goes on: Clisham on Harris; Ben Hogh on Coll; Bheinn Bheiger on Islay; Ben More on Mull; Creag Bhan on Gigha.

Some offer a greater challenge than others. The ascents of Askival and Easdale are incomparable, for instance. But the sense of satisfaction is similar. There is no higher place to go on this slab of earth. A vista of sea-lapped shores appears. The island’s place in the world is revealed.

I am writing this on the London Underground. It is sweltering. A woman to my left is proofreading my words. Visions of these places come to me like fleeting, untouchable dreams. The Hebrides and London share a country – yet occupy different worlds. I long for the hills. Give me the oppressive clag of Askival. Give me the rolling screes of Sgurr Alasdair. Give me the airy freedom of Clisham. I want to be there now.

The UK’s County Tops is available on Amazon.

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