Author Archives: Jim

Redwood

I walked a dirt path at sunrise. Either side of me the gargantuan trunks of the tallest trees on earth rose so high I couldn’t see their tops.

The pillar trunks of the trees stood silent and still in the morning fog. It was ghostly quiet and nothing moved until a bird flew between the trunks, but any sound from its wings was swallowed by still sword ferns and mosses. The light was soft and fell in sure beams through the foliage.

Coast redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens, grow from seeds as small as tomato seeds to giants the size of Big Ben. They are so immense that other big trees grow on the soil that accumulates on the branches in the canopy. The oakwoods where I live in Scotland also host epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) but they are diminutive ferns and honeysuckle. Here in the redwood forest, Sitka spruce and Western hemlock trees, as tall as forty feet, have been found growing in the canopy. It’s as if each redwood tree hosts its own forest ecosystem with all its associated species: flying squirrels, giant salamanders and spotted owls.

Sitting there I wondered at how resilient the forest appeared. With roots that intertwine with the roots of neighbouring trees, the forest is resistant to the wind, and with bark twelve inches thick, the trees are resistant to fire. The forest felt strong. It seemed reassuringly invulnerable. But that was an illusion. The immensity of the trees, their lofty maturity, hid a history of destruction.

I was sat in a fragile scrap of old growth redwood forest; only five per cent of it remains following widespread logging during the gold rush in the mid-1800s. There are people today who strive to protect it, people who were as overwhelmed as me when they first walked the quiet paths beneath these totems of natural wonder. The founder of the Save the Redwoods League, Henry Fairfield Osborn, declared in 1918 that he considered “the destruction of these trees one of the greatest calamities in the whole history of American civilisation”. The league were successful in purchasing redwood groves and saving them from sawmill companies. It’s thanks to them that I, and many others, are able to wander in what remains.

My appreciation for their work was tinged with regret that the forest still needs protecting today. Why would anyone want to pull the cord on a chainsaw and hold it against the bark of a tree that has grown, over the course of two thousand years, from a speck of a seed to a living giant? I lay a hand on one of the tallest trees I could find and looked up. It was already a giant when the first Europeans came ashore in the east. At that time the native American Chilula lived unthreateningly within the forest. The Chilula elder had a word of warning for the new arrivals:

“Destroy these trees..and you will eventually kill mankind”.

Visit www.savetheredwoods.org to learn more.

A slice of the Arctic

The high plateau of the Cairngorms is often called a true Arctic environment, right here in Scotland. Having been to the Arctic a number of times, to Lapland and Svalbard, I can testify that the Cairngorm plateau, aside from being well south of the Arctic Circle, is the Arctic in every other sense. There is that same raw glaciated topography, the same soft, pink and cobalt light, and the same savage cold wind.

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I’ve always felt you can only get to know the mountains, or any wild place, by spending day and night out there, free from distraction. It takes a day or two to slow down and by rushing we miss what is right in front of us. Wild places become wilder to us when we sleep out in the elements. Nipping out of the house after breakfast and returning to a warm bed before dark is merely dipping your toe in.

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On this trip I opted to set up camp for three nights at about 800 metres and explore from there each day. Rather than aiming for a particular summit, I wandered with no plan other than to find two things: the beautiful winter light that falls on the mountains and the cold-adapted wildlife that confirms this as a slice of the Arctic.

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Among the granite blocks – scored by ice-bound stones of the past, blades of rime ice down their wind-blasted faces – are mountain hares, ptarmigan and snow bunting. I saw all three on the plateau. The ptarmigan and hare were both hunkered down in the lee side of rocks and both were now well camouflaged in their respective white winter feathers and fur. Both species have been here since the last ice age.

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Small flocks of snow buntings flitted from summit cairn to summit cairn in search of crumbs dropped by hill-walkers. In the summer, snow buntings nest on the plateau, the only resident breeding pairs in Britain, but at this time of year there are more of them, as birds from the far north fly south to over-winter in Scotland.

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Unlike north of the Arctic Circle, there is no twenty-four hour darkness at this latitude but the days are short and when the long night falls it has the essence of the cold north. My tent was pitched high in the northern corries. It was minus 10C with not a hint of a breeze. The moon had not yet risen so conditions were perfect for stargazing.

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Each night I stood outside watching the imperceptible rotation of stars from one dark horizon to the other, snow crunching underfoot as I stamped on the spot to keep warm. I watched the stars every night, and on the final night the northern sky was washed green with a gentle aurora. My homespun Arctic adventure was complete.

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An autumn ridge walk – in praise of the bivi

The notion of sleeping rough in the wild with no tent, for fun, baffles a lot of people when I try to explain it to them. I usually describe my bivi bag as something akin to a body bag. This doesn’t help my argument that it’s something they should try. Next year my bivi bag celebrates its 20th birthday. Unlike the modern bags you can buy today it really is like a body bag; just a large, floppy gore-tex sack with a zip over your face. My bivi bag had a grand start to life; it kept me dry in one of the wettest regions on earth for three months: Patagonia. Remarkably it is still waterproof today.

On the Five Sisters ridge

For its latest outing I wasn’t expecting rain. But in the Highlands, autumn was in the air and the nights were getting cold. The deer sedge had started to brown, from the tip down and from a distance the slopes had turned tawny. I love being in the mountains at this time of year, so much so that a day’s walk is not enough. I had to be out there day and night, up high, alone in the wind, above the corries with the ravens. I set aside three days and two nights and to fill that I needed a ridge long enough that I didn’t reach the end of it too quickly. So, my bivi bag and I headed for the north Glen Shiel ridge, encompassing the Five Sisters of Kintail and the lesser-known brothers further east along the ridge.

Autumn arriving - deer sedge browning

I set off in the late afternoon from the Cluanie Inn, that lonely pub at the east end of Glen Shiel. I was torn between a desire to sit outside with a pint of ale and the need to get to the top before dark. I headed up the steep slopes on the north side of the glen, the wind snapping at the moor grass. It was pretty cold at the summit of Aonach Mheadoin. I got there an hour before sunset; the shadows were lengthening in the glen and the western sky had turned pink. I rolled my bivi bag out on the flat mossy top, just in the lee of the summit cairn. To the north was the pyramidal peak of Ciste Dhubh, neatly scoured on all sides by the ice that, if I had been here 15,000 years ago, would have filled the glens all around.

Dinner time on summit of Aonach Mheadoin

From the comfort of my bivi bag I could cook, eat and fall asleep while watching the sun set over the raggedy line of mountain peaks out west. In a tent, all you hear is fabric flapping, but in a bivi bag you fall asleep to the hiss of wind through the grass and around the rocky summit cairn. My face was cool but the rest of me was snug. I heard ravens in the distance just before I fell asleep.

I woke at dawn. The light, as it often is at sunrise, was beautiful, catching the crests of ridges and casting deep shadows in the corries. I had a long day ahead, walking the roller-coaster ridge all the way to its highest peak, Sgurr Fhuaran, on the Five Sisters ridge. It looked a bloody long way from where I was stood so I packed up quickly and got going.

Devil's bit scabious

There were signs of autumn everywhere. The Devil’s bit scabious added little spots of purple to the landscape. The tiny flowers are arranged in a spherical cluster at the end of a long thin stalk so that they sway wildly above the dying grasses. The plant was once thought to cure scabies, hence ‘scabious’. The rest of the name relates to the stumpy roots; the devil was supposedly angry with the plant for curing folk, so he bit the roots off.

I was followed on my walk by six ravens; probably the ones I had heard the night before. They followed me all day, stopping when I stopped and flying on ahead of me when I walked. This has happened to me before and I can only assume they see me as a prime candidate for tripping off a cliff and becoming carrion.

Raven

On the seventh peak of the day, Sgurr na Ciste Duibh, I had lunch and watched a golden eagle soaring over Ben Attow across the glen. It rose slowly in great circles to a tremendous height until I struggled to see it. It made my eyes hurt trying to make it out so I re-focussed on the ground by my boots. When we are in the mountains we tend to think big and look at the view stretching out in all directions. But it’s good to look at the small stuff too; down at ground level there were more wild flowers to see. In the dark nooks of a rocky bluff I found starry saxifrage, a real beauty of a flower with five delicate white petals. It is a flower of the Arctic or Alpine regions and, in Britain, can only be found on the highest of mountains.

Starry saxifrage

My second night on the ridge was on the highest of the twelve peaks I would climb: Sgurr Fhuran at 1067 metres. The wind had picked up to such a degree that I was starting to feel less smug about the merits of bivvying as a lifestyle choice. It was very cold and the cloud bubbled up in the glen below me, occasionally sweeping over the ridge and engulfing me as I tried to cook dinner on my stove. The weather was changing. After wolfing down some pasta tubes I zipped myself right into my body bag. The wind pummelled against the bag and, okay, it wasn’t as idyllic as the first night.

Second night on the ridge, - Sgurr Fhuaran 1067m

But in the morning I had the most extraordinary walk to the end of the ridge. I still had four summits to cross. One of the advantages of sleeping on mountains is you get to be up there at first light, the best light of the day. I walked along the ridge, on the edge of the corrie backwall thinking this was the best morning stroll I had done in a long time. To the west was Loch Duich and the jaggedy Cuillin ridge on Skye. And ahead of me was my next peak, Sgurr nan Saighead. On its east face are great slabs of rock, upturned by tectonic forces, sweeping down in perfect straight lines from the summit to the glen floor. For me, it was the most beautiful mountain on the ridge.

Sgurr nan Saighead

By the time I had walked over the top of the last mountain of the three days, Sgurr na Moraich, I realised I had seen just two people since I left Cluanie. On the knee-cracking descent to the A87 near Shiel Bridge I met one more couple on their way up. They seemed surprised that I was already on my way down so early in the day. So I told them how I had slept on the summit in a body bag. “Right,” said the guy, looking confused.
I guess it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

Sarek – a wilderness trek

We had been waiting on the deserted jetty all morning when a little Sami man walked slowly by, bent in back and with a pointed grey beard. He told us he was a wizard and he and his wife – a witch of course – were the only year-round residents in the area. Perhaps he could conjure up a boatman who could take us across the lake. “No boat. You must go like this,” he said, and began to twirl his finger in circles above his head whilst making helicopter noises. But there were no helicopters either.

Ahhka

Ahhka

We were on the shore of Lake Ritsem, but we were on the wrong side. Across the water was Sarek National Park, known to many as “Europe’s Alaska” or the “Last Wilderness in Europe”. I had been to the fringes before but I had never crossed from one side of this trackless land of mountain and glacier to the other. It would take Tommy and I twelve days to cover the 100 miles. Everything we needed for those twelve days – shelter, food, clothing – was in the packs on our backs, and “everything” weighed thirty kilos each. But that was the least of our problems. We had to cross the lake first – seven miles of water and there was no boat – or helicopter.

Nijak

And then, a guy in a khaki cap came by. He had a Burt Lancaster moustache and shades. His name was Marcus. He was an elk hunter and, more importantly for us, he had a boat and was happy to take us across. The glaciers and ridges of Áhkká, the mountain that stands guardian to Sarek, loomed ever nearer until we were there in the mouth of the mighty Vuojatadno river. Marcus found a bank for us to jump onto. We handed rucksacks over and then, with one hand raised in goodbye, he spun round and was off. And we were there on the edge of Sarek, on the edge of wilderness.

Ruohtesvagge

Ruohtesvagge

The landscape of this part of northern Sweden, 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is much like the Highlands of Scotland that I call home. The mountains are borne of the same rock, the land has undergone the same glacial transformations and the flora and fauna bears similarities. But here everything is turned up a notch; the mountains are a little bigger, the corries still hold ice – remnants of the last glacial period, the vast birch forests are not fragmented as they are in Scotland and here they reach a natural treeline. The fauna is more complete; there are bears and lynx, although wolves have been persecuted to local extinction. There are no roads and only a handful of huts (kept locked for the Sami reindeer herders). The sense of isolation is profound.

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Stuor skoarki and Rapaselet

Mountain

We had started the trek in the montane birch forest. As we rose higher the trees became more stunted; little bonsais, contorted and tortured by the wind. We had passed through the treeline. Now we crossed open land of lichen, blood-red bearberry and dwarf birch hugging the contours of the rocks; their crisp, tawny autumn leaves fidgeting in the northern wind. Here we made our second camp.

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Bearberry and Rapa delta with Skierfe on the left

Nearby was a rare sign of human habitation, a kåta, a wigwam-like structure of wood and earth built by the indigenous Sami who, for generations, practised a form of transhumance, following the reindeer to their high summer pastures. They would build these shelters where the reindeer grazed. 

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Kisuriskåtan

Not far away we saw some, clearly man-made, depressions in the ground; thousands of years ago the Sami would hunt the reindeer by digging these trapping pits and herding the reindeer into them. There are over 3000 ancient cultural remains in Lapland; it may feel like an “untouched” wilderness but the Sami have been here a long time.

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Reindeer bull

We saw reindeer almost every day but there is another mammal in Sarek that’s even more abundant. Lemmings. We stepped over their prostrate dead bodies many times. Great mats of lemming droppings filled bare patches of ground and their runs crisscrossed through the short grass. It was a boom year, when their population reaches a critical point until the inevitable: death en masse. The myth goes that they commit suicide, flinging themselves off cliffs, but the reality is that the population density is so high they are forced to migrate, succumbing to death by stress, starvation and drowning in mountain streams.

The only live lemming I saw was one evening at camp. I was brushing my teeth by a stream when a small furry, black and tan face appeared at a burrow on the bank, just an arm’s length from me. I stopped brushing and, without moving my head, turned my eyes to look. He just sat there as if admiring the view from his waterside burrow and then he squeaked, ran back in and I carried on brushing my teeth. I always get a thrill from close encounters. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s a white-tailed eagle or a buck-toothed rodent.

Glacier

About seven days into the trek we were in the heart of Sarek. We set up camp where three valleys meet. For days we had been walking at the altitudinal limit of vegetation and now we headed higher, into a hanging corrie, a raw and lonely land of rock and snow, where the earth had been forced into the clouds by time and tectonics.

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Tjågnåris – which I hope is pronounced ‘Chuck Norris’

We crossed a boulder field – two modern monkeys hopping from rock to rock – high on the mountainside. When we came to the gaping mouth of the Tjågnåris corrie we sat on the shoulder of the mountain and watched grey tendrils of cloud slipping around the black cliffs above us. In the distance was our destination: the snout of the glacier. We left the massive boulders and followed the flat plains of gravel moraine, threaded with milky streams flowing from the melting ice. And then the sense of wilderness was pricked ever so slightly. We found a rock with red paint daubed on it. Numbers: 1963. A little further was another, 1968, and another, 1974. They were, of course, dates. Somebody had been visiting this place for over fifty years to mark the furthest reach of the glacier.

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Tjågnårisjiegna

We walked slowly towards the ice, each step retracing its steady retreat, each step making us profoundly aware of how much of it had gone. The glacier in front of us, which had retreated by a mile in half a century, was like a canary in a coal mine, but this canary, like many others around the world, was in a hostile, uninhabited place. The alarm calls are lost in the wind. In lower latitudes people get angry about modern life, not the imminent threat from climate change. 

Guohpervagge

Guohpervagge

River

There was only one bridge on our 100-mile trek but twelve wide, fast-flowing rivers. After heavy rain, there were countless other tributaries that had swollen into waist-high, thundering torrents. Tommy fell in one, just managing to catch my extended arm to be dragged onto the bank. Another was more benign, but the dark eddying waters were cold and almost up to our armpits. On one long, wet day we bushwhacked through miles of willow scrub and crossed river after river. By late afternoon we were drenched but felt invincible. Nothing could stand in our way.

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Rahpajahka

That was when we came across a small tent in a clearing. It was the temporary residence of Uno, a quiet Swedish gent who had been here, involuntarily, for three days. I cannot get out” he said matter-of factly, “the river is too high”.

He was stranded. Crossing the river was the only way back to his car, thirty miles away. To head back up the valley it was maybe fifty miles to the lake where there was no boat. The river had dropped a little since Uno had last checked and his confidence was higher now there were three of us. With sticks for support we waded into the river, shifting our feet on the slippery rocks deep below. It was important not to rush; a slip would be more than just uncomfortable.

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Crossing one of the smaller tributaries

We made it and caught our breath on the far bank. Relieved to be out of the water, we now looked ahead to the next obstacle, the snow-bound plateau. Uno advised us to be careful up there; it was a long, arduous slog over high ground. You are lucky,” he said. “I am alone but you are two, so there will be one of you to tell the widow”.

Spurred on by Uno’s positivity, we waved him goodbye. He was in no rush, and perhaps we shouldn’t have been either, but we were conscious of our dwindling food supplies. We marched on and found a spot to camp in the birch woods by the magnificent Raphpaadno or “Rapa” river that drains the mountains all around. As we lay in our tents the deep bellow from this great milk, green river, full of suspended glacial silt, was a constant background noise. Only the hiss of the birch trees in the wind could be heard above it.

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Raphpaadno in Rapadalen

Delta

We had one more day off-piste before a two-day jaunt to the village of Kvikkjokk, along part of the Kungsleden trail, the long-distance walking route that, while still in remote country, is blessed with bridges and mountain huts. We knew that the first of these huts was a day’s walk away but to get to it we had to climb Skierfe, one of the most famous mountains in Sweden.

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The Rapa delta from the summit of Skierfe

We nearly didn’t bother with the summit as it was a slight detour on what was already the toughest, longest day of the trek. We had already been walking for eight hours and there was little daylight left. Just below the summit we pondered whether to nip up there or keep going to the hut. What the hell, we thought, let’s do it. Thank God we did. At the very summit of Skierfe a sheer 700 metre cliff falls away and there below, two miles wide, is the magnificent Rapadalen delta. It either leaves you speechless or spluttering expletives. I went with the latter. It is the largest freshwater delta in Europe but few people know about it outside of Sweden, even outside of Swedish Lapland.

Forest

The forests in the delta are known for their elk (moose in North America). “The largest in Europe” I had read so many times. They may be the largest but the thick willow scrub made it almost impossible to see them. We found elk prints and droppings and a cast antler but it wasn’t until we climbed high onto the open plateau that we finally saw them. They were back down in the valley crossing a marshy plain in the forest. Even from a mile away their sheer bulk was clear. These are big, heavy animals – the largest deer in the world. The bull elk stands two metres at the shoulder and can weigh as much as 700 kilos. Uno, the guy we met camped by the river, had told us a story of how a dozen or so elk had been seen crossing the frozen Rapa river one winter. The ice broke under their weight and every animal fell into the cold waters and drowned.

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Elk antler in Rapadalen

We descended from Skierfe back into the forest, first through the birch and then lower into the Norway spruce and pine. The abundance of life here was striking: capercaillie, crossbill, Siberian tit, Arctic redpoll, hawk owl, crossbill, lesser-spotted woodpecker, Siberian jay. We saw all of these as we passed through the forest over two days.

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Sjabtjakjaure

And then we came to a deserted hut by a small lake. As we sat on the veranda a haunting cry echoed through the forest. And there it was, out on the lake, a black-throated diver. The next morning it was gone, just in time before the snows came. We took its lead and left too, for Kvikkjokk. That night we would be in a fancy mountain lodge. The wilderness is wonderful but so is reindeer steak and beer in a sauna.

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Black-throated diver

Rewilding

Shortly after returning from Lapland I learned that the organisation Rewilding Europe had identified the area as one of ten locations in Europe to benefit from a major rewilding initiative, aimed at preserving the natural and cultural heritage. You can read more about it by downloading the Rewilding Lapland brochure.

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Hill time, bothy time

Cul Mor from Stac Pollaidh

Cul Mor from Stac Pollaidh

I was in contemplative mood as I drove north to the wonderful wild mountains of Assynt and Coigach. Life had been running at full speed for me in recent years: a new career, children, new house. Time had been working on me but the mountains were a steadying constant. They never seem to change, I thought.

I didn’t have much time so I aimed for the hill that offered the quickest ascent – Stac Pollaidh. Despite its diminutive stature, it’s a fine hill, with spiky Torridonian sandstone pillars along its short crest. Like most of Assynt’s hills it’s an inselberg or ‘island peak’ standing, isolated, on a rolling bed of Lewisian gneiss. If there is anywhere in Scotland where you want to contemplate time, it is here. The Lewisian gneiss is the oldest rock in the land, 3,000 million years old, and was once part of a continent that included North America and Greenland. I found it hard to picture such an unfathomable gulf of time, but it was fun to sit there and try.

Stay Pollaidh's bristly sandstone crest

Stac Pollaidh’s bristly sandstone crest

The sandstone rock of Stac Pollaidh that I was sitting on was young by comparison, formed from sediments laid down by 1,000 million year old rivers. The landscape has changed so many times since then, pushed skywards by tectonic forces, remoulded by glaciers, wind and water. From the perspective of a human lifetime the mountains appear to have reached a permanent state, but a few years ago one of Stac Pollaidh’s sandstone pillars partly collapsed, a reminder that time is still working this landscape.

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The sun had revitalised me and that evening I walked into the bothy below Suilven feeling more alive than I had done for weeks. I was joined by a friend, Alasdair. He is an ecologist and had spent the day on the slopes of Ben Mor Coigach with a three-metre peat probe. We were both glowing from our day in the Highland sun but now the dark descended, the Milky Way stretched over the bothy roof and the grass grew crisp as the cold descended.

Bothy night

Bothy night

We sat within the cold walls, warming socks by the pitiful fire, recounting when we had first been to this bothy: he in 1999 for Millennium Eve, me in 1994 with Stirling University Mountaineering Club. I remember saying then “I wonder if we’ll still be doing this in twenty years”. Nearly twenty-two years later and I was here again, doing those things you do in bothies to while away time: scribbling in the bothy book, hanging steaming socks – damp with bog water – by the fire, finding a nail from which to hang my bag of food  to stop the mice getting to it, lighting a candle in the window, supping whisky, watching my breath swirl in the candlelight, at times putting the world to rights with Alasdair and at other times sitting, listening to the quiet, the fire crackle and the creaks from bothy beams. Three thousand million years had changed the mountains outside but it was good to know that in twenty-two years, for me, nothing had really changed.

Not as warm as it looks

Not as warm as it looks

The bothy book

The bothy book

Thank you to North West Highlands Geopark for the facts and figures www.nwhgeopark.com 

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A Night with the Trolls

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My tent at the summit of Hallival, Isle of Rum

For over ten years I’ve lived within a gale-flung stone’s throw of the Isle of Rum. I’ve been there many times for many reasons: to traverse Rum’s Cuillin ridge, to listen to the music and craic in the village hall and to spend nights in bothies and tents, under siege from the battering rain and wind. And this summer I returned to spend a night with the trolls.

Around 700 years ago Rum was a Viking stronghold; the mountains still bear the Norse names that they gave them: Askival (Ash Mountain), Ainshval (rocky mountain) and most intriguing of all Trallval (Hill of the Trolls). The Vikings heard strange chattering noises coming from the mountains on summer nights and attributed the eerie sounds to trolls. They even found their burrows on the summits. What is more intriguing is that the burrows are still there and the chattering and squawking of the ‘trolls’ can still be heard today.

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Askival and Trallval from Hallival

I was fortunate to be climbing the hills shortly after the passing of a cold front. The air was clearing and scraps of cloud clung to the leeward sides of the hills as if desperate not to leave, but the fresh wind teased them apart like cotton strands. At the wide saddle of Bealach Bairc-Mheall I was over half way to the summit of Hallival, the peak that holds the most burrows of all. None of the peaks on Rum is particularly lofty and Hallival at 722 metres is one of the lowliest but its buttresses are imposing and give an illusion of grandeur. As I scrambled over the bands of rock to reach the summit I pondered on the geology of the mountain, later learning that I had been climbing over layers of igneous rock that once formed the base of a magma chamber; around the time of the dinosaurs’ demise Rum was a super-volcano. The layers of rock are alternately hard (gabbro) and soft (peridotite), formed at different times depending on the temperature of the magma.

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One of the thousands of burrows on the Rum Cuillin

It is these 65 million year old terra-forming processes that led to the perfect nesting habitat for the ‘trolls’ that would evolve to live here, in the softer peridotite bands. At what point they began to colonise Rum is anyone’s guess but they are still here and I was about to spend a night with them. I pitched my tent a few feet from the summit cairn. There were burrows all around me, extending along the ridge to the next peak and beyond; just below the surface of the hills thousands of tiny lives were fidgeting but outside in the glow of the sunset it was eerily calm; just a few feral goats grazed on the slopes below me. I knew the creatures would only come under the safety of full darkness to avoid predation.

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Feral goat

It was a long wait for that darkness. On these mid-summer evenings the sun sets late in the north-west and even when it does it sets at such an oblique angle that it takes an age for it to get properly dark. The islands below me, Eigg, Canna and Skye sat in an uncharacteristically still sea, the dying sun warming the knuckles of their rugged shores. Finally, at midnight the sky above me was black and pricked with stars. An electric blue band of light hung on in the north, the perpetual summer sun of the Arctic.

I had almost given up on the ‘trolls’, having zipped myself into my tent, when I heard a ‘whooof’. Something had just flown past. I unzipped and then they came, one after another flying in, unseen, like tiny missiles: ‘Whoof! Whooof!’ I caught sight of one as it shot past that band of northern light, knife-sharp wings held tight against the night – not a troll, but a manx shearwater. Then another, and another, thousands of them landing at their burrows after a day feeding at sea. Their scientific name is Puffinus puffinus, but unlike the puffin, the shearwater is an expert flyer, built for speed. They spend most of their time in the air, like an albatross of the northern hemisphere, flying inches above the crests of waves, hence ‘shearwater’. They do not like to be on land and only do so to raise their young.

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Waiting for trolls

The geology, the lack of terrestrial predators on this safe island and a sea rich in sand eels has made this the breeding colony of choice for this seabird, so much so that 60,000 of them – a third of the world’s population – migrate here from the coast of South America every summer. It is the largest single island colony of manx shearwaters in the world.

There are shearwater colonies too on the islands of Skomer and Skokholm in Wales. The shearwaters on these two islands and Rum make up eighty percent of the world’s breeding population. At first I wondered what made these islands so special to the shearwaters until I learned that in centuries past there were many other island colonies around the British Isles, long since silenced by invasive predatory species such as mink and rats, brought in by us. These remaining colonies were not only precious, they were precarious too. Scottish Natural Heritage, who own and manage Rum as a National Nature Reserve, carefully monitor the birds and guard against predatory invasion.

I stayed awake for an hour listening to the cacophony. As they land they call ‘Aaak-aaak-aaaak! Aaak-aaak-aaaak!’ Not the most beautiful of bird calls but still a phenomenal chorus of thousands.

As I zipped up the flysheet and drew the drawcord on my sleeping bag I felt I was under siege by gremlins. I could understand why the Vikings attributed the noise to trolls. To be there on that dark mountain, hearing the same noise that they had heard 700 years ago made me feel like I had stepped back in time. It was the most extraordinary of hill walks.

For pictures of manx shearwaters and to learn more about the work Scottish Natural Heritage does in conserving them click here.