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9 guirdil bothy

Discovering the Isle of Rum

Ester Carlomagno spent two months living on the Isle of Rum, volunteering at the Rum National Nature Reserve, where she went walking whenever the weather allowed

I was living in Edinburgh when I applied to volunteer at Rum National Nature Reserve, on one of the Small Isles off the west coast of Scotland. The day of travel, waiting for the ferry to Kinloch, the only settlement on Rum, I wandered around the small fishing village of Mallaig.

Overlooking some fishing boats being restored, I realised I was on the verge of experiencing the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands.

3 rum
Waiting for the shearwaters at sunset, sitting in a fishing boat

As I sat outside on the deck of the CalMac ferry I spotted a couple of porpoise dolphins in their unihemispheric slow wave sleep. The shape of the isle in the distance, with the dramatic outlines of Askival and Hallival, was astonishing.

I was aware of the existence of one of the largest breeding colonies of Manx shearwater on the upper slopes of the Cuillins, but little did I know I was on the brink of encountering these remarkable seabirds while sitting in a small fishing boat, sailing out at sunset.

I still can remember the shy and firm applause of their wings flapping, as they skimmed so low over the waves.

After over one hour of crossing I landed on Rum. The empty Kinloch pier smelled of fresh fish and quiet.

I ended up spending about two months there and went trekking every time the weather permitted. One of the tracks took me from Kinloch to Guirdil Bay, on the west coast of the island.

This stunning loop trail stretches about 20km, via Bealach a’ Bhràigh Bhing and Glen Shellesder. An invaluable green, wet and boggy experience.

mountain pass
Reaching Bealach a’ Bhràigh Bhing, between Orval and Fionchra

One morning I followed the track west along the south bank of the Kinloch River and after about 3km I continued along the left hand fork until I reached Malcom’s Bridge. There I left the trail to follow a pony path, heading north along the Abhainn Monadh Mhiltich.

As I treaded west and climbed to the Bealach a Bhraigh Bhig, I noticed a latent fishing lake, beneath the Western Hills’ northern flank: Loch a’ Ghille Reamhra. I was always tempted to reach all the lochs scattered across the isle: their apparent and bright calm attracted me like the seductive call of the golden oriol (Oriolus oriolus).

At Bealach a Bhraigh Bhig I took a short break and spotted a brown chocolate golden eagle, Aquila chrysaetos, soaring over Fionchra’s cliffs with its majestic wingspan. This royal bird of prey gets its name from the lighter golden brown plumage on its head and neck. Proud and confident, golden eagles nest on remote and inaccessible crags and cliffs on Rum, well away from human interference.

After Bealach the pony path descended to Glen Guirdil, a narrow, fertile valley dominated by the severe face of Bloodstone Hill. The hill got its name from a seam of bloodstone, an opaque green chalcedony spotted or streaked with red iron oxide.

I headed directly north-west downhill, following some deer paths until I reached Guirdil Bay and the bothy, set among the ruins of an ancient crofting settlement. The foreshore of Guirdil Bay had diverse shades of green and the harbour opened up a peaceful view of Canna. The bothy was a shepherd’s cottage, originally built in the late 19th century, then restored by the Mountain Bothy Association and it is actually one of the two bothies available on Rum for public use.

12 natural caves

I went to Guirdil several times and never got tired of it. There are places of which I gain a different understanding every time I go back. Are Rum’s landscapes a reflection of a state of consciousness?

Before losing the sense of time, I headed back to Kinloch, through the wet and golden Glen Shellesder. But that is a different story.