There are some landscapes that just don’t belong here on Earth. Places where the scenery is folded like so much geological origami into strange, ethereal shapes; where nature and fantasy collide to create something beyond the limits of human imagination.
The Trotternish landslip is one of those places. It’s impossible to see a photo of its golden undulations and wind-whittled rock statues without thinking: that’s not real, is it? No. No way. Blimey, isn’t it mad what they can do with Photoshop these days?
What you can’t know just by looking at the pictures is that Trotternish does its own Photoshopping. This uncanny conglomeration of hills on Skye’s northernmost peninsula was formed some 60 million years ago, when the weight of lava from countless volcanic eruptions crushed the softer underlying rock to create a 30-kilometre-long landslip. That’s the technical explanation – but somehow the word ‘landslip’ just doesn’t do justice to the raging sea of basalt frozen in an eternal tsunami wave above the Sound of Raasay, nor the way the sun highlights those incredible curves.
Here’s the strange thing about Trotternish then. Despite the allure of a drool-generating ridge walk that runs almost the full length of the landslip, its high places are almost invariably deserted. True, a continuous ant line of tourists runs up and down the path to the Old Man of Storr on sunny weekends, but few climb beyond this heavily photographed Scottish icon to explore the glorious crest of the ridge itself.
Why? Allow your eye to drift south, and you’ll see the answer marching across the horizon. Yes, that’s the Cuillin: perhaps the most bucket-listed mountain range in the whole of Britain. If you asked most hillwalkers to draw a map of Skye, they’d depict each of those spiky peaks in loving detail while possibly leaving the rest of the island a big white blank. The Cuillin is William Wordsworth to the Trotternish’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge; the cool kid in Scotland’s geological playground. Who’s going to notice the gently undulating hills of Trotternish when a ring of spectacularly spiky Munros sits a short drive to the south?
I admit to being guilty of this blinkered approach. On my first visit to Skye, I headed straight for the Cuillin – and ended up stranded overnight on one of the highest summits in the range. It was the most heart-stoppingly brilliant experience of my life, but it was also pretty damn scary. The psychological bruises were actually still smarting a little when I returned to Skye for a second crack at the whip, this time with the aim of tackling a very different kind of ridge.
“Bloody hell,” whispered Guy, as we rounded a corner of the A855 and the first views of the Trotternish landslip seared across our eyeballs.
You’d have to be a Victorian governess to resist the urge to swear when those alien undulations swim into sight. If you’ve ever walked in the Brecon Beacons then imagine the cut-away contours of Pen y Fan, add in a city of basalt pillars, a whole lot of general spikiness and the most stupendous sea views you’ll ever have the pleasure to witness, and you should have a pretty good picture of the Trotternish Ridge. Still, you have to actually be there to appreciate the way the light plays musically on the landscape and experience the feeling of awe that creeps up through your soles whenever you set foot on this myth-wreathed island.
Getting down to the practicalities, there are two ways to walk the Trotternish Ridge. You can either grab yourself a bivvy bag and tackle the whole 23 miles over an epic weekend, or there’s the option of cramming the best bits into two bite-sized round walks. The first option is more adventurous, to be sure, but you’re left with the problem of how to get back to your car at the end of day two. Bivviers are also forced to detour off the ridge to see the Old Man of Storr and some of Trotternish’s other outlandish volcanic formations. With this in mind, Guy and I planned to start our first day by parking beneath The Storr and attempting a 13-mile loop around the crest of the landslip.
“What’s going on here – some kind of festival?” I grumbled, as a snake’s-tail of parked cars forced us to pull up a mile from our starting point.
“It’s a Bank Holiday, isn’t it?” said Guy. “They’ve all come to see the Old Man of Storr.”
He was right. Crowds of camera-wielding tourists in cut-off trousers and colourful Crocs were puffing their way up towards the famous geological formations overlooking Loch Leathan. Forestry work to replace the existing exotic trees with native Scottish pines had left the slopes around the path muddy and desolate, and clouds of biting midges hovered over the herds of sweating walkers. It wasn’t the best start to an adventure, particularly when my mind kept returning wistfully to that fateful but fabulous walk in the Cuillin last spring.
“You know, everyone’s just following this muddy path,” said Guy after a few minutes of depressed trudging. “Why don’t we head up that slope to the left towards, um –” he glanced briefly at the map – “Coire Faoin. Then we can scramble right past the Old Man of Storr and join the path to the viewing point near Needle Rock.”
A few tourists detached from the main pack and followed us with sheep-like assurance for the first few scrambly yards. We lost them by the simple method of running uphill as fast as we could; and then, suddenly we were alone. The views behind us began to expand towards the sea and the distant Cuillin, dwarfing those ugly, deforested slopes. Up ahead, the landslip poured over the horizon like a great, green volcanic eruption. It wasn’t long before we were scrambling around the base of the strange rocky sentinels that guard the path up to The Storr.
“Which one’s the Old Man then?” I asked Guy, scanning the giant pillars of crumbling basalt.
“Oh, come on,” he said.
“Well, there’s only one thing here that looks like a… you know.”
“An old man?”
He gave up. “Yeah, something like that.”
The Old Man is in fact a distinctive rocky finger that swells out of the golden grass and points portentously up towards the sky. It looks nigh on unclimbable, but a quick perusal of the guidebook reveals that Don Whillans did once manage to scale it back in the 1950s. Beyond the Old Man, a hectic scramble downhill brings you out at the base of another geological marvel: Needle Rock. The tourist trail ends just up here at a lookout point (read “midgie feeding ground”) that delivers one of the most famous views in Scotland. Photography buffs will recognise the picture that won Emmanuel Coupe the Landscape Photographer of the Year Award back in 2009. He wasn’t the first to take the shot and he certainly won’t be the last.
We had a quick peek at the stellar view before hopping over a wall and continuing on our way. There was nothing particularly special about that wall. It was barely four feet high – heck, it even had a stile to helpfully demonstrate the existence of a path on the other side – but it might as well have been a killer-voltage electric fence for all the people who dared to cross it. We suddenly found ourselves completely alone, tramping up a slender path that swept upwards towards the spine of the ridge. The air, free from midges, suddenly began to hum with adventure.
“Now that’s a view I’d trade my Scarpas for,” said Guy, as we topped out above An Carn Liath.
It might not have the Cuillin’s sheer badass factor – but when it comes to mind-boggling views, the Trotternish Ridge can jump in the ring with any mountain range in Britain. As our route boomeranged back on itself towards the summit of The Storr at 719m, there was a sense of geological turmoil on every side. We felt like sailors balancing on the crest of a wave while a storm-whipped ocean broiled around us.
By the time we had navigated our way down from The Storr and wiggled upwards again to bag the top of 552m Ben Dearg, 4km to the south-west, I was seriously regretting leaving the bivvy bags back in the car. There are some walks that you want to prolong by any means possible, and this was turning out to be one of them. It was pathless, wild beyond anything suggested by its small stature, and magically, captivatingly beautiful. Still, at least we had the prospect of a second day on the ridge to sweeten our dreams that night.
The Old Man of Storr might be the most famous feature on the face of Trotternish, but to my mind it’s the Quiraing that really defines the peninsula. This city of twisted basalt is the proverbial psychologist’s inkblot – every person who looks on it sees something different. ‘The Prison’ is clearly a vampire’s castle. ‘The Needle’? Most definitely a witch’s finger. And the whole landslip viewed from above ripples with scaly spines like – well – like a pool full of restless sea-monsters.
The classic Quiraing round route from the car park above Brogaig is barely five miles long; but with our legs giving us gyp from the previous day and a lengthy drive home to look forward to, that suited us just fine. Besides, a walk this exquisite deserves to be digested slowly. We spent the first hour dawdling along at a delightfully ponderous pace, stopping at regular intervals to inhale the incredible views. Fingers of sunlight were moving over the ridge behind, and every time we turned around, the landscape looked a little bit different.
The Quiraing is the only part of the Trotternish landslip still in motion. Every year it creeps another few inches towards the sea, and every year the road that runs along its base has to be closed for repairs. You’d think they might just move the road; but hey, this is Skye, and nothing here needs to make any sense.
“What’s it to be then?” asked Guy, as we waded through ankle-deep scree below The Needle. “Shall we stick to the walk, or have a crack at some scrambling?”
My response was prompt: “Do you really have to ask?”
The short scramble up to the base of The Needle is slick with scree but otherwise pretty straightforward. It brings you out on a hidden path that leads intriguingly up to a natural gate cut in the rock. You know that bit in Lord of the Rings where Aragon enters the mountain to collect his army of ghosts? Well, this imposing gateway feels more than a bit like the entrance to the Paths of the Dead. I almost expected a skeleton to lurch out of the darkness shouting: “The way is shut!”
No vengeful ghosts were on duty that day; but beyond the shadowy rocky passageway we discovered a mini, flat-topped landslip almost completely encircled by basalt cliffs. Local legend has it that the farmers of Skye hid their cattle here to protect them from Viking raiders. Perhaps that’s why ‘Quiraing’ translated into Old Norse means ‘Round Fold’. Whatever the case, the aptly named ‘Table’ is the perfect place to plant yourself for a quiet picnic.
The day had dwindled into late afternoon before we could tear ourselves away from this scenic oasis to wander back along the ridge. On the horizon, the jagged outline of the Cuillin loomed below a reddening sky. I’ll never forget my brief and wildly exciting first fling with those unforgiving peaks – but it’s Trotternish that ultimately won my heart.
Park: There is roadside parking on the A855 beneath the Old Man of Storr. For the Quiraing, take the small road west from Brogaig and pull up at the car park on the crest of the ridge.
Sleep: We stayed at the Camping and Caravanning site on the shores of Loch Greshornish (www.campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk), which is an easy drive from the Trotternish Peninsula. Pitch your own tent, or stay in one of the wooden pods that overlook the water.
Map: Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 Explorer sheet 408 (Skye – Trotternish & The Storr)
Grade: Aside from a spot of easy scrambling around the Quiraing, the Trotternish Ridge is relatively easy going. Navigation can be tricky, however, and in winter it becomes a serious undertaking.