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updated 18 Dec 2018

Our Island – The Braes O’ Fife and Rum

 Neil Reid gives a personal view of the not inconsiderable contribution the ‘Braes’ have made to rock climbing on Rum.

The current guidebook to Skye and the Hebrides lists 180 routes in the island of Rum, and almost a third of them – 54 - were first climbed by members of the Braes o’ Fife MC on intermittent visits over the space of 35 years. Not only that, but honorary president Hamish Brown wrote the first climbing guide dedicated to the island – the only one until the SMT’s 1996 guide covering all the Hebrides.

All considered it’s an impressive performance, and hopefully one that will be continued through further visits over the years.

Light Fantastic - VS

Rum is a small island but a tremendous one from the traditional climber’s point of view. The Rum Cuillin is a compact range and, it has to be said, lacking in height, but the mountains are… well, mountainous, some superbly so, such as Trallval which has such a pronounced peak it can only take one person on top at a time. They are steep, rocky in places and, despite their lack of stature, their form, their grouping and their situation gives views unrivalled by many – if not most – higher hills, looking out across the sea to a patchwork of islands and the tall mountains of Moidart and Knoydart.

They’re also close to Kinloch, the island’s only ‘town’, which is handy, since there is virtually no motorized transport on the island and the few visitors – you seldom meet other climbers or walkers – must get everywhere by Shanks’ Pony.

The only real lack is routes of substantial length, with single pitch climbs being the general rule (though there are exceptions), but situation, remoteness and the quality of many of the climbs make up for this to a large degree. Climbing here is light hearted, and none the worse for that.

 Though the hills and many of the main ridges were undoubtedly climbed before, the first ‘mountaineers’, visiting for pleasure, came in the 1890s, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that rock routes began to be recorded, Hallival’s East Ridge (Diff) and Oxford Groove (Severe) being the first, between 1931 and 1933. Just after World War Two the Junior Mountaineering Club of Yorkshire made a visit for the first concerted campaign, putting up eight new routes, and well-known visitors since then have included Mike Ward of Everest fame, Bill Murray, GF Dutton (of the ‘Doctor’ stories), and Ian Clough.

The Braes made their appearance, in a way, before they even existed, when founder member Hamish Brown first visited the island in 1960, climbing three new routes, returning several times over the next decade, and occasionally since, to record a total of 20 routes with various partners.

The rest of the club hung about until 1986 to make their impression when, on one day in June A Kirk and Alan Lumsden put up the HVS Hagar and Gavin Swinton and Jim Mitchell did Lucky Eddy (VS), both on Harris Buttress.

The first concentrated effort came in 1990, when a large group of us took the ferry over in 1990.

The first day’s climbing didn’t start very promisingly, with cloud down low on the hills, and climbing gear was taken more in hope than expectation as we set out to locate the climbs on Hallival’s South-East Face. However in one of those moments seldom seen outside of a film, we were just peering through the mist to see if those dark shapes ahead really were the cliffs when the cloud lifted in a matter of minutes and we found we were on target – and were going to have dry weather to do something.

We all got something climbed that day, though it was only John Mitchell and I who were to gain guidebook glory, for his mischievously named Nice’n’Easy (HS), and my Allivalhalla (V Diff). Ann Bain and Mary Dunlop’s route was relegated to variation status on Breeze (S), Ewan Mitchell’s route turned out to have been Hamish Brown’s previously climbed Diamond Corner (S), and the other route he did with his dad Jim was a new start (the old one had fallen down into the coire!) to another Hamish effort, Flake and Crack (V Diff).

A couple of days later we were back in action, heading for the NW face of Askival, but it was a warm day and our legs were tired and John Mitchell saw this nice bit of rock up near the top of Hallival and maybe it looked a bit scrappy but that slab up the middle looked like it might be worth doing, and wasn’t it all very much closer than sweating all the way round to Askival? Well of course it was, John, and so we opened up a new crag, the West Face of Hallival.

The crag was, in fact, much better than it had looked from below, and that day alone yielded nine new routes (with more to come in ’95). Special mention must go to Troll Corner (VS) because it was such a superb and sustained line and I did it and I’m biased, but all of us could have made similar claims for all our climbs: delightful, rough, sound rock and all the natural lines just shouting out to be climbed. Ewan did a great lead up Fugazi (VS), which his dad was hard pressed to follow (memories of him querying how on earth he was supposed to get his foot up above his ear), and Jim replied with Grendel (VS). John’s ‘slab’ turned out to be more of a ramp than a slab, but all the same his Slab Direct was one of those delightful, uncontrived V Diffs that give climbing a good name. His Pandora’s Box (S) was delightful in a different way, following a route that was always natural but containing such a variety of terrain and technique. My Bishop’s Groove (S) was also a shouting out natural line, marred only by a scrappy start, and Ann Bain’s Moss Slab (S), which she added a direct start to in 1995, may have been short but went up such a superbly exposed slab it was irresistible. Mary Dunlop led Cullie’s Route (V Diff), next to Slab Direct, naming it after a pet dog, and Ann and she also did Western Ridge (S), completing a superb day.

Weather, hangovers etc meant that was the last day of climbing on that visit, but we were all eager to get back. When we did, Mary couldn’t make it and, sadly, Ewan was now dead, such an active and vivacious climber fallen victim to an asthma attack. However we were back with a larger cast of climbers, including ‘young blood’ eager to do feats of derring do, which would lead to two addition’s to the island’s precious few E-grades as well as a wheen of VS and easier routes.

First climbing day, of course, took us back to the West Face of Hallival, where Colin McGregor and Dave Bryson teamed up to put up Wander and Dog Day Sunrise (both VS), while John led Ann Bain and I up Left Edge (V Diff), the third of a trio of routes up his original ‘slab’. Following Ann up her Direct Start to Moss Slab (S) convinced me my climbing was pants that day and I went for an early shower while John and Ann put up Atlantic Highway (HS).

It was a good start to the week, but Dave perhaps had the most significant inspiration when his wandering gaze (We all thought he was staring vacantly while chewing a sandwich!) fell upon a crag low down on Trallval, near Harris, which we agreed casually might be worth a look sometime.

The next day was windy, with occasional drizzle blowing through, so in the morning climbing didn’t seem an option. I was feeling low anyway after my poor performance the day before, and went out for a wander which ended up leading me through a pass to that very crag. Colin and Dave, quite separately, also decided to have a look, leaving after me and taking gear, but still managing to catch up just before we came in sight of what we were eventually to name Longship Crag.

The weather when we got there was pretty poor: rain still blowing through now and then in a full scale gale. But Colin would still have a go at something, managing an HVS despite the weather. Near the top, on the crux slab, his one piece of protection fell from a crack, slid halfway down the rope then flew out like a pennant for a few moments before eventually coming down – so he called then route Atlantic Breeze. Later, as the wind eased slightly, I was prevailed upon to do a route in a borrowed pair of too big rock boots, and flapped my way up a nice wee triangular slab and groove above to give Vanishing Point (V Diff).

It closed in again after that and we beat a retreat, but we were back mob handed the next day in considerably better conditions. The star route had to be Dave and Colin’s Feersum Endjinn (VS), which looked a cracker, but Ann Bain and Kevin Burns were also active, Kevin leading Slab and Arete (Diff) and Ann on the sharp end for Across The Lines (V Diff), while I seconded Ian Robertson up the scrappy looking but surprisingly enjoyable Doric Direct (S).

The next day was to be the major effort though, once more at Longship Crag. Dave opened the bidding with Ann, putting up Shadowlands (VS), a line he’d been eyeing up when he did Feersum Endjinn. My own, more modest contributions were A Bit On The Side (V Diff), named for being just that – a bit on the side of what I’d originally looked at, and the more satisfactory Rum Doodle (S), whose name I just couldn’t resist. Ann and Ian Robertson followed me up the first, and Ian up the second.

Ann and Ian did On The Greener Side (VS), giving a more consistent first two-thirds to a route Kevin and she had climbed the day before.

Colin and Dave teamed back up for a quartet of top class routes, Colin leading Heartwork (E1 5b) and The Light Fantastic (VS), and Dave in front for Breenge (VS) and the beautifully clean line of Cruise Control (E1). As a closer for the day Ian pushed the boat out and, followed by Ann, did Phew! (VS), named for his relief at getting past the crux and putting in his first piece of protection.

And that’s it – to date at least. Now when’s that next trip planned for?

Footnote: For those of a train spotter mentality, the guidebook contains two or three errors. Left Edge and Atlantic Highway are noted as being done on July 17, when in fact they were done the day before. Eagle eyed readers might also notice the prolific achievements of one J Mitchell, an impression given solely by the SMC’s habit of using first initials only. As this article makes clear, some were by Jim and some by John.

And, finally, Bishop’s Groove is wrongly credited to Ewan and Jim, when it was actually climbed by me and John, while Ewan was engaged on much harder stuff. Petty perhaps, but when you’re contribution to climbing history is as meager as mine, every little counts.