Geowalks: Trip to the Isle of Rum
23rd – 27th April 2012

Day 1: Monday 23rd April
Shearwaters and Sunshine

After an encounter with heavy rain on the drive up last night, we wake to beautiful clear blue skies and spring sunshine. From Mallaig harbour we can see the Skye Cuillin, Eigg, Knoydart, and our target for the week, the wild Isle of Rum, laid out in front of us. Having met up with most of our group for the week at the ferry terminal, we board the 10.15am ferry to the Small Isles, somewhat surprised to be donning the sunglasses and suncream!

Within half an hour of setting sail, Manx Shearwaters are spotted surfing the air above the waves next to the boat. These sleek black and white birds are slightly smaller than seagulls, and use the energy from the wind and waves to fly hundreds of miles each day in search of food. Rum is home to the second largest colony of Shearwaters in the world, with an estimated 60-100 thousand pairs on the higher slopes of the island’s hills. The birds returned just a couple of weeks ago from wintering off the coast of South America.

The Sgurr of Eigg looks alien and dramatic in the sunlight as we stop briefly on the island. The ancient lava flows look as though they could still slope off in molten form. Rum itself is a featureless silhouette looming behind Eigg, all mountain edges and dark rock with little definition on the slopes. As we move closer around the eastern end of Eigg, however, each detail slowly becomes clearer – the Rum Cuillin are high, steep mountains with layers of crystalline rock structures on the peaks. As we round the bay in towards Kinloch, the Torridonian sandstone base rock is apparent.

Our bags are collected on the pier by a member of staff from the Kinloch Castle Hostel, and we walk along the road through beautiful woodland that seems to be just waking up in the spring sunshine after a long, wet winter. We pass a few houses, and the tiny primary school at which there is currently only one pupil. Past some Greylag geese and the campsite where we leave Alison to put up her tent, we reach the hostel.

Kinloch Castle has a history too lengthy and bizarre to go into here. Suffice to say it is an amazing Victorian mansion built in New Red Sandstone that jumps out at you in this otherwise wild and remote place. Sadly the building is not withstanding the Rum winters too well, and is in a pretty bad state of repair on the outside. However, work is currently being done to try and save the building, and inside the hostel is simple but very cozy and incredibly welcoming. The staff are fantastic, full of smiles and enthusiasm for the place. Helen and I are allocated a little twin attic room because apparently I have “young legs!” Other members of our group are in the Oak Rooms, with the original horse-hair mattresses on four poster beds. Janet claims she may need a ladder to get into her bed tonight.

After meeting up with Hilary and Alison back at the campsite, we have a quick lunch on the shore (right next to a basaltic dyke in the sandstone). We then head along the bay through the woods, discovering along the way that as a group our flower identification skills are somewhat hazy! We stop briefly at a ruined blackhouse, one of the original houses making up the little settlements on the island. The 400+ population of Rum were removed during the Highland Clearances to make way for sheep – which, incidentally, do not thrive on Rum particularly well.

After a brief stop at the otter hide (no otters!), we walk back to the start of the path to Dibidil. Angus suggests we take this path to find a view, and as it is still a beautifully sunny day we happily tramp up the steep boggy path to the ridge alongside Hallival. I find myself trailing behind, trying to switch off my ‘city brain’ to properly tune in to the remote beauty of Rum. I do reach the top in the end, despite falling in a bog! We are rewarded on the ridge with amazing views of Eigg, Skye, Tiree, Coll, and the mainland.

Back down to the hostel in time for a cuppa and unpacking before dinner. Dinner is superb, and definitely needed – soup, venison casserole and cheesecake washed down with Isle of Skye Hebridean Gold ale.
Janet, Hilary and I wander down to the bay in the early evening, looking for red-throated divers. The greylag geese are our only prize today, however, swimming in reflections of pink clouds in the sunset. Very chilly, crisp air, gorgeous watercolour lighting, fantastic company... I think I’m going to love this place.

Day 2: Tuesday 24th April
Brecchia and Barkeval

Another glorious spring day dawns, sunny spells and a cool but welcome breeze. Our planned walk to the Coire Dubh (Black Corrie) at the centre of Rum’s volcanic complex becomes something a little more...

We head out from the hostel just after 9am, up through the woods at the back of Kinloch Castle where we hear the first cuckoo of the spring. Up the hill towards Coire Dubh we walk past the miniature hydro dam which helps provide Kinloch with electricity. The dam is at the end of a spectacular vertical-sided gorge – a carved-out picrite dyke, softer than the surrounding Torridonian sandstone and therefore providing the river with an ideal course down the mountain. The Torridonian sandstone layers at this point have been toughened and tilted pretty much vertical through uplift and deformation during the first stage of the Rum volcanic period.

Dykes and cone sheets cover the area, radiating out of the central volcanic zone like spokes on a wheel, or a giant spider’s web. It is fantastic to see the fingers of dark basalt shining like glass shards in the sandstone.
Hilary shouts, and we all look up. Soaring overhead is a Golden Eagle on its way out to sea.

Continuing up towards the corrie, through increasingly tilted layers of ancient Torridonian sandstone dragged up from deep below the surface by the force of the volcano, we come across breccia – fragmented and smashed up sandstone reformed. Blasted outwards during the volcanic activity, the breccia has a texture and colour not unlike elephant’s skin – the lumps and mounds of rock look like a herd of ancient elephants asleep on the hillside.

From breccia to rhyodacite – the solidified remains of pyroclastic flows that form a ridge running right across the lip of the corrie. We spend some time looking for evidence in the layering of the rock that indicates volcanic bombs denting the surface (they do exist, so the book claims!). No luck today though. The side of the corrie dips inwards after the rhyodacite – an area of gabbro surprisingly softer than its surroundings (and softer than Skye gabbro). The result is a nutrient rich soil where grasses and marsh plants are flourishing on the slopes.

At this point Angus casually suggests we move up and onto the ridge, given it was such a stunning day. Cue a rather wobbly route upwards over boulders and rockfalls. We pass into the area where the first stage of volcanic activity meets the second – the formation of a giant magma chamber.

This intrusive feature is unusual, as it leaves signs of a unique cooling process within the chamber. The first crystals to form were olivine, which sank to the bottom of the magma chamber and settled to form peridotite. On top of this, other layers then formed, comprising smaller crystals of different chemical structures. The chamber must have had a fresh supply of magma every so often, however, as other alternate layers of peridotite / troctolite appear throughout the vast chamber structure. The peaks on Rum are quite clearly made up of these layers – with the peridotite weathering to brown as the olivine crystals decay in the wet climate. Peridotite is very crumbly, disintegrating into grains of glitter when I pull at it with my fingers.

Here and there I find oddities in the rocks, with which I challenge Angus! Notably an almost pure feldspar stone, pure white, caused by a higher than normal silica content.

By now we have reached the top of the ridge and we settle for lunch on the upper rim of the Atlantic corrie. A truly breathtaking and unique piece of scenery – the mountains of Askival and Hallival rise up in steep, jagged peaks from sea-level. The vast sweep of the corrie highlights the immense power of the ice that was last here 20,000 years ago.

There are views across to Muck, Eigg, Mull, Knoydart, and the Nevis Range, all from where I sit eating my sandwiches. To the south-west of Rum lies Harris, a beautiful low-lying area next to a rocky bay. Perhaps we will get there tomorrow.
We decide to climb Barkeval, heading up over mounds of cracked, dyke-filled peridotite. The summit has the largest accumulation of peridotite in the UK, and the top “goes on for bloody ages!” Worth the walk however – a 360° view from Mull round to Canna, the Outer Hebrides, Skye, Knoydart, Eigg and back to Mull.

“Just another Golden Eagle” flies to the east of us, far in the distance.

From the summit itself, we can see one of the main faultline cracks on the island, filled in by Long Loch.
Silences fall naturally within the group at times, something I really like about the people I am with here. A silence at the top of Barkeval allows us to hear nothing but the breeze. A strange sensation after the persistence of city life.

On the way back down into the coll from Barkeval, we find some Manx Shearwater burrows. No sign of the birds themselves as they come back in the dead of night. Plenty of strewn feathers suggest at least one meal for eagle or rat. We make a slow, careful descent into the coll.

Angus takes us part way up the opposite slope to look at a wee geological puzzle – rhyodacite with a basaltic dyke running beautifully straight through. Except at one point where the basalt cracks and rhyodacite appears to mix with it. Which came first? Answer: the rhyodacite. But the dyke which followed was heated and jiggled about during the second volcanic stage, leaving a jumbled set of messages in the rock for geologists to get excited about!

From here it is back to the hostel for a long awaited cuppa – a bit of a sore but happy trudge back down from Coire Dubh. Dinner is haddock marnay, salad and pavlova. Not all on one plate, mind you. This time a fantastic pint of Red Cuillen ale helps make me even sleepier.

Day 3: Wednesday 25th April
Whalebacks and Wind

A consensus on where to walk today – the draw of Harris Bay is tangible having seen it from the top of Barkeval yesterday. We start out along the Kinloch valley on the track, spotting wheatears and a rather large and happy fieldmouse on the way. We walk past the peridotite quarry used for making the road. Today the wind is up and it is quite overcast so there are no eagles joining us.

After three miles or so we go ‘off piste’ to investigate the whaleback peridotite / troctolite features on the valley floor, and to walk along the Long Loch fault. Whalebacks, or ‘roche moutonnee’, structures are formed by glacial ice, moving up and over the harder volcanic rocks and plucking chunks of rock from the far-side of each mound. This leaves a trail of whalebacks, breaching the land we’re walking on.

A glimpse at the peridotite through Helen’s geological loupe reveals a whole other world; buildings of crystal, regular street patterns, and endlessly shifting light and colour. An architect’s dream!

Following the rift in the valley, we skirt the edges of Long Loch and follow the river down towards the sea. The hills certainly appear to be watching us today, with looming black bodies of wet peridotite piling up around our single file line. We walk past Barkeval, a different hill today in the greyness, and stop for lunch by the river near the bottom end of Atlantic corrie. The whole Cuillin ridge is outlined against a blackening sky, but very little rain actually falls. A young deer stag takes a long hard look at us, hardly moving.

At lunch, Alison and I find various polished and glassy rocks in all colours, prompting Angus to be a little puzzled... Final verdict is another picrite dyke, albeit small and not marked on the maps.

In the final mile or so to Harris the wind picks up, throwing a shower of rain at us as we head down towards the shore. Perhaps unexpectedly, Harris beach is one of perfectly spherical granite pebbles, mainly from granite intrusions around the bay and the hills to the North of the island.

Angus takes us for a spot of more extreme geology – rock climbing along severely-tilted layers to find a place where basaltic dyke and pink granite mix and merge. The granite came first, but was melted and mixed with the basalt as the dyke was formed.

Most of us wander off and go our separate ways at this point. I cannot vouch for the others, but for me Harris bay was a very cathartic place – a place to meet old ghosts and throw them (along with stones) skittering into the sea.

After a brief snack snuggled behind the bothy for a windbreak, an encounter with the semi-wild Rum ponies, and a comment from Angus that dinner was only a few hours away, we begin the (uphill, into the wind) walk home. Into the wind is no joke – walking horizontal with no hope of hearing any conversation for several miles. My attention is caught by the ravens that seem to thoroughly enjoy a head-on fight with the wind – throwing themselves upwards and spiralling away in the gusts. More than once I spread my arms in the hope I can join them!

A long long long walk back to the hostel, with wind wind wind rushing in our ears. Silence seems miles away and I feel odd arriving back to the castle where everything is still again.
What an amazing day!

Day 4: Thursday 26th April
Bloodstone, Sweat and Deer(s)!

Windy but fine, we head out today in two groups – one down the track from yesterday heading for Guirdil Bay, the other on a quieter, shorter walk along the Kinloch Glen path. I choose to go for the ‘shorter’ walk thanks to a dodgy knee from yesterday’s windy adventure.

We pass three deer gazing at us from a field just outside the village. The warmth of the sunshine in the shelter of the woods helps to ease the pain from my knee, so that by the time we reach the main track again I’m ready to keep walking.
What starts out as a walk up towards the top of Fionchra to catch up with the Guirdil Bay group on their return turns into a full-length hike over the beallach, and down into Guirdil Bay itself. Past the granite hills and conglomerate that lines Fionchra, we disturb a large number of deer on the ridge. The wind swirls around the hills and brings the echo of the sea with it. Down past Bloodstone Hill on the other side of the valley, we reach Guirdil Bay – one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

Bloodstone gets its name from the red flecks within in. However the stone itself comes in many shades. Emerald and jade, sulphuric yellows and olive green, sometimes even smoky blues. It is a silica rich, glassy rock that forms inside lava flows. Prehistoric people living on Rum used them as flints.

I fill my pockets with every shade of bloodstone I can find, alongside blue and white agates too. The waves smash against the rocks driven by the wind which whips around the cliffs. A gannet defies it all, diving for food headfirst in perfect verticals.

Guirdil Bay is an intensely powerful place. A mix of perfect spheres and flint cut jades, olive greens, ice blues – all the colours of Rum in miniature.

The way back is a trudge through the elements, up and over the cliffs and down into Glen Shellesder. Deer watch us stumble through bogs and streams, haughty and indifferent. I hear that the other group startled a short-eared owl on the way here which flew off a few feet in front of them. Angus’ promise of gin and tonic back at the hostel keeps us all going.
Dinner is followed by a quiz full of in-jokes and giggles. Perfect. I stay awake long enough to see the sky filled with stars, even though the ice cold air brings tears to my eyes.

Day 5: Friday 27th April
Gneiss and Goodbyes (!)

Our last day on Rum. Angus suggests a wander to see some little geological oddities in the glen, to which we agree wholeheartedly. Another walk along the main track across the island with plenty of shouts of ‘hairy huberts!’ (Bill explains to us that these caterpillars are poisonous to cuckoos), a cuckoo singing full volume ringing round the valley, and a pause for group photos next to a waterfall.

The herd of Rum ponies come trotting along the track. Gentle and curious, they are the same colours as the sandstone of the island.

“There’s a sort of path up here... I think!” - the immortal words of Angus as he points up towards the ridge running back towards Kinloch. Cue half an hour of scrunch and rustle under our boots as we persuade our tired legs to walk up through the dried grass and heather. The sky is deep blue, the clouds like sheep’s wool, and the lochans sparkle and crinkle like tinfoil.

Angus takes us through the centre of the volcanic complex today. A patch of distorted, swirling Lewisian Gneiss brought up from deep below the volcano and altered in the heat. Next to the 2.5 billion year old gneiss is 60 million year old peridotite. Peridotite that here looks like turtle shells, half buried in the hillside.

Climbing over the turtle shells further up the ridge, we come across a common lizard which scuttles over our boots, and find newts in the shade of a lochan’s edge. After a spot of sunbathing on some sandstone in shelter from the wind, we move on further up to find the An Mam Breccia outcrop. Here we stop for lunch to a spectacular view of the Skye Cuillin lightly dusted with snow.

Suddenly the sun goes in and the wind picks up, a blast of arctic air straight off the snow. Sure enough, minutes later we’re in a brief snow shower as we slip and slide down the mountain. The skies clear again as we hit the track back to the village, and tea and cake await us in the teashop.

The colours in Kinloch bay are gorgeous today – deep blues, turquoise and green, all contrasting with the white snow showers moving over the mainland. On the shore, oystercatchers call, and the geese and ducks flap and fluster. Spring has crept into all corners of the island since we arrived, and bright green leaves and grasses are unfurling into the sunshine.

I feel quite emotional at the thought of leaving. The ‘real world’ with its hustle and bustle and 24 hour news seems very indistinct now. Strange to think that it will soon be Rum that feels “like a dream, all too quickly.” Janet, Alison and I wander along to the pier, meeting everyone else when we get there.
Our final parting gift from Rum is two red-throated divers, swimming and diving near the pier. No sea eagles though. We might ‘just’ have to settle for Golden...

By Lara Reid, April 2012

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