Doing the MacPhies by Emeritus Professor John Spencer
Hell's teeth, I'm knackered, I really am. I've got pains in the back and both legs, and am coughing and wheezing like a bronchitic. I'd hoped that this, the twentieth summit of the day, being relatively close to civilization, would have a reasonably well-defined, even well-trodden route to the top - you know, a track or something. But, no, just more of the same. Ben took the direct line from the col while I headed for a rocky arête, which I hoped might provide respite from the knee-deep wading. I scrambled wearily up the short rib to join Ben on.....yet another false summit! "The actual top's over there" he remarked, surprisingly chirpily given that we'd been on the go for nearly 12 hours. We floundered across to the summit, which was marked by a small cairn.
No, we weren't in the throes of a Caldwell-Honnold-style traverse of a chain of remote aiguilles, although, relatively speaking, what we were undertaking was in the same league. Relatively speaking. As in Herzog's famous "There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men." We were on the final leg (in my case, literally on my last legs!) of a round of "The MacPhies". You've never heard of them? The MacPhies are those elevations higher than 300 ft (91.4m) above sea level on the islands of Colonsay and Oronsay in the Inner Hebrides. There are twenty-two of them, mostly located in the centre and north of Colonsay. The two islands, connected by a tidal strand, measure only 10 miles north to south and a couple of miles across, yet a MacPhies Round involves around 22 miles (36km) of hard slog and some 4200ft (1278m) of elevation, across, at times, quite punishing terrain.
Why were we here and doing this in the first place? I blame WH Murray. Around the time my wife, Gail, and I started to explore the islands some 40-odd years ago, I came across Murray's classic 1966 tome "The Hebrides". In this delightful book he waxes lyrical, in inimitable style, about the charms of the Hebrides, both Inner and Outer. A chapter is devoted to each main island, with an introductory section dealing with more general stuff - geology, landscape, a potted history and so on - and speculation about their social and economic futures. His lavish and evocative descriptions weren't the only influencing factors but, following sojourns on Mull, Jura and Islay, we were inspired to visit Colonsay, "one of the best of all Hebridean islands" for the first time in 1987. "Born with a silver spoon in her mouth ... well-sheltered from savage westerlies and searing easterlies... no other island has in such full degree a plant, bird and animal life that covers the double range of Atlantic mildness and Atlantic exposure".... it was bound to be love at first sight. We shared the secret with another family and thus set in motion three decades of happy, hearty holidays. The delights are now being shared with a third generation.
The Round is named after the clan that governed Colonsay as a territory of the Clan Donald from the 14 th Century until the fall of King James in 1688. It was the brainchild of two island residents, David Hobhouse and Kevin Byrne, in the late 1990s, and takes the intrepid adventurer, not only across some surprisingly varied landscapes, but also on a journey through the social and political history of the Western Isles; to quote Byrne "The story of a rich and varied past lies in every ridge and hollow of the island's landscape." The only "rule" is that one must start and finish the round at points below the high water mark.
I'd thought about having a shot at it for several years before the opportunity finally arose in April 2018. Ben (other family, second generation) was undertaking fifty-two physical challenges in the year to raise awareness of, and money for the football charity of which he is CEO. We were going to be holidaying on the island together. Why not have a go at the MacPhies as one of the challenges? In the words of Murray (slightly misquoting Goethe), "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now!" And so we did.
We started at The Strand, across which one can splodge two or three hours either side of high tide, in order to climb Ben Oronsay first. The tide tables in our cottage gave 0704 as low tide. My inability to interpret the document meant we missed the fact it was a neap tide! Otherwise we would not have been as surprised as we were to find, on arrival at The Strand at 0650, that low tide today wasn't all that, errr, low. We could see no exposed sand, only floating seaweed. Hmmm. Maybe the tide tables are wrong? Whatever, it looked like we were going to get wet.
Ben donned walking boots, I pulled on a pair of wellies, we stashed trainers (well above the high water mark!) and off we splashed. Geese, Greylag and Canada, flapped and honked ahead of us. Pretty soon Ben's boots were waterlogged and I followed with a wellie breech. We eventually reached dry land and squelched off along the rough track that traverses the shoreline until it cuts off across the island towards Oronsay Priory and farm. The former was founded around 1340, although there is evidence of an earlier monastic settlement. St Columba, to whom the Priory is dedicated, was said to have landed here on his journey from Ireland. The story that he continued on to Iona because he could still see his home country from the summit of Ben Oronsay is a myth, albeit a rather romantic one.
Although the Priory has a fine standing cross and many magnificent tombstones we had no time to indulge in Mediaeval ecclesiastical history today. Onward across the bog we strode, heading for a shallow valley on the Ben's western flank. No Columba-type views from the summit, either, as the sky was overcast, although the forecast rain had not yet arrived. But we were on the score-sheet.
We retraced our steps swiftly back to the crossing point where the tide had well and truly turned. Ben stayed resolutely booted while I stripped down to underwear and held wellies above my head. The water reached mid-thigh at its deepest. It could have been worse.
Enthused at having despatched the outlier (apparently many people who tackle the round miss out Ben Oronsay altogether) we headed for MacPhie No 2, Beinn Eibhne (Eibhinn's Mountain). Now in light drizzle, we clambered up the broad gully above the oyster farm, passing underneath the appropriately sombre Hangman's Rock, once upon a time a site of public execution. The small summit cairn lay a little way back from the cliffs. Eager to keep moving, we stumbled on through knee-deep heather down the rocky slope, back to our starting point.
A change of footwear raised morale, as did the now-brightening sky, and we set off along the road with a spring in our steps. For such small islands Colonsay and Oronsay are rich in archaeology. The earliest occupation dates from 8700 years ago and sites of antiquity abound. Close by, to the west as we walked up the glen, for example, stand the remains of a 14 th century temple, a hut circle, and an ancient field system. And not very far away to the east is a large standing stone, Carraig Mhic a'Phi (MacPhie's stone), originating in the Bronze Age but relocated and adopted as a monument to mark the site of the public execution of Malcolm MacPhie and his associates in 1633 for unrecorded misdemeanours. Fitting though it might have been to pay our respects, we had work to do and passed on by.
MacPhie No 3 was an easy tick, lying just 50 yards off a side-track. Cnoc an't Samlaidh (Reflection Hill) was, in the era of the Lords of the Isles, the site of a relay station in line of sight of a similarly named elevation on Islay. Overlooking the Sound of Islay, then a major sea route, you can see how strategically placed it would have been. By now a hazy sun was emerging and the larks were in full song. Our route took us along the undulating road to its junction with the main island highway.
We crossed the road and into a field where we followed a wooded stream before picking up a faint track taking us to the rather vague top of Number 4, Cnoc a'Raon a'Bhuilg (Hill of the Bumpy Field), and onward, relatively easy-going now through the heather, to our fifth top, Beinn nan Caorach (Hill of the Sheep). This craggy hill is one of Colonsay's most impressive when seen from the west. It was now raining quite heavily, as the forecast fronts started to pass through. There were fleeting views through cloud to familiar stretches of the west coast, and of the complex terrain to the north east.
However, by the time we were traversing the featureless central massif in search of summit number six, we found ourselves in thick cloud and for a short while, were disorientated. Thankfully the fog cleared enough to give us a sight of the houses of Kilchattan and two lochs, Fionn and Dubh. Suitably re-orientated we struggled on to the summits (for there are two of them) of Carn Mor. Alas, the time pressure of our itinerary did not allow time to seek out the footprint of the mythical giant, Lusbirden which reputedly lies near to hand.
We headed west down a marshy glen which led to the back of the hamlet known as Seaview. In a field to our right stood the two huge standing stones known as "Fingal's Limpet Hammers" and not far away, there is the site of a Viking "thyng" or gathering place. The flask of tea and biscuits stashed by Gail at the road junction was most welcome, and, watched attentively in the mizzle by a flock of Jacob's sheep, we tarried just long enough to recharge batteries. We'd been on the go for about five hours.
The next section tackled the hills abutting the west coast. This is a truly magnificent coastline, wild, rugged, complex - in Murray's words "three miles of riven cliffs" up to 300 ft high, breached by a number of broad gullies. There is nothing between you and Canada except, some 18 miles offshore, the Dubh Artach skerry on which stands a lighthouse designed by the Stevenson family. The cliffs support a large bird population and, once upon a time, crofters grazed pigs on a grassy shelf below the cliffs (raised beaches, created as the ice melted at the end of the last Ice Age, are characteristic of the west coast) known as "Pig's Paradise", nowadays also the name of one of the Colonsay micro-brewery's craft beers. Nearby there is a monument to the SS Arandora Star, a troop ship, sunk off the Donegal coast by a German U-boat in July 1940 with the loss of over 800 lives; several victims washed up on Colonsay's west coast and were laid to rest locally. On our first visit I traversed this coast at sea-level from south to north, a grand expedition with some good sport, involving much clambering across 'chaotic accumulations of broken rocks' and the inevitable involuntary dip towards the end when a huge flake pulled off.
The next couple of hours saw us walking across the appropriately named "Leana Mhor" (Big Meadow), initially on a peat cutter's track then on turf cropped close by sheep, leading up to an airy stretch along the cliff top path. It was hazy, the sun was shining, to one side seabirds reeled above the waves, to the other the larks were out in force. MacPhies Number 7 to 11 (Binnein Riabhach - Brindled Hill; Cnoc Mull-araich; A'Bheinn Breach; A'Bheinn Tuath - North Hill; and Beinn Uragaig) were duly despatched. The twelfth top, Beinn an Sgoltaire (Hill of the Cleavage), was a bit more of a struggle on boggy, tussocky ground through thickets of aspen. The hill overlooks a lochan with an island on which there is a small fortified building dating from the 17 th century, seemingly used as a retreat by a resident Catholic priest.
After passing through a narrow defile - the cleavage - the route took us conveniently past our cottage, Cill a'Rubha, at Uragaig, which we reached at 1400. We were revived by a rest, another cup of tea and a snack but we needed to focus. As Murray put it "The secret of an easy mind... is to concentrate on the work immediately in front, not to let imagination run riot on hazards far ahead, for that way lies discouragement." We pressed on after 15 minutes.
Kiloran Bay, as always, looked stunning. Murray again: "The Hebrides have such a wealth of sand and rock formation that a bay to be ranked as one of the best 2 or 3 outstanding bays of the Isles needs be fabulous. But Colonsay has the Traigh Ban of Kiloran". A half mile of sand and surf, fringed by extensive machair with a backdrop of Colonsay's highest peak, Carnan Eoin (143m). You will often have it to yourself, save for a small herd of cows, and the choughs. A Viking grave, containing the body of a warrior, his horse and his possessions, was excavated here in 1882.
At the northern end of the beach we encountered the rotting carcass of a beached fin whale. We marvelled at its bulk (they are the second largest species of whale), the baleen plate and hairs. The stench moved us on.
We were beginning to feel the strain. My arthritic knee was complaining and I had backache from the lurching through bog and heather. The temperature had dropped and a brisk wind had picked up. Whether it was dust, heather pollen or the cold wind, my cough had kicked off and hill No 13, A'Bheinn Bheag, felt like hard work.
Carnan Eoin (Hill of the Birds) was next and as ever afforded a literal bird's-eye view of the island. The 360 degree panorama never fails to astonish: to the east, Jura with its Paps, and Islay; to the south-west the Lochs Fada (there are three of them) and some of the rugged terrain we had traversed over the previous few hours, as well as Colonsay House and its magnificent gardens; northwards to lonely Balnahard farm, the rocky north-west coast and beyond to Mull and Iona. Most spectacularly, on a clear day you can see the Outer Isles and the mountains of Lochaber and even to the hills of Donegal.
As an aside, cragging on Colonsay and Oronsay pales in comparison to some of the other Hebridean islands, and the quality of the rock is highly variable (mainly metamorphosed sedimentary rocks from the Torridonian period, with scattered igneous intrusions). There are a only a couple of dozen or so routes scattered around both isles (some of them put up by me), with potential for a few more here and there, but there is some excellent bouldering. So, although Colonsay will never be a significant rock-climbing destination, as the SMC Guide to the Inner Hebrides and Arran states, it "has all the ingredients for an adventurous family holiday with ample opportunity for the dedicated rock jock to sneak off and enjoy some very good cragging."
Meanwhile, below and just to the north-west of Carnan Eoin lies another whale, in this case a huge mosaic sculpture constructed from beach stones, 525 feet (160m) in length. Started by artist Julian Meredith in the 1980s, passers-by are encouraged to add stones to the structure as we have done over the years, watching the whale's form slowly filling out.
The next five tops lay in the wild "empty" north-east quarter. We followed a goat track to No 15, A'Bheinn Bhreac (Hill of the Trout) appropriately watched from a distance by a small herd of wild goats, their ancestors said to have arrived on the island from the shipwrecked Spanish Armada. With the view now dominated by the Paps of Jura, milky grey in the overcast late afternoon, we struggled on through quite hellish terrain, mostly knee, even thigh-deep heather and hidden hollows, across A'Mhaol Bhuidhe (Bald Yellow Hill), Cnoc Mor Charraig nan Darach (Rock of the Oak), Dun Dubh a' Phairc Garbh (Black Hill of the Rough Field) and to Beinn nam Fitheach (Hill of the Raven). Below the latter lies A'Choille Mhor (Big Wood), a remnant of the ancient Caledonian forest that would once have been widespread, a precious habitat for a wide variety of wildlife.
Hard by is Port Olmsa, in former times the main landing-place for the island, and a little further south the ruins of a once thriving community, Riasg Bhuidhe. Although the residents of this particular settlement were rehoused on the island, the ruins serve as a reminder of the clearances, from which the folk of Colonsay were not immune, North Carolina and Prince Edward Island featuring as important destinations for the relocated. The final stretch of this section was a seemingly endless bog, and inevitably at one point Ben sank in up to his waist!
At last we reached the track skirting the back of Colonsay House Gardens, slumped down for a rest and another snack, and took stock. The last 2 miles or so had taken two and a half hours. We were tired and footsore. But... the end was now (literally) in sight, with only three more tops to go. We padded wearily along the south side of the loch, briefly joined the metalled road, then took off up what was formerly a major thoroughfare across the island, now reduced to a very muddy track.
And so, to our 20th top, Carn nan Caorach. Despite the weariness and the aches and pains, our spirits were lifted by the warm evening sun, the sparkling sea and the view across it to Jura and Islay. What more could we have wanted for our grand finale?
We watched the ferry docking down below, always an impressive sight as Scalasaig Harbour is apparently quite a challenging landing. Summit number 21, Beinn Gudairean, was easily despatched, and on a good path! There remained before us only the final hill, but not without a short diversion to admire Dun Eibhinn, a magnificent, well-preserved Iron Age fortress which stands close by, towering over the surrounding countryside. Over the course of several centuries it was, variously, the seat of Dalriadic noblemen and Viking chiefs, the ancestral home of Somerled, progenitor of Lords of the Isles, and finally a base for the MacPhies.
At last, we pulled on to the summit of Carn na Cainnle (Candle Cairn), tired but pleased with ourselves. Gail and Jill, Ben's partner, had been regularly updated on our progress, and right on cue, they appeared shouting and waving on the road below. We hurried down to join them. Inevitably there was a sting in the tail - a thicket of gorse and yet more bog to negotiate.
We hobbled down the road to the harbour and the high-water mark, which we reached at 1946. We'd been going for just short of 13 hours. I'm not sure I could have shaved much time off that; perhaps Ben could, being younger and fitter? I'm also certain neither of us would have managed to complete the circuit knocking back a shot of whisky on each top, which was the original spirit (sorry) of the Round! Whatever, we were well impressed with the achievements of others, such as Eric Brown, who took 6hrs 44mins in 1996, and particularly with runner Jethro Lennox who, astonishingly, given the nature of the terrain, took just 3hrs 56mins 44 seconds in 2002! More recently outdoor blogger "Fiona Outdoors" took a "mere" 8 hours, but on her website she suggests breaking down the Round into 3 or 4 expeditions (<fionaoutdoors.co.uk>).
Was it worth it? Well, apart from us gaining interesting new perspectives on our beloved islands, Ben was able to clock up another challenge for his fund-raising enterprise. Pleasingly, and impressively, he did manage to reach the magic fifty-two by the end of the year; the MacPhies Round was Challenge Number 13, and, he reckoned, second only in difficulty to running Hadrian's Wall ( http://aliveandkicking.org/52ben/) . And I was just pleased to have done it, quite reassuring for a man "of a certain age."
It is appropriate to leave the last words to Murray, since it was mostly his doing that we were here in the first place: "Since success must depend on untested qualities of mind and body, the issue would remain in doubt until the day was nearly done. The great physical strain would afford valuable data concerning one's ability to master an exhausted body, to discipline temper, and judge calmly under stress. I thought then, and now I know, that every man should have such knowledge of himself." Quite so.
"Annapurna" (1951) Maurice Herzog
"The Hebrides" (1966) WH Murray
"Mountaineering in Scotland" (1947) WH Murray
"The Evidence of Things Not Seen" (2002) WH Murray
"Lonely Colonsay. Island at the Edge" (2010) K Byrne
"Colonsay. One of the Hebrides" (1910) Murdoch McNeill
"Place-names of Colonsay and Oronsay" Scottish Natural Heritage
Scottish Mountaineering Club guide to the Inner Hebrides and Arran (2014)
This article was previously published in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal