Bothy adventure on the Isle of Rum
Two years ago, we took a boat trip from Skye to visit the Small Isles in Scotland. On the coast of the remote Isle of Rum, we spotted a bothy in the most picturesque cove. A deer was grazing among the shingle on the beach, while the bothy itself was nestled between beautiful hills. The skies were blue and the sun was shining – it looked like paradise and we decided there and then that one day we had to visit.
Some research revealed that Rum is in fact home to two bothies, Guirdil and Dibidil. We decided the ultimate Rum adventure would be to walk between the two bothies, spending a night in each. We hatched our plans with two friends, Olly and Ruth, and on a sunny Monday morning in April (opting to go early in the year to beat the midgies) we took the ferry from Mallaig over to Kinloch on Rum, carrying everything we needed for the three days on our backs.
Our plan for the first day was ambitious. I’d plotted a route from the harbour at Kinloch that took us up and over the Rum Cuillins to Dibidil. The ascent for the day was 1,599m and the distance 15km. Given that our ferry didn’t arrive until 12.35pm and we were carrying pretty heavy rucksacks, it was a tall order.
We set off from the ferry in high spirits, heading gradually upwards, with beautiful views out across to Skye. We climbed a good track beside a burn up to Coire Dubh, before heading up to the bealach at Bairc-mheall. Our first peak of the day was Halival, which stands at 722m. A ridge connects the peak to neighbouring Askival (812m), the highest point on Rum. We’d picked a great day for it, with clear views in all directions. From the summit of Askival we could even see the bothy at Dibidil, our home for the night.
I think it’s fair to say we had underestimated the time it would take to travel over the highest peaks of Rum with our packs – the terrain was tricky and route-finding was sometimes difficult, which of course is part of the fun of exploring off the beaten track. As we dropped down to Bealach an Oir we had to decide whether to continue on our route and climb Trollabhal, Ainshval and Sgurr nan Gillean, or whether to follow Glen Dibidil down to the bothy instead to comfortably arrive within daylight hours. We decided to pick discretion over valour, with the option of climbing the peaks the following day if the weather was agreeable.
On reaching the bothy we dumped our packs and headed out to explore the vicinity. Signs within the bothy warned us of a dangerous fissure nearby, marked by an iron post, so we hopped across rocks, gazed out to sea, admired the hills behind the bothy and took photos of an impressive waterfall that plunged straight into the sea below.
Sadly we hadn’t had room in our packs to carry in any fuel, and there was no driftwood along the shoreline. So no fire for us that night but a warm meal, a pouch of wine and hip flasks filled with whisky kept us toasty for the night. Dibidil has two rooms, both equipped with four person sleeping platforms, one with an open fireplace and the other a cast-iron burner. We decided to take the room with the fireplace, table and benches, leaving the second room vacant just in case anyone else arrived seeking shelter for the night. As it happened, we ended up having the whole place to ourselves, although at around 9pm we saw two young guys and a dog pass by the door, carrying daysacks – we still haven’t solved the mystery of where they were going, as it seemed very unlikely they would have been able to return to Kinloch in the light that evening, and they couldn’t have been carrying a tent. We slept very soundly, so well in fact that we made a late start the next morning.
We awoke to a very overcast day. Given that we now couldn’t see the peaks, plans to get back up on the ridge went out of the window and we decided to continue as planned, navigating our way around the coast to reach Guirdil. This was to be our longest day of walking – 21km and what turned out to be more ascent than the previous day. We climbed up away from the bothy along a pony track, heading towards Papadil. Not long after setting out we met two men who had camped near ruined Papadil Lodge the previous night. They seemed aghast at our plans to walk round the coast to Guirdil, and couldn’t see how we’d physically do it, remarking that the cliffs looked steep and impassable. We’d spent lots of time studying the map and had even found an extract from a guidebook in the bothy, describing the route, so we weren’t too worried but they did plant a seed of doubt. Perhaps we shouldn’t have had quite such a leisurely breakfast…
The route to Papadil was easy walking (other than some pretty deep bog to cross – in which I inevitably sank up to my knees) and we soon found the roofless ruins of the abandoned hunting lodge at Papadil, the perfect place to stop for a snack. The next section was more navigationally challenging, having to contour around the hills first at 120m, before climbing to 150m and eventually up to 250m, all the while looking out for a cairn that would mark the point to start our descent down to Harris Bay. This section was hard on the knees and ankles, but it wasn’t dangerous and was soon behind us. We started to wonder why the two chaps had been so concerned and before we knew it we were back on a faint path, with Harris Lodge and the famous mausoleum ahead of us, which dominate the landscape of Harris, our next stopping point.
On reaching Harris Bay we were greeted by a man wielding a chainsaw outside the lodge. Scary! The mausoleum looked similarly eerie against the brooding grey clouds and angry sea. Regardless, we decided to take shelter from the wind behind a stone wall and have a well-deserved rest. Looking at the map, we still had a fair distance to cover to reach Guirdil Bay. The pages from the guidebook had estimated a time of three and a half to four and a half hours and by this time it was already 4.30pm. We were carrying tents so it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we didn’t make it to the bothy, but given Guirdil Bay was the reason we wanted to visit Rum in the first place, we were pretty keen to get there.
By this stage the clouds had closed in, affecting visibility and adding to the difficulties of navigation. We only approached a very steep drop once as the faint path headed dangerously close to the cliff edge, so we abandoned it and climbed up and away to safety. We were all relieved when we spotted the distinctive shape of the aptly named Spectacle Lochan, beyond which we descended to reach the glen. Rather than contouring along the hillside, we chose to follow the burn down into the glen, which converges into the River Guirdil and leads to the bothy. This proved hard going, everyone fell over in the slippery bog with the exception of Matt, and we hadn’t even caught a glimpse of the bothy yet. I started to worry, since this was Ruth and Olly’s first experience of bothying and backpacking. I really hoped we hadn’t put them off – we had been on a bit of a mission to reach the bothy and in the terrible weather we didn’t want it to become a long, unenjoyable slog. I was also conscious that they were heavily laden in comparison to our packs – Olly was carrying not one but two cameras the whole way.
We were all very relieved when the bothy eventually hove into view. Although not quite the vision of the bay we remembered, this time cloaked in grey clouds and rain rather than soaked in sunshine, it was a very welcome sight nonetheless. The light was fading fast and our spirits had perhaps started to sink as we got gradually wetter, hungrier and more tired. It had been a hard day’s walking. Imagine our delight when we entered the bothy and met a couple from Glasgow who already had a fire roaring! Guirdil has plenty of space and had recently benefitted from the efforts of an MBA volunteer work party to fix the roof, making it a very cosy and dry haven. There was a sleeping platform upstairs for four, which is where our friends from Glasgow were sleeping, plus a large room downstairs where there was plenty of room on the floor for us to lay out our sleeping mats and hang our very soggy clothes. A smaller adjacent room housed the fire, with a low table and chairs and a kitchen style counter running around the room – perfect for prepping our ‘delicious’ dinner of dehydrated pouch food.
The bothy spirit is to chat to fellow walkers and trade adventure stories, so it was great to share the fire and swap bothy tales. You make friends fast and before I knew it Naiya had put my disgustingly boggy boots beside the fire to try and dry them out, regularly touching them to check their progress. That could only happen in a bothy – they were really, really gross. The couple had been at the bothy for three nights and had walked in the same way we planned to walk out, so they were able to tell us about the route. They’d taken six hours over it but their packs were insanely heavy – they’d decided to go luxe for their Rum trip, carrying in fuel and gourmet food – including a bag of potatoes. We decided to leave ourselves plenty of time to get back to make the ferry the next day and opted for an earlier start than the day before. My one regret of the trip is that there wasn’t much time to explore Guirdil Bay, or to look for Bloodstone on the beach. But surely that’s just a good excuse to make a return trip, right?
We were back to blue skies and sunshine as we walked up and away from the bothy and it was a really pleasant walk heading first around the coast, where we spotted a lone seal sunning itself on a rock, before turning inland towards Kinloch. In fact, we even walked a long stretch along one of Rum’s two roads – after so much bog-trotting, our feet weren’t quite sure what to make of it! It took us less than three hours to get back to Kinloch, so we had time to visit the local shop for cold ginger beer and ice cream before finding a quiet beach, where we soaked our tired feet before getting back on the Cal-Mac ferry to Mallaig. My worries about Olly and Ruth’s enjoyment of the trip proved to be unfounded – they were already planning their next backpacking adventure and have most definitely got the bug. Phew.
As for us, we have unfinished business on Rum. We’ll definitely be back to walk the cuillin ridge in its entirety, and spend some time exploring Guirdil Bay – as well as the subterranean tunnels and beach at Kilmory. For such a small island, Rum has a lot to offer.