I thought the sun had blinked, but we had been caught in the shadow of a golden eagle passing low overhead. There were five of them over the hill, Cnoc Mhic-a-Phi, two of them tumbling out of the blue sky, lost in a playful, taloned dogfight.
I had been invited here to Mingulay (Miùghlaigh in Gaelic) by the celebrated climber and formidable mountaineer Stephen Venables. Mingulay is a small, uninhabited island, the second most southerly of the Outer Hebrides. Four kilometres long and nearly three wide, it has three distinct hills, grassy pasture meadows and virtually no trees. Owned by the National Trust for Scotland since 2000, it is no longer grazed by sheep and the grass grows long. We are part of a group of rock climbers from Northumberland camping and climbing for a week above the ruined village, abandoned since 1912.
In 1988, Venables became the first Briton to climb Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen. He reached the summit alone. Descending late in the day, he decided to spend a night in the open above 8,500m, rather than risk a disastrous fall in the dark, surviving the incredible experience but at the cost of several frostbitten toes.
“I’ve been to some very exciting places, I’ve done many expeditions in the Himalayas, climbed in Africa, Antarctica and the Andes. Now I want to enjoy being in Scotland and to enjoy what is here. Mingulay is magical. Stupendous wildlife. The Western Isles are unique and special, silver beaches, turquoise sea … it makes me think that I can manage without the Mediterranean,” says Venables.
The island is now mostly frequented by a summer procession of rock climbers, adventurous sea kayakers, sailors and boats full of day-trippers. It still bears the furrows and ruins of a community that clung on for at least 2,000 years. The population peaked in 1881, reaching a congested 160 souls, but after much grievance and injustice at the hands of landlords, by 1912 they had all left.
Eagles, skuas and corncrakes have the interior predominantly to themselves now, but the people’s voices are not extinguished. The naming of the coast and each feature of the landscape – both in Gaelic and in Norse – bears witness to the communities that flourished there over many centuries.
Our group is camped south of Cnoc Mhic-a-Phi, beneath a large pirate flag and beside the old school house. The skull and crossbones is the calling card of our team organiser, Tim Catterall. The Newcastle-based, 55-year-old project manager first came to Mingulay in 1999 and was hooked, beginning to lead trips from 2004 onwards.
What is the particular appeal of Mingulay, I ask?
“Incredible rock architecture, spectacular wildlife, flora and the solitude. I particularly like the flowers – the ones that remind me of people. Like tormentil because I remember the old climber I learned it off. Or spring squill, the little blue one there,” he says pointing “and the orchids, pyramidal, marsh and common.”
Although Catterall has visited often, it is the first time for myself and Venables. The climbing is on the 100m Sròn an Dùin sea cliffs, some small and slabby but many towering overhung heart-stoppers. Razor bills, guillemots, kittiwakes, fulmars, shags and cormorants nest on the ledges of complex ancient geology, which is everyone’s dream of what a big cliff should be. We start up the most beautiful wavy, marbled, patterned rock, which gradually gets steeper and then rears up in this immense great band of overhangs.
“Lewisian Gneiss (on the Sròn an Dùin sea cliffs) is this incredible rock that has been melted and twisted, buried and re-melted over hundreds of millions of years to produce this beautiful rock architecture, that is the most wonderful stuff in the world to climb on. And that’s just thrilling.
“The whole point of moving to Scotland is that I am only now getting to climb in places I have been dreaming about for decades. Many of the best places in Scotland I still haven’t been to,” says Venables.
“Sea cliffs have a particular attraction – all that noise and that surging movement gives a slightly dizzying feeling. By their nature they tend to be steep, which is what, as a rock climber, you tend to seek out,” he adds.
The history of climbing in Mingulay is not as modern as people might imagine. The original inhabitants hunted seabirds and gathered eggs on the cliffs and ledges for centuries. Writing in the late 1600s, Martin Martin, a Gaelic-speaking native of Skye, describes fowlers climbing the imposing Liànamuil sea stack in his book A Description of The Western Isles of Scotland.
“The chief climber is commonly called Gingich and this name imports a big man having strength and courage proportionable … by the assistance of a horse-hair rope he draws his fellows out of the boat and upon this high rock and draws the rest up after him with the rope, until they arrive at the top,” he writes. Often the hunters were ropeless, free-soloing the precipitous ledges. There were rare casualties, the last recorded death being an egg-gathering eight-year-old child.
In his book Everest: Alone at the Summit, Venables describes negotiating the Hillary Step in the final stages of his epic ascent. Oxygen starved, he relates: “Suddenly I was in a pub – a proper pub … glowing firelight and a golden-haired girl, someone was bringing us two pint glasses of warm Guinness …”
I asked whether he had similar visions while climbing these cliffs? “No!” he protests cheerfully.
“I wasn’t hypoxic; I wasn’t nearly dying, I was having a glorious time and there was no need for fantasy!” he adds, only slightly reproachfully.