It was back in June that I’d had my eyes properly opened to the joys of hillwalking in Harris, when hubby and I went up Tiorga Mòr, a hill that I confess I hadn’t even heard of until shortly before.
We’d previously also climbed Todun – and what amazing views you get to Skye from there – but in all honesty the Clisham had always left me feeling a bit underwhelmed.
Maybe that’s because it’s such a hard pull up and there isn’t much in the way of a trail until you get close to the top. It’s always been pretty windy and slippery whenever I’ve been up too and the views just feel a bit disappointing. You can’t see way out west from the top of the Clisham.
However, I had never climbed the complete horseshoe before – the whole Clisham ridge – and I have been harbouring ambitions to do so for a while.
I wondered how it would compare to the Clisham on its own.
The thoughts were growing bigger and bigger and finally, on one beautiful sunny Friday two weeks ago, I decided to go for it. So I did the research and had a very close look at the map.
If you look at Walk Highlands or anywhere else it seems on the internet, the usual start point for the walk – a circular route – is Glen Scaladale. Read the reviews, though, and you’ll see most people complaining about how long an approach it is and how boggy.
My usual start point for the Clisham is the parking place at the bridge on the A859 Stornoway to Tarbert road, to the southeast of the Clisham itself (Grid Reference 174057 on OS Explorer map 456 of North Harris / Loch Seaforth) and I decided to stick with that for the whole ridge too.
That would mean doing the ridge clockwise instead of anti-clockwise, as many other folk seem to, but I think it was a good decision, for a number of reasons.
When the day came, there were perfect blue skies and great visibility, which was part of the reason I’d decided to tackle the route on this day. I knew it was unlikely that I’d need to micronavigate at any point. I’d be able to read the hills and take only general bearings if any at all.
Also, what is the point of doing a route like this if you’re not going to be able to see the views? I was there for the experience; not for a tick.
The approach to the Clisham is not all that easy. There isn’t much in the way of paths – only scraps of track on the east side of the Allt Tomnabhal but nothing very useful for long – and the best way up is to head for the shoulder and then pretty much straight up, following your nose.
You will be climbing almost exactly north west. Eventually a track will appear and take you through the rather bouldery top and to the summit cairn (799 metres, making it a good Corbett) but that’s only for the last 150 metres or so.
If you’re climbing the Clisham, you need to be prepared for a bit of a slog – along the boggier ground lower down and then up reasonably steep pathless slopes for a few hundred metres.
When you get to the summit cairn – always satisfying – the ridge is not yet visible. You have to go northwards past the cairn a little, until the ridge comes into view.
On a good day, like I had, you can see all along the peaks of the horseshoe – over An t-Isean to Mulla bho Dheas then Mulla bho Thuath and Mullach an Langa – and the only real challenge here is finding the best place to start dropping down to the bealach between Clisham (An Cliseam on the map) and An t-Isean / Mulla who Dheas.
I wasn’t sure where to start dropping down – it was obvious on the map; I could have measured it with the side of my compass and paced it out – but I had the good fortune to meet a couple of walkers, one of whom (as I later found out) was the North Harris ranger.
I picked his brain about route finding and also about the weather. It was pretty blowy up there and I was a bit apprehensive about heading for a narrow ridge in those conditions, but when I asked him if he thought if it was too windy to do the ridge, he assured me that, “no, no – this is normal”.
So, with my ‘it’s just a good drying day’ head on, I decided to continue. The ranger, Michael, also pointed out the bit of a track leading down from just past the Clisham cairn, which I was grateful for as it was easy to miss but I’ll know it for next time.
The path would disappear and then reappear, he advised. And it did. And I found that, as I approached the bealach, I could see a clear track along the right side of the ridge up Mulla bho Dheas. (A track which Mick Blunt of Hidden Hebrides had mentioned to me in previous conversation, as a good option.)
The Mulla bho Dheas ridge itself involves a fair amount of airy scrambling but this path – although narrow and slippy – gives the option of avoiding all the scrambling altogether.
Because the path was so visible from the Clisham side, I decided that following the path would be the smarter option, although I did feel like a bit of a cheat. Also, fact is there are very few paths in these hills so it’s enjoyable to follow a track for a while when you can.
This track led all the way round and up the side of the hill, to the summit of Mulla bho Dheas – and when I reached the top, I honestly gasped out loud at the view. This, my friends, is what it’s all about. What the Clisham ridge is worth climbing for. I could hardly believe my eyes. Miles and miles of expanse to the west and the south, down through the island chain to the Uists, and across so much blue ocean and sky. It was stunning.
I took a few pics and savoured the moment – and then got out of the wind.
There were quite a few people on the Clisham ridge the day I was out – at least a dozen – and most of them were climbing it in the opposite direction to me. I noticed that everybody I passed on Mulla bho Dheas had had to scramble down the ridge. A couple commented that it was “a bit scary” and one man said that he’d done the route a few times “but could never find the path”.
I have to stress that this was because they were doing the route anti-clockwise. If you reach the Clisham last, it is incredibly difficult to see where the path avoiding the scramble starts from the top of Mulla bho Dheas. That is one of the main reason I can see to do the ridge in a clockwise direction, starting with Clisham.
At the top of Mulla bho Dheas, the ridge to Mulla bho Thuath is really obvious. It’s pretty narrow, although there are no difficulties, so in good conditions you can just follow your nose.
The ridge down off Mulla bho Thuath is wider and very bouldery – lots of clambering around – and it’s more difficult to see where to go. I just followed my nose again – too complacent – and came to a steep drop, because I’d gone too far east when I should have gone north.
My advice would be to walk on a bearing from the summit of Mulla bho Thuath, even in good visibility, to avoid making that mistake.
From there, it only remained to climb the final peak, Mullach an Langa. Here I met up again with ranger Michael and his walking companion and we had a chat about the best route down and out.
I had intended to come down Mullach na Langa in a north-east direction (easiest gradient) until the ground levelled off. From there, I would have gone south, following the east side of Loch Mhisteam, and climbed up the bealach between Tomnabhal and Clisham, then down in a south easterly direction, back to the car park.
I still think that would be the best route out but I decided to follow Michael and his companion out Glen Scaladale, from where Michael had offered me a lift back to my car.
We went down the col between Mullach bho Thuath and Mullach an Langa, skirted along the northern edge of Loch Mhisteam and then generally followed the river (on the left bank) all the way out of Glen Scaladale. The path comes and goes a lot and I can’t say I enjoyed this too much. It was a slog, very boggy, and I was wishing I’d stuck to my original plan, although it is always good to get to know a place and learn what the options are.
What I can tell you is, although I don’t plan to be using Glen Scaladale as my approach route, I will definitely be back along the Clisham ridge again, as soon as I possibly can. It’s a great walk and it’s up there for me, in the top five. It’s wild walking, with barely any paths – making them all the more welcome when they appear – and an unrelenting ascent, but it’s incredibly rewarding and satisfying. And simply stunning on a good day.
It’s a quality hill day – maybe not for the uninitiated – and just goes to show that there’s so much more to walking in Scotland than Munros.
And the best thing is, I don’t have to get on the ferry to get there!
Directions: As described
Time: Seven hours plus
Difficulty: A harder hill walk
Map used: Ordnance Survey Explorer 456, North Harris and Loch Seaforth