Simon Ingram: The Black Ridge

Cover of The Black Ridge by Simon Ingram

I stood in the rain at the foot of the Inaccessible Pinnacle’s east edge, that ‘easy edge’, looking up at it, trembling a little. True, I was overawed by its history, its odd and discomfiting form, its dizzying position — but I think I was basically just very scared. In the part of your brain where your reflexive fear lives, self preservation — for no other reason than continued existence — is hard-wired into you. And everything about the Inaccessible Pinnacle was in those wires, and tinkering.

That’s the mood in which Simon Ingram embarked on a climb of Skye’s famous “In Pinn”—a fifty-metre high flake of basalt protruding from just below the summit of Sgurr Dearg, so that the highest point of the flake is slightly higher than the summit of the mountain itself. The roped rock climb on which he was about to embark is graded “Moderate”, and there’s nowadays no easier grade. But the two 30m pitches along the sloping edge of the pinnacle are wildly exposed, with plunging views down into steep-sided corries on either side. And most people who embark on this particular rock climb are not rock-climbers—they’re hill-walkers who are attempting to climb all the hills listed in Munro’s Tables of 3000-foot Scottish summits. And to complete that list they have to get up the In Pinn, because of the thoroughly inconvenient way it overtops the relatively easily accessible summit of Sgurr Dearg.

Here’s a view of what Ingram was taking on, with a couple of climbers visible on the “easy edge”. Ingram would be standing somewhere near the point at which a small group is assembled at lower right:

Inaccessible Pinnacle, Skye
Click to enlarge
(Source)

So lots of people are “very scared” when climbing the In Pinn—something I find bemusing and impressive in equal measure. Why on earth would you embark on a leisure-time project that frightened the willies out of you, particularly one requiring coordination and attention, both of which are notoriously degraded by fear? And yet people do it—and despite their fear most of them get to the top and also manage to coordinate well enough to abseil off the near-vertical western end, which features on the book’s cover at the head of this post. So I’m somewhat in awe of the grit and determination on show, while baffled at the motivation.*

Ingram’s motivation didn’t come from trying to gain a tick in a table, however. His climb was part of a long-term attempt to get to know the unique Cuillin range of mountains on Skye, which is what this book is about—hence the awkward subtitle, “Amongst The Cullin Of Skye”, which has the feel of a compromise reached by committee.

I’ve written about Ingram before, when I reviewed his previous book, Between The Sunset And The Sea (2015), in which Ingram described his experience of climbing sixteen classic British hills, using that experience as a narrative hook to usher in expositions on the history (and natural history) of his chosen hills. He has a great ear for intriguing and amusing anecdotes, and I enjoyed that part of the book immensely, while fretting a little about the sheer intensity of Ingram’s emotional response to some of his days out in the hills.

With The Black Ridge (2021) Ingram does the same thing, but with a tight focus on the various peaks of the Cuillin range. To some extent, then, it’s a counterpart to Patrick Baker’s The Cairngorms: A Secret History (2014), which I recently reviewed.

Ingram casts his net wide for subjects more-or-less linked to the Cuillin—in the early chapters there are dissertations on geology, the Ice Ages, Scottish history and prehistory, the saga of James Macpherson and the alleged poetry of Ossian, the Scottish travels and opinions of Samuel Johnson, the fragile botany of the high peaks, Scottish folklore, and the etymology of the name Cuillin. Depending on your existing knowledge and interests, you may find some passages less engaging than others, but there are always intriguing titbits—I didn’t know, for instance, that there may have been active glaciers in the Cairngorms as late as the eighteenth century. And Ingram often manages to tell you stuff that you do know already, but in a new, vivid and memorable way. For instance, here he is on the supercontinent cycle:

Like much of geological theory, the understanding of the processes involved in this is pretty recent; there are Beatles records that pre-date anything approaching a clear view of how this most colossal of geological events works.

And he’s funny. Here’s his take on reading climbing reports from old editions of the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal:

They are typically great fun, not least because the writers seem to inhabit some kind of P.G. Wodehouse parallel universe, full of chipper old socks braving inadequate lodgings, sharing ropes, ruminating over whether things will ‘go’ or not, and watching Hastings—there’s always a Hastings—overcoming some kind of dangerous obstacle or being a good-enough sport to fall to their death without taking the pipe tobacco with them. (This last point is of course an exaggeration—none of these chaps would be silly enough to trust the entire supply of pipe tobacco to one person.)

(I find myself wondering who made the decision to use non-gendered pronouns in that passage. “His” and “him” would have precisely reflected the realities of the era Ingram is lampooning—women were finally admitted to the Scottish Mountaineering Club as recently as 1990.)

Later sections concentrate on the climbing history of the Cuillin—the range is remarkable in Britain for the fact that in many cases we know the names of the people who (probably!) made the first ascents of its various summits; some, like Sgurr Alasdair, are even named after the first recorded ascender. Prominent among the characters introduced are Norman Collie and the guide John MacKenzie, whose statues now stand near the Sligachan bridge, gazing towards their beloved Cuillin. There are plenty more characters in Ingram’s history, but this famous pairing lets him introduce the concept of the Cuillin guide—a person employed by ordinary hill-walkers to keep them safe in the complicated, demanding, and occasionally frightening terrain of the Cullin ridge.

Ingram’s chosen guide for his own Cuillin adventures is Matt Barratt of Skye Adventure, who comes out of Ingram’s stories very well, and presumably is now getting a little extra business as a result. He previously assisted in the making of Danny MacAskill’s jaw-dropping mountain-bike-along-the-Cullin film, The Ridge, which must also have boosted business. (Although it has nothing to do with Ingram’s book, if you haven’t seen The Ridge, please just click on my link, turn up the sound, and invest eight minutes in seeing something remarkable which will also give you a real sense of the vertiginous exposure the Cuillin offers, and why mere mortals might just need the assistance of a guide. I’ll wait here. Take your time.)

Ingram’s exploration of the Cuillin doesn’t go as planned. Unusually, he goes straight for an attempt at a full traverse (two days following the crest of the ridge), but is forced off by bad weather. He then decides to become more acquainted with individual peaks before attempting the traverse again. So he talks us through his ascent of the Inaccessible Pinnacle, and a walk up on to the ridge at Bruach na Frithe, one of the few approaches easily manageable by simple pedestrians. It’s all going swimmingly, and another attempt at the traverse is booked, only for Ingram to sustain a serious injury after a stumble while walking in Coire Lagan.

Ingram describes this event very well—the fall itself, the aftermath, the cheery practicality of the Mountain Rescue Service:

‘I’m supposed to be doing the ridge tomorrow,’ I say heavily.
I hear a chuckle, and someone else says, ‘Well, guess what. But you know, you’re not dead and you don’t have a broken neck. You’re lucky.’

Expectations are modified, at least temporarily, and Ingram finally returns after a long period of recovery to make a short but classic circuit of Sgurr nan Gillean with a watchful Matt Barratt.

The descriptions of the mountain scenery are excellent. Here’s Ingram on the seaward view from the south end of the ridge:

Climbing in a curve ahead, the ridge sliced the scene in two. To the left, the flank of the mountain fell in an unbroken slope precipitously to the sea. There were the [S]mall [I]sles, lined up in a trio along the horizon: Eigg an upturned rowboat, Canna distant and adrift, both flanking Rum, muscular and mountain-bristled, in shadowy anchor on a painfully bright sea. The whole was a tapestry of shadow, scaly silver and steel. Where the sun broke the cloud, it threw scalding puddles of light on the surface.

Anyone who has looked out to sea towards the Small Isles on a day of broken cloud will recognize that view.

There’s plenty more good stuff like that throughout the book, but I chose that passage in particular because it also illustrates a minor but prevalent niggle—the book could have done with some better proof-reading. I capitalized “Small Isles” for you, because that’s their name; the text calls them “the small isles”. And then there’s that out-of-place piece of American English, rowboat. (And elsewhere there are a couple of gottens.) Scottish readers will be vexed to see their third national drink dubbed Tennant’s lager—it’s Tennent’s. And convivial conversation in Scots is crack; it’s the Irish who enjoy craic.

And for pity’s sake, WHY IS THERE NO MAP?

But setting such carping aside, I very much enjoyed this book—for its striking evocations of landscapes with which I’m familiar, for its wealth of anecdote and information, and its dry humour.


* In case you’re wondering: No, I’m very much not a rock-climber. Yes, I have climbed the In Pinn. But I did it specifically because I wanted to climb the In Pinn. So I looked forward to it with cheerful anticipation, enjoyed myself while doing it, and would quite like to do it again.
Cullin is a singular noun, designating the whole seven-mile length of the Cuillin ridge. So “amongst the Cuillin” is a downright strange construction, like describing one’s travels “amongst Scotland” or “amongst London”. If he was intent on using “amongst”, Ingram would have been better to use the commonly heard plural form, Cuillins, which treats the singular ridge as being composed of multiple peaks. But Cuillin has become a shibboleth among Scottish hillwalkers, a way of advertising one’s membership of the in-group. The defence offered for this prescriptive usage is that, because the original Gaelic An Cuiltheann is singular, the English version should be rendered as singular, too. This is an etymological fallacy operating at the nonsensical level of the injunction against splitting infinitives, but if Ingram wants to sell his book to his target audience, he’s probably stuck with the singular Cullin.
However, should you ever happen to say “Cuillins”, and find yourself challenged on the usage, you should direct your challenger to the example of Sorley MacLean—a native Gaelic speaker, a resident of Skye, a hillwalker, and something of an expert on hill nomenclature. Here he is on The Munro Show (1991), discussing his love of the (plural) Cuillins:

MacLean knew very well that words adopted into English are under no obligation to follow the usage of their original language.
Middle English crack, “conversation”, persists in Scottish English. The OED tells us that the word was borrowed from Scottish English into Irish English, and thence into Irish Gaelic as craic.

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