I’ve long been wanting to explore some of Scotland’s lesser known Hebrides, and my attention was naturally drawn towards the Isle of Rùm. On the face of it, Rùm seems a hiker’s paradise: no roads, a population of just 20 people, an abundance of wildlife and over 100 square kilometres of nature to explore. The only slight drawback is that Rùm doesn’t boast its own distillery, but we made sure to carry plenty of whisky with us.
Getting to Rùm isn’t straightforward, owing to the fiendishly difficult ferry timetable. We arrived at Glasgow airport in the afternoon and made our way to Fort William, where we stayed at Glen Nevis campsite. It’s a very attractive valley, with sheer mountain walls rising on either side, eventually reaching up to Britain’s highest mountain. Of course this also means the valley doesn’t see much sunlight, particularly in the mornings and evenings. That night was bitterly cold, and when I awoke there was frost on my tent, as well as on the grass outside. Even so, my sleeping bag had kept me warm, and after a hot shower we set off for the ferry terminal in Mallaig.
It turned out to be a beautiful, sunny day. Sitting on the top deck we were able to admire the surrounding islands, and even spotted some dolphins breaking the water’s surface, with Skye’s Cuillin mountains forming a majestic backdrop.
After this pleasant boat trip we arrived at Rùm’s pier, just next to the imposing Kinloch Castle, once the summer home of an eccentric textile tycoon. While most fellow hikers were likely on Rùm for a day trip, our destination was Dibidil bothy on the island’s south-eastern shores. For those who don’t know, a bothy is a refuge in which hikers can spend the night. Often a long abandoned crofters cottage, a bothy doesn’t boast any facilities to speak of. This means no running water, no gas or electricity and no beds, so it’s a perfect place to go back to basics and enjoy the stillness of the Scottish Hebrides.
The path to Dibidil quickly gained some elevation and then contoured along the impressive coastline. Rùm is the largest of the so-called Small Isles and the southerly neighbour of the more famous Isle of Skye. This is an extremely beautiful part of Scotland, where mountains rise from the sea like impenetrable basalt fortresses. Each island has its own distinct geology, ranging from the gently rolling hills of Canna to the sheer cliff faces of Eigg. And if you had to pick an ideal vantage point from which to take it all in, it would be Rùm. As we progressed along the trail, we exchanged the views of Skye’s jagged Cuillin mountains for Eigg’s imposing rock face and the glistening beaches of Muck, with the Grampian mountains on the mainland always visible in the background.
After enjoying this gradually changing scenery for some hours, Dibidil bothy came into view. Perched between mountains and coastline with a small waterfall nearby, it is an idyllic spot to spend the night. After trying our luck at catching some fish – and failing rather badly – we settled down for dinner. We had brought some meat from the mainland and managed a delicious barbecue, fashionably served on some of the slate roof tiles lying around. The only thing that spoiled the fun were the midges, which had come out in full force. We retreated inside and celebrated the end of a gorgeous day with some whisky. No rum I hear you ask? Well, you know what they say: when in Rome… ehm Rùm, do as the Scottish do. And that of course means whisky! As a small concession to this lame punnery though, I did choose two rum cask matured whiskies. Glenfiddich Fire & Cane is a rum finished Speyside that has been lightly peated, resulting in a very easy-drinking dram. Kura The Whisky is Scottish spirit that was shipped to Japan to spend some time in Okinawan rum casks. I don’t particularly like it, but it does help to keep you warm when the Scottish weather gods inevitably turn against you.
Speaking of which… the next day we had a cloudy start. The day’s hike was quite ambitious and would take us to Guirdil, the second of Rùm’s bothies. With 19km walking and over 1000m ascent ahead of us, this would prove to be quite a tough day. An old pony path took us to Papadil, an abandoned hunting lodge that belonged to the same owners as Kinloch Castle. There we had to wade through spiky rhododendron bushes, but once we had scaled the surrounding hills we were in for quite a view.
The next sections were without a path and led us repeatedly up and down, as we flanked the slopes of Ruinsival mountain. It was quite tough going with our heavy backpacks, but the views of Rùm’s coastline – which at this point had become sheer and rocky – made it well worth the effort. After a few hours we arrived at Harris lodge, an active farm that boasts a herd of photogenic Highland cows. It’s perhaps better known for its rather bizarre mausoleum, which holds the remains of the Bullough family, owners of both Kinloch Castle and Papadil Lodge. At this point the rain was positively pouring down, so we gratefully took refuge under the mausoleum, the only shelter available to us within miles. It’s easily one of the most macabre spots I’ve enjoyed a meal at, but the structure kept us dry through lunch.
The route then took us inland, as a steady drizzle and a light fog made this part a bit of a trudge. When the clouds did clear though, we were treated to some fine scenery, with a series of lakes framed against the backdrop of the mountain range. The first part of the trail was an unpaved road that was used by George Bullough as a racecourse (you can tell by now that he was quite a character). After an hour or so we turned onto a smaller trail that would lead us towards Rùm’s west coast. This part of the island was cloaked in a thick blanket of fog, but the weather cleared just enough to illuminate our steep decent towards Guirdil bothy. It had been a long, tough day and we were grateful to arrive at our home for the night. There was plenty of driftwood to light the fireplace and we soon enjoyed a cosy meal of freeze-dried food. Next to Guirdil stands Bloodstone Hill, looming over the bothy like a sentinel. It contains the bloodstone so prized by Vikings back in the day, but exhaustion and poor weather got the better of us and we decided against climbing it.
The next day the weather was decidedly dreadful. A steady downpour blanketed the coastline, but since we had a ferry to catch we had no choice but to set out regardless. The trail required us to ford some streams that were in spate due to the heavy rainfall. In other places the ground had gotten very boggy so the footing was quite tricky, but despite this we made good time. After about two hours we made it back to Bullough’s racetrack, from which it was an easy (albeit wet) hike to Kinloch where we would catch our ferry to the mainland. We arrived several hours ahead of time and spent some time in the Village Hall, where the soup and hot chocolate tasted like something out of a Michelin star restaurant. It seemed that most people had abandoned their outdoor activities in favour of the cosiness of the Village Hall. The building provides a good view of the pier, so once we saw the ferry arriving we all braved the rain one last time for the short walk to the slipway.
Our brief visit to Rùm had allowed us to explore almost the entirety of this wonderful island. Rùm’s scenery is perhaps not as wild or dramatic as other parts of Scotland, but the natural environment is completely unspoilt. If you like to spend some time in the great outdoors away from the crowds, I cannot recommend Rùm enough. This was also my first bothy experience, and although it’s different from camping, it’s something I am sure to repeat. If you are interested in Scotland’s bothies, I recommend The Scottish Bothy Bible by Geoff Allan. It includes lots of great visuals, hiking routes and historical background. You can also start by looking up some bothies on the Mountain Bothies Association website.
Credit for the drone imagery in this post goes to Giuseppe Cipriani. Be sure to check out his Instagram, it’s got a lot of amazing stuff!