Walking the Sleeping Beauty Mountain
by Jill Smith
Many readers of GA! will have come across my past writings about the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ mountain on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides (where I am now back living) [see GA2, 8 & 10], so I shall only briefly summarise the facts about this wonderful landscape goddess. She is known in some parts of the island as the Cailleach na Mointeach, which is ‘Old Woman of the Moors’ in Gaelic, but I prefer Sleeping Beauty as that is how she was introduced to me, and how she was known to elderly ladies living in Callanish. To me, from nowhere on the Island does she look old, so the Gaelic name seems to refer more to her geological age, compared to the brief lives of humans. There is also another mountain on South Harris which really does look like an old woman.
She lies in the Pairc hills of South East Lewis and can be seen from many places on the island. Indeed I am continually spotting her from places where I’d never before noticed she could be seen. She lies on her back, etched dark against the sky. She is a range of hills which form parts of her: Mòr Mhonadh, her knees; Guaineamol, her breasts; and Sidhean an Airgid, her head and face. When you see her from close by, from Airidh a’Bhruaich, she is stunning, her face perfect and her whole being so seemingly alive as it feels as though at any moment she could wake, rise up and walk.
She can be seen from further away at Callanish, and it is from here at the major southerly lunar standstill once every 18.6 years, that the low summer full moon is seemingly reborn from her body, moving along, then rising above her face, so that they appear to be gazing at each other for a while. I witnessed this in 1987 and in 2006 (with a bit more cloud). When seen from other places her profile is altered by another peak, Beinn Mhòr (572m) ‘behind’ her, and from the ruined Achmore stone circle this peak makes her appear pregnant – surely a harvest mother and a place to celebrate Lammas. When looking at her contour lines on the map, she still looks like the figure of a woman, though curled around in a beautiful fluid curve.
In the summer I first went to the Islands (1982) I walked her body in pilgrimage. It was the end of several journeys which all came together as I reached her brow. In a way it was a real journey’s end, for no place but Lewis has felt like home to me since then. That year a small group of us went, initially guided by Keith Payne, who had walked her 2-3 times before, but we soon split into pairs or individuals, each finding our own way and deciding how far to go. The group included Monica Sjöö and Lynne Sinclair Wood. It was my great pilgrimage and I felt so honoured to be there.
Ever since that day I have carried memories of it as I look at her profile. The memories are like a slide show in my mind: isolated, intense fragments rather than a flowing whole: that it was incredibly windy up there, that I seemed to be blown up one of her knees, of a long walk across to her other knee, of the wind making it hard to talk or look at the surroundings, of it tearing the spit and snot from my mouth and nose. I remember the vast plain of her throat, remembering it as bare rock. I remember the huge outcrop of her nose, where Golden Eagles had nested. Then I remember lying on her brow, pulling all my journeys together in that one place and at that one time.
Now it was 2010, 28 years later, and I was 28 years older! It seemed impossible that so much time had passed. We have, I hope, seen the end of the threat of giant wind turbines, roads, quarries and other structures actually on her body, but a windfarm of 53 even larger turbines some way beyond and visible from her, has been approved. There will be endless lorry movements, excavations (blasting?) and construction, and the energy and appearance of the area will be changed for years to come. I felt that now was the time to walk her again: another pilgrimage, to get to know her better and honour her again before her surroundings are so altered.
I knew it would be a daunting trek. Although I walk a lot, I am not a hill-walker and didn’t want to do it on my own. A series of encounters and conversations with a woman, Karen, from Ness, led us to discover that we both wanted to do it, and we quickly made plans for a potential day. The weather had been grey, wet and windy for weeks. We decided we’d go, pretty well whatever, apart from a Force 10 or worse, but hoped for a good day, and as it dawned it promised to be perfect. We parked near the bridge on the Eisken road, which I remembered from 1982. Back then I had no map, no camera, nor much knowledge of the Island, having only been there for a week or two. I was just taken, gave myself up to everything, and flew.
Now is a quieter, more grounded time of my life, and I went with map and camera and someone who had never been before. I couldn’t work out where we had started from in ‘82, from her feet. Even at the height of summer it seemed a long way to walk before really getting up onto her body. So we decided to go along an old track beside Loch Seaforth, which once had led to a little village, now of ruined blackhouses, and climb straight up onto her left knee. It was a massive climb. In a way Karen and I were well balanced. I found climbing up more difficult; she found walking over rocky terrain and descending harder. She was an excellent companion, and we studied the map and landscape together to work out the best route. We did a lot of talking, which made the difficult bits easier! And we just shared the joy of a truly wonderful experience.
Slowly, slowly we climbed that knee! At times we stopped every few yards to look down on the land below. Time after time we thought we were reaching the top, only to find another ridge beyond us. Eventually we rounded one part and there in the not too far distance we could see her head, looking very like a head, seen from beneath her chin. We really were on her body!
On, on, away from the boggy grass, tough heather and the plagues of horseflies or ‘clegs’, to a clearer ground of short grass littered with small boulders. I could not understand how I had got ‘blown’ up this hill in ’82. Was I now so much older that I had to almost crawl at times, hauling myself up by handfuls of grass and heather?
At last we were on the peak of her left knee. We had climbed to 380 metres. It had taken 3 hours from leaving Karen’s van. She had some concerns about how long it had taken, feeling we must turn back at 4.30, wherever we were. I was confident that once up on her body there would be less climbing and we would make good time. I really wanted to get to her brow again if I could. On her knee there was a huge pointed cairn. Many peaks have these cairns, and they are invaluable as you head off from one to another.
It had turned into a glorious day. We were hot. The waterproofs stayed in our bags and my coat got carried. Now we saw the whole of her body curving away from us in a beautiful curl. Even more female somehow than she looks in her ‘straight’ profile from afar. There was her other knee, the slight mound of her stomach, her two breasts, her great throat, and her head, chin towards us.
We set off again, over to and up onto her other knee, with another pointed cairn. Although this, the peak of Mòr Mhonadh, is 401m we had only had to climb up 40m from the ‘plain’ of her body. We were up on that body now and it was wonderful to see how complete she is even when you are on her. She doesn’t disappear into random unconnected hills.
We gazed in amazement at the view. We could see from one side of the Island to the other; we could see Skye, and we could see the mainland. We could see the Callanish area. We could see so much. The land became more like a map, or like the view from a low aircraft. It gave me a totally new and deeper perspective of this land I love. It was awesome to walk on this giant mountain woman. She with whom I am so familiar from a distance, have drawn so often, now once again real and solid beneath our feet. Remembering the wind of 1982, I could hardly believe this calm, beautiful, hot day, up there so high. We were blessed.
We walked on across her great belly. Without the illusion created by Beinn Mhòr she is flat and youthful with just a low rise of a belly. It wasn’t the bare rock that I remembered, but was grassy, strewn with boulders, causing us to take great care not to turn our ankles. Up on to her left breast, the peak of Guaineamol at 406m, and another cairn which this time formed her nipple.
By now the drive was to get to her head, to reach the goal of our journey, so we walked round her right breast about half way up. So small and maidenly from afar, so huge when you attempt to climb them. On the map the breasts seem like twin peaks of one hill, but in reality they are very distinct and separate hills.
Down we climbed to cross the huge plain of her throat, as I remembered from before, but no wind and no yellow rock, just rough uneven ground, boggy bits, little streams and pools and strange wind-worn ‘cliffs’ of peat, looking like peat-banks. But who would cut peat up here but trolls? The rocks, especially the cairns, were sculpted and rounded by the incredible winds which must often blow, and have done for thousands of millennia. It leaves outstanding veins of harder rock, giving them the sense of some petrified life-form. Were the vast scatterings of boulders dropped by the glaciers of the Ice Age which perhaps sculpted her actual body?
At last we were beneath the great cliff of her chin, where we sat for a while looking back where we had already walked, at her great beautiful body lying there. Before long we reached another cliff which forms her upper lip and then on to sit beneath her huge nose. Karen discovered there was an echo here, and also noted she had some big bogeys! Great piles of fallen rocks spilled from what might have been her nostrils.
On we went round to the bridge of her nose, the tip with another cairn rising behind us. This was at 387m, her whole head being the peak of Sidhean an Airgid. We sat, content and happy there, looking towards the hills of Harris. We both felt we didn’t want to climb down to the amphitheatre of her brow. Perhaps her brow had been for my first journey, my first pilgrimage. It was as though I needed to leave that intense memory untouched.
It was 3.50pm and had taken 5 hours to get there. We had our picnic lunch, though I didn’t feel like eating much all day. It had all been more wonderful than I had imagined. On our way we had seen oystercatchers, a huge mountain hare, a doe, a fawn which sprang up from beneath our feet, more distant deer, some little birds and a raven over her head. On our way back, in the distance, we saw what I am sure was an eagle.
I brought no gifts. I had thought to bring stones from my garden for the cairns, but it felt fine and right to leave it all as we found it. Karen lost a special top which had been tied around her waist – on an area we were going to by-pass on our return. On the day I walked her in 1982 my beloved goat had died in Norfolk. Maybe the mountain chooses her gifts – her sacrifices? There was no need for ritual. The whole thing felt complete, perfect and enormous. Our journeying of her, with our awareness of what we were doing, felt ritual enough.
It began to cloud over and our coats went on. We set off back and more or less retraced our steps, but found slightly easier routes for our tiring legs, though we were still coming down from 363m and there seemed no way that wasn’t steep.
As we walked back and climbed down we were very aware of the bright flowers of Bog Asphodel everywhere. Eventually we were back at the little track, past the ruined houses, and three white horses and a brown one which felt like the guardians of the place. We both felt, as we reached Karen’s van, that it was the absolute limit of what we could do. It had taken 9 hours, there and back. Literally as we sat down in the van the first drops of rain fell on the windscreen. Amazing! The next day was quite a high wind and we were back with grey days of wind and rain. What a blessed day!
When I first got up onto that left knee I thought ‘I’ll probably never do this again’, but now I think, having done the whole thing, I could, but not too often! I’m getting to an age where I feel that if things are important enough they must not be put off. You never know what’s round the next corner. And that was quite tough. Maybe I won’t ever be up there again. I drank in every second and now it replays in my memory like a 3D film. In a way I am still there all the time, re-living it.
What an honour, what a priviledge, what a blessing. Thank you Mother Mountain. Now, when I look at her profile, maybe from the bus on my way shopping, I remember what her landscape is like; her hills, her rocks, her great plains, her great crags. Thank you.
Jill Smith’s book ‘Mother of the Isles’, which includes more details of the mountain, was published by Dor Dama Press in 2003 and is once again available @ £9.95, now directly from Jill. For details see her website.