THE SCOTTISH THREE ISLANDS PEAKS RACE
A LOOK BACK
By TOMMY O’REILLY
Tom O’Reilly winning the 1958 Scottish Steeplechase title
(In three successive Newsletters, starting in July 1992, Tom O’Reilly, who was a very fine Scottish International athlete not only as a Senior but also as a Veteran, wrote in marvellously described detail about this epic adventure. It is well worth re-typing and demonstrates the adventurous spirit of so many runners.)
11.00 a.m. Friday 18th May 1984. The stays clinked lazily against the mast as the Golden Rule rocked gently in the wash from the Ferry Claymore as she swept across Oban Bay to start her run to Coll, Tiree and other islands of the Hebrides.
Lying on deck in the warm May sunshine, listening the babble of English and Scottish voices and the cries of the ever-present gulls. It was hard to imagine that in a few hours’ time I would be starting out in what, for me, that was to prove to be the hardest race which I had ever taken part in.
It had all started some months previously when Dave McKirdy (East Kilbride) had been approached by Bert Higgins, one of our Rolls Royce workmates, who had asked Dave if he would like to take part in the Scottish Three Islands Peaks Race. Bert already had his sailing Crew of three, and was on the look out for two runners to bring the team up to a maximum of five. Dave, who has a great love for Boats and sailing, jumped at the chance and when Bert asked if Dave knew of another runner, I was in.
We had our first get-together in Bert’s house where we met the rest of the team. Bert was the owner and Skipper of a 30 foot fibreglass Yacht: the Golden Rule. He, along with Dave (Tigger) Lovelock and Bernie Curran, would do all the sailing, while Dave McKirdy and I would do the running sections.
It was decided we would have a couple of training weekends away on ‘The Golden Rule’ to get the feel of it, and to reconnoitre the Island Peaks we would be running over, especially on Goat Fell.
The months leading up to the race were spent gathering our kit together (thermal clothing, waterproofs, maps, compass, torches, sleeping bag, survival bag and all the other items that we had to carry with us on our runs, since they could mean the difference between life and death on the remote mountain sections. In the week prior to the race, we had what seemed to us at the time a major set-back: Bernie Curran had to withdraw from the team, and Bert had to phone around to try and fix up a last-minute replacement. Our new crew member was Mat Mathieson from East Kilbride, who was to prove a first-class team member and an excellent companion.
It was decided that Bert and Tigger would sail the Golden Rule from her mooring at Loch Craignish up to Oban on the Thursday and have her ready for the start of the race on the Friday. Dave, Mat and myself would travel up on the Friday morning along with Dave’s brother Gavin, who had kindly offered us the use of his car.
Now, here we were at Port Beg on the south end of Oban Bay, from where the runners started out on the first leg of the race, with all the provisions on board, and the Scrutineers having been over the boat, checking the life-raft, distress flares and a dozen and one other things.
At 2.00 p.m. all the runners went ashore to warm up for the 2.30 start and the yachts left to take up station just offshore at the north end of Oban Bay, with a crew member from each yacht on shore, ready to row their respective runners out to the waiting flotilla, when they had completed the first and shortest of the runs.
In no time we are lined up, 36 runners all eager to be off, with all our thoughts about what lay ahead of us. The pistol cracks and we are off on 160 miles of sailing and 50 plus miles of running. We run 50 yards and turn left down a narrow side street, then on to the Railway Pier, very rough underfoot, wide gaps between the planking, wire hawsers over power cables, watch your feet, lorries loading fish for the south, bemused tourists, dodge the lorries, dodge the tourists, the pace is still fast, sharp right round the pier buildings, almost on the promenade, sharp left off the pier, the pavement is crowded, onto the road, up into 2nd place, don’t feel too bad. A policeman ahead stopping the traffic for us, we turn into Argyll Street to start the climb up to McCaig’s Folly, another 70 yards and we are on the flight of steps known locally as Jacob’s Ladder, 144 steps in all and very steep, halfway up now, in 3rd place, breath rasping in my chest, sharp left then sharp right, at last the end of the steps, onto the road, still climbing steeply, another two runners pass me, don’t panic, almost down, in about 7th place now, off the path onto the road, still some runners on the way up, Dave is not one of them, he must be at my back, on the steps again, down this time, not so bad, watch your ankles, soon on the seafront, about 600 yards to run to the shore, vault the railings, jump down onto the sand, higher than I thought!
Tigger is in the dinghy with the oars ready, I clamber up past him to the bow, Dave is right at my back, he pushes off and jumps in, Tigger is rowing like mad for the Golden Rule. Almost there, Bert and Mat have the sails up ready to go, grab the stern rail, get on board quickly, throw the oars below, pull up the dinghy and deflate it, we are off, 3rd yacht away, not bad for two cold Vets, our run has taken 9 minutes 15 seconds, the deck is a hive of activity. Dave and I get below out of the way, dry off and don warm clothing, then go back on deck to see the small armada of yachts strung out behind us with their multi-coloured sails, bright in the afternoon sunshine with Oban receding in the background.
We track round the north end of Kerrera Island into the Firth of Lorne and point our bows for the Sound of Mull. What a fantastic panorama: to the north Ben Nevis and the Glencoe Peaks, all still crowned with snow; to the east Ben Cruachan; to the south the Bens of Jura; and closer to hand Duart Castle, Ardtornish Castle, Dunolloe Castle, and the sea as blue as the Mediterranean.
Soon we are through the narrows between the southern tip of Lismore Island and Duart Point with its Castle (a stronghold of the Clan McLean) and we are starting the run up to the Sound of Mull, past the Ferry point at Loch Aline. We are still in third place and the wind is holding, we should make our jumping off point about 6 p.m.
We check over our kit to make sure all is in order. Salen Pier is now in sight, the yachts Memec and Chips have landed their runners, and Quail is nearing the Pier, with Easta Amelia not far behind us, White Lightning has lived up to her name, overtaking us in the run to the Pier. Tigger has the dinghy on deck and is inflating it with the auxiliary pump, the yacht Boadicea is chasing hard, but we should hold them off.
The time is 6.10, we are almost there, Dave and I stand on the deck with our packs on, shivering in the evening chill. Tigger swings the dinghy over the side and into the water, then climbs down with the oars, followed my Dave and me. Bert holds the Golden Rule on course; when we sweep past the pier, Mat casts the dinghy off and we are rowing for the shore about 20 yards away. The dinghy grounds and we quickly scramble over seaweed slippery rocks up to the pier.
The Scrutineers wish to check over our kit, then we are soon running up the road to Salen Village and the 4 miles to the start of the Ben More path. It is good to get on the move again, thankful for the warmth that exercise brings.
Once clear of Salen, we see that we are about 600 yards behind the team in front. When our quarry turn off onto the Ben More path, we have closed the gap to about 50 yards. When we make the turn, we find the path is very rough and boulder-strewn but we are making good time. In about one mile the right-hand fork leads down to Little Loch Ba. We take the first right hand fork and turn up into Glen Clachaig. It’s then that we get our first view of Ben More, rising to 3169 feet above the head of the glen. Another mile and we have to ford the Clachaig River and start the climb up onto the exposed saddle linking Cruachan Dearg and Ben More.
After the free running of the last six miles, we have to adjust to twisting undulations as the little path climbs ever higher. Once on the saddle, we are entranced by the views from this vantage point, but we have to turn our attention to the long boulder-strewn scree slope of Ben More. This will be the hardest part of the climb. It is on this section that we feel the cutting edge of ‘Never Silent’ (the Vikings’ name for the wind) and stop to don our gloves and tracksuits. At last the point is reached where we have to start our traverse along the mist-shrouded ridge that leads to just under the Ben More Summit. This is as near to rock climbing as I want to get! The fact that we are on the lee side of the ridge means that we are getting some protection from biting wind – and we are thankful for small mercies.
At last the end of the ridge; just the short sharp scramble onto the summit; we find the Summit marker almost immediately and punch our check card. My euphoria on reaching the top robs me of all discretion and prudence. Instead of checking map and compass, I chose a long sloping shoulder that looks familiar and start down. Dave, who is on my heels, is not so sure regarding my choice and voices his doubts.
When we break out of the mist, the terrain that unfolds below is unfamiliar, we stop and check the map and compass, then have to retrace our steps back to the summit. On reaching the summit we again check our bearings and start down, this time in the right direction, my mistake had cost us places, time, energy, our euphoria has given way to dejection.
The run down off the top is long and rough over a large boulder field, where progress is slow and dangerous, then into knee-high grass. We are thankful to reach the Dishig Burn, where we quench our thirst. This is the first drink we have had since crossing the Clachaig River some hours ago, and helps to raise our spirits somewhat, as we were on the point of dehydration.
The ground we are now running over is very marshy and the last mile is a squelch down to the black ribbon of road bordering the shore of Loch Na Keal, with its little island of Eorsa, dark against the backdrop of hills.
The light is starting to fade as we climb over the fence onto the road and start the last 7 and a half miles to the pier at Salen, but the long run on the hill has taken its toll, my pack starts to cut my shoulders and my legs are heavy. With four miles still to go I can’t run any further and have to walk. Dave carries my pack for me and I stumble on like a drunken man, my mind filled with thoughts of the four peaks still to do; how can I tell the other lads in the team that I have nothing left to give, mentally or physically?
The time is now 11.15 p.m. and very dark, when we hear the sound of running footsteps, we look behind with some apprehension, but quickly realise the sound is coming from ahead of us. Out of the gloom appear the two runners from the yacht Sea Rowan just starting out on their run, my heart goes to them, they must have missed the wind and tide to be this late. I hope that they make it off the hill okay in the dark.
We round a bend on the road, and at last see the lights of Salen twinkle in the darkness, what a wonderful sight, not far to go now, we soon pass through the now silent village and turn onto the road down to the pier. I manage to run the last 400 yards, the familiar frame of Tigger looms out of the gloom, we call out ‘Golden Rule’. His torch stabs the darkness and he calls out ‘Watch your feet, the pier is in a bad state of repair!” The tide is out and the Golden Rule is about 15 feet below the level of the pier and we have to slide down the stays of the mast on to the deck, our run has taken 5 hours 27 minutes.
The expression on the faces of our sailing crew tell us they are concerned about our condition, and we tell them we are just glad to be back on board. Within seconds of landing on deck we are underway, heading down the Sound of Mull for the Island of Jura and her Bens.
Dave and I make our way down to the sanctuary of the cabin. Bert comes down to ask if we want any food but we have no thought of eating. All we want to do is drink and rest. Our sleeping bags have been left unrolled and I am soon in my bunk. My thoughts, as I fall into a deep sleep? Can I overcome my fatigue in time to run the three Bens of Jura?
PART TWO: THE PEAK OF GOLD ON THE ISLAND OF JURA.
On the second day of our Three Islands Challenge, I awake to the sun slanting through the hatch of the Golden Rule and the sound and smell of frying bacon pervading the cabin.
The ever-cheerful Mat has breakfast on the go, and insists I have mine in my bunk. After about six ham-and-sausage rolls and about three mugs of coffee, I’m ready to face the world. With some apprehension, I swing out of the bunk but, to my great delight and amazement, I’m neither stiff nor sore. I can only think that nine hours sleep – and having to walk the last four miles of yesterday’s five hour ‘run’ – may have helped my legs.
Dave McKirdy is already on deck, seemingly unaffected by our excursion up Mull’s Ben More. His marathon training is standing him in good stead. The sailors, Bert, Mat and Tigger, look remarkably fresh for men who’ve been on the go for more than 24 hours.
Dave and I now learn that, while we slept, our sailing crew had four times fought their way up to the tidal-gate at Pladda Isle, only to be swept back. At the fifth try, they made it through. What a team!
We have some sunny hours relaxing on deck before tacking down the Sound of Luing, past the Straits of Corrievrechan and the fearsome whirlpool – and into the Sound of Jura.
A first sign of habitation is the lonely House of Barnhill, where George Orwell completed his last great work ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.
When we’re half-way down the Sound, our three Bens start to show in some detail. We study them through the binoculars. Then, when level with Lowlandman’s Bay, start to get our running gear ready. The Golden Rule swings round the little isle of Eilean n Gabhar, and heads for Craighouse Pier.
It’s in good order, with a ladder down to water level, so no need for a dinghy.
The time is exactly 5 p.m. Dave and I are up the ladder and onto the pier before the lads can tie up. A quick scrutiny by the officials, then off on the one and a half mile road run to Jura Forest.
On the road, I manage to hold the pace. But once we climb over a wall onto the moor, my pace starts to falter. For the rest of the day it will be a battle to keep going.
Clearing Jura Forest, we are reminded that Jura means ‘The Island of the Deer’ as a fine stag breaks cover and races away ahead of us. Our ground now slopes up for one and a half miles to two cairns silhouetted on the skyline.
When we reach them, the ground falls away in front. And there, rising from the moor like three primeval pyramids, are Beinn a Chaolais (Holy Mountain), Beinn an Oir (Mountain of Gold) and Beinn Shiantaigh (Mountain of the Sound).
Our three Bens of Jura.
We leave the high ground of the twin cairns and start the run down Glen Asdale to the little lochan where we’ll strike hard right up the steep loose scree of Beinn a Chaolais.
This is an exhausting climb that will take over the hour. Soon we are bent double, face close to the rocks, pack heavy on shoulders, sweat running, feet slipping in the scree.
We stop to catch our breath. The scenery that unfolds below is fantastic, and helps to give us relief from the climb’s tedium.
At last we reach the summit, and are greeted by members of the Parachute Regiment who ensure team’s safety on the peaks and will call out search and rescue helicopters if need be.
We hope there will be no need!
We punch our race check-card at the trig point and start our descent, when over to the right we see another runner coming up. A bit of a shock, as we thought we were well ahead of the next team.
The runner stops and looks back down the mountain, as if for his partner. He then removes his pack and starts back down the scree slope. His mate must need help: it’s sensible and prudent that partners run together.
The scree that made life so difficult on the way up is now a great help – we virtually ski down!
On the floor of the glen we stop for a drink , then head for Beinn an Oir, locating a little cleft we’d earmarked as the best route to the top. It will also help to conceal us from the team behind.
The climb is long but no unpleasant, and we are almost at the top when we see the team at our back leaving the summit of Beinn a Chaolais. We soon reach our summit, punch our check-card, exchange a few words with the peak’s Paras and start down again.
Dave, in the lead, looks over his shoulder to make sure I’m okay, then calls out and points overhead …….
I look up and there, soaring on broad outstretched wings, is a Golden Eagle. How fitting, to see the king of birds on this peak, the Mountain of Gold.
In the glen, we quench our thirst at a lochan, where a white mountain hare bounds away ahead of us with great leaps. (In all, we see about six before reaching the foot of our last climb.)
The deer, the hares and the eagle all help our spirits on this, the longest of our Three Island runs.
From the foot of Beinn Shiantaigh, the least difficult of today’s peaks, we take a narrow green gully that all the runners will use. Once, when we look back, the pursuing team are just leaving the top of Beinn an Oir. We’re holding them!
On the top, we go through the ritual of check-card and Paras, then start down through a long boulder field. Progress is slow and frustrating, until we hit rough grass down to the Corran River – and find a deer trail.
The next two miles of twisting and undulating path, down to the road at the Three Arch Bridge, are the best bit of running we’ve had.
Now there’s only three and a half miles of road to Craighouse Pier but, after nearly six hours’ effort, I’ve just about had it.
Soon, Dave offers to take my pack. I decline and, in the deepening mist and dark, we see the Craighouse lights. One of the first buildings in the village is the school, surprisingly ablaze with lights.
A ceilidh is in full swing, and the strains of Gaelic melody mingle in the still night air with the sound of waves breaking on the shore.
Oh, how we envy the revellers! But we have only half a mile to run now, and we can see the mast-head lights from the yachts at the pier.
Suddenly, the tranquillity of the evening is shattered. A shrill cry rings out behind us ‘Almaviva! Almaviva!’
The girls running for the yacht Almaviva have come from nowhere. They’re only about forty yards behind us, and are shouting to alert their crew.
Dave and I look at each other in disbelief. We’ve been running for over six hours, over wild moorland, over mountain peaks, over five miles of road. Are we going to lose our position in the last half mile?
My reaction is ‘No way!’ Dave’s is a bit stronger.
Still quite fresh, he ups the pace but, in my exhausted state, I have to dig for the last dregs of willpower.
My pack slaps my back as I stumble on, into the last bend on the road, slightly uphill to the Jura Distillery and onto the pier.
The girls have closed on us.
I try to quicken my pace, but my legs have a mind of their own, and refuse to work. I still try to quicken the pace.
At last, the end of the pier. The ladder down to the Golden Rule. We’ve made it. What an experience!
And one that left us to ponder if next year the organisers will put a check-point marker at Three Arch Bridge……
THE STING IN JURA’S TAIL
Bert is at the tiller, Tigger is on the bow line, Mat is on the stern line. Skipper Bert calls out ‘Let go, forward!’ And the bow starts to swing away from Craighouse Pier.
The time is 11.17 p.m. Our three Ben run has taken six hours and fifteen minutes, but the day isn’t over.
The channel out of Craighouse Bay lies between the headland of Rudha na Caillich and the north tip of Eilean na Gabhar. A buoy in mid-channel marks a rock we must avoid.
Bert swings to port to give it a wide berth. Dave and I go below to turn in. Suddenly Golden Rule crashes to a stop – we’ve hit the submerged rock!! Shocked silence. Then running feet pound the deck overhead.
Tigger jumps down into the cabin and pulls the cover off the engine. It roars into life; Bert engages reverse and gives it the gun.
Golden Rule shudders and swings but is held fast.
Another yacht, Quail, offers assistance. Now TWO engines in reverse……and Golden Rule eases off the rock.
Bert waves Quail his thanks, and Dave and I go below again, leaving our sailing crew to the long hours of darkness before Day Three dawns …..
THOSE BLOOD-STAINED ROCKS ON THE PEAK OF THE WINDS
The mountains of Mull and Jura behind us, Golden Rule is heading for Arran on the last stage of our Three Islands sail-and-run race.
There’s just one more hill-run for Dave McKirdy and me…..up Goat Fell and back.
The only trouble is, there’s no wind to get us to Arran. Our crew of Mat, Bert and Tigger are drifting with the current at about one knot! Troll Marathon is about half a mile in front. So is Almaviva, with her all-woman crew, but closer to the Kintyre shore, seeking some wind.
With Arran seeming an eternity away, what can we do? ‘Row for it,’ says skipper Mat. ‘Get the dinghy oars.’ And so we set off, determined to close that half mile gap.
Within minutes, Troll Marathon have THEIR oars out – they must have been watching us!
For a full hour, that gap stays the same, then it starts to close, and by midday we’ve drawn level. Half an hour more and we pull ahead!
Mat and Tigger take our mainsail down, and reef on a windseeker, but for another hour we take turns at rowing, before the windseeker lives up to its name and starts to tug and swell as the forecast westerly strengthens.
Almaviva is away ahead, but we’ve left Troll Marathon behind. When our mainsail goes up again, at last we can lay down those oars, have some food and fix our blisters.
With a good swell running and the wind on our stern, Golden Rule bucks and ploughs through the peaks and troughs of the waves.
But after the longest sail of the race, it’s 11 p.m. as we enter Brodick Bay, and see the shark-tooth shape of Goat Fell outlined in the last light of the dying day.
Almaviva is at anchor, so her runners are still on the hill. Tigger gets our dinghy over the side and takes Dave and myself in to shore, close to the beach bonfire, where the scrutineers are waiting to check out all the runners. When the dinghy grounds, Dave and I leap into the shallows and, with the waves foaming around our ankles, sprint for the figures by the fire.
Scrutiny over, we race across the sand and over the Cnocan burn’s little wooden bridge. Then it’s 100 yards of road and sharp right into the grounds of Brodick Castle.
Another 400 yards and we’re in an avenue of rhododendrons. The branches link overhead, forming a long dark tunnel, but my headband torch stabs the darkness of our arboreal passage, and we follow a rough path, then a set of steps cut in rock.
Dave has kept his torches off, in case my batteries run out, but the first deer fence looms out of the darkness and we find the stiles into and out of a stand of pine trees.
The lights of Brodick are far below, and loneliness is made more acute by the evocative calling of crickets in the undergrowth.
What are we doing here, running up a Scots mountain at midnight?
In answer, we turn our thoughts and bodies to the task ahead, breast a rise in the little path – and are confronted by two bobbing, dancing spots of light, like incandescent fireflies.
It’s the girls from the Alviva, on their way back down. When we pass, we exchange encouraging words, then the girls are soon lost in the night.
A night that now gets misty as well as dark, making the last steep climb to the top more difficult and dangerous.
In the boulder field halfway up – and some boulders are as big as a house – visibility is down to a yard or two, and we make our way around or over by feel as much as by sight.
How we wish Goat Fell would live up to its translation from the Norse – Peak of the Winds – and blow away this clinging, opaque mist of ours.
Beyond the boulder field at last, on the final bit of path to the summit, a sudden updraft of wind tells us we are too far right….and on the edge of the drop into White Water Glen.
Quickly, we take corrective action, and try not to OVER-correct. Then, as I peer ahead, my torch picks out what seems to be a rock outcrop above and we start to make for it.
I turn to speak to Dave, and a white shape looms out of the mist.
It’s the trig point on the summit. We have almost walked past it and over the edge. And I shudder at what could have happened to us if I hadn’t turned to speak. After all, it was on this summit in 1889 that one John Laurie murderously pushed his walking companion Edwin Rose off this very crag.
Dave and I have come within a few feet of plunging on to the rocks that had been stained with the blood of Laurie’s victim.
Our escape has unnerved us both. All that we want now is to get off the summit.
We punch our check-card, stop to get orientated and, with the mist at its worst, ease down the granite boulders of the Cyclopean Walls.
At one point, on the flat expanse of rock, we edge forwards on our backsides with our packs dragging behind us. Then we reach the end of the slab and find – a sheer drop!
It could be six feet or twenty feet, we can’t tell. We just know we have to retrace our backside scramble, to find a better way down.
We do, of course, or I wouldn’t be here writing this. And the mist does lift, or rather we break out of it with a whoop and a scamper, and greet our deer fence like an old friend.
The two stiles, the rhododendrons, the steps, the castle, the road. Our elation knows no bounds, and in no time our hill-shoes are drumming on the planking of the little wooden bridge over the Cnocan, and we’re back aboard Golden Rule for the final sailing leg to Troon.
This was almost an anti-climax. Becalmed again, we had to make our arms and aching shoulders row again. And, at 10.20 a.m. in Troon Harbour, when Bert struck the spinnaker, it fluttered to the deck as if to lie amid our hopes and aspirations.
Yet we remembered our lung-bursting dash up to McCaig’s Folly in Oban; the dehydration and fatigue on Mull’s Ben More; the three Bens of Jura from the high ground of the twin cairns; and our resourceful, ever-cheerful sailors, who’d have carried Golden Rule to the finish if need be.
Did it matter if now there were no cheering crowds, no official groups, no bands playing?
No! Because as if by magic, three figures appeared on the sea wall above our heads: Bert’s wife Fiona, Dave’s wife Bett; and my own wife Margaret.
Cheering wildly, jumping up and down, waving their arms in the air.
We found out later that they’d come to Troon the day before to welcome us in, and had taken turns all night keeping watch for us.
What a fantastic sight they made.
And soon, over a pint or three in the Troon Yacht Club, the toasts were to the Golden Rule and her team, beaten but not broken; and to the girls, God bless them, what would we do without them?