JUST back from a game of Hopscotch in the Hebrides, three ferries on one Calmac ticket, four days of spectacular contrasts in the hills.
It took longer than that to work out a schedule that would allow me to hop from Skye to Harris, to Berneray, to North Uist, then drive through Benbecula to South Uist, before returning to Skye from North Uist.
For someone who lacks a black belt in understanding ferry timetables, I thought I had managed to get it all slotted in pretty neatly. Then the ferry arrived late at Uig and subsequently left late, and my plans were in danger of being lost at sea.
I had intended climbing Uisgneabhal Mor in the late evening light and making it down before midnight, then sleeping in the car for a few hours before a 7am ascent of nearby Oireabhal. Now I was running almost half an hour behind schedule, and I was starting to have doubts about the wisdom of this approach. The ground is rough and pathless, not the best for stumbling around in the dark.
On the plus side, apart from lazy, rolling banks of cloud caressing the highest reaches, it was a clear evening with good light. But there was also a strong breeze, which, if amplified proportionately by height gained, could be troublesome. If I didn't go now, I would be faced with two separate hills to climb next day, which could make the next ferry connection a tight squeeze.
Half an hour later, after an adrenaline-charged crossing of a combination of bog, deep heather and tussocks driven by a realisation that my light could soon be snuffed out, I was at the col, ready to tackle the long, steady, grassy ridge rising into the mist.
Behind me, the seascape was punctured by islands and heights glowing copper in the late sun; to the west, the furnaces were being lit from below, fiery oranges, yellows and pinks splintering the black silhouettes spiking the horizon.
I was treated to varying degrees of visibility at the summit – now you see it, now you don't – but I didn't hang around too long, always aware of the switch being flicked off. I needn't have worried. The dying embers of the day hung around long enough for me to get off the hill without the need of a torch. Five minutes before midnight and it still wasn't dark.
I made my early morning appointment, but while most of the mainland was bathed in sunshine, the hill circuit was mostly conducted in a disappointing grey. There were tantalising glimpses of what might have been, especially over the rock tors and narrow ridge sections between Oireabhal and Ulabhal, but in the end I was happy to have got round dry and with plenty time in hand.
I woke in South Uist next morning with the light piercing the leftover cloud, and made the short drive round to Loch Aineort for the southern approach to Beinn Mhor.
The path round the various inlets was dreamlike; verdant grasses and sparkling blue waters, the heat already stifling, not another soul in sight. The path vanishes into the undergrowth, and the initial section of ascent is tough, a feeling of invisible hands grabbing the ankles with every step forward.
The ridgeline ahead looked far higher than on paper, and I began to wonder if I was in a completely different place altogether. But just as soon as the doubts crept in, I found an easier line and they were swept away.
Beinn Mhor straddles the dividing line of the island perfectly; to the west lay a flat landscape, the road a pale ribbon running through a myriad of lochans stretching to the Atlantic, to the east the tops of the mountains of Skye and Rum peeking up above a massive cummerbund of white cloud over the Sea of the Hebrides.
The summit area is equally spectacular, the plunging Heileasdale Buttresses highlighting the ascent line, the rocky, tight ridge of the North Top stretching ahead. Beinn Mhor may be a relatively small hill, but it has big views and a big presence.
There was time to visit the ruins of the house where Flora MacDonald was born and nearby memorial, before a lazy return through Benbecula and North Uist in time for the Skye ferry.
I spent the night at The Cowshed, a boutique hostel near to the ferry terminal, the first bed of the journey. It was the best cow shed I've ever slept in – and I have slept in a few.
I finished the whistle-stop tour next day on the Cuillin ridge, a bit of tidying up on Sgurr na Banachdich and a couple of Munro Tops. The rock was dry and sound, the views, as always in good conditions, magnificent, and the breeze on the ridge was welcome after the baking heat of the cauldron of Coir' nan Eich.
The islands have been kind this year. First Mull, then Islay and Jura, and now four more days without rain. I decided to leave Rum for another day. No point in pushing my luck.