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How The Cuillin Mountains Got Their Name

The Isle of Skye is famous for its many beauties, from the dramatic rock formations of the Old Man of Storr, to the stunning clear blue depths of the Fairy Pools. It also boasts two main mountain ranges, the Black Cuillin and the Red Cuillin. They are on the wish-list of any serious Munro-bagger, with challenges aplenty.


The Black Cuillin mountains which lie to the west of Glen Sligachan are the larger of the two ranges, twelve of which are known as the Skye Cuillin Munros. This refers to Scottish mountains which are over 3,00ft in height, a legacy of the work of Sir Hugh Munro, who made a mission of measuring and listing all the Scottish peaks in 1891.


The Black Cuillin take their name from the igneous rock from which they are formed, known as gabbro, which can make them look black when viewed from a distance. Some sections are also formed with basalt, a legacy of the ancient volcanic activity which originally created the ridges.


The narrow ridges and scree slopes of the Black Cuillin mean they are a favourite challenge of experienced and intermediate level rock climbers and scramblers. The rough texture of the rock is welcomed by mountaineers, because it provides a good grippy surface, although it quickly becomes treacherous in wet weather.


A full traverse of the Cuillin Range is considered to grant you full bragging rights in Scottish mountaineering circles! This is because of the level of difficulty in successfully negotiating the jagged steep terrain, rather than the distance, which is around seven miles. Only the highly experienced mountaineer is advised to tackle the route in winter time.


In contrast, the Red Cuillin are named for the reddish hue of the granite rock which forms their bulk. They are smaller mountains than the Black Cuillin. The range does contain two Corbetts, which are Garbh-Bheinn and Glamaig.


There are 221 mountains officially classified as Corbetts in Scotland, which are peaks over 2,000ft, but under 3,000ft. They are so called because the list was first compiled by John Rooke Corbett in the 1920s. However, it wasn’t published until 1953.


These peaks are an excellent way for less experienced mountaineers to enjoy the wonders of Skye, as besides being less formidable in height, they generally have fewer scramble-grade climbs.


So, the geology of the area and the way the mountains appear in certain lights explains why the ranges are labelled Red and Black. But what of the name Cuillin itself? There is some debate, because of course, as with any centuries old name, no one can know for certain. However, it may be from the Old Norse word kjölen, which translates as ridge.


Another more romantic interpretation is that the name derives from Celtic mythology, as the warrior hero Cuhullin is said to have honed his archery skills on the Isle of Skye, under the tutelage of the female warrior Scáthach. However the Cuillin mountains got their names, they are an unmissable experience for any enthusiastic hill walker.

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