The Angry Corrie 71: Jul-Sep 2007

Solved, 20 years on? The fate of the Sgurr nan Gillean gendarme

IN THE RECENT ARTICLE on the modern face of Munrobagging, guided or otherwise, on Skye (TAC70 pp3-5), both Janet Munro and Lottie Gregory alluded to the disappearance of the gendarme (aka Pinnacle, Tooth, Constable, Policeman) from the west ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean. (See also TAC19 p11 and TAC44 p14.)

The gendarme is generally understood to have fallen sometime during 1986/87 (eg the Wikipedia entry for Sgurr nan Gillean at the time of writing says it "broke away due to the effects of frost shatter during the winter of 1986/87, leaving only the base"). I am, however, in a position to shed some light on the circumstances of its disappearance - and, with the recent rediscovery of an old university mountaineering club newsletter amongst my papers, I can fill in some gaps in my memory and put a firm date on its ultimate demise.

Around Easter of 1987, I was in the final year of a degree in modern languages at the University of Nottingham and travelled to Skye with the university's Explorers Club, a varied group of hillwalkers, climbers and mountaineers. We camped at Glen Brittle and spent around ten days making various ascents and traverses among the Cuillin. It was my first visit to Skye.

On one of these days a group of us set off to climb Sgurr nan Gillean from Sligachan. In the end, five of us attempted the ascent from Bealach a'Bhasteir, intending to climb the west ridge. The gendarme, or at least an identifiable remainder, was still in place when we arrived, but as the first member of the party tried to step across using it for support, the whole block tottered noticeably. A tactical withdrawal and group discussion ensued. It was decided that a couple of us should give the gendarme an exploratory push, on the basis that if it was so loose that it fell off then it would be better for it to fall in a controlled manner with no one attached. And if it didn't fall then we could consider traversing it in the traditional manner. This plan was carried out, the result being that it took little effort to send the gendarme hurtling down (with, it must be said, a very satisfying crash) towards Lota Corrie. The rock which had formed the base was still unstable, so we retreated and climbed Am Basteir instead.

The events of the university club meets were recorded for posterity in regular newsletters. In those days, before the ubiquity of word processing, these newsletters were written out in longhand, typed up by the student union typing pool, photocopied and distributed to club members. The newsletter describes the events of the day as follows (spelling, capitalisation and punctuation have been tidied, but it is otherwise unedited):

Thursday - It was decided to go and have a look at the end of the ridge on the Sligachan side. Halfway up the walk-in to Sgurr nan Gillean Phil sat down and didn't get up again and Alan went off by himself. The remainder, Dave, Chris, Brian, Dave S and Pete M, continued on with the intention of doing Pinnacle Ridge. It was decided that it could be too hard going, with the chossy snow further up, so instead we slogged up the coire to the Bealach a'Bhasteir. There the gear was dumped and a lightweight assault was started on the West Ridge of S.N.G.. On reaching the Gendarme, Dave noticed something wasn't quite right (it had fallen off). After kicking the remainder of it down into the Coruisk side it was decided that it would be safer to turn back. Undeterred, we went up Am Basteir and then abseiled on to the Bhasteir Tooth...

I am Dave S in this account, rather than the other Dave also mentioned. My memory is that the gendarme stood 4-5 feet high on the shorter (uphill) side when we found it, and in contrast with the newsletter account (written by the abovementioned Chris), I had been convinced until recently that this was the gendarme's traditional complete form. However, I have had to revise this opinion after seeing photos (with human figures for comparison) and descriptions in Bull's Black Cuillin Ridge Scramblers' Guide and in The Islands of Scotland including Skye by Fabian, Little and Williams. These books indicate that the original gendarme was around 9ft high, so what we found was evidently a remainder. (Brian's memory, however, is that there wasn't much left when we arrived. As he wrote in a recent email: "I recall a lot of loose rock being kicked down, but I don't remember us shifting a 5ft single block, ie the gendarme itself.")

As to the date: the newsletter is headed "The Skye Meet - Easter 1987" and carries a Nottingham University student union typing pool date of 28/4/87. The newsletter gives a day-by-day account of events over nine days (from a Saturday to a Sunday) without giving precise dates, although it does indicate that we arrived back in Nottingham in the early hours of Easter Monday morning. In 1987 this would have been on 20 April. The trip therefore took place from Saturday 11 April until departure on Sunday 19 April, meaning that the only possible date for the Thursday in question, and the fall of whatever remained of the gendarme, would therefore be 16 April 1987.

With the benefit of hindsight, I am sorry to say that our initial good intentions to put up a notice at Glenbrittle youth hostel, and to publicise the gendarme's disappearance via the climbing press, came to nothing.

I didn't keep a proper diary in those disorganised student days, although my notes record photographs taken of Sgurr nan Gillean, the Bhasteir Tooth and Bruach na Frithe on that same date, which help to confirm the matter of the date. Sadly, however, none of the photographs record the final disappearance of the gendarme, the historical significance of which I perhaps did not fully appreciate at the time.

David Shotton

TAC 71 Index