During the cold winter of 1976/77, when I was in the Army and based on the Outer Hebrides, some of the lads decided they were going to Skye on a camping trip and extended an invitation to the WRAC girls. My mates and I were the type of lasses who’d agree to almost any daft scheme so we immediately said yes without really giving it any thought. As the Uists almost never freeze (maybe one or two days per year) we didn’t really think about it being cold elsewhere – this is despite being able to see Skye’s Cuillin hills well plastered in snow. We were soon to find out just how cold it can be in a tent in snow at minus 10 degrees!
On our departure day, we eagerly piled into one of the canvas-backed short-wheelbased landrovers (quite a squash as there were loads of us) and the lads drove us off towards Lochmaddy where we were to catch the ferry to Uig on Skye.
As we were driven up North Uist, we were being followed by some young lads in a van. Being typical young girls, we leaned out of the open back of the vehicle and flirtatiously proceeded to make suggestive signs to these young lads – feeling secure in our separate transport and knowing they couldn’t take us up on our offers. We were somewhat red-faced when they turned out to be taking the same ferry to Skye as us – oops!
We managed to avoid them for the two hour journey across to Uig when we then piled back into the landrover and set off down the island for Glenbrittle. As we breasted the highest point of the road over the moor to Glenbrittle, a set of very snowy Cuillin peaks hove into view – I felt cold already!
We soon arrived at the campsite by the beach and set up our canvas tents – three to a tent. Our tent consisted of me and my two friends Linda and Mags.
As there is nothing really to do at Glenbrittle of an evening, most nights we drove round to Portree, the island’s capital (although a very small town). One of the first things to tickle our collective feminine fancies was the sign on the green outside the gents’ toilets – “no ball games”!
For some reason, although it was now January, we girls were still singing our own daft version of ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’. We particularly liked the ‘5 gold rings’ part of the tune so generally just started from there and worked downwards. There is an Army drinking song which I can’t remember the words to but it ends with; “and a wee heavy and a haff pint” instead of “and a partridge in a pear tree” so we were mainly singing that. There were a couple of big guys (one with the typical curly ginger beard) playing pool. We proceeded to annoy them by substituting one of the lines of the song with “2 bad pool players” and, by the time we’d sung it a few times, they were getting a bit cross and muttering at our male counterparts. The lads thought it best we leave that bar and go somewhere else!
The next day at Glenbrittle we awoke freezing and stiff and emerged from the tents to see thick mist nearly down to the ground. The bases of the mountains were just showing and, after breakfast, the lads decided we’d all go for a walk up the Cuillin. This was despite the fact that not one of us had ever done any winter walking and I was probably the only person who’d ever been up a hill before (my parents used to drag me up them as a child). Nor did we have any equipment such as ice axes or crampons…
I still have no idea where we went, viewless as it was, but it was pretty tricky and we seemed to be climbing for a long time. I distinctly remember ascending (and later having to descend) some very icy slabs which were quite large – perhaps Coire Lagan or Coire a’ Ghrunnda? Or we may have actually been ascending one of the peaks but we never made it to a summit. There was none of the usual scree due to the snow cover… I don’t remember being particularly worried but I seem to remember thinking it was probably a bit silly – still, ignorance is bliss!
We all survived the walk and returned to another night in Portree and another freezing night in the tents. The next day we just drove around the island – someone had the great idea of wrapping potatoes in tinfoil and placing them on the exhaust manifold to slowly bake as we drove – when unwrapped later, they were delicious!
The next morning, Mags decided to sample the campsite showers – she came back positively glowing. Apparently the showers were freezing cold and the effect of that must have been to speed up her blood flow dramatically as she was warm all day afterwards – I’ve had similar effects on my feet after wading Scottish Highland burns in February. The rest of us never got undressed at all during the whole week! We certainly didn’t sweat so we wouldn’t have been smelly…
We then set off from Glenbrittle to go north up the island to find a new camping place. There are some spectacular sights around the island, especially on the eastern-most road, such as The Old Man of Storr, the Kilt Rock and especially The Quiraing where we decided to camp for the second half of the week.
Just as the road sets off up over the pass to Uig from The Quiraing, the lads thought the drumlins below the road would make a great and sheltered camping spot. There wasn’t much snow here but it was still bitterly cold. Us girls were perturbed to see signs on the road saying to beware of rockfall – complete with graphic pictures of boulders bounding down steep slopes. We were going to be camping at the foot of those steep slopes and there were a very many large boulders scattered all around our camp site!
The three of us in our tent had a bad few nights here. Not only were we all worried about potential rockfall but, by now, we’d managed to get most of our bedding soaked. Between the three of us, we had one sleeping bag and 2 blankets. So as to be fair, the two outer folk (of which I was one) had a blanket each and the fortunate person in the middle had a sleeping bag and the warmth of two rapidly heat-losing folks either side of her. I’ve no idea why we didn’t swap the sleeping arrangement around each night but we didn’t. I learned a new word that week – Mags said she was ‘nithered’ which, translated, obviously meant ‘bloody cold’ – and she was the one in the middle!
As we were too cold to sleep, and not used to early nights anyway (5 am was much more usual in the Army), we three proceeded to keep the rest of the campers awake each night by regaling them with very bawdy rugby songs. These were sung at full volume (the louder we sang, the less cold we felt) and with a fair amount of hilarity. When we ran out of songs each night, we took to telling jokes and laughing loudly. As often happens, each of us would find the others’ laugh funny and we ended up just laughing hysterically at each other.
Probably around 2am we’d finally drift off to sleep. After keeping everyone else awake, we also had the very bad manners to get up last every single morning just as breakfast was ready. I seem to remember the others got their revenge by making us wash up.
On our first day at The Quiraing, the lads took us all exploring the pinnacles and almost-sheer, loose slopes around them. As the ground was severely icy and we just had Army boots on and nothing to grip with, this was particularly terrifying. One by one, we females got more and more upset until most of us were in tears and pleading to be got back down! I can’t see the lads making mountain leaders somehow…
All too soon our trip ended and we had to go back to our base on the (much-warmer) Uists. I was really glad I’d done the trip (when I’d had a while to forget how cold it was) but don’t think I’d be persuaded to go camping in Scotland in January again!
Actually, googled the last line of the Christmas Drinking Song and, of course, it’s listed in full on Forces Reunited (at the bottom of the first page after several other jokes ) :