Holiday to Donegal, Ireland
Grianan of Aileach, Dunaff Hill, Inch Top, An Scailp, An Earagail & Mac Uchta
& Rock climbing at Crummies Bay, Dunree

Sunday 22nd - 29th July 2018

Weather/Conditions: Great weather, usually dry and sunny.

21 July: Boat to Ireland

This was my first trip to Ireland in 25 years, and I don't remember the first time. It's surprising given I travel around Scotland so much and that Ireland really isn't that far away. But a family holiday presented the opportunity and I'd have a week for a few hills and maybe some rock climbing.

Travelling to Ireland was fascinating: the level of security was mind-boggling even though you are going from one part of the UK to the other. Of course on the other side you could travel across two countries without even noticing. It's like mainland Britain wants that boundary to be up, though the north of Ireland clearly doesn't. My bewilderment was compounded by every house and village claiming their July allegiances, a practice entirely absent just across on the Scottish coast.

These ties slacken as one travels west. The border into Eireann passes almost imperceptibly. In a couple hours driving we'd arrived by Lough Swilly, where some of my family comes from.

22 July: Grianan of Aileach

The holiday's hills began with this hill fort above Lough Swilly. It wasn't a walk: the car park is maybe fifty metres from the summit. But its strategic importance as a fort is obvious. One can see right up the length of Lough Swilly to the north and Lough Foyle to the north-east, two sea lochs defining the either side of the Inishown peninsula.

23 July: Dunaff Hill

Dunaff was a real highlight, an evening walk with dad. This hill sits right against the sea with its side cleaved off into 200m cliffs. As cliffs go they don't even seem attractive to climb; miles of shattered quartzite, grass and rubble. Below the cliffs is Bothanvarra, a 70m-high sea stack climbed perhaps only once, in 2014.

Dad and I came in the evening, and the ambience was calm and settled. Ireland really comes into its own and shows its Hebridean tones right out on the coastal fringes. This link to Scotland is not much felt through Ireland until you have the golden sands and turquoise waters in view. Then Argyll and the Hebrides, indeed only just across the water and in view, don't seem so far away after all.

The Urris Hills, just across from Dunaff were all brown and golden in colour; a stunning evening and a lovely quick hill.

25 July: Inch Top

Inch Top was also a quick one. My dad's cousin has a farm on Inch Island, so this Top was a quick jaunt out from the fields and onto the heathery summit. For a small top, the summit panorama is pretty immense. Today the sea and fields were shining vibrant. I've also had pretty close family connections to this part of the world, so it was interesting to learn of a place that is, in some way, quite close to me. With my granny now having passed on (this being the reason we were in Ireland), those ties erode imperceptibly. I accordingly did a lot of thinking on top...

25 July: An Scailp

Later in the evening I headed to Scalp, an obvious hill just outside our accommodation and across from Inch Island. Kenneth knew the guy with the farm at the bottom of the hill, so he took me up to say hi and I began the hill from here. It's interesting to sense that the Irish have a strong sense of ownership and access of land unlike in Scotland. Or maybe Scotland is unlike anywhere else: there I would just pass through a farm unnoticed, but in Ireland this appears not to fly.

The hill itself was a bit non-descript: a tarmac track winds all the way to the summit mast, so interest on the ground is minimal. Views however, are wide-ranging. The summit area is so broad and interrupted by the mast that I shot a summit panorama from four different corners, all a hundred metres apart or more. Out west I could see the Glenveagh hills or Mucais and Errigal, in the other direction, Derry which seemed a sunny, peaceful place in spite of its Troubles. Ireland is a fertile land; arable and green for the most part.

27 July: Errigal & Mac Uchta

Errigal is the highest mountain in the north part of Donegal, a pyramid of quartzite rising conspicuously. I took a day to go far out west, climb the big hill and see some of the coastal scenery. Once again, the tones of Ireland change as you move. Going over the top of Glenveagh and to the coastal communities thrusts you straight back into the Gaelteachd. That is weird; to find such close cultural ties to Scotland in a place that by modern transport networks is not very close to Scotland. It's like the two have been severed by time and encroaching influence, but continue to exist broadly similarly.

Errigal itself was a quick blast up the side, I was on top in about 35 minutes or something. The summit view is tremendous; wide-ranging views out to the coast, beach and machair. Some bigger hills in the south were obvious, but I know nothing of these other Irish ranges and might one day come back to see more.

I crossed to Mac Uchta, just a quick up and down, then to the car. One plan had been to continue in a straight line to Mucais in the east. But a lack of focus and energy persisted throughout the holiday, and I did less than I expected to.

I drove west again, eventually out to Cruit where I left the car by the road and walked out to some sea cliffs: it was only a few minutes' walk, and I soloed a few easy lines. How much I would have preferred climbing with a partner. Climbing easy stuff with the idea of a horrible fall (and no one knowing where I was!) was not a nice idea. Though I soloed maybe ten routes up to Severe.

It was a long drive back to Inishowen but what a great day - I'd love to spend more time on these western coastal fringes.

29 July: Climbing at Crummie's Bay

Our last day before going home, and Steve and I wanted to find some climbing. I'd had some possibilities in mind at the expense of a longer drive, but mum mentioned everyone was going for lunch; could we be back at Buncrana mid-afternoon? I was good for that, but it's interesting the way that this changed plans. We traded good climbing on solid rock for crumbling sea cliff. Steve and I ended up on the nearest cliff, Crummies Bay, which is also falling apart.

We walked over the beach and around the corner to the cliff. I started up a HS on a steep low wall, which might have given the best climbing. The angle of the cliff eased off and became a sloping ramp, which although 'easy' was frankly just scary: the slab was like roof tiles, offering little in the way of holds. Great detached blocks hung suspended, threatening to peel off with the slightest touch. I was scared of pulling rock off; anything would surely hit Steve belaying - and if not him, then my ropes. I took my time and treaded carefully. Running out of gear and steam, I eventually found a belay. But my head was fried: this was all pretty full on – and only Severe! As if to justify my fear on the pitch, Steve pulled off a block that slid off, and crashed down the cliff to smash all over the belay at the bottom.

I finished with a final pitch across a small groove. The finish was mercifully quick; in spite of feeling consumed by the route at the belay, it spat us out soon enough. Steve came up and the day was made. No more sketchy sea cliff antics for us. We packed up pretty quick and got to Buncrana in good time.

The following morning I left Ireland; left with many thoughts and considerations as to how to return in the future. The skies were blue on the drive home, Ailsa Craig prominent and the granite fangs of Arran across the sea. And I was back to the Highlands shortly afterward. It was a great, and interesting, holiday.

360° Panoramas

Grianan of Aileach

Dunaff Hill

Dunaff Hill - Detail, Malin Head, Islay & Jura

Inch Top

Inch Top - Detail, south-west

An Scailp

An Earagail

Mac Uchta
Written: 2019-02-10