Glen Head to Slievetooey

(by Uinseann Mac Eoin, from Irish Mountaineering 1978)
A cliff walk in Co. Donegal.


A west wind lashes the waves against the black cliffs of Glen Head, 2 miles NW of Glencolmkille, making its dark profile bleak and lowering. The head itself falls away from the crest of the heathery moorland to the sea making it difficult to appreciate the shelving cliffs at this point. A square tower dominates the scene. You reach it from the village by a small road that heads due north up the hillside. At a point where the tar ends, one heads up upon the hill to the 916 mark, then heads west across the heather to the tower. The tower is at a lower level around 600 feet. From there the sharp hog backed profile of the Sturrall (derives from the Irish for tall, bold, beautiful) comes into sight. It is of compelling interest.

A mixture of pre Cambrian quartz and schist, it drops shear on its south west side, while shelving steeply on its. north east. The approach is upon sheep tracks on that side. One drops down towards it quickly, and then gingerly, if the wind is strong, down upon one of these tracks at the neck of the isthmus. One skylines upon grass for a piece, while ahead the spine rises steeply to a thin line of rocks. These are the arete of the Sturrall, a jumble of friable rocks, difficult to move upon. I do not know anyone that has skylined the arete from end to end, though it is possible to climb up to points upon it.

If one continues on the NE side under the shadow of these rocks and pinnacles, one will continue a slow diagonal descent towards the further end of it, where it is possible to scramble back up again on grass and rock to a gap in the arete. But move carefully, because one is upon a very steep grass slope that ends eventually in cliffs. Looking over through the gap, back towards the tower, is a striking view. The sea is churning in upon cliffs 600 feet, below. There are arches and caves, and a stoney cove, inaccessible except from a boat. Sea birds squawk and wheel. Once, on a steep ledge of heather, I saw two foxes, for of course the terraces could be reached by the wily animals. How safe they were there.

On another occasion, a bright sunny afternoon in autumn, I crawled out along it with Pat McMahon. We reached as far as we could go, a short distance beyond the see over gap. Pat wanted to come back along the arete. It is possible to climb up and proceed towards the land again from the gap, though one needs to be awfully careful. The real difficulty is alighting down again from it at the landward end. I retraced my steps on the sheep track until I reached the col or isthmus linking it to the mainland. I waited a long time, or what seemed to be a long time, for Pat to appear. While I waited I watched a small dark cloud in the blue sky that drifted in slowly from the NW. Suddenly Pat appeared upon the flat slab of rock like a table a hundred and fifty yards away from me, and fifty feet or so above me. He was triumphant. He had got this far. Standing upon the flat rock, 600 feet over the sea on his right hand and with a fall almost as steep on his left, he stood upon the table size platform raising five fingers in triumph. It was at that moment that the heavens struck. From the cloud come one single lightning flash that seemed to strike for and sear the very rock on which he stood. He gave a faint wail and disappeared from view. I hoped he had not fallen or been killed by the flash. Half an hour later I saw him trail slowly back upon the sheep track, disconsolate and somewhat frightened. The lightning had indeed been close. So close that he was knocked down by it; the tips of all his fingers had gone white. I was relieved though to have him back again.

On, north east of the Sturrall, is some of the finest cliff walking in Ireland, more interesting and broken than Moher in Clare, less regular than the impressive line stretching from Benwee Head in Mayo eastwards to Belderg, and longer and higher, than the three miles of cliff forming a crescent around Fair Head. On they go, past the hamlet of Port, (most isolated homestead in Ireland?), past Toralaydan Island, Tormore and Puliska until one reaches the narrow crest of Slievetooey, most isolated mountain in Ireland?). There is not a let up in the cliff scenery except as one rolls down to sea level at Port. A never ending cavalcade of cliffs, tors, inaccessible islands, shelving land masses and tortured geology lie upon ones left.

One cannot make haste here. One has to hug the cliff path, follow its every quirk, sit down frequently and stare; explore with ones eye. One may go from Glencolmkille, traverse the Sturrall and reach Port. But it will be a good walker who can go on past and take in Slievetooey on the same day. I rate it as one of the most striking cliff walks anywhere.

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