Written June 2013
At the end of my two 2012 Scotland excursions I had just seven Munros until completion. Three of these were on the southern limit of the Highlands, whilst four were remotely located in the far north of Scotland. I'd always regarded this northern group as little more than an inconvenience, and had considered various options for polishing them off as quickly as possible, such as being driven around the area by a friend, or cycling to the base of each Munro. However, the more I read about the far north, the more I realised this area is really mainland Scotland's promised land when it comes to spectacular mountain scenery.
Whereas in the central Highlands the mountains are all bunched together, here the landscape opens out and each mountain rises triumphantly with its own extraordinary and unique shape from the expansive lochan-studded moorland. The geology of the area is remarkably varied, with pinnacled sandstone fortresses, gleaming white quartzite-strewn slopes, limestone caves and moorland of impervious gneiss, glistening with a myriad of pools. It is easier here to make the leap over the awesome gulf of geological timespans than anywhere else in Scotland. The mountains rise above a rugged and complex coastline, the close communion of mountain and sea heightening the sensational quality of the area. It's hard to argue with the Cicerone Munro guide's description of this landscape: "like an illustration from a children's fairytale".
The area boasts some of the finest mountains in Britain, such as Suilven, Quinag, Canisp, Stac Pollaidh, Cùls Mòr and Beag, Ben More Coigach, Foinaven, Arkle, Ben Stack and Ben Loyal. None of these are Munros, yet they all stand head and shoulders above many a Munro both in terms of interest and character. The four Munros in the far north definitely play second fiddle to their lower neighbours, and only the Ben More Assynt-Conival massif can really compete in terms of mountain quality. Nevertheless these four Munros do provide fine viewpoints for surveying this strange expanse of land.
In light of this information, I decided the best way to complete the four northerly Munros would be to travel between them on foot, designing connecting routes that would visit some of the finest scenery the area has to offer. The nearest railway station is Lairg on the Inverness to Wick line, and from here I could travel in a great loop, circumnavigating the vast Loch Shin, returning to Lairg after ten days. The trek would pass through the National Scenic Areas of Assynt-Coigach and North-West Sutherland. The route would also skirt around the western limit of the Flow Country, the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe. In addition to the four Munros, I could not resist including Suilven in my itinerary as it is among the best mountains in the country. This diversion would add several days to the trek, pushing the absolute limit of food I'd be able to carry, since there was nowhere to replenish food along the way.
The weather in May 2013 was unseasonally cold in the Scottish Highlands; by mid-May full winter conditions were still prevailing on Ben Nevis. Throughout May I checked the MWIS online forecasts for the north Highlands and was dismayed to see the summits remain below freezing, blasted by upland gales and snow showers. On one day the forecast predicted minus 18 windchill on the summits, and there were stern warnings in the outdoor press to only venture onto the hills with suitable equipment and winter mountaineering experience. All I could do was to prepare my gear and have everything ready to go for when the conditions did improve. As May turned to June, Friday's forecast finally indicated an improvement with an incoming warm front, and although there was a possibility of afternoon thunderstorms, I took a gamble a decided the time had come to go.
I needed to get up to Inverness by late morning to catch the on-going train to Lairg, to allow sufficient time for a full day's walk. The only option for this was the Caledonian sleeper from London to Inverness. Previously I've booked sleeper tickets in advance from Southampton Central station, but since they've closed their separate advance ticket booking office, I've found the staff quite unhelpful when booking sleeper tickets. For the first time I decided to try booking online, and also decided to try an upright "airline" seat rather than a bed. The Scotrail website was remarkably easy to use and for £75.30 I bought my ticket and was issued with a reference number for collecting the ticket from a machine at Euston station.
The sleeper doesn't run on a Saturday, so I booked the sleeper for Sunday evening, giving me the whole weekend to make the final arrangements for going away. I got the bus to Southampton Central on Sunday afternoon, and then purchased an open return to London for £41.10. I collected my ticket from the machine at Euston, which required both the reference number and credit card used to buy the ticket. Having a few hours before the sleeper boarded, I went to Harry Ramsden's for fish and chips - some final sustenance before heading into the mountains.
The sleeper departed at 20:28pm and would take twelve hours to reach Inverness. The seating compartment was uncomfortably stuffy, but the guard assured everyone that the air con would kick in once we got going. The train spent nearly an hour shunting around sidings in central London, and it was not explained if this was part of routine maintenance/refuelling or due to some technical issue with the train. The seating compartment was barely a quarter full, and I stretched out across two seats, legs curled up. This was fairly comfortable and I got a reasonable night's sleep.
Monday 3rd June 2013
We arrived in Inverness on time at 08:36am. My onward train to Lairg wasn't until 10:37am, so I headed off to find somewhere nice to have breakfast. The aim was to find an individual café (i.e. not part of a chain), and after a brief walk around, the Victorian Market opposite the station proved the most likely place, and I found a café that opened at 9am. I ordered a pot of tea, some toast and a freshly-baked apple & cinnamon scone.
Soon I was on the train heading further north, finally reaching Lairg at 12:17am. My original plan had been to do the circuit in an anticlockwise direction, visiting the gentler Munros Ben Klibreck and Ben Hope first while my pack was fully laden, then traversing across the rockier peaks of Assynt with a lighter pack at the end. Since the weather was by no means certain, I decided to reverse this and head for the Assynt peaks first while the conditions were dry. The aim of today's walk was to get in position for climbing Ben More Assynt and Conival the following day.
For a trek across a large area, connecting mountains with lower routes, inevitably there would be some road walking along the way. The traffic volume is so low in this part of Scotland, that road walking is actually quite pleasant, with a vehicle passing every five minutes or so. The roads also provide an opportunity to make faster progress across the landscape on easy terrain. Today's walk had five miles on flat roads, for which I was grateful for getting used to carrying a heavy pack.
The first few miles took me northwards into Lairg village, past the lower of two dams enclosing Little Loch Shin. The Shin Hydro-Electric scheme was, at the time of its construction, the most northerly of such schemes in the Highlands. The project ran from 1954 to 1959, and when the upper dam was completed, the water level in the upper 18 mile long Loch Shin was raised by 11 metres.
To avoid a section of road walking I cut decided to cut across a headland called The Ord, which juts out into Loch Shin. The Ferrycroft Visitor Centre at Lairg has created a number of short walking routes on this peninsula, which includes woodland, open moorland, and some prehistoric remains (chambered cairns, hut circles and a field system). The track to the top was well-defined, but the path down the far side was seldom used and overgrown. On the far side I had to pass awkwardly in front of a private dwelling, then along a short track to pick up the minor road along the west side of Loch Shin.
To the left of the road there are vast conifer plantations climbing up the hillside, but on the right the no-man's-land between the road and the loch shore is lined with scattered birch woodland. Branches were festooned in pale green beard lichen, and below the trees the ground was carpeted in spring flowers: primroses, wood anemones, celandines and bluebells. A few miles further on I reached the lodge at Salachy, where I saw a large bird of prey hunting (probably a buzzard) and a herd of deer in the field in front of the lodge.
Beyond the lodge the road became a gravel track, and I stopped briefly to chat to a pair of estate workers busy painting a bridge. They quizzed me on my route and were impressed by the scale of the trip, asking if I'd done any training in advance. Regarding the bridge painting, they joked it was the same as the Forth Bridge, just there wasn't so much of it! I continued for several more miles between plantation and loch shore, with good views across to Ben Klibreck on the far side and Ben Hee to the north. After a break for lunch, I turned away from the loch and followed a side track up the hillside along the Allt a' Bhunn.
The map indicated that the track terminated after two miles at a broad corrie riven with tiny burns. This might have been a tough place to make progress, but fortunately a rough all-terrain vehicle track had been made on drier ground to the north side of this corrie. I guessed the track was heading for Loch Sgeireach, which probably is used for trout fishing. Certainly the map showed a path climbing from the opposite Glen Cassley side and a boathouse was marked on the shore of the loch. Since I was heading northwards, after a mile or so I reluctantly departed from the rough track and began climbing around the north-eastern slopes of Ben Sgeireach.
The going immediately became difficult as the ground was rough and uneven, and my pack was throwing me off balance. I still had three miles to go, and didn't want to finish too late in the day, so tried to keep up a reasonable place. This kind of terrain is really best enjoyed when one is not in a hurry, and you can get into the rhythm of the ups and downs and the mental game of picking out a route. I was glad to spot Dubh Loch Mòr, an important landmark on the west side of the ridge, and once at this loch, it was straightforward to cut across to Dubh Loch Beag.
I set up camp near the outflow of this loch and took time to soak my aching feet in the cool water of the burn. I had walked sixteen miles today - quite a tough start to the trek, but was now in position to tackle the two Assynt Munros.
Tuesday 4th June 2013
The first destination for today was the minor road running along the floor of Glen Cassley. To reach this I had several more miles of rough moorland, but this looked to be considerably easier in descent. There was a radio mast on the hill above me, but there didn't appear to be a track leading to it, so I cut cross country, making a beeline for the prominent gash of the Allt Dail Fàid. Near the bottom I reached a brand new deer fence, enclosing an area of newly-planted saplings. There didn't appear to be a gate or a way around it, so I clambered over and continued descent. Thankfully there was a gate onto the road; this spot was in full view of the house at Dalphaid and I didn't want to be seen climbing the fence.
A few miles up the road, just before Duchally Lodge, I left the road and crossed a very well-engineered suspension bridge. Wooden ramps ran up on both sides, and it looked like the bridge had been designed to support quad bikes. The bridge did sway rather alarmingly as I made my way across however! I was rather pleased to have crossed the River Cassley this low in the glen. The alternative would have been to continue following the track beyond Duchally Lodge on the east bank to a bridge by a hydro power station, before crossing and doubling back, adding two miles to the distance.
My track was obviously less frequented than the hydro track, being rather waterlogged and muddy in places, particularly where the track ran between a conifer plantation and the birch-lined river gorge. Once onto the open hillside the track improved and zigzagged up to the main hydro track. At this point the hydro track contours around the hillside running parallel to a gigantic segmented concrete pipe. This pipe ferries water to the Glen Cassley power station, providing additional water pressure. It is a rather hideous blot on the landscape and I was happy to get beyond it and onto another track, this one following the Allt a' Chnaip Ghiubhais up the east side of Ben More Assynt.
There were now good views of the mountain, which was still holding much snow in its corries, but the ridge lines appeared clear of snow. I had an excellent vantage point for selecting a suitable ascent route. The corrie immediately below the ben looked steep and rocky, with much remaining snow, so I opted for the next corrie along to the south. A network of small streams had their source high up in this corrie, which would minimise the amount of ascent with heavy water bottles. From leaving the track, the terrain was initially the sort of rough moorland I'd encountered the previous day, but soon became easier as I picked my way up the corrie. The last water was a spring just above a large snow patch, and from here I had just 100m of ascent to gain the ridge.
The view on gaining the ridge was breath-taking and was a remarkable transition from the moorland landscape thus far on the trip. In the distance I could see the cluster of Coigach peaks: Cùls Mòr and Beag, Ben Mòr Coigach and possibly Stac Pollaidh. In the foreground was the vast corrie of upper Glen Oykel, with Ben More Assynt and Conival towering at its head.
Across the corrie I could see the dazzling quartzite screes of Breabeg, but dominating the scene was the rocky southeast ridge of Conival. I had considered including this ridge in my itinerary as a convenient descent route from Conival, but had struggled to find any information about it, except in "Great Mountain Days in Scotland" by Dan Bailey. This book said the ridge has "some exposed grade 1/2 ground and needs caution in the wet" plus high up on the ridge "a very exposed step across a gap (unavoidable - extreme caution in the wet)". This sounded most unpleasant with a heavy pack, especially when tired at the end of the day, so I decided that when I reached Conival, I'd use the normal walker's path for descent.
After a short climb I was now standing on the south peak of Ben More Assynt. More impressive mountain scenery lay ahead with the rocky south ridge snaking up to the main summit of the ben. I was rather intimidated, but was consoled by Dan Bailey's description: "awkward and airy rather than genuinely difficult", and a rather dismissive passage in the SMC guide: "a narrow rocky section of the ridge sometimes optimistically compared with the Aonach Eagach. However its 'bad steps' are no more than exposed slabs and there are no difficulties of any consequence". The descriptions proved correct, and there was only a short section where I was compelled to stow my trekking poles and put hand to rock.
I was rather pleased to have traversed this seldom-visited side of Ben More Assynt. The standard Munro bagger's route from Inchnadamph involves retracing steps from Ben More Assynt, then repeating the ascent route on the return. The only other possibilities for returning to Inchanadamph are to descend steep unpleasant ground into upper Glen Oykel then escape via the narrow bealach between Breabeg and Conival. Dan Bailey proposes a more satisfying excursion encompassing the full horseshoe of peaks around upper Glen Oykel, but this involves a much longer walk in from the south, the route being 21 miles long with 1660m of ascent.
Ben More Assynt is crowned by two shattered bumps of angular quartzite, I climbed both to be sure, but the guidebooks confirm that the northern one is higher. To the northwest I had excellent views showcasing the remarkable geology of the area. In the foreground the stumpy peak of Na Tuadhan showed remarkable curves of folded rock, and then beyond was the arc of Ben Uidhe and the sandstone spires of Quinag in the distance beside Loch Assynt. To the southwest I had a grand view of Conival's dark uninviting southeast ridge, and beyond more folded rock and quartzite scree on Breabeg.
I continued along the ridge to Conival across vast fields of quartzite blocks. My energy levels were sagging as I picked a way up the final rocky slopes to the summit. A chap reached the summit the same time as me, full of beans, having climbed up from Inchnadamph after a late start. He produced a giant bar of Cadbury's fruit and nut and generously broke me off eight squares, telling me I looked tired and needed a sugar boost! It's not easy carrying more than a week's worth of food up and down mountains, and I was glad to be on the standard descent path, downhill all the way to camp.
This path initially headed north to outflank steep crags on the side of Conival. From here I was hoping for a view of Suilven, but a direct view was blocked by Canisp, and all I could see was part of Caisteal Liath looming behind. The path curved around to the southwest to descend along the Allt a' Choinne' Mhill. Some parts of this 'path' were steep and eroded, and care was needed not to slip on the loose rock.
After a while I abandoned the path and cut across easier grassy slopes to camp at the Airigh a' Bhealaich. A stream tumbling down from high on Conival provided a water supply, and a deep pool below a short cascade was a great place to sooth my aching feet in the cool water.
Wednesday 5th June 2013
I was hoping to reach Suilven by the end of the day, and if I had the energy, set up camp and climb it in the late afternoon. I wanted to go via the infamous limestone Bone Caves on the lower slopes of Breabeg, where animal remains have been found dating back 47,000 years. To reach this glen, I first skirted around peat hags, and then ascended rough ground to reach a 450m bealach between Breabeg and Beinn nan Cnaimhseag. On this bealach I was delighted to find a three-pronged red deer antler. Over the years I've acquired quite an antler collection, and this would be a great souvenir of Assynt to add to my set. I hooked it over a climbing loop on my hip belt to avoid adding weight to my back.
Descending towards the bone caves, the glen of the Allt nan Uamh becomes steeply incised, and the optimum route was not clear. I decided to follow the riverbed, which surprisingly contained no water whatsoever. The boulders in the riverbed proved easier terrain than the deep heather on the valley sides. At one point the route was almost blocked by a 20m drop at a 'waterfall', but a deer path found a cunning way around the crags on the south bank. I was now in a deep gorge, which echoed to the eerie cry of a solitary cuckoo. Only the primroses on the banks served to lighten the oppressive mood. I continued scrambling over the limestone river boulders, until the gorge opened out and I reached the well-maintained path up to the bone caves.
This path climbed a short distance up a side valley, and then traversed below the crags of Creag nan Uamh. I was amused to see a pictorial sign warning of falling rocks, which was itself carved into a rectangular slab of rock! This was a real work of craftsmanship, with the rocks on the sign carved out in 3D! Soon I reached the bone caves framed above by steep crags and below by a swathe of green grass scattered with primroses. I left my pack on a flat spot and got out my torch to explore. From east to west the four caves are named: "Fox's Den", "Bone Cave", "Reindeer Cave" and "Badger Cave". Only the latter three are deep enough to explore inside. There is a very narrow passageway connecting the central two caves.
Animal remains in the caves were first discovered and briefly excavated by geologists Peach and Horne in 1889. During a visit in 1925 another geologist Cree made further discoveries and returned the following year with colleagues Callandar and Ritchie for the most thorough excavation of the caves. In Reindeer Cave four human burials have been found, radiocarbon dated between 4515 and 4720 years old. Nearly 1000 fragments of reindeer antler have been found, with dates ranging between 8,300 and 47,000 years old. Other mammal remains include the Northern Lynx, Arctic Fox, Polar Bear, Brown Bear, Ox, Wild Cat and Wolf. Remains of woodland creatures such as Badger and Pine Marten suggest the area was wooded at one time.
The collection of bones found in the caves is the most complete record of the last glacial period ever found in Scotland. It is believed that the bones were washed into the caves by glacial meltwater. There is no evidence that people lived in the caves, although they may have been used for hunting trips. The caves have not been completely excavated and they may well still have more secrets to reveal. They are designated as an Ancient Monument by Historic Scotland and as a SSSI by Scottish Natural Heritage.
I continued following the well-constructed path down the glen, descending to the still dry Allt nan Uamh, then picking up the main path on the far side. I was getting rather concerned by the lack of water, since my water bottle was empty and the next section of the walk would be a few miles along a road. Suddenly I rounded a corner to see the Fuaran Allt nan Uamh spring bubble up from the ground. Such was the force of the water that within a few metres the dry riverbed was transformed into a fully-fledged river. The limestone geology must mean that the river flows underground for the majority of the time, and only in the wettest conditions does the water flow along the riverbed in the upper glen.
I filled my water bottle and drank the cool clear delicious spring water. There was very little cloud cover compared to the previous day, and the hot sun was making walking an exhausting business.
I was soon by the road and quickly walked the short section of main road, before turning off by Loch Awe, where there is a convenient footbridge at its outfall. Here I stopped to chat to a chap with a fishing rod, heading up to a cluster of higher lochans to fish for trout. I too was heading up towards these higher lochans, using them as convenient landmarks on the pathless route to Suilven. On the way I passed several more fishermen.
I subsequently discovered that all fishing on the estates in this area is managed by the Assynt Angling Group, a unique partnership of landowners and local anglers. Permits can be purchased through the Assynt Foundation or from a number of other local retailers, with a single ticket allowing fishing on around two hundred lochs and lochans in Assynt. Brown trout permits cost a bargain £5 per person, per day, or £25 per week.
On the initial part of this route I had to cross the broad ridge of high ground that eventually cumulates in Canisp. This ridge completely obscures the view of Suilven from this side, and I was eager to get a glimpse of my mountain. I plodded slowly uphill with the sun beating down, past lochans and burns sparkling in the sun. At last as I rounded the crest of the ridge, I finally got the view of Suilven that I'd been dreaming of. From this angle Suilven appears as an extraordinary fin of rock, thrusting upwards, fully worthy of its nickname "the Matterhorn of the North". Ever since I'd seen a picture of this view in a walking book, I'd longed to behold this incredible spectacle.
The curious and extraordinary thing about Suilven is that it transforms its shape when viewed from different directions, presenting dramatically different profiles. The graceful spire view from the southeast is somewhat illusory, since this is just the terminus of a mile-long ridge cumulating at the highest point Caisteal Liath (the Grey Castle) in the northwest. From the western seaboard around Lochinver, the north-western end appears as an isolated blunt pillar, completely dominating the view inland. From this angle it is easy to see why the Viking invaders named it Sul Fjall ('the pillar mountain'). Only when seen from the north or south does the long serrated whaleback ridge become apparent, prompting W.H. Murray to describe it as "some high-decked galleon riding the seas of gneiss'.
Suilven is formed of Torridonian sandstone, and as Murray notes, it sits on a rippling sea of moorland blanketing impervious Lewisian gneiss. This gneiss base is a metamorphic rock which is astonishingly up to 3 billion years old, making it the oldest rock in Britain - two thirds the age of the Earth. This undulating surface of rock outcrops and scattered pools is known as a "cnoc and lochan" landscape. It is sobering to note that the formation of this undulating surface by metamorphic and weathering processes actually predates the deposition and subsequent erosion of the sandstone on top. Part of Suilven's appeal is its remoteness and difficulty of access from any direction. The peak is surrounded by saturated bog and a maze of shallow lochans and burns which interconnect and guard the flanks of the mountain.
Between me and the highest point, Caisteal Liath, at the far end of the ridge were two subsidiary named summits, and a number of lesser unnamed tops. The first is the stumpy Meall Beag, but this is dwarfed by the dramatic spire of Meall Meadhonach (middle hill), looming above it. Suilven's defences are breached in just three places; the main breach is Bealach Mòr, two thirds of the way along the ridge, which gives access to non-scramblers up steep eroded gullies on the north and south side of the ridge. From this bealach it is possible to reach Caisteal Liath without putting hand to rock.
The only other way to gain the ridge is by a simple scramble up a succession of ledges to Meall Beag. Beyond here the ridge becomes exciting, with an abrupt 30m drop where cliffs fall away precipitously, before the ridge rears up to Meall Meadhonach. This is the most notorious section of the ridge, and is described variously as: "short sharp bursts of exposed grade 3 scrambling", "airy ledges and tricky rock steps on the tower's north flank", "an airy scramble down the north side of the ridge ... this section is dramatic but not really difficult", "an obvious and well-worn route. The descent requires care and a slight degree of exposure cannot be avoided" and finally: "reached only by some exposed manoeuvres. The difficulties and exposure are severe enough to make this the preserve of those with real mountaineering experience. Rock climbers and inveterate scramblers will find it straightforward, but there are a number of delicate moves required above big drops".
It is somewhat unfortunate that to reach the highest point Caisteal Liath from this end of the ridge involves two sections of awkward down-climbing, the first from Meall Beag and the second from Meall Meadhonach when another unavoidable rock band has to be steeply descended. Nevertheless it was clear that this traverse was a far superior way to climb Suilven than either of the two eroded gullies leading up to Bealach Mòr.
I was now at the foot of Meall Beag, it was 5pm so was still early, yet I was exhausted from walking all day in the beating sunshine, labouring over pathless moorland, and feeling quite weary from the previous two days of tough walking. I didn't feel confident to attempt the scramble whilst tired, and it certainly wouldn't be possible with a heavy pack, so I decided to set up camp, then make an early start and climb Suilven the following day. I located a suitable hollow behind a rock, where the bulk of my food and camping gear could be stashed while I completed the scramble with a light day pack.
There was no flowing water at this location, but I did find a clear rock pool and decided to boil a couple of litres of water for the evening and the morning's walk. My campsite was one of the most spectacular I've enjoyed in Scotland, I could look out across Inverpolly over the maze of lochans to the dramatic sandstone peaks of Cùl Mòr and Stac Pollaidh. Then there was the spire of Suilven, rising directly above me, a constant reminder of the challenge for tomorrow.
Thursday 6th June 2013
I awoke around 5am, and watched a bank of cloud slowly roll in from the northeast. I hoped this was just morning mist and would be burnt off by the sun, as had happened the previous day. I got up slowly, but gradually the summit ridge of Suilven was swamped by the mist. I didn't want to wait around long, since after Suilven I still had quite a distance to cover today. I regretted having not climbed it the previous day in the evening sun, but having come this far I didn't want to abandon the climb, nor take the easier route via Bealach Mòr to the summit.
Just before 7am I stuffed my tent, sleeping bag and the bulk of my food into a dry sack and concealed it in my designated hiding place. I covered it with sandstone slabs and left a rather dramatic note under a rock:
"IF FOUND PLEASE DO NOT INTERFERE WITH CONTENTS. ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT FOR A TEN DAY SOLO EXPEDITION. SURVIVAL DEPENDS ON IT! WILL BE COLLECTED THURSDAY 6TH JUNE. THANK YOU!".
I then set off with a substantially lighter pack up Meall Beag, climbing into the mist. There was barely a trace of a path on the lower slopes, but higher up a vague path appeared, broken in a number of places where sandstone blocks had to be surmounted by easy scrambling. Just before the summit there is a dramatic cleft in the ridge, caused by a fault in the sandstone strata, with steep gullies dropping away either side into the mist. The narrow arête can be easily stepped across to continue to the summit.
Just beyond the summit cairn, a sudden sheer drop appears to bar all passage. I peered down into the chasm, attempting to pick out the descent route through tendrils of mist, into the narrow notch below. The triangular face of Meall Meadhonach reared up beyond, appearing terrifyingly near-vertical and it was hard to believe there was a simple footpath ascending it on the far side of the notch. To the right of the Meall Beag summit, a small cairn marked the start of the well-worn descent route. This commenced with some awkward down-climbing over near-vertical sandstone blocks. At the base of each step, it was essential to get a good footing as there were steep drops below.
The route then began to traverse back around towards the notch, with more difficult down-climbing above big drops. To gain the notch, a final airy move along a ledge had to be made, working around a protruding block of sandstone with a lack of really assuring handholds. From here a short arête could be taken, around a stubby sandstone pinnacle to meet Meall Meadhonach. Looking back at Meall Beag from this side, it appeared as an ominous leaning rock tower, sprouting from the side of the mountain and veiled in mist. Now I was on easier ground and followed the zigzags of a tiny path to gain the flat-topped summit of Meall Meadhonach.
The difficulties were not over, since the descent from Meall Meadhonach is blocked by an unavoidable near-vertical rock band. This is descended via a series of ledges and steep walls - although there is a choice of lines, none are easy. There is no exposure below, so this descent is psychologically easier than that from Meall Beag, but I found it technically harder.
Now over the difficulties, the remainder of the ridge was just stiff walking over a series of a few more outcrops and notches to reach Bealach Mòr and the final climb up the well-worn path to Caisteal Liath. Just beyond the bealach I was surprised to encounter a dry-stone wall, and wondered at the motivation for its construction.
The summit of Caisteal Liath is a grassy dome scattered with a few quartzite blocks. The ground falls away precipitously on three sides, and the summit is well defended by a ring of vegetated crags. I'd met a lady on Ben More Assynt who said she had a plan to camp here with her son, and it was surprising to discover the smooth grassy summit plateau really was a suitable campsite (except for sleepwalkers!). It was a little disappointing to not get a view from here, since the views out to sea and the sense of spaciousness are reportedly remarkable. Yet I was elated to have traversed the entire ridge and it would be a good excuse to return here in clearer weather, possibly to camp.
I retraced my steps to Bealach Mòr, where a cairn marks the start of the descent routes into gullies on both sides of the ridge. I opted for the south side, and carefully picked a way down steep loose scree, out of the mist and down towards the lochan-studded moorland. Once off the steep slopes, there is a convenient near-level terrace running along the base of Suilven, which took me back towards my kit stash. I even found a spring to replenish my near-empty water bottle. I returned to my kit around 10am, the full traverse having taken three hours without a break. I quickly repacked my bag, and then set off in descent to Loch Gainimh.
At the southeast end of Loch Gainimh there's a shingle beach, and I was surprised to come across a work of 'nature art' on the shore. A circle had been made from fragments of black peat, and this was bisected by a line of white quartzite fragments, bearing a resemblance to the London Underground roundel. In the same way as an unnecessary cairn, this is little more than graffiti and spoils the feeling of wildness. It was tempting to dismantle it, but I left it in case the estate had created as a marker for helicopter landing.
Now at the loch I was glad to join a proper path, which took me north-westwards for three miles towards Suileag Bothy. The path widened to a track, which presumably goes all the way to Lochinver. At points logs had been positioned in ruts, and on one section a wooden causeway had been built over the deeply rutted track.
On the way I met an interesting chap who was out bird-watching for merlins, pippets and raptors. He had cycled to Glencanisp Lodge from Lochinver, then walked the rest of the way. He said that he worked for the John Muir Trust and was responsible for footpath maintenance on Quinag (see Cuineag Quinag Estate and Quinag Leaflet). This involved prioritising repair work and organising work parties. I asked him if there were any strategy for woodland regeneration and he said there had been some deer culling, which had gone down badly with local landowners, since the JMT is perceived as an outsider organisation. He said saplings had been planted, but they didn't want to erect ugly fences to protect them, since deer are part of the ecology of the area, just not in the large numbers that exist without natural predators.
He asked me where I was heading next and I said via Quinag, past Arkle and down Glen Golly to Ben Hope. He mentioned a friend of his had camped on the summit of Ben Hope, the most northerly Munro, for the summer solstice, where the sun can be seen dipping just below the horizon, before rising again. The friend had been scuppered by cloud and poor visibility though. As we departed I joked that I was jealous of his JMT location job, while he said he wished he could be on this ten day trek!
As I approached Suileag Bothy, another walker was also approaching the bothy, labouring under the weight of a massive rucksack. She said "are you heading in or out" and I said "a bit of both"! She was planning to stay for two days in Suileag and use it as a base for climbing Suilven and Canisp. In her bag she'd carried a huge stash of firewood and a sort of synthetic log that she was trying for the first time. After a brief recce around the bothy, I set off, politely declining her suggestion that I stop for a snack, since I still had far to go today.
The path I was taking lead to the south end of Loch Assynt across moorland, and was much less frequented than the main trade route from Lochinver.
The path has been marked by a series of triangular orange flags, made from bamboo canes and orange polythene, with a flag every few hundred metres. It was an interesting puzzle to ruminate on who had put these flags here. I couldn't imagine a conservation or walking group had installed them, since such groups abhor anything that detracts from the wildness. This left only the estate, but I couldn't figure out if their motivation was to prevent people getting lost (walkers, deer stalkers) or to encourage a stream of regular traffic to prevent the path being swallowed by the rampant vegetation.
One disadvantage of the overgrown path was that it was an ideal waiting place for hungry ticks, and I had to keep stopping to flick them off my trousers, making for slow progress. There was a slight climb over a low bealach about half way along the path, and then it was downhill to Loch Assynt. I had been slightly concerned about crossing the outflow from this loch, since here the river flows deep and wide, however there was a well-maintained footbridge across a narrow defile.
At the roadside stile, a sign from "Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape" advised walkers to "be responsible with fire - it can destroy in minutes years of hard work in this fragile area". This charity is involved in woodland regeneration in the area, has recently set up a tree nursery and regularly organise volunteer projects (Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape).
I now had a few miles of road walking, along once of the most scenically spectacular roads that I've ever been on in Britain. Beyond the birch-lined roadside I could look across the azure blue Loch Assynt to the white quartzite-strewn slopes of Conival, while directly ahead the sandstone ridge of Quinag towered above the road. At Tumore I turned off and picked up a narrow footpath, which climbs to Bealach Leireag, before descending into Gleann Leireag and joining the Nedd coast road. I had considered following this route all the way to Kylesku, but wanted to camp higher up this evening, so at the highpoint of the path, I turned off, aiming for a traverse around the west flanks of Quinag, immediately below the crags.
At the turning point there was a vibrant waterfall, tumbling over a sandstone step, surrounding by lush vegetation. This was a perfect place to quench my thirst.
I now picked a rising traverse, along grassy slopes, immediately below Quinag's scree fans. This shelf went on for around two miles, and I was aiming to round the terminating peak of Sàil Ghorm, then camp in sight of Kylesku. I had walked sixteen miles today, so was getting rather tired and in need of a rest. As I rounded the end I arrived on a little grassy terrace with breath-taking views out to sea, then inland to the graceful curve of the Kylesku bridge an on to the dreamy quartzite peaks of Foinaven and Arkle beyond.
This looked like a perfect place to camp, so I lay down on the ground to find the most level spot. Glancing at my hands I was shocked to see they were covered in tiny ticks. Running my hands over the grass it was clear that this grass was infested with ticks, probably because the deer like to lie in the spot with a good view over the landscape. At 400m metres I was expecting no ticks, but the mild maritime climate must be warm enough for the ticks to survive here all year round. There was nothing for it but to drop down to a boggy area, and camp there where I knew ticks would be no trouble. I carefully picked over my clothes and removed as many ticks as possible, but wearing a black fleece it was impossible to find them all. Over the next few days I removed about ten ticks attached to me in various places.
Friday 7th June 2013
This morning I had a few more miles of rough walking across boggy moorland. The first objective was to round Sàil Ghorm to pick up the Allt a' Bhàthaich, which flows from the hanging valley between Sàil Ghorm and the highest summit of Quinag: Sàil Gharbh. These twin summits mark the endpoints of a Y-shaped ridge; I had been following the full length of one side of the Y-shape the previous day. Quinag (Cuinneag) is a tremendous multi-peaked massif, which, like Suilven, has distinctly different characteristics when viewed from different angles. From the west and south, Spidean Coinich (figuratively at the base of the Y-shape) dominates the view.
As I worked around to the north side of Quinag, with fantastic up-close views of the dramatic Barrel Buttress of Sàil Gharbh, which earned the mountain its name ('Cuinneag' = 'milk jug'). Morning mist was just lifting off the tops of the crags adding to the atmospherics. As I walked further away from the mountain I could gaze into the hanging valley, with glimpses of further peaks at its head, beyond the twin termini of Sàils Ghorm and Gharbh. Just before joining the B road, I was delighted to come across another red deer antler, this one with two side prongs and a crown of three points at the end, the largest in my collection. This I strapped to my rucksack, adding a fair bit of weight.
I continued along the B road, and then shortly joined the main road to Kylesku. This is another road blessed with spectacular scenery. On the right I could look across the tidal fjord-like Loch Glencoul, and up to its head crowned by the rocky stub of the Stack of Glencoul. In the depths of this glen there is a waterfall that has the longest continuous fall of water in Britain: Eas a' Chùal Aluinn. It has a sheer drop of 200m and when in full flow is over three times higher than Niagara Falls. In good weather, a boat-trip runs from the slipway by the Kylesku Hotel to Loch Beag, from where the waterfall is visible. Although high, the waterfall is only really a narrow ribbon of water across a featureless hillside, and there are many more impressive waterfalls in Britain.
Looking northwards I could see the peninsula of Àird da Loch, that separates Loch Glencoul from its neighbour Loch Gleann Dubh. Back towards Quinag, the sheer bulk of Sàil Gharbh loomed dramatically over the road. I continued on through Unapool, and then dropped down to the small village of Kylesku. The tidal straights of Caolas Cumhang once required a ferry crossing, making this village an important staging post on the route north. The ferry crossing was a dreaded bottleneck on the journey, with long queues, so in the late 1970s a new bridge was commissioned. The elegant concrete structure, built between 1982 and 1984 crosses the gap with a graceful curve, and is considered one of the most beautiful bridges in the world.
On the far side of the bridge I stopped for a break on a bench beside a car park, enjoying a tremendous view of Quinag across the water. A motor-biker had also stopped to enjoy the view - he was on a tour of the northwest Highlands. A little further on, the road dropped to a narrow neck of land, and the air was thick with the pungent aroma of seaweed. A herd of deer were standing in the salty water, presumably to stay cool in the heat of the sun. After a short climb, I left the road onto a dusty track which initially passed a construction site for a cluster of new houses. In this area the hillsides were swathed in gorse bushes in full bloom, the hillsides lit up by huge expanses of yellow flowers.
I got onto a stony track that was more pleasant for walking. This track would carry me across high moorland to the village of Achfary on the far side. A couple out for a day walk soon caught up with me; their names were Chaz and Di. They were following the track halfway, and then returning to Kylesku via a second track that drops down and doubles back along Loch Gleann Dubh.
Chaz was a retired geologist and was waxing lyrical about the fantastic geology in the Assynt area. The theme of today's walk was the Moine Thrust, a remarkable geological feature where older metamorphic rocks have been pushed over the top of younger rocks by plate tectonics. The strata are exposed and visible in this area, sometimes known as the 'Assynt Window'. The Moine Thrust was found in 1907, one of the first thrust belts to be discovered, marking a milestone in the history of geology. It has attracted geologists from all over the world. From our position, the thrust belt was clearly visible in the escarpments of Àird da Loch, projecting between the two sea lochs below. Beside the track there was much Moine rock exposed, and Chaz pointed out the folding in the rock slabs created under the immense pressure, and various outcrops of interesting rock types. The rock has both sedimentary and igneous origins, but has been radically transformed under the pressure and heat of the thrust.
Di had been getting into archaeology since retirement and was currently involved in a Heritage Lottery Fund project looking at the medieval history of Hope and Castleton in the Peak District (Heritage Lottery Project Hope Castleton). Chaz and Di lived in Hope, near the Cheshire Cheese pub and told me to look out for them when I next visited the Peak District. The track snaked its way through small crags, past lochans and over stone clapper bridges. I said goodbye to Chaz and Di as they headed back down to Kylesku, thanking Chaz for all the interesting geology facts.
The two onward tracks were dusty and wide, and much less enticing than the stony tracks we had been on. The tracks had recently been upgraded to support the Maldie Burn Hydroelectric Scheme (Maldie Burn Hydroelectric Scheme). This burn is fed by a pair of large lochs; Loch an Leathiad Bhuain and Loch na Creig Duibhe, so always has a reliable supply of water.
Unfortunately the tracks approaching these lochs from both the northeast and southwest have been upgraded to dusty highways. It is hard to justify the environmental damage inflicted on this historic pass. After a mile, at the top of the pass, there were stunning views onward to Ben Stack, Foinaven, Arkle and Ben Screavie. Huge mounds of gravel had been dumped here by idiots with no appreciation of aesthetics, giving this beautiful spot all the ambience of a building site. A Balfour Beatty sign blandly asked for forbearance: "We apologise for the inconvenience our works have caused. We appreciate your cooperation".
Beyond here, views of the gleaming quartzite scree slopes of Arkle and Ben Screavie improved, with Ben Stack appearing as a whaleback on the left. The conifer trees of Achfary Forest provided a pleasant foreground, framing the view of these mountains. I stopped to chat to a backpacker who was climbing up to the pass. He had an enormous pack and was on a project to visit extreme points on the mainland - he'd been to the northernmost and north-westernmost points and was now working his way to Inverey in Knoydart, the most remote village in Britain.
Rounding a corner, the industrial destruction continued with harvesting in Achfary Forest - a vast area had been cleared of trees. This did provide one advantage for me - I was able to cut a corner and save a mile of walking on a new track, rather than skirt the perimeter of the forest. In the village of Achfary I passed the main office of the Reay Forest Estate. After a short distance I left the road and followed a track across a causeway, then northwards along the shore of Loch Stack. The chain of lochs fed by Loch Stack eventually flows into Loch Shin down to Lairg, so this was a significant point in my trek, crossing to the opposite side of this vast drainage network.
From Loch Stack I followed a well-made stony track uphill along the Allt Horn, initially up steep zigzags then up more gentle slopes. On the way I said hello to a couple of groups of walkers who'd spent the day on Arkle. After a few miles the steep valley sides flattened out into a shallow basin, and I was able to find a camping spot beside the track. The impervious quartzite meant that there were lots of small springs flowing from the hillside, and I was able to find a trickle of fresh water a few hundred metres back along the track.
I was quite tired having walked seventeen miles today - the longest day on the trip, with over 900m of ascent. This was shaping up to be one of the most challenging treks I've done in Scotland, but at last my pack was becoming more manageable, now containing half the weight of food that I'd started with.
Saturday 8th June 2013
Today's objective was to reach the foot of Ben Hope, ready to climb it the following day. This would be a long walk, but from the look of the map, would all be on good tracks and paths.
It should be noted that there are two routes across this mountain range from Loch Stack to Gobernuisgach Lodge. There is an easier direct line, with just one bealach, and then further north there is a more complex route, crossing two bealachs and passing a number of high lochans before dropping into Glen Golly. I had opted for the longer more challenging route, since this promised to have the most spectacular scenery.
Just as I was packing my tent, a backpacker came up the track with a border collie by his side. He was planning to set up camp by a lochan, and then set off along the ridge to Arkle and Foinaven, returning to his tent in the evening. He'd set off early to get some ascent before the heat of the midday sun.
I followed the well-maintained track up to Bealach Horn, where views were somewhat restricted by the morning mist. Beyond the bealach, the track zigzagged down to An Dubh-loch. This is a dark lochan set in a gloomy cirque, backed by an impressive cliff showcasing folds in the quartzite strata. This is fed by a further loch, Lochan Ulbha on a higher terrace, backed by looming black crags.
The well-made track looked to go all the way down to the remote Loch Dionard, presumably coveted for its fishing. My route branched off this main track onto a barely legible stalkers' path. The path had been nearly swallowed up by erosion of the shifting peat, but there were just enough fragments to follow.
Higher up on drier ground, the path became more distinct. A set of boot prints coming in the opposite direction gave me confidence the path was still a viable route to Glen Golly. The path had been well constructed, with a parallel ditch to keep it drained, so looks like it will survive for many years, even with low traffic.
The path climbed gently, past a number of small pools, until it reached the second bealach at Lochan Sgeireach. Here the route once again became a well-defined track coming up from Glen Golly. The track is presumably used to access the loch for fishing, and a further branch heads northwards taking a direct beeline to the previously mentioned remote Loch Dionard.
As I descended into Glen Golly a couple of all-terrain vehicles came by, carrying what looked to be estate workers, plus a father and his children, waving at me as they went by. The track initially zigzagged steeply down a spur, then levelled off as it entered Glen Golly.
I reached a river where a bridge had been removed, with an information sign announcing that over June and July the Reay Forest Estate would be carrying out repair and replacement work on four of the bridges in the glen. Fortunately the water level was low, and it was easy to pick a way across. I hoped that missing bridges would not prevent me crossing some of the more substantial rivers lower down the glen.
Glen Golly is steep-sided, and is lined with beautiful stands of birches, which have escaped the attentions of grazing deer. There are a number of impressive waterfalls as the river cascades down the glen, and further along the glen there is a large field called Bucktooths Meadow, tucked in the gorge in a bend of the river. This is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful glens in Scotland, and I was pleased to have taken this more convoluted route to Gobernuisgach Lodge.
Beyond the meadow, the track climbed out of the gorge, then dropped down across moorland towards Gobernuisgach. Immediately before the lodge there are two prominent river crossings. At the first the bridge was in place, but I stopped to drop down to the river to fill my water bottle. The second bridge was in the process of being replaced: the new girders having been installed, but were surrounded below and to the sides by scaffolding. A sign denied public access, but since nobody was around I clambered over the scaffold bars and did a tightrope walk along one of the girders. The scaffold planks below me meant that there was no risk of falling far, should I lose my balance. Once safely across I continued past the impressive lodge and into Gobernuisgach Plantation. The monotony of the track was broken first by a sign "Rock Pool" with a newly-constructed path down to the river, and further along another sign "Frank's Pool" marking a marshy area below the confers.
Emerging from the trees, I crossed a substantial bridge at the confluence of three rivers, and then followed the track for a short way uphill to a minor road. Heading north along this minor road for a few miles would take me all the way to Ben Hope. Following this quiet road over desolate moorland I had a strange sensation that I was heading to the end of the earth. Perhaps this was to do with the spacious landscape with the bulk of Ben Hope looming up in the distance, but there was also a fey quality in the afternoon light. The roadsides were illuminated by clumps of gorse, bright yellow flowers in full bloom, contrasting with the pale blue sky.
After a few miles I arrived at the impressive remains of Dun Dornaigil - a well-preserved broch. These stone roundhouses are among Scotland's most impressive prehistoric buildings, dating from around 2,300 to 1,900 years ago, occurring mainly in north and west Scotland. Just beyond the broch I left the road and followed a track up the Allt na Caillich as it zigzagged up the hillside. Higher up there was a good view of a dramatic waterfall where this burn cascaded down over the escarpment. Just above the waterfall the track ended and I stopped to soak my sore feet in the cool water.
There are two paths up Ben Hope, the trade route breaches the escarpment half way along, up a peaty eroded scar. I avoided this route by joining the escarpment right at the start, following a connoisseur's route along the tops of the cliffs. In places this path is rather exposed, and since it was rather blustery, I had to step away from the edge on several occasions. After a mile or so, just before the main path joined the escarpment, I turned away from the edge and dropped down into a corrie, when I set up camp for the night. This had been another challenging day, of 16 miles and nearly 900m of ascent. I hoped that Ben Hope would be clear of cloud the following day.
Sunday 9th June 2013
I looked out my tent and looking out towards Ben Hope, I saw a thin bank of morning mist cascading over the ridge from the east, with sunlight diffusing through it. The summit beyond was clear, so it looked like I would enjoy a cloud inversion. Soon I was on the well-defined stony path that forms a wide eroded scar on the south flank of the mountain. The cloud was still pouring over the ridge from the east, but was dispersing at the edge of the escarpment, giving me clear views to the west towards Foinaven.
It didn't take long to climb above the cloud, to reach the incredible viewpoint at the summit trig. There were hazy views northwards out to sea, and across the cluster of large lochs at the base of Ben Hope's north ridge, including Loch Hope. Cloud was still swirling around to the east adding some drama and reflecting the bright morning sun.
The SMC guide recommended walking a little further north for more expansive views from the top of Ben Hope's north ridge. This was good advice, as the views from this point were indeed spectacular. The north ridge of Ben Hope is off limits to walkers: it is graded moderate or diff as a rock climb, technically straightforward in rock climbing terms, but the exposure is immense.
Retracing my steps on the way down I met several groups in ascent, so I was glad to have got the summit to myself. I explained that I'd camped halfway up and had made and early start. Several people asked where I was going next, and when I said I was walking along the road to Ben Klibreck, they said they would look out for me and give me a lift if they saw me on the road.
I filled up on water near where I'd camped, and then retraced my ascent route along the edge of the escarpment. This proved a quiet route, and I met just one couple (from the Lake District), near the start of the track down to Alltnacaillich. Just as I got to Dun Dornaigil, a car pulled up behind me - it was one of the people I'd met on Ben Klibreck and he offered me a lift all the way to Alltnaharra!
His name was Davey, and said to put my pack on the back seat of his car while he stopped to explore Dun Dornaigil for five minutes. Soon we set off, traveling rapidly across the rolling moorland. Davey said he is an uber-peak bagger, collecting Munros, Corbetts and Grahams, but working his way methodically through each mountain region of Scotland, rather than down each list in turn. He worked as an instructor on a climbing wall in Edinburgh, so was well positioned for short trips up into the Highlands. His favourite rock-climbing playground is the Cuillin on Skye.
At the high point of the moorland road we passed by the dramatic Loch Meadie, studded with tiny wooded islands and expansive views across to Ben Loyal. Davey mentioned that he was off to climb Ben Loyal next - it is a complex multi-summited mountain, and he wasn't sure if he would just climb the main summit today. He also had Ben Klibreck to climb, and said he might also climb it today, or leave it until tomorrow, therefore might see me again on Klibreck. He was camping in Lairg, which he said had a great campsite, really quiet with only one other tent.
Further on the road we passed by several recently-harvested conifer plantations. One of them, Chicken Dhu Plantation, I had planned to use for the evening's camp, but this plantation was no more, so the lift to Alltnaharra was very fortunate. Davey kindly dropped me off at the Alltnaharra Hotel, so that I could get my bearings, and then sped off towards Ben Loyal. The lift had saved me eleven miles of tedious road walking, so was really a blessing. I could now make a start on climbing Ben Klibreck today, and reach the summit tomorrow, reducing the total trek duration from ten days to nine.
Being deposited in a new location had disoriented me somewhat - I was used to having studied the map hours in advance before reaching a destination. I continued on the road for a short distance, then turned off on the track to Klibreck Lodge, stopping for a lunch break to study my guidebooks. The standard Munro bagger's route approaches the mountain from the west, I was to the north of the mountain and the only book that proposed a route was Andy Walmsley's Cicerone guide to "Walking In Scotland's Far North". The book declared the route: "probably the least interesting of the routes offered here, but is also probably the easiest (though not the shortest)". Apparently culling and stalking activities are often conducted on this side of the mountain, but since it was a Sunday this would not be a problem today.
I followed the track to Klibreck Lodge along the shore of Loch Naver, with many wetland birds circling around above me. In the distance I could see the zigzags of an old stalkers' path leading up to Meall Ailein, a subsidiary top on the Klibreck ridge and my objective for tonight's camp.
At the farm by the lodge, I was relying on the guidebook's description: "continue from the farm, following a track across the Klibreck Burn. The track continues, climbing easily at first and then steepening to finally zigzag up onto the ridge". This description proved vague and I kept following tracks through the farm that terminated in grassy fields. Finally I decided to walk around the perimeter fence of the farm, then pick up the track along the Allt a' Mhuilinn.
When I reached this 'track' it was little more that the scuff marks where all-terrain vehicle had been up the hillside. Looking back the correct route back to the farm was not at all clear on the ground. The vehicle tracks soon vanished into the heathery corrie, and I picked a route along the Allt a' Mhuilinn, tracing the last point where water was available. The water was finally reduced to a trickle at the start of the zigzags. This was hardly a track, but rather the overgrown remains of an old stalkers' path. I decided to camp up on Meall Ailein, but since this was the last water, I gulped down a litre and collected two more litres to carry up to camp.
The zigzags made for easy progress up the last few hundred metres of ascent, and I happily located a wonderful grassy spot, with an incredible view northwards over the Flow Country. The long trench of Loch Naver dominated the foreground, while in the background Ben Hope and the graceful spires of Ben Loyal rose up in the distance. The view of the sunset was stunning, watching the sky gradually change colour and the evening light reflecting on Loch Naver.
Monday 10th June 2013
In the early morning this campsite proved to be an equally good viewpoint for enjoying the sunrise. The moorland had been carpeted with a layer of low cloud overnight, and I could just see Ben Hope and Ben Loyal dramatically rising over the cloud on the horizon. This is one of the most memorable camps that I've ever had in Scotland.
As I packed up and set off the cloud inversion was beginning to disperse, and it looked like I would enjoy great views from Ben Klibreck. I soon picked up a little path that climbed over the minor top of Meall Meadhonach, before the final climb up to the trig point on Ben Klibreck. I had the summit to myself, but didn't linger long as I still had far to go. The path down betrayed the standard bagger's route, with an eroded scar of loose rock. At the foot of this rocky band, I came across a large remaining snow patch, the first snow that I'd seen since Ben More Assynt.
The onward route was now easy-going along grassy ridges, over Creag an Lochain, then down the south ridge of Carn an Feidh. Lower down I picked up a small burn descending to Bealach Easach. There's a well-defined stalkers' path crossing this pass from southwest to northeast. I crossed the path, and then continued on over rough heathery moorland. I was aiming for the remote lodge at Dalnessie. The track from Dalnessie descending to the public road would mark the start of my final day's walk down to Lairg. To reach Dalnessie I had to cut across a few miles of pathless moorland, before hopefully picking up a path along the Allt Gobhlach that flows to Dalnessie.
First I reached the beautiful azure blue Loch Gaineamhach, sparkling in the sun. Beyond here I had a short ascent onto the moorland plateau. The map indicated that this plateau would be 'flat', but was in-fact riven with peat hags, some of which were deep canyons in the moorland. In places the scars were so wide that vegetation was beginning to re-establish on the floors of these gashes. Deer were relaxing in this location - they obviously felt safe and well-concealed, but did have the disadvantage that they could be easily startled. The deer kept abruptly leaping up and dashing off along the maze of trenches, churning up racetracks in the dry peat.
Beyond this weird peat landscape, I began dropping down into the upper glen of the Allt Gobhlach. The tiny path shown on my map was not apparent, but soon I picked up a rough all-terrain vehicle track running along the riverbank. After the desolation of the moorland, it was reassuring to now be on a track that was guaranteed to lead to Dalnessie. The track was however in very poor condition, and would be impassable in all but the driest conditions. Many saturated bogs had to be crossed, and no attempt had been made to improve the drainage and surfacing of the track.
Lower down the track did improve, and I stopped to set up camp at the point where a surfaced track began. I was concerned about ticks, so decided to camp on a dried up peat bog. This has the advantages of a perfectly flat and luxuriously soft surface, and the disadvantage that tent pegs won't stay in! The forecast was for wind picking up overnight, bringing in rain by the following afternoon. In light of this predicted bad weather, I used long sticks of bogwood as an alternative to tent pegs to get purchase on the peat.
Tuesday 11th June 2013
After a mile or so on the track, I passed through the farmyard at Dalnessie, attracting the unwanted attentions of two dogs; one who growled and one who yapped at my feet. From Dalnessie the track descends to the road along the Fèith Osdail, flanked on both sides by dark conifer plantations. Fortunately a wide belt of moorland has been left either side of the river, making this track scenically quite pleasant. In the distance I could see Ben Klibreck rising up beyond the trees, and in the foreground, cotton grass ripping in the wind on the moorland.
Dalnessie was in the news recently as the proposed location for a windfarm. Fortunately the plans were abandoned after protests from conservation and outdoor groups. It should be noted that the area has already been blighted by wind turbines on the hillsides between Lairg and Glen Cassley. These are visible from Ben More Assynt and it is shocking that such an eyesore was permitted to by constructed within sight of a National Scenic Area. I hope this beautiful area is protected from further such developments.
Lower down, the Dalnessie track deteriorated, becoming wider and dustier, caused by forestry harvesting vehicles. At the bottom of the track I turned south onto the road which would take me along the River Tirry to Loch Shin and on to Lairg. This is a narrow A road with passing places, so was quite pleasant to walk along, until a fork by Loch Shin, where the road widens and the traffic doubled. A number of articulated trucks and forestry vehicles came by, and it was necessary to leap onto the verge and brace against the side-draft.
I was grateful to be finally on a pavement, on the stretch of road running along Little Loch Shin. I walked past the cluster of shops in Lairg, which includes a Spar shop, chip shop and a café. My feet were quite tired and I was tempted to stop, but I was keen to get to the end of the trek, so decided to press on, then stop for lunch at the station in a mile or so. I got to the station at 1pm, and had a few hours to relax before the train at 3:07pm. There was plenty of time to have lunch, get changed into clean clothes and wrap up my antlers to protect them on the journey home. The wind was picking up and the sky was clouding over, so I was really pleased to have completed the trek in the window of dry weather.
Just before the train was due, a few people arrived at the station. One of them was clearly a backpacker and we got chatting, his name was Peter Aylmer. He was doing a north to south Scotland route in a number of sections and had just completed the route from Achnashellach to Oykel Bridge, before hitchhiking to Lairg. The next leg of his journey would take him all the way to Cape Wrath. He lived in London and told me he was writing a Cicerone guide to Walking In Kent, which would be out in the autumn. The journey to Inverness went quickly as we looked over maps of each other's routes and panned through digital photos. Peter gave me his website www.trails.me.uk, which has information about his across Scotland trip, plus similar projects for across England and across Wales. He has a new website www.trailman.co.uk, which will be launched with his Kent book.
At Inverness I needed to book a sleeper seat for this evening. The sleeper was departing at 20:44, with the same cost as the journey up: £75.30. Peter suggested that we meet up for dinner at 7pm before I boarded the sleeper. We exchanged phone numbers, and then Peter went off to his hotel, while I wandered the streets for a few hours. Most of the shops were closed for the day, and some interesting shops that I'd visited on previous trips had been replaced by pound shops and charity shops.
I had a look for a suitable place for an evening meal and located a pub called Hootanany, which had a very drinkable real ale containing heather honey, and a menu of homemade Scottish food. I had been here at the end of a previous trip; at the time the the pub was serving Thai food.
After an hour Peter joined me, and we had some delicious food; fish & chips for me and belly of pork for Peter, with lemon mousse cake for desert. After a few more pints and a whisky chaser, I was really quite merry when I boarded the sleeper at 8:30pm. Again there was plenty of space in the seating compartment, and I was able to stretch out across two seats and get a decent night's sleep. The sleeper took twelve hours, and after the short underground journey from Euston to Waterloo, I had half an hour wait for the 9:05am train, the first one where I could use my off-peak ticket.
The trek really had gone well, blessed with fine weather and not a drop of rain in nine days. The weather was certainly the mildest I've experienced in Scotland, warmed by the Gulf Stream in the west, so on future trips to this area I'll know to take a lighter sleeping bag and no so many pullovers. The mountain scenery was among of the most spectacular I've seen in Scotland, particularly in Assynt and Northwest Sutherland. The milder west coast conditions also made for much richer wildlife than I've seen in other parts of the Highlands. The quietness, the scenery and the wildlife here are much more akin to the Scottish islands than the mainland. This trip gave experience of travelling longer distances over lower terrain between mountains, which will be invaluable to future trips to the Scottish islands.