Written September/October 2012

Great Wilderness and The Fannaichs

This trip was to be my last to Scotland in 2007, after Torridon in May and Glens Shiel & Affric in June. I only had a week, so I selected a small self-contained group of Munros in the area between Loch Maree and Loch Broom. This area is evocatively known as "the great wilderness" or "the last great wilderness". It contains such jewels as the Torridonian sandstone peaks of An Teallach and Slioch plus the fine range of nine Munros known as The Fannaichs.

Of this area the Cicerone guide states: "in the heart of Wester Ross lies a wild and rugged tract of land over 1000km2 where there are no metalled roads. Only a small number of estate tracks penetrate this area, and these are mostly on the fringes. This is mountain country; to the west lies the great forge of An Teallach and the wild remote hills of the Letterewe Forest, to the east lie The Fannaichs. The A832 describes a huge arc around the whole area, as if fearing to enter this hostile mountain kingdom".

Saturday 14th July 2007

I took the sleeper up to Inverness, then on Saturday morning took the Citylink coach up to Braemore Junction. Incidentally, this coach goes on to Ullapool and connects with the ferry to Stornoway. Braemore is little more than a road junction and a car park. I set off along the road above Corrieshalloch Gorge, a national nature reserve that cradles the spectacular Falls of Measach.

After following the road for a mile and a half, I turned off onto a track zigzagging down the hillside to Cuileig Power Station. This power station, built in 2002, was the first new hydro power station to be built in Scotland since the 1960s. It's a three Megawatt 'run of river' scheme, which means there's no dam. Instead, the water is diverted from the river, via a 2.5km underground pipe that feeds the power station. Once the water has been used to drive the turbines it is returned to the river.

I needed cross to the far side of the River Broom, since I wanted to follow a quiet track down Strath More, rather than the busy A835. The map showed a footbridge crossing the river, but when I reached the bridge, it was boarded-up with signs warning that it was in a dangerous condition. The bridge had a metal frame, spanned by rotten wooden floorboards. I climbed over the obstruction blocking the entrance, and edged my way along one side of the bridge, sticking to the metal frame. The gorge was very deep and dark, with the river roaring far below, and I hoped that the bridge would hold up, since a collapse would certainly be fatal.

Luckily the bridge remained stable, and I clambered gratefully over the boards on the far side. There was a short section of wading through deep tick-infested bracken, before I emerged onto the track down Strath More. I happily followed this leafy lane for three miles until I reached Croftown. This small settlement is linked to the A835 by the Inverbroom Bridge. From here I wanted to traverse an area of high moorland, so that I could reach Dundonnell and An Teallach the following day.

Searching around Croftown, I couldn't locate the start of the path, but then a helpful local lady came out of her house, and directed me onto a diversion around the houses. Soon I was on a path going along the uphill side of a small conifer plantation. Many trees had been blown down, blocking the path, and it took me a long time to clamber over and under them, which was exhausting work with a heavy pack. I was grateful when the path turned off onto the open hillside.

The little path wound its way through the high heather moorland, passing Lochan Dubh, Loch an Fhiona and Loch an Tiompain. I decided to stop for the day, as the weather wasn't great, I was rather tired and wanted to be well-rested for An Teallach the following day.

Sunday 15th July 2007

The first few miles of today was spent descending the little path across moorland and down to Dundonnell. Crossing the main road I started up the far side towards An Teallach, where the guidebook warned of an impenetrable thicket of rhododendrons, where a machete would be useful. I luckily found an easy way through the thicket and out onto the open hillside, with An Teallach looming up ahead.

An Teallach (the forge) is deservedly regarded as one of the finest of Scottish mountains, if not the very finest. It has three great eastward projecting ridges containing the two great corries Glas Tholl and Toll an Lochain. The highest summit, Bidein a' Ghlas Thuill, lies atop of the central ridge, while the second Munro, Sgùrr Fiòna is at the upper end of the pinnacled crest which curves around to the southernmost of the three projecting ridges, Sàil Liath. The mountain is formed of Torridonian sandstone, capped by white quartzite on its eastern ridges, dusting them in greyish scree.

An Teallach hadn't yet been surveyed by OS when the first recorded ascent was made by Dr John MacCulloch in the early 19th century, as described in his 1824 book The Highlands and Western Islands of Scotland. He knew the mountain as Kea Cloch and says 'it seems to have been overlooked by mapmakers and travellers, it must be among the highest mountains on the west coast'. In Scotland's Mountains Before The Mountaineers, Ian Mitchell notes that MacCulloch's ascent of An Teallach 'was undoubtedly MacCulloch's finest achievement, and also the most significant ascent of a Scottish mountain to that date, especially as it was in the remote northwest, where most tourists still failed to venture'. Imagine the sense of adventure and pioneering MacCulloch felt, heading off into the Great Wilderness, searching for a new mountain, and the satisfaction he got when he reached An Teallach.

The whole area to the east of An Teallach is under the spell of the mountain and abounds in rock outcrops and sandstone pavements. I initially followed the fast-flowing Garbh Allt, then turned off to follow the tributary Allt a' Ghlas Thuill. This lead deep into the verdant corrie Glas Toll, where at 600m the mountain rears steeply upwards. After a tough climb I gained the main ridge at 870m and stopped for lunch. Cloud was still clinging to the summits and I wanted to wait a while to see if it would clear.

The traverse from Bidein a' Ghlas Thuill to Sàil Liath is regarded as one of Scotland's classic routes, and I felt a combination of fear and excitement. By the time I reached Bidein a' Ghlas Thuill, cloud was still swirling around, restricting visibility, but giving the sandstone pinnacles ahead an eerie quality. Descending from this Munro, I began the climb up to the second Munro Sgùrr Fiòna.

Beyond Sgùrr Fiòna lies the crux of the traverse, a dramatic castellated ridge known as the Corrag Bhuidhe pinnacles. The first in line is the leaning spire known as Lord Berkeley's Seat, which involves superb scrambling on a staircase of sandstone steps. Lord Berkeley himself is reputed to have sat on this airy peak, perched on the very edge of the awesome drop, legs dangling over the side.

Shenavall Bothy (photo courtesy MBA)
Shenavall Bothy (photo courtesy MBA)

A group of walkers were just ahead and they shouted "quick come over". It turned out that they'd just spotted a "brockenspectre" and were keen to share it with me. This phenomena occurs when the sun shines from behind the observer, who is looking down from a ridge or peak into mist or fog. The light can refract around the observer, creating a stunning circular rainbow halo around the projection, known as a glory. With cloud swirling in Toll an Lochain, and clear skies above, this was perfect conditions for this phenomena. It was very strange to wave and see the brockenspectre waving back, surrounded by a multicoloured halo. I thanked the walkers for pointing it out; it made my traverse of An Teallach extra special. Incidentally on Wikipedia there is a photo of a glory, taken coincidentally on An Teallach: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Glory_An_Teallach.jpg

There are easier paths on the south side of the ridge, but I aimed to keep as close as possible to the crest, enjoying the airy scrambling on the grippy sandstone. The descents from Corrag Buidhe and Stob Cadha Gobhlach were rather awkward. On one bit of down-climbing my pack got stuck between rocks and I had to unclip it from my back to get down. The excitement was over all too soon, and I reached the end of Sàil Liath, scattered with grey quartzite scree. Looking at the contours on the map I picked an initially very steep way down the south side of Sàil Liath, but it was not long before the angle relented, and I was walking down easy slopes to Shenavall Bothy.

This bothy is one of only three in the Great Wilderness and makes a great base for exploring An Teallach, the Fisherfield Six and Beinn Dearg Mòr. When I arrived an elderly chap was sat on a chair outside, enjoying the evening sun. He had nearly completed the Munros, and was planning to climb two of the Fisherfields the following day. Remarkably he said that he would only climb a Munro if he was sure the weather was clear and he would get a view from the top. He must be an incredibly patient man, given how fickle the weather can be in Scotland.

Monday 16th July 2007

Sadly cloud was covering the Fisherfields in the morning, so the chap decided to head off to the Shetland Islands instead. I was aiming for a group of hills known as the Fisherfield Six (sometimes the Big Six). These are the most remote Munros in all of Scotland, rivalled only by Seana Bhràigh (near Ullapool), Lurg Mhòr (near Achnasheen), Ben Alder (near Dalwhinnie) and An Socach (Mullardoch).

In poor weather, when the rivers are in spate, they are entirely inaccessible, and if rivers rise during a trip, one could easily become trapped in this area, or have to make a long diversion to escape. The pioneering 16th Century mapmaker and explorer Timothy Pont covered his map of this area with the words "Extreme Wilderness". Little has changed in the intervening years and I was excited to be venturing into this wild region. To climb the Fisherfield Six from the main road involves a walk of 27 miles (43km) with 2940m of ascent. From Shenavall this is reduced to 22 miles (35km) and 2580m of ascent, a tough walk for a single day. With a heavy pack, I planned to split it over two days.

The first of the six is Beinn a' Chlaidheimh, which was subsequently demoted to the status of a Corbett by the SMC in 2012, following a survey by the Munro Society who measured its height at 913.96m in 2011. This mountain started life as a Corbett, then was promoted to a Munro in 1974, when better measurements became available, and after 38 years in the limelight it was a Corbett once again. Now we have the Fisherfield Five, the challenge can be more easily tackled from Lochivraon Bothy at the head of Loch a' Bhraoin, which should ease some of the pressure on Shenavall.

From Shenavall, I followed the Abhain Strath na Sealga upstream for a mile or so to cross at the river island Eilean a' Chip. This river is notorious for difficult crossings, and in spate can be impossible to ford. I needed to take my boots off, but was lucky the river was shallow at the time, and not flowing fast. There is no path up Beinn a' Chlaidheimh, so I picked a way up a shallow corrie, then worked back around onto the ridge.

Soon I was in the cloud, and the rain started, which would last for most of the day. It was rather disappointing to miss out on views from the summits of these remarkable mountains. I continued on over Beinn a' Chlaidheimh, then continued following the well-defined ridge to Loch a' Bhrisidh. Next up was Sgùrr Bàn, "white peak", named after the great expanse of quartzite slabs on its east face, a feature that is almost unique in the Scottish hills. None of this was visible today as I climbed the ill-defined ridge to its summit. Beyond Sgùrr Bàn, the ridge reasserted itself, with a steep drop down to Cab Coire nan Clach, then a climb up shattered quartzite boulders to Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair.

On the far side of Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair, I continued, clambering down quartzite boulders to the foot of Meall Garbh. There was no need to climb this little peak, so I took a traversing path around its side to reach Bealach Odhar. The weather now began to improve, with the cloud lifting and the rain stopping. The geology now changed to Torridonian sandstone for the final Munro of the day Beinn Tarsuinn. As the weather improved I enjoyed the views over the dramatic Lochan Fada and over to Slioch, A' Mhaighdean and Ruadh Stac Mòr.

I dropped down the west side of Beinn Tarsuinn, and set up my tent as soon as the ground levelled out. I was exhausted after a day of tough climbing in poor weather. To climb the Fisherfield Six in a single day must be an exceptionally tough walk; I still had two to climb tomorrow.

Tuesday 17th July 2007

A' Mhaighdean and Ruadh Stac Mòr lie in the heart of the Great Wilderness. The great bastion of A' Mhaighdean, ringed with cliffs, is one of the most spectacular viewpoints in Britain. These two Munros are among the most highly-prized for hillwalkers, due to their remoteness and the beauty of their setting. Unfortunately cloud was clinging to the summits in the morning and it looked like more rain was on the way. I set off, through rough pathless heather, heading first to A' Mhaighdean.

The climb was straightforward, and without a view, I didn't linger long at the summit cairn. I dropped down to the bealach Poll Eadar dha Stac, where there is a bivouac site in a cave under a large boulder. People have built stone walls to improve the shelter offered by this boulder. Just as I arrived it began to rain, so I ducked inside and enjoyed the luxury of shelter in this remote spot.

The continuation on to Ruadh Stac Mòr is seemingly blocked by a ring of sandstone crags, but there is a path that cunningly zigzags up the steep hillside. After the steep section, a series of cairns leads the way to the summit trig. I memorised these landmarks so I could retrace my route back down the crags to the bealach afterwards. Rather than re-climb A' Mhaighdean, I traversed around its side, then descended towards the shore of the vast Lochan Fada. On the way I passed by two people wild camping, and stopped to say hello.

The few miles along the shore of Lochan Fada was very tough going though unruly heather. I was grateful to arrive at the southeast end of the loch, where there are a couple of little grassy beaches ideal for wild camping. The view along this high loch with vast mountains rising on all sides is one of the most stunning vistas that I've ever enjoyed from a tent.

Wednesday 18th July 2007

I had planned on climbing Slioch today, but a dark ominous-looking cloud was firmly lodged over its summit. Since Slioch is regarded as one of the finest mountains in Scotland, a complex Torridonian sandstone peak with fine views over Loch Maree, I decided to leave it and come back on another trip when the weather was better. The alternative was to head eastwards towards the Fannaichs.

Between me and the Fannaichs there were three hills blocking the way and not a single path or track. I initially picked a way up a gentle hillside to Loch Meallan an Fhudain, sitting next to some rock outcrops from which it takes its name. There was then a short descent to the Allt a' Bhealaich Bhàin, and a steep climb up the nose of Beinn Bheag. On the far side I descended to Bealach Gorm, then began another climb towards the second hill, Groban. I was able to traverse the north side, avoiding a 100m climb to Groban's summit.

The third and final hill, Ceann Garbh Meallan Chuaich, again I avoided on the north side, but had to avoid straying too far north into a marshy corrie. So far today I had made surprisingly good progress, and as the weather was dry and the clouds had lifted, I decided to continue on and tackle two of the Fannaichs.

First up was A' Chailleach, a mountain named after a Celtic goddess who in Scotland is often depicted as a hag or wizened old woman. She can use her powers both to create or destroy, harnessing the wild powers of nature, making mountains, moving boulders around, and raising sea and storms. The initial climb up Ceann Garbh a' Chaillich was quite steep but the angle soon relented and I followed the broad ridge to the summit. There were good views back over to Fisherfield, with the quartzite slabs of Sgùrr Bàn particularly striking.

I dropped down to Bealach Toll an Lochan, named after a small loch on the north side of the ridge. The next peak Toman Coinnich was a Munro Top, but it was just as easy to climb it, rather than go around it. From Bealach a' Choire Bhric, there was a gentle 100m climb to the last Munro of the day, Sgùrr Breac. The north an east sides of Sgùrr Breac are steep and rocky, so I followed a well-defined ridge to the southeast.

At the bealach, at 550m the lowest point on the Fannaich ridge, I met a stalkers' path that crosses the ridge from Loch Fannich to Loch a' Bhraoin. I picked a sheltered spot on the north side of this bealach, away from the path, to camp for the night. A while later a group of backpackers came by along the path, possibly a Duke of Edinburgh group, and waved across to me.

Thursday 19th July 2007

I picked a way cross-country up Fliuch Choire to gain the first Munro of the day Sgùrr nan Each. This section of the ridge runs north-south and is flanked by steep cliffs on the east side. I continued northwards, over a few lumps and bumps towards Sgùrr nan Clach Geala. This Munro is considered to be the finest of the Fannaichs, with tapering buttresses, soaring ridges and a high hanging corrie, combining to form a classic mountain architecture.

The next Munro of the day, Meall a' Chrasgaidh, is the northernmost of the Fannaichs, and lies off the main ridge on a subsidiary spur. After visiting this Munro, I retraced steps to rejoin the main ridge at the Top Càrn na Criche, where the ridge changes direction and heads eastwards. The eastern Fannaichs are big rounded, grassy hills with a series of steep broken northeast faces. The next Munro Sgùrr Mòr, the highest of the Fannaichs, is the most notable, with wet crags tumbling steeply into deep corries.

From Sgùrr Mòr, I headed off on another subsidiary spur, to reach the final Munro of the day, Beinn Liath Mhòr Fannaich. Rather than retrace steps I decided to descend into Fuar Tholl Mòr on the east side of the ridge, where I could camp, then rejoin the ridge further along the following day. This route would miss out on one mile of the main ridge, and the Top of Meall nan Peithirean. I camped just below Loch an Fhuar Thuill Mhòir.

Friday 20th July 2007

It was straightforward to regain the ridge, and soon I was heading towards the final two Fannaichs. These are broad, rock strewn, rounded hills, with good views over Loch Fannich. First was Meall Gorm, then a few miles of easy walking later, I reached An Coileachan, the final Munro of the ridge. From here I began the long descent into Coire nan Laogh, replenishing my water bottle from Alltan Glas.

By Loch Fannich I picked up a track that leads all the way down to Lochluichart Station. Loch Fannich is dammed and its water level was raised as part of the Conon Hydro-Electric Power Scheme, built between 1946 and 1961. An underground water tunnel leading from Loch Fannich to the Grudie Bridge Power Station required blasting out a final mass of rock beneath the loch, a procedure which was referred to popularly as "Operation Bathplug".

As I walked along the track a 4x4 passed by several times, heading to and from Fannich Lodge. The walk was fairly dull, and became even less interesting when I entered the conifer plantation lower down. I wanted to camp fairly close to the station, as I planned to get the first train of the day, however the lower I descended, the more the options diminished.

In the end I decided to camp on a grassy patch besides the track. After I put the tent up I discovered the area was infested with tiny ticks, that were climbing up my flysheet and up the water bottles in the porch. The 4x4 driver stopped later on to check I was OK, which was rather embarrassing, as I was effectively camped beside his driveway!

Saturday 21st July 2007

I reached Lochluichart Station in good time. This is an unstaffed halt, where one has to wave to the train to get it to stop. I prefer to get off at such stations, rather than have the uncertainty of getting on a train that is not obliged to stop. The train arrived on time, and there was no problem getting on. At the next stop, Achanalt, everyone had to change onto a replacement bus service, due to landslides caused by the recent heavy rain.

It was not long before the bus arrived in Achnasheen, and I set off to climb the final Munro of the trip Fionn Bheinn. By not climbing Slioch, I was able to include this Munro in the trip. Although Fionn Bheinn stands alone, it is often grouped together with the Fannaichs, so it was good to be able to complete this group in a single trip.

I walked through a farm on the north side of the A832, then followed a rough path up the Allt Achadh na Sine. At the top of this steep slope I entered a peaty corrie where the path vanished. I continued northwards, climbing rough grassy slopes to the summit of Fionn Bheinn.

I'd been feeling rather glum the past few days, due to the rather disappointing weather, which had obscured some reputably fantastic views and the rather sorry tick-infested campsite beside the track last night. However today, although overcast, was dry, and the clouds were well above the summits. From the top of Fionn Bheinn I had a marvellous view, raising my spirits, ranging over most of the hills that I'd crossed this trip. On the right was the vast Loch Fannich with the whole range of The Fannaichs rising above, on the left was the Fisherfield Six and Slioch, and in the distance I could just make out An Teallach, my favourite of the trip.

I decided to vary the route of descent, and drop down to the west, returning to the peaty corrie, where I set up camp for the night.

Sunday 22nd July 2007

In the morning it was an easy descent, back the way I'd come to Achnasheen, catching the first train of the day to Inverness. I don't recall if I travelled back immediately to Southampton by train, or waited until the sleeper in the evening.

The two highlights of the trip had been An Teallach at the beginning and the view from Fionn Bheinn at the end. I would like to return the area to revisit A' Mhaighdean and get a view, possibly staying at the estate bothy of Carnmore. I would also be great to play on the quartzite slabs of Sgùrr Bàn on a dry day. On this Munro round I would have to revisit the area anyway to climb Slioch, again hopefully with a view over Loch Maree. Still it was satisfying to have survived a trip through the Great Wilderness, one of the wildest unspoilt areas in Scotland.