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Posts tagged ‘Assynt’

Mountains on my mind

IMG_3159The hills lure you from every window in the wild rocky paradise of Assynt, and even in the rain the view from our hostel dorm to the massive hulk of Quinag was mesmerising. We dodged the stormy weather for a gentle evening stroll through rainbows to a chambered cairn just up the glen then decided to climb Stac Pollaidh next morning. It’s only  612m high but ranks 10/10 for drama.

P1060829It was a steep but short ascent and  once we reached our high vantage we gazed over to the distant, outlandish rocks of Suilven, Ben Mor Coigach, Cul Beag and Canisp until their ancient outlines were imprinted in our minds, certain to call us back. Read more

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Getting back on the trail (Sutherland cont.)

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Sutherland, the far empty corner of the northwest, is Scotland at it’s most remote.

It’s wild, bare and beautiful but in mid summer it can also be catastrophically itchy because it’s home to the meanest, most prolific midges on the planet. And for the next few days we’re going to run the gauntlet.

It’s been 15 months since we had to pull out of the long-distance Sutherland Trail just half way through when the weather closed in with rain, snow and sleet – and the prospect of another three or four days in the hills with no shelter was just too grim.

We’ll be taking the train tomorrow from Inverness back to Lairg then transferring to a minibus to the tiny village of Achfary to pick up where we left off,  wild camping on the isolated tracks through glens and hillsides that should be starting to turn purple with heather in full bloom. The only niggling worry is that it’s peak season for the notorious midges so, unless there’s a wind to keep them at bay, we’ll be in trouble.

This adventure has been a long time in the planning but my rucksack is packed (and ominously heavy) for four days of walking, my new boots are about to face their first serious test and the weather is looking good.

All we need now is a strong Sutherland breeze to keep the beasties at bay.

Sutherland Trail: Over the hill from Kylesku to Achfary

P1030824We saw little wildlife or even farm stock during our four days on the hills. There were a few red deer and some oystercatchers and when we got down to croft land there were plenty Cheviot ewes, many of them leading their lambs astray onto roads.

It was too early for midges but there were ticks, and one took a firm hold of my forearm. I’ve encountered them plenty of times in the past and always used to soak a tissue in whisky and twirl the tick round until it dropped out – drunk! – but that method has been discredited these days in favour of a tool which cost £5 but P1030853didn’t work for me. It’s unnerving having an insect’s jaw fixed in your flesh, but it’s finally out now.

The day began with us retracing our steps of the night before, past Kylesku and over the modern curved bridge to Kylestrome, via the monument to the submariners and “human torpedoes” who trained in these deep waters during the Second World War.

P1030800The stone at Kylestrome is engraved : “The security of these top secret operations was guarded by the local people who knew so much and talked so little.” Quite a tribute.

A hydro electric plant is being built at the foot of the waterfalls which tumble down the  Maldie Burn out of Loch an Leathiad Bhuain and a road is being bulldozed all the way over the top to Achfary. It made walking easy but was leaving a scar and felt incongruous in such a remote place. There were several men working on “landscaping” in the freezing conditions, attempting to soften the edges and minimise erosion but I wonder how successful that will be in such a climate. A couple of landrovers carrying equipment trundled past as we toiled up the hill to the snow line where we stopped to boil soup and noodles, only to discover a workmen’s hut just a couple of hundred yards further on. Bad planning!

P1030820It was remote up here yet we often saw the ruins of ancient settlements  and sheilings, even at the top of the Achfary Forest, opposite Ben Stack. And here my map, bought just two weeks ago, was already out of date because most of the trees have been felled recently and the new road ploughs steeply down the hill to the village which is the headquarters of  Reay Forest estate.

There’s a plaque on a wall here which has an obsequious feel to it in this land where so many poor people were cleared by absentee P1030850landowners to make way for sheep and I find it hard to believe all the Duke’s “servants” were so “grateful” to him – or that they would want to list his vast collection of properties “with the angling attached”! It’s interesting that his descendants still find it necessary to feature such feudalism so prominently.

I walked on in the rain, pondering the words and their contrast with the stone I had admired earlier in the day to the men who had given their lives for their country and who hadn’t been recognised at all until just 20 years ago.

In the Duke’s case “He understood so little and boasted so much” would be a more appropriate monument.

Sutherland Trail: Ancient rocks, old ruins and walking the Marble Road

P1030771The Inchnadamph Hotel is host these days to walkers, fishermen and tourists but in the 1880s two men stayed here overnight and their work in the Assynt area was to change the understanding of the earth’s internal structure for ever. They were the celebrated nineteenth century geologists Ben Peach and John Horne whose signatures in the visitors book are proudly displayed in the hotel.

Such is the importance of the ancient rocks in these hills the area will always be a magnet for geologists. There were a few in the bar in the evening but breakfast was shared with other walkers and fishermen who were, like us, excited about their plans for the day. We daundered up the road, stopping to look round Assynt Church and its graves, poking about the MacKenzie stronghold IMG_1309of Calda House then out to the stark ruins of Ardvreck Castle, the 15th century seat of the MacLeods of Assynt.

Finally we tore ourselves away from the crumbling walls and set out across the old Marble Road over the hill towards Unapool and Kylesku, a route that was used to transport marble quarried nearby in the early 1800s. Our alternative route delving deeper inland to a waterfall looked wild and magnificent on the map but the rain had started and we knew we would see little of the scenery in such conditions.

Our constant companion now, dominating the views to the west, was the multi-topped topsy-turvy mountain of Quinag with its fresh snow covering. Then, as we walked along the main road, our focus changed to Loch Glencoul and the famous “Glencoul Thrust” on the hillside across the loch. It’s a stunning example of “young”  540 million year old quartzite sandwiched between two layers of Lewisian gneiss which is 3000 million years old. I quote the figures we read on the info board but struggle to understand the forces that shuffled the P1030754rocks below the ground to create such a feature and have no comprehension whatsoever of what 3000 million years (or even a million years) might look like! But it’s still awesome information so I stared across at the rock for a long time trying to imagine the excitement of Peach and Horne as they made their discovery then their struggle to change established opinion. Younger rocks below older ones? No wonder Assynt has played host to international geologists ever since.

We were drenched when we reached our B&B late in the afternoon but soon ready to venture back out into the night for the mile-long walk to the Kylesku Hotel’s restaurant for some delicious fish and chips. And then it was back on with the boots, waterproof jackets, leggings, hoods and out into the pouring rain, up the road to bed.

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Sutherland Trail: Bogs, rivers, lochs and rain

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If only I had been able to lift my eyes from my feet I’d have spent the whole long day gazing at views of Suilven and Canisp. But the track was rough, boggy, difficult to find and often masquerading as a river-course after the previous 12 hours of heavy rain so every step had to be carefully negotiated.

That meant I had to stop a lot, to stand and stare at the silhouettes of the hills which changed so starkly from every angle. On our walk in to Suilven, Caisteal Liath, the true peak, dominated the horizon. And while it is just 8 metres higher than Meall Meadhonach, it reared magnificently. Now though the “pointed” end appeared to soar  stark and elegantly beautiful above its dumpier twin.

Meanwhile sleeker, elongated Canisp  became our neighbour. Its extra 100 metres of height had attracted a fresh covering of snow overnight and we walked the whole length of its long southern flank past more than a dozen streams tumbling down the hill, all overflowing with water. Finally we stopped for a rest and lunch near the end of P1030721Lochan Fada, the long narrow loch. We found a spot that was down near the river and as sheltered as could be but it was windy so we struggled to light a stove. Finally though the water boiled and we had sustenance: soup, hot chocolate and Alpen bars.

The recommended route from here was to cut across country, over the shoulder of Canisp to hit the main A837 road and walk towards Inchnadamph but we figured the much longer “track” would be better when the ground was so boggy. Hmmm. I doubt if the open hillside could have been any worse than the route we chose, which was often a real struggle to locate at all.  We ploutered on  and eventually (with some imaginative orienteering) reached the shore of the rugged Cam Loch which would have made a fantastic camping spot. But time was short so we headed on, hugging the shore, and finally made it out over an awful last section, through a gate and on the road between Elphin and Ledmore.

Inchnadamph was still a 6-7 mile walk from here along the main road and we were getting weary after two heavy days. A car sped past ignoring my outstretched arm. And then – oh the excitement! – a school bus pulled up. The kids looked aghast and held their noses as we heaved our wet packs aboard and sank down in seats near the front. Assynt sped by from the window,  Canisp passed in a flash and  quickly, effortlessly we were deposited outside the Inchnadamph Hotel. Yes, of course the plan had been to camp, but we were drenched and bodies and feet were aching. The prospect of soaking in a bath of hot bubbles was just too enticing.

Richard at the hotel was great. He collected our sodden boots and clothes in baskets outside our rooms and had them clean and dry for us in the morning. He also provided sound advice, the best weather forecasts and the use of his laptop during the course of the evening as we lounged at an open fire over a couple of drams and some good hot food.P1030706

Tomorrow would be wet, windy and cold but I couldn’t wait to get back on the trail in the morning.

Sutherland Trail: Suileag Bothy

Back in the bothy we were shivering. The air was damp and our bags had been too heavy to carry  fuel for the fireplace. Yet our timing had been only slightly out as I’d met people on the hill who’d had a great roaring coal fire and company the previous evening. But we were alone with only matches and a few kindlers to burn. It was barely enough.

We boiled water, made soup and pasta then at 8pm, wearing every piece of warm clothing in our rucksacks, we crawled into sleeping bags to drink hot chocolate. It was bedtime in the bothy.

P1030680Just before midnight I woke up. A full howling storm was battering our tiny stone house, torrents of rain pelting down on the noisy metal roof and rattling windows which looked out to the dark hulk of mountain. I lay and listened, absorbing the full might of the weather and idly pondering (as you do through the night) how the modern roof was attached to the ancient walls and just how secure it might be. Occasionally there would be a respite and then the wind whirled around us, sucking up enough energy to batter and blast with wave after relentless wave of fury. Rain soaked in under the shaking doorway and somewhere at the far end of the bothy another door banged all through the night.

How fortunate that we had retraced our steps and not camped as originally planned. It would mean an extra few kilometres walking in the morning but for now we were safe and dry. And finally warm.