North­ern ex­po­sure

Once seen, never for­got­ten: the ex­tra­or­di­nary land­scape of Assynt-Coigach is like nowhere else in Bri­tain.

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS : J E NNY WALT E R S

Once seen, never for­got­ten.

THE FAR NORTH west of Scot­land seems to know it’s a long way from any­where. With more than 200 miles of gor­geous to dis­tract walk­ers on their way up from the bor­der (as seen in the pre­ced­ing pages) it knows it has to prom­ise some­thing pretty as­tound­ing.

It’s a prom­ise it keeps. The peaks of Assyn­tCoigach are named like he­roes of an­cient myth – Quinag, Canisp, Suil­ven, Cul Mor, Stac Pol­laidh – with the chis­elled pro­files and the big per­son­al­i­ties to match. You will never look at Stac Pol­laidh or Suil­ven and mis­take it for any other moun­tain. Their mag­netism makes driv­ing here chal­leng­ing. It takes an iron will to keep your eyes on the sin­gle-lane Tar­mac, or the twists of what the lo­cals call the ‘wee mad road’, and you’ll likely swing into every layby to drag your sagging jaw from the car for a bet­ter look.

But of course there’s only one way to prop­erly see this land­scape and few walks in Bri­tain hold a torch to a blue-sky day in these moun­tains – although from ex­pe­ri­ence things don’t al­ways go smoothly. I’ve just set out from Cul­nacraig near Achiltibuie on the south shore of the Coigach penin­sula. I can still see the last of its few crofts but al­ready I’ve lost the ‘path’. Dur­ing the 19th cen­tury a route along this coast was the pri­mary land link to the town of Ul­lapool, a six-mile tra­verse of wild ter­rain and ex­posed cliff that the post­man would walk twice weekly, earn­ing 2s 3d per trip. It’s now known as the Postie’s Path, but I’m not headed to town. I’m aim­ing for the top of Beinn Mhòr na Còigich, also known as Ben More (or Mor) Coigach. If I can just find the way that is.

I spot a cou­ple of peo­ple ap­proach­ing – pretty much the only peo­ple I’ll see all day as it turns out – and I bounce off across the track­less heather as if I know ex­actly where I’m go­ing. Cun­ningly to me, but prob­a­bly ob­vi­ously to them, I soon stop to ap­ply sun­screen and let them pass, then puff along a dis­creet dis­tance be­hind, care­fully study­ing the line they take.

The tilt of these open­ing slopes sharp­ens steeply af­ter cross­ing the Allt nan Coisiche, to tack up be­side a foam­ing wa­ter­fall. Every zig and every zag has a new and grow­ing outlook, with the Sum­mer Isles out in the deep blue sheen of Loch Broom get­ting smaller at every turn.

The gra­di­ent, mer­ci­fully, eases soon af­ter the 1000 foot con­tour, but only long enough for you to gulp at what lies ahead. The name Garbh Choireachan and the word ‘wall’ of­ten ap­pear to­gether and it’s now clear that’s for very good rea­son. On the map the ridge’s con­tours stack so steeply they stain the pa­per or­ange. In real life it looks like you’ve reached the Wall that de­fends the Seven King­doms in Game of Thrones.

Every step across the plateau to its foot makes it more daunt­ing. The route tack­les the sea­ward end of the near-mile-long scarp, but de­spite de­ter­mined scan­ning, I’ve yet to see any­thing I can latch onto as a path. In­stead, a mess of maybe-might-be trails sketch up through the Jen­gapile of boul­ders, and so I be­gin, keep­ing a keen eye on my guid­ing-star walk­ers shrink­ing above.

It is both eas­ier than I ex­pect and twice I al­most turn back. Let me ex­plain. As I start up through the slabs and tus­socks and rub­bly ledges I don’t know what’s to come. I’m happy with where I am – as long as I don’t start to won­der what would hap­pen if I slip – but I don’t want to find my­self crag­fast fur­ther up, able to go nei­ther up nor down. I sing a tune to my­self – Dolly Par­ton’s Blue Smoke is my go-to morale booster – and keep edg­ing up, en­cour­aged by the fig­ures ahead. It’s an anx­ious 20 min­utes, but the as­cent turns out to be just more, and more, of the same. A steady­ing hand up past a big boul­der there, a shuffle along a ledge there, and re­peat. If you’re con­tent at the base, you will likely be fine all the way up, and as a barom­e­ter, you should know I have an in­tense fear of heights.

And the re­ward is heart-stop­ping and headswim­ming. Stand­ing at the tip of that high spit of rock, im­mersed in the sky with the sea a vast pool be­low is like float­ing in the blue. I spot a car ferry de­part­ing Ul­lapool and from this eyrie, a bit over 2000 feet up, it’s smaller than a Tonka toy. This is also where I prop­erly meet my un­sus­pect­ing guides, Philip and Sue, as we crowd onto the nar­row ridge. Not as un­sus­pect­ing as I thought, though, as they re­veal they’ve been watch­ing over me to make sure I was okay. As we chat I dis­cover they’ve been here many times and it’s easy to see how this place will take a hold on your soul.

“Glaciers, grind­ing West, gouged out these val­leys, rasp­ing the brown sand­stone, and left, on the hard rock be­low – the ruf­fled fore­land – this frieze of moun­tains, filed on the blue air – Stac Polly, Cul Beag, Cul Mor, Suil­ven, Canisp – a frieze and a litany.” NOR­MAN M ACCAIG , A MAN I N A S SYNT

We point ex­cit­edly at things in the panorama. The jagged jaw­line of An Teal­lach grins away in the Great Wilder­ness to the south, the land be­low frays into Loch Broom, Skye and the Outer He­brides shadow the waves beyond, and a thin blade of ridge slices north-east to­wards Ben More Coigach.

The wall anal­ogy holds true up here. The land va­por­ises even more abruptly on the other side of Garbh Choireachan, leav­ing you balanced on an airy crest with the hig­gledy-pig­gledy pro­file of a dry­s­tone para­pet, where the weather has whipped the sand­stone into cu­ri­ous tow­ers and anvils. The tra­verse turns out to be thrillingly, rather than ter­ri­fy­ingly, slen­der, with by­pass paths just down to the left of the gnarli­est sec­tions, although the ridge it­self feels more se­cure to me. We stop half­way along for lunch – this place de­serves to be savoured – although I have to keep turn­ing away from the oth­ers. I can’t swal­low and look at them perched above the void, with corvids dash­ing darkly be­low them.

And then all too soon the tough stuff is over. The ridge has been a whole lot of fun, although I soon dis­cover there’s plenty more to come. We wan­der up the broad­en­ing shoul­der of Ben More Coigach to its sum­mit at 2438 feet (743 me­tres). This is the high­est point of the route, of Coigach, and also of the Scot­tish Wildlife Trust’s largest na­ture re­serve, which spans over 5000 hectares of moun­tain, coast and croft, where you may spy sax­ifrage and but­ter­wort flow­er­ing across the peat, sweet woodruff and small white orchids twin­ing in the crags, and golden ea­gles keep­ing an eye on it all from above.

I can’t be more than a third of a mile and 13 min­utes from my last view­stop, but I set­tle in for an­other. You could eas­ily lose track of time, as I did, shuf­fling round and round the full wheel of view. Words here are blunt tools, for every el­e­ment is per­fect: slopes soar, ridges cut, lochans gleam, heather rolls wild, the sea twin­kles, and can­dyfloss clouds puff through the blue sky, drift­ing dra­matic sun­shine and shadow across it all. Even­tu­ally, I set­tle on one di­rec­tion and the view north past the slopes of Sgùrr an Fhidhleir – which the far-away dots of Philip and Sue are now climb­ing – and out to the Assynt beyond. This land­scape would once have been a sheet of Tor­ri­do­nian sand­stone, laid down in wa­ter a bil­lion years back. Then, in a se­ries of glacia­tions in the last 25,000 years, ice tore through the red­hued rock to re­veal the Lewisian gneiss (say it ‘nice’) be­neath, leav­ing just a few iso­lated in­sel­bergs – or is­land moun­tains – like Stac Pol­laidh and Suil­ven, some pro­tected by a hard cap of quartzite. Now a geop­ark, it’s a place that looks like nowhere else in Bri­tain and in fact has more in com­mon with Green­land and Canada. Once united in a con­ti­nent called Lau­ren­tia, north­ern Scot­land then drifted off to bump into the land that be­came Bri­tain.

I even­tu­ally peel my­self from the sum­mit and wend down the track­less slopes to a dip in the es­carp­ment be­low Sgùrr an Fhidhleir, also known as The Fid­dler. From this side it’s mostly a grassy hulk, but any­one look­ing from the north would see a pyra­mid of rock with the sharp an­gles of a Toblerone. If you take a route near the edge, you get to

gaze up at the blocky slabs of its west face, and the view from its top is pos­si­bly – in­cred­i­bly – even finer than the sum­mit you’ve just left. This pew nudges a lit­tle closer to the Assynt’s iconic peaks, with Stac Pol­laidh tak­ing cen­tre stage on the far side of Loch Lur­gainn. Short, steep, but very sweet, the walk to the cen­tre of its frost-shat­tered crest is one of the most pop­u­lar in the north-west, although Stac Pol­laidh’s true sum­mit, the 2008-ft knoll on the western end, is for steel-stom­ached scram­blers only. Over lit­tle Pol­laidh’s shoul­der lies the iconic mile-long ridge of Suil­ven, and while these sand­stone peaks ir­re­sistibly draw the eye, the low­lands be­tween are fas­ci­nat­ing too, with their in­tri­cate weft of cno­can and lochan. And this plinth of gneiss is un­fath­omably an­cient, dat­ing back three bil­lion years – two-thirds of Earth’s life­span.

I hear voices float­ing on the breeze and look around, but no­body is in sight. I de­cide it must be dis­tant, the sound car­ry­ing far on the clear sum­mer air, when a face pops up from the sheer drop just beyond my boots, and then a sec­ond. These two climbers have scaled The Fid­dler’s cliffs, known fondly as its nose, with the help, they tell me, of three guide­books which couldn’t agree on the right route. They start to pull up their ropes, stop­ping every few mo­ments to sim­ply take in that view.

The fi­nal cou­ple of miles bowl down a wide grassy ramp to­wards the shore, and this would be a good out-and-back to Sgùrr an Fhidhleir if the airy ridge to Ben More Coigach doesn’t ap­peal. The sun is shin­ing low across the sea now. This walk may be un­der seven miles but I’ve been out for 10 of the best hours I’ve ever had in the hills. The land­scape, the ad­ven­ture, the weather, the peo­ple: these north-west hills have more than kept their prom­ise to as­tound.

A year later and I still have a view from the Big Hill of Coigach as the wall­pa­per on my com­puter. Philip and Sue tell me they do too. And Coun­try Walk­ing pho­tog­ra­pher Tom, who has walked Bri­tain’s land­scapes for 20 years, counts a day up here as a favourite too. If you want a walk you’ll love in every thrilling mo­ment and dream about for years to come, keep your boots pointed north un­til you reach Coigach.

“These shapes; these in­car­na­tions, have their own de­ter­mined iden­ti­ties, their own dark ho­li­ness,

their high ab­sur­di­ties.” NOR­MAN M ACCAIG , A MAN I N A S SYNT

STAMP OF SUM­MER Top: On Garbh Choireachan above the sea and Sum­mer Isles, where a Philatelic Bu­reau is­sues stamps to take post to the main­land for the Royal Mail to col­lect.

Every shape and every colour is a mas­ter­stroke, look­ing north to Stac Pol­laidh and Suil­ven from Sgùrr an Fhidhleir.

AN­CIENT LIFE Above: The rocks of Assynt-Coigach, seen here from The Fid­dler, hold the ear­li­est ev­i­dence of life in Eu­rope, a form of al­gae 1.2 bil­lion years old.

MOUN­TAIN LIV­ING Lucky walk­ers may spot a ptarmi­gan high in the hills, a bird that’s feath­ered white in win­ter and grey-brown in sum­mer, here with a young chick. EAR TO EAR You’ll find there’s only one re­ac­tion to walk­ing the ridge to Ben More Coigach...

TOP OF THE WALL A path threads across the crest to­wards Ben More Coigach, with a by­pass op­tion down to the left. Turn over for more north­ern high­lights…

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