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