Location: Sutherland Map: OS Landranger 16 Distance: 8 miles (13km) Time: 5-7 hours Grade: Serious mountain walk
IT might be called the “fairy hill” but there was nothing soft and fluffy about Ben Hee on a day of scudding clouds and intermittent wind-driven rain. We’d spent the night beside Loch Merkland, a place haunted by the call of the black-throated diver, but dawn broke in uncompromising fashion and the day threw down its watery gauntlet – either pack up and go home or get swathed in Gore-Tex and go for it. We chose the latter option.
Ben Hee is one of the unsung giants of Sutherland and is rarely mentioned in the same breath as iconic mountains of the north such as Foinaven or Suilven. At 873m/2863ft it doesn’t have the height to make Munro status and so tends to be overshadowed by higher neighbours such as Ben Hope, Ben Klibreck and the Inchnadamph pair of Ben More Assynt and Conival.
That said, veteran hillwalker and author Hamish Brown once wrote: “Ben Hee may be a schisty dome compared to some of the other giants but it shares a special, spacious splendour.” It certainly does, rising fortress-like above the western fringes of that bog-splattered region that eases its way east towards Strath Naver and the Flow Country of Caithness. While the mountain presents its best face in this direction, where it rises on corriebitten, steeply-tiered flanks, access is long and tedious over a waterlogged mattress of moorland.
For the determined, there is a footpath accessed by the Altnaharra to Strath More road. It crosses the Meadie Burn then straggles its way up to Loch Coire na Saidhe Duibhe, which shimmers in the north-east corrie of the mountain. From the northern shores of the loch you can climb on to the long north ridge of Ben Hee, traversing the hill’s 851m top to the actual summit. The summit is impressively situated above Choire Gorm and another nestling lochan, but I’m afraid we didn’t see much of it. While our climb was intermittently blessed by watery sun and occasional clearances, all we saw from the trig point was a dense curtain of vapour.
Now, the last thing I want to do is give the impression that we had a miserable day, because we didn’t, and it’s amazing how a sudden break in the cloud and a beam of sunlight can lift the spirits in such a way that the whole day becomes worthwhile and memorable. It’s in such memories that we can fashion a purpose out of this curious compulsion to climb mountains to their summit, only to turn around and come back down. Fortunately our memories tend to be selective and the rain-soaked hours are often forgotten.
We climbed the hill from the west, from where an ancient through route, a drove road, links upper Strath Shin with Strath More in the north. The only previous time I had been up Ben Hee I had followed a narrow path that climbed into Coire a’ Chruiteir below the hill’s western ridge but storms and flooding had wiped out any traces of it. A landslide of boulders had diverted the corrie’s stream and the main track looked as though it had taken the brunt of it. A couple of JCBs stood by the side of the newlyrepaired track, but the corrie footpath had gone, vanished under a tumult of water-washed boulders and scree.
Instead we continued north on the old drove road towards its high point, the Bealach nam Meirleach or the robbers’ pass, and just before the path descended to Loch an Tuim Bhuidhe we took to the heather and climbed steeply up to the 582m summit of Sail Garbh, Ben Hee’s western outlier.
A broad, pleasant ridge took us on to the summit slopes and as we climbed our hopes for better weather rose correspondingly. Breaks in the cloud and bursts of sunlight revealed Ben Hope and Ben Loyal to the north, rising from a sun-glinting, sparkling bed, and our descent route, over Meallan Liath Mor, was revealed as a broad, easy-angled ridge that dropped towards the drove road. The rest of our walk was spent playing peek-a-boo with the views as the mist and clouds came and went. We weren’t too sorry to eventually drop below the clouds, buoyed by the fact we had accepted the day’s watery gauntlet and enjoyed one of the north’s lesser-known Corbetts.
Route: Start and finish at West Merkland on the A838 (GR: NC384330). Take the private road N past a locked gate. Follow this track to its high point just above Loch an Tuim Bhuidhe. Leave the track and climb the steep N flanks of Sail Garbh to its summit. Descend to a col at the head of a steep-sided corrie before climbing a steeper ridge that leads to the summit slopes of Ben Hee. Climb the slopes in an E direction to reach the summit ridge. The trig point summit is at the S end of the ridge. Descend via the head of Coire nam Mang and Meallan Liath Mor and back to West Merkland.
The Corbett Ben Hee – fairy hill – inspired author and hillwalker Hamish Brown to describe it as having ‘a special, spacious splendour’