Ben Hee

The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS - CAMERON McNEISH

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’

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