Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Assynt - The summer walkers

In Scotland "summer" is a loose term that defines the time of year rather than the weather which is more often driech and cold than hot and sunny. And so it was when Rob and I had an early summer holiday walking some hills in the far north.

Our first peak was Quinag, the "milking pail" in Gaelic. Like the other Assynt hills, it rises from the landscape in splendid isolation from its neighbours with a certain degree of drama. All the Assynt peaks have their own unique mountain character but common features are steep, plunging sides and bizarre rock arrangements. We set out for Quinag on a firm path that crossed the moor. The sunshine and the blue sky above might have fooled us into thinking it was summer had it not been for a chill breeze that kept the temperature down and the jackets on.

As we approached Quinag, it struck me how it was a mountain of two halves, cut in the middle by a shallow bealach. To the right of the bealach we climbed the rounded, whaleback top of Sail Garbh where our view stretched over the other Assynt peaks rising from a land studded with sparkling lochans that fell away to the blue of the Atlantic. To the left of the bealach we continued over Spidean Coinich, a much narrower and shaplier peak. We focussed our view on our feet more as we crossed airy, rocky places that plunged to a blue-green lochan nestled in the corrie below.

We moved further north from Quinag and on a grey evening lit by the occasional late ray of sun, we walked into a mountain called Arkle. The track passed an old, boarded-up cottage and I loved how the greys and browns of the walls and roof mirrored the colours in the hills behind. It was as if the cottage had grown with the landscape. Beyond the cottage the trail passed right through the middle of a huge erratic boulder, split into two by primeval elements, and entered a wood filled with the call of a cuckoo. We pitched the tent and named the place Cuckoo Wood.

Next morning the tent was unzipped to a grey, cold day with a stiff northwesterly blowing through. We plodded up Arkle. Mist thickened as heathery slopes gave way to a bizarre feature where we found ourselves walking across a huge plateau covered with small, round pebbles. In the mist we could see nothing else to give us a frame of reference so it was a surreal experience crossing that place. On the far side of this plateau, the ridge narrowed and our route crossed a series of rocky slabs with drops either side, helpfully hidden in the mist. An easy, broad walk then took us onto to the summit. 

In the dense clag there was only the slightest suggestion of a view and in the cold and wind, only the merest hint of summer.

Fact File
Route for Quinag: We parked in a car park on the A894 at NC232273 and on the opposite side of the road followed an obvious path towards the bealach on Quinag. From the bealach a clear path led up to Sail Garbh. We returned to the bealach and continued east along Spidean Coinich, descending its east slabby ridge to pick up the outward route.
Route for Arkle: We parked off the A838 at NC297402, just south of Loch Stack. We followed the track to the cottage marked at Lone and on into the forestry beyond where we pitched the tent. We continued along the path beside the Allt Horn and turned off to climb Arkle's southeast flank to the point marked at 758m. We then followed the curving ridge round to the northwest top marked at 787m. We returned the same way.
Tip: You can hear "The Summer Walkers" by Runrig at this link - click here.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Wester Ross - Coco-nuttie

The old coffin road climbed steeply above Corrie Hallie in hot afternoon sunshine. It was a wonderful place to walk. One of those ancient paths that had been well built to stand the test of time and the passage of feet, hooves and the two fat-bikes that rolled passed me.

The colour scheme was yellow with pale primroses dotted around the woodland floor and rampant gorse in the open areas. I love the gorse at this time of year as it fills the early summer air with its heady, intense scent of coconuts. 

The old road climbed higher into the hills and as it did so the view opened up behind me to the jagged outline of An Teallach. I'd been up there earlier that day. Though my long walk had started the day before at Loch a Bhraoin after I'd wrestled my rucsack from a taxi driver who didn't want to give it up. Taxi? The Inverness train had been very, very late so the last Ullapool bus had left so Scotrail put me in a taxi to the start of my walk. It was well into the evening and a desolate spot so the taxi driver couldn't quite believe that somebody would walk out into the hills there and then.

A meandering walk from there had enabled me to eye up An Teallach on its gentler south side from a wild camp near Shenavall. A beautiful spot in golden evening sunshine as house martins swooped around the tent, cuckoos called in the hills and the warm evening air wafted the coconut scent from a large stand of gorse. The sun had sank behind the mountain on a peaceful evening but next day a blasting gale-force wind had forced me back from the second peak on the narrow ridge. 

As I pulled up and over the highest point of the coffin road that evening, the wind had subsided and I pitched the tent by Loch an Tiompain which reflected back An Teallach in its gently rippled water. The evening was balmy and caddis flies danced above the water, leaving behind on the rocks their beautifully crafted cases that protected them as larvae in the loch. It's a little wonder of nature.

Next day the coffin road dropped steeply to farmland at the head of Loch Broom. Further up the loch a Calmac ferry in its distinctive black, red and white livery slipped away from the cluster of white buildings on the shore that marked the town of Ullapool. It was heading for Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides. I was heading for a cluster of Munros at Beinn Dearg.

Plans to camp high were abandonned in the gale force winds and instead I made a lower basecamp in Glen Sguaib. It was a charming wee spot beside a ruined cottage. The house was surrounded by the drystone wall of a small enclosure and inside the gate the first of the bluebells poked up through rampant bracken. Two big old sycamores had grown through the wall in one corner and provided shade. A couple of wooden pallets made a table and chair for alfresco dining. I poked around the old place. The roof of the cottage had partially collapsed and there was little left of the interior except the old fire grate. It's decaying state contrasted with the new spring growth and bird activity all around in the woods.  Despite the state of the ruin, it wasn't a sad place but had a happy atmosphere, full of life and warmth.

With the tent and heavy kit left below, I climbed Beinn Dearg and its adjacent neighbours, barely able to stand at times in the gales. Beinn Dearg has a bizarre drystone wall all along its summit ridge. It's a blot on the landscape but I was grateful for its shelter. The sun shone but higher up the lochans still held floating blocks of ice. There was some lingering snow which melted as the day passed, making the stream crossings on the descent tricky.

On my final day the winds eased and I made the long trek to an outlying mountain called Seanna Bhraigh, the "old height". My route skirted the Cadha Dearg, a huge bite out of the hillside with deep crags and cliffs. Then it climbed up the broad flank of Seanna Bhraigh before revealing the sudden, plunging cliffs on the north side. Westwards the view stretched to the isolated peaks of Assynt, hazy in the summer shimmer, while northwards was an empty place of mile after mile of moor.

I turned my back on the old height and trekked out to Inverlael. At the hillwalkers' car park, I scrounged a lift into Ullapool. Strange to be moving so quickly and easily after a week on foot. The miles passed fast with chat of the hills but the whole while stuck in the car, I missed the smell of coconuts.