The Far North

I recently returned from the very North of Scotland where I spent time exploring the hills of Sutherland. The sentinels of Sutherland stand out in the mind and in magnitude. Names, such as Arkle, Foinaven and Cranstackie, seize the imagination, concentrations of contours that inexorably draw the eye on an Ordnance Survey map; and they are huge monoliths, guarding a landscape of expansive peat bogs and heather, riven by the famous glens of Strath Naver and Strath More. It was a magical time of communion with untamed terrain, open skies and shear isolation and solitude. In visiting the far North of Scotland, I was as far removed as I could imagine from the gentle aspects of the Oxfordshire countryside and busyness of life and work.

Cnoc Craggie and Loch Craggie

Based in Tongue, I was in the shadow of the mighty Ben Loyal, at the northern end of which was the prow of Sgor Chaonasaid, a face of rock that rose up from the valley floor, sheer and as true as a ship’s bow. As I looked out upon it, low cloud poured over the various crenellations of Ben Loyal, like waves breaking over a ship in an Atlantic storm. Although Loyal, as it is known locally, falls well below Munro status at 765m, it makes up for this through sustained interest from every aspect. It is a mountain whose relatively low stature belies its character, and I now understand why it has gained the title, Queen of Scottish Mountains’. The ‘leap of faith’ on the Grade 2* scramble of Sgor Chaonasaid was particularly fun.

Daniel enjoying the view from the prow of Sgor Chaonasaid, Ben Loyal

As well as Ben Loyal and the more well known hills, we took the opportunity to explore less frequented areas, and were well rewarded. The low-lying hills local to Tongue provided a good warm-up and later in the week we visited Meallan Liath (601m), a hill which provides much interest. Shortly after starting out, I spotted an otter at close quarters on the bank of the Kinloch River. Later on, after a long detour, because of unhelpful direction from a stalking party, we eventually gained the summit and enjoyed interest and scrambling on the northern ridge to regain the valley. The detour forced us to contend with an obstacle often faced in Scotland – river crossing. A glance at the map would have led one to believe that one could stride over it. In reality we were facing a raging torrent and finally made another ‘leap of faith’ to gain the far bank. After a week in Scotland I was well adept at leaping and jumping over streams, bogs and obstacles!

Admiring the craggy North ridge of Meallan Liath

After a rest day, investigating the sea cliffs around Port Vasgo which offer much scope for new rock climbs, short routes and bouldering, or just a day out with the family, I made a solo day of Beinn Stumanadh (527m). This had a much different feel: I was much more drawn into the route itself, conditions and my own thoughts. I found myself in conversation with myself mentally rather than those who might have been around me, which itself was almost a subconscious state. The beauty of walking solo too was the ease and fluidity of movements, unencumbered by the speed and demands of others. The smaller hills were certainly interesting, but over all too quickly, leaving me yearning for bigger challenges further to the West.

The Tongue road looking towards Beinn Stumanadh

With an improvement in the weather, which had been somewhat patchy, we headed for Foinaven, which were it 3.4m higher, would replace Ben Hope as the most northernly Munro. Foinaven is a great outing, with a classic big walk-in and -out. Moreover, we decided to include the Grade 3** scramble of Cnoc Duail for further excitement. This is technical scrambling on slabs, requiring balance and plenty of trust in friction, serious in places, but very rewarding as one becomes engrossed with overcoming the various sequence of moves over the buttresses. Having gained the subsidiary peak of Cnoc Duail, we were treated to the amazing rock architecture and colour that makes up Foinaven. Quartzite in the rock lends an unusual light colour to the screes that pour from certain aspects and alleviates the dark, subdued nature of many hills in the area. Foinaven is incredibly isolated and unfrequented, and like a number of hills in the area, holds plenty of scope for rock climbing exploration and winter routes.

The team enjoying a brief stop on top of Foinaven (L-R: Daniel, myself, Carys, Bridget)

The finale of the week was on Ben Hope, but we eschewed the scar of the ‘voie normale‘ up the western and southern  flanks, instead taking the exciting Grade 3** scramble of Brown’s Ridge to join the North ridge. This was a fitting outing on the last day to end a great week. I was glad to avoid the tourist path and Brown’s Ridge revealed some exciting climbing and positions, although in the lower reaches the midge population descended on us and mauled any exposed flesh. I took the opportunity to assimilate lots of knowledge from John, an experienced walker and climber with us, and the use of belays in scrambling is a good example of the compromise between speed and safety and vigilance, which comes into play further in alpine climbing. Having gained the North ridge and then the summit after the short ‘bad step’ we romped down the southern flank, which is a tortuous plod in ascent with unrelenting rock fields and no views of one’s progress until the very top. We ended with a furious sprint to the car in the warm sunshine. Now that was a quality day out.

Daniel hanging out on Brown's Ridge (Grade 3**), Ben Hope

As we crossed back over the Kyle of Tongue, we stopped to take in the classic view of Ben Loyal. It is this view that captures the essence of the far North of Scotland: being enveloped by sea, moor and mountain.

Ben Loyal: between sea, moor and mountain

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