Discovering Torridon

Fiona RussellIn my opinion, there are few glens in Scotland as dramatic as Torridon and a drive along the road that winds through the base of the glacier-eroded valley is always breath-taking. No matter the season or the weather – and in this wilderness area of Scotland it can be fast-changing and fickle – the steep-sided, rugged mountainscape of ancient Lewisian gneiss, white quartzite and red Torridonian sandstone offers magnificent views.

It is a place, too, where the pace is more old-fashioned and relaxed. Both locals and visitors willingly pull into passing places on the smoothly tarmacked singletrack A896, which winds 17 miles between the inland village of Kinlochewe south to coastal Shieldaig, and few people appear to be in a hurry to get anywhere in particular.

Like me, it seems, everyone relishes the opportunity to take their eyes off the road for a minute or two to gaze up high, to where numerous lofty mountain peaks and ridges meet the sky.

Unsurprisingly, the journey to this remote north-west area of Scotland takes time. Torridon is most easily reached from the Highlands capital city of Inverness, with a scenic 90-minute drive that should be savoured rather than rushed. From Glasgow or Edinburgh, the journey usually takes at least 4.5 hours. While long, the views of the ever-changing landscape as you drive though the southern Highlands and then to the west Highlands offer ample diversion.

I have sometimes travelled by train, north from Glasgow, alighting with my bike at the tiny request-only stations of Garve or Achnasheen on the Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh railway line. My favourite way to arrive in Torridon is on the long, sweeping and mostly downhill (or is that my imagination?) A832 into Kinlochewe at the head of Torridon glen itself.

In fact, I think that a bike is perhaps the best way to explore by road in the wider Torridon area. The roads might be narrow but they are often quiet, while the landscape seems all the more grand than from inside a car. Kinlochewe with its range of facilities and accommodation, including the excellent and quirky Whistle Stop Cafe, would make an excellent base for exploring the area.

The road from Kinlochewe to Torridon and on to Shieldaig is a favourite cycle ride. I can never resist the challenge of the nearby Bealach na Ba, the infamous road that rises from sea level at Tornapress on the Applecross Peninsula over 10km to a height of 600m in a series of Alpine-style hairpins.

The Bealach na Ba

This climb is part of two annual cycle sportives organised by Hands On Events and the increasingly popular North Coast 500, a 500-mile road drive that heads through Torridon on its circuit of the north-west region of the Scottish Highlands, starting and finishing in Inverness. Thankfully, most motorists seem to be respectful of cyclists and, in any case, no one can speed up the pass.

Off-road, mountain bikers can ride the “Best Trail of the Year” as voted in two consecutive years by MBR Magazine. The 29-mile Torridon circuit is a tough ride with more than 800m of ascent on natural singletrack. For a shorter and slightly less challenging route, the 14-mile Beinn Damph circuit is highly recommended.

Sea kayaking is another big attraction and the Torridon coastline is part of the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail, a route of 500km from the Mull of Kintyre to Ullapool.

Paddling the crystal clear waters around Loch Torridon offer a seal’s eye view of the spectacular shoreline and gives access to hidden coves, sandy beaches and sea inlets.

The Minch, which separates the north-west Highlands from the northern Inner Hebrides, is gem for paddlers. The waters are warmed by the Gulf stream and teem with marine life. It’s a hotspot for seeing dolphins, porpoise and seals, as well as whales, basking sharks and otters, if you’re lucky.

It’s possible to join a guided kayak outing or a wildlife boat trip, which primarily depart from Gairloch and Shieldaig.

Inland freshwater lochs, especially picturesque Loch Maree to the north of Torridon, are also popular with kayakers. The loch is a Scottish National Nature Reserve and boasts some 60 islands, many covered in ancient Caledonian Pine Forest.

Historic Isle Maree is thought to have been the hermitage of Saint Mael Ruba, who came to Scotland in the 7th century from Ireland and founded the monastic community of Applecross.

The loch is also famous for its location beneath the towering, castellated slopes of Slioch, one of Torridon’s great Munros. Indeed, it’s the many Munros (17) and Corbetts (19) that have earned Torridon enviable acclaim as a mountain baggers’ Mecca.

Perhaps the most famous Munros hike in Torridon is the fearsome ridge of Liathach, known as “the grey one”. Between the summits of Spidean a’Choire Leith and Mullach an Rathain are the vertiginous Am Fasarinen pinnacles, which require a head for heights.

Despite my anxiety of high ridges, my most recent trip to Torridon saw me tackling the Liathach traverse. I am closing in on my first Munro round and I needed to bag the two Munro peaks.

I felt daunted, right from the start of the walk at the glen roadside, as I craned my neck to gaze up at the near vertical rocky sides of the iconic ridge.

Yet, as a fairly fit walker and on a clear day, I found most of the walk straightforward although steep both on the ascent and descent. The pinnacles lived up to their reputation but I coped with several short sections of very narrow goat path around two pinnacles and a scramble over the third.

The scramble is not technically difficult but because of the feeling of exposure it can be very nerve wracking. My method for mental survival is to steadfastly avoid looking at the drop-offs and to focus instead on the up and not the air beneath my feet. It helps that I have a confident and experienced climber as a partner to encourage me on and to help me to place hands and feet in the right places.

The rewards for this ridge come in the stunning wide-ranging vistas over Torridon and to the islands of the Hebrides and Skye, including, in fine weather, the king of Scotland’s ridges, the Cuillin. Of course, a champagne toast when we arrived back at our campervan was also in order.

Other targets for Munro baggers in Torridon are Beinn Alligin’s summits of Sgurr Mor and Tom na Gruagaich and the bulky hulk of Beinn Eighe with its two peaks, Ruadh-Stac Mor and Spidean Coire nan Clach.

The Corbetts offer further rewarding discoveries. So often tucked into the beautiful but uncompromising landscape between and behind the taller mountain siblings, the Corbetts provide cracking views and a range of challenges.

North of Beinn Eighe is rugged Meall a Ghiubhais and just separated from the main ridge is another Corbett, the huge dome of Ruadh-stac Beag. Sgorr nan Lochan Uaine’s sharp peak and rocky Sgurr Dubh are worthy of a hike and both present magnificent viewpoints.

For walkers with less experience, or energy, there is an impressive number of gentler routes amid the mountains. The Triple Buttress of Coire Mhic Fhearchair might sound a bit feisty but it offers an easier-graded walk into one of Scotland’s finest corries.

The Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, which is part of the Torridon Estate, boasts a unique waymarked “Mountain Trail”. It poses a steep but easy-to-follow path that gives a real flavour of the drama of the landscape as you head through atmospheric ancient pinewoods and on to a remote and other-worldly plateau of quartzite rocks.

The nature reserve has another easier walk, the Woodland Trail, if you are in the mood for a stroll. Keep a look out for an array of flora and fauna as you explore, including important plant colonies, rare mosses and lichens, red deer, pine marten and golden eagle.

In the bay at the end of Upper Loch Torridon lies Torridon village, the small settlement that gives its name to the area. The village – which until the 1950s was called Fasag – is strung out along the road and lochside giving access to a number of lovely shoreline walks.

More beginner friendly walking options are found at Shieldaig for a lovely peninsula walk or Diabaig, a sheltered coastal fishing village located across Loch Torridon’s waters, where strolling the shore offers wonderful views. The Gille Brighde Cafe provides another reason to stop here and refuel on locally-sourced top quality homemade food.

For cyclists the crazy winding road over the high headland and down to Diabaig is a tough but incredible ride. Climbers also like Diabaig’s multiple routes on the crags of the Meall Cean na Creige. This includes the giant slab of rock known as the Diabaig Pillar with views higher up over Upper Loch Torridon and the Minch.

If you are looking for more ideas for an active trip see Walhighlands Torridon Walks or book in for the Torridon Mountain & Sea Festival, which takes place in autumn. The festival has grown from the annual Torridon Ale Festival and the Torridon Walking Festival and is said to “fill the space between with a range of events closely tied to the mountains and sea”.

The Torrridon Hotel and Inn also has a dedicated outdoors activity manager and a programme of trips and sessions including sea kayaking, open canoes, clay pigeon shooting, mountain biking, walking and archery.

Torridon is an area I always look forward to visiting and one that I never tire of exploring.

Visit the Walkhighlands’ guide to walks and accommodation in Torridon and Gairloch region.

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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.