SEVERAL nights ago when the temperature dropped to unusually low levels even for this poor summer I put some logs on the wood burning stove, poured myself a large dram and settled down to read. But it wasn’t a book I was reading – it was the brand new Harveys map of Assynt.
This new 1:40,000 scale map had dropped through my letterbox a few days earlier and it covers what many would regard as one of the finest areas of wild land in Scotland.
The poet Norman MacCaig was passionate in his love for this area – he claimed to have been “possessed” by it:
Glaciers, grinding West, gouged out
These valleys, rasping the brown sandstone,
And left, on the hard rock below – the ruffled foreland –
This frieze of mountains, filed on the blue air – Stac Polly,
Cul Beag, Cul Mor, Suilven, Canisp – a frieze and a litany
Within the defined area are two Munros, nine Corbetts and six Grahams but Assynt is more than just the sum of its mountain tops. It is, as climber John Mackenzie is quoted on the cover, “a maze of rock and water” and some of those rocks rise from a plinth of Lewisian Gneiss that could be three billion years old.
As soon as I unfolded this all-weather polyethylene map on my lap I knew I was in for a treat. Apart from anything else it’s a beautiful thing to behold, mapping of the highest order.
On the reverse side there is a map of cartographic information – summit map enlargements of Stac Pollaidh, Suilven and Quinag; climbing crag route diagrams; a geological map of the area and a list of useful telephone numbers and websites.
In no time I would be planning trips for the future but not before I took a dip into the past. That’s what maps do to me – they act as a kind of aide memoire, bringing back to full technicolour distant and often hazy recollections of earlier days of discovery.
And true to form almost immediately my mind slid back to a wonderful viewpoint I know near Achnahaird Bay on the west coast of Assynt. From that low lying coastal ground your eyes rove along a rosary of magnificently individualistic mountain peaks arrayed from south to north from Ben More Coigach to Cul Beag, Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor, Suilven, Canisp and Quinag. The two Munros of Conival and Ben More Assynt dominate the hinterland beyond.
Can there be a finer grouping of mountains anywhere in this country? Each of these Assynt hills has it own quality, its own idiosyncracies, its own character. These are the jewels that form the royal crown of Assynt.
My first introduction to this area, as is most folks I would guess, was on an ascent of Stac Pollaidh. On her high and rugged flanks you get a grandstand view into that “maze of rock and water” – what was once the Inverpollaidh National Nature Reserve, a region of loch and heathery hummocks clenched between Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor and Cul Beag and the long drawn out ridge of Suilven.
Sometime later this year I decided, once the midges recede, I want to spend some time here with my tent and packraft. I want to explore those watery wastes as well as the deer tracks and infrequent sketchy footpaths. I’ll carry the gear into Loch an Doire Dhuibh, then paddle across it and neighbouring Lochan Gainmhaich and into lovely Loch Sionascaig with its ragged coastline and green islands. I might even camp on one of the islands. Then I’ll portage north into the linear loch system of Fionn Loch and Loch Veyatie, cross the lochs and climb Suilven.
Many years ago I camped on the south side of Suilven and it was a memorable experience. We watched deer hinds tip-toe down to the water’s edge and otters in the Fionn Loch while the drumming of snipe heralded yet another rose-tinted dawn. This time, though, instead of a long walk-out I’ll packraft down Loch Veyatie to Elphin. With a following wind that could be brilliant paddle.
There’s little doubt that Suilven is the showpiece of Assynt – a hill of many shapes. From Elphin in the east it can look like the Matterhorn, rising from its bedrock plinth of Lewisian Gneiss to a narrowing spire, but from the Lochinver coast its western sentinel Caisteal Liath forms a huge rounded bastion of quartzite capped sandstone. From Stac Pollaidh, or Cul Mor in the south its shape changes again into a long, drawn-out sugarloaf, with an obvious depression in the middle – the Bealach Mor, the only break in the fortress-like defences.
I’ve climbed the hill a number of times and once for television as part of a programme about a new walking route between Lochinver and Tongue – we called it the Sutherland Trail.
That ascent was memorable because it was such a wild day. I did a piece to camera near the summit cairn and it took three people and a sturdy tripod to stop the camera from shaking in the wind. But at other times I’ve enjoyed glorious weather on Suilven, including one very memorable east to west traverse.
Just beyond a bridge over the Ledmore River, just north of Elphin, a stalker’s path runs along the north shore of the Cam Loch. About halfway along the lochside, just beyond the crossing of the Abhainn a’ Chroisg, the path begins to fade and its faint outline can be difficult to follow through the heather as it bears north to climb onto the long ridge of Meall na Braclaich.
Once on the rounded crest of the ridge the route becomes clearer and the great spire of Suilven lies ahead. To the north the long trench of Lochan Fada reflects the slopes of Canisp and to the south, across the waters of the Cam Loch and Loch Veyatie, lies the craggy outline of Cul Mor.
As you approach Suilven its dominance gradually fades into something less portentous – the angle of its eastern slope lessens and it’s with some relief that you realise that while still steep, it’s eminently climbable. By threading together a variety of ledges you can scramble up to the broad summit of Meall Beag surprisingly easily, but don’t relax too quickly – the main difficulties still lie ahead. Suilven doesn’t submit its crown quite so easily.
From Meall Beag the ridge narrows appreciably and you are greeted by a deep crack in the sandstone strata. Step across this fissure and continue until you reach a sudden and sheer drop with no obvious point of descent. This 100-foot drop poses a very serious obstacle, but it can be turned by descending steep ground on the north side of the ridge to where a faint line can be found traversing west into the dank and gloomy bealach below Meall Mheadhonach. From this dripping recess a faint path takes a zig-zag route up the steep slopes of Meall Mheadhonach from where more steep, rocky slopes eventually give way to grassy slopes dropping to the safety of the Bealach Mor. As if to offer some assurance, an ancient drystone wall crosses the ridge at this point, pointing the way of the eventual descent route down a steep gully. If a wall can be built down the gully, it shouldn’t prove too difficult to scramble down!
Easy grassy slopes now lead to the summit of Caisteal Liath, a rounded dome of a place with breathtaking views of mountain, moor and sea. Enjoy the panorama, a visual feast from the mountains of Assynt, the delectable outline of Quinag, the great massif that runs from Seana Braigh to Beinn Dearg, and the coastal hills of Coigach.
The descent route follows the wall down the northern gully of the Bealach Mor. Pass the western outflow of Loch na Gainimh to where a stalker’s path crosses the Abhainn na Craich Airigh and continues down the glen towards Glencanisp Lodge and the track to Lochinver.
And the very sight of Lochinver on the map reminded me of something else – the Lochinver Larder and those delectable Lochinver pies! It was time to put the map down, stop day-dreaming and think of something for my supper…