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Layers of time

Karen Thorburn

The mountainous landscapes of the northwest Highlands of Scotland have to be seen to be believed. One person who had clearly never ventured to Assynt was my primary school art teacher. I can recall a lesson nearly 25 years ago in which my classmates and I were instructed to draw a picture of the Scottish landscape. Following a summer holiday with my family in Ardmair near Ullapool, I was inspired to sketch Stac Pollaidh. I drew the steep rocky slopes and craggy summit of this small yet spectacular mountain rising above the sheltered waters of Loch Lurgainn and handed it to my teacher who bluntly informed me that, “we don’t have landscapes like that in Scotland” and instructed me to rub out the drawing and produce something else. My nine-year-old self was stunned into silence and the picture of Stac Pollaidh was promptly destroyed. If I had a time machine, this is one of many moments from my school days that I would choose to re-live with an adult head on my shoulders.

Stac Pollaidh from Loch Cùl Dromannan

Stac Pollaidh is one of many distinctive mountains in the region that begs to be sketched, painted and photographed. It occupies the heart of Assynt with its neighbours, Cul Beag, Cul Mòr, Canisp and Suilven; Scotland’s answer to Rio de Janeiro’s Sugarloaf Mountain. To the south lies Ben Mòr Coigach, a wall of rock towering over Ardmair Bay and, to the north, the imposing Quinag overlooking Loch Assynt. What makes this landscape unique is the distinctive appearance of each of these mountains and their even spacing, best seen from the high point on the B869 at Strone, north of Lochinver. If I could return to that moment in Primary 5, the rebel in me would replace the deleted image of Stac Pollaidh with one of Suilven in a defiant attempt to educate my misinformed art teacher on the spectacular landscapes in this corner of the Highlands (and perhaps offer some advice on how to engage with school pupils in a constructive way).

Canisp and Suilven from Strone

Assynt is not only a photographer’s paradise; it is also a geologist’s Mecca. Since the Ice Ages began 2.6 million years ago, Scotland has experienced cycles of intensely cold glacial periods interspersed with warmer interglacial episodes. The last ice receded around 10,000 years ago, allowing vegetation to gradually colonise bare soils and create the basis of the landscapes that we know and love. Glaciation shaped the length and breadth of Scotland, from the ‘crag and tail’ landform of Edinburgh’s Castle Rock and Royal Mile; to our most iconic valley, Glen Coe; to the deepest inland water body in the British Isles, Loch Morar; and the enigmatic mountains of Assynt.

Ardvreck Castle, Loch Assynt

Although the landscape we see today was sculpted by glaciers in recent geological time, the rock formations in Assynt are much, much older. This region is home to the most ancient rocks in Europe, with the low-lying Lewisian gneiss hills dating back over 3 billion years. The iconic mountain of Stac Pollaidh and its neighbours, comprised of younger Torridonian sandstone, stand proud above the bedrock, having resisted the immense erosive powers of the Ice Ages over millennia.

My brother and mum at Ardmair

In the nineteenth century, a series of geological thrust planes were identified, including the Moine Thrust, visible at the Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve. Geologists Benjamin Peach and John Horne laid the foundations for the discovery of plate tectonics when they established that immense forces had thrust metamorphic rocks, once deep underground, over younger sedimentary rocks on the Earth’s crust. Other features of note in the North West Highlands Geopark include the 70m (229 ft) high Old Man of Stoer sea stack; Eas a’ Chùal Aluinn, the UK’s highest waterfall with a 200m (658 ft) sheer drop; and the Inchnadamph Bone Caves, where some of the oldest animal remains in Scotland were uncovered in 1889, including bones from lynx, wolf, reindeer, bear and arctic fox. The northern Highlands continues to reveal its secrets to geologists. As recently as 2006, impact deposits at Enard Bay and Stoer, both in Assynt, provided evidence for an asteroid impact centred on Lairg, some 1.2 billion years ago.

My dad and I sailing around Isle Martin, July 1997

Geological time certainly puts my own sense of mortality into perspective. We are simply passing through; custodians of a changing landscape for a short period of time. My earliest memories of Assynt were formed two and a half decades ago – not even the blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things – yet this feels like ancient history to me. Assynt is a place I’ve returned to time and again throughout my life. In my childhood, it offered a backdrop to carefree summer days, skimming stones on the shore at Ardmair, building sandcastles at Achmelvich and sailing around Isle Martin. As a budding photographer and young adult frustrated by city living, the calm surroundings of Achnahaird, Clachtoll and Knockan Crag provided peace when I needed an escape from the hustle and bustle of the Central Belt.

Ben Mòr Coigach from Loch Cùl Dromannan

Nowadays, the ancient Assynt landscape continues to provide photographic inspiration, particularly in autumn when the caravan parks have emptied, and the hillsides have exploded into a palette of rust and gold after the monotonous green hues of summer. This special place also helps me to reflect on my own metamorphosis following life-changing events over the last couple of years. After five months of struggling to express my grief after the untimely passing of my father, I stumbled across a powerful analogy that crystallized in my mind. The loss of a loved one is like a boulder being thrown into a placid lochan. The shockwaves ripple through every aspect of life but, in time, they begin to settle. Although the water surface becomes calm once more, the jagged boulder remains lodged in the depths of the lochan, destined to reside there for eternity. With each passing day, I take another tentative step into the future, slowly coming to terms with the fractured landscape around me and assimilating this unwelcome boulder into my environment. As time passes, Assynt will no doubt remain one of my most cherished places in Scotland, home to spectacular landscapes, mind-blowing geology and a lifetime of memories.

See the Walkhighlands guide to Assynt – featuring a wide choice of walks and accommodation – to begin your own adventures.

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