Crossing the border from England to Scotland does not feel like entering a new country, heading north from Ullapool in to the barren wasteland of Sutherlandcertainly does. Cross over the col above the golf course and a new, and better, landscape opens up.Last week our yearly tour was based in Ullapool, one brother in desperate need of completing the Munros, another doing the Corbetts and myself supporting which walk I fancied but determined also to climb Suilven, which vies with Tryfan as the best individual mountain in Britain.
Driving in Sutherland is an experience in itself, the combination of sea lochs and a barren landscape interesting enough but it is the dramatic way that themountains emerge from the ground that is truly astonishing. The hard sandstone hills climb steeply from the lowlands and often from the sea itself creating an almost lunar feel to the surroundings. Each isolated mountain appears seemingly impossible to climb and difficult to get to. They are all possible but nothing in Sutherland is straightforward.
Walking in Sutherland does create its own challenges. The underfoot terrain on the lower slopes is terrible and unless you are fortunate to find a stalkers pass purgatory. This was certainly how I found the climb of Suilven. The path from Inverkraig entices you in relatively gently but once the masses (a relative term in Sutherland, I saw 3 couples near the falls and one other person for the remainder of the day) are left behind the path deteriorates and crossing north of Fionn Loch is a constant balancing act or leaps of faith over the peat hags.
The mountain itself never seemed to draw any closer and the knowledge that ‘the path‘ would need to be repeated on the return makes it a very testing day for an even above average walker. Once reached the steep, rocky flank of the mountain has to be scaled. There is a path that zig zags up but even so the near 1,500 foot climb on to the ridge is very hard work. However all changes on the summit ridge and for the next hour or so I admired the incredible views, enjoyed the mild scrambling to the summit and the middle pinnacle (the easterly pinnacle I had been warned off as a little tricky!) and ate a sandwich beside a perfectly built wall that travels from one side of the mountain to another. Why someone built this wall is a reflection of either dedication or madness.
I met a girl from Germany who for some bizarre reason had a springer spaniel in tow and just as strangely (or impressively) had climbed Canisp on the way to Suilven and was heading down to the both a Suileag, making any complaints I may have had about my aching limbs sound a feeble winge. My only excuse was I was double her age. Oddly I enjoyed the walk back more than the walk in, satisfaction that I had climbed this wonderful mountain after so many years, a mountain which has stood proud in our sitting room wall for the last 15 and which was one of my, still many, must do hills.
On another day Barry and myself headed further north (it is great as a passenger as you can enjoy the views without the fear of driving in to a loch) for a couple of corbetts near Loch More. The mountains to the north of Ben Hee (the corbett has 5 names to it) are great, the views towards Ben Stack and Arkle magnificent but we were also privileged to see a herd of deer pass no more than 20 yards ahead of us. It is a popular stalking area but we saw no signs of them so were comfortable to be up in the hills. The benefit of being so far north meant we could stop enroute back at the Kylesku hotel, surely the pub with the finest view in Britain. I remembered it well from a trip with Helen to stay in a cottage at nearby Drumbeg; we visited the pub most nights to eat and, as Helen was pregnant with our first child, she always drove back!
Sutherland is a long, long way to go but as with all things the more effort and time you put in the more rewarding the experience. It is certainly the case here. It is strange in Sutherland because almost 50% of people you meet appear to be from overseas, not England or Scotland, but those from northern Europe mainly. I guess it is as easy for them to get to Sutherland as many other parts of Britain and there is no doubt they see these isles at their very best. Sutherland truly is another country.
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