This piece first appeared in TGO a few years ago. The pictures show the view east along Suilven to Meall Mheadhonach and Suilven rising above the camp beside the Fionn Loch.
Rising steeply from an undulating land of bog and loch Suilven is one of the great mountains of the Scottish Highlands, a massive and distinctive wedge of dark Torridonian sandstone standing alone on a plinth of pale striped metamorphic Lewisian gneiss. Suilven looks ancient, a gnarled and battered giant, and it is. At around 3,000,000 years of age Lewisian gneiss is one of the oldest rocks in the world. At just 1,000,000 years old the Torridonian sandstone is young by comparison but still much older than many rocks. From the sides this slice of layered stone is an undulating 2.5km ridge with an off-centre low point, a bulging summit at the west end, the highest point, and a split summit at the east end. Viewed from the east Suilven rises as a finely tapered pyramid, the easternmost top, Meall Bheag, being lower than the next one, Meall Mheadhonach, so they appear as one summit. From the west steep terraced cliffs rise to the bulky, rounded summit of Caisteal Liath – the Grey Castle. From everywhere Suilven looks striking and imposing, a grand mountain in a grand setting. The name comes from the Norse for “pillar” and probably refers to its appearance from the sea and its use as a landmark by the Vikings as they sailed their longboats along the west coast of Scotland. A mighty mountain indeed yet it’s only 731 metres high, not even reaching Corbett (762 metres) let alone Munro status (914 metres). So much for categorising mountains by height then for Suilven is finer and more distinctive than many that rise hundreds of metres higher.
Suilven lies in solitary splendour in the district of Assynt in a huge roadless area between the coast and the road north from Ullapool. All approaches are lengthy. It is usually climbed from the path running west from the scattered village of Elphin to the little fishing port of Lochinver, a good through-route. This path passes below the north face of Suilven from where a rougher trail leads up to the low point on the ridge called the Bealach Mor, a geological fault line. However a more interesting route that explores some of the wonderful country surrounding the hill crosses Suilven from south to north. This can be walked in one long day but I think it’s more satisfying to take two days and spend a night in the wild loneliness of this vast landscape and really absorb and sink into the atmosphere. Waking in such a place greatly enhances the feel of being part of it, of belonging, and deepens the feelings of joy and satisfaction of walking in the wilds.
With this in mind two of us managed to tear ourselves away from the attractions of the Achins tearoom and bookshop at Inverkirkaig Bridge, a remote place for such facilities, and set off one late spring afternoon along a path through lovely deciduous woodland, a rich mix of alder, rowan and birch with a few pines, beside the River Kirkaig. This path rises to moorland above the ravine down which the river flows and leads to the Falls of Kirkaig, a ferociously powerful cataract that plunges 18 metres in a single drop between sheer cliffs into a black rippling pool. Trees frame the falls and the cliffs and the situation is one of natural perfection, beautiful and severe at the same time.
As we left the falls and climbed onto open, boggy, heather moorland rain began to fall with clouds hiding the hills we knew rose splendidly all around. The area around Suilven is a typical Lewisian gneiss landscape of pools, bogs and low hummocky, rocky knolls, a terrain known as “knoc and lochan”. The ragged twisting path led across the wet ground to long Fionn Loch where we found a lovely camp site on the north shore near the burn running down from Coire Mor. The swirling low clouds and grey sky added to the feeling of wildness and remoteness. Nothing was visible but cloud and water, bog and rock, heather and grass – the last green with the spring. A breeze off the loch kept the midges away and I lay in the tent with the doors wide open staring out at the wetness. Slowly the world became distinct and I started to notice movement other than that of cloud and water and hear sounds other than the patter of rain and gentle hiss of wind. On a spit of gravel jutting out into the water at the mouth of the burn two little birds ran like clockwork across the shore. I scanned them with my binoculars. Ringed plover, birds of the water’s edge. Far out on the loch a dark silhouette rode the wind-rippled water. The streamlined shape and long pointed bill showed it was a diver, a symbol of the wild, though whether red or black-throated I could not tell. A cuckoo called from afar and grouse cackled somewhere. Just water and wind, rain and moor, birds and rocks. It was enough. I dozed off content with the world.
Later my sleep was disturbed by the wild shriek of a diver and the drumming of a snipe and then at dawn the more insistent repetitive call of a cuckoo. More noisy cries had me looking out of the tent to see a line of long-necked ducks flying fast overhead, calling all the time. As I watched the clouds slowly began to dissolve and I thanked the birds for waking me as across the loch strange shapes began to materialise in the fading mists, the splendid peaks of Cul Mor, Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh. To the east Suilven rose up, dark and foreboding. Slowly the world brightened as the early sun rose through the swirling clouds. By 8 a.m. the sky was clear and the sun already hot with a temperature of 17°C.
Not much further along the shores of Fionn Loch we turned towards the mountain, following a rough eroded path across hummocky moorland to the steep southern flanks of Suilven. The path headed straight up these slopes then cut across the face to the Bealach Mor, a rough, steep climb. The views were spacious and exhilarating. Out of the undulating, shining, sparkling, watery landscape rose a series of distinctively shaped hills – Cul Mor, Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh now sharp and clear to the south, Canisp just to the north with Quinag in the distance. Much farther away other peaks came into view, most clearly the ragged edge of An Teallach to the south and the twisting ridges of Arkle and Foinaven far to the north. Eastwards a long dark line marked Conival and Ben More Assynt.
Turning west we followed the ridge, with some easy scrambling, up to Caisteal Liath, Suilven’s highest summit. From this spacious high vantage point there were superb views out across the moorland to the blue island-dotted sea stretching out to the distant hazy Western Isles and back east to the soaring eastern spire of Suilven, Meall Mheadhonach, an exposed scramble. And everywhere lochs and lochs and lochs, water filling every dip and hollow, each one ground out by the glaciers that carved this landscape, including Suilven, itself sculpted by the ice grinding past as it flowed from east to west.
There is no walkers’ way off Caisteal Liath, which is ringed with crags on three sides, except via the Bealach Mor so to this we returned, crossing again the curious not to say crazy wall that runs over Suilven not far above the low point. Who built it and why? No one seems to know. From the bealach we descended the wide eroded gully of scree, heather and rock (which is rather loose and nasty at the top) that runs north down to Loch na Gainimh. This is the most popular ascent route, as the worn nature of the path shows. On the descent the whaleback of Canisp to the east and distant Quinag to the north dominated the view. The summits of these peaks are paler and greyer than the slopes below, caps of Cambrian Quartzite lying over the dark Torridonian sandstone.
Once out of the gully the terrain eased off and the walking became easier as we passed some lochs before reaching the Elphin to Lochinver path where we turned westwards and headed for the coast beside the Abhainn Bad na h-Achlaise and a series of lovely lochs, pausing frequently to turn and contemplate the ever-changing, slowly dwindling views of Suilven to the south and east. The moorland faded too as we passed Glencanisp Lodge and walked through some pleasant quiet woods to reach a road for the last two kilometres into Lochinver and a celebratory meal of the famous pies of Lochinver Larder.