Suilven from the slopes of Canisp
THE chameleon-like landscape of Sutherland has the ability to either lift your spirits to soaring heights, or plunge them into despair. Walk in towards Suilven on a dour, grey day when the midgies and clegs feast from your bare flesh and the sodden ground wants to suck you under and you’ll know what I mean by despair. And yet…
There are other times when Sutherland wears her wilderness gown with poise and subtlety. I had camped below Suilven’s great bastion walls and was thrilled as a riot of sunset colour lit up the landscape in a pageant that was gloriously brash and extravagant.
Suilven is the uncontested showpiece of Sutherland, and has its own chameleon tendencies. 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.
You can climb Suilven by a number of different routes – from Inverkirkaig in the south-west, from Lochinver in the north, or from Elphin in the east. Take your choice. My own preference is to be dropped off by car in Elphin, and picked up at the end of the day in Lochinver, a wonderful through-route of some 16 wild miles. This route also offers the adventurous opportunity of a scrambling ascent of the mountain’s eastern prow, Meall Beag. This east-west traverse of Suilven is a day you’ll never forget.
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 Quineag, the great massif that runs from Seana Braigh to Beinn Dearg, the mountains of Inverpollaidh 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 and find a stalker’s path which crosses the Abhainn na Craich Airigh and continues down the glen towards Glencanisp Lodge and the track to Lochinver.