Footprints Across Scotland
Why not make a few of your own!
19th & 20th May 2012
The long and the short; Meallan Liath Coire Mhic Dhughaill & Ben Hee. A weekend backpack through the wilds of Sutherland.
It was nice to be back up in the far north of Scotland and the wilds of Sutherland in particular. I had in mind a couple of Corbetts and coming in from the North seemed to offer up the best approach to the first while continuing to the second would provide a good linear route before dropping back onto the road to hopefully hitch a ride back to the start. I was a little intrigued by the meaning and length of the first hills name; Meallan Liath Coire Mhic Dhughaill apparently translates to the small grey rounded hill of MacDougal’s corrie. Whoever MacDougal was he had a very fine hill bearing his name and the longest hill name in Scotland to boot. Ben Hee (Fairy Hill) on the other hand is just a letter too long to be considered amongst the shortest of hill names. We would however pass Arkle near the start of our walk which probably can boast to being on the short list. Starting just north of Achfary we left the car park to take the vehicle track to Lone. The skies were a little grey as we started but this didn't detract from the fine view of Arkle and its scree covered slopes.
Arkle from near Lone
After crossing the river at Lone we ignored the path branching off to Bealach Horn and headed up Strath Luib na Seilich. The track rose gently to pass through a gap in a band of crags before continuing to wind its way alongside the waters of Abhainn an Loin. Looking back Ben Stack provided a prominent landmark, rising steeply as it does above the loch of the same name.
Ben Stack & Loch Stack
Sail Rac partially obscured views of Meallan Liath Coire Mhic Dhughaill as we approached Bealach na Feithe but far reaching views opened up over Glen Golly to the east as we gained the high point of the pass. We stopped for a bite to eat at the bealach before following the feint impressions of a vehicle track up the grassy slopes of Meall Garbh. As we gained elevation we were able to pick out many of the fine peaks that dominate this far corner of Scotland. These hills would be our constant companion over the weekend with just their perspective changing as we moved along our route. Ben Stack, Arkle, Foinaven, Cranstackie, Ben Hope and Ben Loyal would all vie for attention to the North. While Ben More Assynt, Canisp, Suilven and Quiniag would dominate views to the south and west. The ridge narrowed as we ascended dividing the stone lined Blaoch Coire on our right and Coire an Achaidh on our left. It wasn't too long before we gained the rocky dome of Meall Garbh and we had a short stop before continuing on our way.
A distant Ben Hee from Meall Garbh
Quartzite boulders ran off from the ridge down into a fine loch filled corrie while the steep walls of Carn Dearg formed a dramatic back drop to the scene. The deep dark waters of the simply named Coire Loch filled the interior and shimmered as the sun put in a welcome appearance.
Coire Loch and Carn Dearg
The ridge narrowed again as we dropped toward the col below the unnamed top at point 761m.
Ridge to point 761 with Meallan Liath Coire Mhic Dhughaill beyond
A little handwork was required to gain the rocky top before we wandered over to Tatha nam Beann. After returning to the central top we worked our way down to another col below the final rocky slopes that lead to the summit. Leaving our packs we headed up onto the top of Meallan Liath Coire Mhic Dhughaill which was proving to be a very fine hill. Indeed it had turned out to be quite a complex mountain of multiple ridges, tops and lochan filled corries.
Meallan Liath Coire Mhic Dhughaill
Ben Hope from Meallan Liath Coire Mhic Dhughaill
Ben Stack from Meallan Liath Coire Mhic Dhughaill
After returning to our packs we enjoyed the gentle slopes that arc round to what could be considered the eastern top, Carn Dearg. Loch Ulbhach Coire sat below our viewpoint surrounded by what looked like some pretty uncompromising boggy ground.
Heading for Carn an Tionail
A curved descent following the ridge line brought us to the shore of Lochan a' Bhealaich as we contemplated the best way up onto Carn an Tionail.
Carn an Tionail from Carn Dearg
A rising traverse over steep grassy ground was occasionally broken by the bands of a boulder field before leading to the ridgeline above the saddle that separates the hill from the slopes of A' Ghlaise. The ground again became progressively rockier as we followed a patchwork of flattened stones up the gentle incline to the cairn.
A'Ghlaise from Carn an Tionail
Time was now moving on but we still had a final hill to climb, Beinn Direach which lay a little way to the southeast. Keeping to the higher ground and vague broad ridgeline we headed east before swinging south across slabs of rock while approaching the bealach. A final pull and we had completed our climbing for the day, so now it was time to focus on finding a place to camp. The map had originally offered up the area around Lochan na Criege Riabhaich as a possibility but again the surrounding ground looked unsuitable as far as we could tell from our present vantage point. Better possibilities seemed to be on offer a short way along the north east ridge of Beinn Direach and so after a little searching we did indeed find suitable pitches just short of a couple of lochans at about 600m. There was still a stiff breeze blowing and although our position did afford a little shelter it was still feeling a bit on the chilly side.
Camp on Beinn Direach, Ben Hope in the background
The nearby lochan’s provided a good place to get cleaned up but it did require a bit of courage while washing in the rather cool water. Refreshed and extra layers donned it was now time to get the stove going for a hot evening meal. Our campsite offered up good views over to Ben hope and also across to our hill for the following day, Ben Hee. A Ptarmigan could be heard chuntering away as light faded before eventually falling quite only to renew his calls in the morning. The quiet of the evening had also been interrupted briefly as I heard Enzo receiving what sounded like a good telling off as I settled down with a hot drink. I only discovered the following morning that he had punctured Nathalie’s air mattress causing her to have a rather uncomfortable night! A steady start to the next day had us contemplate breaking camp at around 8 but it was probably another hour or so before we were packed and ready for the off. Some of the glens to the west were swathed in mist with just the hill tops breaking through the grey veil.
Snow capped Ben More Assynt
Three deer appeared above camp as we prepared and stood inquisitively for a while before disappearing from sight. Our first task for the day was to work our way down to Bealach nam Meirleach, which was achieved in a couple of stages. After dropping to the east of two lochans we avoided crags on the next section by following the heathery slopes a little west of Allt an Aslaird. We encountered another small group of deer during our descent and got reasonably close before they were aware of our presence, the sound of our approach possibly masked by the nearby waterfall. On level ground it was now time to follow an estate track a short way before picking up the path that leads between Loch an Aslaid and Loch an t-Seilg and onto the northwest slopes of Ben Hee. Heading steeply upward we traversed east aiming toward the north east ridge scrambling over another boulder field and plenty of unstable quartzite slabs. A couple of Ptarmigan took flight as we made rather noisy progress over the shifting rocks. Pausing for the occasional breather the steepness of our route became evident while gazing across to Meall a Chleirch and looking back down to Loch an t-Seilg below.
Loch an Aslaid and Loch an t-Seilg
Once on the ridge though it was much easier going and we soon reached Ben Hee’s Northern top. The cliffs on this side of the hill were quite impressive dropping steeply off into An Gorm-choire.
Ben Hee & An Gorm-choire
Remnant snow fields still lined many of the shallow gullies as we made our way to Ben Hee’s summit and Enzo as usual grasped the opportunity to immerse himself in the white playground. As we enjoyed lunch at the top a couple of other backpackers appeared from the south. These were the only other hill walkers that we had seen over the whole weekend. They were up for a few days backpacking and this was their first full day after travelling up from down south. They had travelled to Lairig by train before taking a taxi to Fiag bridge and camping near Loch Fiag. Our descent route was along Ben Hee’s west ridge and onto Meallan Liath Mor before following rough heathery slopes down to the road just south of West Merkland.
Meallan Liath Mor from Ben Hee
After starting along the road hoping to hitch a lift we soon realised that or chances would be restricted as a group, especially with Enzo in tow. It was decided that it would be best if I headed off alone, leaving my pack with Nat. There were only a few cars heading in either direction but eventually a couple up on holiday from Kendal picked me up having managed 3 out of the 8 miles back to van. Back at Achfary it was a quick turnaround before heading back to West Merkland to pick up Nat and Enzo ready for the long drive back home.
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