Far out in Assynt

It was late, speeding down arcing long roads through gloomy hills, the wind buffeting the car on the wild side of Ullapool.
My first time out here.  It's different once you get past Inverness, things stretch out.  The 'real world' of politicians, spin doctors, new operating systems and celebrities seem a long way off.  I pulled into Inverkirkaig in the drizzle.  The summer is gone for sure, right now wet and cold replace it.  It takes me a good while to sort out last minute admin - phone based emails, texts and gearing up mean I don't leave until gone 9.30pm.

A walk-in in the pitch dark still feels a little adventurous, it doesn't matter that the wind has dropped and it's only 1/2 an hour down a metaled track towards Loch Canisp.  Walking under the red beam of my headlamp, the phone GPS on in case I need it.  I even send a last text on a barely-there signal when I arrive, to allay any concern.  Pitch, food, and a few night photos.  As I lie down to sleep I hear my first stag call under canvas, an eerie 2 part whine ringing out across the loch.  Previous trips in Scotland have not been at this time of year, this is new to me.  Before the brain reacts, the body does, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  It's a primal reaction, one to be grateful for.

The morning.  Continuing along the track, calling in to Canisp Lodge.  Since it's stag season, it's courtesy to check in with the lodge.  I've no real intention of changing my route, but since this will follow the summit line to Canisp, there is no issue, as expected.  The sun beats down and Suliven steams, a sheer mass of sandstone jutting out of the vast and watery moorland universe.  Later, cold showers arrive faster than I can don waterproofs, a pattern which repeats many times over the next 2 days.

A cup of tea at Suilbeg bothy.  Onwards past ripe rowan trees, the berries plump and red and ready to drop, past the stalkers argocat and alongside the burn, onto the crest of Canisp, the white mountain, looking back across the vastness to the north aglow with autumn deer grass and blue skies and fast moving weather, all the time, from the sea.  A stinging hailstorm finds me sheltering in the lee of a sandstone outcrop halfway up.  It's bitter, and the gloves I've bought with me for this trip are soaked through in seconds.

Onto the summit rocks, which wobble as I clamber around in the screaming wind with camera in hand, and then down forever on loose and shattered rock with only mountain hares for company.  There's a sculpture up there, which seems to have replaced the famous stone sphere - if anyone knows about this, please comment.

If there's a track down from Canisp I lose it, and then contour around rough country to camp on the shores of Lochan Fada.  It takes a long time to descend.  I cross many small burns and waterfalls and deer bark to alert each other of my presence.  As I pitch the rain comes again.  I sit in my shelter and thaw out whilst the food cooks.  I'm feeling a little down at heel, and Assynt isn't about to cut me a deal.

I sleep long and well and wake refreshed.  In between early rain and the odd hail shower troubling the tarp it looks to be a beautiful day.  I strike camp and contour along the bank of the loch, to rejoin a path from Elphin.  Assynt is far out - the land here has been stretched thin, it's not so much a landscape as a moonscape or an animal skin leaking water.  The presence of larger living things seems tenuous, human kind have even less of a grasp - we are ghosts here.  I wrote in my notebook that the dreams here belong to the land, and the weather is that of the sea, that because of this there is enormous psychic space.  Elswhere on our Island, tiny fragments of wild land cling tenaciously for survival, surrounded on all sides by straight lines and concrete, tungsten light and ambition. To a town dweller this place might be in turns intimidating, refreshing - a reversal of the usual fortunes - but what of the local people?

I am walking on Assynt Foundation Land, which forms part of the relatively new CALL project, by far the largest conservation project in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe.  The project covers over 60,000 hectares, but only 1800 inhabitants.  That's an area of 232 square miles, about the size of the west midlands urban area, the second most populous place in the UK - or San Francisco in the US.  There is a vast psychic space here, a huge geography of memory and history to be attended to, nurtured and recorded.  And in the meantime, the here and now population need to live, to eat but also to thrive.  The scale of CALL matches the scale of the landscape here - monumental.

I follow the path back towards Suilven, the Pillar, my plan for today.  A ghillie and two stalkers pass me and ask if I have seen any deer.  Only hinds I say, yesterday on Canisp.  I walk on, past marshy pea green grasslands, under Potemkin grey skies.  Further still, a group are out on horseback.  I bear south for the north flank of the mountain, sometimes knee deep in bog on a wide and eroded track, towards the base of the hill, where it sits fringed by cold lakes atop volcanic gneiss bedrock.  Climbing Suilven is fairly steep, slow going but relatively straightforward.  As I gain ground, I can see the weather collecting on the thin fingers of land that protrude into the sea far out to the west.  Tiny showers and balls of rainbow coloured light swirl around each other before moving inland to dissipate to the north.

As I reach the bealach I bear left to attempt the rear summit, the meal beag or little round hill.  I leave my bag and drop down to the back of the middle top, but pull up short about 20metres from the summit.  The path stops abruptly where the tors begin, which seem to overhang in places.  How much do I want this?  I nearly go, push, test - but I don't want it enough, not today.  The weather has been changeable, the wind is gusting and unstable and I'm on my own.  I know I can scramble up, but that getting down will be nerve wracking or worse if wet.  I'm not great at down climbing.  I bail.  For T, who always tells me I push my luck too far.  Maybe there will be another time, with a friend and with less wind.  So what - it's only a top.  These things matter less and less, and being here more and more.  As I turn round, it's almost forgotten.

I walk forward to the bealach again, and meet a group of walkers on a Wilderness Scotland holiday.  This trip, it turns out, was being run gently but authoritatively by Dave, who by coincidence I had met last year in Lescun on my Pyrenean odyssey.  Of all the places...  The westerly summit of Suilven offers panoramic views, and I linger a while to let others off the hill at their own pace, and to  regain my solitude.

The descent on the southern flank is alot more difficult, and I'm glad the weather is holding.  Its a slippery, steep and eroded mess of mud and loose stone, and takes an age.  Once at the bottom the groundwater sits again on the gneiss and my trailshoes are soaked in seconds once more.

Its a long walk out past the loch, another 2 or 3 showers mean I'm cold and tired.  But time works its magic and the light changes too.  I'm slowly hypnotised by the rhythm of my own plodding, squelching footsteps, slightly breathless and dehydrated but happy to move as fast as I can to try and make my planned campsite before complete darkness.  The sun sets, shadows lengthen. Slowly Suilven turns to orange fire.  It's another planet, and I'm bewitched.

Past the epic Kirkaig falls, roaring like a Caledonian Niagara.  Shortly after darkness, I arrive at the flat land I have planned on for camp.  Full of bracken and tussocks.  Onward for another 15minutes under birch and oak, I find a small pitch, right next to the charging river, under a dwarf oak.  It's really perfect.  I eat all my remaining food, and quickly fall sleep with my ears full of the sound of running water, my favourite wall of white noise.

It leaves me only to walk out for two hours in the morning on track and road to the TI at Inverkirkaig, back to Inchnadamph, the meadow of the stags, and an appointment with a group of incredibly talented, diverse and slightly eccentric people.  There's lucky.