Saturday, 9 August 2014

Back in the box

Heat, noise, traffic, crowds: another grimy August in London. It's been six weeks since I walked out onto Tentsmuir Sands, two weeks since returning to the Smoke and the nine-to-five. Some aspects of readjusting have been tricky, that's all I'll say. Then again it's always good to get back to your own space.

After the walk was over we spent a nomadic few weeks around Scotland, splitting our time between Islay, Aviemore, a cousin in Sutherland and parents in Fife. My daughters are city kids, I have to admit - my oldest is three and she asked at least once a day: 'Why is it so quiet?'

My other half and I oversaw as she got to grips with sand, seaweed and salt water; tall grass, trees and nettles; rain, sun and wind; and sticks, stones, rock pools and rivers. She was utterly engrossed, but never still. One evening at dusk we walked out to a lighthouse and back, jumping off every boulder along the way. Out at the beach or on little walks through the woods my pockets were quickly filled up with artifacts: pebbles, pine cones, seashells, even a cold bird's egg on one occasion.

I also got away for a couple of grown-up walks in July. From our Sutherland springboard one changeable day I headed for Quinag, triple-topped sibling of Suilven, pulling over near the top of the road between Loch Assynt and Kylesku.

Quinag is owned by the John Muir Trust. Signs of their tenure and management are low-key. The stalkers' path into the range has been rebuilt, and it's a discreet, pragmatic piece of genius, a narrow and well-drained gravelly ribbon taking to the driest ground and cutting out old loops of pulverised peat, now slowly recovering.

It may be akin to Suilven and certainly looks daunting, especially in lowering cloud and driving rain; but Quinag on closer inspection is a laid-back beast, a perfect walker's mountain giving easy passage through high drama. With a light day pack and honed by five weeks of backpacking I was flying up the steep path to Sail Gharbh, highest point of the range. 

Nothing much to see, huddled into a stone windbreak at the top. The wind is wild and searching, unexpectedly cold fingers groping through gaps in the rocks. The trig point is scorched dark on one side with a great vertical crack several inches long near the base at one corner. Lightning.

On to Sail Gorm as the rain passes on. The ridge is long and easy-angled and I'm stretching out, entranced by this easy travel, a walkway in the clouds. It all comes together on the top. Lochs Glencoul and Glendhu, gateway to the gnarly backside of Assynt. I traced a backpacking route through this wilderness on the map a few days before, one or two nights. Another one for the never-ending list. Definitely some day...

The sea and sky dominate here on the frayed edges. It's an hour and a world away from the sheltered east coast of Sutherland where I came from in the morning.

Back along the ridge, clouds flying in and out. Taking my polarising filter from its case, the little foam pad is whipped away. I watch for minutes as the wind toys with it, whipping and swirling it high then low, almost back again, then finally far out of sight. I feel guilty!

This would be a perfect mountain to cut your teeth on in winter conditions. Short scrambly sections around the hub peak of the range, from which ridges radiate to the main summits, barely register in summer but could be fun and challenging under snow and ice. It would look awesome as well.

Over the central hub, heading for Spidean Coinich, peak number three. Sail Gharbh, the Rough Heel, now in view.

Sail Gharbh
Spidean Coinich: more proof, if any was needed, that height isn't everything. The lowest of the three, but repository of the mountain's character. That distinctive craggy carbuncle on the summit possibly inspired the name for the whole range. Quinag is from the Gaelic Cuinneag - stoup, in old Scots, a water vessel or bucket. From the north in particular it has the look of a lip or funnel.

The peak stands slightly apart from the rest of the range, across a low bealach. It hogs the goodies, including an inky loch at the foot of rocky terraces, topped with a shock of sand.

Over the top and down an easy-angled slabby pavement, quick and easy in the dry, apparently treacherously slippy when wet. The wind had dried out the rock nicely.

It finished in warm sun and a gentle breeze as I hit the outward path, then walked a mile along the road, dodging the motorhomes. But who could blame them.

A week later, the opposite side and opposite end of the Highlands. Coast and lowlands basked under hot sun and blue skies but large amounts of benign fluffy cloud floated over the Mounth. It was warm, uncomfortably so on the climb out of Glen Clova, but perfect on the tops, t-shirt warm with a light breeze. I didn't miss the direct sunlight.

There are some lovely corries up here. Loch Brandy is a fine halfway house on the route to the tops. From above it looks a solid glassy paperweight of a thing.

The sea is a far-off rumour here; it's all about the heft of the land.

To the west, the fringes of the Mounth drape towards the Angus lowlands. Cat Law isn't far away, the first Highland peak of the Tay watershed walk.

A new fence cuts a line across the plateau; an electric wire attached for good measure. Why? Along with hill tracks, new fences seem to be proliferating in the Highlands - at least it seemed that way during my long walk when I got pretty good at scaling seven foot deer fences. Boundary fences first went up in the Victorian heyday of sporting estates. What is prompting the current rash of fence building in this new age of toffs and inequality?

Sandwiches and malt loaf by the trig point on the Goet, Ben Tirran's highest point, then down the other side of Loch Brandy.

A shock of colour in the late afternoon.

I lingered by the loch, unwilling to let it go, unwilling to let the summer go, but eventually I turned my feet downhill as my thoughts headed south. It's been a good chapter.

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