Coigach & Assynt, of Pre-Cambrian Fame

Head north over Drumochter and Slochd summit’s, keep going. Cross the Kessock Bridge and the Black Isle, keep going. Wind your way along the course of the Black Water and the high moorland between the Fannich Forest and Ben Dearg Massif, keep on going. To the north of the small highland town of Ullapool lies a most unexpected yet spectacular region of coastal mountains. This is the Far North Highland region of Coigach and Assynt; a platform-like moorland of 1800 million year old Lewissian Gneiss with isolated, heavily sculpted peaks of 800 million year old Torridonian Sandstone standing proud across the landscape like grand ocean liners of the high seas.

After my early-April Alpine trip, Imogen and I headed north by road for the Easter weekend. On day-1, we (as in Imogen) drove to Loch Morlich in the Cairngorms to break the long 666 km journey to the NW Highlands. Arriving early-evening, we loaded our rucksacks and wound our way up forest tracks leading past the Rothimurchus lodge and ultimately onto a hill path leading to the Lairig Ghru. It was a rather cool evening with showers looming, so we stopped off for the night on a relatively level grassy shelf among the sea of deep heather just short of the Chalamain Gap path junction. Next morning, the cool showers had brought a fresh dusting of snow to the hills down to around 900 m. Leaving the tent, we meandered up to the Larig-Ghru Pass, enjoyed the view down through the Pools of Dee and on to the remote peaks of Sgor an Lochain Uaine, Cairn Toul and the Devil’s Point.

The Lairig Ghru Pass, 835 m looking South.

Returning via the same route to collect the tent, we continued the journey north after a late-lunch.

Our first objective was the beach campsite at the small highland community of Clachtoll. After Inverness, the excitement loomed as we set out across the Beauty Forth and wound our way up through the grand scenery along the Black Water River. North of Ullapool, we turned a corner in the A835 at Ardmair and were faced with the vast south wall of Ben More Coigach with it’s sheer sandstone turrets, towering right out of Loch Kanaird. For the next 50 km, the A835 follows the axis of the Moine Thrust, the epic earth movement of Caledonian Orogeny vintage that shunted younger Moinian rocks upwards and northwestwards over the older Lewisian and Torridonian age rocks of Coigach & Assynt.

Arriving at Clachtoll, I was reminded that we were back in springtime Scotland and the air temperature was a biting 8°C or so with a brisk northwesterly coming in off the North Atlantic, the thermal leggings went on, and stayed on! The campsite is very well served with an excellent toilet and shower block. Happily fed and watered, we explored the intricate rocky platforms and bays for sunset.

Bay of Clachtoll

Day-2 continued with the showery north-westerlies. In the morning, we drove north around to Clashnessie beach, with an interesting little waterfall tumbling over a raised cliff line of the former late-glacial coastline. The interior of the area perfectly characterises the ‘Lewisian’ landscape, gradually undulating heather-clad moors, intertwined with hundreds of lochans. Next stop… tea and cake. We carried on for a further 15 mins for the lovely garden tearooms at Drumbeg. A good pit stop and well timed during a brief period of sunshine. Retracing our route from Drumveg, we turned off the ‘main’ Kylesku to Lochinver road (all roads leading away from the arterial A road following the Moine thrust are single track with passing places) to explore the headland of Stoer from it’s lighthouse. Here the lofty sandstone cliffs can be followed to the spectacular Point of Stoer and sea-stack that goes by the name of the Old Man of Stoer.

After a second night on the Clachtoll beach campsite, we packed up and took a leisurely drive south. First stop, Achmelvich. A wonderful spot with perfect white-sand coves and crystal clear waters. The sun came out just in time for our explore, complete with a bracing paddle, April after all is pretty much the month of the year with the coldest annual sea temperatures in Scotland.

Achmelvich Bay

Passing Lochinver, we continued to the sandstone-dominated peninsula of Rubha Mòr. The large red-sand beach at Achnahaird offers a grandiose outlook across the whole region; north along the coast to Point of Stoer, with the mountain panorama inland stretching from Quinag through Suilven, Stac Pollaidh and the massif of Ben Mor Coigeach.

Achnahaird Bay, looking towards the massif of Ben More Coigach (R), Beinn an Eoin (C) and Star Pollaidh, the cone-like mountain (far-L).

Our next caping spot was at the village of Altandhu just along the coast from Achiltibuie. It’s another excellent campsite, provisioned with a heated toilet block and owned by the Fuaran Bar located just across the road offering home cooked pub food at very reasonable prices. A good find!

Well timed around the weather forecast, day-4 was our mountain day. With an early start, we trundled all the way along the Achiltibuidhe road all the way to the end of the road and scattering of croft houses at Culnacraig. Our objective for the day was a full traverse of the peaks that form Ben More Coigach. Starting out, we ascended the sandstone terraces that form the rampart-like SW-ridge of the mountain, with a fantastic outlook to Lewis and the hills of Harris. The Ullapool-Stornaway CalMac ferry was dwarfed in the landscape of hills, lochs and open ocean as it slipped out of Loch Broom and across the Minch. A brief lunchtime deterioration in the weather brought low cloud, and a squally snow shower. Well timed for some quality navigation practice on the high plateau. It soon cleared through to full sunshine once again for completion of the full horseshoe.

Sgùrr an Fhidhleir.

On Tuesday, it was time for the long-haul south to Lancaster; all 666 km in one day. We took it leisurely with stops in Ullapool, Aviemore, Perth and Lesmahagow. With Imogen at the wheel all the way, all that was required of me was to relax, enjoy the scenery and daydream of our next excursion to this rugged extremity of the Highlands.

Achiltibuie, looking along the coast to Ben More Coigach.

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