“Bloody hell! It’s FREEEEEZIN’!”
I tried to resist the cold clawing hand of the Atlantic Ocean but, despite my efforts, the constant expanding and contracting of the sea washed the definitively baltic water over my body.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. However, standing on the beach – tucked away in a crease in the land around the corner from Achmelvich Bay – you would have thought you were in the Mediterranean. The sun shone brightly, turning the sea an emerald blue, the champagne foam rushing along packed sand.
I remember, as a youngster, spending hours on this beach on a family holiday, digging a hole in the sand with my brother so deep you couldn’t see our heads if you stood a short distance away.
After a few minutes of being softly bumped around by the incessant breathing of the tide, I acclimatised, and spent a full 10 minutes swimming in the shallow waters. Bo joined me, eventually, and after another few splashes around we got out, only for my core temperature to drop through my feet into the warm sand.
It was still early on that September day. No one else was on the beach, so we hopped about changing into fresh clothes, simultaneously trying to warm ourselves up. This was the first proper wash we’d had in a couple days, having made our way from Kintail, to Torridon, up to Ullapool and now in Assynt.
Yesterday we had arrived at the foot of Quinag at midday, watching the moody clouds roll over its buttresses and the rain come down. At some point, something changed, so we got out the car in our full waterproofs and headed up Spidean Coinich.
The slabs up its sloping back had turned into a river, but the rain was easing slightly and there appeared to be an infinitesimal atmospheric shift in the air.
The final steep climb to the top seemed to call my name. I pushed on hard, answering the call. I hadn’t noticed the rain had stopped, but as I reached the summit I was greeted by a landscape that was lifting itself out of the sea of cloud like an old ship.
The remaining clouds rolled off the sides of the steep-sided ridges, and the low ceiling lifted slightly to reveal the Atlantic beyond. A few hours later and we were back at the car, cooking up dinner and ready for sleep.
I woke up in the middle of the night and found myself in a very eerie world; a strange place where I appeared to be living inside the static of a television. The mist reflected the small amount of light that exists at that time. I sensed, just ahead of me, a stag on the opposite side of the road. I cannot tell if I imagined it, but I could have sworn he was just 30 metres from me before turning to walk into the gloom.
Back on the beach, in fresh clothes and enjoying our new-found cleanliness, we headed back to the car.
There’s a point along this headland where you can look east and see the impressive Assynt hills in their glory. Where the sea meets the land, the peaks of Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor and Cul Beag stand like stranded ships, left when the tide receded. It’s no surprise the Vikings thought this was where their gods practised mountain-building.
We drove back to Lochinver, searching for a pie. Naturally, the Lochinver Larder delivered. I am almost surprised their slogan isn’t “If it can be in a pie, we’ve got it”, so wide is their range; everything from your traditional fillings to deliciously spiced vegetarian and vegan options.
Though today was far brighter than last night might suggest, there was a fair breeze picking up and talk of a storm from Spain the following morning. As we stood in the queue to order our pies, our eyes were drawn to a large picture of the area’s most iconic mountain on the wall: Suilven.
Shaped like a great whale, for a long time I’d had a dream of camping in the saddle between Suilven’s two tops. That was our aim for the day: Head out from Glencanisp Lodge, up the long track to the foot of the mountain, summit, camp, head out the next morning before the storm.
It felt rather strange hanging around all day waiting to go for a run. Normally you’re out the door early and back for lunch, but today it was the complete reverse. I have never really done much run-camping, primarily for this reason. It’s seemed odd to spend a day twiddling your thumbs awaiting the afternoon to set off.
Despite the impatience, being sat in the garden of the Lochinver Larder, overlooking the sea as the breeze whipped the bushes around us, it was hard to not be glad to be sat there.
It was around 4pm when we arrived at the car park, just down the road from Glencanisp Lodge. The afternoon sun was bright and warm, but we had packed as if for winter, knowing the wind was only set to increase. It wasn’t long before we were rolling up the bottoms of our tights to let out some heat, though.
Suilven was a constant presence as we ran along the track into Glen Canisp. The track is wide and rolling, following the babbling river Abhainn na Clach Airigh. Every so often it would stall, pooling into lochans, before rushing on again in dramatic waterfalls.
I amused myself at the idea of the conventionally conical peak of Canisp sat grudgingly alongside its elegant neighbour, shooting dirty looks across it as awestruck walkers, photographers and film crews gaze at Suilven’s unique figure.
Just beyond Lochan Buidhe, we left the main track and headed south. Looking up, the path looked atrociously steep. In the saddle between Caisteal Liath and Meall Meadhonach, silhouetted against the sky, I could see the crest of the enormous dry stone wall that drapes over Suilven’s flanks.
This wall is what has become known as a Famine Wall. During the mid-19th century, the landowners forced many from their homes to make way for livestock. Some emigrated for a better life, but those who stayed suffered a potato famine, that decimated their food source and left thousands starving.
Many ‘offered’ their services to the landowners, building roads and walls in exchange for food. These became known as Destitution Roads and Famine Walls.
As we toiled up Suilven’s steep side, the wall’s existence becomes ever-more unfathomable. To have carried these stones from the surrounding area to (most likely) mark a boundary line is beyond imagination.
To our left, the long shadow of Suilven cast itself on the slopes of Canisp, while Loch na Gainimh stretched to the horizon. Suilven must be the only mountain which is just as identifiable by the shape of its shadow as by the real thing.
As we huffed our way up, two figures approached from above. One of whom was Lee Craigie, adventure cyclist, currently Active Nation Commissioner for Sustrans and all-round cool woman.
She and her friend had kayaked across from Ledmore, deflated their boats, strapped them to their backs, hiked over Suilven and were walking out to a car parked down at Glencanisp Lodge. Like I said: All-round cool woman.
Just before we summited Bealach Mor we came across a rather oddly-shaped stone perched precariously over the edge. It looked like a rather uncomfortable looking throne – straight-backed and, obviously, hard as stone. We danced around sitting in it, worried the ground would disappear beneath us!
Finally, we reached the summit. Until now, we had been sheltered from the wind, but now it hit us and, along with it, a dazzling afternoon sun. Immediately my lips started to chap, the cold wind and sun sucking any and all moisture from them.
We pitched the tent – alone save for the odd stag roar. To the north we could see the hoof-like shape of Quinag’s three peaks where we had been yesterday. The thin outer of the tent thrummed in the wind. We unravelled the guy ropes, nervous our lightweight home would become a parachute in the night.
Leaving the tent and praying it didn’t take off, we donned our waterproof trousers, down jacket and extra layers and headed to the summit of Caisteal Liath.
The surrounding landscape is what I can only describe as wilderness. While it is a degraded landscape, the peatlands, lochans that are splattered across the landscape, and the seeming vast emptiness is almost without comparison and captures the imagination.
As we reached the summit, we squinted against the gale and sun, working on our natural weather-beaten look that you can’t get in a bottle. Cheeks sufficiently rosied, we headed back into the bealach, relieved to find the tent where we left it.
Some time in the wee hours, I extracted myself from my sleeping bag. As I crawled out the tent, a bright light dazzled me, and I tumbled out the tent. Feeling like a fugitive under the spotlight of a searching helicopter, I squinted into the sky as the world around me swirled in the wind.
It was no helicopter (obviously); it was a stunningly bright full moon, lighting up the world like a silver sun. I looked around, the hills not necessarily visible with the moonlight but standing out against their dark shadows. The sky was awash with stars but most were dulled by the exuberant glow of our closest satellite.
I have no idea what time it was when we woke up. All I know was the alarm clock sounded a lot like a bellowing stag. Stumbling out the tent we found a different world to the one I had found the previous night: Grey and mild.
We hastily ate some porridge and a granola bar before packing up the tent and jogging down the hillside. As we ran back along the ATV track, we could see the weather front closing in from the south and west, the coast slowly becoming obscured as a veil of rain enveloped the mainland.
Looking back up to the head of Suilven, we watched as the great whale entered the wash of the approaching storm. We trotted through the lodge and back to the car, swapping into some dry clothes and leaving just before 9am.
Back in Lochinver, we trooped into the An Cala Cafe, ordered two breakfasts and drank coffee, looking outside as a Spanish storm drenched the streets. We held warm mugs in our hand and smiled at a night well-spent. Chapped lips protesting.