The ancient peoples of Scotland, The Gaels, were very well organised when it came to government; surviving place names often reflect the way in which they ‘parcelled’ up their lands.
For instance, Coigach, in the north west, above Ullapool, (coe-igach), means ‘a land or territory divided into five portions, coig, being five. The area is dominated by the big sprawling mountain, Ben Mor Coigach, ‘the big hill of the fifths’. In fact Ben Mor Coigach isn’t the highest hill in the area, only by sheer bulk does she dominate all around her.
By the shore of Loch Lurgain we stood and stared, transfixed by the imminence and immensity of the mountain, awed by the prospects of the day ahead. With the grim slopes of Cul Beag at our backs we crossed the wee stream that issued from the loch and ensconced ourselves on a squelchy path. Very soon we were out of sight of the road and in a true wilderness of gently rising bog lands, a land of undulations that conspired to hide from us the mysteries that lay before us.
Across nearby Feur Loch, weirdly crenellated Stac Pollaidh, looked like something dropped there from Utah’s Monument Valley; her inverted image was flawless in the unruffled waters of the loch. And yet even this magical scene was soon swallowed up by the grassy slopes of nearby Beinn an Eoin.
We joined the playful waters of Allt Claoaanaidh and let them lead us to their mothering Lochan Tuath. And so, after an hour of waterlogged walking, and with the blue waters of the lochan for a backdrop, we were treated to the full majesty of the north eastern buttresses of our mountain. Boldest of all, like some gigantic ship looming from a mist, Sgurr an Fhidhleir, (the fiddler’s peak), took our breath away!
Our way was up into the gaping gully, up into the shadow cast by the huge prow. There isn’t so much a path up as more a seemingly never ending staircase of indentations, these worn into the soil by the cleated boots of countless previous enthusiasts. They led us up alongside the gushing stream which finds its birth high up in the gully, sometimes quite precariously, always steeply upwards.
Such steepness requires that occasionally one stops to refill labouring lungs. Those are the moments to turn and look behind. So high, we’d climbed into the almost perfect ‘V’ formed by the ‘Fiddler’s’ sheer walls and those of nearby Beinn an Eoin. Framed spectacularly between those walls, Stac Pollaidh looked magnificent!
Near the top we found the substantial remnants of snow somewhat tying. So soft and unreliable was it that we found it expedient to scramble up the steep grass beside it. And then we were on Mars!
Well, we may as well have been. From snow and grass we’d stepped onto a bare landscape of Torridonian sandstone, a floor of shattered rock laid, we are told, by the primordial seas that washed these heights in aeons past.
We climbed the easy slopes to the very tip of
‘the fiddler’s peak’. My companion went ahead whilst I lingered amongst the weirdness of the sandstone at my feet. As he reached the cairn he shouted “golden eagle!” I missed it. As the queen of Highland birds wafted from the valley below, my friend was treated to the briefest of eyeball to eyeball confrontations. And then she was gone, swallowed up by the dark walls of the buttress across the chasm.
The cairn stands at the precipice edge; on three sides the ground fell away dangerously at our feet. (So dangerous in fact, that when I dropped my flask cup I could only watch helplessly as it plummeted into the gully we’d jusst ascended; I could only hope that nobody was coming up behind us!).
It was hard to credit that, even at such a stunning spot, our day’s walk had barely begun; ahead the rest of Ben Moe Coigach lay waiting and inviting. Amid such outstanding scenery we ate and drank. In front of us the vast lochan sprinkled wastes of Inverpolly stretched to the mountains of the far north: Stac Pollaidh, Culs Mor and Beag, Suilven and Quinneag, rose from those wet plains like mis-shapen dinosaurs.
Westwards the glinting Atlantic Ocean sucked the waters from the mouth of Loch Broom, her own broad necked bedecked by the jet black jewels of The Summer Isles. Around the clock a little further and An Teallach and his neighbours, The Fannichs and The Deargs, all of them alpine in coats of lately fallen snow, completed the mesmerising vision.
Over increasingly grassier ground, yet with the sandstone still crunching beneath our boots, we headed for the reigning peak. The layers of this sedimentary rock is interspersed by thinner sheets of harder quartzite pebbles. Today much of the softer sandstone has been weathered away leaving those pebbles thickly scattered over the ground like a carpet of semi precious stones.
All of this gave way to the grass of Coigach’s broad north ridge and the haunting ‘pheeeoooos’ of recently arrived golden plovers. Crafty birds these; they like to make themselves prominent on the nearby skyline, yet they’re the very devils to get close to!
After the summit peak came the next highlight of the day, Garbh Choireachan, or ‘the rough corries’. It isn’t only the corries that are rough! With its kilometre long ridge of knife edge stature there are numerous easy sandstone pinnacles to scramble over, somewhat like the Torridon peaks in miniature. From this crest you can peer down at the full scale of Coigach’s virtually impregnable eastern wall, seen so dramatically from the Ullapool road.
And next back again and over to the little peak of Speicein Coinich, another fine scrambly eminence with grand views over the Cromalt Hills to the snowy peaks of Assynt. The way down is by a steep and sharp ridge, full of interest, which dumps the walker on the boggy moors below.
Our final hill, a few hundred metres north across those bogs, was Beinn Tarsuinn, a gentle little ridge of grass, heather and sandstone outcrops. Not so gentle however the descent of its northern flank! Here we found ourselves on steep and awkward ground, with here and there the brief salvation of an animal track, otherwise only the solace of fists full of rank heather for security.
The only features to detract from the wildness of this area were the deer fences. But they were necessary. Everywhere we noticed young, self seeded pine, a welcome sight and forgiveness for the wire.
It didn’t take us long, barely two miles of bog trotting along the Allt Claonaidh, to reach the road. Only then, with less than a mile of gently climbing tar mac left to trudge, did our bones begin to feel the miles and hours on the hill. ‘The big hill’ would have us sleep tonight. ‘The fiddler’ would play his lullaby, the plovers would pipe to the moon and Allt Claonaidh would whisper a rhythm of dreams to soothe away the night.