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Where eagles dare  

Few folk visit Sgor a Chleirich, one of the two really dramatic tops of Ben Loyal.

It lies, inconveniently, well west of the main summit ridge and the little path leading to the summit is made by deer, not man. On the very crest of the ridge a ptarmigan fluttered off at the last moment or I would have trod on it, revealing its clutch of five mottled eggs in a little down-lined hollow. An incredibly hardy bird to have sat in such an exposed spot through such a cold and sunless June, snowed on in the previous 24 hours, and even now the wind was not far above freezing in the bright and clear sunshine. I took a couple of quick photos and moved on, the bird fluttering to draw me off for a few yards then skulking back around some rocks. With tremendous drops all round and spectacular views, this top should be better known and a huge slab of clean rock, falling almost vertically for 700 feet to Loch Fhionnaich, has barely been explored by rock-climbers. Ben Loyal is a range of mountains, not just one peak, and those who only climb to the main summit miss out on a lot.

Earlier I’d visited the most northern top, Sgor Chaonasaid, with its dramatic view almost directly down to the Kyle of Tongue nearly 2500 feet beneath. I first noticed a peregrine diving on something; as I reached the top a huge golden eagle rounded the slopes below, a young bird, very black and white. I should have learned by now to approach this top with camera at the ready – it is a true eagle’s eyrie and once I surprised a bird which literally jumped in mid-flight before regaining a dignified soar along the whole of the western flank of the mountain. This time the soaring bird, wings outstretched with tips turned up like the aerilons of a small plane, was just a dot over the moors towards Tongue by the time I had the camera ready. On another occasion in August a chough was calling from Sgor a Bhatain. A spectacular mountain with spectacular birds.

In spite of a fine if cold late June day, I had the whole mountain to myself. It was quiet, very quiet, that enormous quietness which broods over much of inland Sutherland. My original plan had been to cross all the tops of Ben Loyal, from Ben Hiel to Cnoc nan Cuilean – a long and strenuous walk – and to that end I’d set out early. Indeed only once have I managed this; invariably one or more tops get omitted at the end of the day! This occasion proved no exception. I wasn’t feeling too well driving the twisty north coast road and by the time I’d reached Loch Loyal realised I was going down with a wee tummy bug. I might not have felt much like food, but the north wind was so crisp and sharp and bracing that you could almost eat that instead. The cold and clarity of the morning soon dispelled much of the fuzzy head and queasiness and I set off up Ben Hiel, the fine rocky top east of the main range of peaks. I’d see how I got on. I enjoyed the steady, slow climb and the succession of little rocky tops leading to the 1800ft top. I was lacking a bit in energy but feeling fit enough to carry on – a 700ft descent to the Bealach Clais nan Ceap then a long steady climb, joining the usual little path from Cunside.

So the day went on. Ben Loyal was a good peak to be on when not feeling too great – I could just potter along, enjoying the dramatic views from the various tops, easy going along the mossy main ridge, and that wonderful peace of the high, empty Sutherland hills on a fine day. South and west the air gradually cleared till I could see the rugged peak of An Teallach beyond Ullapool, and the distant rounded humps of Ben Wyvis. Far to the east beyond the triangles of the Griams and the shoulders of Morven was the sea, as well as to the north and north-west. Gradually the tide receded in the Kyle of Tongue, sandbanks showing yellow and brown. Numerous lochs and lochans glittered across the moors to the south. Scattered clouds came and went, the sun moved round the sky, the wind remained cold, fresh and bracing. I was definitely tiring, though, by Sgor a Chleirich and found the little pull back up to Carn an Tionail, at the southern end of that familiar outline, hard going. So, omitting the remaining tops, I took my time on an easy descent to the glen below, with a doze in the sun on a stony beach by the burn, then a slow plod through the moorland heather and grass back to the car. Don’t miss the little wooded gorge and waterfall of the Allt an Lagh-aird below Ben Hiel – a delightful and unexpected feature which just shows how all this lower country would be superb birch, alder, rowan, hazel and holly woodland were it not for the browsing deer. Here too is an area of rich grassland and the low stone walls of old habitations, imbued with that sense of quiet sadness which attaches itself to pre-clearance settlements.

Almost as good as the high tops is to be out in the flow country on a fine bracing day. The bothy I look after lies a long way south of Strathy, at the end of the 12-mile-long track from Strathy East past Bowside, an easy ride on a mountain bike. Go out and visit the place while you can to experience true silence and peace. It won’t be like that for long if the developers have their way. One of the biggest wind farms in Europe, Strathy South together with Strathy North, is set to turn this area of huge empty forest and moor into a vast industrial site which will totally dominate central Sutherland and the moors around. Only one thing is in its favour: it is better here than near where many people live when the greedy gains of the developers come at the expense of all those who daily have to suffer the blights of noise and flicker and destroyed views and lost property values. Spittal, Durran, Stroupster, Burn of Whilk, Baillie Farm should never even be contemplated. Only a few stravaigers like myself and the odd hen harrier, greenshank, diver and golden eagle will be badly affected by Strathy south.

So enjoy this area while you can; enjoy the bothy before it’s probably taken over for switching gear; enjoy jogging out from the bothy, up along the forest edge, then over the singing flow country crests and past remote lochs to where the sudden, secret, wooded valley of the upper Skelpick Burn opens below.

Now fenced from marauding deer, this relic of native birchwood should regenerate. One of my favourite spots in Sutherland is the waterfall which tumbles through trees at the head of the glen into a big pool with a natural lawn at one end, a place never visited by anyone and from where even those giant wind turbines will be hidden. A great place for a cold dip on a sunny day – I swam out to the fall and let the water hammer over my head in a giant, icy shower. Then to jog back the three or four miles over the moors to the bothy, ignoring the three sinister anemometer towers poking from the forests and enjoying the top-of-the-world views out to Ben Loyal, Ben Hope and the Griams and that great sense of freedom from having dozens of miles of empty, open country stretching in all directions under the dappled cloud and broken sun.

After checking up on the bothy and bumping back down the long track to Strathy on the bike, I went down to Strathy beach in the early evening. The tide was low, the sun shining, the beach empty, the caves at the eastern end open for exploring. Stunning is the only way to describe such world-class scenery.

And what were some idiots doing? Driving round and round in circles in a 4×4, churning up the sand, roaring from one end of the beach to the other. Nobody even got out to smell the salt air, to look at the glittering tidal pools or the yellow rose-root on the cliffs. Probably a group of wind-farm contractors, eventually they drove back up the hill, leaving the beach in peace. At least the tide would soon wash away the vehicle tracks.

Enjoy these wild, empty and beautiful places of the North while you can – there are fewer and fewer of them all the time. And appreciate them.

John O’Groat Journal

11 July 2007

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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