I once read that if there was anywhere in Scotland that resembled certain forested areas in Canada, it had to be Glen Affric.
Certainly, looking down from the heights of the Glen Shiel hills, over the great forested lands of Affric, with their shimmering blue lochs and dark dappled mountains that seem to climb straight from the trees, one could easily imagine himself an explorer type wandering in another world.
The early morning drive into the glen, especially when the rising sun lifts smoke like streamers of mist from the waters of those lochs, or the waters glint through the trees as you drive, is always magical. Often you’ll be greeted by a curious red squirrel scurrying half way up a road side conifer to watch you pass. Another time it might be a nosy chocolate coloured Pine Marten or perhaps a panicky Roe Deer. To be sure, by the time you reach the car park and the beginning of your mountain walk, you’ll have already collected a memory or two of the day to cherish. Although I can never seem to wait to get up into the hills, neither do I ever seem to want that beautiful drive to end.
But eventually we arrive at the car park, and another story entirely. Midges! Today was no different from many a previous summer visit. We ate our breakfast and donned our togs tightly shut up in the car; even the act of fetching boots and day sacks from the boot was purgatorial! When we at last set off it was in the company of a million of the tiny perishers!
Just along the road from the car park is Chisolme Bridge, here the road for Affric Lodge crosses the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh and close by our own little track dove off among the trees to lead us onwards, towards Toll Creagach and his neighbour, Tom a Choinich. With a jaunty pace set we left the midges behind us.
The track keeps company with The Abhainn and is graced with fine trees and grand backward glances to Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin, a much smaller body of water before it was dammed by the Hydro people back in the sixties. For a couple of kilometres the track took us north, and then, as the trees finally thinned, the river, and with it our path, took a turn into the west. We walked beneath the great grassy slopes of Toll Creagach, the visible crags of its outlier, Beinn Eun reminding us that we’d need to give these a wider berth when descending later in the day.
The view west was mesmerising! Quite close at hand now, the stony south east ridge of Tom a’ Choinich loomed. Farther west still, as if peeping over Chionich’s shadowed shoulder, Carn Eige and Mam Sodhail, (pronounced Mam Sool and Carn Ay, as in hay, respectively), the ‘biggies’ of the range, lurked. Where the river ran choked with granite slabs and boulders, I was able to hop midstream for the accompanying photograph.
But those hills, if included with those we intended to climb today, would make for a pretty hefty day out, some would say: ‘epic’. We were content to explore the two Munros before us. To that end we continued alongside the river for yet another kilometre, to a spot where the path crossed the Allt Toll Easa.
The burn was easy enough to cross, though it can be a tad dangerous in heavier spate conditions; at such times it would be necessary to climb uphill until a safer crossing can be effected. The path we now joined, an offshoot of the original, is an old and interesting trod that climbs straight to the skyline bealach, thence to dive down the opposite side of the mountain to finally disappear at the shore of the now much enlarged Loch Mullardoch.
After some initial zig-zags we forsook even this path, for yet another somewhat messier one which took us up onto Tom a’ Choinich’s south east ridge via rocky Creag na h-Inghinn. The ridge before us, though stony, was gentle; as we slowly ascended, so the views enlarged around us. Soon gained, the cairn at the summit of Tom a’ Choinich, (1112 metres), is a splendid viewpoint.
North, over the waters of Loch Mullardoch, the splendid range of mountains that make up the Glencannich Forest and the Benula Estates, rolled and leapt and jostled. Beyond them the hills of Strathfarrar and Pait reminded us of earlier days out.
Farther north, half hidden but still a presence, we saw the Glencarron and Glenuig hills; even Torridon whispered across the intervening peaks.
As a detour we walked out west, along a pleasantly undulating ridge, as far as An Leth-Chreag (The half crag), a half hour walk totally dominated by the giants of The West Benula hills: Carn Eige, Mam Sodhail and lonely Beinn Fhionnlaidh, virtually dwarfing anything further west. It was hard to turn our backs on such a glorious scene!
But alas, we must. With green and rock grey hills and lochs reflecting the blue of the sky, nature’s colours pouring into our souls, we strode back to Choinich’s cairn.
The mountain’s eastern slope, green and grassy, is cut by a fantastic zig-zag of a path that took us easily down to the broad Bealach.
Another short rise had us up on a great grassy ridge that seemed made for free roaming horses, so flat was the kilometre of ground that we crossed to reach the final easy slope of Toll Creagach’s summit. (1053 metres).
Two other walkers had beaten us to the top, a man and a woman up from England. The gentleman was new to Munro Bagging; his companion had done them all and was accompanying him on a week long holiday in Scotland. She was definitely the boss!
As we talked so the breeze picked up chivvying the building cloud high above us to scatter fleeting shadows across the slopes and flats.
Way down we watched scurrying white horses galloping on Mullardoch’s shadow dappled water.
Frequently we stopped to gaze down at the Affric lands below, that land, some say, so much akin to Canada. It was beautiful. And so too were the hills beyond; the Glen Cluanie hills especially and the giants of Glen Shiel.
Before we knew it we were back down by the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh and the muddy path that had brought us here this morning.
Though the sun beat down upon us now there was enough breeze to keep us cool and free of midge attentions. It was a slow, reflective walk back through the trees and into the dark, soothing shade of the pine woods.