Dominated by mighty Foinaven and Arkle, Scotland’s final gift of mountains runs down to the sea near Durness in a long diminishing ridge; you cannot get much further north than that.
As if in a last shout of rocky defiance, a final flourish, Cranstackie and Beinn Spionnaidh, raise their heads to Corbett height, offering the climber one more chance to properly savour the stunning seaward views to Orkney; from here on northwards it’s down hill all the way.
My companion and I left the car at the deserted roadside house of Carbreck. It was barely light and a couple of miles south along the track we could see the dim lights of Rhigolter, a lonely shepherd’s house literally nestling in the bosom of the mountains; blue smoke curled from its chimney, rose but a handful of feet into the cold air then spread itself like a veil over the surrounding out buildings.
We crossed the River Dionaid by a sturdy wooden bridge and gazed in wonder as the great northern flanks of Foinaven slowly congealed out of the deep dawn blue sky. Ceann Garbh we looked at and Ganu Mor. Massive though they seemed to us from where we stood, they form only a fraction of the great sprawling giant that writhes its way southwards and , for now, out of sight.
We walked in silence along a good track, the air tingling after a night of sharp frost; the stones beneath out boots, hardened by the rime, gave off a solid ring as we went. Now and then a single car would whisk along the lonely road to who knew where, headlights still bright in spite of the improving daylight.
Dogs yapped at Rhigolter, behind who’s scruffy out-houses rose a steeply sloping grassy wall, some 250 meters high. There was no path, (if there was we missed it); we slogged our way up beside a burn that came rushing down in brutal leaps and bounds. The early frost had been half-hearted, merely superficial, not enough to properly harden the ground; the grass was still soggy after recent heavy rain.
Respite came as we arrived in the flatter though nevertheless rough precincts of Calbhach Coire, a splendid hanging basin vaguely reminiscent of the Winter Corrie of Driesh. A good place to pause for breath. We stood a while, looking back the way. We saw the sun’s rays painting the otherwise dull slopes of Farrmheall; the heather glowed with the gold of a glorious winter’s morning.
But the sun’s warmth was not reaching us. The ground we trod was gripped by last night’s frost, every blade of grass white and brittle; in this cold hole it crunched beneath our boots. We pressed on. Another steepening faced us. We’d been following another stream which appeared to fall directly from the Corrie head above; high up we left it to pass between the somewhat rockier walls that would debouch us on the col above.
And at last the final climb into the waiting sunshine. One moment we were toiling in our gloomy world of rime and smoky breath, the next we were standing on a grassy sunlit col with eastward views to take what breath was left us clean away! Enshrouded in a gossamer of blue mist, Ben Loyal, Ben Hope, Klibreck and Ben Hee, rose with the morning, each apart, distinct; each contributing to this very special Northern Scottish landscape.
After a cup of tea we set our sights on Cranstackie’s summit cairn. At 801 metres it’s slightly higher than Beinn Spionnaidh, (773 meters), yet not at all a hard climb. The hill lives up to its name: rugged hill! Boulder studded grass led us up and over a first rise, a narrow ridge and then up again for the last time. Near the summit the grass gave way to a huge jumble of giant boulders up which we were obliged to clamber. The summit cairn lay across a similar though flatter boulder field. Perched as it was, on the very brink of the mountain’s west facing cliff, we felt like eagles in an eyre. Now we could see a lot more of Foinaven; we saw the mountain for the giant it really is. Across trench-like Strath Dionard, the beast thrust its huge, boulder and scree ridden spurs, rudely, in our faces! Foinaven is a huge brute, to do her justice requires a long and arduous day. Westward and beyond, to the sea, a land of a myriad lochans and lochs; the wettest place in Europe, by all accounts. To our east, stretching northwards to the sea, Loch Eribol, a beautiful blue sheet lay spread beneath our feet.
Reluctantly we turned to leave. We beetled back to the col and collected our waiting sacks. Within another half hour, this time on gentle slopes of grass and kinder boulders, we were standing at Beinn Spionnaidh’s crowning pile of stones. (Beinn Spionnaidh means hill of strength). Here, amongst more great boulders, was a place to linger and wander a while, to re-indulge ourselves in views now dominated on the west side by the loch like Kyle of Durness, and to the east, the fullness of Loch Eriboll.
But winter days are short and if we were to get back down in daylight we would have to take our leave. And so we returned to the summit cairn and dropped off west, first over another toilsome field of boulders, then onto the grass of Cioch Mhor, (big chest or breast), Beinn Spionnaidh’s long and undulating western spur.
This grassy ridge led us easily and ever downward onto ever friendlier ground , until eventually we found ourselves practically looking down the chimney of the shepherd’s house at Rhigolter.
Sheep became abundant once more and there drifted up the familiar sound of barking dogs.
As the sun began its final dip behind Foinaven, a frosty chill had us speed our steps along; thus it wasn’t long before we were changing into fresh, unsweaty shirts and nosing the car back onto the road for Durness.
And still the day had one last gift to offer.
A mere handful of times in any Northern Scottish winter, the day might end in a glorious sunset and you might be there to see it. Today had brought us one such evening. Two miles south of Durness a side road heads for nearby Keodale and the ferry for the Cape Wrath lighthouse. By the junction there’s a car park and a little picnic area. Here we stopped to take our final photos. With the sun just gone below the horizon, the southern sky glowed with the colour of saffron.
The quiet waters of the Kyle mirrored those same colours to perfection. Dividing those two planes, dark and shadowy and ready, so they seemed, to slumber, the bulks of Foinaven , Cranstackie and Beinn Spionnaidh appeared to taper into the fiery sea.