Grand rewards of little hill

From the sleepy town of Ullapool we gazed across the grey waters of Loch Broom; Beinn Gobhlach, ‘the forked hill’, wore a flimsy shawl of frost. We could see snow higher up.

Friday, 21st December 2012, 1:34 pm

By the time we’d driven along ‘Destitution Road’ and climbed the little mountain by its western slopes, the frost had all but gone, intermittent, though bright, sunshine had been at work on those recent heavy falls of snow too.

Past Dundonnell House, by meadows and winter black woods that breathed of former opulence, the narrow lane eventually took us to the lonely moors above Little Loch Broom. At Badrallach, under the steepening slopes of its eponymous hill, Cnoc a’ Bhaid-rallaich, we left the car and walked.

It’s a fine track which contours a little above the desolate shores of the loch. It is also a vital life line. At its western end, five miles on, it stops abruptly at the tiny communities of Rireavach, Carnach and Sgoraig. No vehicles can use this ‘path’, the way to those little houses, with the shopping, is by boat!

Ten minutes into our ‘walk for pleasure’ we met a woman coming the other way; when we met her on the path again, on our own journey back, we understood from what she told us that, by the time she got back home, she will have walked a round trip from Rireavach (at least), of nine miles, just to fetch the milk!

About two kilometres along the path a little cairn indicated a muddy and somewhat unpromising path which took steeply to the grass and heather hillside and immediately led us in a game of hide and seek. No matter; the way ahead was obvious, just make for the col on the skyline and keep away from any crags.

Although the day would brighten markedly later in the afternoon, we walked under a thin haze of high cloud. On such a grey day the views behind us, across a wind flecked Little Loch Broom and into the corrie jaws of An Teallach and her satellites, were at best ‘ghostly’. There was a good deal of snow up on the ‘Forge’, but even this did little to quell the ‘smoke’; An Teallach and its Corbett neighbour, Sail Mhor, writhed in and out of cloud persistently, offering us tantalising and fleeting glimpses of their cold looking soaring flanks.

But we were here for Beinn Gobhlach. We arrived at the col. Down below us, Loch na h-Uidhe and her sister, Loch na Coireag, sat plump and frozen like two grey tear drops shed on a gossamer carpet. We made our way down to the latter, over tussocky un-pathed terrain; only the likes of us and anglers ever come to this wild and lonely little spot.

Ahead of us, looming out of all proportion to its lowly status, Beinn Gobhlach’s south-west ridge rose in a jumble of mini crags and boulder slopes; ‘a short sharp shock!’ awaited us.

A gale was busily chasing the lying snow away; it harried us to the shelter of the substantial summit ring of sandstone boulders (635 metres). And a shivering lunch. It was only after lunch that the clouds, which had joined us at the top, shredded sufficiently to allow us views of the way forward.

Beinn Gobhlach has two tops, the two prongs, if you like, of its appellative ‘fork’. Between us and the slightly lower, northern top, stretched a broad stony semi-circle of ridge; mostly plastered with soft snow, it was a delight to walk on. The views from here can rival any. East, across Loch Broom, to Ullapool was best, even if a little watery. Showers sweeping up the loch, hiding the distant town momentarily from view, did much to create an atmospheric aurora.

Above Coire nan Cnaimhean we dropped down a little below the ridge line, for photographs. Beneath our feet fell away a raw, seldom visited mountainside, a red landscape of inhospitable sandstone rock and moor all the way to the sea. And in that sea, as if struggling for breath in storm troubled waters, The Summer Isles, most notable of all, Isle Martin, swam for the coast of Coigach and its own Ben Mor (Coigach).

In small pockets and sun starved hollows we found deeper pockets of pristine snow; by tomorrow they too would begin to disappear. The wind pushed us on to the secondary summit cairn; even after stopping for photographs, the walk to get there, it seemed , had only taken minutes.

The safest way down from here is directly south, into Coire Dearg. It’s steep and grassy; with plenty of slippery snow up high it’s lots of fun, and quick. We reached the corrie floor as the sun finally won the war; it was time to cast off warm gear and slake our thirsts in the burn which would be our guide for the next kilometre or so.

And time also to look behind at where we’d been. From here, as you leave the ‘red corrie’ behind, you begin to appreciate the significance of the mountain’s name. Fork like indeed does the mountain appear with its twin tops, prong-like, prodding at the sky.

A treacherous guide our burn proved to be! It led us down steeply, amongst crags and awkward ground which, in one or two places, demanded extra concentration. High above Little Loch Broom once more, in the company of a thaw swollen waterfall, we dropped down by zigs and zags till we eventually reached the comfort of the loch-side path.

I have read somewhere that the path from Kinloch Hourn to Barrisdale, along the southern shore of Loch Hourn, is the grandest of such paths in Scotland. Probably true. But the path we followed now cannot lag far behind it. I offer it my hearty praise!

Not only does it command a wonderful view south across the loch, (what better view can there be than that of An Teallach and her friends?), but it hugs the hillside, sometimes, the sheer cliff-side, in a manner that Loch Hourn’s walkway seldom does. At one point it snakes across the rock face with only a bit of rickety old wooden fence for a safety rail; from the rocks only a few stunted birch trees, some heather and last year’s copper bracken, managed a tenuous grasp on life.

One last thrill was left us as we neared our journey’s end. Along Little Loch Broom, sleety showers danced with the late afternoon sunshine. For a moment the world went dark as a squall threw yet another gossamer curtain across Sail Mhor. In the near distance, low hummocks, their sandstone bones wetted by the rinsing sleet and rain, caught the piercing rays of sunshine and glinted like a myriad scattered diamonds.

Beinn Gobhlach is a little hill, not even reaching Corbett status; she offers but a short day’s walk. Yet in the scale of things the day had been a ‘big one’. Not for time spent or distance covered, mark you, but full to over-brimming with the satisfaction of a day out in a vast and empty corner of the Scottish Highlands.