open country

Just after the first frosts of the season began I was heading up north with my parents. The main purpose was to get some hills done.

Despite the fact that the Highlands have enjoyed a better summer, I shivered at the idea of heading to the deep, dark glens and being in the mercy of their shadow.

The Strathpeffer Hotel was a gaudy and cluttered conglomerate of tasteless objet d’arts and so was a disappointing start to our week. I was not inspired. I felt bad for my father; it was all he could find with spare rooms at short notice. The next morning we had to leave mother in this uninviting space as we headed for our first hills of the weekend.

Strathconon lies west of Strathpeffer. Both names, as the strath indicates, are wide valleys. The latter means valet of the wolf river; so I can imagine that at one time wolves would have made this their territory and were maybe spied drinking at the river’s edge. Although, the river that runs along the valley floor is called the River Meig, meaning boggy river.

Certainly, the start of our hike up the eastern slopes of Creag Ruadh were boggy and I had forgotten my gaiters. The mountain tops were obscured by the cloud base. As we ascended we looked down onto huge amber-coloured moorland, a section was still highlighted by sun though a rare break in the clouds.

Below the first summit we moved into the clouds, the temperature dropped and the air was saturated with moisture. Unusually, this went for my chest and I found myself reaching for my inhaler several times. From Creag Ruadh, the topography changed to a narrow ridge with steep slopes obvious even in the reduced visibility.

The summit of Meallan nan Uan (838m), lying north-west of the creag was surprising small. This is the type of summit where you stop abruptly in the thick mist, unsure of how dramatic the rocky slopes are around you. The strange thing on the ridge is the whiteness of the lichen on the rocks, even in dim light the thousands of blotches have a weird effervescence.

Heading north-north-west to the bealach, the landscape changes. We descended off the first mountain onto a large, open high moor. The clouds were on the move and had started to break and rise. The prominent ridge to our west, Creag Ghlas, was accentuated by cloud that looked as if it was being ripped off. The increasing view was tantalising and difficult to leave, we seemed to tarry in this huge space.

We skirted round the eatern side of Carn Fuar to begin our second ascent north-east to Sgurr a ‘Mhuillin.

Again, our surroundings transformed. The grass was short and beautifully green, the sun had come to greet us, widening our eyes.

A window opened to the west, giving life to the wider surroundings. Sgurr Coire a’ rainich and Sgurr a’ Ghlas leathaid stood in the new light with their heads held high – almost haughty. They were right, we looked at them in awe.

Turning round towards the summit, a thin veil of cloud moved up the hills momentarily, taking the brightness out of the green slope.

I held back to take photographs of Dad and his friend John walking along this pleasant ridge; they were gilded with light against a huge blue sky scored with a barred cloud.

It was not until we left the hill that its name was realised. The word sgurr in a mountain name suggests a sharp, pointed hill.

From our approach from the west it seemed so gentle, even serene, but the descent east follows a very steep shoulder topped with huge slabs.

Below us, on the north side of the Allt an t Strathain Mhoir, the bog gashes were spread out like the waves of a feather that has been in the water – bending and narrowing to the end of each line.