As it does with many people, however they come across it, this unique mountain makes an instant and lasting impression. People will relate unreal and dreamlike connections they have experienced on seeing Suilven for the first time, believing, for instance, that they have been there before, as if in another life, or that Gaelic ancestors are calling them back to a magical and timeless place.
As a Lakelander of Norse descent, I cannot lay claim to any such feelings. However, Suilven did send me a very clear message: Climb me. And that longstanding ambition was achieved earlier this summer when a friend, Barbara Mitchell and myself, set out for the North West Highlands with the intention of a close encounter with the mighty Suilven.
The journey was epic in its own inimitable way. Neither of us is in the first flush of youth and, while hesitating to admit it, I am in my seventieth year on Planet Earth; how I got to this age heaven only knows. But Barbara and I are both young at heart, have plenty of experience of walking the Lake District fells and, not all that long ago, coped comfortably with the demands of Sharp Edge on my favourite Lakeland fell, Blencathra. So, surely, Suilven was well within our range.
But this was new and unknown territory and our fell walking ventures closer to home tended to be of four to five hours duration, and not the eight to 10 hours demanded of anyone walking in, scaling Suilven and then walking out – unless, that is, you break the journey with an overnight camp at the foot of the mountain by a loch.
So we were a little anxious about whether or not we could carry this off. Or, more precisely, what shape we might be in afterwards. Our worries were needless. We had scanned the weather forecast in the days building up to our ‘expedition’ and the omens were not good. Low pressure, strong winds and waves of rain seemed to be prevalent and there was the prospect of being smothered, at lower levels, by killer midges. Would the wee blood-drinking beasties be active in mid-June? Just to be on the safe side we armed ourselves with glamorous head nets, and buckets of Avon cream. It was not a good look.
Our concerns were needless. We were blessed with wonderful weather, sunshine all the way and our ‘base camp’ was the idyllic Shore Caravan site, just up the road (on Route 500) from the coastal village of Lochinver. We pitched our tent (a three-person Hilleberg Nallo, courtesy of George Fisher) on a grass raise looking out over the sea and a stone’s throw from an amazing beach – the white sands and aquamarine waters of Achmelvich Bay.
Achmelvich is one of the most beautiful beaches in Britain or, as the locals would have it, “the best beach this side of Barbados.” I would not argue with that. We walked the beach and others, just as marvellous, a little further along the shore and I was attracted to the amazing patterns in volcanic rock leading onto the sand. The Shore Caravan site has the amazing benefit of its very own fish and chip shop (I kid you not) open most evenings and situated discreetly in one of the site’s few buildings. It is quite possibly the smallest chippy in the world! And the food is superb.
From our tent by the sea we could make out in the distance the object of our attention, Suilven (731m, 2,398 ft). There is no mistaking this mountain. Suilven (Scottish Gaelic: Suilebheinn) has been glacially sculpted out of Torridean sandstone. Its distinctive name was given to it by sea-borne Vikings and roughly translates to pillar. From a distance it is altogether formidable, its fortress-like battlements, and the rounded, more substantial bulk of the summit end, Caisteal Liath (the Grey Castle in the Scottish Gaelic) rising up like a mammoth or some giant Ice Age beast from the wilderness landscape of moorland, bogs and lochans that make up the Inverpolly National Nature Reserve.
Having set out on the long drive up from the Lake District late on Friday (we broke our journey at Grantown on Spey and got to Lochinver early on Saturday afternoon) we decided that Sunday would be the day of our climb. A strong sea breeze had kept the midges at bay since our arrival but dawn on the Sunday was cloudless and still. And while we ate breakfast the midges rose in their multitudes out of nowhere and ate us.
We quickly packed our walking gear and provisions and set out in the car on the short journey to Lochinver and the car parking space 1.5km from the coastal village on the narrow lane leading to Glenanisp Lodge. Thankfully, we seemed to leave the killer hordes behind – although the Avon had certainly helped thwart the worst of the attacks.
The 6km walk in to Suilven is along an obvious track that starts just beyond the lodge. For much of the trek the path runs parallel to a river, the Amhainn na Clach Airidh. The mountain looks decidedly less daunting once you get closer and from a side on perspective. A short distance beyond a point where you cross the river, you take a right towards Suilven’s flank at a clearly visible waymark; the large expanse of Loch na Gainimh on your left. The path rises and leads you between Loch na Barrack (on your right) and Loch a ‘Choire Dhuibh (loch of the black cliff) to your left. Immediately ahead now is the steep, almost vertical, zigzag path that climbs up a gully and ultimately brings you to the summit ridge of Suilven. It is a hard, tiring haul up the side of the mountain but the views when you reach the highpoint on the 2km long ridge are to die for. The summit proper at Caisteal Liath is a short scramble / walk over boulders and path to your right once you have attained the ridge. Getting to the ridge is the tough bit and it was a pleasure – on our return journey – to enjoy the amazing 360-degree vista from the ridge, have a bite to eat and a drink, before stretching out on a slab of rock and bathing and snoozing under the burning afternoon sun. The thought of the steep descent off the mountain was not something we were looking forward to but it had to be done, sooner or later, and when it came was not as demanding as we imagined. Once at the foot of the mountain we faced the prospect of the long walk back to the car.
We were out 10 hours exactly from the start of our walk to its completion and as we endured (there’s no other word for it) the last few hundred yards along the seemingly endless road to the car we were, quite literally, ‘running’ on empty. But we were happy that we had climbed the mighty Suilven and later celebrated in style – with fish and chips eaten al fresco on one the most beautiful of white-sand beaches, Achmelvich Bay, where we shared a bottle of ice-cold white wine out of New Zealand. All of which reminded me of the Milford Trek. But that’s another story… and it occurs to me that, marvellous though NZ is ,there was nothing to equal Suilven.
In fact, there is nothing quite like Suilven anywhere. It is unique, unparalleled and has an almost mystical, legendary quality that is difficult to define.
Keith Richardson is a former newspaper journalist and magazine editor who moved into books and publishing through establishing the River Greta Writer publishing house in October 2007.