Hillwalking - A flimsy shawl of early frost

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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 early autumn frost.

By the time we’d driven along ‘Destitution Road’ and climbed the little mountain by its western slopes, the shawl had been cast aside; now, as we turned back for ‘home’, heavy clouds and an almost breezeless afternoon made for a claggy, almost viewless, descent.

Past Dundonnell House, by meadows and 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 that contours a little above the desolate shores of the loch. It is also a vital life line. At its western end, five miles distant, 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 and papers!

After a while a little cairn indicated a muddy path which took steeply to the grass and heather hillside and 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.

On such a grey day the views behind us, across wind flecked Little Loch Broom and into the corrie jaws of An Teallach and her satellites, was at best ghostly. An Teallach and its Corbett neighbour, Sail Mhor, writhed in and out of cloud all day. An Teallach means, ‘the forge’; certainly today it was living up to its name. Sail Mor, its big heeled neighbour, fared no better.

But we were here for Gobhlach. We arrived at the col. Down below us, Loch na h-Uidhe and her sister, Loch na Coireag, sat plump like two grey tear drops shed on a dull dun 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!’

A gale, even now in its death throes, harried us to the shelter of the 635m summit ring of sandstone boulders. And 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, a delight to walk on and with views to rival any. West, 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.

The wind pushed us on to the remaining summit cairn; even after stopping for photographs, the walk round, it seemed , had only taken minutes.

The safest way down from here is directly south, into Coire Dearg. It’s steep and grassy, lots of fun, and quick. We reached the corrie floor as the wind finally fled and the sun arrived; 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 no little concentration. High above Little Loch Broom once more, in the company of a rain swollen waterfall, we dropped down by zigs and zags till we eventually reached the comfort of the coastal path.

I have read somewhere that the path from Kinloch Hourn to Barrisdale, along the southern shore of Loch Hourn, is the grandest of 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 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 the year’s already burnishing bracken, managed a tenuous grasp on life. One last thrill was left us as we neared our journey’s end. Along Little Loch Broom, gossamer showers danced with the late afternoon sunshine. For a moment the world went dark as a squall threw a ghostly curtain across Sail Mhor. In the near distance, low hummocks, their sandstone bones wetted by the rinsing rain, caught the piercing rays of sunshine and glinted like a myriad scattered diamonds.