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 farther north than that.
As if in a last shout of rocky defiance, a final flourish, Cranstackie and Beinn Spoinnaidh raise their heads to Corbett height, offering the climber one last opportunity to savour the stunning seaward views to Orkney. From here on and northwards it’s downhill all the way.
We left the car at the abandoned cottage at Carbreck. It was barely light. A couple of miles down track we could make out the dim lights of Rhigolter, a lonely shepherd’s house nestling in the bosom of the hills. Blue smoke curling from its chimney, rose but a few feet into the frosty air then spread itself like a veil over the surrounding out buildings.
We crossed the River Dionaid by a sturdy wooden bridge; its planks were thickly rimed and treacherous. From this bridge we gazed in wonder as the great northern flanks of Foinaven slowly congealed out of the dawn black sky. Ceann Garbh we looked at and Ganu Mor. Massive though they appeared to us from where we stood, they form but a fraction of the great sprawling giant that writhes its way southwards and, from here, out of sight.
We walked in silence along a good track, the air tingling after a night of sharp frost. The stones beneath our boots, hardened by the rime, gave off a solid ring as we went. Now and then a single car would whisk along the now distant road to who knew where, its headlights still bright in spite of the improving daylight.
Excited dogs yapped at Rhigolter, behind who’s scruffy buildings rose the steep grassy slopes we now had to negotiate. There was no path. We slogged our way up beside a burn that came rushing down in brutal leaps and bounds. The recent frosts had been half hearted, merely superficial, not enough to really harden the ground. The turf was still soggy after recent heavy rain.
Respite came as we arrived in the flatter, though nonetheless rough, precincts of Calbhach Coire, a splendid hanging basin reminiscent of the Winter Corrie of Driesh.
A good place to pause for breath. We lingered a while, looking back the way. We saw the sun’s rays painting the otherwise dull slopes of Farrmheall; its heather glowed with the gold of a glorious winter’s morning.
But the sun’s warmth was not reaching us! Up here the ground we trod was gripped by last night’s frost, every blade of grass white and brittle; in this cold hole they crunched beneath our boots.
We pressed on. Another steepening faced us. We’d been following another stream which appeared to fall from the corrie head above. High up we left it to pass between the somewhat rockier walls that would debouch us onto the skyline col.
And at last that final climb into the waiting sunshine. One moment we were toiling in our world of rime and smoky breath, the next we were standing on a sunlit grassy col with sudden 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 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 Spoinnaidh’s (773 metres), yet not at all hard to reach. The hill lives up to its name: ‘rugged hill’. Boulder studded grass led us up and over an initial rise. Next a narrow ridge and then up again for the last time. The grass gave way to a field of huge boulders over which we were obliged to clamber. Amid these boulders, perched on the brink of the mountain’s west facing cliff, we felt like eagles in an eyrie.
Now we could see a lot more of Foinaven; we saw the mountain for the giant it really is. Across trench like Strath Dionaid, the beast thrust its huge, boulder and scree draped spurs, rudely, in our faces! Foinaven is a huge brute, to do her justice requires a long and arduous day.
Westwards and beyond, to the sea at Laxford Bay, lay a myriad shimmering lochs and lochans; here lies the wettest place in Europe, by all accounts. To the east, stretching northwards to a different sea, Loch Eribol, a gorgeous blue sheet, lay spread beneath our feet.
Reluctantly we turned to leave. We beetled back to the col and collected our abandoned sacks. Within another half hour, this time via gentle slopes of grass and kinder boulders, we were standing at Beinn Spoinnaidh’s crowning pile of stones. (Beinn Spoinnaidh means ‘hill of strength’). Hereabouts, amongst more great boulders, was a place to linger and wander awhile, a place to re-indulge ourselves with views now dominated in the west by the loch-like Kyle of Durness, to the east, by the fullness of Loch Eribol.
But winter days are short and if we were to get back down in daylight we would have to take our leave. Thus it was that we returned to the summit cairn and dropped off west, first over another tiresome field of boulders, then onto the grass of Cioch Mhor (‘big chest or breast’), Beinn Spoinnaidh’s long and undulating western spur.
This grassy ridge led us easily and ever downward and onto ever friendlier ground, until eventually we found ourselves practically looking down the chimney of the shepherd’s house at Rhigolter. Sheep became abundant again 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, un-sweaty shirts and nosing the car back onto the road for Durness. Yet still the day had one last gift to offer.
A mere handful of times in any 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 turns of for Keodale and the ferry for the Cape Wrath lighthouse. By this 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 colours to perfection. Dividing those two planes, dark, shadowy and ready to slumber, so they seemed, the bulks of Foinaven, Cranstackie and Beinn Spoinnaidh, appeared to taper into the fiery sea.