Hillwalking - Surely the jewel in the crown...


The name Beinn Alligan, means ‘the jewelled mountain’.

If the Torridonian mountains comprise the crowning glory of the Northwest Highlands, then Beinn Alligan surely is the jewel in the crown.

The mountain comprises three main summits which you can easily walk over on a long afternoon. My first visit was during a week’s holiday many years ago. The weather had been mostly foul and in sheer desperation, on a claggy, midge infested afternoon, we’d fled our caravan with the sole intention of ‘just having a look’. However, unable to resist the mountain on that occasion we ended up at the top in what turned out to be the only dry-ish afternoon of the entire week.

Although, and in spite of high winds, the scrambling on The Horns had been enjoyable, the views had been non -existent; neither did we meet another soul up there daft enough to brave the ridge on so contrary an afternoon.

Since then a new path has been laid all the way to the mountain’s eastern ridge; it’s a cracker. (By now of course that path has already seen almost a decade of use).

After leaving Upper Loch Torridon, (we’d parked the car at the provided car park near Torridon House), and wending peacefully through beautiful pine and birch woods, we let the path lead us along the waterfall punctuated Abhainn Coire Mhic nobuill. This famous old right of way was itself headed for the fastness that is dominated by such awesome Torridonian giants as Liathach, with its buttresses sprouting, as well as equally impressive Beinn Dearg and Beinn Eighe.

After crossing a wooden bridge we eventually left the abhainn to walk awhile beside the Allt a’ Bhealaich. Soon after crossing another bridge we were brought up sharp by the steep nose that is Beinn Alligan’s only access from this, its eastern, end. High in the rocks above, like little brightly coloured insects on a wall, we could see others picking their ways upwards, reminding us that, though the scrambling here was easy, there was certainly no more walking for a while.

We were grateful for a short respite once the initial steepening eased enough to allow us to walk to the next steepening, a slope that was to usher us to the foot of the first of the three sandstone tops endearingly known as: ‘The Horns of Alligan’, otherwise Na Rathanan. Now the fun could start!

On our first visit we hadn’t seen a thing, such was the thickness of the cloud. Now, as we scrambled over reputedly some of the oldest rock on the planet, we were only too aware of the chasmic drops beneath our feet. (There is a bypass path, much lower down, for the feint hearted).

To take our minds off the exposure we stopped frequently to stare in wonder at the vast Torridonian landscape we found ourselves in. Ranged along either side of Loch Torridon itself, red mountains, many topped with grey or sometimes off white caps of quartz, and all of alpine stature, rose straight from the salt blue sea.

There were many other walkers on this justifiably popular hill by now, no doubt lured, like us, by the glorious weather the day had blessed us with. So busy was the mountain in fact, that often we had to wait in line for those ahead of us to clear the short but absorbing down climbs on the Horns; or in fact, to await the passing of others coming from the opposite direction.

Horns crossed, our next main objective was Sgurr Mhor, whose long narrow ridge now rose somewhat imposingly in front of us. Sgurr Mhor, a Munro, is the highest peak on the ridge, (3231 feet/ 985 metres). At its summit, whilst drinking in the northerly views of lochan surrounded mountains, the lands of Flowerfield, we ate our lunch.

Re-energised we dropped down to Toll a’ Mhadaidh, (hole of the fox or wolf), and a cautious peer into the depths of the famed Eag Dhuibh, (the black cleft). A fearsome rip is this from head to toe of mountain, witness to a geological event in the distant past when a huge chunk of the hill simply let go and plunged 1800 feet to the corrie floor below. It’s still a dangerous place and one or two have lost their lives here over the years.

After inspection and photographs we headed down into the next col and braced ourselves for our final scramble upwards and the traverse of Munro number two, Tom na Gruagaich, alias ‘the maiden’s knoll’. (3024 feet/ 922 metres). You don’t have to scramble here but searching out less easier walls and rock steps adds spice to what would otherwise be a grind up the well worn staircase of the ridge.

It’s worth it! At the summit the cairn is amazingly situated. Look one way, (look, mind, don’t step!), and you have a plunge of almost two thousand feet to the corrie floor. Look the other way and you’re faced with an almost Mars-like expanse of sand and stone, a kind of mini desert in the sky!

There lay our way back down. Now, with its lovely new born burn to both quench our thirsts and guide us to the corrie floor still so very far below us, we descended into Coire an Laoigh. Perfectly framed in the ‘V’ formed by the corrie’s bounding ridges, Loch Torridon, far below and Beinn Damh, across its sky blue waters, made a stunning backdrop.

We were actually dreading this final section of the walk. That first visit, years ago, had left us with all too unwelcome memories. On that occasion the way out had been drenched with weeks on end of rainfall-it had been akin to wading through a quagmire!

But we needn’t have worried this time. Even the softest of the peaty ground we walked through today was firm by comparison. Whereas before we’d had to creep down for fear of slipping on some wet, slimy rock step, today we crept down because we just didn’t want the day to end.

On that first visit, owing to rain and high winds, we’d raced around the mountain’s summits, scarce appreciating the splendours awaiting those prepared to linger. Today, blessed with warmth and glorious sunshine, we arrived at the terminal car park in a state of euphoria. We’d also arrived at the conclusion of another kind, to whit: if Scottish mountains came on rings or bangles, on tiaras or crowns, then Beinn Alligan would surely be the diadem of them all...