Archive for August, 2009
The weather forecast looked pretty grim for most areas but I sensed things might improve the further I drove north. A depression from the south-west appeared to be losing some of its wet and windy energy over the western coastal hills and my hope was that it would fizzle out before reaching Sutherland.
I was right. I drove past Bonar Bridge and Lairg in ever-brightening conditions and on by the lonely Crask Inn where cloud shadows speckled the broad rolling moorland. By the time I reached Strath Vagastie, where the road rolls down to Altnaharra and Strath Naver, the sun was shining although a dense cloud cap still smothered the summit of Ben Klibreck, the most second northerly of our Munros after Ben Hope.
Delighting in the dry and bright conditions I was happy to try and ignore the gusty wind that was flattening the moorland grasses as I trudged my way along a boggy footpath from the roadside towards Loch nan Uan. While the wind certainly kept the midges down it wasn’t conducive to good video-making. I was trying to film the ascent for my website but even the heavy tripod that I lugged along was in danger of being blown over.
It’s been some years since I visited Klibreck, even though I spent a lot of time in Sutherland last summer working on a television and book project. I love the wide open skies of these northern parts, the distinctive individuality of the mountains, and as I climbed higher above the wind-ruffled Loch nan Uan those hills began to make their presence felt. Arkle, Foinaven, Beinn Spionnaidh, Cranstackie, Ben Hope and the multi-topped Ben Loyal formed a semi-arc of shapes to the west and north, blue remembered hills that refute Sutherland’s reputation as ‘the empty lands.’
It was a bit of a relief to reach the steep grassy slopes that make up Klibreck’s main ridge – it protected me from the wind! This long curving ridge runs roughly south-west to north-east and while it looks fairly bland from the west great spurs extend to the south and east forming some very impressive corries that drain into Loch Choire and Loch a’ Bhealaich on the Caithness side of the hill.
The steep slopes that face west were longer than I anticipated so it was a blessing to come across a footpath that ran north along the slopes just below the ridgeline. It meant I could head for an obvious bealach below the main summit without having to face the buffeting wrath of the wind.
Cloud still covered the summit cone as I was blown along the A’Choich ridge of the hill and I had to take care climbing up the rocky slopes to the summit, Meall nan Con, the rounded hill of the dog. Mercifully, I managed to find a sheltered nook just below the summit trig point where I could set up my camera and tripod and get some good footage of Loch Naver and Strath Naver, scene of the some of the most dreadful clearances in the early nineteenth century.
The settlements of Grummore and Grumbeg, Rosal, Truderscaig and Achanlochy were all emptied of people by the Duchess of Sutherland and her infamous factor, Partick Sellar. The lands were then rented out to shepherds from the Borders with flocks of black faces and Cheviots. Meanwhile the people were allocated strips of rocky land by the sea shore. A shameful period in Scotland’s history…
The imposing tops of Ben Loyal dominated the landscape to the north, silhouetted blue in the afternoon light and. beyond lay the even bluer waters of the Pentland Firth with the dim outline of the Orkneys on the far horizon.
A longer route to Ben Klibreck starts at the Crask Inn and traverses the long curved ridge of the hill over Cnoc Sgriodain, Creag and Lochain and A’Chioch to the summit. From Meall nan Con descend to the south-east over Meall an Eoin and down to a footpath that hugs the north shore of Loch a’ Bhealaich. This footpath can then be followed back to the Crask Inn through the narrow portals of the Bealach Easach, a long and varied mountain day of about 15 miles that gives a real sense of what walking in Sutherland is all about, a wonderful combination of wildness, remoteness, wide open skies and rolling moorland.
Following a meeting today of the Scottish executive committee of Ramblers Scotland Dennis Canavan, Convenor of Ramblers Scotland issued the following statement;
We are now taking orders for our new book, The Sutherland Trail - a journey through north-west Scotland. I’m particularly excited about this book, a high quality hardback with some superb photography by my compatriot Richard Else. We’ve tried very hard to give a good flavour of Sutherland, its landscapes, its people, folklore, history and the various outdoor activities that people enjoy there, as well as giving a step by step account of the route itself, which I really hope will become a popular walking route.
Robert Macfarlane, author of Mountain of the Mind, and The Wild Places, very kindly read the book and wrote a fine introduction to the book. Let me quote some of it:
“You will probably have heard of the Aboriginal Australian vision of the ‘Songlines’. According to this vision – a theology of a sort – the landscape of Australia is criss-crossed by a network of tracks and paths, which were laid down during the creation of the world. Each of these paths has a corresponding song, whose every note corresponds to a significant feature of the path – a rock outcrop, creek, or eucalypt that it passes, say, or a corner that it turns. To sing, according to this vision, is therefore to find one’s way. Storytelling is indivisible from wayfaring, and the whole landscape is thick with plots and narrative. You just need to know how to sing them up.
“The vision of the Songlines is often contrasted with white settler accounts of Australia’s interior from the mid-nineteenth-century, which saw the desert as a terra nullius, an empty land, ‘a Climax of Desolation’, as the explorer Daniel Brock put it in 1845. Where the white settlers saw an absence of meaning in the landscape, the Aboriginals saw meaning’s abundance. Where the white settlers perceived the desert only laterally, the Aboriginals perceived it deeply.
“Many other indigenous cultures practise a version of the Songlines. The nomadic Chemehuevi of the Mojave Desert, for instance, navigated the wide expanses of arid rock and sand using songs. The songs gave the names of places in geographical order, and the place names were descriptive or evocative, such that a person who’d never been to a place might recognize it from the song. ‘How does that song go?’, in Chemehuevi, means ‘What is the route it travels?’ Similarly, in Navajo culture of the American south-west, place-names that index specific landmarks are told in sequence to form stories or ‘verbal maps’ describing routes of travel for people to follow. Guidelines in the non-bureaucratic sense.
“It seems to me that Cameron McNeish and Richard Else have begun, with their television programme Sutherland – The Empty Lands? and this book, to create a songline for Sutherland. They have summoned, in order to banish, the old heresy of Sutherland as a terra nullius. Instead, they have found and proved it to be a landscape that is superbly rich in history, teeming with life – human and natural – and wealthy with stories, from the Archaean era through to the contemporary. I hope that Cameron’s trail becomes, over the years, a well-trodden path, and that thousands of subsequent pedestrians stride out along it, walking up – waking up – Sutherland’s songs.”
The book is available from Amazon etc and is also available from this website and that of the publisher, www.mountain-media.co.uk
Richard Else and I spent an exciting day seeing the pages roll off the printers and checking the proofs of our new book, The Sutherland Trail, which is due to be published next week.
This is the first time either of us have produced our own book although we have collaborated on three previous books, The Edge - 100 Years of Scottish Mountaineering and two volumes of Wilderness Walks, all for BBC books.
It’s a bit special to see your own production come to life though and the book is now being bound. We’ll have it ready for sale by early next week and I’ll get details on this website, and the Mountain Media website, over the weekend.
The weather forecast looked pretty grim yesterday for most areas but I sensed things might improve the further I drove north. I was right. I ended up driving past Lairg and on passed the Crask Inn to park the car below Ben Klibreck. I love the wide open spaces of Sutherland and the views from Klibreck are superb - out along Loch Naver and Strath Naver, the site of so many dreadful clearances in the late nineteenth century, and across the moors to Scotland’s most northerly Munro - Ben Hope.
Fortunately, although the hill’s summit cone was covered in cloud all morning, it lifted sufficiently to get a few video shots of the surrounding area. Big problem with shooting video in the hills is the wind, and today was a nightmare with gale force winds on the summit. Very difficult to get any half decent audio under such circumstances. Anyway, I had a go, and you can see the results under Podcasts. Hope you enjoy it - it’s always fun putting these wee videos together.