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If you ask me what my favourite part of the Scottish Highlands is, be prepared to hang around whilst I try to decide. In my early rock-climbing days, my favourite area was Skye (plus Glencoe because that was on the way to Skye). When I discovered Torridon and Wester Ross in the 1990’s I was completely bowled over, and in the past couple of years, I rediscovered the Cairngorms and wondered why I didn’t go there more often.
I first discovered Assynt about twenty years ago and started kicking myself for not doing so earlier. Our Autumn 2020 Highland trip in the camper took in most of the familiar places I know and love, plus some new ones besides, but Assynt grabbed us, so we stayed and mooched around for a while. It’s good to have a mountain day as an objective, but sometimes just mooching around on a long dog walk with ‘Mist’ is more than good enough.
After our East Cairngorm outings (see posts #286 and #287) I had tried my hand at wildlife photography at Chanonry Point on the East Coast, but it was a ‘no show’ by the dolphins on the two mornings I tried for a photo. ‘Mist’ had enjoyed the extended dog-walks on the beach, but the West Coast was calling, so it was time to take the A837 road through Strath Oykel to Assynt.
The coast road through Assynt is part of the now famous (or should that be infamous!) NC500 road trip. For years, the road around the west and north coasts of Scotland was known to just a few of us enthusiasts and had been ‘undiscovered’ by the masses. Well, they’ve been discovered now that’s for sure, and over the summer months the roads are rammed with campervans, many of them hire vans with inexperienced drivers, who don’t have a clue how to drive on narrow Highland roads.
I was ready for the possibility that Assynt could be busy, and as I’ve no more right to be there than anyone else, I was prepared and ready to have to share the joy with the hordes. Luckily, the tourist season seems to correspond loosely with the midge season, and by the time we arrived at Loch Assynt, the number of vans in the area was nearer to the way things used to be twenty years ago.
We spent a short half-day around the ruins of Ardvreck Castle and Calda House, places we had previously driven past, but never had a close look at. The castle was built in 1590 by the MacLeods of Assynt, but the Mackenzie clan took the castle in 1672, later taking control of the whole of Assynt. In 1726 they decided to go ‘upmarket’ and built a modern manor house at Calda, but this was burned down in 1737 and both now stand in ruins.
Loch Assynt was also a convenient base for a walk out from Inchnadamph. The stars of the show in this part of Assynt are Conival and Ben More Assynt (so named to distinguish it from other Ben Mores), but our objective was to take a trip out to an aircraft crash site dating back to 1941. We took the stalkers path out from Inchnadamph and set off for Loch nan Cuaran, which made a good place to take a break.
Various sections of the walk had been quite wet, and the next bit looked like being even worse. Time was also moving on, and the cloud base was coming down to meet us, so a decision was made to bale out and return to the valley, leaving the visit to the crash site for another day – we made it down before the rain started.
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The Avro Anson was used as a training aircraft all through WW2 and beyond. Because of its use as a trainer, the aircraft type is frequently found at crash sites in the hills and mountains of the UK, not because it was an unsafe aircraft but because there were a lot of them flying in the war years. On 13th April 1941, Anson N9857 set out from RAF Kinloss on a long training flight out to the Isle of Lewis. On the return leg, the aircraft was forced to climb to avoid bad weather, and a message was received by a ground station, saying that the aircraft was losing power due to icing.
The Anson was posted as overdue later that day, but searches failed to locate the aircraft, which was eventually found by a shepherd over a month later. Of the crew of six, at least three appeared to have survived the initial impact and the body of a fourth was found near to the wreck, possibly after trying to go for help – they all appear to have died from hypothermia, during what had been the most severe blizzard in the area in 100 years. The task of recovering the bodies was beyond the resources of the time and they were buried at the crash site, at what is now the highest grave in the UK.
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A couple of days later found us out at Stoer Head at the northwest corner of Assynt, after a drive along some of the narrowest roads in Scotland – it must be chaos in the height of the tourist season, as this is part of the aforementioned NC500. The lighthouse at Stoer Head is the most obvious attraction on arrival, but the reason most tourists come here is for the walk out to the Old Man of Stoer.
The Old Man is a 60 metres (nearly 200 ft) high sea stack, which appears to defy gravity as well as the West Coast storms. As well as being a good dog walk (well, ‘Mist’ seemed happy enough) it is also a popular rock climb, with the first ascent in 1966 by Brian Henderson, Paul Nunn, Tom Patey and Brian Robertson. Getting to the foot of the stack can be a bit of an epic apparently, requiring either a swim or a rope traverse. No, we didn’t bother.
Our Scottish trips wouldn’t be complete without at least one bothy visit, with Suileag Bothy in Assynt being a contender (for those who don’t know about bothies in the UK, follow this link). Suileag is ideally placed for trips up Suilven and Canisp, and many hikers use the bothy overnight to make the ascent day shorter – both summits are about three miles from the bothy.
Suileag is a popular bothy with hikers, cyclists and mountaineers, but during the Covid-19 emergency, all bothies maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association have been placed off-limits. So, after a quick peek inside for a couple of photos, we turned round for the return to the car park near Glencanisp Lodge. Suilven was just as impressive on the way back as it had been on the way out to the bothy, but ‘Mist’ was much more impressed by the sound of her dinner dish being topped up when we arrived back at the van.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock except where otherwise indicated. Images tagged Craig Wallace and Jim Barton are taken from the Geograph Project and are reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.