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THE FAR NORTH

In the far north west of Scotland, north of the pretty town of Ullapool, lie 21 Top 500 Summits. These, together with a number of well known Grahams such as Ben More Coigach, Suilven and Stac Pollaidh, give rise to one of the most exciting hill walking areas of Britain. Once you have gone here, you will want to return again and again.

There are 21 Top 500 Summits.

1    Ben More Assynt                                 3,273ft           2    Ben Klibreck                                         3,154ft

3    Ben Hope                                              3,040ft          4    Foinaven                                               2,988ft

5    Ben Hee                                                2,863ft           6    Cul Mor                                                 2,787ft

7    Canisp                                                    2,775ft          8    Breabag                                                 2,670ft

9    Sail Gharbh – Quinag                           2,651ft       10  Meallan Liath Coire Mhic Dhughaill 2,627ft

11  Cranstackie                                           2,625ft         12  Beinn Leoid                                          2,599ft

13  Arkle                                                      2,582ft         14  Meall Horn                                            2,548ft

15  Glas Bheinn                                           2,546ft        16  Sail Gorm – Quinag                              2,546ft

17  Beinn Spionnaidh                                 2,534ft        18  Cul Beag                                                 2,523ft

19  Spidean Coinich – Quinag                    2,507ft       20  Ben Loyal                                               2,506ft

21  Carn an Tionail                                      2,490ft

To access all the mountains you should take the A835 which runs north from Ullapool. Firstly Ben More Coigach appears on the left  before the road heads past Cul Mor and Cul Beag. A left turn at Ledmore Junction and you are on the road to Lochinver or Durness on the north coast. The road to Durness passes many great mountains including Ben More Assynt, the Quinag, Arkle and Foinaven, and Cranstackie and Beinn Spionnaidh. This latter, a shy and unassuming mountain, is the most northerly summit in the list.

Below are my 3 favourite walks in the Far North

1. The Quinag

(9 miles, 4,100ft of climbing)

Sail Gharbh         2,651ft

Sail Gorm            2,546ft

Spidean Coinich 2,507ft

In ‘Victoria Regnante’,  Sir Archibald Geikie called Quinag ‘Queenaig’, aptly named as Quinag is a Royal mountain, arguably the best in Sutherland. Its beautiful ridges dominate the view from north or south and the walker is well rewarded for his troubles, as there are three Top 500 Summits on the ridges, all Corbetts.

From Ullapool drive north up the A835 turning left at Ledmore Junction along the A837 towards Lochinver. The road passes the Inchnadamph Hotel, the start point for Ben More Assynt and Conival, then Ardvreck Castle, a ruined castle dating from the 16th Century. Shortly after Ardvreck Castle turn right up the A894 Kylesku road and in two miles park at a small car park. This gives a high start point at over 800ft.

From the car park a path leads west to the summit of Spidean Coinich through some rock bands which can be ascended without difficulty. The route then turns north west to pass over two unnamed summits, point 713m and point 745m. The second of these summits at 745m is the central point of Quinag. There is a ridge north to Sail Gorm, another one east to Sail Gharbh, and the southern ridge from Spidean Coinich, which you have just traversed.

Spidean Coinich (left) and Sail Garbh from the east
Spidean Coinich (left) and Sail Garbh from the east

It is best to head north to Sail Gorm next, descending to a col at 1,800ft before the ridge rises to Sail Gorm, the most northerly point on the mountain. After returning to the col, you can traverse round the north side of point 745m to reach the col between point 745m and Sail Gharbh. From here it is a straightforward ascent to the summit of Sail Gharbh, the highest point on Quinag at 2,651ft.

Return to the col before point 745m and make a descending traverse south east to reach the Bealach a’ Chornaidh. Descend east and a path drops to the north of Lochan Bealach Cornaidh. From here a stalkers path takes you back to the car park.

Spidean Coinich (left) and Sail Garbh from the east
Spidean Coinich (left) and Sail Garbh from the east

2. Cul Mor & Cul Beag

(9 miles, 4,100 ft of climbing)

Cul Mor        2,787 ft

Cul Beag       2,523 ft

After driving north past Ben More Coigach, the next three peaks to rise spectacularly out of the moorland are Cul Mor, Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh.  At 2,010ft Stac Pollaidh is too low to qualify for the Top 500 Summits but it is a superb mountain and a Graham, therefore it should be climbed anyway. Cul Mor and Cul Beag are two magnificent peaks and the walk from one to the other takes you across a network of lochs, streams and steep climbing. It is not an easy walk and plenty of time should be allowed. Two cars make this walk a little easier and shorter.

The first car should be left next to the single track road to Lochinver which runs past the south side of Stac Pollaidh. The optimal spot is about 250 metres past the east end of Loch Lurgainn. Return to the A835 and drive north. After passing Knockan Crag there is a car park and a path which leads towards Cul Mor

Stac Pollaidh from Loch Lurgainn
Stac Pollaidh from Loch Lurgainn

Follow the path north for 2km then turn north west. You are now heading toward Meallan Diomhain. After reaching Meallan Diomhain, turn slightly north of north west to a small lochan. The route then goes south west to climb more steeply up a ridge to the summit of Cul Mor.

From Cul Mor one option is to return by the same route, drive round to Loch Lurgainn, and climb Cul Beag from there. However, it is a far better and more satisfying day’s walking to traverse the switchback route between the two summits.

From the top of Cul Mor, descend south west to a col, then turn just south of east  still descending. The descent continues south to a valley. Walk west down this valley, between Cul Mor to the north and An Laogh to the south, and you will come out at Lochan Dearg a’ Chuil Mhoir, a beautiful lochan with good views of Stac Pollaidh. However, you have not yet completed the descent.

Cul Beag from Cul Mor
Cul Beag from Cul Mor

From Lochan Dearg a’ Chuil Mhoir descend south to the north end of Lochan Dearg.  After skirting round to the west side of the lochan, climb steeply to a small col on the north ridge of Cul Beag at a height of around 1,800ft. Climb the fine north ridge to the summit of Cul Beag. Descend south, keeping to the east of the rocky buffs to reach the second car at Loch Lurgainn.

If only one car is available descend east from Cul  Beag passing Meall Dearg and Lochan Fada to reach the main A835 road just over 1km south of the car park for Cul Mor

3. Furthest North

(8 miles, 3,200 ft of climbing)

Cranstackie                           2,625ft

Beinn Spionnaidh                2,534ft

Cranstackie (right) from Beinn Spionnaidh from Carbreck
Cranstackie (right) from Beinn Spionnaidh from Carbreck

Beinn Spionnaidh is the most northerly summit in the Top 500 listing. Its situation overlooking the sea at Durness where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea is superb. Cranstackie, its near neighbour, is also a fine summit and the circuit of both mountains from Carbreck, on the A838 road, should not be missed.

The car can be parked just  off the A838. An easy walk just east of south leads to the farm at Rhilgolter. From here walk south east into Calbhach Coire and climb to the col between the two mountains at a height of 1,800ft.

Foinaven from Cranstackie

From here a good ridge leads south west to the top of Cranstackie. The views are superb. At the summit of this magnificent peak, the far north of Scotland is laid out in front of you and close at hand to the south lies Foinaven with its ridge of quartzite summits.

Beinn Spionnaidh, the most northerly mountain in Britain, is now the target. Retrace your footsteps north east to the col then climb 700ft north to the summit plateau of Beinn Spionnaidh. The trig point is at the north east end of the summit plateau. There is a feeling of standing on the northern edge of the British mainland, no doubt at the height of summer it is light for most of the night.

Beinn Spionnaidh from the south

After spending some time at the summit, return to the southern end of the summit plateau and descend the north west ridge. There is a steep final descent to Rhilgolter Farm then an easy walk back to the car.

Following the walk it is worth driving a short distance north to Durness.  Durness is the most north westerly village on the Scottish mainland. It has spectacular scenery and beautiful beaches. Smoo Cave nearby has the largest entrance to any sea cave in Britain. Durness also has a nine hole golf courses which features on a list of the top 50 courses in the world to play before you die. Last, but by no means least, there is the option of a ten mile trip to Cape Wrath, a spectacular spot and the most north westerly point in Britain.