Hillwalking: A craggy outpost of the Fisherfield wilderness

The forecast for the northwest of Scotland was promising when my friend suggested we drive over to Poolewe for a look at the hills up that way.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 25th May 2016, 3:00 pm
The Fionn Loch causeway in the heart of the lonely Fisherfield deer forest from the slopes of Beinn Lair
The Fionn Loch causeway in the heart of the lonely Fisherfield deer forest from the slopes of Beinn Lair

I reminded him that there was no such thing as a short day out in that area.

‘‘No problem.’’ he insisted, ‘‘let’s take the tent.’’

So it was that, at six o’clock on a cloudless evening we locked the car and shouldered heavier than usual packs, a two-man tent and tucker enough for a couple of days.

I left the uncomplicated route finding to my companion. He lost us!

The admittedly good track along which he had been leading me for the past two and a half hours came to an abrupt end on the shore of Fionn Loch backed by the craggy mountains of Fisherfield!

He had walked us right past the vital, admittedly easily missed, turn off into the woods and our correct direction about an hour ago.

By now we should have been sitting in our tent relaxing. Nothing for it but to backtrack and try again.

Except that, now, unexpected clouds were rolling off the hills and by the time we’d found a suitable spot to pitch the tent it was dark.

And, though not heavily, it was raining!

That nervous hike in had raised our adrenalin to such peaks that, in spite of generous swigs of Scotch, neither of us was able to sleep.

Lying there below the towering bastion of Beinn Arigh Charr’s Martha’s Peak, the sound of a nearby mountain stream and the occasional drumming of a late night snipe in our ears, we waited for what we hoped would be a cuckoo-heralded dawn.

My companion was the first to stir. As he poked his head through the tent flap I heard his discouraging ‘‘hello’’ to the day. ‘‘Oh!’’ he mumbled, ‘‘the cloud is down!’’

We had pitched beside a little lochan. All about us rose great cliffs, black and glistening in the foggy damp, brooding and fearsome – a wonderful spot for a campsite.

We had come along a good path and, after a quick breakfast, we continued our journey along the same.

We walked first beneath those brooding crags of Beinn Arigh Charr and then below those of the equally grand Meall Mheinnidh until a path veered away to a causeway over the remote and lonely Fionn Loch which led us on to Carnmore.

There, beneath two stupendous crags of Lewisian gneiss, Carnmore Crag and Torr na h-Iolaire, nestles the tidy white painted farm of Carnmore.

Not so tidy was the nearby stable. Open to climbers and walkers, its uneven earthen floor made us glad we’d used the tent.

With huge cliffs and boiler plate slabs surrounding us, we retraced our steps to the bottom of the Bealach Mheinnidh to begin our climb in earnest.

Quickly we rose into another world, one of boiling mist and dripping crags.

Down below we had heard the songs of cuckoos and golden plovers, now we were treated to the bell like music of a ring ouzel, that illusive, white-bibbed mountain blackbird.

At the top of the pass we ate an early lunch, hid our packs then began our climb into the unknown.

Visibility was down to but a few paces and we were glad to find a little lochan which we could use as a landmark on our journey back.

As we climbed we studied carefully any unusual rock formations to be remembered on our return.

We placed little stones, in threes or fours, on prominent boulders to guide us.

In this fashion we climbed to the cliff-top plateau of Beinn Lair. At least now we had an infallible guide to lead us on.

And what a guide it was! At our feet there dropped away a two-mile long chasm of Cyclopean proportions.

Great gullies ripped up from 2000 feet below and snatched at our boots.

With mist seething from invisible depths, Conan Doyle couldn’t have dreamed up a better setting for his ‘‘Lost World’’.

After close on an hour of this mesmerising landscape, we detected a subtle change.

Now we were on a grassier, flatter plateau; the summit must be near.

In situations such as this, when visibility is next to nil, you climb until the ground begins to fall away again and, when it does, you cast around for the summit cairn.

At over ten feet high, Beinn Lair’s cairn is huge.

Topped with a block of quartz and almost a perfect cone, it made its presence known to us quite suddenly.

Beinn Lair, the hill of the mare, at 859 metres above sea level, was an eerie place today!

To be safe we set a compass bearing and used individual stones and boulders, barely within sight, to guide us back to the edge of the cliff.

Within minutes we were walking back along the line, savouring again the delights of the of the ‘‘old hag’s cauldron’’.

After half an hour we spotted the first of our little piles of stones, a comforting signal that we were heading safely home.

Soon thereafter we began recognising features in the rock scenery.

All was well it seemed but then it all went pear shaped!

Convinced that we knew exactly where we were, we’d prematurely put away the compass.

Somehow we missed our landmark lochan in the fog. Suddenly we were in danger. Not mortal, true, but maybe heading towards those plunging cliffs and in danger of giving ourselves potential problems in locating the path below.

A new compass bearing confirmed that we were only slightly off course. Slightly off course can sometimes be enough to cause real problems.

We corrected our bearing and, following the compass blindly, plunged back into the mist.

Soon we arrived at the top of a line of small cliffs with no apparent way down.

As so often happens and usually in the nick of time, the mist suddenly shredded and below us, no more than a 100 feet beneath our toes, was the comforting sight of the bealach path.

We scrambled down beside a huge wall of sheer rock, on the other side of which we now realised, was our missing lochan.

Within minutes we’d re-located our missing bags and were sitting down to a well-earned break.

The way back to the tent was long and sore but now, for cheer, we had the benefit of a watery sun.

It was even warm enough to linger at the tent for a while, after all, we still had a gargantuan task ahead of us.

Still to come was the camp breaking and the tidying up, the packing and the blistering walk out.

But those miles passed quickly enough.

We noticed features, especially herds of red deer, we’d missed on the gloomy journey in.

The final few miles on tarmac on the road to Poolewe were a killer for us both; but so what!

The lasting memories of that epic walk would repay us well enough for that.

Beinn Lair: Start/finish – Poolewe, map – OS Sheet 19, distance – 37km/23 miles, ascent – 860m/2820ft