The summit view from A'Mhaighdean
DESPITE all the brouhaha of the recent Land Reform debate it was interesting that the legislators decided to leave the access provisions of the 2003 Act exactly as they were.
Despite constant challenges from a handful of recalcitrant landowners those original access provisions have been extremely successful, legal rights that the Scottish public can be proud of as being amongst the finest and most progressive access legislation in the world.
And while writers like Tom Weir and in particular Rennie MacOwan campaigned for a very long time to see Scotland’s de facto access rights become formalised much of the foundation of the Land Reform provisions was laid down during discussions at Letterewe House on the shores of Loch Maree in Wester Ross. The nearby Munro of A’Mhaighdean was central to those early discussions.
The vast deer forests of Strathnashealag, Fisherfield and Letterewe have long been known as the Great Wilderness. The hills unashamedly expose the bare bones of the earth, folded into complex patterns and a series of long sinuous lochs betray the evidence of geological faults, subsequently carved out by the grinding of massive glaciers. These scoured-out basins form the grain of the land but excellent tracks weave their way through glens and up over the bealachs at their heads giving good access to the summits, and what summits they are!
The heart of this Great Wilderness is dominated by the Torridonian sandstone peak of Ruadh Stac Mor and the grey quartzite peak of A' Mhaighdean, arguably the remotest of all Scotland's Munros. And if these are the remotest Munros then neighbouring Beinn a’ Chaisgein Mor, 2808ft/856m, could well be amongst the most remote of the Corbetts.
The Letterewe access debate began when a hillwalker cycled into the estate and left his bike at Carnmore when he went off to climb A’Mhaighdean, 967m/3173ft. On his return he discovered his bicycle tyres had been let down by an estate employee. The erstwhile owner of the estate, multimillionaire Paul van Vlissingen, had stated he didn’t welcome walkers and a number of notices around the estate made this very clear.
There was some consternation amongst outdoor organisations but it was a hill-going member of the aristocracy who actually took the initiative. John Mackenzie has a series of titles including Earl of Cromartie and Clan Chief of the Mackenzies, but amongst climbers he was known as the author of the Scottish Mountaineering Clubs guide Rock & Ice climbs in Skye. He was incensed that access to the Letterewe estate with its famous crags like Carnmore might be in jeopardy and said so publicly. A story appeared in one newspaper stating that John intended leading a clan march onto van Vlissingen’s land in protest!
That march never happened but what did follow were two years of detailed debate involving not just Mackenzie and van Vlissingen, but also representatives of numerous bodies including the Ramblers and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. These discussions eventually produced The Letterewe Accord, which guaranteed walkers certain rights, and for the very first time anywhere in Britain a landowner had acknowledged that recreational users had rights to roam over his land. This Accord document was very important in the following discussions that eventually produced the current access provisions of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act.
I’m not sure if A’Mhaighdean will go down in history as the mountain that was central to the access debate but it will probably continue to be recognized as our remotest Munro, if for no other reason that master Munro-man Hamish Brown says so, (he describes A’Mhaighdean as “the least easily reached”) and his assertion was backed by Irvine Butterfield in his book The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland. Irvine reckoned that the roads at Kinlochewe, Poolewe and Dundonnell are all about 9 miles equi-distant.
But A’Mhaighdean is notable for something else. A host of writers have suggested that it is the finest viewpoint of all the Munros. The view out along the length of the crag-fringed Fionn Loch to Loch Ewe and the open sea is simply unforgettable, across a landscape that is as close to ‘wilderness’ as anything we have in this country.
I’m very aware of the emotive context of that word, particularly when we are describing a landscape that is primarily remote and empty of people, but the poet John Milton once defined wilderness as “a place of abundance”, a paradoxical definition which American philosopher and poet Gary Snyder suggests catches the very condition of energy and richness that is so often found in wild systems.
“...all the incredible fecundity of small animals and plants, feeding the web. But from another side, wilderness has implied chaos, eros, the unknown, realms of taboo, the habitat of both the ecstatic and demonic. In both senses it is a place of archtypal power, teaching and challenge.”
I like that last sentence of Snyder’s, because it is particularly relevant in this particular area - it’s not known as the Letterewe Wilderness for nothing. The high level route from the bothy at Shenavall around Beinn a’Chlaidheihh Sgurr Ban, Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair, Beinn Tarsuinn, A’Mhaighdean and Ruadh Stac Mor is not only a genuine mountain challenge but takes you into a landscape that ticks most of the wilderness definition boxes.
I’ve climbed A’Mhaighdean a couple of times as part of that long rosary of Munros; once on my own and another time with an old ski instructor pal, Jeff Faulkner from Aviemore.
Jeff and I had climbed An Teallach from Dundonnell and had carried our heavy backpacking gear over the steep sided Corrag Bhuidhe buttresses. We then descended steep ground to Shenavall where we spent the night. A river crossing heralded the next day’s hill bashing, and a long day it was traversing Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh, Sgurr Ban, Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair, Beinn Tarsuinn and A’Mhaighdean. We camped between the maiden and her northern neighbor Ruadh Stac Mor, before climbing the latter Munro first thing in the morning. And then it was the long walk-out to Poolewe…
I’ve also climbed A’Mhaighdean from the marvellous oak woods of Loch Maree where there was once a thriving iron smelting industry; from the cathedral-like grandeur of the Fionn Loch below the steep crags of Beinn Airigh Charr, Meall Mheinnidh and Beinn Lair and from the empty quarter around lonely Lochan Fada before returning to Kinlochewe from the narrow gorge of Gleann Bianasdail. But even the simplest route, the most direct route to A’Mhaighdean and Ruadh Stac Mor is a classic, a memorable walk-in (you could use a mountain bike) and an ascent through a landscape that is as wild and formidable as any.
Passing the Dubh Loch on the long walk-in from Poolewe
The long walk-in is a fine way to court this particular maiden. (A’Mhaighdean can be translated as ‘the maiden’ although Peter Drummond, in his excellent Scottish Hill and Mountain Names, points out that in both Scots and Gaelic cultures a maiden is also the last sheaf of corn cut during the harvest. There are many Highland traditions associated with this last stook when, after a good harvest, it would be dressed to look like a young girl. You certainly notice a likeness to a sheaf when you look at the summit from the west.)
The long walk-in from Poolewe allows you time to ease yourself gently into this marvelous landscape, by way of Kernsary and the Fionn Loch. Stay in a tent or use the bothy at Carnmore. Whatever way you approach these hills the undoubted highlight is the ascent of A’Mhaighdean from Carnmore.
On one memorable ascent my wife and I walked in from Poolewe and camped close to the causeway between the Fionn Loch and the Dubh Loch. A’Mhaighdean’s ‘stook’-like summit dominated the view from the tent door. Nearby the house at Carnmore was locked up and I recalled Tom Weir’s stories about the Macrae family who once lived there. Over the years Tom got to know the family quite well and he was always made very welcome. That was probably in the nineteen-forties or fifties. Estate guests now use the house, although the nearby bothy is always available but be warned, it’s a little less than basic!
We felt more comfortable in our tent and a memorable camp it turned out to be. The sunset, reflected on the waters of the Fionn Loch, was as spectacular as any I’ve seen, a slowly changing kaleidoscope of rich red and yellows and purples fading to a delicate pink. We lay outside the tent, dram in hand, desperate to tease out every last second, before the midges drove us inside to our sleeping bags.
Approaching the summit
While a superb stalker’s path traverses across the steep slopes of Sgurr na Lacainn from Carnmore and makes a tortuous route into the mountain’s north-east corrie we chose to scramble up the steep, stepped north-west ridge. The stalker’s path took us as far as Fuar Loch Mor from where we skirted the loch’s western bank and took to the rock. There was plenty of good, steep scrambling but all the real difficulties can be avoided. In essence, this was a stairway to heaven, a heaven with some of the best views imaginable – I truly believe the view from the summit of A’Mhaighdean is the best in the country.
For such a rocky looking mountain the bare bluff summit of A’Mhaighdean comes as a bit of a surprise, but it makes for a fairly easy descent towards the high bealach above Fuar Loch Mor where a scramble takes you up steep broken slopes surprisingly easily to the summit of neighbouring Ruadh Stac Mor and its beautifully crafted stone trig-point.
Back at the bealach, a superbly built stalker’s path eases its way downhill below the skirt of red screes which form the base of Ruadh Stac Mor, past the brooding Fuar Loch Mor and down over the high gneiss-patched moorland to the main Dundonnell to Poolewe track beside Lochan Feith Mhic-Illean.
Now, as the legs began to tire, it took a bit of motivation to think of climbing the neighbouring Corbett of Beinn a’ Chaisgein Mor, but as we descended by the Fuar Loch Mor to the path junction we thought of the views from the summit of the Corbett, out along the length of the Fionn Loch to Loch Ewe and the outlines of Skye and the Hebrides shimmering on the western seas. We may even get a glimpse of Stac Pollaidh, hiding away in the north, peeping out between the bigger hills. It was enough to overcome our weariness and, as it turned out, was easier than we expected.
From the path junction we simply climbed the broad east shoulder of Beinn a’ Chaisgein Mor to its rocky summit. The views made it all worthwhile and when we returned to our base at Carnmore camp food never tasted so good nor a sleeping bag more comfortable. We didn’t wait up for the sunset…
Ruadh Stac Mor and A'Mhaighdean from Beinn a'Chaisgein Mor