On Tuesday 5th July, after a good night’s sleep and not feeling as achey as I’d imagined I might, I said good-bye to Fort William and drove up to Inverness (again, the drive was awesome) where I met my family for lunch. It was lovely to have a brief catch up with my cousin James who works on Shetland and had popped down to say hello. After lunch James left us to see friends down in Birmingham, and the rest of us drove on to Ullapool.
My family were staying in the Leckmelm farm cottage that they’ve rented for a couple of
weeks each summer since I was about 3 years old. It’s the most beautiful place situated on
a working farm right on the shore of Loch Broom and just a few miles from Ullapool; a wonderful (but touristy) fishing port with a brilliant bookshop, hardware store and pubs. Facebook ‘memories’ reminded me that it was exactly four years ago that I met one of my best friends here when she was working as a waitress at The Ceilidh Place. Last year my mum got married up here. I’ve visited the local fairs, swam in the loch and fished off the pier in Achiltibuie. I’ve watched the barn owls on the farm and collected owl pellets. Many years ago at the cottage, I even helped the farmer round his sheep up for their sheep dip on the farm. There are lots of memories tied in to this place but it was a wonderful freedom being able to explore in my own car and choose where I wanted to visit 🙂
I had decided I would spend a few nights with my family – making the most of a comfy sofa, hot shower and washing machine before heading further north on my adventure.
There were a few things that I had planned to do while I was in Ullapool and going up Stac Pollaidh was one of them. As I mentioned, my family have been holidaying in the highlands for over 20 years and Stac Pollaidh has been a recurrent talking point throughout that time. Whether it’s Mum and Mike reminiscing about the time they climbed up; admiring the ragged rocks and pinnacles from a distance on a clear day or just greetings of ‘Hello Polly!’ as we drive past. I remember the name being stuck in my head at a very young age so I felt that on this trip it was important that I got up there! I’d mentioned to my stepdad that I was going to do it and he was keen to join me but was concerned about his problematic knee getting in the way. We decided to have a practice walk up Ullapool Hill, also known as Meall Mor – a name that seems to be used for a number of hills in Scotland (In Gaelic, meall describes a ‘bare rounded lumpy hill’ and mor can be roughly translated to ‘great’). The day after I arrived (with the aches and stiffness
from Ben Nevis beginning to set in) we drove into town and started up the marked path.
The track is narrow but well maintained and there are a few routes over the hill
with different start and end points. I tried to get up last year with Marcus, using a different map and to be honest, I have no idea how I managed to get lost but we never made it to the top. The map we had this year was a simple sketch really with different stretches of the path marked on and labelled, along with landmarks such as benches. It was quite a bright day even though it had been forecast to rain in the afternoon. We stopped at the indicator to admire the views over the summer isles before carrying on to the to the small cairn marking the ‘summit’ (if it can be called such a thing at around 250m/820ft). Next year I will probably try to carry this walk on past Braes and to Beinn Eilideach (558m) but this time I only had a couple of hours for the walk so we headed back to the car.
Happily, Mike had enjoyed the walk and wasn’t feeling too painful in the next few days. Friday was forecast to be the best weather of the week so we chose that as the day to go up Stac Pollaidh, a ‘Graham’ at 612m (2008ft). On Friday morning it was foggy and a bit wet but the weatherman said that it would clear up by 4pm so we decided to head out around 1pm in the hope that when we reached the summit the cloud would clear for wonderful views over Assynt. We packed sandwiches, waterproofs, maps and compass and I drove us to the little car park where the path starts. We were surprised to see that the car park was busy with a few people heading back down off the mountain and a family parked next to us preparing to go up.
The path up Stac Pollaidh is very well maintained and has been created by North West Highlands Geopark with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help alleviate scarring and damage to the mountain. Similarly to my experience of Ben Nevis – the cloud was down and there were now views which is a shame because Stac Pollaidh rises by itself and so on a clear day gives especially wonderful views of Assynt, including nearby Suilven in the North, and the Summer Isles to the West (or so I’m told but I suppose I’ll have to try again for the views next year!). The ground was a little wet, and steep in places but we made it up to the saddle in a little over an hour.
I think a lot of people choose to stop at the saddle and head back down the same path they came up. We decided to head up to the second, lower eastern summit and ate our sandwiches next to the cairn, waiting for the cloud to clear as per forecast. However after 10 or 15 minutes the wind had really started to pick up and we were beginning to get a bit chilly so we started back down to the saddle. I wanted to have a look at the route up to the true summit, which some people have said is probably the most technically difficult summit on the mainland due to the exposed nature of the final tower. If it hadn’t been wet, windy and foggy I might have been tempted to as least to try but I’ll leave that for next time when I hope to have a lot more guts, strength and experience 🙂 I explored a little around the ridge, admiring the striking Torridonian sandstone formations, until I got a bit frightened by the vertical drops and gullies below and scurried back to the safety of the crest.
It seemed to us that most people were heading back off the mountain via the same path they came up but I had a map for the circular route and as someone who never really likes to ‘go back the way we came’, Mike & I found our way back to the path and continued our full circle around Stac Pollaidh. When Mike had climbed with my mum 15 years earlier the path we took didn’t exist so they had taken a direct ascent straight up the side. I was glad to be able to go up with him, as unfortunately my mum’s illness means she isn’t able to walk very far these days. Typically, halfway back down the cloud had begun to lift and the sun came out… we should have waited at the top for longer! We continued back to the car, changed out of waterproofs and headed off to Ullapool’s lovely Ferryboat Inn for a celebratory pint.
Back at the cottage the newly installed WIFI at the cottage was, of course, a dream! It meant that I could finally get back in touch with Katy, Scotland Conservation Officer for BBCT and let her know a bit more about my plans so that we could find a convenient time to meet. The next day was Ullapool’s annual Rotary Club fair on the pier, attended by various local groups including plenty of wildlife organisations. I went along in the afternoon and had plenty of interesting chats; on environmental education with staff at Scottish Wildlife Trust who had a super array of natural history specimens including a pine marten skin and a Scottish wildcat replica skull; on my quest for the GYB with a lovely gentleman from the River’s & Fisheries Trusts of Scotland who told me where he had seen them; and on my future with a lecturer in environmental biology from Middlesex University. I’m sure there are so many interesting people in the world but they all seem to congregate in the highlands! That evening it was Mum & Mike’s wedding anniversary so obviously I had to stick around for dinner at Moorfield where they had previously had their reception (always delicious and so accommodating re: vegan food!).
So on Sunday 10th July, after a quick morning swim in Loch Broom, I said goodbye to my family and Ullapool, left behind the hillwalking part of my trip and drove towards my first Great Yellow Bumblebee site to truly begin my search…
To be continued…
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