UKH

The Big Routes: Fisherfield Six

© Dan Bailey

Sometimes we all need space and solitude; the silence to hear yourself think, or to lose yourself in not-thinking. A tough solo hill journey is the best route I know to this state, a challenge absorbing enough to demand full focus, amid surroundings so starkly beautiful that you feel washed clean. If that's your aim then there's nowhere quite like the Fisherfield Forest.  

The mighty wall of Beinn Lair, one of the country's biggest cliffs, from the summit of A' Mhaighdean  © Dan Bailey
The mighty wall of Beinn Lair, one of the country's biggest cliffs, from the summit of A' Mhaighdean
© Dan Bailey

Forest may be a misnomer - referring here, as elsewhere in the highlands, not to trees, but to a large area given over to hunting - but Fisherfield's earnest alias the Great Wilderness better captures the unique aura of the place. A remote and rugged hinterland crumpled between the spectacular book-ends of Slioch to the south and An Teallach to the north, if not a true wilderness this is certainly among the least compromised mountain areas in Scotland. Untouched by tarmac, and largely free from the clutter of civilisation, Fisherfield demands effort. Very long days are the norm here - or better yet long weekends. There are no easy rides.  

Revered for their remoteness and sheer inconvenience, the big peaks of the interior each have their challenge; but linking them together gives you something greater even than the sum of its parts. The Fisherfield Six, five Munros and one peak latterly demoted to Corbett status, form the basis for one of the most sought after wild walks of Scotland.  

Fionn Loch and Beinn Airigh Charr at sunset  © Dan Bailey
Fionn Loch and Beinn Airigh Charr at sunset
© Dan Bailey
 

Beinn a' Chlaidheimh 914m - once a Munro, now a Corbett. Still great

Sgurr Ban 989m - white peak, a giant mound of quartzite rubble

Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair 1018m - big, rugged and wild

Beinn Tarsuinn 937m - loads of character, some scrambling

A' Mhaighdean 967m - the ultimate remote summit viewpoint?

Ruadh Stac Mor 918m - also remote, and the view's not half bad either

Opening to the north, the semicircle of hills is most logically approached via the Strath na Sheallag. A wide empty glen stretched beneath the sawtoothed skylines of An Teallach and Beinn Dearg Mor, it's like a hidden mountain world, a Scottish Shangri-La with added midges. Six kilometres up and over from the road is a leg-stretcher of an approach, starting this beast of a route as you mean to continue.

Shenavall, the classic bothy location, and mighty Beinn Dearg Mor  © Dan Bailey
Shenavall, the classic bothy location, and mighty Beinn Dearg Mor
© Dan Bailey

In the unfamiliar spring heat I trod the stony track from Corrie Hallie, then bog-hopped the mucky path around the eastern end of Sail Liath, where the soft ground was badly scored by mountain bike tyres (it must've been a frustrating on-off ride). Rising above the swell of the hills, the spires of An Teallach still wore ribbons of snow, and I hoped I would not come to regret my decision to spare the weight of axe and crampons; there's a point in every season when that call has to be made. With long-distance travel restrictions still in force the hills were deserted, and the Covid-closed bothy at Shenavall wore a sad, silent feel - the first time I've seen it unoccupied.

Custom suggests the round is done as a long day's walk from an overnight base here at Shenavall, but with a windless forecast I was keen to sleep high, setting my sights on an A' Mhaighdean summit camp, a long-held ambition. Perhaps to get the meatiest ascent over early, the standard direction for the round seems to be clockwise. Having been that way before, this time I'd be going in the reverse direction, a plan that would mean a lot of leg work before I'd even get close to the first peak.

The Abhainn Strath na Sealga isn't always so benign  © Dan Bailey
The Abhainn Strath na Sealga isn't always so benign
© Dan Bailey

But first to negotiate the Strath na Sheallag. If the bogs don't get you here then the infamous rivers might, and a dry-shod crossing of the glen is by no means guaranteed. In flood, both the unbridged rivers, the Abhainn Strath na Sealga and the Abhainn Gleann na Muice, can swell to impassable torrents. If the water level were to rise while you were on the hills then it's conceivable to be cut off on the wild side. While that would be an inconvenience at best, I still find it inspiring that there are places left in Scotland where nature holds such sway. Bridges would dumb down the experience, and for that reason I hope they're never considered. After a long dry spell there were no water issues today, and I made it to the private bothy at Larachantivore without having to remove my boots (nb. there's a rudimentary walkers' shelter out back, in case you did find yourself stuck).

While it's more or less the last word in remoteness, Fisherfield does still boast some excellent stalker's paths, dating back to the time before shooting estates started bulldozing their own private roads willy nilly. Blending into the landscape, rather than scarring it, these old hand-built trails speed the progress through glens and cols, and I was soon passing the intriguing crags of Junction Buttress and puffing up the zigzags out of Gleann na Muice Beag onto the wide plateau-like bealach at the heart of the Fisherfield hills, as wild a spot as you'll find. I'd still seen no one but deer, and with barely a breath of wind the afternoon silence was almost tangible.

Beinn a' Chlaidheimh, my last peak of the Six, from Gleann na Muice Beag  © Dan Bailey
Beinn a' Chlaidheimh, my last peak of the Six, from Gleann na Muice Beag
© Dan Bailey

From the lonely lochans at the west end of the bealach the first peaks of the round, Ruadh Stac Mor and A' Mhaighdean, looked imposing, streaked with spring snow and seeming bigger in the flesh than on the map - in reality I was already more than halfway up. A direct ascent of Ruadh Stac Mor's northern flank cuts a corner, but reluctant to step away from the longer friendly path, I stuck with it up over a boulder-strewn shoulder into the deep corrie that the two peaks share. With acres of exposed rock, and gaunt crags dropping from A'Mhaighdean's summit plateau into the cold grey waters of the corrie loch, this is a place of austere grandeur. Picking over scree, the path made a rising traverse below rotting sandstone cliffs to the bealach between the two hills. 

Above Fuar Loch Mor, heading to the col below Ruadh Stac Mor  © Dan Bailey
Above Fuar Loch Mor, heading to the col below Ruadh Stac Mor
© Dan Bailey

Here I dumped my heavy pack for the up-and-back to Ruadh Stac Mor, a nasty ascent on loose ground but mercifully quick. In late afternoon, on the two Scottish Munros supposedly furthest from a road, I was surprised to bump into another walker - the only person I'd met since leaving Corrie Hallie several hours before. She was aiming for a camp on a lower col, but with the wind holding light as promised it looked like my summit pitch was still on. Reunited with the pack, I picked a way through outcrops and stamped a trail of steps up a last steep snow slope to reach A' Mhaighdean's broad grassy plateau. With the sun not long off it the snow had already begun to firm up; much later, and perhaps I'd have regretted the lightweight crampon-free approach. A perched eagle took flight as I reached the top, fading at speed from barn door to invisible speck in the gulf of space out west.

Not only lauded as the remotest Munro, A' Mhaighdean also has a view with few equals. From the gently tilting summit, the ground drops dizzyingly into the rock-flanked trench of Carnmore, where glittering lochs lead the eye towards the sea, and distant Harris. Look south and there are the graceful Torridon peaks, the bold wedge of Slioch, and the unlikely mountain wall of Beinn Lair; northwards, the spires of An Teallach. I found a flat spot excitingly close to the edge, pitching my tent with the door facing sunset. Though conditions remained benign as promised, my hoped-for clear skies soon faded into a murky smudge, and thoughts of photographing the Lyrid meteor shower were shelved for another year.

Plenty of porch space for cooking, gear storage, and just stretching out  © Dan Bailey
Room with a view...

The cloud dissipated soon after dawn, leaving a summer-like haze in which distant hills weren't much more than blurred outlines; day two was promising to be a scorcher. From A' Mhaighdean it's a long, unexpectedly grassy descent to the next bealach, losing almost half a Munro's height in the process. Here my solitary bubble was briefly pricked when I ran into yesterday's walker, and another couple up early from a camp at Lochan Fada; on a sunny spring morning you're rarely as isolated as you might imagine, and today, a Friday, was going to prove a lot busier than my first. The lonely, bog-ridden col between A' Mhaighdean and Beinn Tarsuinn is the low point on the round of the Six, and continuing out the other side might take willpower if you're walking clockwise, with the first four peaks already in your legs. Even feeling morning-fresh, the steep, mostly pathless trudge up Tarsuinn was far from effortless.

Forming a narrow ridge wrapped around a deep northern corrie, Beinn Tarsuinn's classic glaciated topography makes it, for my money, the second best hill on the round (not much in Scotland beats A' Mhaighdean). The ridge is weathered into a series of little sandstone teeth, and while a flanking path is available, sticking with the crest gives you some short-lived scrambling entertainment. Windless and dry, this was a good morning for it.

On the pinnacles of Beinn Tarsuinn - there's a limit to what you can do with a 10 second camera timer  © Dan Bailey
On the pinnacles of Beinn Tarsuinn - there's a limit to what you can do with a 10 second camera timer
© Dan Bailey
  

Two more walkers were met on Beinn Tarsuinn - hardly a bank holiday in the Lake District, but a total of five humans might already have been getting on for a personal daily record in Fisherfield. The next peak, Meall Garbh, can be avoided via a sneaky traverse path below its craggy northwest face, an invitation I couldn't refuse. There's already plenty of ascent on the round, and since it's neither a Munro nor a Corbett there's a strong possibility that this little hill has ended up by default being one of the less visited summits in the area.

The ascent of Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair has the virtue of directness, but that's the best I can say about this steep, rubbly trudge. Today the pain was eased by the company of a lazily circling eagle, perhaps last night's come to check on my progress. Quite a dramatic peak, if a bit heavy on the scree quotient, this is the high point of the round, and you really have to earn it. True to type, the descent of the north side was an insecure mix of improbably steep scree and too-soft snow patches. By now the day had really hotted up, and thanks to a failure to forward plan I was already rationing my dwindling drinking water, topping up the bottle with dubious slush.

Beinn Tarsuinn (left), A' Mhaighdean and Ruadh Stac Mor from the south flank of Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair  © Dan Bailey
Beinn Tarsuinn (left), A' Mhaighdean and Ruadh Stac Mor from the south flank of Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair
© Dan Bailey

The pace slowed again on the descent from the tabletop summit of Sgurr Ban, a slope entirely composed of awkward quartzite chunks that could have been expressly designed to hinder safe progress (invisible from above is a vast swathe of clean slabs on the hill's east flank). After a brew and a foot soak in a pool at the next bealach, one final summit remained. Following its demotion from the Munro list some years ago, it's probably fair to assume that Beinn a' Chlaidheimh will have lost a bit of footfall.

Whether climbed from from this low col on a widdershins round, or from the Strath na Sheallag on a clockwise circuit, there's no denying that its ascent is a big effort. But anyone tempted to settle for a Fisherfield Five would be missing out. With a series of summits arranged along an airy ridge, and a bird's-eye outlook over the Strath na Sheallag to An Teallach, Beinn a' Chlaidheimh is a fantastic hill, whatever list it appears on. Of course you've still got to get off the far end - not straightforward - negotiate another bridge-free river crossing, and then march a few last miles up-and-over to the distant road. But on a route the scale of the Fisherfield Six it probably pays not to think too far ahead.

First sunburn of the year on Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair  © Dan Bailey
First sunburn of the year on Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair
© Dan Bailey

Start/finish: Layby on A832 at Corrie Hallie, NH114850

Distance: 40.1km

Total ascent: 2890m

Time: 12-14 hours

Maps: Harvey British Mountain Map (1:40,000) Torridon & Fisherfield; Harvey Superwalker (1:25,000) An Teallach; OS Landranger 19 (1:50,000)

Guidebooks: Great Mountain Days in Scotland (Cicerone)

Let to right: Sgurr Ban, Mullach Coire Fhich Fhearchair and Beinn Tarsuinn from the bealach below A' Mhaighdean  © Dan Bailey
Let to right: Sgurr Ban, Mullach Coire Fhich Fhearchair and Beinn Tarsuinn from the bealach below A' Mhaighdean
© Dan Bailey

Terrain: Rough rocky hills with several steep ascents and descents, and occasional easy scrambling, notably on Beinn Tarsuinn (optional). Paths are intermittent at times, and there's plenty of boggy ground in glens and low cols. The major river crossings in Strath na Sealga need thought; in a wet spell they may be impassable.

Overnight options: Shenavall bothy is the usual base. There's plenty of camping in the vicinity of the bothy, and more upstream by the Achneigie track. Further good spots in Gleann na Muice Beag, around the lochans north of Ruadh Stac Mor, and on the Ruadh Stac Mor - A'Mhaighdean col (where a pokey howff under a boulder may also be found). Of the summits, A' Mhaighdean and Beinn Tarsuinn have the most amenable ground for tents, while the col between these two hills is fine if you can find a dry patch among the bogs.

Seasonal notes: In winter conditions the Fisherfield Six needs an experienced team. With tricky ground, patchy phone coverage, and help far away, this is about as serious as winter hillwalking in Scotland gets. Even from a base at Shenavall the Six would be an achievement in one winter day - expect to be doing much of it in the dark. Steep sections are found on all the hills, and none would be trivial in snowy or icy conditions. Be prepared for some easy mountaineering on Beinn Tarsuinn's narrow west ridge.

Route variants: The layout of the Six makes the round longer and less logical if approached from Poolewe or Kinlochewe, though an interesting alternative to the Corrie Hallie approach is to come in from Gruinard Bay, perhaps via the Beinn Dearg Corbetts if you're strong. Some Munro-focused walkers concentrate on the Five, missing out Beinn a' Chlaidheimh; this saves a fair amount of effort on rough ground, if not much distance. If you're not operating from a base at Shenavall, the Achneigie track can give quicker access to the northeast flank of Beinn a' Chlaidheimh. If you need to cut things short on the hills, the col between Beinn Tarsuinn and A' Mhaighdean gives an obvious escape north into Gleann na Muice, though it's still a very long way out from here.

Public transport:Infrequent bus service between Gairloch and Ullapool. This area is a bit of a public transport black hole.

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20 May

Good pictures. I did this round in a day in June 1989, starting and finishing at Kinlochewe. Took about 16 hours (including the walk-in/out), during which I didn't see a single person.


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