The Big Routes: Suilven

© Dan Bailey

It may not make Munro or Corbett status, but that's their loss, not Suilven's. Few peaks of any height have the sheer magnetic presence of this Scottish superstar. From some angles presenting as a lone pillar, from others an extended spine of craggy summits adrift like a giant galleon on a sea of rumpled gneiss and lochan, this is a hill of pure drama and no letup. Among all the wonderful, quirky peaks of the far north it stands preeminent, top of the bucket list for any ambitious walker. The traverse of Suilven's airy spine is a scrambling ridge walk up there with the best, the more memorable for the wild quality of its location, far out in Assynt's stony, watery heart. It's not an epic distance, but whichever way you come in, do expect a fairly big day.

Heading for Suilven  © Dan Bailey
Heading for Suilven
© Dan Bailey

Whether starting at the coast or inland, my previous visits had always tackled Suilven via its north side. You can't do something this good too many times, but in the interests of variety I thought I'd see what the southern flank had to offer. With a rougher approach and a slightly harder ascent it scores an instant advantage in my antisocial eyes, since this appears to make it quieter than the customary walk or bike in from Lochinver.  

Late morning on a sunny spring day, and I had the Inverkirkaig path to myself - confirmation bias suggesting I'd chosen right. Beside the rushing River Kirkaig the birch woods were alive with birdsong, a light breeze in the fresh green foliage casting dapples of shade. An idyllic walk through scattered constellations of primrose and violets, and the coconut suncream waft of gorse in flower. As heather took over from gorse and trees the craggy heads of Stac Pollaidh and Culs Mor and Beag bobbed teasingly into view, though as yet my nearer goal stayed hidden. A mass of nagging signposts about safety and fishing marked the turnoff down a scrambly path to the Falls of Kirkaig, a local landmark and an obvious target for a low-level walking day. Roaring-full after a long wet spell, it was worth the short detour.  

Falls of Kirkaig - quite dramatic after wet weather  © Dan Bailey -
Falls of Kirkaig - quite dramatic after wet weather
© Dan Bailey -

Suilven's east top saves the denoument til the very end - hard scrambling with a sense of exposure turned up to 11

With Suilven now looming, doing its end-on pillar impression, I crossed the bogs to Fionn Loch, just one of a network of lochs, big and small, splashed across the map of Assynt. This is a place almost equal parts water to solid ground, inviting journeys by canoe, kayak or packraft as much as on foot. Resolving to return another time by boat (a long-held ambition, but life is busy), I stopped to pitch a tent at the west end of the loch - a breezy spot to minimise any midgie madness. While Suilven is perfectly manageable in a day trip, you really can't beat a camp out here if time and weather are on your side.


Time seemed to be flitting by at mysterious speed today, and once I'd had a late lunch and set off with a day pack for the hill it was already past 2:30, with most of the work yet to do. Still a couple of months shy of solstice, I wouldn't have the luxury of all-night light. A full moon later should help; but only if the sky could stay clear. As a fair weather walker lucky enough to be almost local I'd picked the trip on a whim and a promising forecast, but the reality was proving less inspiring as early brightness began to fade and patches of sun grew smaller and more fleeting. The closer I got to Suilven the gloomier things became. This is a day you'll want guaranteed clear summit views; it's a long way to go for smirr and smudge.

Nearing the summit of Caisteal Liath  © Dan Bailey -
Nearing the summit of Caisteal Liath
© Dan Bailey -

The trail soon dwindled into open moorland, and I crunched over dry heather with the sheer western prow of Suilven muscling ever more imposing ahead. Behind the huge domed frontal peak of Caisteal Liath, the mountain's high point, the ridge jostles off east in a series of craggy tops; from here it looks impregnable except for one weak point in the defences, the central bealach that offers the sole walker-friendly way up from either the north flank or the south. Hopping the bogs below tiered sandstone ramparts, I joined a clearer path zigzagging up a steepening slope towards the key skyline notch. It's certainly a tougher ascent from this side, with some nasty washed-out scree, but as eroded nearly-scrambles go it could be worse. Towards the top I sensed a passing shadow - an eagle cruising at my height along the scarp line in search of uplift, close enough to make out the detail on its fingered wingtips. You probably shouldn't expect solitude on Suilven, but this was my only company all day - reward for a late start perhaps.

Exciting (windy) scrambling on the top tier of Meall Meadhonach  © Dan Bailey
Exciting (windy) scrambling on the top tier of Meall Meadhonach
© Dan Bailey

Once on the crest I turned left, heading first for the high point through a gateway in a curious stone wall. Destitution work for famished crofters in lieu of charity, or a 19th Century estate boundary? I've never been sure (answers on a postcard, anyone?). An airy crest dropping away both sides to cliffs, this is a lovely bit of ridge walking with a hands-on moment or two, leading out to the promontory summit that marks the emphatic western terminus of Suilven's long fin-like ridge. Raised high and detached over the loch-pitted moorland, it's an edge-of-the-world spot with huge views of Assynt's other island summits, each a unique individual, and the shining water of The Minch. But that's on a good day. By now a dirty-looking cloud cap had descended almost onto my head, blotting out the higher summit of nearby Canisp and sucking light from the scene. Somewhere nearby it was still trying to be sunny in a weak way, but not on the mountain. The temperature seemed to have dropped ten degrees in ten minutes, from warm spring to quasi-winter, and a gusty wind whipped out of the north strong enough to make me conscious of my balance. Things weren't panning out quite as envisaged.

Racing the weather (I lost) back to camp  © Dan Bailey
Racing the weather (I lost) back to camp
© Dan Bailey

Glad I hadn't carried a tent all the way up, as originally intended, and with a slightly doubtful let's-see attitude, I headed back east for the more interesting traverse of Suilven's craggier lower peaks, on rock now greasy and finger-numbing. The central summits were scrambly fun, even today, but ahead lurked the sting in the tail, a steep bouldery totter, fighting the gusts, up to the menacing summit tower of Meall Meadhonach. Suilven's main eastern top saves the denoument til the very end - hard scrambling up a series of walls and ledges, with a sense of exposure and mortality suddenly turned up to 11. On a warm sunny day it's a joy, and you'll wish it was far longer; but I'll admit it felt borderline on a dour and darkening late afternoon with no one to see me fall.

This is not a summit to let your guard down on. Continue east and there'd be more fun to come, the final wart-like little rock peak of Meall Beag providing a devious scrambling sucker-punch to finish the inland end of the ridge in style. But I know when to quit while I'm still ahead. Even the easiest way off Meall Meadhonach is back down those airy walls, a realisation that in the past I have seen bring grown adults to tears. Heading back to the central bealach for the third time, I dropped gratefully into the flat calm on the lee side of the ridge. Six or so kilometres separated me from tent and dinner, and while I got back with light to spare I didn't stay dry.

There are worse places to wake up  © Dan Bailey
There are worse places to wake up
© Dan Bailey

Rain kept up all night, chattering on the fly and denying me the chance I'd hoped for to photograph Suilven by moonlight. I woke to dead silence. And something even odder, a sense of brightness outside. I unzipped just as sunrise breached the hillside, Suilven's silhouette framed in the doorway and sharp light glaring off the glently dimpled surface of Fionn Loch. With coffee in hand I lay back and watched morning for a while. The breeze whispered to nothing, and there was a second Suilven, inverted in near-perfect reflection on water so still you could almost step out onto it. Spreading rings of trout ripple broke the surface in scattered sunbeams, close one minute, far out the next. The only sound in the world, a distant cuckoo. I thought about swimming. But the raindrops on the fly had all turned to ice before dawn, and summits wore a light air-brushing of new snow. Like I said, quit while you're ahead.   

Next time, by boat...?  © Dan Bailey
Next time, by boat...?
© Dan Bailey

The Route

Distance 22.9km

Ascent 1281m

Time 7:30 - 9:30 hours

Start/finish Car park at Inverkirkaig (NC085193)

Terrain A well-made path for the first few kilometres, deteriorating into an intermittent trail on the final approach to the foot of the mountain - rough but not excessively boggy. Some very steep and eroded ground in ascent to the central bealach on the summit ridge. The traverse of this ridge is quite exposed, with occasional scrambling sections. The most significant of these is the final ascent to the main east top, Meall Meadhonach, a short and very sharp grade 2 step; bear in mind that for most teams the 'easy' way off this peak is to reverse the ascent - not trivial.

Seasonal considerations A massive day in limited winter light. Watch out for high wind, it would not be fun. In full winter conditions the ascent of Caisteal Liath will merit a winter mountaineering grade I, while the ascent of Meall Meadhonach is a very definite grade II - consider a rope, not least for the descent, which may need to be abseiled (anchor in-situ at the time of writing).

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