Before I start waxing lyrical about why the North-West Highlands is one of the most spectacularly beautiful places in the world, it probably makes sense to define where exactly I’m talking about. The below map gives a pretty good idea of said region, noting that it doesn’t include Skye or Applecross (these are often included when people refer to the north-west). I have by no means explored this region in its entirety (I haven’t ventured further north than Kinlochbervie in fact), but as I sit here writing this I can’t help but feel overwhelmingly lucky to have experienced it’s rugged splendour, and want others to do the same - here’s why.
Escape the crowds
Escape people might in fact be more apt. There’s no-one there. As soon as you venture away from the hubs of Lochinver and Ullapool, or off the beaten track even a little, it’s unlikely that you’ll more than a couple of people out on the trail. When Sofie and I went out running on Ben More Assynt last weekend, we didn’t pass a single soul; the same can be said for a glorious day before climbing on Reiff. I even counted no more than a dozen people when I went up Suilven on a warm sunny day in May; that’s on one of the best-known, attractive walks in the area.
I should disclose here that I likely find rocks more fascinating than the average person, but even the most geologically- nonchalant of people would struggle to not be impressed by what the north-west has to offer. The Lewisian gneiss (pictured below) is around 3 billion years old, making it the oldest in Europe. On top of that there’s Torridonian sandstone (almost 1 billion years old), Moinian schist and Durness limestone. Furthermore, there’s sites where you can observe different “thrusts”, where one tectonic plate has been forced over another. It was the north-west Highlands that gave birth to modern geology, and it’s so geologically rich that the whole area has been awarded the status of “Geopark” - this also means that there are lots of information boards to stop at and learn about the area’s geodiversity when you’re driving.
It was hammered home just how wild the north-west is when climbing out on Reiff last Friday. Oystercatchers circled above us, singing their distinctive squeaks, whilst cormorants nested on the cliffs below, and a seal bobbed its head up and down in the little bay next to us. It’s also not all that uncommon to see white-tailed sea eagles up here too, or dolphins if you head a little out to sea. The island of Handa is home to more than 250 breeding pairs of puffins, whilst ptarmigans are commonly spotted on the higher tops. It’s a utopia for wildlife, and really made me rue not having a proper camera (other than my phone) to better document it.
There’s enough hiking, running and climbing here to keep you busy for a lifetime, with most of it feeling untouched, unspoiled and little climbed. The trails have a rugged charm to them, and are mostly unmaintained, necessitating good command of a map and compass, as well as high tolerance for bog-wading. The climbing is abundant, and rich in its variety; we went from sea cliff climbing in Reiff to sea stack climbing on the Old Man of Stoer to crag climbing on solid gneiss in Rhiconich over the space of two days. Walk Highlands is a good place to start for researching walks (https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/ullapool/ and https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/sutherland/), whilst UKC has heaps of area guides to available for climbers.
It’s really not that far
Part of the reason why the north-west seems to be such a hidden gem, with so few people, is that people see it as being really far away and hard to get to. But is it actually that far? Edinburgh to Lochinver is a 5-hour drive, with Glasgow the same. That puts it in the ‘close enough for a weekend trip’ category as far as I’m concerned. Now suppose that you’re flying into Scotland instead, and can choose to go to Inverness, and it’s a paltry 2 hours away. Furthermore, what seems strange is that people routinely drive this same distance or further to go to Skye, an admittedly beautiful island, but with perhaps ten times the number of people as in the north-west. It does seem like numbers are increasing to the region though, with the increasing popularity of the North Coast 500 driving route.
Will it become like Skye in the future? Quite possibly, so get there sooner rather than later. There’s no time like the present.