Scotland: Hiking in Wester Ross, Assynt, and Sutherland

While tempted to return to some of the excellent hikes from our previous trip to Scotland, we instead decided to explore new parts of the Highlands before returning to prior hikes. After researching hikes in Scotland, we settled on four days of hiking the peaks of Torridonian sandstone running through Sutherland, Assynt, and Wester Ross.

In May 2019, we spent a week in Scotland. We divided our time between hiking in the northwest Highlands and tasting whisky and otherwise exploring Islay. This post covers our time hiking Sutherland, Assynt, and Wester Ross; you can also read an overview of planning our week in Scotland.

Arrival in Inverness Friday

To start the trip, I took a train from Glasgow, where I was for a conference, to Inverness. Kyle, meanwhile, flew from Seattle.

I arrived a few hours before Kyle. I checked in at our hotel, the MacDougall Clansman Hotel (Hotels.com | TripAdvisor), just a short walk from the train station. Once I dropped my luggage in the room and made a dinner reservation, I headed out to get groceries. The nearest grocery store was just a block or so away. It had all that we needed to get snacks and various lunch supplies for the next week.

On the way back to the hotel, I enjoyed a sunny afternoon walk along the River Ness. I had some work things to wrap up, though, so I kept the walk short. Kyle arrived, taking the bus from the airport, just as I finished up work. He got situated and then we set off for dinner.

When we visited Inverness on our previous trip, we ate at Fig & Thistle (TripAdvisor), which had just opened. We liked it so much that we went back the next night. While figuring out where we wanted to eat, we had a realization that we should sometime try to eat dinner somewhere else Inverness. However, we also wanted to return, for nostalgia and to see how they were doing. And so we did.

Happily, the meal was as good as we remembered. We shared beet arancini (delicious). For mains, I had delicious lamb and Kyle had a nice steak. We concluded with a mango cheesecake and excellent coconut ice cream.

After, we walked along the River Ness. There, we caught the end of a great sunset. Back at the the hotel, we rearranged our things for the next day and Kyle was more than ready for sleep.

Ardvreck Castle, Quinag, and Lochinver Saturday

In the morning, we woke up and headed to breakfast as soon the hotel started serving. We ate quickly and started the short walk to pick up the rental car. EuropCar had a location adjacent to the train station, which was much more convenient than going back to the airport. The downside was that the line was a little long, but by 9:30am, we had our Fiat Tipo.

A few minutes later, we picked up our bags and checked out of the hotel, and then set out for Lochinver. Along the drive, we stopped for views of Cromarty Firth, Dornoch Firth, and our first glimpses of the distinctive mountain, Suilven.

Ardvreck Castle

When we reached Loch Assynt, we stopped to visit the ruins of Ardvreck Castle. The castle sits on a short, rocky peninsula in the lake and dates from the late 16th century. Only the ruins of one tower and wall remain. Walking the grounds, we used our imaginations to fill in the rest.

Quinag

After our visit to Ardvreck, we headed up the road just a few minutes for a hike. We selected Quinag. Walkhighlands describes a route over its three corbetts (summits between 2500′ and 3000′ feet). With half a day, though, we decided we could either do an in-and-out hike to the first corbett or a short clockwise loop, descending at the col between the three.

We started from the trailhead on A894. The trail descends very slightly on a well-built path before climbing slowly. After about 10 minutes, our route turned off at an unsigned junction. There, it headed toward the gently sloping ridge toward the first summit, Spidean Coinich.

We enjoyed views throughout the entire ascent. Spidean Coinich’s summit offered an even better vista, with 360º views of the entire area. We could see dozens of lakes and peaks, including Suilven, as well as out to the Atlantic. From the top, we could also see the narrow ridge that would continue the loop. With plenty of time, we decided to carry on.

Along the ridge, a blustery and sudden snow shower greeted us. Little stuck, but it was pretty. As we approached the junction we saw both a deer and a grouse. At the junction, we briefly weighed our options. We decided we wanted to be sure of a timely check in, and so we headed down. Once down, we passed Lochan Bealach Cornaidh on the way back to where we had first turned off. We turned around often to look back at the lochan and Quinag.

Kylesku and Unapool-Lochinver Drive

We reached the trailhead sooner than we expected. With extra time, we decided to drive north to Unapool and the Kylesku bridge. The drive was pretty and revealed much of the region’s geology. Just past the bridge, we stopped again for views and a snack. We then turned around and headed toward Lochinver on B869, a single-tracked coastal route.

The winding, single-tracked road had me white knuckled for most of the drive. Kyle, as passenger, got to see much more of the views than I did. Still, I enjoyed seeing the peninsula, other side of Quinag, coast, highland cattle, and, of course, sheep. On the other side of the peninsula, we stopped at two white, sandy beaches — Clashnessie and Achmelvich Bay — for short strolls. Later, we realized we had missed the short walk to Clashnessie Falls; I would have liked to see this had we known we were so close.

In Lochinver, we went right to our bed and breakfast, Tigh na Sith (Booking.com | TripAdvisor). Our hosts, David and Irene, greeted us warmly and made sure we were settled in.

We then cleaned up and headed to dinner. Irene had kindly made a reservation for us at Peet’s (TripAdvisor), just a short walk along the water. Dinner was great. We shared a Caprese salad, feta and beet bonbons (similar to the previous night’s arancini) and a giant fisherman’s platter. While they were sadly out of langoustines, the platter had a great variety of seafood. For two people who want to try all the things, it was perfect. We followed it up with a raspberry cheesecake (Kyle) and a chocolate and orange tart with coconut ice cream (Sean; a great combination).

After dinner, we leisurely walked back to the bed and breakfast as the light faded. We spent a bit researching potential hikes before falling asleep.

Suilven and Ullapool Sunday

In the morning, birds greeted us on the feeder outside of our window. We headed to breakfast, where we met the other four guests, including a couple from the Netherlands and a couple from Tennessee. Over coffee, cranachans, and bagels with eggs and hot smoked salmon, we enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation including other travels, detective work, and sociology. In addition to preparing a great breakfast, Irene and David facilitated just the right amount of conversation while also helping guests plan their days.

Suilven

While many options looked appealing, we most wanted to head toward Suilven, with its distinct profile. So, after loading the car, we made the short five minute drive to the trailhead.

Much of the early part of the hike follows an ATV track. We expected this to be a bit of a boring slog, but we ended up enjoying it. With each small rise, we’d come to new lochs or slightly different views of the mountains. Ahead, Suilven and Canisp gradually got closer.

Eventually, Suilven loomed to our right. We turned, climbed a small rise, and passed a small lake. We then begin a longer climb, reaching a larger loch — Loch a’ Choire Dhuibh — and some smaller ponds. After passing by the lake, the trail brought us to the base of Suilven.

A grassy gully led up. Despite appearing to rise almost vertically from all sides, the climb up the the gully was surprisingly moderate. The trail had signs of recent improvements, which might correspond to work we had read the John Muir Trust completed after the movie Edie featured the hike.

As we climbed, our views to the north got better and better. Once on the ridge, we could also see the vast landscape to the south. The trail shortly led through a stone wall built perpendicular to the ridge. We paused to admire the craftsmanship that went into building such an even and enduring wall in a seemingly impossible place.

From there, a few ups and downs along the ridge brought us to the large, round summit of Caisteal Liath, Suilven’s true summit (731m). Ahead of us, the coast. Behind us, the ridge and the tall, pointed peak of Meall Meadhonach, with Canisp further in the distance.

After exploring the summit, we sat down for lunch in an out-of-the-wind nook, with views to the south. We spent at least an hour watching the landscape.

After lunch, we retraced our steps back to the gully, down, and out to the car. Along the way, we looked into the honesty shop at Glencanisp Lodge. Among various snacks, they had bandanas with a picture of Suilven and the excellent pun “I’m a Suilvenier.”

Ullapool

We reached the car and started our drive to Ullapool. This took us back by Loch Assynt and Ardvreck Castle. At a ruined home just past the castle, we saw two large deer grazing among the ruins. This was my first up-close look at Scottish red deer, which are larger than deer we are used to in the states.

Further along, we stopped for views of peaks we had seen from Suilven, including Stac Pollaidh, a peak dotted with many pinnacles rising from Loch Lurgainn.

We stopped for views a few more times before reaching our accommodations in Ullapool, Harbor House. Harbor House makes a point of describing itself as a bed and breakfast, though it is on the larger side and the floorpan is more like that of a hotel. They greeted us with whisky, shortbread, and a quick tour of the property.

We got organized in our room and cleaned up. From Harbor House, a five minute walk brought us to the center of Ullapool.  We watched the ferry load while investigating dinner. Arch Inn looked appealing and had good reviews, but the hour plus wait deterred us. Instead, we decided on a cheaper dinner, and ordered Fish and Chips from Deli-ca-sea. With a beautiful night, we took our food across to the street to a picnic table to eat, defending it against hungry seagulls the whole time.

After dinner, we wandered town more before stopping in at the Ferry Boat Inn for a dram.

Stac Pollaidh, Corrieshalloch Gorge, and Loch Maree Monday

We awoke to another beautiful, sunny day. Over breakfast — including tasty hot-cooked choices and an extensive buffet — we discussed our options for hikes.

Stac Pollaidh

Among the possibilities, we kept coming back Stac Pollaidh‘s distinctive profile. A shorter hike, at around 3 miles, it would also give us time for additional explorations later in the day. So, after breakfast, we packed up and drove back north.

Following a recommendation, we chose to hike counter-clockwise. Most groups seemed to go clockwise, so with our morning start, we encountered few other hikers on the first half of the hike. We reached the top too early for lunch, but still paused for over an hour. Several groups came and went.

By the time we headed down, most people seemed to be past the summit, so we also encountered few hikers on our return to the car. Even at a leisurely place, the hike down went quickly.

The drive to Loch Maree

With lots of time remaining in the day, we planned some extra stops on the way to our next hotel on Loch Maree.

We first stopped along the side of A835 in Ardmair. There, we skipped pebbles from the rocky beach in Loch Canaird. Just a bit further along, we detoured to Rhue. There, we took a short walk along the coast to Rhue Lighthouse.

Passing back through Ullapool, we stopped at Seafood Shack for a light lunch. Sadly, they were also out of langoustines. Instead, we had a delicious crab salad with corn, avocado, beets, couscous, and a crème fraiche.

Back on the road, we drove to Corrieshalloch Gorge. There, we followed the trail to a bridge over the gorge, above Falls of Measach. A viewing platform further along provided views back to up the gorge to the falls. Back on the other side, we followed a loop trail, which offered limited additional views of the gorge and down to Loch Broom.

From there, we continued around through Gorstan before turning off onto A832 toward Achnasheen and Loch Maree. Along the drive, we stopped at Glen Docherty Viewpoint for a look down the valley and Loch Maree in the distance, as well as at a roadside stop along Loch Maree with views of Slioch (“The Spear”).

A little further along we reached our hotel in Talladale, Loch Maree Hotel. From the moment we pulled up, the hotel seemed like a place leftover from another time. The hotel was built in 1872 and hosted Queen Victoria in 1877.

At check-in, we decided to eat at the hotel to make for a convenient evening. We then settled in our room and wandered the hotel grounds, including a dock running into the loch, a small bar, and a lounge. For dinner, Kyle had a steak pie topped with puff pastry; Sean had lamb in a mint sauce. Each was fine, and service was fast. None of the desserts grabbed us.

After dinner, we decided to drive to Gairloch to make reservations for the next evening and to see sunset. When we made reservations for dinner at the Myrtle Bank Hotel, their extensive gin menu did catch our attention. We decided to stay for a drink in their conservatory and watch sunset.

I had Edinburgh Gin‘s Cannonball (Amazon). It was a strong, peppery gin — different from others I’ve had and very good. Unfortunately, Kyle really enjoyed his but doesn’t remember which he ordered.

Their cheesecakes also caught Kyle’s eye (he loves cheesecake), and so he ordered a generous slice of raspberry. As long as Kyle was getting dessert, I felt I should order their double chocolate ice cream. Both were great.

Beinn Eighe and Gairloch Tuesday

Over breakfast, we again debated hikes. To our incredible fortune, we had another sunny day ahead of us. This made us want to get up high, such as a ridge walk along Beinn Dearg. However,  the hike to the loch in Coire Mhic Fhearchair felt most different from our hikes thus far, even if we would not get up high for views. We eventually realized that a hike of Beinne Eighe’s western summits would both get us up high and include Coire Mhic Fhearchair. It looked like the right combination for the day.

Beinne Eighe and Coire Mhic Fhearchair

We drove to the Coire Mhic Fhearchair carpark along A896. After parking, we backtracked 2km up the road to the Coire an Laoigh carpark and trailhead to start the hike. The climb started gradually before turning steeply into Coire an Laoigh, leveling out, and then again climbing steeply at the headwall.

Immediately on reaching the top of the headwall, we had great views of Liathach and the surroundings. We turned left a short distance to a high point, where we snacked and took in the views. We then backtracked and ascended to the main ridge. There, we turned right to the first munro of the hike: Spidean Coire nan Clach.

We again took a break for views at the summit. Eventually, we decided we should keep moving, and so we backtracked and then continued along the ridge. Along the way, we climbed, descended, and climbed again. After crossing a grassy slope, we again descended to a pass. To the left, a trail descended to Coire Mhic Fhearchair.

We would eventually turn that way, but first we continued straight, to the second munro summit, Ruadh-Stac Mor. The summit offered impressive views of Coire Mhic Fhearchair and its loch, the rest of Beinn Eighe, and the surrounding landscapes.

After time at the summit, we turned back to the pass. From the pass, the route descended steeply on scree. We worked to keep a safe distance between us and a group ahead of us, as it was very easy to kick rocks loose, and were glad to reach the boulder field at the bottom. From here, the loch was still a good distance away, and we picked our way among boulders, rocky shelves, waterfalls, and pools.

We took our time around the loch, making sure to turn around often to gaze at the steep cliffs of the Triple Buttress. At the end of the loch, the trail crossed its outflow and then descended next to waterfalls formed by that outflow. There was a large school group not far behind us, so we did not linger long.

From the loch, the hike out took longer than I think either of us anticipated. We did not mind, though, as it gave us a tour of the northern and eastern sides of Liathach and views down Coire MhicNobail toward Beinn Alligin.

Gairloch

Back at Myrtle Bank, we again started with gin and tonics. This time, I selected the Isle of Harris, which was smooth and citrusy, but also warm. It went great with Fever Tree Mediterranean tonic. Kyle had the House of Elrick (Amazon), which he liked but found to be more subtle than the previous night.

For food, we shared a scallop starter. We asked the waiter for recommendations for mains; he asked if we were hungry. On hearing our enthusiastic yes, he recommended the lamb shanks. We each ordered that. The lamb was as described: enormous portions, melt-off-the-bone tender, and delicious. The lamb plus starter left us full, but the quality of the previous night’s dessert left us determined to order dessert. Kyle ordered the banoffee cheesecake. He found it too rich; I thought it was perfect but I might have agreed if I ate more than couple of bites. I ordered a brownie with orange ginger ice cream, this was a good combination but the ice cream was the star.

On the way back from dinner, we stopped to enjoy a stunning, pink sunset over Loch Gairloch, with views out to Skye.

The next morning, we would drive south for the ferry to Islay. Read on to the Islay part of our Scotland trip.

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