A softly boiling sea of cloud that stretched to all horizons...


Ladhar Bheinn is probably the finest hill in the wild and remote quadrant known As The Rough Bounds of Knoydart, to climb it from any of its fine approaches usually means a night at the bothy in Barrisdale Bay; this, in itself, makes for a worthwhile visit.

Just getting to Knoydart entails a long drive to Kinloch Hourn; there the road ends. Even the journey to this point is a pleasure on a sunny day. When a companion and I did it recently the weather had seemed set for fair; the sky was largely cloudless and from Spean Bridge, dominated by Ben Nevis and the Aonachs, we were treated to unusually serene views along the long calm lochs of The western reaches of The Great Glen. When we finally left the main road to drive along Lochs Garry and Quoich, we knew that we were in the bosom of some of Scotland’s finest hills.

To reach Barrisdale from Kinloch Hourn necessitates a further seven mile walk. That walk is on well used paths, true, but it’s an arduous trek and rough.

Where the road ends at Kinloch Hourn there is a farm; hidden amongst the trees that clad the hillside there is also a shooting lodge and a handful of little dwellings. That is all there is , Kinloch Hourn can barely be called a village.

And so we walked. Our path at first hugged the shore of the flat calm tidal Loch Hourn. The shingle strands that edge its green waters were swathed in golden wrack, a seaweed only common in the west. But soon the path climbed high above the water, now and again crossing tumbling burns, once or twice by wooden bridges, most other times by stepping stones; often we stooped to sip the pure cool waters. Across the narrow arm of the loch green hills peppered grey with rock, plunged their toes straight into the water, as if to bathe their hot and tired feet. Before this day was over we ourselves would be glad to do the same.

We stopped to sit awhile by limpid peat blackened waters to watch damselflies and dragonflies skirmish over territories and mates; we heard the whirring of their gossamer wings and the sudden flickering sound as a couple of males would clash midair? There were delicate red damselflies, smaller dragonflies of the family Coenagrionidae; they hovered above the reeds, like little airborne strings of rubies.

After another few hot miles we were glad to pass into the cooling shade of birch and pine trees; here the path comes back down again, closer to the waters edge, it’s almost Himalayan. When all too soon we left the trees behind again, we had our first tantalising glimpse of Ladhar Bheinn, the hill we’d come to climb tomorrow. Already this great king of Knoydart, ‘the hoof shaped hill’, impressed us. A dark girdle of cliffs backs the unseen grassy bowl of Coire Dhorchail; tomorrow we would be going up there for a closer look. For now, as we walked along the water’s shingle shore, we just let the mountain grow.

That night we intended to sleep on a hard wooden sleeping platform, the basic but welcome accommodation of the much loved Barrisdale bothy. But first, as the twilight stole across the waters of the Loch, we went outside to watch the night descend. And what a beautiful sunset! As the sky turned turquoise first, then pink above the pewter waters, the hills transformed from green to softest grey, then blue. We stood in silence, drinking in this magical scene as the blue slowly turned black against a blood stained sky. All looked well for Ladhar Bheinn in the morning.

What a disappointment came in with the dawn! As we’d slept, a smoky fog had crawled into this little scoop of paradise. It crept across the water, swirled lazily around the feet of every hill; our beautiful mountain, Lardhar Bheinn, had gone!

But we had come to climb so we decided to make a fist of it. And a dull and chilly walk we had too. As we passed along the edge of Barrisdale Bay we recalled, from previous visits, how beautiful its waters look from Lardhar Bheinn’s higher slopes; green and Caribbean like. As we passed into the dank and dreary depths of Choire Dhorchail we talked of the hardy folk who lived here two hundred years ago, of their scrubby little children, running barefoot on the stones; and their highland cattle, small, black and shaggy . We saw the feint grass covered ruins of the bye gone summer shielings; they seemed to leech their sadness into our own bones.

And so we climbed. Grassy slopes at first, steep and slow. The mist cloyed. We walked in silence, our fingers cold. Higher, much higher, when we had become a little breathless from our toils, the grassy floor became stonier, the way forward a little more rocky, intricate. Still the fog persisted. The ridge narrowed, almost to a knife edge; we placed our feet with care now.

And then, with a suddenness that took our breath completely, the whole world changed. Without the slightest hint or warning, like corks popping out of water, our heads were above the clouds. Three or four steps higher and the cloud was swirling about our feet! A little higher yet and we were free! Above us, and forever (it seemed) around us, the sky was deepest autumn blue and cloudless. Instantly we felt the warmth of the morning sun on our faces. We were standing just above a softly boiling sea of cloud that stretched to all horizons. All around us dark islands pierced this ocean, each one a mountain top. All around us peaks seemed to pop out. But it was west that put the icing on our cake. That way, just a giant’s leap across the boiling void, over an invisible finger of sea, rose the jagged row of teeth and fangs that is The Isles of Skye’s Black Cuillin. The Red Cuillin too, softer, paler. If we could float across that sea of mist, we could have been among those hills within the hour.

After all the gloom of that morning’s fog we’d climbed out through the top of a temperature inversion, something my companion had never done before; he stood there mesmerised! In more than 30 years of walking in the hills, with almost every Scottish summit claimed, this for me, was still an uncommon experience; I too stood there staring, every bit as mesmerised as he.

All that remained was the final few hundred yards along the knife edge ridge to reach our summit. Above that sea of cloud we ate an early lunch. For the time of year it was warm; we sat there long enough to let our mist and sweat wetted shirts dry, all the while staring at the magical scene around us.

Ladhar Bheinn is a beautiful mountain, seen at its best in glorious sunshine. The glorious sunshine of yesterday wasn’t coming back today, our way back down would be cheerless and chilly. That mattered not a jot to me, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the beauty of today’s inversion.