The rocky hill of the saddle ...


How do you pronounce Diollaid?”, I asked the head stalker.

“Jeelich”, he answered as if I should have known. Such are the peculiarities of the Gaelic tongue, when gees are dees and ems and bees are more than often vees or hees.

My brother and I had just returned to the car park below ‘the rocky hill of the saddle’, as Sgorr na Diollaid, is translated; the stalker, smartly dressed in shirt and tie and Cannich Tweeds, had pulled in for a friendly blether. One thing we learned from our conversation was that, as with other areas north of the Great Glen, there had been plenty of snow this past winter, and the snows had been followed by plenty more rain; spring and early summer had come along reluctantly. Apparently, if we were to believe our land-wise friend, we were in for a soggy trek underfoot.

Our starting point was a little roadside car park by the farm of Muchrachd; here a bridge spans the River Cannich as it begins its final race to its mingling with the waters of Loch Mullardoch.

Steep, sheep and rabbit cropped grass led us north and upwards into the gloomy grey of an unpromising damp morning. On our return the stalker would tell us about his ‘muir burning’ operations of a few months past. “You’ll have found it still a bit black on the lower slopes”, he would say; to be sure we had!

In order to encourage the growth of fresh young heather shoots, (so much relished by the grouse on these hills), shooting estates burn huge swathes of moor and hillside every year; each year the palls of white smoke on our hillsides bear witness to the work in hand. So it was that we were soon up amongst the charred stalks, the now feint acrid smell of the burnt vegetation assailing our nostrils and the blackness darkening our boots and gaiters.

We were glad, after a few hundred feet or so of climbing, to arrive on less steep unharmed grass.

Beneath a low roof of cloud we walked over open country; with no views as yet we might as well have been walking in the farmer’s field. That soon changed, however!

It was noticeable how, with every few dozen feet or so of ascent, the wind was gathering its strength; there was a ‘smir’ of light rain, not much more than a heavy mist, yet soon our coats were glistening wet. We plodded on over trackless ground until our target ridge came into view, (if a vague shadowy greyness in the distance could be could a view). As we drew closer we could make out a much rockier profile and steeper ground. It always amazes me how the mist seems to make everything else look larger than life; each tiny droplet of moisture in the atmosphere seems to act as a magnifying lens. Even so, we still had a fair distance to cover and by now the buffeting wind was doing its best to hold us back.

And the ground was becoming rockier too, in one or two places forcing us to circumnavigate the small crags and outcrops which began to appear along our intended line of progress.

Like a pair of warriors squaring up for battle, two distinct rocky tops straddle the summit of Sgorr na Diollaid; it’s probably the dip between them, seen best from the north, that forms the eponymous saddle. The easternmost eminence is the actual summit, for this we made a bee line.

Well, a bee line of sorts. There is a grassy and comparatively easy route to this summit, trouble was, we were now finding the battering of the wind somewhat irritating; much of the time it was difficult to keep upright, let alone walk! Reluctantly we contoured around to the much steeper, heather clad slope that guarded the summit. Certainly we were out of the wind here, but now it was our thighs that had to take the brunt of the unwelcome climb that faced us.

The heather was deep. A few straggling sheep or deer trods helped to ease us up here and there but for the most part it was heads down and let the thighs do the donkey work.

Deep heather, and the lurking boulders such rank vegetation tends to conceal, call for care; no problem here as the steep gradient forced us into a safe enough pace. And yet it didn’t seem to take us overlong to arrive at the final flattening below the summit’s rocky tors.

In fact there are two tors, close together. When I reached the top of the main plinth, my brother had already scurried across the narrow gap and was leaning into the gale atop the second.

After I’d photographed him on his perch he raced back to join me; “it was freezing up there!” he told me. And so it was. I took my turn on the airy platform and waited for him to photograph me. Across the short intervening gap I yelled instructions; it was bitterly cold up here and difficult to stay upright: “have you taken the shot yet?”, I screamed. There was no response! He could see my mouth opening and closing as I shouted across the gap; he could see my arms wildly waving signals; yet the wind was literally plucking the words from my tongue and flinging them behind me. Uncanny!

At last he gave me the ‘thumbs up”. I made my way back and together we scrambled off and found a welcome cranny in the rocks in the base of the little cliff that supports Sgorr na diollaid’s summit. Tea and sandwiches at last, and of course some cake!

We’d paid little attention to the weather conditions as we’d battled to the summit; certainly the light rain that had dampened us had all but stopped. Any views however were as watery as they come. Sgorr na Diollaid, as is often the case with Corbetts, is a fine viewpoint in good weather; many Munros and fellow Corbetts surround the hill. Alas those views were muted today; we did better to look downward at the battleship grey sheets of water that are the Lochs that tear into the glens that cut up this quadrant of the Highlands.

Sgorr na Diollaid, at 818 metres, is a fine hill suitable for an easy afternoon or even an evening stroll, the walk could easily be accomplished in a couple of hours if you’re inclined to hurry. On a day of good weather it is worthy of more, being a fine hill to linger on and relish some pretty impressive views. Today the weather had been less than kind. That said it was probably the weather, and especially the gale force winds we encountered, that added frisson to what might otherwise have been a dull day out. That wind in fact contrived to blow us most of the way back down; perhaps today Sgorr na Diollaid wished to be alone...