Friday, August 09, 2013

On Stac Pollaidh

Stac Pollaidh ('Stak Polly') is not a large mountain, but it is one of Scotland's most iconic peaks and its unusual name is apparently derived from Norse and means "Peak of the Pool River." The Assynt skyline is extraordinary, with its wide views punctuated by a series of weirdly shaped rocky crests which appear to owe more to Tolkein's imagination than to the rest of Scotland's geological history. The mysterious names of these mountains, Suilven, Quinag, Stac Pollaidh, Canisp, Cùl Mòr and Cùl Beag, only serve to accentuate this 'other-wordly' or indeed 'Middle-Earthly' feel. To walk or cycle through Assynt is to step into a Rodney Matthews album cover from an especially hairy Prog-rock band. It is a landscape which has inspired countless walkers,
climbers, artists, photographers, writers and poets. 

Some of Scotland's mountains are big, brutal and bulky. To walk over (or indeed around) a mountain like Bheinn a Ghlo, which I can see from my study window, is to encounter ones own smallness in the face of overwhelming 'bigness'. It is the scale of a mountain like that, with its miles of ridges sprawling out across the landscape, that initially impresses the imagination and then sears the memory. Stac Pollaidh of Assynt, in comparison, is more of a whimsical and charming thing, which doesn't challenge the walker with a knee-bludgeoning ten-mile hike or four-thousand foot sea-to-summit ascent; but rather halts us with its quixotic pinnacles, and contorted rocky structures. A new path leads up on to the mountain's central ridge, a hard rocky track laid to reduce the erosion caused by the thousands and thousands of boots whose owners have be drawn to this remote corner of The Highlands by this dreamy and
romantic scenery. It climbs up from the little car-park then swings around to the North side of the central East-West ridge, before offering access to countless scrambly routes  up and down the rocky spires which decorate it. Ten of us climbed the track one cloudy July morning, the view of Ben na Eoin behind Loch Lurgainn, joining then leaving us, in between bands of soft mizzle. These lightest of all raindrops seemed to be falling impossibly slowly, in no hurry to reach the ground. Once near The White Bridge west of The Linn of Dee in the Cairngorms I was assaulted by a rain which attacked the soil with unusual ferocity; it was an angry rain. The droplets in the Assynt air on the other hand were content to take their time, to linger in the air as if suggesting that in a landscape such as this the journey itself is at least as important as the destination. Our party included some very young children. Their tiny stride-length and ability to be as delighted with hairy caterpillars on the track as much as with the improbable vista slowed us down, and forced us to walk at a speed more in keeping with the place. Our group consisted of two-families, one used to hill-walking, and the other used to rock-climbing - the traditional classification of hill-folk as being either 'ramblers or danglers' dividing us perfectly in two. My family, on the rambler side of the divide were at the head of the path before our friends, who then took over and led us up over the rocks and the scree and upwards into the sky on natural ladders, up chimneys and over slippery sandstone spines. Their children are impressively agile on rock, and ascended the various faces with spiderman like agility, stretching their little limbs as far as they would go for distant handholds with which to pull their tiny lightweight bodies up onto the next ledge. Our approach to such matters is (we like to think) a lot more leisurely, although objective observers might substitute the adjective 'lardy'! Nevertheless, we
climbed the side of the ridge, up over the top, along some pinnacles, and back down the other side, before finding the path but descending back around the western side of the mountain, completing a circuit. Prior to the final descent a couple of us climbed back onto the ridge and made for the summit. It was here that ramblers and danglers were separated again, this time by the notorious bad-step. I reckoned that in my stiff soled, but slippery walking boots I could get up it and make the summit, but didn't fancy my chances of descending safely and so watched while 'Percy' slowly negotiated his way there and back again. 

I am always a bit too protective of my good camera to take it into the hills with me. If I had habitually walked with it, it could have ended up following me over a waterfall in Glen Etive, or submerged in a river by Ben Alder. As such all the photos of Stac Pollaidh, except the first one at the head of this post, were taken with a tiny (awful) compact or on an iPhone. The pictures are hardly satisfactory, yet they still just enough to invoke not just good memories and nostalgia for holidays past; but to invoke something of the allure, and magnetic attraction of Assynt. I'm home now, and normal routines are uneasily being re-adopted and practised until they regain their sense of normality. Sitting here, I am closer to the new town of Glenrothes, than to the ancient Torridonian Sandstone of Stac Pollaidh. However, with my photos, the help of small dram, and maybe a stanza or two of Norman MacCaig, my imagination becomes a CS Lewis wardrobe through which I travel to be in Assynt again.

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