Despite the countless days I have spent walking in Scotland, the far North-West is an area which I have neglected, and until this week left largely unexplored. My only previous foray into this territory was a trip up the West Coast with my Dad, of which a trek out to Sandwood Bay was a long-remembered highlight. The opportunity to correct this omission arose last week, my sons were away skiing, and my wife, daughter and I seized a last minute bargain on a little cottage on the Kyle of Durness for a week of remoteness.
Ben Hope towers above this area, visible for miles around, rising above any of its rivals. Drivers enjoying the North Coast 500, often pull over as it looms into view over the lochs and peaty expanses of Sutherland. Big enough to be a really impressive walk, yet accessible enough to be a suitable family day out, made Ben Hope an ideal target for the one good day of weather promised for our week in the North.
A tiny, (and in places totally disintegrated), unclassified road strikes southwards from the A838 north coast road, at the hamlet of Hope. This leads alongside the River Hope, to the freshwater Loch Hope. This 'hopeful' theme is apparently derived from the Norse for 'bay', rather than the English for optimism; but both seemed apt as our painfully slow progress down the track brought a stunningly beautiful valley into view. The landowner has provided a parking area at the side of the road, and a crude wooden sign announces that this is Ben Hope, the car can be abandoned and the climb begun.
My wife was a good deal more enthusiastic than my daughter, about the steep ascent rising in front of us. There's no denying that Ben Hope presents unrelentingly steep sides to anyone vying for its summit. Thankfully though, a scratchy path comes and goes, guiding the walker through the lines of least resistance. My daughter was persuaded up the steep slopes through a combination of conversation, instruction and chocolate!
The ascent of the hill comes in two sections. The first is that of the steep valley sides, then of a climb up a narrowing ridge to an obvious summit, crowned with a trig-point in a circular cairn. The path is harder to follow on the upper section, but it is worth keeping an eye on it, as it helpfully zig-zags right around some more bouldery sections which might present some difficulties for any children.
The summit cairn is a circular wall/windbreak, behind which my daughter sheltered from the increasingly chilly blast. The top of Ben Hope stand defiantly in the winds which seem to torment this part of the country, whipping in uninterrupted from the wild Atlantic. A little top only a few yards North of the actual summit provide the best view though, and this is where we sat until the cold drove us back to the cairn. Here we found a nice bottle of Glenmorangie inside an ancient Glenfiddich tin, seemingly left for visitors. I wonder if someone had celebrated their final Munro here in style? Tempted though I was, the bottle is almost empty, and it felt wrong to consume the last nip without having a replacement bottle to place in the tin, so I didn't. If you are heading up that way though, please note that the bottle is nearly done and take a new one with you.
The descent of Ben Hope is possible in a couple of different ways, but we elected to retrace our steps, as the weather brightened, the wind dropped and the sun shone - a wonderful end to a great day. It would be disappointing if Scotland's most northerly Munro was an unremarkable one. Ben Hope is a worthy hill for its location on Munro's tables; steep, shapely, domineering, offering terrific views - but yet not too difficult to climb.