When lockdown ended (and before Glaswegians like myself were once again, travel restricted a couple of weeks later), after the relief of seeing the family for the weekend, it was the sea that was now the biggest draw – I felt a longing for somewhere wild and oceanic with shell sand beaches. Ardnamurchan, almost an island and with a lovely wee ferry journey to get there, ticked all the right boxes. Ardnamurchan Lighthouse is the furthest point west in the British Isles mainland, great for whale spotting.
For many years, we used to stay in a holiday cottage in winter – February or November, sometimes both – usually way out west at Fascadale, on the Ardnamurchan Estate, with its fantastic views to Rum and Eigg.
It was wildlife central with golden and sea eagles, otters and red deer, pine martens and wintering great northern divers.
There were some fantastic sunsets out too and I had a real yearning to enjoy that again – to see the sun going down in a blaze of colour over the Small Isles.
No cosy cottage this trip though, as the idea was to take the tent and find a good wild camp spot out by the beautiful shell sands of Sanna Bay.I was missing our wild camping adventures too and was looking forward to falling asleep to the sound of the ocean surf.
It’s 40 miles of mostly winding and twisting single track out to Sanna, on a helter skelter of a road where long sight lines rarely exist but where the scenery just gets better with every mile – especially from Glenborrodale onwards. Loch Sunart has a gorgeous coastline of slabby headlands topped by Scots pines and swept by shingly wee bays and inlets which are the haunt of otters.Yes it can be a tough drive, very tiring but what a joy drinking in that landscape again after the hard drought of lockdown.
After 90 mins or so of stop – start for photos (all of which I’d got in years past, but I’m a compulsive snapper!) we pulled in at the parking area above Camus na Geall, a superb spot high above a small sandy beach and where Ben Hiant shows itself to great advantage.
It was blowing an absolute hoolie when we got out of the car, the bitterly cold north easterly a harsh reminder that Spring hadn’t won the battle yet against a persistent wintery chill. But a picnic it had to be and we tucked ourselves out of the wind, a little way down the track to the beach.
I could have stayed there all afternoon, just gazing at the wind whipped sea, the silence and even – I suppose because I’m a city dweller – the smell of cattle and sheep! (Chris says it’s my peasant blood).On the horizon beyond Mull, the low outline of the Isle of Coll was clearing.
‘We really should climb Ben Hiant,’ Chris said which was quite unusual because it’s me who is more often driving us both to ‘do something. ‘ But I didn’t feel much drive to do anything except sit and admire and reflect. ‘It’s only 40 mins to the top,’ he said persuasively.
Oddly, I’d taken a bit of an aversion to climbing hills after lockdown ended. I felt starved, not of the hills, but of scenery and just ‘ being ‘ in a truly beautiful place.
‘It’ll be blowing a gale up there,’ I grumbled, feeling lazy and also quite happy with an easy afternoon after the 4 hour drive here from home. It did look nice, but I was quite happy admiring it from this easy wee perch.
But Chris was having none of it and 10 minutes later, we pulled in at the high point of the road to Kilchoan, where the walk up Ben Hiant starts. Reluctantly I got on my boots and put a duvet jacket on – it was Baltic in the wind.
I remembered from previous walks that the start of the path from the road was marked by a small cairn. For some bizarre reason we managed to miss this but it didn’t really matter because once up on the moorland proper, the path itself (well, trodden grass) was very easily seen and got better as we ascended the first ‘terrace’ of the hill.
Maybe it was just not being hill fit as such or age or a combination of both most likely, but it felt more of an effort than I remembered! The path wound its way up various grassy levels, each level bringing even better views over a very blue Loch Sunart below. Beyond that, the shapely hills of Mull – Ben More and Beinn Talaidh – and further south , Beinn Resipol looked very fine.
My mood about the walk had improved no end now – it’s amazing how getting going seems to do that!
The path, a bit of a joy really, climbed up a little craggy section bringing us up close and personal with the very rugged eastern face of Ben Hiant, quite intimidating but thankfully the track swerves easily round this.
Then came a final contour where the path crossed steep ground and suddenly, just under an hour from setting out, we had the final easy pull up onto the summit.
What a spot ! Hebridean islands strewn across the ocean.
Rum, the Black Cuillin of Skye, the Isles of Eigg and Muck, Coll and – just – Tiree. The big mountain coastal mountain of Rois Bheinn looked great, further north. No Outer Hebrides though ,it just a bit too hazy.
That odd thing happened where we hadn’t had much wind on the ascent, but now we were blasted and after we’d identified various hills and islands, we had to find a spot to sit out of it.
A difficult summit to leave but after 20 mins or so, after sitting huddled behind a big boulder, we were both feeling pretty chilled, so down we headed.
What a great hill Ben Hiant is, giving huge rewards despite the relatively short effort.
It was time now to get out to Sanna Bay and hopefully get a decent pitch well out on one of its many headlands with views to Rum.
I love that view to the Small Isles and I really hoped the light would stay good. But my hopes were put to rest when the Shipping Forecast came on – rain and strong winds were heading our way! What?? That wasn’t the forecast we’d seen when we set off! Groan…our forecasts can be very unreliable!
Got the gear sorted at the parking area at Sanna, then made our way past the few (very smart) houses and across the moorland, making for three knobbly high points out west.
In around 20 mins , we dipped below these on the seaward side, putting us out of sight of any habitation; hopefully we’d get some shelter from the wind here too. After a fair bit of scouting around on the tussocky, very uneven ground we finally found a sort of flattish pitch which wouldn’t mean us both tumbling to one side of the tent during the night or lying on hard lumps.
The main thing now was to get the wee brazier (Chris’s pride and joy) going and our lamb steaks cooked before the increasingly threatening skies burst above us and wrecked that plan. I buttered the rolls (Mortons Rolls no less, a Glasgow delicacy) and we popped open some champagne (£12 out of Lidl!) and drank to the sheer joy of getting away again. In 15 mins , the meat was nicely cooked and we tucked into lamb steak rolls with a smothering of HP Sauce.
The rain actually held off for a few hours but the cloud thickened, casting a flat grey light over the Small Isles – no sunset tonight.
However, an early wakening in the tent as ever, brought its own reward and we were treated to some gorgeous light over Rois Bheinn. It’s funny how nature always holds surprises up her sleeve and doesn’t disappoint!
That was the brief but beautiful glimpse Nature gave us of the great light I craved over that lovely part of the world, before grey skies swept in once more . Got the tent down and gear packed away and made for Sanna beach, one of the loveliest beaches on the mainland, with a very wild feel to it.
We’ve seen otters here often but not today. Instead, out by an offshore islet, a sea eagle was on the hunt and we watched it for several minutes ; it landed briefly, then took off again, mobbed by gulls.
A post lockdown hello to rugged Ben Hiant and the far western loveliness of Ardnamurchan. We’ll be back IF (as my mother in law always says ) ‘we’re spared.’