I fear that the title of this Collection might be somewhat misleading as, for one blissful week in April 2023, we had a rain-free, midge-free 93-mile (150 km) trek across Northwest Scotland. The only thing rarer than that up here is a sighting of the Loch Ness monster!
I first heard about the Sutherland Trail on the Long Distance Walkers Association website. It appeared to be the most northerly trail on mainland Scotland and that's what initially made it stand out to me. I wasn't able to find a great deal of information about it online, so I bought a copy of ‘the Sutherland Trail’ by Cameron McNeish and Richard Else. I learned that the trail is actually quite new and was designed by Cameron and Richard in 2009 when they produced both a documentary and a book about the area. Their aim was to show that the 'Empty Lands' of Sutherland were in fact anything but, that the land was teeming with life – human and natural – rich in history and with plenty of stories to tell.
The walk starts in Lochinver, a small fishing village north of Ullapool on Scotland's northwest coast, and ends at the coastal village of Tongue, in North Sutherland. The route gives you the flexibility of adding in ascents of iconic mountains along the way to suit the time you have available and whatever the weather allows. Without any summits, the route is 67 miles (108 km) long but it could be up to 109 miles (175 km) in length with the potential mountainous detours.
These include Suilven, at 2,398 feet (731 m); Canisp, at 2,779 feet (847 m), Foinaven, at 2,989 feet (911 m); Arkle, at 2,582 feet (787 m); Meall Horn, at 2,549 feet (777 m); Ben Hope, at 3,041 feet (946 m); and Ben Loyal at 2,507 feet (764 m).
You'll see that we built a few of these into our hike. Suilven turned out to be one of the best mountain experiences of my life. There's nothing quite like it anywhere in the UK, rising up from the ground so dramatically and recognisable for miles around, this place is ever so special.
Foinaven and its long ridge of quartzite pinnacles is a worthy 'out and back'. The sense of achievement scrambling up this remote mountain is huge.
Ending the trip with a sunset on Ben Loyal overlooking Orkney was also a moment I'll never forget. These three mountains added complexity to the walk, including some tough pathless walking over loose ground, but they were totally worth it.
This is one of the most committing walks I've ever undertaken, as we passed very few amenities along the way. It's a great way to get that feeling of self-sufficiency and a real sense of remoteness, of being out there. What makes the walk quite unique is the requirement for logistical creativity. If you're unable to leave cars at the start and finish of the route, taking a punt on hitch hikes totalling around 84 miles (135 km) is your only option.
Back in the day, there was the concept of post buses, a tradition which died out after 50 years of Royal Mail posties carrying travellers, locals, cyclists and dogs across northern Scotland on their daily rounds. By 1993 there were 140 post buses across Scotland, which carried 80,000 passengers a year. But, by 2017, demand had decreased and the last Postbus retired. We hitchhiked three times during our challenge, each of which took about an hour and approximately 15 vehicles passed us by before each successful hitch. We considered this to be very good going for such a remote area.
Our first hitch hike took us 13 miles (21 km) from Inchnadamph to Lochinver, courtesy of a Dutch couple travelling the NC500 in a motorhome. The second took us from Tongue to Lairg, a journey of 38 miles (61 km). This was provided by a local couple in a motorhome heading home after dropping their son off at work. Last was the 33 miles (53 km) from Lairg to Inchnadamph, completed thanks to a local couple in a small hatchback heading west for a weekend away.
Late April was a great time to undertake this walk as we didn't have to contend with midges. The ticks were out in force though, so tick removal tweezers are an essential item in your first aid kit. The wind was a mere whisper on Suilven and Ben Loyal, which was such a treat. It was much stronger on Foinaven and we'd have probably needed to retreat had it been any more ferocious.
All in all, this was one of the most fulfilling trails of my life and I vow to return to hike Arkle and Canisp one day in the future – plus Stac Pollaidh and Cul Mor, two other Sutherland icons.
The first day of the Sutherland Trail started after a hitchhike from Inchnadamph to Lochinver. A lovely couple from the Netherlands stopped to pick us up in their camper van with two Australian Labradoodles to keep us company in the back!
We called in at the bothy on the way to our camp spot on Suilven…
The second day started on Suilven at sunrise. We left our gear at the col that we'd reached at dusk the previous day and made the final summit push without our big bags.
It was BLISS! Barely any wind, stunning early morning views over the so-called 'Empty Lands' and perfect golden light. I'm not ashamed…
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On the third day, we hiked from Inchnadamph to (just before) Achfary. While we didn't climb a mountain, the overall ascent was still pretty big!
It was t-shirt weather for most of the day. We popped into the cafe at Kylesku for the best lemon drizzle cake, washed down with Irn Bru (when in Scotland…
The third day involved a walk to the foot of Foinaven, where we ditched our camping equipment and took a day pack worth of supplies up the mountain.
Foinaven nearly qualifies as a Munro but doesn't quite make the grade, falling short of the 3,000-foot mark, at 2,989 feet (911 m). That said, it was certainly…
Our fifth day on the Sutherland Trail started near Loch Stack and finished under Ben Hope, Scotland's most northerly Munro.
It was a pretty straightforward walk in comparison to the ridge scrambling on Foinaven from the day before. We bumped into a chap who monitors and photographs the golden eagle pairs…
Our penultimate day on the Sutherland Trail was beautiful.
We spent most of the morning traversing around the bottom of Ben Hope, Scotland's most northerly Munro, and we finished the day after summiting Ben Loyal, with stunning views over the Kyle of Tongue. What an awesome hill to finish on! We couldn…
A short hike to the finish in Tongue and time to hitch a ride 🚙 back to Assynt.
I hope you've enjoyed following the Sutherland Trail. Let me know if you have any questions and I'll include the answers for you. 😃💚
Set deep amidst Assynt's remarkable knock and lochan landscape, Suileag is a haven in one of Scotland's wildest places. The main draw is, of course, Suilven, perhaps Britain's most visually stunning mountain. It's iconic ridge is easily accessible from the bothy. Often overlooked in favour of its more exhibitionist neighbour, Canisp is also a fantastic objective to the east.
The bothy is 2.5 miles (4 km) from Lochinver and accessed by a good path. There's room enough for eight people to sleep in two separate rooms, each with their own hearth. Bear in mind that outside of the summer months it can be rather chilly. The bothy is owned by the Assynt Foundation, who work to preserve the magnificent surrounding landscape.
Tip by Alex Foxfield
Few hills are as genuinely loved as Suilven. Its isolated island-mountain stature, protruding from the low cnoc-and-loch landscape of Assynt, shares more with the monoliths of Monument Valley than a typical Scottish hill. But it is this unique double-summited, steep-sided, narrow-ridged and entirely unmistakable form that never fails to win the hearts of hillwalkers.
Tip by Trail Magazine
Execute caution when viewing these falls, which are four times higher than Niagara Falls, from the top.
Story taken from 'The Sutherland Trail' by Cameron McNeish and Richard Else: 'Walk a little way to grassy terraces that offer better views of the tresses of the falls themselves, but be careful. Some years ago a woman fell to her death here. Her husband, an insurance broker who had just doubled the value of her life policy, was tried for her murder but the case was found not proven'.
Tip by Adventurer Nic
If hiking Foinaven from Bealach Horn, you'll feel like the challenging part of the day starts here. From this point, at 2,651 feet (808 m), towards the highest point of Foinaven, the ridge narrows and it's quite loose underfoot. We had a bit of a side wind from right to left so we had to take extra care from this point onwards. On a clear day you can see the challenge ahead – a marvellous quartzite scramble.
Tip by Adventurer Nic
Not quite tall enough to be a Munro, bulky Fionaven has to be one of Scotland’s best Corbetts. Located in the remote wonders of the far north-west, a full traverse of its grand ridge – high above precipitous quartzite screes and fractured cliffs – will live long in the memory.
Tip by Trail Magazine
Don't just head for the highest point when hiking Ben Loyal, make sure you come up to Sgor Chaonasaid (Ben Loyal North Top), the views from this point are stunning. On a good day you can see across the Orkney (as well as down to the trail you likely followed to get up here). From this point, the ground just falls away into the abyss, very dramatic!
Tip by Adventurer Nic
A gem of a mountain in the far north of mainland Scotland. On a clear day you can see right across to Orkney. The view over Kyle of Tongue is also sublime. From this vantage point we looked back over to Ben Hope (the direction from which we'd walked) and really soaked in this special moment.
Tip by Adventurer Nic
Hiking Collection by Country Walking Magazine
Hiking Collection by komoot
Bike Touring Collection by komoot
Bike Touring Collection by Johanna