The north-west Highlands. Scotland’s ancient past

One thing that really gets me about geology is time. We are taught that a particular geological epoch lasted for seventy million years, or took place five hundred and fifty million years ago, but this seems incomprehensible to me . Working backwards, I can just about manage to think about eighty thousand years, then the numbers just don’t mean anything.

In Scotland, one of my favourite geological areas is the far north-west, Sutherland. As students, this was one of the first places that we ever did any geological fieldwork. It made quite an impression on me, and I love to go back. The coastal areas of Sutherland are some of the oldest rocks on Earth, formed two to three thousand million years ago. Remember what I said about the incomprehensibility of geological time? The Earth is believed to have formed, according to current estimates, four and a half thousand million years ago. So, the western Highlands are old, vastly old. This is where I have been walking, as a geologist, it’s difficult not to be excited at the prospect of seeing such ancient rocks.

For the trip I am writing about, I started at Inchnadamph. It is a good base for a few reasons. There is an excellent hostel, pictured below.

Inchnadamph hostel

Inchnadamph is well situated for exploring many of the hills of Sutherland. Conival and Ben More Assynt are near to hand, and the massive bulk of Quinag looms just to the northwest. One bit of it (Sàil gharbh, rough heel?) is visible just to the left of the hostel, but such an impressive hill deserves a picture of its own.

Quinag

Quinag is mainly Torridonian sandstone, with a thin skin of Cambrian quartzite on top. It was previously thought that this mountain, like many others, had been overrun by glaciers, but according to Leeds university scholars, there is evidence on the summit that this was a nunatak, or”bit sticking out of the top of a glacier or ice-field”. Many of the other local mountains are made of Torridonian sandstone, and sitting on a landscape of much older Lewisian gneiss. For more information on Quinag, I would recommend Leeds University’s excellent page, which can be found here:  http://www.see.leeds.ac.uk/structure/assyntgeology/classic/quinag/

This part of Scotland was involved in the dawn of geological science. During the Enlightenment, gentleman scientists, or “natural philosophers” as they would call themselves, would come here to try and understand the formation of the Earth. In the eighteenth century, the idea of the Earth being older than the six thousand or so years quoted by Bishop Ussher was difficult to accept for many people. James Hutton’s studies showed that the time needed for geological processes to take place meant that the Earth simply couldn’t be 6000 years old. Needless to say, this still causes controversy among a particular segment of the population. See here: Nutty Waffling. I’m not going to start in on this, or why even normal Christians should find their “alternative” theories offensive, but I think that they have strange views, which do not stand up to scrutiny. Anyway, back to the geology!

My walk this time started down at Cam Loch (Cam, bent or twisted), at NC 233 121, just off the A835. The loch is beautiful on a nice day, and the landscape is worth shouting about. Basically, it is a huge sheet of old Lewisian rocks, with mountains of Torridonian sandstone sitting on it. The rest of the sandstone has been eroded away, leaving the mountains sitting proudly.

Cam Loch

From here, the path heads to just north of west, following the edge of the loch. As you can see, it was a beautiful day, and we didn’t expect to get sunburn in April. At grid NC 214 413, the path becomes less distinct, but heads to the north, skirting around Meall na Braclaich. There is some really nice conglomerate up here, which is basically just a mish-mash of old rock. The path soon brings you to Lochan Fada, Little long loch.

Lochan Fada

From Lochan Fada, the trail brings you north-west, under the shoulder of mighty Suilven, or The Pillar. This impressive sandstone mountain stretches for 2Km to the northwest. For the whole walk, the aspect of this hill changes. At the beginning, you are seeing the south-eastern end, almost end on. From Loch na gainimh (Sandy loch), you see it flank-on, and from near Lochinver, the impressive sugar-loaf of Caisteal Liath (Grey castle) at the north-western end.

Suilven from Loch na Gainimh

From here, it is still quite a long walk to Glen Canisp lodge, about 6Km. On those rare days when the sun beats down on Sutherland, you need to be careful and carry enough water to last the course. One of our party collapsed at Glen Canisp, though he later recovered. The loch is your last real chance to reload with clean water, so use it wisely. Despite its appearance, Suilven is a straightforward hillwalking trip, working up to a bealachat the lowest point of the ridge between the summits, and then heading to on to the ridge top.

Suilven from Glen Canisp track

This is an old land, and you can almost forget that humans exist. Aside from the track, you are alone among the oldest rocks in Britain, with only the wind for company. This can be an unforgiving environment, even in summer, so care is needed. Any day out on Suilven is a long day out, and you need to be prepared for it. That said, it is a beautiful place.

Canisp from the west

Sadly, there are no cows in this post (Sorry Jen), the terrain being a bit too rough for them. I’ll try and make sure that some get into the next one!

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