Strangers: Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan and Mullach na Dheiragain

SGURR nan Ceathreamhnan is a mountain to match its name, a behemoth of a hill – the 22nd highest in Scotland – brooding black and ominous in the middle of a nowhere called West Benula Forest.

My guidebook says it takes up the space of several ordinary mountains, with its great mass of a summit and tentacle ridges scything off in all directions. To top that, it is one of the most remote mountains in Scotland and cannot be viewed from a public road (Picture: Mullach na Dheiragain, left, and Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan in the background).

I remember the first time I became aware of its presence. I was sitting on the neighbouring summit of Ciste Dhubh one fine, blowy afternoon. I was moved by Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan’s vastness, its colossal bulk, and felt quite intimidated, perched as I was on one of the smallest and barely significant Munros.

Having said that, Ciste Dhubh, although largely overlooked in the grand scheme of things, occupies its own special corner in my heart. I had almost written off that day all those years ago because of a morning downpour. Then at 1.30pm the sun came out. I glanced at my map for an easy Munro, and there was Ciste Dhubh. Within a couple of hours I was sitting in cool wind and glorious sunshine on one of the finest mountain peaks in the Highlands. Memories.

It’s 8.30am and I’m pumping up the tyres of my pink mountain bike near the estate gate in Glen Elchaig. Contrary to the rules of cycling, instead of placing two dust caps carefully on the ground and being able to find only one – I find three. This would be a huge talking point in cycling circles.

It takes an hour to pedal up the rough track along this remote and isolated glen to Carnach, where I chain the bike to a fence and hoof it a mile or so to the interestingly named Iron Lodge (right). I imagine the original lodge was constructed from corrugated iron, but the present building is a fine, stone estate house. Iron Lodge, as well as the lodge at Carnach, is empty and securely locked. I trudge up the track towards Loch Mullardoch and take a stalker’s path into Gleann Sithidh. Then a direct ascent up extremely steep ground delivers me to the east ridge of Mullach na Dheiragain, Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan’s satellite Munro.

You meet some strange people on mountains. I mean, really strange. Though I don’t think I have stumbled upon a pair of hikers quite as outlandish as those I meet while struggling to the summit of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan.

The first is tall and thin; his companion short and stout. Both are wearing grubby balaclavas, humping full backpacking gear and dressed in washed-out anoraks and ragged shorts. The taller has penny specs and an impressive ginger walrus moustache that droops below the hem of his balaclava. The smaller has narrow eyes and a short, thrusting beard. I have a feeling he is wearing a leather corselet studded with iron rivets beneath his anorak and has a dagger stuck down the back of his pants.

The pair have obviously strayed from the darker chapters of Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund – the bit where mediaeval Europe is being ravaged by the Black Death and a third of the population lies dead in hedge bottoms.

An observer a little less sympathetic than myself might describe them as Bohemian vagabonds – perhaps a master and his servant – making for the nearest Gothic monastery to scrounge some bread and a bed for the night: banging on the doors as bells ring for nocturns; fearful monks, not wanting boils in their armpits, passing crusts through a hole in the wall. I speak only to the taller of the two. The smaller refuses to make eye contact, which increases my unease greatly. He tells me they are heading for the glen below Mullach na Dheiragain to camp for the night, having trudged up Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan from the hostel at Alltbeithe. Then they go their way, chanting madrigals and clopping coconut shells together, and I go mine. Actually, they are probably a couple of nice blokes once you get to know them.

I’m on the summit of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan (above) for 3.30pm, and after another break for bait – with the sun out again – I drop down the north-east ridge to a peat bog and a meandering stalker’s path, which descends in tight zigzags to the lodge at Carnach.

Breezing down the glen on my pink bike – which has mysteriously acquired a buckled back wheel since I left it this morning – I pass a procession of Cistercian monks bearing a black wooden statue of the Virgin and lashing themselves with leather thongs. Must be something to do with the yellow crosses daubed on the empty lodges.

Hmmm. I said this was a remote and isolated place.

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About McFadzean

Alen McFadzean, journalist, formerly of the Northern Echo, in Darlington, and the North-West Evening Mail, Barrow. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still. Now lives in Orgiva, Spain.
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