W. N. Ling and myself- from sundry hints that there was a first rate 'Chioch' on the Scottish mainland, in Ross-shire, not on Beinn Bhan, and not marked on the one-inch Ordnance- came to the conclusion that it must be somewhere in the Strathcarron district, so Friday, 5th June 1908, found us en route for Strathcarron Station. We arrived at mid-day,and after lunch set out for a walk past the Bailachulish then up the hill at the back of the village, and over to Kishorn. The road after ascending 400 feet descends for about a mile through a fine glen beside a burn. On leaving this glen we saw in the far distance two magnificent hills. In 1908 it is too much to hope to find anything good and new in the hill line, but all the same, we felt disappointed when we simultaneously cried “The Red Coolins."
We got some glimpses of crags in the Applecross district, though the sun was too much behind them for us to make sure of any detail,but all the same we altered our plans for the morrow,and agreed to make for Applecross instead of Fuar Tholl. Our way back was cheered by the sight of a very fine buzzard wheeling about, but after we reached the summit of the road, real rain, a present from Skye, pursued us the whole way home, which was considerably shortened by keeping a bad path across the moors, avoiding Janetown, and coming out near Strathcarron Church.
Just beyond here, and up the hill are the ironstone mines which we were popularly supposed to be prospecting, an ice-axe and an excursion in this direction as soon as we arrived being ample reasons to start the locals gossiping. At last our driver had to ask if we were not going to them, adding that if they were only a success a large seaport town might spring up there — there of all places, as seen on a fine spring morning, with as fine a view as there is on the West coast."But", he said, "they would never have such luck in this glen ! "
We drove a mile and a half beyond Tomapress, and left the machine nearly opposite Courthill, waiting a few minutes to watch the time-saving driver take the ford and splash across to the east side. We then took to the hill about 9.30, turning over the south-east shoulder of Bheinn Bhan, and were soon looking down on to Loch Coire nam Fharadh, with the magnificent bastions of Sgorr na Caorach rising above it. There was no mistake which spur to make for, and we hoped against hope that this was a find, but felt sure that it was the Chioch. We circled round it, like wrestlers looking for a grip, but obviously there was only one spot from which a start could be made on the south-eastern side, and the route to the top seemed likely to be continuous. The north side had a long grassy ledge leading up towards a gap where the first pinnacle gained the main cliff, but as well as avoiding the climb, it looked as though a slabby cliff, such as one finds at the end of some Torridon gullies, might prevent us reaching the gap.
We lunched at 11.45 (1100 feet), and then set off,keeping always as near to the edge of the rounded first pinnacle as we could, although at first forced a good deal too much in the direction of the big gully. We went up a succession of short chimneys, which a few moments before we had waltzed up in thought. Alas, what a difference when once one tackled them in earnest, and without any slander, the grand old hills of Torridon sandstone are uncommonly deceiving, there being a lack of handhold when one reaches the top of each pitch of rock. The chimneys were lined with steep grass and loose and rounded rock; we went up these, always keeping an eye on our right hand, as we were undoubtedly too far from the magnificent but unattainable face.We turned to our right and made for a steep wall up which there was a narrow crack, but this route was given up as the top overhung, and it is no use hoping for a handhold where you require it on sandstone.
We were afraid that we might have to go leftward to the main gully, but to our joy a way was found round a corner to the right, up steep, but good and firm, rock,with a very sensational outlook, owing to our being on the edge of the arete. Above this we took to a belt of heather which led us to a narrow chimney where the rocks need careful handling, and then over slabs and crowberry plants we practically walked to the summit of the first pinnacle. Alas a cairn..." Collie," we cried, hoping we would still find that it had been some stalker who had ascended the comparatively easy big gully, and descended without tackling the magnificent face of rock in front of us.
Above this we are under the final cliffs of the main tower, some 150 feet of slabby rock.When aeroplanes become commonplace, say in three years' time, I hope to possess a 6 Sparrow-power Vol au Vent, or a 60 Eagle-power Soarer (according to the state of my physical and financial nerves), and I intend to circle around some of these towers to assure myself how really easy these cliffs would be to climb straight up. Meanwhile we chose one of the very few routes open to us.
We first of all went to our right along a very sensational ledge about 2 feet wide, which probably contours right around the face, and is an ideal traverse walk in calm weather, but as we could find no route commencing from this, we went back again southwards, and up an open stretch of heather to the foot of a big gully. Up this is easy scrambling until a jammed stone pitch is reached. Ling here made good progress and I fixed myself under the stone, whilst he with the usual tactics and a considerable amount of skill wormed himself up on the (true) left side. Once he announced himself firm, I,well aware of his poetical tendencies, had to remind him that " hold the last fast, says the rhyme." Once above this a few feet of scrambling took us to the summit of the tower, and we sat a few minutes discussing whether this was the Chioch or not, and we decided, rightly, that it was, as although there was much vegetation everywhere, still there was a suspicious cleanliness about the likeliest handholds.
We then set along the long broad summit ridge, a walk,except where intersected by the heads of gully and the small rocks at these places, can be either scrambled over,or turned on either side by descending a few feet, and so eventually reached the summit of Sgorr na Caorach (2,539 feet) at four o'clock. The summit is part of an enormous plateau sloping gently westward.
After a rest we remembered the sixteen-mile trudge homeward, and reluctantly descended towards the Applecross road which stretched across the plateau. We reached the famous Bealach nam Bo and the hairpin bends, and are reminded of the exploit of our President, G. Thomson, who professionally assisted in conducting a Martini car up the same pass. I wish he had left one for our use. The scenery on this pass is very fine, but we could not see much rock of a climbable nature, and we lightened our way homeward by noting how one could ascend some fine cliffs by walking along sloping grassy terraces.
As the tide was out we crossed the loch, about 300 yards from Courthill, at the north end of a small wood, the water was only about a foot deep, and the sandy bottom everywhere firm. The remainder of the day was mere work until we reached Strathcarron Inn at 8.45. Next day, Sunday, broke grey and cold. I claimed an easy day, and was let off with a stroll of fourteen miles, partly over some of the roughest going I have met with in Scotland. We went to Couiags by as flat a road as any in the Lincolnshire Fens, and from there made up a good deer path past a keeper's cottage, from which we were temporarily followed; but as we had a fair start and the weather was then really moist, the occupant soon returned to his den,whilst we wound up a very Swiss path on a loose moraine, until we reached a bealach between Ruadh Stac and Meall a Chinn Deirg — thence across to another dip — whence rise the grey grey slabs which slope to the summit of Ruadh Stac.
Here we were met by a strong south-west wind laden with such chilly rain and sleet that we could see nothing, so we determined to clear out below the mists, and turned down and across the extraordinary slabs at the back of Ruadh Stac : after lunching by a small lochan (crouched behind any boulder we could find), we had a mile of the roughest going, following a stream down the Allt nan Ceapairean, which name, under the circumstances, afforded us an opportunity for much feeble and diluted wit, which the reader may invent for himself if in the same place and circumstances and so minded. Absolutely wet through,we arrived at Strathcarron at three o'clock.
Next day — our last chance for that year — we resolved on an attack or at least a look at the face of Fuar Tholl in the Achnashellach Forest, Being early birds, we took the 6.50 train, and arrived at Achnashellach, on a warm pouring wet day, and inquired for the keeper. We had previously been warned about new brooms, etc, and only too truly, as the keeper objected, averring that not even the owner dare go up to fish in the corrie below Fuar Tholl at this time of year.We tried to impress him by pulling out some very damp visiting cards as a sign of respectability, but our old gabardines, wet and frayed, were too much for him, and our day's climb degenerated into a twenty-seven miles' walk.
First retracing our way along the line for a mile or two in company with a wet but cheery shepherd, then back along the road past Loch Dhughaill on to Craig, we crossed the railway and went a long way up the Allt a Chonais, before we could cross the burn, then turning south we struck a bealach between Sgurr na Fiantaig and Ben Tarsuinn. At the top of this we went off a short way south to look down towards the Morar country, as by this time the rain and mist were away, then down a long glen to Loch an Laoigh, back to the inn down Glen Udale, nowhere seeing any climbing rocks.
The district around Strathcarron is a glorious one, and given fine weather, the explorer should be rewarded with several more good climbs, although Professor Collie, I expect, has taken the best with the Cioch. A word of warning : if Strathcarron Inn parlour is as we saw it at first sight, do not be discouraged, we were very comfortable there for four days.
George T Glover: First published in the SMC journal 1911