Location: Arkle in Sutherland

Grade: Moderate mountain walk

Distance: 10 miles/16km

Time: 5-6 hours

IT had been quite a number of years since I’d set foot on Arkle, one of the great hills of Sutherland. Generally linked with its close neighbour Foinaven, the two hills once had racehorses named after them by the Duchess of Sutherland. Arkle the horse went on to become one of the greatest ever steeplechasers.

My previous ascent of Arkle had been towards the end of the foot and mouth crisis of 2001 when Scotland’s landowners and managers had erected signs all over the place telling folk to keep out. Scotland’s hills were ‘closed’.

I’m very wary of using such terms as ‘open’ and ‘closed’ when it comes to describing mountains because you can’t, practically or legally, ‘close’ a mountain. Even in the pre-Land Reform (Scotland) Act days the public had a de facto right of access to Scotland’s hills and mountains and the access signs which adorned the countryside during the F&T crisis were merely advisory, however forcefully they were worded. Terms which suggest landowners can ‘close’ a hill or ‘open up’ a wild area tend to slip into hillwalkers’ parlance far too easily and lead to the perception that the public has to rely on the landowners’ altruistic tendencies for access rather than recognise such access as a time-honoured right.

On my previous visit I called at the Estate Office in the tiny hamlet of Achfary where a very pleasant lady told me I could climb the hills provided I stuck to some designated routes, disinfected my boots and made myself familiar with the Comeback Code. Discomfortingly aware that this was the first time in my life I had asked permission to walk the hills of my own country I stomped off from the parking area between Loch Stack and Loch More.

This time permission was not required. Chaffinch song from the trees overhead worked its magic and the view of Ben Stack across the waters of its loch had me reaching for my camera. From the winding path a great rising escarpment of Cambrian quartzite stretched to the west culminating in what appeared to be a flat-topped stony wedge, the eastern summit slopes of Arkle, or Arcuil, a Corbett at 787m.

Many years ago I had climbed Arkle along with its two near neighbours, Foinaven and Meall Horn, a long and rough outing that took about 12 hours. Today, I decided I was going to be more respectful and climb Arkle on its own. This was, after all, the best viewpoint of these three far-flung northern Corbetts.

Arkle’s finest feature is its magnificent ridge that sweeps gracefully round the lip of its east-facing corrie, Am Bathaich, connecting its two summits. This high quartzite walkway narrows appreciably in places, with steep drops on either side, before rising to the stony summit and a wonderful viewpoint. Below your feet a rosary of mountain tarns drop down towards Rhiconich and beyond them quartzite slopes rise to the long curvaceous ridge of what is probably the finest mountain in this empty quarter of Sutherland – Foinaven. I thought I’d keep that for another day.

Cameron McNeish


Map: OS 1:50,000 Landranger sheet 9 (Cape Wrath)

Distance: 10 miles/16km

Approx Time: 4-6 hours

Start/Finish: Just off the A838 at a parking place between Loch More and Loch Stack (GR: NC296400)

Public transport: None to the start

Information: Durness TIC, 01971 511368, www.venture-north.co.uk

Route: Follow the private road past the house at Airdachuilinn to the locked bothy at Lone (GR309422). Beyond the bothy the path splits. Take the left branch as it follows the course of the Allt Horn through an old pinewood. Beyond the woods the path zig-zags steeply uphill and enters a pass between the E slopes of Arkle and the SW slopes of Meall Horn. Leave the path about a mile after Lone and initially climb steep heather slopes interspersed with bands of rock. Continue up the rough stony slopes to the flat plateau of the S summit (757m). Descend W to the narrow ridge that sweeps round the high corrie of Am Bathaich and follow its crest to the 787m summit of Arkle. Return by the same route.