FULL FEATURE: extraordinary summer solstice on Suilven (plus some wild camping)

Carey Davies climbs Britain's most distinctive mountain, and enjoys a breathtaking summer solstice

Illustration photo of FULL FEATURE: extraordinary summer solstice on Suilven (plus some wild camping)

"No vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end"

WRITING IN 1788, THIS WAS HOW THE SCOTTISH NATURALIST James Hutton coined the concept that would come to be known as “deep time” – the unthinkably long timescales involved in geological processes. Hutton had travelled around the coast of Scotland searching for evidence of the theory that the rock we see on the surface of the globe was created through the unfolding of gradual processes that are still occurring today, imperceptibly slowly. He had finally found it at Siccar Point in Berwickshire, where 345 million- year-old Devonian Old Red Sandstone lay over vertical layers of 425 million-year-old Silurian greywacke (see feature in June issue). His companion John Playfair, looking at the roughly layered, red-tinged rock, later wrote: "the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time."

Hutton may have made his discovery on the rocky North Sea coast of Berwickshire, but for me, few places offer a better glimpse into “deep time” than Assynt. Beneath its surface of waterlogged peat and scattered lochans lies some of the oldest rock in the world, created in geological processes that began when life on earth was no more complex than bacteria and when oxygen in the atmosphere was still relatively novel. Assynt’s bed of Lewisian Gneiss has been estimated at more than 2.7 billion years old – that’s very roughly 40 million healthy human lifetimes. Attempting to comprehend these timescales with our homo sapiens imagination feels a bit like trying to stretch a thin elastic band around the base of the Great Pyramid – a doomed effort which will only result in snapping.

Most of the surface of Assynt is a bumpy blanket of rock and heather, pitted with hundreds of miniature lochs where wrinkles in the ancient rock have collected the large quantities of rain that wash in from the Atlantic. But from this foundation rise up some of the most extraordinary and proudly individual mountains in Britain. Assynt is a land of loners and mavericks, inselbergs (German for “island mountain”, should you want to impress people in the pub) that are the product of unthinkable millennia of geological ferment and upheaval. The best of them all, for me, is Suilven.

THE LONGEST DAY OF THE YEAR ALWAYS catches me by surprise. Spring arrives, the days begin to stretch out, and it becomes my favourite time of year, when life and light are at their most abundant. But then, before I know it, the solstice is upon us. Three months of summer officially lie ahead, but the pessimist in me notes that from now on the earth is tilting back in the other direction, that nature has embarked on a journey which will eventually culminate in winter. Distracted by quotidian business, I always manage to miss the boat and receive an unwelcome reminder that time will continue passing by, even if you’re not paying attention.

This year I made a mental note to mark the solstice in some way. We’ve all seen the revellers making an interesting brew of New Age mysticism and rave culture on Salisbury Plain, and if you’ve ever been to Scandinavia in mid-June, where the solstice is marked with a public holiday, you’ll see that the cultural specialness of midsummer persists, even though its pagan roots have long been obscured by Christianity’s dominance. I’m not religious, so wasn’t motivated by neo- Pagan impulse (okay, maybe a bit), but I did want to perform a ritual of sorts. I thought by doing something special to mark the day I might be able to stop the forward tumbling of time in its tracks, or at least slow it down; just enough to revel in the moment before it inevitably slips away again for another year.

I liked the idea of watching the midsummer sun set from the top of a mountain, then staking my tent or unrolling my bivi bag on the ground and sleeping there. I envisaged waking up to the new day – the first official day of summer – with refreshed senses and a new perspective, a sort of Zenlike calm, probably experienced while sitting cross-legged and humming. A solstice sleepover it would be, then. But I needed the right mountain. It couldn’t just be any old hill. I needed a maverick, a rebel, a mountain with a suitably cosmic ‘vibe’, one whose far-outness would help me connect with my inner sun child. For me, the choice was obvious.

I COULDN’T QUITE BELIEVE MY EYES THE FIRST TIME I SAW SUILVEN. Of course, I knew it was created by nature alone, by a long and complex saga involving volcanic eruptions, collision, erosion, metamorphosis, and lots of other geological processes I won’t pretend to be an expert in. But the idea that it was merely natural still seemed fantastic. I don’t mean that it seemed unnatural; more supernatural.

From the north-west, roughly where seafaring Vikings would have spotted it, Suilven appears as a dome-topped column rising sheer from the surrounding landscape (its name, from the Old Norse for ‘pillar’, is clearly inspired by this daunting aspect). But it’s an illusion; this huge pillar disguises a long ridge trailing away behind it. From side on, Suilven takes on the appearance of some kind of giant leviathan plowing across the boggy wilds around it, seemingly determined to steam into the ocean, only a few miles distant. But all this description won’t do it justice, and neither will pictures; to really understand Suilven’s otherworldly aura, you have to stand before it – or, better still, sleep on it.

So the longest day of the year was almost upon us again, and as always it came around worryingly quickly. But this time I was prepared. After enlisting photographer Dougie Cunningham to join me, the day arrived and we set off from Glasgow with Suilven in our sights.

The road got windier and narrower the further north we got, the landscape growing grander and more majestic in turn. We wound along the shore of Loch Lurgainn, passing pretty lochans and island-studded coastal inlets of deep blue water, billows of bright yellow gorse lining the roadside. The north of Scotland sees longer days than anywhere else on the British mainland in summer, and when the weather is sort it can feel like a kind of hyperboreal paradise, almost Scandinavian-seeming in the blissfully elongated days and the crystal-clear sunlight. This was definitely one of those days.

We drove beneath the amazing Stac Pollaidh, more a fortified stronghold than a mountain, and saw the sandstone lions of Cul Mor and Cul Beag. All vie with Suilven in the extraordinary stakes (they also prove the mantra that size isn’t everything; the region’s only two Munros, Conival and Ben More Assynt, seem conventional, even dull, by comparison with these lower summits). Few places in Europe have such an incredible wealth of geological wonder packed into such a relatively small area.

Inscribed on a post in the small car park near Inverkirkaig, at the start of the path leading towards Suilven, is a poem by Norman MacCaig, the man whose poetry is indelibly associated with Assynt. The sides of Suilven are almost impregnably steep, and the only realistic route is a near-vertical haul up to a small bealach in the middle of the ridge. MacCaig’s poem serves to helpfully remind walkers of the trial ahead:

I nod and nod to my own shadow and thrust

A mountain down and down.

Between my feet a loch shines in the brown,

It’s silver paper crinkled and edged with rust.

My lungs say No;

But down and down this treadmill hill must go.

We set off, an eight-mile walk to the base of Suilven and that onerous climb lying ahead. Dappled glades of stunted birch and ash trees lined the way at first, butterflies flitting ahead of us on the path. After detouring slightly to admire the impressive Falls of Kirkaig we entered the rough, rocky, boggy terrain Assynt is famous for. Arguably, nowhere in Britain is a wilderness in the true sense, but the northern and westernmost reaches of Scotland contain places which most closely resemble it. The path we were following soon dwindled to a vague line in the peat, and any visual evidence of humanity all but disappeared. We could have been a few miles from civilisation or a thousand.

The approach to Suilven is a long but spectacular walk past the shores of beautifully crumpled lochs, but also through many a treacherous semiswamp of waterlogged peat. It’s hard going at times, but the terrain feels every bit as primeval as the rock beneath it. The watchful shapes of Stac Pollaidh and Cul Mor kept a close eye on us as we walked, sentinels of their realm. Suilven itself remained hidden behind hillocks and folds in the landscape for much of the way, appearing only teasingly. There is something luxurious about the abundance of light in midsummer, such a contrast with the meticulous military-style planning and execution the harshly short days of winter demand. But when Suilven finally appeared properly over a rocky hillock, I began to wonder if we’d been a bit too relaxed.

The sun still goes down even on the longest day, and after dawdling along those coastal roads and lingering over lunch in Inverness, the time we’d given ourselves to reach the summit by sunset didn’t give much margin for error. Naturally we had headtorches, but it would ruin the more ‘philosophical’ aim of the trip: to watch the sun set on the longest day, ideally while thinking deep, ruminative thoughts. But looking at how far away that summit still was, it seemed we’d be lucky just to get there in daylight, let alone have time for a chin-stroking ponder.

Eventually Suilven appeared in full view before us. The unreality of it, the sense of it not being quite of this world, hit me again. I’ve always thought Suilven seemed like a traveller from somewhere very strange and far away, daydreamed about the people of Assynt waking up one day to find it has returned to its home in a distant dimension, leaving only a few startled sheep and a big peaty hole in its wake. Looking at it once again, I realise this isn’t far from the truth. In a temporal sense, in the dimensions of time, it has come a huge distance. Suilven may appear huge, heavy and immobile, but it has travelled much further than any of us ever will.

By the time we reached the foot of Suilven, and that arduous climb up its slopes, time was not on our side. On the other side of the mountain the sun was rapidly diving for the Hebridean Sea. We may have been walking on several billion-year-old volcanic rock, but at this precise moment in time we were working on a tight timescale of hours and minutes.

Bracing ourselves, we began clawing our way upwards, heaving and sweating up scree, soil and stone poised at a gruelling gradient. A birdseye view over the Swiss-cheese expanse of lochs, rocks and moorland opened up below. It looked every bit as old as it is, a pockmarked landscape betraying its age as perceptibly as the lines on an old person’s face. It was all incredibly beautiful in the late evening light, but I watched the shadows lengthen over the land anxiously.

We were too late. By the time we reached the top the sun had fallen below layers of cloud that had built up on the horizon, and the earlier radiance was gone. Instead, everything had become muted and greyish. It was the opposite of what I’d imagined when planning this trip. I’d pictured the sun going down in idyllic and poignant golden colour, not sinking glumly into the Minch without a note of protest.

The panorama, stretching over all of Assynt and towards the ocean and the Hebrides, was truly amazing and on any other day would have been amply rewarding, but as we made our way along the ridge and towards the summit I couldn’t suppress a sense of disappointment. No profound insights arrived. My thoughts were dominated by a desire to eat some food, get down off the mountain and sleep.

Then the extraordinary happened. There was a small gap between the clouds and the sea, into which, in the very last seconds of the longest day, the sun now dropped. Suddenly, everything was on fire. A whole flank of Suilven was scorching, searing red. Canisp was aflame. Frightening blood-red colour swam in moisture vapour gathering around us, as if the water itself was on fire. Wind started battering us, as if the shockwaves from a huge explosion had just reached us. The sea, and a thousand tiny lochs, were burning. Dumbfounded, lost for words, we resorted to whooping for joy. Nature had been holding out on us, seeming to wait until all was lost before producing a pyrotechnic natural light show like nothing I’ve ever seen, or had even realised was possible.

Then, as quickly as it had appeared, the light went down. The earth finally rotated us away from the sun’s glare, leaving us stunned and ecstatic. But in these last few moments of the day, the weather had turned hostile. The wind had grown stronger, and sinister cloud was materialising over the tops of nearby peaks. If the wind got worse a summit camp would certainly be unpleasant, even dangerous. We weighed the odds then decided to beat a hasty retreat down Suilven’s flanks and camp somewhere more hospitable. It didn’t seem to matter; we felt like we’d seen what
we needed to.

Finally ensconced in the tent, we jabbered breathlessly about what we’d just witnessed. Dougie only had one fleeting concern. “Nobody’s going to believe I didn’t Photoshop those pictures,” he said, shaking his head.

I WOKE UP AT 6AM WITH SILNYLON ON MY FACE. Even in this sheltered hollow the wind had been sufficiently strong to snap a support pole, bringing the tent down. It seemed to endorse the wisdom of our decision not to camp on the summit.

I crawled out from the remains and looked up at Suilven. It was covered in cloud. After cooking breakfast we packed up what was left of the tent and set off on the walk back to civilisation. On the way we passed close to the shores of Fionn Loch. The wind was sweeping across its surface, whipping up long white crests from the grey surface of the water, reflecting the sun in brilliant shafts of light.

I stared for a moment. Over the last day and night in Suilven’s presence, I realised, I’d been constantly preoccupied with time. No visitor to Assynt can fail to be. Playfair, on his Berwickshire boat trip with Hutton, also said: “We became sensible how much further reason may sometimes go than imagination may venture to follow.”

Assynt’s age and complexity works on the mind in the same strange way that simultaneously excited and appalled Playfair, the paradoxical feeling of being made aware of how limited our imaginative and cognitive capabilities are in trying to perceive the true dimensions of the universe, yet somehow being no nearer to actually doing so.

Human artefacts age and date quickly; they rot, get demolished and rebuilt, become outmoded and are replaced. The human environment is in a constant state of upheaval and change. But looking at the surface of Fionn Loch, I realise the scene I’m staring at – an elemental one of wind, water and sunlight – is timeless. If I’d been standing by the shores of this loch two billion years ago it would have looked much the same.

And for a fleeting, exhilarating moment a mental bridge appears in front of me that seems to span those unthinkably huge oceans of time between now and the distant past Suilven represents, and like that brief, bloody sunset the night before, a tantalising glimpse appears of something ineffable and amazing.

But after a nanosecond it’s gone; to what might have been the sound of an elastic band snapping, the light goes out, the bridge disappears, and I’m left staring at the waves, once again feeling like a passenger on a train, watching landscapes speed by but helpless to explore them.

Words: Carey Davies

Photos: Dougie Cunningham