I was in contemplative mood as I drove north to the wonderful wild mountains of Assynt and Coigach. Life had been running at full speed for me in recent years: a new career, children, new house. Time had been working on me but the mountains were a steadying constant. They never seem to change, I thought.
I didn’t have much time so I aimed for the hill that offered the quickest ascent – Stac Pollaidh. Despite its diminutive stature, it’s a fine hill, with spiky Torridonian sandstone pillars along its short crest. Like most of Assynt’s hills it’s an inselberg or ‘island peak’ standing, isolated, on a rolling bed of Lewisian gneiss. If there is anywhere in Scotland where you want to contemplate time, it is here. The Lewisian gneiss is the oldest rock in the land, 3,000 million years old, and was once part of a continent that included North America and Greenland. I found it hard to picture such an unfathomable gulf of time, but it was fun to sit there and try.
The sandstone rock of Stac Pollaidh that I was sitting on was young by comparison, formed from sediments laid down by 1,000 million year old rivers. The landscape has changed so many times since then, pushed skywards by tectonic forces, remoulded by glaciers, wind and water. From the perspective of a human lifetime the mountains appear to have reached a permanent state, but a few years ago one of Stac Pollaidh’s sandstone pillars partly collapsed, a reminder that time is still working this landscape.
The sun had revitalised me and that evening I walked into the bothy below Suilven feeling more alive than I had done for weeks. I was joined by a friend, Alasdair. He is an ecologist and had spent the day on the slopes of Ben Mor Coigach with a three-metre peat probe. We were both glowing from our day in the Highland sun but now the dark descended, the Milky Way stretched over the bothy roof and the grass grew crisp as the cold descended.
We sat within the cold walls, warming socks by the pitiful fire, recounting when we had first been to this bothy: he in 1999 for Millennium Eve, me in 1994 with Stirling University Mountaineering Club. I remember saying then “I wonder if we’ll still be doing this in twenty years”. Nearly twenty-two years later and I was here again, doing those things you do in bothies to while away time: scribbling in the bothy book, hanging steaming socks – damp with bog water – by the fire, finding a nail from which to hang my bag of food to stop the mice getting to it, lighting a candle in the window, supping whisky, watching my breath swirl in the candlelight, at times putting the world to rights with Alasdair and at other times sitting, listening to the quiet, the fire crackle and the creaks from bothy beams. Three thousand million years had changed the mountains outside but it was good to know that in twenty-two years, for me, nothing had really changed.
Thank you to North West Highlands Geopark for the facts and figures www.nwhgeopark.com