Solstice mountain

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Allt Mhic Chiarain on Ben Resipol

Every summer solstice I make plans to climb a hill and sleep on the top. But most years the cloud and cold rain put me off. This year, despite one of the coolest, wettest springs on record the weather forecast didn’t look too bad so I headed for a local hill, a corbett at the eastern end of the Ardnamurchan peninsula – Ben Resipol. It is a classic pyramidal peak with no other high land nearby, so there are uninterrupted views west across Loch Moidart and Kentra Bay to the islands of Rum, Muck and Eigg. I first climbed it 24 years ago; it was one of my first mountains.

Ben Resipol stands alone, flanked on all sides by native Atlantic oakwoods. Many mountain slopes in the West Highlands are bereft of their native woodlands, but here the temperate rainforest – the great Atlantic oakwood – is still there. It is valuable not just for its biodiversity but in its capacity to remind us what we have lost elsewhere.

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The craggy sessile oaks of the Atlantic temperate rainforest

The craggy oaks on the lower slopes are beautifully misshapen in the way that a commercial stand of conifers can never be. Lichens hugged every convoluted branch. In the open glades there was cuckooflower and orchids, stitchwort and pignut. A redstart flashed across the path and landed on one of the mossy branches to feed a fledgling.

Above the treeline the muddy trail climbs above a narrow defile in the mountainside – the Allt Mhic Chiarain, one of the best places in Scotland for bryophytes. It runs for about half a mile and on its steep edges hardy oak, birch and rowan cling on, safe from the browsing deer. As I approached the 700 metre contour I was surprised to find marsh marigold in the wet flushes and in the middle of the path a starry saxifrage with its five delicate petals and leafless stem. Tiny violet butterworts were in flower too and alongside them, with midges caught in their clasping leaves, were the reds and greens of great sundews. It’s always surprising how colourful the high ground can be.

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Great sundew – midge devourer

I had planned to sleep on the summit but a layer of grey cloud shrouded the last fifty metres of the mountain so I lay my bivi bag out by the small lochans on the north side. It was a fine spot to sleep. The soft wind kept my face cool as I lay there watching shafts of light break through the cloud over the islands of Muck, Rum and Eigg. The sun set behind the Isle of Skye to the north-west and very slowly the light dimmed. But it never got really dark. Slowly the earth turned and, a few hours later, the sun popped back up further along the horizon.

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Loch Shiel and the Small Isles from Ben Resipol

When I first climbed this hill 24 years ago I was in a rush to get to the summit, to see the view, to feel on top of the world. This time I was in no hurry and on my slow walk uphill I saw all those things that were there before but I hadn’t taken the time to notice. My approach to hillwalking has changed. It’s not about the top, it’s about the bottom to the top and everything in between.

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Isle of Muck and the dying light of the summer solstice

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2 Responses to Solstice mountain

  1. Peter says:

    Jim plz explain ‘dying light of the summer solstice’. Dying light suggests horizontal sunbeams, but these sunbeams are nearer the vertical?
    Best wishes to you all.

    • Jim says:

      Hi Peter, yes they are quite vertical. That shot wasn’t bang on sunset, maybe about an hour or two before. Perhaps ‘dying light’ was too terminal a description!

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