Go West: A Scrambling Tour of the Northwest Highlands

Home to some of Scotland’s finest, wildest and most awe-inspiring mountain days, the North-West Highlands are a must for any keen scrambler seeking to test their mettle, or any hill-walker in search of a little more excitement. Here, Iain Thow, author of our recent release Highland Scrambles Northtakes us through his suggestions for what to find beyond the classic ridges.

The North-West Highlands of Scotland are the wildest and rockiest part of Britain, so unsurprisingly they have huge amounts of brilliant scrambling. The classic ridges of Liathach, An Teallach, Beinn Alligin and the Forcan Ridge of the Saddle are well known, and if scrambling is your thing and you haven’t done these then get up there! As well as these classics though there are many other excellent scrambles that can give you a hugely enjoyable day on the hill, so here are a few suggestions.

Kintail is a peak bagger’s paradise, full of shapely peaks with well-defined ridges, and on plenty of these you can start the day with a good scramble.

The Forcan Ridge of The Saddle is the obvious classic, but a little known gem can be found on Carnan Cruithneachd, a distinctive rocky peak which dominates Glen Elchaig above Loch Long. If the main road went that way it would be popular, but as it is you can’t see it from any main road so it remains quiet. Its South-West Shoulder is an ideal route for those just getting into scrambling as it isn’t particularly steep or intimidating and all difficulties can be avoided if necessary. If every challenge is taken direct it’s Grade 2 but if a couple of short sections are avoided it’s only Grade 1.

Good paths lead up from Morvich to within only five minutes of the start of the scrambling, then 200 metres of easy angled slabby ribs provide lots of easy fun, with some slightly steeper options if you want a bit more of a challenge. The rock is lovely rough psammite (metamorphosed sandstone) with lots of beautiful swirly patterns in it and loads of useful holds.

Above the main scrambling the interest continues as although the ridge is now easy walking the huge drop northwards into Glen Elchaig adds that little frisson of excitement. The view is tremendous, especially from the higher west summit, a delightfully pointed perch.

Further north, Torridon is a scrambler’s heaven, with Liathach the jewel in the crown. The main ridge traverse is arguably the best known scramble in the North-West, but few people start it by doing the South Ridge of Mullach an Rathain. This adds another 200 metres of enjoyable scrambling to what is already a great day out. It also means that you are doing the main Fasarinen Pinnacles west to east, so going up the best bits rather than down them, easier and far more fun.

The pinnacles are benchmark Grade 2, not particularly difficult but often wildly exposed, and the South Ridge is the same grade but nearer the top of it, especially the awkward last little wall. This isn’t exposed but the holds are smaller than you would like and it’s slightly steeper than the rest of the route. You can avoid it on the right but it does provide a memorable climax. Most of the ridge is much easier, the narrow aretes having an atmospheric ‘perched above the sea’ feel which the main ridge lacks. It’s less well travelled than the main ridge so there is the odd loose hold, but there is always another equally good one available and the setting is tremendous.

The Fisherfield would be most people’s choice as the wildest corner of the North-West and it contains a clutch of highly prized Munros. The highest of these is Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair and this throws out a long ridge eastwards which gives alpine-feeling scrambling on a sharp ridge with a real feeling of remoteness. It also gives you the chance to do the two easternmost Fisherfield Munros in a day trip from the road, albeit quite a long day. It’s technically easy (Grade 1) but with some exposure over the pinnacles, which are reminiscent of the Bristly Ridge in Snowdonia’s Glyders.

Below them there is a good start up rough slabs, slightly harder (easy Grade 2) but with everything escapable if you need to. Just to the north there is a huge ramp of easy angled quartzite slabs, really impressive from a distance but actually walking angle. They make an interesting descent, especially if you visit the quirky little knobble of Meallan an Laoigh perched above them. It’s a big day out but a hugely rewarding one.

Once you get north of Ullapool the hills get more separated and even more eccentric. Pretty much every hill has at least one scramble on it somewhere, with the easy but exposed traverse of Suilven and the climbers scrambles of Lurgainn Edge on Cùl Beag and Pinnacle Ridge on Cùl Mor being outstanding.

The best route though is on everybody’s favourite mini-mountain Stac Pollaidh. Crazily projecting pinnacles are arrayed along the summit spine like a badly disarranged Mohican haircut, and routes of various standards wind their way in and out of these so you can make the route any grade you fancy. If you want to get to the highest summit though you have to pass one final unavoidable tower, climbed by a deep groove on its left side. The move to get into this is given a climbing grade of Moderate, but agile hillwalkers often find it ok as the hard move is right at ground level and for the rest you are enclosed in a deep slot so exposure is nil. Unusually it’s easier to climb down than up too, although most do it on their backside!

The vast choice of route and the ‘exploratory clambering’ nature of things make Stac Pollaidh a good place to take adventurous kids. They will need watching as there are drops around but are likely to find it a wonderful and inspiring place. I first climbed it as a teenager, loved it, and have been back most years since, sometimes four or five times. Because there is a very good track as far as the saddle on the main ridge it’s also a great place to watch a sunset as you can get down quickly afterwards even in the semi-dark.

Right up at the north-west corner of the country is Foinaven, a complex ridge that sees few visitors, largely because it fails to make Munro height by three metres. It’s often thought of as a quartzite mountain, and most of the summit ridge is indeed that, but the huge slabs on the north-east flank are gneiss and provide literally acres of great scrambling. Linking together the North Face of Cnoc Dùail, Left Hand Route on Coire Dùail Slabs and Ganu Mòr Slabs Direct is one of the finest scrambling days out in Britain, but at sustained Grade 3 it’s one for the competent and experienced. However, there is an easier version of it that gets you the atmosphere of the slabs with considerably less seriousness.

Start with the beautifully patterned slabs just left of the climbers crag of Creag a’ Mhadaidh. These look intimidating from below but have such great friction that you can walk up them largely with hands in pockets. After this head leftwards to do Right Hand Route on Coire Dùail Slabs, mostly easy but with some Grade 2 at the start and finish. From here you can cut across into the wonderful Coire Ghrànda with its rock-cradled lochan. Nothing man-made is visible from here and it’s a place that has remained pretty much unchanged since the ice melted 10,000 years ago. The 120 metre plate of Ganu Mòr Slabs is just above, looking desperate from here! It’s nowhere near as steep as it looks though and the route straight up the middle is technically quite easy for Grade 3, although it is sustained and the lack of big ledges makes it serious. For those less sure of things the right edge is a better plan though. This still has some delicate moves but you can easily walk off rightwards if things get too hairy.

At the top of the slabs steeper but more broken outcrops lead up to a shoulder, then a blocky quartzite ridge takes you to the summit. The view is magical; below you the knobbly gneiss country seems flat, strewn with a maze of lochans and backed by an arc of ocean with the Outer Hebrides and Orkney at each end, then inland there’s a lifetime’s worth of peaks to explore. Life seems good.

Find these routes and more in Highland Scrambles North.


Exploring the ridge of Stac Pollaidh. Scramblers – Kirsten Cronie, Kat Bennett. © Tony Ball

South-West Shoulder, Càrnan Cruithneachd (Route 30, Grade 2). Scrambler – Jamie Hageman. © Iain Thow

South Ridge, Mullach an Rathain (Route 68, Grade 2). Scrambler – Noel Williams. © Iain Thow

Lurgainn Edge, Cùl Beag (Route 134, Grade 3). Scrambler- Adrian Camm. © Mark Robson

Ganu Mor Slabs, Foinaven (Route 152, Grade 3). Scrambler- Iain Thow. © Noel Williams.jpg

Author biography

Iain Thow works as a walking guide, mainly in the North-West Highlands, and has been knocking around the hills since he was a small boy. He can pinpoint the moment of addiction, on a family holiday in Torridon, when he saw the morning mists clear from Liathach and thought, ‘Wow!’ He began scrambling as a teenager, and it remains his favourite mountain activity today. When the first Skye Scrambles guide came out, Iain rang the SMC to see if a guide to the Northern Highlands was in the pipeline and was asked, ‘Do you want to write one?’ He couldn’t say yes fast enough. Writing a guide provides an extra incentive to look round the corner and follow up on those pledges to ‘have a look at that sometime’. It also means he can share his love of the hills, and the routes they harbour, with others.