A hole new approach to mountaineering

Exiting one of the caves on the way to the Corbett of Braebag.

The mesmerising landscape of the north-west Highlands is nothing new to those lucky enough to live there, or near enough to visit on a regular basis. But the geology of the area is important in global terms, and the rocks here are among the oldest in the world.

Between Ledmore and Inchnadamph an area of quartzite and limestone makes for an interesting and unusual spectacle in Scotland. Thousands of years before the last ice age, the limestone was gradually dissolved by water running off these mountains, eroding them and creating intricate cave systems.

The most well known of these are the Bone Caves, where the remains of enigmatic animals long lost from Scotland’s ecosystem have been found.

With the country still in the grip of some seriously wintry weather, I’d planned a trip to this area reckoning it was likely to have much less snow than the likes of the Cairngorms or elsewhere, especially being so close to the coast.

However, the walk turned into a mini mountaineering epic and tested mine and Peter’s nerves as we battled our way to the summit.

The view over the wind-blasted summit shelter to Canisp and Suilven.

Having left our bikes at Inchnadamph, where there’s a hotel as well as a welcoming hostel suitable for walkers planning to spend some time in the area, we parked at the Bone Caves car park on the A837 and headed up the Allt nan Uamh glen.

A good path leads up to the spring and, beyond it, the dry riverbed of the burn, which you cross to climb up to Creag nan Uamh – the crag of the caves. The route crosses a steep slope where the valley has been further eroded, leaving the exposed entrances to the caves high on the south side of the glen. We entered the three caves to have a look around, as well as to shelter from the cold wind. You can’t get far into the caves but it might be worth taking a torch to peek deeper into the system.

The path continues beyond the caves and then loops back down through the glen, but we stayed high as we contoured round the back of the crag before descending to cross higher up to reach the slopes leading to Braebag.

It was already clear there was much more snow than we had anticipated up there but, of course, we had come prepared for winter conditions.

The plan was to aim left of the crags on Braebag’s western approach but, as they had been largely covered by snow, instead we mentally marked out a route between the exposed rocks.

As we donned the crampons and began the climb, it seemed straightforward – and looking back we were being rewarded with views across Assynt, taking in Cul Mor, Suilven and Quinag. But our route to the ridge was getting steeper and we were soon using the axe in real mountaineering mode, slamming the pick into the hard-packed snow and inching up the hillside with the toes of our crampons.

This is tough going on calf muscles and we were soon cutting ourselves a small platform every dozen or so steps to allow our aching legs a temporary reprieve. At last we reached the cluster of protruding rocks that would offer us some security – though sadly not any shelter.

As we made our slightly easier way towards what appeared to be the high point of the mountain, a fierce wind blasted over the top and knocked us both backwards on several occasions. It was a real battle to reach the 815m summit and, while I was hanging around taking photographs of the beautiful ice structures that had formed in and around the summit shelter, Peter was already marching down the north ridge in the vain hope of finding cover.

John at the top of Braebag.

I eventually followed, making my way along the complex ridge – created by “imbricated thrusts”, where the quartzite has been forced to the surface in a series of broken planes during a tectonic collision. The visibility was good now and we enjoyed views ahead to the Munros of Conival and Ben More Assynt, and Peter couldn’t resist a short glisade where a shallow dip allowed.

We had to keep focused, though, as there are some serious cliffs on the western edge of the ridge, so we got the compass out to help steer well clear of the edge as we made our way towards Braebag Tarsuinn, looking out for the ridge that would lead us east into the groove below Conival.

The stable snow meant a shortcut was possible, and we made a beeline for the end of the ridge, dropping down into the shallow bowl then climbing gently up the other side. Rather than drop right off the end of the ridge, a snowy chute offered us another tempting shortcut and we made our way down to reach the path-cum-sheep track that we imagined would signal the end of any difficulties.

How wrong we were!

My guidebook had warned to stay high to keep above a steep gorge. With patches of ice still lying on the path – and the crampons now back on the rucksacks – we gingerly made our way above the rocky gorge.

That obstacle safely out of the way, we now had to negotiate a mile or so of pathless peat hags and tussocks to reach the dry riverbed of the Allt a’Bheallaich ahead. This gives some easy walking for a time, with the added interest of a few sinkholes to spot on the way down, but then you have to climb over one last hill to avoid another gorge that the riverbed follows.

Heading down towards Inchnadamph with Quinag visible in the distance.

We finally met up with the Inchnadamph caves path, but by this time we lacked the energy to explore much further. When we reached a bridge over the River Traligill, I got a look of despair from Peter when I suggested a 400-yard detour to visit the Traligill sinkhole, where the re-emerged water goes back underground.

I went to visit it while Peter continued on the path towards Inchnadamph. It was fascinating to watch the whole river disappear into the dark cavern, while round the bend the old, dry riverbed continued.

The late afternoon sun was bright now and I felt reinvigorated by the walk, despite – or perhaps because of – its difficulties. The path follows the outside of an enclosure before passing the farmhouse at Glenbain and joining a track out to the hostel, a short stroll from the car park where we’d left our bikes.

Despite Peter’s misgivings about cycling back – uphill – to the car, it wasn’t as bad as we’d feared. Our legs seemed to appreciate the change of use and we pedalled gently in a low gear along the quiet main road.

By now, the stags had descended from the hill for the evening and one was standing on the road as I approached, no doubt looking slightly more bedraggled than the deer!

Route details

Braebag and the Bone Caves

Distance 11 miles / 19km plus 2.5 miles / 4km cycle
Terrain Initial good path then pathless mountain. Navigation and hill skills required
Start/finish Bone Caves car park / Inchnadamph
Map OS Landranger 15; Harvey Superwalker, Suilven
A visit to the Bone Caves gives a great start to this Corbett which provides stunning views of the Assynt landscape

Bones that tell tale of Scotland’s past

Lynx, arctic fox, wolf, reindeer and polar bear bones covering a period of tens of thousands of years have all been discovered in the Bone Caves of Inchnadamph. Human remains from 4500 years ago have also been found here, as well as other evidence of man.

It is thought that some of the animal bones may have been washed into the caves by melting glaciers but it is also known that they were used for shelter by animals and people.

The entrance to one of the caves in Allt nan Uamh glen.

Humans came to this area around 8000 years ago, hunting for reindeer and bears. Bones of these creatures were first unearthed in the caves in 1889 and since then remains of many other animals now extinct to Scotland have been found, including the skull of a polar bear.

This skull is now on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, along with a lynx skull and some of the other finds.

The caves themselves were formed more than 200,000 years ago, as water began to dissolve the soft limestone, widening cracks and fissures to create a complex system of caves, which includes Uamh an Claonaite, the longest cave in Scotland. In the last ice age, glaciers cut out the glen, destroying part of the cave system and any evidence of earlier human life outside the underground shelters.

A 4km return walk to visit the Bone Caves is a worthwhile trip in itself. The caves are a site of special scientific interest, so need to be treated with respect. The path to reach them is in good condition but crosses steep slopes near the entrance to the caves, so may not be suitable for younger children.


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