Climb Stac Pollaidh – before it erodes completely!

You’d like to climb Stac Pollaidh? It’s a very odd hill. It gives you sensational views of the north-western seaboard and the glaciated landscape all around. It’s not high but can be treacherous with loose rock and you’ll need a head for heights. And chocolate. Well, any excuse.

Just a Little Scottish Hill – but not for the vertigo-prone

If you intend to climb Stac Pollaidh for the first time, then read on. This wee tale is really how not to climb Stac Pollaidh (or Polly).

The north-west of Scotland gains much of its bare and spare character from the improbable shape of the hills. They are, let’s face it, a weird lot, but in a good way.

The spectacular profiles of Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor, Suilven and the others can stop you in your tracks as you journey here.

And, like its lumpy neighbours, remember that Stac Pollaidh is NOT a Munro (a Scottish mountain over 3000ft / 914m) – it just packs a lot of spectacle into the vertical dimension. (Crikey, there should be an easier way of saying that. Terrible sentence.)

Stac Pollaidh
Stac Pollaidh from low down on the well-constructed track.

A small geology lesson!

Sometimes, I’ve found myself explaining in guidebooks and brochures that they are Torridonian sandstone peaks that are all but eroded away; and that they sit on a plinth of tough and ancient Lewisian gneiss.

This plinth or platform, in turn, has been hollowed and scooped out by glaciers over, uhmm, countless ages, and these hollows are now the interlaced lochs that are such an obvious feature when you look down from high points in the area.

Och, maybe it’s easier to suggest looking at the interpretative material at Knockan, north of Ullapool, within the designated North West Highlands Geopark.

View from the Stac Pollaidh path
Main peaks left to right as viewed from the path you ascend to climb Stac Pollaidh: Suilven, Canisp (distant) and Cul Mor.

With a seaboard open to prevailing Atlantic south-westerlies, here you can sometimes have days of low cloud and rain, so that you never see the tops. On the other hand, it can be magical.

As you can see from the pictures, it was superb on the late April day we had our little scramble. (It was also a little late on the superb April day…)

For all its 2000ft / 600-odd (very odd) metres, Stac Polly (or Pollaidh for the purists – you can tell I really can’t decide) offers some easy scrambling for walkers looking for a bit of adventure.

(To be absolutely accurate, the hill is only 2007 ft / 612m high.)

The summit ridge of Stac Polly
The summit ridge of Stac Polly, with Cul Beag beyond. Easy to reach, if you go the proper way, but all the top paths are eroded on this popular walk. Just take good care….

The Path Up Stac Pollaidh

To help you get to the rocky fun at the top, these days there is a very well-constructed path (which I don’t remember from my youth), lacking only an electrically operated stair-lift for the less fit.

This path takes you round to the shady side of the hill, then up to the col at the eastern end. There are spectacular views over the Coigach peaks southwards, the Assynt hills to the north and the big Beinn Dearg Group, uhmm, over there somewhere.

If you climb Stac Pollaidh, don't go this way.
Are you quite sure this is the usual way to climb Stac Pollaidh? Actually, no. Moral: never follow a chap trying to recapture his fearless youth.

Talking of erosion…
I have on my shelf a copy of what used to be the hillwalkers’ bible many years ago: ‘The Scottish Peaks’ by WA Poucher (1891-1988).

He was a research chemist and perfume expert who worked for Yardley – but was given lots of time off for his writing!

He describes the ascent of Stac Pollaidh and in one striking picture portrays the feature called The Lobster Claw.

This pinnacle stood in 1948, according to the caption. I was amazed to find a photo of mine, probably 1975 (see below), that also shows it pretty much intact.

Some time after that, half of it at least came down – a reminder that erosion and change isn’t always glacially slow, especially on hills like Stac Pollaidh.

Stac Polly - the Lobster Claw
Stac Polly – the Lobster Claw, c. 1975. See more recent pic below.

Anyway, so far, so good; and if we’d all stopped at that point, then that would have been an easy half-day rewarded with a sensational panorama.

But only Johanna decided to stay on the col with the dogs, sensible girl.

Oh no, memories from my impetuous youth of sauntering over the loose stacks and pinnacles drove me on, in the company of another tourism professional but self-confessed novice mountain scrambler.

A choice of routes on to the Stac Pollaidh summit ridge

We went all round the hill, below the crags, and had a real close-up of how fast the sandstone pinnacles are eroding.

And at this point, I’m a little sheepish, because, near the west end of the hill, to get to the very top, we committed ourselves to a steep and very loose gully.

It ended with a wall of smooth-faced Torridonian sandstone: a little too near the vertical for a casual stroll.

I suppose it was what the climbing guides call an easy scramble. We were blessed with a beautiful day and had plenty of time – yet we went the wrong way to reach the top.

It was just a wee reminder that Scotland’s hills demand respect. (Yes, this little hill has been the site of serious accidents.)

Stac Pollaidh is not a Munro (a 3000ft / 914m peak in Scotland) – but for spectacle and entertainment it beats many of them.

Visit soon, before walkers’ boots and natural erosion level it completely!

You could climb Stac Pollaidh as part of this Vikings-themed tour of the north of Scotland.

(Actually it’s not by longboat or anything, and you don’t get to go pillaging – it’s more full of references to the Norsemen who once lived there.) But check out the Highlands weather first.

Top of Stac Pollaidh
Cul Beag (the mountain) and Loch Lurgainn (the water) from the top of Stac Polly. The road to Achilitibuie and Reiff is just visible by the edge of the loch. The remaining portion of the Lobster Claw is just left of centre, projecting a shadow on the rock-wall behind.
Western seaboard from Stac Pollaidh
Western seaboard from Stac Pollaidh

Here are our suggestions for some good hillwalks in Scotland.