” Hogmanay” is a big event in Scotland, but I’ve never been able to get all that excited by the New Year celebrations. To me, it feels like a lot of forced joviality about a clock striking midnight. It’s not like anything much changes.
Maybe it’s some lingering Pagan mindset from my Pictish and Celtic roots, but the Summer Solstice has always felt much more significant to me. I love the long light nights of a Scottish summer and the build up to the longest day fills me with anticipation. It’s like the cycle of life, death and rebirth, with the Summer Solstice marking the peak of the year.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to spend the night of the Summer Solstice at the top of a Scottish mountain. I liked the idea of being alone in the wilderness whilst witnessing the sunset and sunrise on the shortest night. It’s one of my “Bucket List” items and this month I did it.
It was especially significant to do it this year as I lost both my parents in 2022, and that makes you realise how precious your time on earth is. I’m now much more aware that I can’t defer doing things that my body might not be able to do as I get older.
So no ifs, or buts, the night of the 21st June 2023 was going to be spent on top of a mountain somewhere in Scotland.
Well, the choice of mountain had to tick a few important criteria:
After some research, I decided upon Creach Bheinn in Argyll, near Appin. The summit is on a large flat plateau, which is grassy with a few rocky outcrops.
You get magnificent views to the west over the island of Lismore with the Isle of Mull behind it. The mountains of Sunart give a backdrop to the setting Sun, and the Sun rises behind the distant peaks of Glen Coe to the east.
To the south of the summit, you look down on the waters of Loch Etive which can be mirror-smooth in the still morning air.
And clearly visible on the coastline below, is the distinctive silhouette of Castle Stalker which stands on a small island in Loch Laich.
Creach Bheinn rises to a height of 810 metres / 2657 feet, so it’s 104 metres / 343 feet short of being a Munro. But the path starts from close to sea level so you feel every one of those metres, especially when you’re lugging 10kg of kit with you.
The path to the summit isn’t well defined which is probably because it isn’t quite high enough to be classed as a Munro and thus doesn’t get as much traffic as nearby Ben Sguilard which stands at 937 metres thus making it a must for Munro baggers.
I was therefore fairly confident that we’d have Creach Beinn to ourselves, but was a bit less confident about our ability to find our way to the top without a clearly defined path and fading daylight.
I’ve camped out in remote Scottish glens before now, but this was my first attempt at camping overnight on a mountaintop.
The weather forecast suggested an overnight temperature of 10 - 12 centigrade, moderate wind speeds of around 10 knots, some light cloud cover and dry conditions. That all sounded fine, but you have to remember that the weather forecast isn’t talking about the conditions on an exposed hilltop.
I didn’t take a thermometer, or anemometer with me to take measurements, but I can tell you that it was definitely windier and colder than that at the top. Out of the wind, I reckon it was about 7 - 9 Centigrade, but with the brisk breeze at the summit it felt close to freezing and my fingers were numb after trying to film the setting sun for 15 mins.
So the essentials that you are going to need if you plan to spend the Summer Solstice on a Scottish Mountain are:
Keeping the weight down is important if, like me, you are on the wrong side of 50 and aren’t as fit as you used to be.
Some of the things that we packed that we never needed were:
I’ve climbed lots of Scottish mountains in all sorts of weather from snow to scorching sunshine. I wouldn’t describe myself as an experienced climber and I know my limits, so I admit that I undertook this adventure with some apprehension about how it would go.
There’s no doubt that it does feel strange to be heading up into the mountains when everyone else is coming down. When I say everyone else, I’m referring to 6 people that we passed just as we started the climb at 6:15pm.
I had my 12-year-old son with me for company (he’s up for most things that involve a day off school), but I could sense he was getting tired and a bit worried when the sun was going down and we still hadn’t reached our destination. By that stage, we had crossed the “Rubicon”, and were committed to camping on the mountain overnight as the descent in the fading light would have been too difficult.
My own energy was flagging after 3 hours of hiking, but it was uplifting to finally reach the trig point and take in the wonderful sunset views over the Argyll coast.
Unfortunately, my son tells me that I missed the most spectacular part of the sunset as I was down below frantically trying to unpack the tent whilst he stayed at the summit awestruck by the light show.
Hopefully, these pictures convey something of the magic!
Our tent was a relative breeze to erect and we had it all up and secured within ~15 minutes. Once the tent was up, we immediately felt happier and more at home in our wild and inhospitable environment. That is until we tried to bed down for the night.
What looked to be the flattest and grassiest piece of ground near the summit was actually sloping downhill at just enough of an angle to make our sleeping bags shoot down our roll-up mats like bobsleighs on a mini Cresta Run. To further add to our discomfort, we soon discovered that under the moss and grass, there was a boulder field of sharp rocks that we had to contort our bodies around in order to find a “comfy” sleeping position. This was not going to be an easy night.
Somewhere between 10:30 pm and 4 am, I must have managed to fall asleep as I was startled from my slumber by the alarm that I had set on my mobile phone. Peeking outside the tent, the skies above were dark and crystal clear. Looking east, the horizon was starting to show a gentle radiance, but a band of clouds sat above the peaks of Glen Coe where the sun should have been rising.
The thing that hit me most with the arrival of dawn, was not the light but the silence. The world felt reborn and it felt like we were the only people in the world witnessing the event.
Around 4:15 am, we could start to see glimpses of pink skies in the little gap below the band of clouds that sat above Buachaille Etive in Glen Coe. We sat and watched the sunrise for another 15 - 20 minutes whilst bands of mist blew over the summit of Creach Bheinn
Frustratingly, the full majesty of the sun’s radiance was obscured by the band of distant clouds. But the lack of a spectacular sunrise was compensated for by some magical cloud formations on the mountain tops around Loch Etive. It looked like the clouds were a blanket being slowly pulled away to reveal the scenery below.
This is normally the best part of any hike for me. So much so that my son and I have a song that we sing on our hikes.
Oh, I don’t like going uphill,
I don’t like going uphill,
The down bit’s the best bit,
The up bit’s the daft bit,
I don’t like going uphill.
This time I was a bit less enthusiastic. Maybe the lack of sleep took its toll, but we did go back to bed at 5 am, after watching the sunrise, and managed another couple of hours of shut-eye.
The challenge of this descent was the passing mist and low clouds which sometimes obscured the path, so you had to concentrate more than usual to keep heading on the right bearing.
I normally reckon the time for the descent is roughly half the time taken for the ascent if going via the same route. In this case, we took 3 hours going up and about 2 hrs 30 mins coming down. In saying that, we were in no rush and took several breaks to photograph the scenery and wake ourselves up by sticking our faces in a cold mountain stream.
Once back at the car, we were glad to freshen up as best we could from our water bottles, put on clean clothes and slurp down some fresh orange juice before heading for a light breakfast. Despite 16 hours since our last meal and 5.5 hours of hiking, we still weren’t feeling hungry.
We were back home almost exactly 24 hours after we left. One item ticked off the “Bucket List”, the next task was a hot shower followed by a nap in a comfy bed.
YES, if you can, do it!
It’s not easy and you will be uncomfortable during the night. I reckon we got about 3 - 4 hours of decent sleep. But you won’t regret doing it.
The best part of the experience was the dawn. There is something magical about being so alone in the wild and being able to look down on the sleeping world in the shadows below.
But Scotland has lots of special places where you can feel that magic of being alone in a timeless landscape. You just need to be in the right place at the right time with an open mind.