Monika Strell, an Austrian in Assynt, and her family live on a woodland croft near Lochinver, often hosting visitors from all over the world. The croft is both home and workplace - working from home as a senior social media specialist, Monika collaborates with colleagues and clients around the world, building and supporting communities online.
Sharing her passion for Assynt, both personally and professionally, really matters to Monika. She supports Discover Assynt in their digital marketing & social media work and has been blogging about her family's outdoor adventures at home and away for the last 3 years at Little Trekkers. She is in the process of launching her own blog Assynt For Families which will help families to discover more of Assynt.
I vividly remember my first journey to Assynt in the summer of 2001. We had started from Edinburgh, ventured in good spirit all the way up the A9, hit Inverness, made it over the Kessock Bridge - surely we were close now? How long could it possibly take to reach this mythical destination I had heard so much about from the friend I was travelling with? I wasn’t a stranger to exploring distant parts of Scotland - my work in rural sociology had taken me to Kintyre and I had travelled what seemed the length and breadth of of the country with visitors. But somewhere around Ullapool it dawned on me that this was REALLY remote indeed.
I recall the first truly awe-inspiring moment at the border between Wester Ross and Sutherland, at Knockan Crag, where the breathtaking view of Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor and Cul Beag appears. Often featured as a ‘classic’ Assynt image, it’s actually not really Assynt (all those mountains are within neighbouring Coigach). But of course to truly discover Assynt one must cherish what’s on the way.
After marvelling at the incredibly green and lush limestone pocket of Elphin there was more road and finally a junction, at Ledmore. Turn left for Lochinver, 20 or so miles left! Close! As the distant Loch Assynt came into view another moment of dwelling on distances, and then a sudden treat - Ardvreck Castle. Not the biggest or most imposing of Scottish castles, but the epitomy of what many associate with Scotland - a castle ruin, on a little verdant peninsula with a backdrop of rugged hills and a loch.Then another junction - John O’Groats anybody? Staying faithfully on the long road around the coast, destination Lochinver. Enjoying the landscape that was more varied than even I could have ever imagined. I finally stopped counting miles and calculating arrival times, instead I was collecting surprises. Colours mainly - the purple heather was just starting to bloom and the lush vivid green of the bracken was unexpected, as I had envisaged a much more barren landscape. Offset against the grey and slightly reddish sandstone the landscape offered us a feast for the eyes. Shapes and texture surprised - the eclectic mix of mountains nothing I had ever seen before, despite being from a mountainous country. But still I wasn’t prepared for Suilven! A silhouette that silenced me at first, then I couldn’t stop talking about such a magic mountain that looks different from every angle and corner.
Assynt - I had finally arrived! Little did I know, on this summer weekend in 2001, that this was only the start of my discoveries and that one day I would call Assynt my home. During my initial whistlestop tour, accompanied by a good friend with long connections to the area, I encountered some of the area’s highlights. The impossibly white Achmelvich beach and its backdrop of turquoise sea, the mountains, the incredibly lush and magic Culag Woods. I also met the man who would be my husband one day, thus leading to a return to Assynt many years later and giving me the luxury of seeing Assynt not just with the wondrous eyes of a visitor but the deep passion and love of a local.
My husband, who had left the area aged 19 and lived away for 17 years, always knew he would one day return to his true home. At our wedding we read an Austrian fairy tale about the love between a bird and tree - which perfectly described who we were. Me, the once migratory bird who decided to stay for the love to a deeply rooted tree.
Today I find myself thoroughly and happily nested in Assynt, growing my own roots. At the same time my discoveries have never stopped. The wonders of the first journey with its landmark highlights haven’t worn off. I still marvel at vibrant green Elphin, and continue to be amazed by Suilven. New personal favourites have been added - the sparkling grey of Glas Bheinn in the distance, the little beach at Altan na Bradhan and the numerous Assynt waterfalls. And of course it’s not just the one road leading to Assynt. Approaching via Achiltibue is a firm favourite, especially the moment when more or less all the ‘Assynt’ mountains line up, with all their jaunty angles and unusual shapes, with a panorama that stretches all the way from Stoer Lighthouse to Ben Mor Coigach. Travelling on the coastal road from the North, via Drumbeg, has its own delights, the twisty road winding through ancient birchwood and following unexpected gradients through steep-sided glens - definitely not one for the larger vehicle! From this winding route there are some sudden and incredible panoramas, to the north little lush islands off the coast leading the eye to the cliffs of Handa island and around to the distant northern peaks of Foinaven, Arkle and Ben Stack as well as imposingly impressive views of Quinag, one of Assynt’s finest mountains. And even if you decide to pass on the coastal loop, heading instead up the A894 to Kylesku, the views of Quinag from the north, with its multiple peaks, buttresses, and soaring ridges, before dropping down the other side with Glen Coul appearing on your right, are equally impressive.
All of these routes have come to worldwide fame in the last year since the launch of the North Coast 500 road route. Now a favourite circular route for visitors from near and far, the face of Assynt discoverers has changed and we now see a new and more diverse breed of travelers. In the past Assynt was first and foremost a destination. It has not ceased to amaze me how many people know Assynt and have visited, often as far back as the 1950s and 60s. In those times, if you made it all the way to here, you came to stay - for a few days at least, or more often a week or two. Slow travel in the true sense, making deep and leisurely discoveries. The new North Coast 500 visitors are more transient, passing through Assynt rather than lingering, and indulging in the Assynt experience in passing. Is the new way to discover Assynt (and beyond) the ‘drive through’ mode? Very different indeed, but is it less rewarding?
Generally I don’t think so. In 1881 poet and novelist Robert Louis Stevenson said ‘to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive’ and in the spirit of this I personally welcome our new circular explorers. For once the route attracts those who may not like the idea of a long ‘one way’ journey to a far-flung destination. There is something enticing and reassuring about the idea that if you simply keep going you will end up back at your starting point.
I hope our new passing visitors experience something similar to my recollections of my first journey to Assynt, and the incredible and lasting impact it had. It doesn’t take much to fall in love with Assynt or Sutherland, or the whole North. Assynt hits you, gets under your skin and can almost become an addiction, in a good way! I’ve spoken to many travelers and through my social media work for Discover Assynt, Assyn’ts local tourism group, I have gained a lot of insight into travelers' reactions to our little corner of the Highlands via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Amazement, surprise, and ‘falling in love’ are frequent reactions. Many talk of coming back to see more, and for a more in-depth experience.
Assynt’s big attractions - Suilven, Achmelvich beach, Kylesku Bridge - will always be the famous ones, and are quite accessible for the ‘drive through’ visitors. Of course we want travelers to stop and encounter the more hidden treasures of our region, to go for the ‘slow appreciation’. Stretch your legs on a walk to the Bone Caves …or head for a little walk up Ardroe Path for stunning views over Lochinver and the mountains …maybe a longer trek to see the magic of Kirkaig Falls ... experience the amazing colours of the pebbles on Kirkaig Beach … a detour to Stoer Lighthouse, taking some time to gaze out across the Minch to maybe spot some whales or dolphins?
So yes please, stop for a few days or more if you can. This time - or next time! Sample our hospitality and food, try some activities - kayaking, fishing, stalking, photography, painting, a coastal walk or heading up into the mountains. Or simply gaze into the magic microcosm of a crystal-clear rock pool, or in the darker months, up at the wondrous milky-way in one of our designated Dark Skies spots. If you are lucky, you might even see the merry dancers in the sky, the Northern lights.
For me, transient exploring and more in-depth explorations and experiences of Assynt are not mutually exclusive. Come and fall in love with Assynt, travel through or stay a little longer - you will always be welcome back to discover more!