Published 4th July 2018, 18:18

    WE walked into the sunset leaving the last of the day's light further behind with every step.

    There were no fireworks over the distant western mountain skyline, just a sallow wash, but it was achingly beautiful all the same. This was the golden hour in all its glory.

    The waters of Loch Affric lay perfectly still as if recovering from a hard day in the heat, the huge ridges of the hills fading to a charcoal backdrop.

    The walk was along the shore was accompanied by a silence that wasn't quite silent; lone bird calls, the occasional buzz of a passing insect staying up too late and the gentle dribbles of running water. As yet though, there was no sign of the Strawberry Moon.

    This was the seventh full moon of this extraordinary year of full moons, and the plan was to climb the Affric mountains behind Strawberry Cottage. I was joined by Pauline and James, two friends from my mountain club - and a couple of bottles of strawberry beer for a toast on the summits.

    I wondered if we would have any darkness at all. It was nearly midnight and yet the path ahead was clear, the colours of the surrounding slopes and pinpricks of water still flourishing.

    Then, just as we reached the bridge for the turn north into Coire Ghaidheil, we caught our first sighting of the moon, a glowing white crown pushing up through the skyline behind. The sudden contrast of light was stark, the darkness more appreciable. 

    The moonlight was radiating into the corrie, illuminating the way ahead, and for most of the way there was no need for torches until we reached the deep shadows and a section of boggier ground near the final rise to the ridge.

    The path turned right and headed steadily over stonier ground, a gentle angle continually on the rise. The moon now seemed circled by a yellow fuzz, and for the first time we felt a slight chill, a light breath of wind.

    Then the huge cairn on Mam Sodhail came into view, standing proudly on the skyline like a far-off castle waiting for an onslaught, an orange line on the eastern horizon signalling the infant stirrings of another day.

    We sat under the castle walls and had an early breakfast, the moon now restored to a perfect white orb, the skies ahead lightening by the second. By the time we left for the short up and down to Carn Eighe it felt like daylight had won the battle.

    Out to the north lay the final summit, Beinn Fhionnlaidh, a mountain that produces an equal share of expletives and superlatives. It always feels like a long drop down from the main ridge, and an even longer climb back.

    We were 45 minutes from sunrise so it required a fair dash. In contrast to the muted sunset, this was going to be spectacular. The sky seemed to be on fire, blazing oranges, reds and yellows the warm-up act for the sun king.

    We didn't quite make it to the summit in time, but luckily for us the mountain horizon provided blocking tactics so we captured the moment nonetheless, a kind of delayed transmission from the heavens. Suddenly the mountains were bowing to the power of the new day, Loch Mullardoch a silver snake slithering quietly through the contours. 

    The moon hadn't given way just yet either. Its radiance was certainly fading away to the west but it remained a perfect circle drifting above the heights of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan and Mullach na Dheiragain, elegantly taking its time to exit the party.

    The show now over, we waited in impossible hope for an encore we knew would never come. The curtain had dropped on another spectacular and all we had left was the long way home. The big cairn on Mam Sodhail, such a welcoming sight on the way in, now took on the mantle of a malignant presence in the distance, merely a reminder of the weary slog ahead.

    Even the relief felt at reaching it again was tempered by the distance still to travel in the building heat and the walk along the shore seemed to go on forever.

    Twelve hours exactly, a sunset, a full moon and a sunrise included. Not a bad circular route.