WEATHER forecast maps of Scotland often look like something created by Jackson Pollock, a riot of colour and confusion reflecting the impossibility of any clear picture.
Anyone who walks in our mountains knows there are few cast-iron guarantees. An 80 per cent chance of summit views? You'd be a fool to put your money on it. Those odds decrease even further in Glen Shiel, where the word 'fickle' hardly begins to scratch the surface.
Many years ago, on our first planned visit, we were heartened to see forecasts of sunshine and clear skies. Until, that is, just like the old horror film cliche, a bearded old-timer wandered into shot muttering: “Ah, but you're forgetting the notorious Glen Shiel sea mists.”
He was right, the forecast was wrong. We spent two days wandering the multi-peak ridges in a constant game of meteorological hide and seek, banks of soft cloud pouring along the glen providing only fleeting glimpses of the scenery. We even managed to conjure up an hour or two of torrential rain which turned the paths into rivers.
The opposite can also be true. Days that promised little have turned out to be pleasant surprises, even spectacular at times. Just don't expect two good days in a row. The Glen Shiel mists like to toy with us.
Heading north and west last week seemed the better bet with the rains reserving their wrath for the south and east, and I thought I would tip the scales even further by having one day in Glen Shiel then continue upwards to the Fannaichs for a second day.
True to form, the 70 per cent cloud-free prediction for the afternoon was already looking like wishful thinking when I started towards the Bealach an Lapain in the mud-and-rock filled trench that masquerades as a hill path. The tops had a cloud cap and there was moisture and a chill in the air. Three damp runners on their way down predicted I was going to be luckier than they had been. It was hard to see where their optimism lay.
When I reached the ridgeline, the grey curtains appeared to have been opened slightly to allow a clear view north to Beinn Fhada, its long, sun-dappled face smiling across the glen. Despite this, the modest summit of Saileag remained imprisoned by the flimsy yet persistent conglomeration of cloud, and it was a similar story along all the ups and downs to Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg.
I could just make out the quirky, offset cairn which crowns a short, rocky arm off the main ridge. It's a two-minute diversion, and in the time it took to get there and back, the day had completely changed. The mist had been sucked away, and a ceiling of blue was now visible.
The final peak, Aonach Meadhoin, was bathed in sunshine, a late evening reprieve from the gloom. The whole landscape followed suit, every peak in every direction taking advantage of the light.
If I thought I had struck it lucky, the best was yet to come. As I dipped into the col for the final upwards push, a golden eagle came gliding lazily across my path. I stood and watched hypnotically as it effortlessly swept over the glen and disappeared into the dark corries of the South Shiel ridge. I had just started walking again when a second one appeared, same flight path, same result.
The descent was by the short south ridge to reach a path further down in Coire na Cadha. On breaching one brow, I came across a few dozen deer enjoying their suppertime grazing, not one stag among them. The boys were probably off at fight club practising their skills for the approaching rut.
The ridges of Glen Shiel lend themselves nicely to hitchhiking, but in these Covid days no one can expect to be picked up by passing strangers, so it was a 5km walk back along the road. On such a glorious evening this proved no hardship.
Distant sunset mountain silhouettes had a soporific effect, and as darkness closed in the sight of lights descending from The Saddle helped ease me into a peaceful night. My decision to stay put looked a wise one when I woke around 5am. The mists had slipped back into every available contour, the road barely visible.
I hedged my bets for A' Chralaig, setting off in hope but also in full wet weather gear, grassy at first then more muddy trench warfare as the angle steepened. Light rain was being driven across by a brisk wind; it was cold, wet and there was nothing to see, so it was straight up and straight down. It felt like payback for the privilege of the previous day.
Mark Twain said: “If you don't like the weather, just wait a few minutes.” He was speaking of New England, but I suspect a visit to Glen Shiel was buried somewhere in his subconscious.