Assynt is blessed with amazing landscapes. ‘Island mountains’ rise out of a crinkly carpet of hillocks and lakes. There’s nowhere else in the UK quite like it. Here’s our complete guide to visiting Assynt, Scotland including map, tips and where to stay.
Assynt is a beautiful place in the northwest Scottish Highlands and a routine stop on the NC500 – a popular road trip around the north of the country.
A unique landscape gives Assynt its defining features. Bulbous fern-covered terrain connects steep-sided peaks which rise like island mountains, separated from each other by beautiful swathes of heather and small, picturesque lakes. They may not be as high as some of the other Scottish giants, but they are as distinctive and unique as anywhere in Britain.
The coast around Assynt is equally blessed. Powdery white sand beaches provide the vantage point for whale and dolphin watching, along with stunning views over island-strewn lochs marching out to sea. Two picturesque fishing towns, Ullapool and Lochinver, have good accommodation, seafood restaurants and all the facilities you need.
The NC500 brings visitors to Assynt, but many only stop for one night, leaving much of this remote corner of Scotland peacefully quiet. In our humble opinion, however, there are many great reasons to stop and spend a little longer.
Here are a few of them.
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MAP | WHERE IS ASSYNT, SCOTLAND
Assynt is a remote and sparsely populated area in the county of Sutherland in the northwest Scottish Highlands. Wedged between the picturesque fishing town of Ullapool in the south and the tiny settlement of Kylesku in the north, it’s both wild and stunningly beautiful.
All roads in Assynt seem to lead to Lochinver. An attractive village overlooking the sea and a great base for exploring the area. Getting around can take time. If you stay on the two fast A-roads, the scenery flies by.
But take the more adventurous single-track paved roads (to the Summer Isles in the south or the NC500 Drumbeg road in the north) and it can be hard to get above 25 miles per hour. All the better for taking your time and seeing it properly.
THINGS TO DO IN ASSYNT, SCOTLAND
1 – DRIVE THE NC500 DRUMBEG ROAD
The NC500 is a circular loop that runs around the coast of northern Scotland. Approximately 500 miles long, its clever branding has seen drivers and cyclists flock to the route. The most dramatic section of the entire loop is in northern Assynt between Kylesku and Lochinver.
Known as the Drumbeg Road this single-lane track twists and turns over a bobbly landscape of ferns and heather, lily-filled small lakes (lochans) and cute bays. The views are staggering with the sheer-sided mountains of Assynt on one side and the waves of the ocean on the other.
The drive itself is a thrill. Blind summits, 180-degree hairpins and steep gradients add to the adventure. There are plenty of passing places, but progress can be slow. Just make sure you have plenty of time and soak it all in.
2 – CAPTURE SUILVEN, SCOTLAND’S PICTURESQUE MOUNTAIN
Only 731 metres high, the ‘island mountain’ of Suilven is no match for Ben Nevis or the giant mountains of Torridon, yet many regard it as Scotland’s most picturesque mountain. A steep-sided ridge two kilometres in length, Suilven rises out of a knobbly moorland of bogs and lochans. Its sheer sides consist of sedimentary sandstone ledges that make the peak look layered.
The distinctive feature of Suilven is that it changes shape depending on your vantage point. From Lochinver, in the west, it’s a pudding bowl or policeman’s helmet. From the east it looks spiky, forbidding and completely inaccessible. From the north and south, the ridge appears like a tadpole with a large bulbous head and sinuous tail.
Hiking up Suilven is an all-day experience. Miles from the nearest access point, it’s a 2-hour walk just to get to the base. It’s then a steep slog up a precipitous gully to the ridge, and finally some easy scrambling to the summit. The views are spectacular but you’ll need eight to nine hours to complete it all.
It’s much easier to see Suilven from the roads that run around it, or even better from the summit of Stac Pollaidh.
3 – HIKE UP STAC POLLAIDH
At 612 metres, the mountain Stac Pollaidh is not much lower than Suilven, but positioned right next to the road and with an excellent newly built path, it offers quick access to the wonderful views over Assynt’s landscapes.
The walk to the summit begins at the Stac Pollaidh car park from where a well-cut path heads northeast and ascends up the eastern flank of the mountain. The peak consists of two summits. The eastern summit requires a short but easy scramble, the west summit (and true summit) is a little trickier but quite manageable if you are used to using your hands and feet.
Whichever summit you make it to, the views are excellent. Great blades of rock rise out of the ground, creating a unique landscape of island mountains. There are few better mountain views anywhere for the relatively little effort required to get to them.
To complete the circular walk, take the path that descends on the western side and bends back round to the car park. But beware this can be boggy after heavy rain so, depending on conditions, you may want to return the way you came. The round trip walk takes 2 hours 30 minutes to 3 hours.
4 – PHOTO ARDVECH CASTLE ON LOCH ASSYNT
Ardvreck Castle is perched on a rocky promontory at the end of Loch Assynt. Attractively set on the edge of the water and surrounded by foreboding mountains, it’s a great photo stop. The castle dates back to 1490 and was built by the MacLeods of Assynt. Today it is just a ruin, but the simple rectangular keep with a round staircase tower can still be made out.
The tower is set on an island just across from a sand beach on Loch Assynt. If you take your socks and shoes off you can paddle over and explore, but the views from the mainland are just as good.
5 – SCOFF THE PIES AT LOCHINVER LARDER
Lochinver is a charming little town in the west of Assynt set on a bay overlooking the sea. Its whitewashed houses stand out from the green and rocky hills. In the evenings locals and tourists alike head to Delilah’s for local beers, good food and a lively atmosphere. On a Saturday, if you are lucky – or not – the town disco may be going off in the village hall next door.
One thing not to miss in town is Lochinver Larder. This institution serves a wide array of sweet and savoury pies. There are regular staples like steak and ale as well as a whole host of innovative creations like venison and cranberry or pork, chorizo and Manchego.
It’s great for vegetarians too, the butternut squash, sweet potato and goat’s cheese pie was excellent. But our vote goes to the chestnut, mushroom, and red wine pie. Delicious.
6 – VISIT THE SUMMER ISLES VIEWPOINT
Loch Broom forms the southern boundary of Assynt. Where its waters meet the ocean, a small string of about 20 islands known as the Summer Isles rise above the waves. The islands used to have a thriving herring industry but only the largest island – Tanera Mor – is now inhabited.
There are a few ways to see them.
Firstly, stay at the Summer Isles Hotel in Achiltibuie and peer at them from your room. Secondly, hire a kayak from Northwest Sea Kayaking and head out on a half-day or full-day excursion.
Or finally, drive to the Summer Isles viewpoint, just north of Altandhu, and photograph them glistening in the ocean with the mighty mountains of Wester Ross & Torridon behind.
7 – LOOK FOR WHALES AT STOER LIGHTHOUSE
The sea channel that lies between Assynt and the Outer Hebrides is rich with marine life and there are few better places on mainland Britain to get sightings than the Old Stoer Lighthouse. Rissos dolphin (all year), minke whale (June to October), killer whale or orca (August & September) and harbour porpoises (all year but more common July to October) can be seen playing in the waters.
On the coastal cliffs you can spot fulmars, kittiwakes, great bonxies and arctic skuas as well as gannets diving into the sea to feed. If the weather is good take the 30-minute walk north along the sea cliffs to the Old Man of Stoer (not to be confused with the one on Skye). This 62m high sea stack looks like it could collapse at any time.
The lighthouse, built in 1870, has been automated and with the lighthouse keeper long gone all you’ll find here are wildlife watchers and the wonderful Whale Watch Café van. Bring binoculars, a zoom lens, a hefty dose of patience, and sit back with one of their wonderful hot chocolates to see if you get lucky.
8 – LAZE ON ACHMELVICH & CLACHTOLL BEACHES
If the west of Scotland had the climate, it would have some of the best beaches in the world. Luckily the Assynt has two gems. Both Achmelvich and Clachtoll beaches have powdery white soft sands and inviting turquoise waters. Both are surrounded by wonderful rocky promontories sheltering them from the rough seas. And both have helpful car parks just a few minutes’ stroll from the sands.
How to choose? Well, if you are lucky enough to have two warm evenings with glorious sunshine, go to both. The sea temperatures just about break 15 degrees in August but drop to more than chilly 8 degrees in winter. For the less hardy, a wetsuit is advised, for the even less hardy stay on land.
9 – VISIT THE WAILING WIDOW WATERFALL
On the main road between Kylesku and Ullapool, tucked into a ravine on an unmarked bend of the road, is the Wailing Widow waterfall. Driving passed you would never know it was there.
Sometimes called Hanged Man Falls, the water drops 100ft (30metres) from the outlet of Loch na Gainmhich to the rocky ravine below. It is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Scotland and particularly good to photograph with a drone as the fall looks like it’s dropping out of the bottom of the lake. The ravine is often dark and in shadows, so it’s best seen on a cloudy day or at dusk when the sun periodically lights up the gorge.
There are two good viewpoints from which to take in the falls. Park at the rough Loch na Gainmhich Waterfall layby and walk up the ravine for 5 minutes to glimpse it from the bottom or via a faint path (which you can find on maps.me) which leaves from the Quinag Viewpoint car park to the top.
10 – HIKE QUINAG OR TWO MUNROS
There are some wonderful mountains in Assynt but only two Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet) and you can bag both in one day. Ben More Assynt & Conival are two rocky giants connected by a fine scree ridge. They make for a rough but rewarding and long hike that can take almost 10 hours.
An easier option is Quinag. Its imposing west face subtly carved by massive sheets of ice makes it look insurmountable. Yet on the east side, a gentle path leads slowly climbs up to the ridges that connect its attractive peaks. It is a much easier and highly rewarding hike into the heart of the Assynt which can be completed in 4 to 5 hours. The trail starts from the Quinag Trail Head car park and can is handily marked on google maps.
11 – POP INTO THE STONE MUSEUM KNOCKAN CRAG
The Assynt’s remarkable landscapes is due to the intense glacial scarring of its remarkable rocks. The tops are made of sedimentary Torridonian sandstone that have been shaped into a series of ledges making the mountains look layered. Underneath are knobbly hillocks of much older and hardier Lewsian Gneiss, the oldest type of rock you’ll find in the UK.
To learn more about the landscape pop into the Knockan Crag Museum just north of Ullapool. There’s an outdoor display with a few information boards explaining the process, toilets, a drinking fountain and an easy 45-minute circular walk with some good views.
12 – ADMIRE CORRIESHALLOCH GORGE
Just over the border of Assynt in Wester Ross, is the dramatic Corrieshalloch Gorge. Cut as far back as 2.6 million years ago by the river Droma, it’s 60 metres steep, precipitous, and extremely impressive. At its base the river drops 100 metres over a series of falls as it babbles through the deep tree-shrouded and rocky chasm. The highest of which is the 45m Falls of Measach.
The two sides of the canyon are connected by a 25-metre-long suspension bridge that provides excellent views and connects the viewing platforms. Managed by National Trust Scotland there is parking on the A832 just west of the junction with the A835.
WHERE TO STAY IN ASSYNT, SCOTLAND
It can take a couple of hours to drive from one corner of Assynt to the other, so it’s important to stay in the right location. The town of Lochinver makes a great base since it is central to many sights and many of the roads converge here. However, there are also some fine hotels dotted on the edges of Assynt, near Kylesku, the Summer Isles and Ullapool.
Book well ahead in summer as NC500 enthusiasts fill up the accommodation quickly.
There are a number of good B&B’s in Lochinver, but Bonnie Haven has great views over the sea. With a central location, Lochinver Larder and rest of town are right on your doorstep.
A single cosy pod in a private location just on the edge of Lochinver. It is lovingly designed with views of Suilven over the water, but it’s the hot tub and shot of whisky on arrival that steals the show.
Need to get off the grid to write a book? Try the Summer Isles Hotel. Near the end of a road that goes nowhere, it has wonderful views over the Summer Isles and smacks of quality.
In the very south of Assynt in Ullapool, Ardvreck House provides modern rooms with a shared lounge that has wonderful views over Loch Broom. All the facilities of Ullapool are a few minutes’ drive away.
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