The Depths Of Time
The Great Outdoors|November 2019
James Roddie goes under the surface of Assynt to discover a whole new dimension to an extraordinary, ancient landscape.

IN TIMES OF HEAVY RAIN, there is a place in Assynt where a whole river disappears into a tiny hole in the ground. Further down the same glen, an entirely different river bubbles up vertically from a patch of grass, appearing as if from nowhere, and continues downhill as any other river would.

It is so easy to simply walk straight past without noticing these bizarre phenomena. Yet they hint at something extraordinary.

Beneath the wild, iconic landscape of Assynt, there is a hidden world of subterranean rivers, vast chambers and passageways. Glistening grottos of stalactites and stalagmites hang above roaring cascades, and the bones of prehistoric animals lie waiting to be found. Yet most people who come to this area of the north-west Highlands are unaware that Scotland’s largest and most complicated cave systems exist beneath their feet.

Hundreds of walkers visit the small Inchnadamph Bone Caves every year. In the surrounding glens, however, are numerous small cave entrances, largely tucked away and easily missed amongst such a dramatic landscape. You are never too far from a cave if you are walking on Ben More Assynt, Conival or Breabag, where the cave forming carbonate rocks of the region are concentrated.

Whilst caves and potholes are an integral part of local culture in some parts of England and Wales, the same cannot be said for Scotland. In some ways it is easy to understand why. If you possess the skills and equipment to go caving in Assynt, first impressions are of dusty places lacking in beauty and underwhelming compared to the superb landscape on the surface. However, deeper exploration reveals places of sensory overload – such as ‘The Northern Lights’, a huge array of pristine calcite formations in Cnoc nan Uamh cave, or ‘Thunderghast Falls’, a roaring subterranean cascade.

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