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The Heights Of Winter

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A Clisham dawn, looking west to the Shiants. Image © Lewis Mackenzie

The view from the doors of the distillery's maturation warehouses is dominated by the highest point in the Outer Hebrides, the mountain known in Gaelic as 'An Cliseam'.

At 799 metres high An Cliseam is one of 221 peaks in Scotland classed as a ‘Corbett’, named after John R Corbett whoin the 1920s compiled a list of mountains in the 2,500–3,000 feet range.

The main road between Harris and Lewis tickles the tall mountain's toes, turning the heads of thousands of people travelling past it each year and inspiring many to make the ascent to its summit, usually in summer.

A wintery road winds at the feet of the Harris hills...

However, on a winter’s day with ice in the air and on the ground, An Cliseam looks even more imposing. Moody, unpredictable weather sweeps in on strong winds, wrapping the mountain in cloud and sleet, then minutes later broken blue sky contrasts with the glistening snow.

The blanket of white has a frozen crust and icicles form horizontally, driven by chilly gusts. There are few human or animal footprints on the upper parts of the mountain. There is only silence, save for the wind.

The intrepid solo climber at this time of year knows to triple-check their rucksack for additional warm clothing, a good GPS unit, personal emergency beacon...all knowing they will be very much alone on their climb.

Wind-blown icicles defy gravity on the high peaks.

But, for the intrepid the view from the summit is well worth the climb if you are lucky enough to have a clear sky when atop.

To the north, the Isle of Lewis stretches into the distance, with the Butt of Lewis lighthouse being the last visible feature before the vast expanse of the North Atlantic Ocean.

To the East, the Scaladale river below cascades fresh water into Loch Seaforth which penetrates inland as far as Seaforth head and Airidh a Bhruaich.

The cold winer waters of the fast flowing Scaladale river.

Turning to the South, there is Scalpay and East Loch Tarbert leading on to a full view of the entirety of South Harris with Berneray and North Uist further distant.

Seilebost and Luskentyre beaches and the Isle of Taransay are prominent to the Southwest too.

Irrespective of which time of year you climb An Cliseam, it is rewarding both physically and mentally, rewarding the bold with a real sense of achievement and a profound sense of place.

The view from the summit, looking over towards East Loch Tarbert.

To climb it in winter lets you feel first-hand how weather, light and temperature impact the environment and the personal experience the climb has given is perhaps a good analogy for how daily life in the Outer Hebrides is dictated by the weather and seasons.

And, at the end of the day, tired limbs and plenty of fresh mountain air will provide you with the makings of a good night’s sleep.

Before the warmth of slumber, an Isle of Harris Gin is not out of place as a nightcap and it would be apt of course, given the conditions at the height of winter, to simply serve it pure and over ice.

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