IN KEEPING with my unintentional Christmas tradition of not writing up the last walk of the year until the festive season, it’s time I recounted the details of my walk from Strontian to Craignure. Not that I walked the entirety of that distance; Craignure is on the Isle of Mull (Muile), so a ferry crossing was involved.
Plans & Contingencies
The Best-Laid Schemes…
It was actually that island’s ferries that prompted my choice of onward route from Strontian, for I knew that there was a ferry from Craignure to Oban, from where I could catch a train home. Thus, Craignure became the obvious end point for my final walk of the season, which had the side-effect of adding Mull into the general itinerary.
…Gang Aft Agley
Granted, I wouldn’t be seeing it in its best light — the weather forecast was awful — and if I was really unlucky I might not see it at all. The ferries, I was assured, were still running as I left the hotel but they were on notice as being at risk and might stop if the weather got worse. I decided to risk it. In the event that I found them cancelled, I’d just have to fall back on plan B…
…which was ‘get stranded.’ Good, simple plan that. No plan that basic can fail.
Strontian & Loch Sunart
A Good Start
The weather didn’t actually seem that bad as I stepped out of my hotel, filled up with breakfast and the heartfelt good luck wishes of the hoteliers. Sure, it was overcast and some of the clouds were ominously dark but I felt optimistic as I gazed across Loch Sunart.
Loch Sunart (Loch Shuaineart) is the longest sea loch in the Highland council area at 19 miles in length. I would only be walking the topmost three and a bit miles but I would be walking two of them twice, first up one side and then down the other. While slightly repetitive, this didn’t seem too arduous a challenge and was certainly preferable to the alternative of trying to walk straight across the loch.
Dodging the intermittent traffic of the A861, I passed Strontian’s war memorial and made my way up Sunart’s northern shore.
Ambushed by Awfulness
I had just passed a jetty when the reality of the day’s weather began to hit me. And, unsportingly, it did so from behind.
One moment I was ambling along in high spirits, the next I was standing beneath a sudden downpour. Dark clouds raced swiftly overhead, leaving a shellshocked mammal — cold and soaking, mouth agape — standing in their wake.
Rallying my wits, I turned to see Loch Sunart’s landmarks swiftly disappearing into the haze as the next rain band rushed eagerly towards me. And so it continued all morning, as moving walls of torrential rain swept coldly and wetly up the valley.
At the head of Loch Sunart, the A861 continued east up Glen Tarbert while the A884 branched off to the right and ran back down the loch’s far side. The turnoff crossed the Carnoch River, which flows into Loch Sunart, and I paused on the bridge to gaze up Glen Tarbert during a gap between rain bands and ponder the stability and reliability of bridges.
I turned away from the scene up Glen Tarbert and into a faceful of precipitation as the next rain band rushed me head-on. Spluttering and blinking, I started along Loch Sunart’s southern shore, knowing that the downpour would be as much endowed with brevity as it was with intensity. It was both changeable and seemingly stuck on ‘fast forward’.
The weather continued to alternate between the two conditions shown above on a cycle measured in mere minutes. But, lest I grow too used to this scale of rapid change, the roadside reminded me of the bigger picture:
Most of the first of those hours was taken up by heading west along Loch Sunart’s southern shore.
Allt na h-Airigh
Traffic was light, though not non-existent, while the many small streams that fed into the lock were swollen and white with froth.
I stopped for a rest by one such stream, the Allt na h-Airigh (‘stream of the shieling’, where a shieling is a shepherd’s summer hut) and was bidden hello by a couple emerging from a small cottage — one of very few I’d passed on that shore. I suspect that they’d not been paying due attention, or that my presence gave them false confidence, because they weren’t at all dressed for the inevitable drenching that swept up the valley and caught them unawares.
Gasping and sodden, they dove back through their front door as I splashed and squelched up the slowly-climbing road. This soon turned left to head south and inland and I paused at the bend to take one last look up Loch Sunart.
Leaving Loch Sunart
The road climbed steadily away from Loch Sunart but a helpful further burst of cooling rain ensured that the effort didn’t overheat me.
Playing Sheep Tag
Partway up I encountered a couple of sheep standing in the middle of the road, casually pretending to be a pair of low clouds. I wasn’t fooled. The sheep, aware they’d been rumbled — which I guess makes them thunder clouds — turned and fled from my approach.
Now, they could have fled in pretty much any direction they wanted but they of course chose, as sheep always do, to flee along the road ahead of me. When they felt they’d gone far enough, they stopped to see what I was doing. But that, of course, was walking up the road, narrowing the distance until they fled again. We played this game of ovine tag for about ten minutes and half a mile until one hit upon the revolutionary concept of heading off to the side and disappearing into a wood. I think that means I won the game.
The road I was following was still the A884, a single track road with passing places whose laughable A-road status probably arises from it having originally served steamer traffic.
The road had experienced realignment at some point, possibly in the 1970s when the Lochaline to Fishnish ferry service started up, following the demise of the steamer trade. I would see numerous signs of old road alignments during the day, starting with a long-disused bridge straddling Liddesdale Burn (Allt Lideasdail) beside its modern counterpart.
Doire nan Gad
From Liddesdale Burn, I had about a mile to climb to the summit of the road, which topped out at 272 m though peaks on either side loomed higher than that. The rain gave me a temporary but very welcome respite for the duration and both the drivers who passed me stopped to offer me a lift (I politely declined). That being so, I found myself nearing the top in high spirits.
Just past the summit, I came to a junction of sorts, where an access road led off to the farmhouse of Achagavel. Had the conditions been more clement I might well have taken that for, beyond Achagavel, it turned into a footpath that descended through Gleann Dubh (‘black glen’) to eventually rejoin the A884. This had the potential to be more picturesque and certainly less plagued by traffic. But I wasn’t sure of the going underfoot and, given how much water kept falling from the sky, I chose to dodge the odd car or lorry and tread upon firm tarmac.
Thus, I continued to follow the A884 as it wound down the hillside and past a small patch of woodland to meet with the end of the B8043. This latter road had come from Kingairloch and the western shore of Loch Linnhe and, if followed all the way, would eventually meet up with the A861 (on which road I had begun my morning). Its delights were not for me, however, and I stayed with the A884 as it turned east.
Here, the road was again accompanied by the ghostly reminders of former alignments, though they were overgrown and boggy-looking. The road began to climb again and, for a fleeting moment, I had clear views across to the 582 m hill of Beinn nam Beathrach (‘hill of the wild beast’), which was impressively scored by the gullies of streams. But no sooner had I reached for my camera than it had become shrouded in mist.
I watched as it and Achagavel at its foot were swiftly swallowed up into greyness and was just thinking how dramatic that had been when some part of my subconscious gave my waking brain a kick. Thankful for the warning, I had my hood up and my head down just as the rain band reached my position and for the next few minutes I splashed, teeth gritted, up what was more like a stream than an A-road.
Head of the Valley
The A884 carried me around a broad bend, turning south towards the valley of the Allt Beitheach (‘birchwood burn’), the lower part of which is called Gleann Geal (‘white glen’). At the valley’s head the rain eased off, visibility expanding to show the route ahead.
The road descended into the glen, rounding the foot of Beinn Chlaonleud. The valley was broad with just a few farmhouses and once again an older alignment often appeared alongside the road as little more than an access track. The rain continued to come and go as I ambled my way along the valley and just before it made a sharp turn to the west I paused to look back up to its head.
Abhainn a’ Ghlinne Ghil
The road became flanked with trees as it headed west through the bottom of Gleann Geal and the leafy cover did nothing to protect from a fleeting flurry of intense rain. By now, the Allt Beitheach had become the Abhainn a’ Ghlinne Ghil (‘river of the white glen’), which would soon merge with first the Black Water (a stream flowing out of Gleann Dubh) and then the outflow of Loch Arienas (to the west) and become the River Aline. I would not quite be going to the confluence, however, for the A884 turned south before that, crossing the Abhainn a’ Glinne Ghil.
Today, it does so via this road bridge:
For all that I love a disused bridge I was slightly regretting the unnecessary traipse through ankle-deep mud it provided. It did however bring home that I had probably been correct to come down the white glen not the black one.
Approaching the Loch
Feeling pleased with myself, I followed the road as it headed south and completely forgot that I had planned to take a turning along a minor road beside the River Aline. Instead, I kept going, crossing the Aline by another bridge and following the route of the A884. This was also following the Aline but on an alignment further up the valley slope, which gave me the clue to my error when I saw Loch Aline somewhere below me and not, as I had originally intended, right beside where I was walking.
Loch Aline (Loch Àlainn) is a fairly short sea inlet into which the River Aline flows. It’s about two miles from end to end and at its mouth, where it opens out into the Sound of Mull, sits Lochaline, the principal village of the Morvern Peninsula.
This isn’t to say that the village is in any way large but it did have a shop and a café, which meant I could sit and eat snacks and drink tea while I waited for the Fishnish Ferry.
The ferry was still running despite the awful weather — the rain was no impediment but there were also gusting winds. The wind condintions led to some fairly choppy water even in the shelter of the Sound of Mull (though not in Loch Aline, which was even more sheltered and whose mirror-like waters gave an entirely false sense of serenity).
Soon enough, MV Lochinvar chugged into view.
Lochinvar is one of CalMac’s three ultra-modern diesel electric/lithium battery hybrids and was the second I had seen (I previously crossed to Arran on another, MV Catriona). She was launched in 2013 and is named for an 1808 poem by Sir Walter Scott.
The difference in sea conditions between Loch Aline and the Sound of Mull could be felt immediately, as Lochinvar bobbed up and down like a yo-yo and occasionally shook as a wave smashed square-on to her side. She was well within her capabilities but it wasn’t a smooth ride and I started to wonder if I might have miscalculated.
Though I had just four miles more to walk upon Mull, my plans hinged on then catching another ferry and crossing the Firth of Lorne to a hotel in Oban. That crossing promised to be choppier still though the ferry serving it would also be larger.
Isle of Mull
Lochinvar deposited me on Fishnish jetty and I elected not to hang about. The jetty has no other facilities anyway and sits at the end of a single-track spur road that is counted as being the end of the A884. Following it brought me out onto the A849, a busier, wider highway that would, if I didn’t get run over, take me the four miles to Craignure.
This new A-road was initially flanked with trees but that didn’t stop me getting the odd glimpse of rain-shrouded Great Britain.
The A849 wasn’t particularly interesting to walk along, though that was hardly helped by the trees and the intermittent rain. While the latter would persist through the rest of the afternoon, the former eventually gave way, opening out the view.
There were opportunities where I could have escaped the A-road and followed old tracks or alignments but once again I elected to stick with a route where I knew what to expect. Between the rain bursts the A-road chose to reward me for my loyalty with further views of GB:
Scallastle Old Bridge
The A849 then upped its game as if trying to lure me away from the transience of my visit. It did this by throwing me some obvious clues of old road alignments including my ever-favourite example, a disused former bridge.
I was not to be dissuaded however. I had booked a hotel room in Oban and therefore I couldn’t stay on Mull.
I quickened my pace as I approached the village of Craignure (Creag an Iubhair, ‘rock of the yew tree’), which has had a pier since 1894 though the modern ferry terminal wasn’t built until seventy years later, in 1964.
I had made it in time for the final ferry crossing — indeed I was almost an hour early — and my heart soared with relief as I saw the ferry waiting beside the pier.
As I got closer though, heading for the ticket office, doubts began to creep in. I knew why I was here so early, why was she here early too? And why did the pier look closed? The answer came soon enough in a phrase I was by then expecting but dreaded to hear anyway:
‘Sorry, mate, it’s been cancelled. There’s no way off the island tonight.’
Executing Plan B
The problem I learned was not so much the sea state — the ferry was big enough to handle the choppy waters — but that the direction from which the winds were gusting made it hard for her to dock in Oban without ramming into the pier. She could cross the Firth of Lorne just fine, but if she did, no one would be getting on and off. And that would be pointless.
‘Ah,’ I said, nodding. I quite understood. Time for Plan B after all then: be stranded on Mull. I put it into immediate operation and had a total success. I was indeed quite stranded.
‘Ah,’ I said again, purely for emphasis.
The chap in the ticket office and a sympathetic crewmember both pitched in with their suggestions as to places to stay. It was a fairly small list as Craignure isn’t large. I probably needed to move quickly, too, before others showed up for the ferry and found themselves in — if you’ll excuse the pun — the same boat.
It was only the last two crossings that had been cancelled, which meant that one ferry-load of people had potentially already bagged all the beds unless they’d held out to see if the last one ran after all. Hmm.
I rejected the option of a hostel with shared dorms, despite how awesomely lovely that I was assured it was. Instead, I recalled I’d walked past a hotel on the edge of Craignure. It was a ten minute stroll back up the road but I reckon I did it in four.
Isle of Mull Hotel
Soon, I was stuck in a queue at reception behind the slowest and dodderiest pair of pensioners ever to draw out the business of checking into a hotel. As the minutes ticked on, reducing my chances of getting in somewhere else if the hotel proved to be full, I started trying to recall if I’d seen any benches on which to miserably sit out the night.
‘I think you’re in luck, we can help you,’ said the receptionist when I eventually told her my plight. She then screwed her face up, ‘though I think I just told someone else on the phone that we’re fully booked by mistake. I muddled the dates up.’
Bad luck for them; good luck for me. Moments later I had a hotel room key in my hand as I nipped outside to call the hotel in Oban and let them know I’d no-show. Sure, I’d be paying for the room anyway but it seemed only polite.
It was with great relief that I sat down to dinner and a drink rather than shivering damply through the night beside the ferry pier. Once I’d got food and a gin and tonic inside me, I saw the funny side of things.
All’s Well That Ends Well
That night, I slept well but awoke bright and early, returning to the pier to catch the first crossing of the day. This was of course the exact same ferry as had been going nowhere the night before except now she conveyed me to Oban in time to catch the train that I had tickets for.
All in all, plan B was a success.
And thus concluded my walking season for 2017, having hiked from Arrochar to Craignure. My route around Mull and beyond was uncertain but planning that could wait until 2018…
This time: 25 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,148½ miles