THE third day of my May ’18 trip began with a hearty breakfast and a reconsideration of my plans. I aimed to set off from Kinlochhourn along an old drove road, which would lead me to Arnisdale and Glenelg. From there, I intended to head inland on the Old Military Road — when can I ever resist one of those? — to Shiel Bridge and Invershiel. This was, I had reckoned, about twenty-four miles.
Doubt & Distance
My plan had been met with perplexed incredulity by my B&B host, who summed it up as ‘a hell of a walk’, which it absolutely was. In the face of his certainty that I was being overambitious, my own certainty that I could do it began to wane. So much so that I remeasured the distance. Twenty-eight miles? Well, blimey!
But I still reckoned I could do it…
Much as dinner the night before had been, breakfast was a communal affair though this time there were just two of us; I was joined by the intrepid young German woman whose efforts put mine to shame. She was also aiming for Shiel Bridge, it turned out, though her route was more direct so far as the horizontal plane went. Less so in the vertical plane — she was going over where I was going round.
This was not to say that my route was entirely level, however, for it would begin with a bit of ascent, following a line of electricity pylons up the hillside:
The ascent began on an unassuming gravel path tucked away behind a cottage associated with Kinloch Hourn House. This quickly climbed through the trees in the photo above and, even more quickly, I became hot and out of breath.
Knowing that it had been a drove road, linking Glenelg (where the cattle crossed from Skye) to the Glengarry road, I tried to imagine a herd of cows coming down it in anything less than an uncontrolled tumble. But cattle are pretty sure-footed, I guess.
The Pass & High Moorland
Taking My Time
Regardless of however easily (or otherwise) the cattle made their descent, I made depressingly hard work of going up.
After about half a mile of meandering upwards, the path topped out a little below the 300 m mark. Taking into account the short walk from the farm to Kinloch Hourn House, I reckoned it should be just over half an hour since I’d set off, except I knew it was more. An hour, in fact. Right.
So far, I’d taken twice as long as planned. That hardly boded well.
Having reached the pass, I now found the drove road laid out before me as it wound its way across open moorland, with a stream and the power line for company.
Just around the corner from the photo above, I found that the path had become two paths and mine was now the route north into the mountains, which was the path my fellow breakfaster would want when she got there but not I. Fortunately, a small connecting track between the two paths gave mute testament that I was not the first person to make that mistake, and I quickly followed in the slightly muddy footsteps of those who had erred before me.
The correct path was broad and hardened in some places and muddy in others where its stones had been swallowed by bog. There were mountains to the north and Loch Hourn to the west and scrubby moorland all over, as far as the eye could see. It was, I realised, as I strode along, grinning madly at the world in general, exactly what I wanted it to be.
Lochan Torr a’ Choit
The drove road crossed the Allt a’ Choire Reidh (‘flat corrie burn’) by means of a wooden footbridge, swinging close by Lochan Torr a’ Choit (‘tarn of the tor of the small boat’).
Faster than a Speeding Bullock
Much as I was enjoying my moorland stroll, with 28 miles to cover, I didn’t dare dawdle. I fairly bombed along at about twice the pace that the drove road’s original users would have managed.
I base this assertion on the 1981 adventure of hillwalker and writer Irvine Butterfield (1936-2009), who followed the two-hundred mile drove route from Skye to Crieff in its entirety accompanied by 29 highland bulls and a cow named Matilda. Because some people, when they walk a centuries-old cattle droving route like to do it properly. He was sponsored by the distillers of The Famous Grouse Whisky and he did get another book out of the experience — The Famous Highland Drove Walk — but still, that’s serious dedication to not doing things by half.
Anyway, the point is, that they only managed twelve miles a day with the herd.
I, of course, was not doing it properly by that kind of standard. Not only was I amateurishly cattle-free but I was walking in the wrong direction. I couldn’t even argue that I was doing the cattle-drovers’ homeward walk because often they’d had more than enough mountain hiking by the time they reached Crieff and went on to get a boat home instead.
What I could do was manage a good deal better than twelve miles in a day, which was lucky because that would have stranded me on the roadside somewhere between Arnisdale and Glenelg. Hence, I strode along apace.
Gleann Dubh Lochain
Allt Coire Mhàlagain
The drove road gained a little more height heading northwest from the lochan (it had lost a fair bit descending to the footbridge), but this soon topped out at 250 m. From there, it curved around the base of a thinly-wooded hill to descend leisurely into Gleann Dubh Lochain (‘black tarn glen’).
Somewhere down there, I knew I had to ford the Allt Coire Mhàlagain, which I could see meandering below. Back when the early Ordnance Survey editions were compiled, there had been a footbridge over the stream but no longer. It was pretty certain, my feet were getting wet. I was resigned to that fate.
The path descended gently to the meandering stream, which was broad and merely ankle deep. A number of rocks sticking out of the water suggested that, were I to use them as stepping stones, I could get tantalisingly close — but not close enough — to the far shore before I got my feet wet. That, I decided, was simply prolonging the agony. Taking a deep breath, I splashed across. It was cold but quickly over and the weather was plenty warm enough to dry my trainers out (I hoped).
Having crossed the Allt Coire Mhàlagain ( ‘Maelgenn’s corrie burn’, possibly; ‘Mhàlagain’ is uncertain), the drove road then followed it closely further into the glen. Soon the two lonely buildings of Gleandubhlochain came into view and it was clear that their occupants were big on solar power.
I don’t know when Gleandubhlochain was abandoned, both buildings are shown intact on the 2nd edition OS map (1888 to 1913) and they’re clearly not now so that narrows it down to sometime in about the last century, which is not very narrow at all.
Diverting Down the Glen
At Gleandubhlochain, the path branched, with the lesser-walked route of the drove road passing between the two buildings and continuing northwest, where it climbed to the 450 m Bealach Aoidhdailean before heading to Glenelg via Gleann Aoidhdailean and Gleann Beag. The alternative to that, and my chosen route, was one that turned southwest with the river, continuing down Gleann Dubh Lochain.
Allt an Tomain Odhair
The path I was following might not have narrowed but the bit of land it was on quickly did. The Allt an Tomain Odhair (‘burn of the dun-coloured hillock) flowed down from the bealach and was about to merge with the Allt Coire Mhàlagain.
I now found, in a reversal of the earlier situation, that where the early OS maps have only a ford, a small wooden bridge is now in place (you can see it in the photo above). A sign beside the bridge warned in big red letters:
‘WARNING. CROSS BRIDGE AT YOUR OWN RISK. STRICTLY NO HORSES.’
I checked carefully, in case I had brought any horses. Nope, I was just as absent equines as bereft of bovines. That being so, I figured I dared risk the bridge. It was reassuringly sturdy underfoot and, having crossed it without incident, I continued on my way.
Upper & Lower Dubh Lochain
Now, a valley doesn’t get a name like ‘Gleann Dubh Lochain’ without having a lochan somewhere in it. Probably one with a dark peat bed to warrant the ‘dubh’ in its name. This glen had not one but two of them in series, a short section of stream linking them together.
The path skirted around the right hand side of Lower Dubh Lochain and, as I followed it, I realised that I was really enjoying this walk.
I enjoyed it slightly less a few minutes later when, as I rounded the bottom end of the lochan, a wind-tunnel effect magnified the breeze into something that nearly swept me off my feet. I had been in the lee of hills and mountains pretty much all morning and the sudden ferocity of the wind took me entirely by surprise. Fortunately, even had I stumbled, I would have only fallen onto the hillside and not off it.
I spared a thought for Ms Intrepid German, up on her hilltops, wishing her safety and success.
Breached Dam & Waterfall
Coming to the end of Lower Dubh Lochan, I found an old, breached sill dam and a waterfall that, although hardly epic, I found pleasing nonetheless.
A short distance downstream was another sturdy footbridge, accompanied by another red-letter warning. I felt that this time the sign had some merit, though, as, while the bridge was robust, so was that gusting wind and it would have been all too easy to be tipped over the side.
The River Arnisdale, as it had now become, was at this point dropping into something of a gorge so that would have meant more than wet knees.
Old maps show paths on both sides of the River Arnisdale but today only one side remains. The footpath climbed steeply up the side of the gorge, crossing a tributary burn. With my newfound elevation, I glimpsed the view ahead through some trees, seeing down Glen Arnisdale towards the coast.
The path, having gained some height, now made a concerted effort to lose it all in one steep, zig-zagging, scrabbly descent.
The metalling of the path was essentially loose gravel on the decline and, while I expect anyone with a sense of balance that actually works could have skipped down it like a mountain goat, I took it painfully slowly. And when I say ‘painfully’ I mean that my knee, which had hitherto been minding its own business, decided to enquire what the hell I was doing via the medium of conversational pain. We had words.
At the bottom of the descent, I sat upon a handy rock beside another gurgling tributary burn. It was a lovely place for a rest and thankfully too early for midges — they don’t normally bite me but they do land to find out if they want to and that alone is unpleasant enough.
When my knee had calmed down and I felt quite rested, I emerged from the trees to find that the path had become a broad, unsurfaced road running across open meadow. The river, running parallel, gurgled quietly to itself.
Achadh a’ Ghlinne
This part of the walk was quite different in character from the wild glen that come before, though it was no less empty. It had not always been thus though. Where today only the bothy of Achadh a’ Ghlinne (‘field of the glen’) sits in the glen (and that is no older than the late 19th century, not being in the 1st edition OS), there were once several settlements.
William Roy’s military survey map of around 1750 shows three named settlements — Achlinbeg, Achlinmor and Balnacraig, all gone by the 1870s when Ordnance Survey first reached the area. They were, like so many Highland villages and clachans, cleared to make room for sheep farming, their inhabitants pressured to emigrate.
Just past where Achadh a’ Ghlinne sat on the far side of the river, the road decided to cross over and join it via another bridge. I thought about following suit but my modern OS map suggested that there was a footpath following what had once been a minor road down the side I was on. But being on the map is no guarantee that it’s visible on the ground; I decided to find out if it was.
The footpath was by turns stony, muddy and, in places, entirely theoretical, but it nonetheless took me where I wanted to go. That destination was Corran, a tiny hamlet at the end of the public road.
Looking at old maps, I find that the passage of a century and a half hasn’t really made it any less tiny either. Granted, it’s gained a couple of buildings here and there but it’s also lost several too.
A couple more ex-buildings and a really muddy field later, I stumbled out of a farm gate and onto the end of the road at Corran. This made me very happy for two reasons. Firstly, I had completed stage one of the day’s walk, which accounted for nine of the 28 miles. So, about a third done, two thirds to go. The second reason was that I could get a cold drink. Corran might be as tiny as anything but it is also home to Sheena’s Tea Hut, which is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin.
Sheena’s Tea Hut
I found the tea hut where it was supposed to be, right at the end of Corran. In keeping with my general Rule of Poor Timing, it wasn’t actually open yet but proprietor Lorraine — daughter of the Sheena who founded it —was in the hut preparing things and graciously sold me a drink anyway.
Grateful, I thanked her profusely and headed to the bridge across the river. Then, feeling like an idiot, I returned to the tea hut and retrieved my walking poles, which I’d put down while fumbling in my pockets for change.
Once back at the bridge, I paused to drink my drink and watch the River Arnisdale flow out into sea.
Shunning the Coast Path
A sign in Corran indicated that I could turn left at the river mouth and follow a coast path back up Loch Hourn, if I chose. This path is apparently quite rugged in places and, according to my modern OS map, only goes as far as the headland of A’ Chiste Dubh (‘the black chest’ i.e. it’s dark and breast-shaped).
Older maps show it continuing up the loch to Caolasmor, where three isolated holiday cottages stand today but in times past a ferry crossed Loch Hourn. Even had the ferry still existed, I wouldn’t have taken that route as it would have put me back onto the Barrisdale-Kinlochhourn path that I had walked the day before. Without it, it promised only a dead end.
I’d go right, across the bridge.
By crossing the River Arnisdale, I returned myself to the public road network. The coast road was single track with passing places, of course, but also smoothly surfaced with asphalt. Traffic was almost non-existent since the only place to go to or from was Corran.
The road headed north, dodging slightly inland to duck round the back of a 27 m tor called Crudha Àrd (‘high horseshoe’ — it has a spectacular fold in its strata). Then, running parallel with the edge of Camas Bàn (‘white bay’), it approached the village of Arnisdale (Àrnasdal), which nestles by the foot of the 974 m Beinn Sgritheall (‘scree peak’).
Arnisdale is a pleasant little village of white houses. The largest is Arnisdale House at the southern end of the village, built in 1898 by Tory MP and army officer Valentine Fleming (1882-1917).
Fleming, a friend of Winston Churchill, was sent to France with his regiment at the start of WW1 and thought the experience ‘very dull’. In a fatal case of getting what you wish for, excitement followed at Messines, Ypres and the Somme, which killed him.
His son, Ian Fleming (1908-1964), served as a naval intelligence officer during WW2, which experience he later drew upon as an author, when he created James Bond.
Free Church & Post Office
I made my way past Arnisdale House and the rest of the village, including Arnisdale Free Church (built in 1888) and its post office, which appeared to be housed in someone’s shed. People were out and about, cleaning cars or tending to gardens and it made for a pleasant sense of bustle after the solitude that had largely characterised the day’s walk so far.
C1223 Coast Road
The road out of Arnisdale began with a short, steep climb (visible on the left in the photo above). At the top — about 50 m — it revealed a view of the coast ahead and the islet of Eilean Ràrsaidh. Since the road ran directly along the coast, this would be my route for the next half an hour.
The coast road was pleasant and a gap in the clouds made a delightfully sunny stroll of it. Traffic increased slightly, to the tune of one car and a Royal Mail van but mostly I had the road to myself.
As I drew level with Eilean Ràrsaidh, what had been a mere dusting of trees became a fully-fledged wood named Coille Mhialairigh. Both Roy’s map and Aaron Arrowsmith’s map of 1807 show a settlement nearby — labelled ‘Rasary’ — where today there is only one house. Cleared for sheep farming, several other villages vanished altogether, including one labelled by Arrowsmith as ‘Miolary’ in the wood that still bears that name.
Cut off from the seaward views by the leafy screen of Coille Mhialairigh (‘Miolary wood’), I followed the road as it wound its way through the trees. After a while, it turned north and a side-track to seemingly nowhere in particular marked where the modern road detoured from an older alignment. Formerly, it used to detour around a rocky outcrop called Creag a’ Chàise (‘rock of the cheese’) but the modern road cuts right through it.
Now You See It…
North of Creag a’ Chàise, two things happened. Firstly, I emerged from the wood into open country, allowing me a clear view of the Isle of Skye. And, secondly, I discovered that the clouds were back with a vengeance, at which point drizzle started to fall and threatened to rob me of that view.
As the visibility closed in, the drizzle could not help but detract a little from the experience. I dug my cagoul out of my bag and, hood up, I kept heading north, still grimly enjoying my walk.
The road crossed a stream — the Allt Mòr Shantaig — on a bridge where way back there had only been a ford, and carried me past the singular lonely building of Upper Sandaig. Another could be found about half a mile to the west by the shoreline at Sandaig. There, a second cottage, burnt down in 1968, had been the home of naturalist and author Gavin Maxwell (1914-1969).
Maxwell is most famous for Ring of Bright Water, his 1960 book about his life at ‘Camusfeàrna’ (in reality Sandaig) where a group of wild otters became his pets.
Màm nan Uranan
Sandaig being a dead end, I passed straight by its turning and continued north. The road was again flanked by trees as it climbed to its highest point at Màm nan Uranan (about 200 m) before beginning its descent to Eilanreach and Glenelg.
The road wound down the hillside to the bridge at Eilanreach, where a helpful road sign told me it was only a quarter mile to Glenelg.
The bridge was spanning the Abhainn a’ Ghlinne Bhig (‘river of the small glen’), which is the river that flows through Gleann Beag (‘small glen’). I was now at the point where the drove road north from Gleandubhlochain met back up with my route.
So Far, So Good
About five minutes later, I was entering Glenelg. I had now completed stage two of the day’s walk and had done 18 out of 28 miles. Also, I’d made fairly good time. I felt the warm glow of achievement as I set about looking for the pub.
The pub was further into the village, which made sense. On the way I passed numerous white-painted houses and the village war memorial, erected in 1920, whose first name listed is that of Valentine Fleming.
Behind the memorial, across the water, was the hamlet of Kylerhea on Skye, that being the other end of the ferry link. Though today the ferry is a summer-only service, much favoured by tourists — it uses the world’s last surviving hand-operated turntable ferry, MV Glenachulish — it was once of critical strategic importance. Following the 1715 Jacobite Rising, a garrison was built at Glenelg to control the shortest crossing to Skye; the narrows of Kyle Rhea, though tidal and turbulent, had been used for centuries to swim herds of cattle across, thus linking the island and mainland drove roads.
With my usual exquisite timing, I found my way into the Glenelg Inn long after lunch had ceased to be served but too early for dinner. But that was okay, liquid refreshment would suffice.
I sat and sipped at a gin and tonic and regarded my map with trepidation. I still had nine miles to go, but this final third would mostly be a climb towards Ratagan Pass (Bealach Ràtagain).
Old Military Road
Not Made by Wade
The route I would take to Ratagan Pass was simple and direct, being both the modern road out and the Old Military Road. Like so many old military roads in Scotland, though often attributed to Gen George Wade (1673-1748), it was actually the work of Wade’s assistant and successor, Maj William Caulfeild (1698-1767), whose name has started to be reassuringly familiar to me.
Following an old drovers’ route, Caulfeild’s road was built in 1755 to better link Bernera Barracks at Glenelg with Fort Augustus at the southern end of Loch Ness.
Unlike some of Caulfeild’s roads, which served no civilian purpose and so fell into disrepair when the military need evaporated, the road to Shiel Bridge via Ratagan Pass proved extremely useful. Consequently, it was remade and improved by Thomas Telford (1757-1834) in the 1820s and then improved again in the 1980s to make it more suitable for modern motor traffic.
The road left Glenelg along the floor of Glen More (Gleann Mhòr, ‘great glen’), a broad valley dotted with the occasional house. One of the first of these that I passed was Balcraggie, an 1830s house at the edge of the village, that had once been its manse (where the church minister lived).
Further along were the ruins of Balavoulin (Baile a’Mhuilinn, ‘mill town’), a satellite clachan that had housed Glenelg’s mills.
Further still stood the farmhouses of Scallasaig, Beolary and, a short distance down a turnoff to Moyle, Braeside. These three farms do not bear their original names, however, having played pass-the-parcel with them at the landowner’s whim. Clearing the glen of its many crofts in the 1840s — the better to do some lucrative sheep farming and damn those who had the audacity who live there — he reduced them to two holdings, one on each side of the Glenmore River. The northern farm of Achachuirn he renamed Beolary, despite that having been the name of a farmhouse on the south. The original Beolary got renamed Scalasaig, which had been the name of a different farmhouse south of the river (which got renamed Braeside). Confusing, eh?
As the road progressed along Glen More, it slowly but surely climbed its way up the side of the valley wall, reaching 192 m by the time it crossed over a cattle grid and plunged into woodland. Now flanked by trees, it began to climb more steeply, becoming tightly winding as it reached its summit at 390 m. This was the Ratagan Pass, leading between the peaks of Druim Sgùrr nan Cabar and Sgùrr a’ Bhraonain. The road, which had climbed continuously for five miles, finally began to drop and I got my first view of Loch Duich.
A short distance below where I took that photo, at 339 m, there was a viewpoint with benches and picnic tables. By the time I reached it, the foul weather had swept in and the drizzle I had been walking in since Creag a’ Chàise was replaced by a full-on downpour. The only view I had from the viewpoint was grey.
I sat on a bench and looked at it anyway — much to the bemusement of a couple who had taken refuge in the dryness of their car — because I needed the sit-down.
Doing the Descent
Eventually, when my legs had recovered as much as they were going to, I began the steep, zig-zagging, knee-challenging descent to sea level.
The rain kept up its dismal barrage, soaking me through what I laughably still call my ‘waterproofs’ and pretty much keeping me from seeing any sort of view until I reached the bottom, when it stopped.
A short section of level road conveyed me to a Telford bridge across the River Shiel (a different River Shiel to the previous one) and the village of Shiel Bridge.
Kintail Lodge Hotel
Sadly for me, I had one more half mile to demand from my protesting legs, which carried me to my hotel. I arrived no more than two minutes before the kitchen was due to close and they kindly volunteered to allow me to order food anyway.
In the morning, I would discover that the hotel manager was the younger sister of Lorraine at Sheena’s Tea Hut (who had sold me a drink despite being shut). But that conversation lay in the future. For now, I needed food, drink, a shower and bed, though not necessarily in that order.
That night I slept the sleep of the righteously exhausted. Come morning, I would demand that my legs carry me forth once again…
This time: 28 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,316 miles