CXCIV – Isleornsay to Armadale

Helpful MammalWHEN I planned my May 2018 walking trip, I never actually intended to have a sixth walking day but that was okay because I hadn’t originally planned to have a fifth one either. I had expected to reach Kyle of Lochalsh (Caol Loch Aillse) on day four and from there take a train home the next morning. This plan, which on the face of it seemed reasonable, fell apart when circumstances demanded that I reach Kyle on a Saturday. With next to no trains home on a Sunday, I elected to extend my trip and thus day five took me to Isleornsay (Eilean Iarmain).


So Near Yet So Far

Isleornsay was still about seven miles from Armadale (Armadal), where I now needed to catch the ferry. Eight, if measured from door to pier.

I ideally needed to catch the very first ferry of the morning, which was at about 0830. This would necessitate me missing breakfast, which was disappointing (dinner at my hotel had been excellent the night before) but there was at least a bus, which would get me to Armadale in plenty of time. Wouldn’t it?

The bus would probably get to Armadale in time, a member of the hotel staff advised. Maybe. Or maybe it wouldn’t run at all.

I wouldn’t rely on it,’ she said.

I quickly decided that I trusted her more than I trusted the local bus timetable. I also trusted my own legs and feet — well, mostly — and so I decided to walk. If I was going to miss breakfast, I might as well miss it by a lot.

Up With the Sun

Feeling pleased with my reasoning, I kinda let it run away with itself. If I was going to be getting up that early, well, it would only be a little bit earlier to get up in time to see the sunrise. I’m not really a morning person but sure, I thought, why not?

‘Because you’ll just turn the alarm off and snooze for a bit,’ my inner cynicism scoffed.

Sunrise over the Sound of Sleat
‘You bastard,’ my inner cynicism muttered the following morning, ‘I can’t believe you’ve made me get up this early.’
Photographic Failure

My camera was of like mind to my inner cynicism, having sunk into the sleep of the exhausted the night before. Since I’d neglected to bring its charger with me, rousing it wasn’t going to be an option. I would just have to fall back upon my phone camera except that too was not minded to be cooperative; my phone, it turned out, had not yet forgiven me for the soaking it received in April.

Oh, it seemed like it had, as though it had resumed normal service, right up until I tried to take a photograph. The one function still trashed by April’s rain seepage turned out to be the camera autofocus. All photos for the day are thus a little hazy, and these are just the good ones. Next time, I’m taking the camera charger.

Map showing that my staring point was the Isleornsay Hotel. At sunrise.
I tried to take several photos of the sunrise, which was utterly magnificent. You’ve already seen the only one that worked.

Armadale Road

Setting Off

Leaving the hotel, I crossed over the Allt Duisdale and returned to the A851, where I almost immediately crossed over the Allt Duisdale again. The A-road then veered inland as I headed south and I started to see a few stretches of old road alignment off to one side. These called to me — I love a disused road alignment — but I remained resolutely on the modern A-road. They could wait until I came this way again. It wasn’t as if I needed to dodge traffic, I think I saw maybe three cars in total that morning.

Progress map showing that I was on the A851 heading south and was about to cross the Allt na Bèiste
Because most sensible people were still snugly tucked up in bed.
Loch nan Dùbhrachan

The A-road swung past a patch of woodland on one side and then Loch nan Dùbhrachan (‘loch of gloom’, more-or-less) on the other. This was a sizeable lochan, quite close to the roadside, which was indeed cast in shadow and which my phone did not want to photograph. I attribute this reluctance to the aforementioned rain damage and not at all to the murderous kelpie or water horse that local legend attributes to the loch.

A great many Scottish lochs have associated tales of kelpies — which would drag the unwary to their deaths below the surface — but in the case of Loch nan Dùbhrachan the locals took it seriously enough that they dredged the lochan with a net in 1870. No kelpies were found, only some pike, which to my mind are fearsome enough.

Progress map showing that I had reached Loch nan Dùbhrachan
‘Are there any kelpies in this loch today?’
‘Neigh, no one here but us pike.’
Knock Bay

Having not been dragged to my death by a kelpie (I’d have noticed, I’m sure), I continued along the A-road, which had been gently but steadily climbing. It reached its summit at just 38 m — the Sleat Peninsula’s name essentially means ’flat’ — and then dropped down Gleann Thorabhaig (‘bay tor glen’) to Knock Bay (Bàgh a’ Chnuic, ‘bay of the hill’).

Descending to Knock Bay
The rest of the Highlands might be, well, high but Sleat will make do with the hills it can get.
Torabhaig Distillery

At the bottom the hill, I found the Torabhaig distillery, which looks like it’s been there for centuries but actually began production in January 2017. It was the brainchild of local landowner, distiller and Gaelic language enthusiast Sir Iain Noble (1935-2010), who had also been the owner of the Hotel Eilean Iarmain (in which I’d just stayed) and of an independent whisky blender and bottler called Pràban na Linne, also in Isleornsay — there had been a complimentary whisky miniature in my hotel room.

Progress map showing that I had reached the Torabhaig Distillery.
It may have played a contributory role in my decision to get up at stupid o’clock.

Sir Iain got planning permission to convert the 200-year old listed farmstead of Torabhaig into a distillery in 2002 but work didn’t begin in earnest until 2014, four years after his death.

Torabhaig Distillery
I guess he’s still with them in spirit though.
Arms of the Noble baronetcies of Ardmore & Ardardan Noble and Ardkinglas & Eilean Iarmain

Ironically for a man called Noble, Sir Iain held no peerage, though he was a baronet (which is basically a hereditary knighthood). His baronetcy was created in 1923 for his grandfather, businessman Sir John Noble (1865-1938). John was the third son of physicist Sir Andrew Noble (1831-1915), for whom a different Noble baronetcy had been created in 1902 (and which would be inherited by John’s eldest brother). As a cadet branch, the Noble baronets of Ardkinglas & Eilean Iarmain bore a differenced version of the arms of the main line, the Noble baronets of Ardmore & Ardardan Noble. Both coats of arms feature three bay leaves.

Knock Castle

Funnily enough, there are supernatural spirits said to haunt the bay, or more specifically the ruins of Knock Castle (from ‘cnoc’ meaning ‘hill’) that overlook it. Also known as Caisteal Chamuis (‘bay castle’), it was built by the MacLeods in the 14th century but seized and rebuilt by the MacDonalds in the 15th century, only for King James I to capture it in 1431 during a campaign to impose his authority on the Lords of the Isles. It returned to MacDonald ownership though and remained there, despite a MacLeod attempt to recover it in the 1500s.

The MacDonalds remodelled it again in 1596 but, by 1689, it had been abandoned and was used as a handy source of stone for other local buildings. It is said to be haunted by a ‘Green Lady’ or glaistig whose swings of mood are said to predict the fortunes of the family who occupy the place. Since that’s been no one for over 300 years she must be pretty mellow by now. A second spirit or brownie is said to have an interest in looking after cattle.

Knock Castle
Is there anybody there? If so, Knock once…
Arms of the MacLeods of Dunvegan and the MacDonalds of Sleat and the Scottish Royal Arms
The arms of the MacLeods of Dunvegan quartered the MacLeod triple-towered fortress with the Manx triskelion, the latter to show purported descent from Olaf the Black, King of Mann & the Isles. Their MacDonald enemies also used quartered arms but with various disparate elements including a lymphad (galley), which also referenced the Kingdom of the Isles, plus a lion, a cross and a salmon. James I used the Royal Arms of Scotland, as one would expect of the King. These comprised a red lion rampant within a tressure incorporating fleurs-de-lys.

From Torabhaig onwards, the A851 stuck far more closely to the coast, though houses between road and shore meant that the latter wasn’t always visible. There were quite a few houses now too, as the road passed through a series of scattered villages that ran into each other. I passed through one named Ferindonald ( Fearann Dòmhnaill, essentially ‘Donald land’), beyond which was Kilmore (A’ Chille Mhór, ‘the big church’).

Progress map showing that I had reached Kilmore.
I wonder what the distinguishing feature of that village could possibly be?

Kilmore, unsurprisingly, had a church in it, built in 1876. But behind that church, and in a state of ruin, was the previous church, dating to 1681. That, in turn, was built to replace a 13th century predecessor, which burnt down during a battle between the MacLeods and the MacIntyres (a sept of Clan Donald).

The MacIntyres, having lost the day, fled and barricaded themselves in the church so the MacLeods burnt it down with them inside.

Kilmore Old Church
Frankly, they hadn’t a prayer.
Sabhail Mòr Ostaig

Continuing south, I passed through Kilbeg (A’ Chill Bheag, ‘the little church’), which appeared to have no church at all. What it did have was a medical practice and, slightly further on, a Gaelic-language higher education college called Sabhail Mòr Ostaig (SMO).

Occupying the site of an 1820s steading, SMO was founded in 1973 by Sir Iain Noble. Since then it has played an important role in the renaissance of Gaelic and turns out to be responsible for one of the resources I use for translating Gaelic place names.

Progress map showing that I had reached Kilbeg
Its own name translates to ‘Great Barn of Ostaig,’ referencing its origin within a semi-derelict farmstead on the Ostaig Estate.
Bàgh a Mhuilinn

Past SMO was Bàgh a Mhuilinn (‘mill bay’), where the character of the A-road changed. Now it had a steep, wooded hillside to landward and just a wall between it and the sea. Thanks to this, and the curvature of the coast, I could now see ahead to my destination.

Bàgh a Mhuilinn
And it wasn’t even eight o’clock yet.
Progress map showing that I had reached Bàgh a' Mhuilinn
This was pleasing, but I restrained my celebrations. After all, I wasn’t quite there yet…


Armadale Castle Stables

The road edged along the coast and then climbed up the hill to the white building seen on the right in the photo above.

Armadale Castle Stables
Closer to, it looked like this.

The building turned out to be the old stables for Armadale Castle, now repurposed as a restaurant. The actual ‘castle’ — really a crenelated mansion built in 1815 for the MacDonalds — is now a ruin, having been abandoned in 1925.

The gardens are maintained by the Clan Donald Lands Trust, a registered charity, which opens them to the public. The grounds also house a Museum of the Isles.

Armadale Pier

Nearing the end of my journey, I hastened past the old stables and followed the A851 down into Armadale. There, it became a single-track as it curved around to terminate at the pier. I had the best part of an hour to wait until the ferry but I was okay with that. After my nightmare journey up from London at the start of the trip, I was all for killing time at a transport hub, rather than rushing to make it.

Map showing that I had reached my destination - Armadale ferry pier.
The early bird mammal catches the worm ferry! Eventually, when it shows up. As it turned out, the bus made it too, but I was content with my decisions.

The ferry duly arrived and departed on time, though ‘on time’ meant ‘ten minutes earlier than normal’ on account of the tides (I was expecting that).

Heading Home

A short while later I found myself waiting for transport again in the form of a train from Mallaig to Glasgow. More trains followed, all of which ran like clockwork, and I walked in through my front door about 13 hours after leaving the hotel.

‘Home, sweet home,’ I thought to myself, ‘now to plan the next trip…’

Distance Summary

Hasteful MammalThis time: 8 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,360 miles

Combined map showing the whole route

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