FOR reasons I’ll dub ‘the Three Ws’ — work, weather and walking-related injury — a six-month gap interceded between my last trip and this one. But March 2019 presented me with a window of opportunity. It was a narrow window and made no efficient or economic sense but that hardly mattered. I thus spent two days almost entirely on trains (i.e. there and back) for one single day of walking. I was, you might say, getting back on track…
Knowing that part of the day’s walk would have to be upon the A890, a narrow and sometimes busy main road, I cunningly chose to do my walk on an out-of-season Sunday to minimise the traffic I might meet. The Sunday in question began with my emerging from a hotel in Kyle of Lochalsh (Caol Loch Aillse) and setting off across the bridge to Kyleakin (Caol Àcain), having left my bag in the hotel.
This was not, I hasten to add, some awful oversight, though that sort of thing has been known to happen at times. Rather, I knew I’d have to pass the hotel again later, so had made sure not to check out just yet. After all, why carry more weight than I need to?
A similar concern (about losing weight) caused me to start at an energetic pace and it was a couple of minutes before seven that I found myself back in Kyleakin. In the half hour or so it had taken to get there, it had rained twice with moments of bright sun to punctuate. The weather for the rest of the day would remain equally changeable but, since a change is as good as a rest, this could only be a good thing, right?
I ambled along to Kyleakin Harbour, beside the ferry slipway that used to be the connection to the mainland before 1995, when the Skye Bridge (Drochaid an Eilein Sgitheanaich) was built.
The bridge was controversial right from the start, mainly on account of its high tolls at opening, but it spelt the end of Kyleakin’s ferry and bypassed the village, relegating it to a spur off the A87 that most of the traffic flies past.
For all that there’s something melancholy about a discontinued ferry, the bridge made me cross only in the most literal sense. I needed to get back to the mainland and it offered an easy way of doing so. I knew my hotel would soon be serving breakfast and I wanted to go and fuel up for the rest of the day’s efforts. Given the scarcity of shops along the route, I felt I oughta.
This otter stands — or rather lies —outside the Bright Water Visitor Centre overlooking Kyleakin’s harbour pier. The centre is owned by the Eilean Bàn Trust, which unsurprisingly also owns the nearby Eilean Bàn (‘white island’), which the Skye Bridge uses as a stepping stone. On the island is a lighthouse, whose cottage serves as a museum to the author Gavin Maxwell (1914-1969), who lived there before his death.
Various otters lived on Eilean Bàn with him and the statue represents one in particular, named Teko. It was sculpted by Laurence Broderick — best known for the bull sculpture in Birmingham’s Bull Ring — who presented it to the trust in 2000.
Crossing the Bridge
I didn’t visit the museum on Eilean Bàn, it being out of season and thus closed, but I did pause partway across Skye Bridge to look back and bid the Isle of Skye (An t-Eilean Sgitheanach) farewell.
Kyle of Lochalsh
Breaking for Breakfast
Once back on the island of Great Britain, I headed back to my hotel and shovelled food into my face until I was full and my breakfast had ceased to be. By the time I had checked out, ready to continue on my way, the weather had entered another of its brief sunny intervals.
I had one other quick port of call before leaving Kyle, namely the Co-op to make sure I had snacks and water, and then I was off, bidding goodbye to Kyle too.
Old Balmacara Road
Trusting to Telford (Again)
I headed north out of Kyle on what is now an unclassified minor road but had been part of the A87 until the 1980s, when a shoreline route was created to connect Balmacara and Kyle without looping inland.
This older road had already been in place for over a century when they labelled it as the A87 in 1922, it being (of course) one of Thomas Telford’s highland roads.
The road led me north to the hamlet of Badicaul, offering me excellent views across to the mountains of Skye. Thanks to a last-ditch effort by winter to hang on into spring, Beinn na Caillich was sporting a snow-cap that made it look taller than it is (732 m).
After Badicaul, the road curved around to the east, attempting to make for Balmacara. I, however, took a brief detour off it to enter the village of Erbusaig (Earbarsaig, ‘Erp’s bay’).
The Erp for whom Erbusaig is named was a Viking and his vík or bay, made for a pleasant anchorage, sheltered by islets at its mouth. It made sense that a fishing village should grow up there, its row of houses along An t-Sraid (‘the street’) facing out onto the bay. And so one did.
What neither Erp nor those that followed in his footsteps might have anticipated was that in 1897 the Highland Railway would drive its Kyle of Lochalsh extension from Stromeferry south to, well, you can probably guess from its name.
Constrained by geography, the railway line hugged tightly to the coast and the railway engineers ran it straight across Erbusaig Bay on an embankment that they constructed. They left a small gap, both for access and the outflow of Erbusaig Burn, which they bridged for the trains (you can see the bridge in the photo above). This was not really enough though, for the embankment changed the flow of the burn and the effect of the tides on the bay.
Inevitably, the area behind the embankment silted up and turned into marsh, leaving Erbusaig cut off from the shoreline.
The above photo was taken from the private road to Portnacloich (‘stone port’), which is barely even a hamlet with its current tally of two houses. There’s no onward path from Portnacloich, so my venturing onto its road was purely for photographic purposes but it nearly terminated my walk when, descending from the hill, I accidentally trod on some sheep poo. It is surprisingly lubricative, it turns out.
Stopping was handled for me by the arresting power of friction as the last of the sheep poo abraded from my sole, allowing the ground to get a good grip. I did that weird hop-skip-and stumble thing that one does in these situations so, moving at a half-run, returned to Erbusaig where I thoroughly cleaned my boot.
The actual road out of Erbusaig was Telford’s old road, formerly also the A87. I returned to it and briefly headed east before arriving at a junction.
Old Lochalsh Road
Forking to my right, that road wended its way towards Balmacara, much as Mr Telford had intended. To the left, the Lochalsh Road (also built by Telford and completed in 1813) curved around northwards, heading for the hamlet of Drumbuie (‘yellow ridge’).
There’s not much to say about Drumbuie as it comprises a scattering of houses and that’s about it. Its rural obscurity was almost brought to an end in 1974 though, when it was proposed as the site for an oil rig construction yard.
A joint venture of the Taylor Woodrow Group and John Mowlem & Co chose the location as offering one of the best potential rig‐building sites in Britain thanks to deep water accessible from both land and sea. They proposed a 50‐acre development, partly on existing land and partly on reclaimed land and this was not at all well received.
The council didn’t want it destroying the local environment, nor did the National Trust for Scotland. The 24 residents of Drumbuie certainly didn’t want to find their tiny hamlet suddenly turned into an industrial zone. Groups like Friends of the Earth waded in as HM Government held a public inquiry.
Eventually, after over a year, the government made its ruling: the ‘environmental considerations were conclusive’ and no rig-building would be done there.
Half a mile further up the road was the settlement of Duirinish (Diùirinis), the name of which means ‘deer headland’ (from Norse dyr + ness), though the hamlet itself was comfortably inland. It comprised two rows of cottages, one on each side of the Allt Dhuirinis (‘Duirinish burn’).
The burn drained from nearby Loch Achaidh na-h-Inich, a small freshwater loch, and was bridged in Duirinish by a tall single-arched bridge.
I crossed the bridge and headed generally northwards on what was now the road to Plockton (Am Ploc, ‘the bump’). It led me over the railway and onto the small peninsula on which Plockton sits. On the way, it passed a sign pointing to an ‘open air church’ and I felt the need to investigate.
Open Air Church
The ‘church’ turned out to be a natural hollow in a hillside that had had its sides terraced and a stone wall with arched doorway built across its entrance. It wasn’t much to look at, to be honest, but then that was never the point. It dated from sometime after the Disruption, which is the name given to the schism in 1843 when the Free Church of Scotland broke away from the established Church of Scotland.
The members of the newly-created Free Church were, of course, unable to use existing Church of Scotland churches and were often equally unable to obtain land to build their own (such as when the local landowners remained adherents to the established church). The solution was to hold services in such marginal places as a natural hollow, with such places usually being transitory.
Plockton’s gained an unusual degree of permanence with its landscaping and wall — you would expect them to have built an actual church if the site had gained acceptance — and remained in use until 1936.
There being little to do in the Open Air Church except leave it, I chose to do exactly that, continuing on into Plockton. This village dates only from the 19th century, having been created as a planned fishing village to house those cleared from hamlets in Glen Carron. Like Erbusaig, it was sheltered — in this case because it faced east onto Loch Carron with its back to the Plock and the sea.
A small tidal islet — Eilean nan Gamhainn (‘cattle island’) — sat in the harbour, while a small skerry, topped with trees, jutted up further offshore. The latter was named Sgeir Bhuidhe (‘yellow skerry’) and I beheld it through the misty veil of the returning rain.
Plockton relies mostly on tourism these days, with a number of small hotels and a restaurant, though television filming has proven a secondary industry — it stood in for the fictional Lochdubh in the BBC’s Hamish Macbeth.
Time for Tea
Unfortunately, tourism isn’t geared up for visitors on an out-of-season Sunday but the bar at a hotel sold me a pot of tea while I took a short break.
The magical recuperative powers of tea having both refreshed me and sorted out the weather, I later emerged to find the ground wet underfoot but, importantly, not wet from above.
Dunscraig Castle Footpath
There’s only the one road in and out of Plockton so I was forced to retrace my steps. I did so slightly further than the open air church, halting beside a fingerpost that promised a footpath to Duncraig Castle, about a mile away. I was unsure if this would be a mile of mud but I decided I would risk it. It would be my only chance to get off the road all day, and it would save me almost a mile of backtracking.
Bracing myself for mud, I set off along it to find instead that it was mostly made of gravel. Such mud as there was was actually no problem at all…
The path started off at sea level but soon began to undulate as it made its way along the loch shore. It squeezed itself into the narrow gap between the railway line and the water until the railway, which doesn’t share well, attempted to shoulder it aside. The plucky little path ducked under the rails and fled inland, joining back up with the road for moral support.
The road at this point was tree-lined but the towers of Duncraig Castle could be seen peeking over the treetops. So too could the snow-capped mountains of the Applecross Peninsula.
Duncraig Castle is a mansion, built in the Scottish Baronial style in 1866 for MP and railway entrepreneur Sir Alexander Matheson Bt (1805-1886) and designed by architect Alexander Ross (1834-1925). When the Highland Railway ran its Kyle of Lochalsh extension past its doors in 1897, they built a private station for the Mathesons.
The ‘castle’ was later bequeathed to Ross and Cromarty County Council and became a home economics college for a while; it is currently undergoing restoration work as a luxury B&B. Its station, amazingly, remains in use, though it is now public and a request stop only.
The station sits at the end of the dead-end road that also serves as Duncraig Castle’s drive. This forks off the actual road (which I needed to follow) so that meant no photos of Duncraig Castle unless I made a there-and-back detour. Except, of course, I hate those and had already done one at Plockton.
Allt Cadh’ an Eas
Regaining the road, which was single track, I passed the hamlet of Craig and continued above the shores of Loch Carron for the next couple of miles.
Thereafter, the road swung inland, heading upstream for a bridge over the Allt Cadh’ an Eas (‘waterfall ravine burn’).
Crossing the bridge, the road took me into Achmore (An t-Achadh Mòr , ‘big field’). For me, the significance of Achmore was less the largeness of its field and more that of its roads, for it was there that the unclassified part of the old Lochalsh Road came to an end, merging into the A890, which then took over its route. This was the part that I had been dreading but my cunning choice of when to walk had paid off handsomely — the traffic was light and easily avoided.
With a song in my heart and a bounce in my step, I quickly covered the half mile to the next turn-off, where I would catch the Strome Ferry…
Actually, I knew very well that I wouldn’t be catching the Strome Ferry as that ended regular service in 1970. Until then, the Lochalsh Road ended at Stromeferry (Port an t-Sròim) and the titular ferry would whisk travellers across to Strome Castle to pick up the rest of the road on the north shore. A new road was opened on the south shore in that year and the ferry was no longer needed, leading to the wonderfully oxymoronic sign shown above.
The sign has twice been wrong since it was erected, as the new A890 road runs beneath a rocky cliff and is subject to occasional rockfalls that close the road. Accordingly, the Strome Ferry was temporarily reinstated for short periods in both 2008 and 2012.
With the ferry having not run for seven years, despite a further closure last year (they turned the railway track, which was unblocked, into a linear level crossing instead), there was no reason at all for me to make another dead-end diversion. Except, I was tired and wanted to sit down and doing that by the slipway seemed better than sitting at the edge of the road.
I wondered if I might have made a tactical error as I slowly descended the steep decline to the old ferry but I was committed to it now, and it made the rest at the bottom all the more appreciated.
Stromeferry takes its name from the Norse word straumr, meaning ‘current’ or ‘stream’; as it sits by a narrowing of the loch, that seems like a reasonable name.
There wasn’t a lot in Stromeferry when I went there apart from an old hotel (disused and dilapidated), a handful of houses an old church and the station. The old stationmaster’s cottage appeared to be a B&B (closed, out of season) but the station was still in use. Well, half in use — one of its two platforms was pristine and in service, the other overgrown and long closed.
Dingwall & Skye Railway
Much as the road from the south used to end at Strome Ferry, so too did the railway, though that came down from the north. It was the terminus of the Dingwall & Skye Railway, which despite its name, didn’t reach to Skye.
The D&SR was opened in 1870 and taken over by the Highland Railway ten years later. As mentioned previously, the extension to Kyle came another 17 years after that, which is as close to the Isle of Skye as it ever got. The D&SR had been intended to terminate at Kyle all along but issues with a recalcitrant landowner near its Dingwall end necessitated an unplanned diversion that meant the money ran out.
Despite being — occasional rockfalls excepted — the back end of nowhere these days, Stromeferry made a lot of sense as a stopgap terminus on account of the ferry and the road south to Kyle. A steamer pier was also built there, connecting this tiny village to Portree and Stornoway. The bustle and traffic that this produced wasn’t always appreciated by everyone and, on one occasion, Stromeferry witnessed a Sabbatarian riot!
In 1883, over 200 local (and devout) fishermen occupied Stromeferry Station to stop the Highland Railway’s sinful activity (as they saw it) of transporting fish on a Sunday. The riot was crushed by the police and the army and ten of the participants were gaoled.
Seeing the Strome
As I was there on a Sunday, I figured I’d better take no chances, whether I had a trainload of fish on me or not. I thus steeled myself for the long, steep trek back up to the A890. At the top, I came upon a viewpoint, from which I could gaze back down and see the straumr at work.
A890 Stromeferry Bypass
Much of a Muchness
The next five miles of A890 would all have much the same character, in that they would comprise the railway running right next to the loch and the road sandwiched between it and a cliff.
For much of the route, the cliff face was covered in mesh and restraining bolts as part of the measures to mitigate the risk of further rockfalls. The road varied in width at various places but most of it was just single track width, which meant there wasn’t a great deal of room when the occasional car rumbled past.
About a mile and half into the five miles, I came to Ardnarff (Àrd an Arbhair ‘corn promontory’), which has all of two households now but was home to 64 people in 1841 despite having neither road nor rail connections (presumably the inhabitants had boats).
Two miles beyond Ardnarff I encountered this:
It’s actually an avalanche shelter, built in this case to deal with landslides, at the most landslippy part of the road. This section suffered a landslide while the road was still being built and it blocked the railway line for five months. Further falls constantly threatened to occur.
This shelter, which covers both road and railway for for 80 m was the eventual response. It was built in 1990.
Eventually, the road got past the rockfall zone and crossed the River Attadale on a bridge bearing a plaque to remind me it was built in 1970.
On the far side was Attadale Station, which was the D&SR’s first choice for a stopgap terminus when they realised they’d run out of money. Not only did this make less sense from a road connection point of view but Loch Carron was shallow at this point, meaning they’d have to build a really long pier if they wanted an onwards steamer service. The railway’s bean counters looked at it again and decided that continuing on to Stromeferry was actually the cheaper option.
Attadale House & Gardens
Attadale (Attadal) mostly comprised Attadale House and the accompanying estate, which included Attadale Gardens. The gardens are open to the public from April, so I was two weeks too early (not that I had time to stop). They were begun in their current form in 1980 after storms toppled several trees and Nicky Macpherson, artist and wife of owner Ewen MacPherson, saw an opportunity in it. She died late last year.
Ewen Macpherson inherited the house from his father, Ian, but it was originally built in 1755 for Donald Matheson, whose own father, John, was the factor for the Seaforth estates in Kintail, Lochalsh and Lochcarron (the previously mentioned Alexander Matheson, who built Duncraig Castle, was his descendent).
The Mathesons sold Attadale to German banker Baron Wilhelm Heinrich von Schröder in 1910, the baron having been renting it for several years after Queen Victoria had made it fashionable to own sporting estates in Scotland. It was the baron who initially laid out the gardens, planting rhododendrons and redwoods and laying out an elaborate system of paths. His son, Capt Billy Schroder — he anglicised his name on joining the British Army in 1912 — later extended the gardens. On his death in 1945, it was bought by Martin Gibbs who planned to farm it but he sold it to Ian Macpherson just 11 years later.
The Mackenzie Earls of Seaforth used the same golden stag’s head arms that we saw incorporated into those of Ross & Cromarty and we’ve already seen the arms of Matheson of Attadale & Lochalsh. The Baron von Schröder came from a prominent Hanseatic family, the arms of which showed three red roses, a fess and three blue stars.
Looking at the Loch
Since the gardens were shut and I wasn’t stopping anyway, the most I got to see was the tops of some plants over the estate wall. But that was fine, I was more taken with views across the loch.
As I drew towards the head of Loch Carron, the skies began to grey over again, even as the sun slipped down behind the mountains. I paused on a high spot to look back down Loch Carron.
The tiny hamlet of Strathcarron (Srath Carrann, ‘Carron valley’) sat by the head of the loch, where the A890 crossed the railway line via a level crossing. Though it comprised just a few houses, it had a railway station, perhaps because it also served the larger village of Lochcarron, roughly three miles away.
Next to the station was the Strathcarron Hotel, where you were formerly assured of Fawlty Towers style experience as the owner was done with running a hotel and didn’t care if you knew it. Fortunately, given that I was staying there, it had been acquired by new owners. They were as friendly and welcoming as anyone could wish for and aiming to deliver a solid if basic hotel service — clean rooms, good food etc — rather than the lap of luxury.
As it turned out, through no fault of theirs, their hospitality turned out to be briefly more basic than anyone might have envisioned when, not long after I’d eaten my meal, both Strathcarron and Lochcarron experienced a power cut.
Drinking beer by tea light was unexpected but amusing, keeping a tally of drinks consumed as the till wasn’t working. To my great relief, the power came back on again before the evening was out and I was able to recharge my phone. I needed it in the morning, to catch the first of my many trains home…
This time: 20 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,577½ miles