THE second day of my August 2017 walking trip was all about doing stuff I’d already done, only differently. First, I would have to backtrack, doing part of the previous day’s walk in reverse. Then I’d be completing my journey to Oban — which I’d already done once ‘unofficially’ — though by a different route. But before any of that, I resolved to get a proper look at Ellenabeich, which I’d only glimpsed in darkness and/or driving rain…
Though now mostly dependent on tourism, Ellenabeich is an old slate-quarrying village and that industry has shaped its landscape so that it is dotted with old quarry sites and loomed over by rocky outcrops. I was confronted by evidence of the village’s past the moment I stepped back onto the B844.
While Ellenabeich and the neighbouring islet of Easdale both have old quarries that were flooded — mostly by storms in the 19th century — this was not actually one of them but was a natural bay before a bar of slate spoil closed it off. Information about it seems scarce but Ordnance Survey maps show it open to the sea until at least the 1960s.
There is a lot of slate spoil around Ellenabeich to the extent that while the original islet that the village takes its name from — Eilean nam Beitheach (‘island of the birch trees’) — was completely quarried away, the village was built mostly on the old channel between Eilean nam Beitheach and Seil, which had been entirely infilled with spoil.
Ellenabeich had a village shop, which allowed me to purchase water and snacks.
Suitably vittled, I set off along the B-road, retracing my steps to Balvicar. Though the air was warm, the sky overhead was clouded and showers were predicted later in the day. The B&B landlady had cheerfully told me that rain was expected to sweep in about lunchtime, which meant it would catch me just as I reached Kilmore. For now, though, it was both dry and pleasantly lacking in
solar death rays sunburn.
In seemingly no time at all I was back at Balvicar crossroads, where the B844 took a left turn and I saw no reason not to do likewise.
Pausing only to dodge a passing bus, I followed the B-road past Balvicar Bay and into and through the hamlet of Clachan Seil. At its furthest edge, some 3½ miles from Ellenabeich, I paused outside the Tigh-an-Truish Inn. As I mentioned last time its name means ‘House of the Trousers’ and comes from a period in the 18th century when Highland dress was banned. Rebellious Jacobites would stop here and change into or out of their banned kilts.
I watched another bus carefully navigate the hump of the bridge while its handful of tourists stared out in terror like riders on the slowest roller coaster ever. When it had successfully made it into the inn’s car park, I made my own crossing of the bridge. This involved rather less leaning at alarming angles and more mentally bidding the Island of Seil goodbye.
I do love an island.
B844 to Kilninver
Back on the rather larger island of Great Britain, I followed the B844 for another half a mile until it brought me to the farm of Auchnasaul. This was where I’d turned off towards Seil the day before and thus marked the end of my retracing yesterday’s steps. Now — for a little while at least — I was exploring new territory…
The B844 was wide enough for a lane each way as it headed north-east and this led the traffic into some peculiar behaviour. Unconstrained by the limits of a single-track road, oncoming car-drivers sorted themselves into three categories when faced with the sight of a pedestrian.
About two thirds drove sanely, pulling over a bit to give me safe room but not overreacting in any way. Almost all of the remaining third acted like I was on fire and ready to explode, veering so far over as to be driving on the wrong side of the road. Not a few of those then had to quickly swerve back when they spotted traffic coming the other way. I was a little bemused by these antics but not unduly bothered, after all they were erring entirely in my favour.
The observant may have noted that these two groups only account for almost the whole sample; the final category, though tiny, alarmed me a great deal. These were the occasional drivers who, either through not paying attention or simply not caring — possibly in the mistaken belief that roads are purely for cars — made no adjustment to their course whatsoever, swooping past with their wing mirrors an half inch away from taking out my left elbow. They were few and far between, thank goodness, but they unnerved and enraged me.
I swallowed my irritation just as Loch Seil has swallowed the crannog, or artificial island, that now hides beneath its surface. Built of stones on the loch’s peat bed, the crannog had a slipway and square area assumed to be a landing place. Today, it is only glimpsed when the Loch Seil’s water level drops.
Meall Ailean & Beinn Bhàn
The B844 ran alongside Loch Seil for about three quarters of a mile before rounding the hill of Meall Ailean (‘Alan’s knoll’), which stands to the north of the loch, and passing east between that hill and Beinn Bhàn (‘white hill’). The latter is just one of many hills and mountains to bear that particular name.
On the far side of the two hills was the village of Kilninver (Cill an Inbhir, ‘church of the river mouth’). I had skimmed through part of Kilninver on my previous rain-sodden limp to Oban, following the A816 past its school.
At Kilninver, the A816 roughly follows the hypotenuse of a triangle described by two older roads, both of which now form spurs of the B844. Given that the road upon which I was walking was also the B844, I was not surprised when it curved about to meet the two spurs at their apex, forming a T-junction beside an old stone arched bridge across the River Euchar.
I do not know exactly when Kilninver Bridge was built but it is not shown on William Roy’s Military Survey map of 1747-52 — on which the Euchar must be forded — but is there by the time of the Ordnance Survey’s 1st Edition, a century later. In any event, its parapet served as an excellent spot to sit and eat some of those snacks I’d bought in Ellenabeich while consulting my map.
I thought this inoffensive behaviour but apparently I was wrong; it elicited expressions of utter contempt and disgust on the faces of an elderly couple who pootled past in their also-aged vehicle. I don’t know why I annoyed them so much. It may just have been that I was younger and so guilty by assumption of whatever foul vices they somehow felt they’d missed out on. They certainly had the sort of expressions that suggested faces so used to scowling disapprovingly that they’ve forgotten how to break into a smile.
The rest of Kilninver, as not seen by me previously, proved to include an old church — the village name was a bit of a giveaway in that regard — plus several rather lovely white-painted cottages.
Carraig nam Marbh
Taking the left-hand spur of the B-road, I soon found myself beside Loch Feochan, a sea loch a little over four miles long. Unfortunately, for much of that length I would have to proceed on the A816, for the little B-road that I had been following joined it less than a mile from Kilninver Bridge.
As one might expect, the A-road was busier and its traffic rather faster and I would have to pay attention if I wanted to stay in one piece. It was not entirely inappropriate then that the otherwise nondescript junction was at a place called Carraig nam Marbh, meaning ‘the Rock of the Dead’.
Road of the Kings
The rock’s macabre and dramatic name does not of course come from a regular cull of careless hikers but relates in fact to a much older road. Long before British roads were given A and B designations, before they were even anything we’d consider proper roads, Carraig nam Marbh was the end of a route with great royal and spiritual significance.
From the 9th to the 11th centuries, the Kings of the Scots, upon their deaths, were born westwards along the Road of the Kings to be buried at the abbey on Iona. Carraig nam Marbh was the final stop on the mainland, where the late king’s remains would be placed on a galley and sailed down Loch Feochan, across the Firth of Lorn and around the south of Mull to Iona.
Since I was neither royal nor dead (I checked just in case), I went east. Well, mostly; Loch Feochan was not a straight line. Fortunately, I had little scope for getting lost. Not only was I now back on the route I followed last time, but also my route was obvious: all I had to do was follow the A-road.
The A816 led past a few scattered farms to the tiny hamlet of Knipoch, which comprises a hotel and a couple of houses and that’s it. The hotel does have history though — it dates back to 1592 when it witnessed the murder of John Campbell, 11th Thane of Cawdor — the senior and most influential of six guardians of the underage Archibald Campbell, 7th Earl of Argyll —who was staying at what was then Knipoch House en route to visit his estate at Balvicar.
His assassin was Patrick Oig MacKellar who, at the urging of certain other Campbells who were jealous of John’s position, shot him through the window with an arquebus. MacKellar was quickly arrested, as was John Oig Campbell of Cabrachan, who had provided the firearm and who had vainly attempted to flee. Cabrachan was tortured into confessing both his and MacKellar’s part in the murder and both were hanged for the crime.
Since then, as one might expect, Knipoch House has seen a great deal of alteration, with the last extension added in 1980. To the best of my knowledge, no one else staying there has been shot. The building is lovely, though I appear not to have photographed it, perhaps because I was more taken with the delights of the loch:
Following in the Footsteps of Kings
Continuing east, the A816 followed the southern shore of Loch Feochan just as the Road of Kings would have done. Thus, even as I was verge-hopping to dodge the speeding cars and lorries, I was walking in the footsteps of many a Scottish king. Or in those of their entourage anyway. Had the dead kings managed to walk it themselves, I think a lot of fuss with mobs and torches and pitchforks might have not been entirely out of order.
Old Road Alignment
Not that the A-road followed the course of older roads exactly. Near to the head of Loch Feochan, I saw familiar evidence of road realignment avoiding an old bridge. The modern road sits on what looks to be reclaimed land.
Near to the photo above was a turnoff for the farm of Balinoe. Another track leading from that one promised to follow the Feochan Beag (‘little Feochan’) stream towards the remains of the church of St Bean’s at Kilmore. This was, as I described on the previous occasion, the parish’s old church, partially demolished in 1876 to turn it into a picturesque ruin.
I had decided to take this route for not only had I decided that I wanted to see St Bean’s but it was also likely that the Road of the Kings went that way too, passing by the church before swinging north past Loch Nell. A shame then, that I was so engrossed in my thoughts as I marched merrily along, that I strode right past the turning and only realised after I’d entered Kilmore.
Kilmore & Loch Nell
Kilmore (Cill Mhòr, ‘big church’) is named for the church it demolished, the replacement being a fairly dinky affair at the north end of the village. While not a tiny hamlet in the way that Knipoch is, Kilmore’s not massive either with only about 120 inhabitants.
I now found myself in the middle of it, standing beside a junction, trying to decide whether I should go back and try again or simply take the turnoff now beside me, which would still lead in roughly the right direction. I chose the latter.
Wrestling with Decisions (and Sunscreen)
I thus left the A-road, which was a relief, and found myself following a narrow, unclassified lane for roughly one third of a mile. It ended at a junction, offering me the choice of north or south. I initially ducked the question, pausing instead to smear on sunscreen lest a sudden gap in the cloud cover cause me to combust. The question waited patiently and then jumped me again when I had finished.
Did I want to head south to St Bean’s, knowing that it while it was only was just half a mile or so, I’d then have to turn about and come back to where I now was? Or did I want to write off that idea and head north to Loch Nell (as I would have done anyway after seeing the church)? Well…
I ummed, I ahhed, I wasted several minutes dealing with the discovery that I’d spilt sunscreen on my knee. Eventually, I admitted the shameful conclusion that I was trying not face: I really couldn’t be bothered to walk the extra distance to St Bean’s.
Once this dreadful flaw of character was out in the open, I felt much better about it. It would have been nice to see the old church but the truth was I didn’t care that much. And, that being so, I could head north without detriment to my conscience. So that’s what I did.
In coming off the A-road at Kilmore, I had diverted from the route of my previous limp into Oban and was now back to going where I’d not gone before. I had only ventured about half a mile when I reached the southern shore of Loch Nell and felt the need to stop again already.
Loch Nell is about two miles in length and boasts not one but two crannogs, one at either end. Both are small and heavily overgrown and neither have made it into the photo above.
The land around Loch Nell is blessed with a multitude of other ancient features such as cairns and standing stones. It certainly made quite a contrast to the rather dull plod up the A816 from Kilmore to Oban.
Cnoc Mòr & Meall Reamhar
This route to Oban may have been scenic but it was also circuitous. Having rounded the south-western end of Loch Nell, it then set off tangentially, heading northeast when Oban lay due northwest. The road climbed slowly but steadily as it went, ascending 86 m up the southern flank of Cnoc Mòr (‘big hillock’) to a pass between that hill and another called Meall Reamhar (‘fat knoll’).
From the summit of the pass I looked back down on Loch Nell:
Barranrioch & Glencruitten
On the far side of the summit, the road descended slowly into a broad valley, heading towards the farm of Barranrioch. It may not have been a direct route but it was more fun than the A-road.
Glen Lonan Turn-off
About halfway to Barranrioch, the road came to a junction where another unclassified road headed off to the right and into Glen Lonan. Today, that quiet, narrow back-road doubles as National Cycle Network route 78 but in centuries past it formed another section of the Road of the Kings.
I have no doubt that following it would have been lovely but I still wasn’t a dead king, nor was I on a bicycle. The cycle route seemed less convinced of that latter fact than I was, so when I kept on towards Barranrioch, NCN 78 tagged along with me. I guess it was nice to have the company.
It and I both turned left at Barranrioch, on a road heading west—give or take a bit of undulation—towards Oban.
It was at about this time that the promised rain finally caught up with me and dumped its water on my head. This disappointing development was slightly mitigated however by the road entering woodland, where the trees kept off the worst of it.
As I followed the now-leafy road, I started seeing more houses. This was Glencruitten and near Glencruitten House I found my last loch of the day. This was Luachrach Loch, a small reservoir retained by an earth embankment dam. I haven’t found out exactly when it was dammed but the trusty method of looking to see if it’s on old maps narrows it down to the 1920s or ’30s. Its name — Luachrach — is Gaelic for ‘rushy’.
Running beside Luachran Loch, just as it had run beside the boggy hollow that had been there originally, was the railway line into Oban. This crossed over the road by means of a bridge that felt to me like a portal into town:
The line was opened in stages by the Callander and Oban Railway, reaching Oban in 1880; today, the services are operated by ScotRail and it forms a branch of the West Highland Line. I had used it to get to Oban two days earlier in order to begin this walking trip. Now, I passed underneath it and with my coat on and my hood up, I strode the final rain-sodden mile into Oban.
A distillery town and ferry port, Oban is the largest settlement between Helensburgh and Fort William. When I said that I’d be walking there my mum recalled that there had been palm trees in Oban the last time she visited (the Gulf Stream makes for a mild climate though hardly subtropical). I thus resolved to find some if I could.
Oban grew from a tiny village mostly on account of its distillery, which was founded in 1794. It had become a small burgh by 1811 and was further boosted when the railway arrived in 1880.
With its west coast situation and sheltered harbour — it is almost completely shielded by the island of Kerrera — it played an important role protecting the Atlantic Convoys in WW2 but today the port sees mostly ferries and forms Caledonian MacBrayne’s busiest terminal, serving several islands of the Hebrides.
I quickly decided that I quite like Oban, which has a proper seaside resort vibe. Unfortunately nowhere is at its best in the rain.
This time: 17½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,023½ miles