ON THE penultimate day of my August 2017 walking trip, I awoke and breakfasted as early as possible. It had rained through the night and the forecast was uncertain though the clouds seemed pretty sure that they hadn’t finished yet. I was equally sure that I wanted to get going and cover as much distance as possible while the water was just hanging there, threatening and grey, but not dropping onto everything.
The Back Road
Where I had stayed was about half a mile from the centre of Port Appin and the Back Road to the village proved more abundant in greenery than many a proud garden can boast. I welcomed the sight of it, a splash of bright colour on such a dull day, and it in turn rustled in approval as if to bid me bon voyage.
Before long I came to a warning of a 10 tonne weight limit ahead. Now, even with my unhealthy love of chocolate I don’t weigh quite that much but the sign still made me pause because of its unusual wording: the sign proclaimed ‘weak wall’ rather than ‘weak bridge’.
I advanced, full of curiosity, only to encounter a bridge after all. It was not, however, spanning a stream now swollen with rainwater but was instead crossing another narrow road. According to my map, the road below connected nearby Airds House with Ceann an t-Sàilein, the head of an arm of Loch Laich.
Having since consulted some other old maps, I found that the bridge was built in the late 19th century (with some corresponding road realignment) but in the Ordnance Survey 1st Edition of 1843-82 the two roads met on the level. On the lower level by the look of it, with ‘my’ road dropping down to the other. Perhaps the ‘weak wall’ is the embankment it now stands on?
Airds House, served by the lower road, was built in 1738 as the residence of Donald Campbell of Airds and served as the seat of his branch of the clan until 1852, when a bankrupt Sir John Campbell — then Lieutenant Governor of St Vincent & the Grenadines — sold it for £26k to Robert MacFie, a sugar refiner from Greenock.
I had read good things about the Airds Hotel, as it now is, but my decision to go walking during school holidays meant that I hadn’t a cat in hell’s chance of securing a room. Which is why, on a rainy Saturday morning, I walked on, past its access road, and into Port Appin village.
Lismore Foot Ferry
Entering Port Appin brought me to a T-junction, with options to go left or right. The latter was where I ultimately needed to go but the former led down to the ferry to Lismore and, though I had no plans to make the crossing, I felt like I should at least go there and look.
The road to the ferry was also where I could find Port Appin’s shop and I knew I’d need water and other goodies to keep me going through the day. The shop, of course, was shut when I got there but for once rather than having missed it, I was actually too early.
Fine, I could while away ten minutes watching the ferry, no problem.
The foot ferry from Port Appin to Lismore is run by Argyll & Bute Council.
Proposals were made (in 2013 for instance) to replace it with the car-carrying CalMac ferry that currently runs from Oban to Achnachroish on Lismore. This was not a popular idea with Lismore’s islanders, who use that ferry to go shopping in Oban, and so the council’s little passenger boat, The Lismore (built in 1988), continues to do her thing. Which, based purely on the evidence of my eyes, seems to involve mostly sitting there.
I noted with interest that The Lismore has a ‘the’ in her name as proclaimed on her bow. While popular usage sticks definite articles in front of ship names willy-nilly — the Titanic, the Bismarck etc. — nautical usage usually eschews it. This is why, for instance, you’ll never hear James T Kirk in any Star Trek episode say ‘the Enterprise.’ Yes, really. Go and check, I’ll wait…
Adding that ‘the’ isn’t wrong exactly except for those times when it very much is, like when people utter such ungodly horrors as ‘the HMS Belfast’ — ‘the Her Majesty’s Ship’ makes no grammatical sense at all — which should be punished by keel-hauling. Twice. In shark-infested waters.
And with that thought, I hurried away, lest I hear someone say ‘the The Lismore’ and die of an apoplectic rage.
Port Appin Book Exchange
Back at the shop, a far more calming notion was one of community spirit and the promotion of reading, as embodied in the Port Appin Book Exchange, housed in an old K6 phone box:
As I’d hoped, the shop had opened while I was musing on nautical grammar and I was able to purchase food and water for my journey.
Moments later, munching on chocolate — I’m taking that 10 tonne limit as a challenge — I returned to the T-junction to find another road sign far more remarkable than ‘weak wall’ had been:
This sign, which hadn’t really been noticeable when coming up from behind it, is not just a survivor of the system in use before 1964 but dates all the way back to the 1920s. It is topped with the red disc of prohibition, a remnant of which survives today as the red ring surrounding modern prohibition signs, though confusingly a red ring once meant a compulsory order.
Red Discs & Other Symbols
The red disc of prohibition was one of Britain’s oldest road signs, introduced by the Motor Car Act 1903 as one of four symbols which could be supplemented by rectangular information plates where necessary (as shown here). The other three symbols were a white ring denoting a speed limit, a red voided triangle of warning and a white diamond for any other ‘motor notice’ not covered by the first three.
The white ring is long gone but the warning triangle lives on as the border of modern warning signs and the last gasp of the motor notice is the diamond-shaped ‘passing place’ sign. The latter is on its way out, though, as diamond shapes are now used for tram signs so any replacement ‘passing place’ signs will be rectangular.
Camas a’ Bhrothais
From the junction, I took the road not yet travelled, heading northeast along another narrow country lane. From it I could look out across Camas a’ Bhrothais (‘brewery bay’) and Loch Linnhe:
Sgeir Buidhe Lighthouse
The little lighthouse on Sgeir Buidhe (‘yellow skerry’) was erected in 2002 on the site of a predecessor. Built in 1903, the old lighthouse was designed by David Alan Stevenson and, though originally red, was later painted white for increased visibility.
A brief and unofficial exception occurred in 2001 when the Northern Lighthouse Board revealed their plans to demolish it and replace it with a modern rectangular structure, prioritising function over form. Port Appin’s residents were less than delighted to learn that the view above was to be marred by something with all the aesthetics of a brick.
Some, like the Appin Historical Society or Appin Community Council, implored the NLB to amend its plans but others, more minded to practical activism, made their way out to Sgeir Budhe and repainted the lighthouse in protest. They painted it pink with big yellow spots. And a face. They painted it, specifically, to look like Mr Blobby.
Victory Through Blobbiness
The NLB were furious, decrying the act as ‘ridiculous and mindless vandalism’ and pointing out — correctly — that changing the colour of a daymark creates a navigation hazard. The press picked up the story and a storm of publicity followed, during which the NLB was forced to concede that while they did need to replace the old beacon they could replace it with something less eye-burstingly ugly than what they had planned (although that would cost more).
Having reluctantly decided to backtrack, the NLB then bent over backwards, not only installing the replacement above but also giving the lantern section of the old one to the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, so that they could loan it to the village. It now stands next to Port Appin’s village hall, serving as a display case for an exhibit on village history.
If It Worked Before…
Port Appin has not been shy to threaten Blobby activism since, warning Scottish Water in 2014 what they could expect should they build a sewer outfall on the shore. I’m not sure what Scottish Water’s reaction was but it seems to me that Port Appin had rather less leverage there.
For safety reasons, the NLB had to re-whiten the lighthouse and would have had to keep doing so, however many times the protestors Blobbified it. Scottish Water, on the other hand, could basically say ‘great, you live with that eyesore,’ and ride the publicity it generated. But then, I didn’t notice a whacking great sewer outfall, so I guess it must have worked.
Ceann an t-Sàilein
And so, shuddering at the terrifying possibility of unexpected Mr Blobby, I followed the road away from Camas a’ Bhrothais. I’d gone about half a mile further on when it dropped down a hill and made a right turn to run past Loch Laich at the place called Ceann an t-Sàilein. That, you may remember, is where that low road from Airds House comes out.
The weather at this point was dead calm and the hill of Beinn Donn was reflected in the loch, making for a rather pretty scene. And nothing, thankfully was pink with yellow spots.
Loch Laich is a small sea loch opening onto Loch Linnhe. It is bifurcated in shape, one horn ending at Ceann an t-Sàilein (‘head of the inlet’), the other being the outflow of the Allt an Lòin Ruaidh (‘stream of the red meadow’), which flows out of Strath Appin. It was towards the latter that the road now conveyed me, leading me to the scattering of houses that comprise Ardtur Crofts.
At the crofts, I parted company with the road and instead took to a foot and cycle path that would save me the best part of a mile by cutting of the apex of a triangle. This meant that I would not be visiting Appin, a village whose name (apuin, ‘abbey lands’) harks back to the former power and influence of Lismore Abbey. Instead, I would be crossing the salt marsh at the head of Loch Laich, following a route that was used for centuries to ford the loch at low tide.
Luckily for me though, my feet need not get wet; a wooden footbridge was built in 1898 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. Of course it’s been repaired several times since then so that, like the Ship of Theseus, it is the very same structure they built and yet not the same parts at all.
Looking down Loch Laich from the bridge, I caught my first sight of Castle Stalker, a 15th century castle that stands on an island in the loch. It was quite a way off though and I knew my route would take me closer to it. Curbing my impatience, I pressed on.
On the far side of Loch Laich, the foot and cycle path met with another in the form of National Cycle Network route 78. This was following the alignment of the Ballachulish branch line of the Callander & Oban Railway, opened in 1903 and closed in 1966. Its previous purpose was easily deduced from the gentle curves and negligible gradient but, if I’d had any doubts at all, they were silenced when it passed through the remnants of Appin Station.
Ballachulish Branch Line
The Ballachulish branch line was constructed to cater for freight traffic, particularly slate from the Ballachulish Quarry. It didn’t take long, however, before it was also hauling fish and farm produce to profitable markets further south.
Though passenger traffic was not its priority, the C&OR began to lay on suitable trains, linking villages along its route in a way that had been all but impossible before. In particular, it enabled day trips to Oban and Oban’s cinema, not missing a trick, arranged its programme to coincide with the train timetable.
Though it seemed a great success, plans to extend the branch to Fort William came to nothing and the closure of Ballachulish Quarry in 1955 spelt its doom. With the valuable freight traffic dwindling and the passenger footfall never high in volume (though vital to those concerned), it was an obvious candidate for Dr Richard Beeching’s
vandalism rationalisation of the railways and the line met its end in 1966.
The railway alignment led along the northern shore of Loch Laich, passing closer to the shoreline than the nearby A828. It was a quiet and easy-going route, untroubled by traffic beyond the odd cyclist. Enjoying it greatly, I bounced along with a spring in my step, pausing only to admire this:
Prior to being filmed as Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s Castle Aaaaarrrgh, Castle Stalker already had a slightly odd name of its own, one that derives from the Gaelic Caisteal-an-Stalcairc meaning ‘falconer’s castle’.
The first building on the site was a fortalice — a small fortified house — built by the MacDougalls around 1320. The MacDougalls were the Lords of Lorne, based mainly from Dunollie Castle in Oban (which I’d passed the day before) but they lost that title and much of their land to the Stewarts around 1388.
The current castle was built in the 1440s by Sir John Stewart, Lord of Lorne, although that didn’t stop him being murdered by Alan MacCoul — a MacDougall descendent — in 1463 because the first principle of castellation is that you have to be in the castle for it to protect you.
Sir John had actually been at church, marrying his former mistress so that their son Dugald would be legitimised. He lived just long enough to complete the marriage, turning Dugald’s mother into an instant widow and Dugald himself into his legal inheritor and, subsequently the progenitor of the Stewarts of Appin.
Or, if John’s brother Walter was to be believed, he didn’t.
According to Walter, John had in fact died before he could be married, making Dugald a bastard who could inherit nothing. So, who would get the castle and lordship of Lorne? Why, that would be Walter, since you ask.
Battle of Stalc
The dispute between them culminated in the Battle of Stalc, in which Walter attacked Dugald with a massive bunch of MacDougall, MacFarlane and Campbell allies including the murderous Alan MacCoul. Dugald won decisively, killing Alan MacCoul in the process. The MacFarlanes — who must have wished they’d never jumped on that bandwagon — never recovered from their losses.
Dugald and Walter later agreed terms, with Dugald keeping the Appin lands but Walter getting the Lordship of Lorne.
When Dugald died in 1497, killed while attacking the MacDonalds to teach them a lesson over their cattle rustling — the lesson presumably being that they could have his cattle over his dead body — his son Duncan succeeded him.
Duncan made a point of having his distant cousin King James IV over to stay at Castle Stalker on several occasions, it being good to have friends in high places. That didn’t actually stop him being murdered by the McLeans but no one can have been very surprised — being horribly murdered was essentially death by natural causes where Scottish gentry were concerned.
Losing the Castle
It is particularly shameful therefore — though Pythonesque in its absurdity — that the Stewarts lost Castle Stalker not through warfare or murder, nor even royal confiscation but because of a drunken bet. It was gambled away to the Campbells of Airds by another Duncan Stewart (the 7th Laird of Appin) in 1620.
No wonder they wanted that road from Airds House to Loch Laich.
The Stewarts got it back — briefly — in 1689, when they backed James VII against King William. Unfortunately for them, the Jacobites lost and the Campbells took control of it once more.
Abandonment & Restoration
The Campbells lived in it until Airds House was built but continued to make use of Castle Stalker until 1840, when it was abandoned. And that would normally be the end of the story, as indicated by so many other ruined castles dotted romantically about the Scottish landscape.
Castle Stalker has a final twist however — the ruin was bought by Charles Stewart of Achara in 1908. His successors sold it on to Lt Col DR Stewart Allward in 1965, who spent a decade fully restoring it. The Stewart Allward family still lives in it today, secure from the threat of door-to-door salesmen (though not perhaps, from knights seeking the Grail).
Sound of Shuna
Castle Stalker is lovely but eventually I had to tear myself away from it and continue with my walk. The path, still following the railway alignment, curved around to head northeast as it passed alongside the Sound of Shuna— the channel separating the island of Shuna from the mainland.
The shore there was occupied by a small marina and it wasn’t until I’d passed the end of Shuna that I found a bench in a quiet, leafy spot, where I could take a break and rest my feet.
Views of Kingairloch
I realised, as I rested, that the weather had improved considerably, for I could see clearly across Loch Linnhe’s 3½-mile width to the mountains of Kingairloch lining the opposite shore:
Just before I took the photo above, the A828 had veered towards the shoreline and, for a short stretch, the railway alignment became a busy lay-by, filled nose-to tail with camper vans; their occupants were all without fail sitting on deckchairs and gazing at the loch.
Most glared at me as I walked past them but I have no idea why. It was as though my pedestrian progress offended them in some way. Pfft, whatever.
Old Road Alignment
On the far side of the lay-by, the cycle path resumed but didn’t go all that much further before joining the road near Appin House. It remained on the A-road but briefly, however, soon taking a minor road that branched off to the right.
This narrow, unclassified lane passed by a couple of farmhouses and I had a strong it was the original alignment of the main road that later became the A828. And so it proves — consulting the appropriate old OS maps, I find that the A-road has taken over the railway alignment while the old route persists purely for access for the properties along it. Oh, and for me. Very kind of them, I thought.
If I had correctly deduced the nature of the road I was on before, I somehow got it wrong when the access road reconnected with the A828. There, the A-road carried on closer to the shore while NCN 78 followed a separate path running roughly parallel on the A-road’s landward side. I assumed at the time that I was back on the old railway alignment but actually that’s where the A828 was and I was still on the A-road’s old route.
Following this, I crossed over a cattle grid and found a dead sheep waiting on its far side. It looked and smelled recently deceased — which is to say it didn’t smell yet — and I wondered how it had met its demise. There was no obvious sign of external injury, but then it was covered in wool. It could, I decided, have possibly had a high-speed cyclist encounter.
I was still musing over the dead sheep when I found myself in the midst of a bunch of live cattle. The cows were milling about over the path in the knowledge that any cyclist hitting them was going to end up worse off than they were. They showed little reaction as I approached, barely glancing my way.
Cattle are big and cattle are strong but they are also stupid and live lives of fear as one might expect from a prey animal. This can occasionally make them unpredictable and so I like to have an idea what any given bunch are going to do as I approach; this bunch however were giving me no clue.
‘Okay cows,’ I said aloud, ‘you need to get out of my way.’
And they did. Okay, they did it unhurriedly, as if to say, ‘I was going over here anyway,’ but they all shuffled their way off the path. I was fine with that; I didn’t need speedy compliance. I just needed to not have to push them out the way, not least because the cows would win that contest.
The Gate of Living Cows having opened before me, I was now free to continue on my way along NCN 78 as it led me north to the edge of Argyll. A sign on the A-road proclaimed that I was entering the Highland council area and leaving that of Argyll & Bute. And so I was, if modern administrative divisions are considered. If, however, one takes the historic shires of Scotland, which are still used for land registry, I had not yet left Argyll and would remain within its boundaries all day.
At roughly the point where I crossed the council boundary, the A-road and cycle route also crossed over, with the road returning to its traditional alignment and the cycle path reoccupying the old railway. I was quite happy to be back beside the loch shore and when I then found a convenient bench, I stopped to eat the sandwich that I’d bought in Port Appin.
In a running theme of obliviousness to good weather, It was only then, as I looked up the loch to what lay ahead, that I realised that the cloud had mostly cleared and the sky was a brilliant blue.
Rested, fed and smothered in sunscreen, I set off again at a formidable pace only to find that the cycle route gave up on the railway and returned to the A-road. This meant that I was dodging traffic as I entered the village of Duror (An Dùrar, ‘the hard water’).
The Appin Murder
In 1752, Duror was the scene of an incident known as the Appin Murder in which — Shock! Gasp! — someone got murdered, though in Duror and not Appin. Honestly, when does Scottish history not involve a murder? The ‘someone’ in this case was Colin Campbell of Glenure, who was shot dead by an unknown assassin. He had been the government factor administrating lands confiscated from the Stewarts of Ardshiel after the failed Jacobite Rising of 1745 and James of the Glen, a Stewart of Appin, was accused of the crime and arrested.
James was a known Jacobite supporter and had been critical of Colin’s plans so he seemed like a natural suspect, although there was an annoying lack of any evidence whatsoever. But the Campbells weren’t too bothered about such nitty-gritty details, they just wanted revenge and soon James was duly — or unduly — hanged and a monument to him stands near Ballachulish.
The novelist Robert Louis Stevenson (whose relative built Port Appin’s old lighthouse) based his 1886 novel Kidnapped on the tale of these events.
In Duror there was a parting of the ways. The A828 charged ahead on its north-eastern course while NCN 78 snaked off to the right, circuitously aiming to head in a similar direction. I had a plan to go the other way, taking a minor road west to the outlying hamlet of Cuil. From there, I planned to take a footpath around the loch-facing side of Ardsheal Hill, which would link up with another minor road and take me to Kentallen to rejoin the A-road.
It was a good plan and I liked it. I liked it even more as the road to Cuil curved from west to northwest and I found myself looking over Cuil Bay and down the length of Loch Linnhe.
Cuil Bay’s beach, though coarse and pebbly, had no shortage of enthusiasts. Half of western Scotland appeared to have parked up to take in the sunshine while it lasted. And who can blame them? I may have paused there for a little while too, just chilling and taking in the scenery.
In Search of the Footpath
Eventually, though, I picked myself up and trekked to the very end of the road around which were clustered a number of farms. All I had to do now was find the footpath. It wasn’t signposted, of course, but I knew where it should be and that led me to following an access track dotted with cows that were, if possible, even less fussed about my presence than the ones on the cycle path had been. I ambled past them, looking for the footpath, and then again when I hadn’t found it. Where on earth could it… ah.
I had found the footpath, I just hadn’t recognised it on account of it having been trampled by numerous hooves into a soup of mud and cow slurry. I was damned if I was wading through that in trainers, no matter how rugged they were. So could I get round it? The answer was not very easily. But what choice did I have? Either I found a way through here or I backtracked over a mile to Duror and rejoined NCN 78’s clean, easy-going tarmac.
You know what? That sounded like a marvellous idea.
Old Duror Bridge
Twenty minutes later I was back in Duror, peering through some trees at an old stone bridge that I hadn’t spotted the first time:
Duror’s old bridge was built around 1774 and replaced the last in a series of wooden predecessors. It was part of a number of improvements to the Appin Estate by its then-owner Hugh Seton, who had bought the estate in 1766 for the sum of £13,900. That was a lot of money in 1766. Hugh
had a real thing for land improvement and, to begin with, more money than sense. Sadly for him, the money wasn’t infinite and he would later go bankrupt trying to drain a marsh. His bridge endured though, carrying traffic through Duror until 1939 when improvements to the A828 saw the new (and current) bridge built and the road surfaced with tarmac.
The Cycle Path
The cycle path briefly followed the Duror upstream before crossing it and returning to the railway alignment. There was a short diversion around a property (when the cycle path followed an old road instead) but it switched back on the far side of the village and then it was railway route for some time. This was mostly quite pleasant, although…
Despite several frantic re-applications of sunscreen I was reddening up quite nicely as I walked the couple of miles that separated Duror and its neighbour, Kentallen. Just prior to reaching the latter village, the cycle path headed off on entirely its own course, flanked on both sides by hills. The top of those hills offered a pretty good view of the mouth of Kentallen Bay and Loch Linnhe:
Kentallen gives its name to kentallenite, a type of coarse-grained, igneous rock, largely made out of olivine. The village is mostly built out of it because the railway had dug a load out and why let it go to waste?
Railway water Tower
Eventually the cycle path spat me out into a street of suburban houses, though there was the teensiest little clue that the railway used to run nearby:
Holly Tree Hotel
That cottage may house the old water tower but the main station building (on the next street over) now comprises the Holly Tree Hotel. A thick pall of smoke suggested that their kitchen was on fire but, since no one else was panicking, I figured all would be fine so long as I didn’t order food.
I thus popped into their bar and ordered that premier drink of walking, the mighty gin and tonic. I know I’d made an awesome choice because an ambitious young wasp agreed with my decision and some vigorous debate ensued about whose drink it was. In the end we basically shared it — I kept most of the drink in my glass and she got to have the part that I spilled while trying to keep my glass away from her. That’s probably compromise. Or else I was mugged by a wasp.
The End in Sight
From the hotel, and thus the site of Kentallen Station, the cycle route again set off along the old railway alignment, initially running right along the shore. It wasn’t long before my destination came into view — the Ballachulish Hotel, nestling next to the southern end of Ballachulish Bridge.
Ballachulish Ferry Station
The station at South Ballachulish was actually called Ballachulish Ferry, as I found out when I passed through it. It was the penultimate station on the Ballachulish branch of the C&OR, the line then continuing on to the slate quarry village of Ballachulish. That village, originally named Laroch after its river, essentially stole the name of South and North Ballachulish, the latter having been the original (plain) Ballachulish.
The name comes from the Gaelic Baile a’ Chaolais meaning ‘settlement on the strait’, referring to the narrow mouth of Loch Leven. Passengers wanting to cross that strait had to do so by ferry, hence the name of the station. A charabanc was laid on to carry rail passengers to the slipway, providing an integrated transport link.
The Ballachulish ferry began as a service in 1733 but the first passengers in that charabanc would have to embark on foot as the little rowing boats then used had no room for motor vehicles. They began to carry cars in about 1906 — just 3 years after the railway arrived — but they did so by balancing two planks across the boat, onto which a single car could drive and balance precariously.
Of course, there were hardly any cars on the roads in 1906 but, as the years progressed and motor traffic grew, the ferries adapted to service their needs. By the 1960s, they had turntable ferries, a kind of RO-RO affair but with only one ramp and car deck that swivelled. The turntable ferries could carry six cars in one go but that still meant for nightmare queues in summer and many drivers chose to drive the long way round Loch Leven, a feat that had only been possible since WW1 POW’s had been put to work building a road.
The solution was clearly to construct a bridge and so one was opened in 1975. It was similar in design to the old railway bridge at Connel and just as Connel Bridge had, it killed the ferry business dead.
Thanks to a quirk of where the cycle path emerged onto the road, I actually approached Ballachulish Bridge from its east side not the west. My hotel was, as promised, sitting in its shadow, or would have been had it not been late afternoon. A bath, a drink and dinner ensued, followed by a good night’s sleep. The following day would complete my trip by taking me to Fort William…
This time: 18 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,063½ miles