ON THE fifth and final day of my August 2017 trip I walked from South Ballachulish to Fort William, which lay about 15 miles up what was once a drove road along the shores of Loch Linnhe but is now the A82. With this in mind, I emerged from the Ballachulish Hotel to face the narrows at the mouth of Loch Leven, which stood between me and that road. If I wanted to walk it, I would first need to cross them.
As it turned out, I did not want to walk it. I could have done, I just didn’t want to.
Crossing the narrows was hardly a problem — long served by a ferry, they were spanned by a bridge in 1975. It would be no trouble at all to hop across that and get on my way and it wouldn’t even cost me the 2p pedestrian fare charged by the ferry in its last years. But I had clearly spent too much time poring over my map because I had hatched an entirely different plan instead, one that would take me 23 miles to go the long way round Loch Leven (Loch Liobhann, ‘elm loch’).
I thus passed under, not over, the bridge and headed east along the shore road, which was also the A82. A foot and cycle path ran beside it so I was mercifully spared the chore of dodging the traffic. This was a relief because, though not madly busy, it was hardly quiet either but then the 2-digit ‘A’ designation should have given that away.
Britain’s road classifications were introduced in 1922 for planning and funding purposes with their utility for route-finding coming only as an unintended bonus.
In addition to dividing the nation’s highways into ‘A’, ‘B’ and unclassified categories, the numbers allotted reflected the route’s importance, with longer numbers being lesser routes. Thus, the A8 was more important than the A82, which in turn was more so than the A829 and so on while anything starting with a B was less important still.
18th Century Drove Road
The A82, where I was walking, had been a significant route since it was first built in 1786 as a drove road for moving livestock. It linked Altnafeadh in Glen Coe to the Ballachulish Ferry, to which another road already led up the coast (the modern A828, the route of which had broadly been day four’s walk).
From the ferry, the new drove road headed north up a pre-existing track and provided a convenient alternative to the military road, which had been built with the needs of the army in mind and not those of local communities.
Demotion & Promotion
From 1817, the Commission for Highland Roads and Bridges started to take over responsibility for drove and military roads alike. This placed them under the supervision of famed engineer Thomas Telford (1757-1834), who set about making improvements. It should be no surprise then that, when the government started categorising roads a century later, they gave the Glen Coe to Fort William road a two-digit ‘A’ designation.
This particular section didn’t keep it long though, being downgraded to part of the A828 during a major revision of road numbers in 1935. The cause of its demotion was the completion of new roads around Loch Leven allowing the hassle of the ferry to be avoided by motorists taking the long way round.
When the Ballachulish Bridge was opened in 1975 this was an even better solution so the road once again became the A82.
Pap of Glencoe
Of course, a major road isn’t much fun to walk down even when it has a separate footway. Fortunately, I found a way to put it out of my mind.
In the photo above, the Pap of Glencoe (Sgorr na Ciche, ‘peak of the breast’) looms behind the isle of Eilean Munde, on which can be found the remains of a 16th century church, built on the site of St Fintan’s 7th century chapel. It served as the burial ground for both the MacDonalds of Glencoe and the Camerons of Callart on the opposite shore.
Ballachulish War Memorial
As if thinking about burial grounds wasn’t morbid enough, I soon found myself approaching Ballachulish’s war memorial, unveiled in 1923 by Lt Col Ian Campbell of Airds of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. Names from WW2 and Palestine 1948 were subsequently added.
I like that, similar to the war memorial in Oban, it eschews the usual memorial cross for the figure of a Highland soldier.
When the war memorial was first built, it was set back from the road. In the intervening years it may not have moved but the road has writhed about like a snake thanks to two phases of improvements.
20th Century Road Improvements
The first began in the 1930s but was interrupted by WW2 and not completed until the early 1950s. The second occurred in the 1970s, theoretically to coincide with the opening of Ballachulish Bridge. They were also completed late, though this time due to general incompetence rather than an intervening war.
This repeated fiddling with the road layout is particularly obvious in the village now known as ‘Ballachulish’ without any compass direction attached. The general plan of its main roads looks like a triangle with a crossbar or an inverted A with the legs joined, where the two sides are the old drove road, crossing the Bridge of Laroch at their apex.
Bridge of Laroch
The bridge dates from 1785, having been constructed as part of the drove road, and spans the River Laroch, hence its name. It is a lovely old stone arch but it proved inadequate for motor traffic.
Bypassing the Bridge
An attempt was made to bypass the old bridge in the 1930s, taking what had been a footpath and turning it into Albert Road, which forms the crossbar of the triangle. Unfortunately, the outbreak of war postponed what was arguably the most important part of the bypass — a bigger road bridge — which wasn’t built until 1951.
This new road diverted the traffic from the centre of Ballachulish and, accordingly, a number of buildings grew up along it to service the passing trade. They were left high and dry in turn when a newer bypass (the base of the triangle) was opened in 1975. Or, at least, it was supposed to open in 1975, it was actually finished in 1984.
The new road was able to take great advantage of the closure of Ballachulish’s quarry and railway, plus the large amounts of quarry spoil that had been dumped on the loch shore (some of which had been used to form the quarry harbour). In essence, this meant that not only was the road not constrained by fitting around these now redundant structures but also that the road-builders could landscape the terrain to suit them better. Which they did.
The village they bypassed may now be called Ballachulish but it started out as Laroch, named after the river running through it. In fact, if you go far enough back, it was simply the two farmsteads of East and West Laroch; they were the nucleus from which the village developed. From the 1500s, it grew up around its slate quarry and somewhere in the process it stole its neighbour’s name.
No doubt this civic identity theft arose because South Ballachulish was the nearest settlement in the same parish but the new situation was cemented when the Callander & Oban Railway ran their line to the quarry and called their station Ballachulish rather than Laroch. The actual Ballachulish got a station called Ballachulish Ferry.
The new Ballachulish was the end of the line but not necessarily the end of the trip. Tourists could be picked up from the station — initially by horse-drawn carts but later by motor buses — and driven to Loch Etive, where a boat would carry them to Taynuilt to catch a train back to Oban.
This circular journey was a survival of the kind of round-trip multi-transport excursion first popularised by the Clyde steamers in Victorian times but its days were numbered; when the railway closed in 1966 the road and boat links that serviced such excursions became redundant overnight.
Ballachulish could really have done with not losing what little tourist industry it had as it had already lost the quarry in 1955. But, despite its closure, echoes of the quarry still haunted Ballachulish in the form of spoil heaps disfiguring its landscape — they were not cleaned up until 1978 — and, less distressingly, in some of its architecture…
The building above has become accustomed to military use. Not only is it now used as a base for mountain training by all three of Britain’s armed services but back in WW1 it served as a drill hall for the newly-raised Territorial Force (now called the Army Reserve). But, long before it echoed to the stamp of boots and the bellowing of sergeants it was built with a much quieter purpose in mind, housing a Mechanics’ Institute — a charitable library of vocational volumes and lecture hall — for the village quarrymen.
Mechanics’ Institutes popped up all over during the 1820s — the first was in Edinburgh in 1821 — with the joint aims of fostering a skilled workforce and keeping them out of the pub. This one was erected in the early 1870s and it would be nice to think that it helped teach its members how to build this:
The slate arch shown above was the only survivor of two, built as ramps leading from the quarry to the shore. A narrow-gauge tramway ran up and down the incline, conveying the slate to a harbour. Later, when the railway arrived, the slate was loaded onto trains instead of boats but it still needed moving from quarry to transport.
The reason it’s an arch and not a solid ramp is that Telford’s improved drove road ran underneath it. Today it goes nowhere, the course of the old road being nothing more than a ledge in the hillside overgrown with trees.
The new road alignment, as finished in the 80s, runs closer to the shore on all that landscaped spoil; you can just about see it on the photo’s extreme left. Building it required the demolition of the second archway, along with a number of houses close to the shore.
I might have been tempted to try to follow the old road anyway but climbing over that fence seemed like a lot of unnecessary effort when I had a perfectly good pedestrian pavement to walk on. I thus dropped back down onto that and continued east, soon reaching Tigh-Phuirt (essentially ‘pier house’) on the outskirts of Glencoe village. There, the old road became slightly easier to spot.
Both led into Glencoe village, which sits at the foot of Glen Coe — Scotland’s most infamous glen. While it is a spectacular glen to travel through, its fame (or infamy) derives from the 1692 Glencoe Massacre.
Background to the Massacre
Like pretty much everything in history, this had its roots in some earlier history which can be summed up thusly: Glen Coe was MacDonald land held under the feudal lordship of the Stewarts of Appin. Following the Civil Wars the Stewarts of Appin were as out of favour as their ex-royal cousins and the MacDonalds’ overlords became the Campbells, who had ousted other MacDonalds in Argyll.
Relations between the Campbells (Williamite) and MacDonalds (Jacobite) remained poor, accumulating all manner of petty grievances. In 1691, the Scottish Government offered peace terms to the Jacobite rebels, offering amnesty for those who would swear allegiance to King William and death to those who would not. The rebels sought and obtained permission from the exiled James VII to surrender and swear the oath to his enemy since at that point he hadn’t the faintest chance of sending an army to aid them.
For most this went without too great a hitch, the government being mostly thankful that it could stop actively campaigning against its own citizens.
Alasdair Maclain was the chief MacDonald of Glencoe and he decided on a churlish display of obstinacy, by waiting until the very last day before travelling to Fort William to take the oath. Unfortunately for him, he’d not checked his facts as Fort William’s governor — Lt Col John Hill — was not empowered to administer the oath; Maclain should have gone to Inverary instead. This was a teensy bit of an issue as there was no way he could get there from Fort William the same day (it was 74 miles) and that meant he’d condemned all his kinsmen to death.
Seeking to avoid this, he got Lt Col Hill to write a letter to the correct magistrate — Sir Colin Campbell — attesting that he had tried to swear the oath by the deadline and asking that Sir Colin receive him even though he was now late. Bearing this important missive, Maclain then rushed to Inverary only to be arrested at Barcaldine by Capt Thomas Drummond of the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot who, on seeing the urgency of his mission, made sure to hold him for 24 hours to absolutely make certain that he’d be properly late.
Maclain eventually gave his oath in Inverary some five days after the deadline and Sir Colin had to be persuaded to accept it. But accept it he did; the MacDonalds of Glencoe were safe. Except…
The Glencoe Massacre
…It was just far too good an opportunity for the Campbells to pass up.
In early 1692, two companies of the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot under Capt Robert Campbell of Glenlyon were billeted in the households of the MacDonalds of Glencoe, ostensibly to collect property taxes. Though presumably disgruntled at this development, the MacDonalds played nicely and adhered to the traditions of highland hospitality. Then, a couple of weeks later Capt Drummond arrived with secret orders and the soldiers massacred the MacDonalds in their beds.
Some escaped (though not Alasdair Maclain) but 38 men were murdered and around 40 women and children were killed indirectly — dying of exposure in the snow after their houses were burnt down.
Murder Under Trust
Regardless of the Campbells’ flimsy legal justifications, the massacre was duly decried by the public as ‘murder under trust’ — a particularly heinous crime in Scots law. A subsequent public inquiry concurred, holding the Earl of Stair — the Scottish Secretary of State — ultimately responsible.
The earl was dismissed from office but was back in government by 1700 and no one was ever prosecuted for the murders.
The massacre didn’t happen in what is now the main part of Glencoe but in the older, outlying area of Invercoe and in two other hamlets in the glen, which means that this particular road never ran red with MacDonald blood:
Actually, though the road looks quiet now (though quite dramatic with the Pap of Glencoe behind it), it is the route of the drove road and was part of the A82 from 1922, when first classified, until 1935, by which time a bypass had been built.
Today it is unclassified, a sleepy street through Glencoe’s centre at the end of which is the Bridge of Coe (another stone arch like the Bridge of Laroch, built in 1785).
I crossed the Bridge of Coe expecting to find a junction on the far side but instead the road just curved round to the right, following a drove road route to Clachaig Inn. That was not where I needed to go. Perplexed, I consulted my OS map and stared around wildly, searching for a road I could not see. Then, realisation dawning, I adjusted my expectations.
I was looking for the road from the Bridge of Coe to the Callart Ferry, once an important route across Loch Leven. Later, when the ‘High Road’ to Kinlochleven was constructed around 1919, it was classified as the A829 until bypassed (in 1930) by the new Invercoe Bridge. So, where, oh where, was this once-important thoroughfare?
Now known as Back Lane, this gravelly driveway was indeed the former A-road I was looking for. And the photo shows the good bit. Once I’d got past the first few houses using it as a communal driveway, it turned into a challenging stretch of potholes and mud. Still, I guess it was historic and I imagine that, in its earliest incarnation, it wasn’t in much of a different state for anyone catching the ferry.
I picked my way carefully along Back Lane, dodging the muddiest patches, until it spat me onto a surfaced road by the lakeshore. This was Invercoe, where (part of) the massacre happened.
There isn’t very much at Invercoe, for all that it is the oldest part of Glencoe village, just a number of houses (though not the ones from the massacre because they were burnt by the troops).
There isn’t even a ferry to Callart any more although that can’t blame its demise on the soldiers, even though they did have orders to seize all ferries to prevent the MacDonalds from escaping. Nor can it blame Ballachulish Bridge (which killed off the Ballachulish Ferry) as it never survived long enough to see it.
The Callart Ferry had already lapsed by the time the Ordnance Survey was compiling its namebooks in the 1860s and they diligently noted that it had ‘ceased to be much taken advantage of,’ and that ‘consequently no boat has plied for the last year or two, although the rights of way, to and from still exist, and may be used at any future period.’
High Road to Kinlochleven
The High Road
Though the Callart Ferry was no longer running, I still had the High Road round Loch Leven to take. Built mostly around the end of WW1 by POWs, it’s known as the High Road because for most of its route it’s halfway up the hillside, as opposed to the Low Road along Loch Leven’s north shore.
Mostly complete by 1922 (by which time the POWs had been repatriated), work on the High Road had begun in the early 1900s when an aluminium smelter was built at what would become Kinlochleven but had hitherto been two tiny hamlets.
Prior to that, there hadn’t been much of a need for a road, though earlier maps do show an old track taking an even higher route out of Glencoe before heading east.
The High Road was initially classified as the A829 until it and the Low Road had been completed sufficiently that motor traffic could use them to bypass Ballachulish Ferry, after which they both became the A82. Later, when Ballachulish Bridge was built, they got significantly downgraded and now are the B863.
The specific beinn shown above is Garbh Bheinn (‘rough mountain’); its peak is 867 m high. The road would carry me round its lower flank but first I had to go round the Pap of Glencoe (742 m at its peak, though the road never rose higher than 50 m) and then past the farm-turned-campsite of Caolasnacan, the only human habitation between Invercoe and Kinlochleven.
Caolasnacoan is of uncertain etymology, as it could be Caolas na Comhann (‘strait of Coe’) or Caolas nan Con (‘strait of the dogs’), potentially referring to shepherd & sheepdogs crossing the nearby narrows that constrict the loch.
I had been following the B863 for about four miles when I saw the signs for a picnic area overlooking the loch and decided that, yes, I’d love a sit down and a snack. Accordingly, I turned off the road and descended a short access track to find a broad grassy area with benches.
Dramatically Disappearing Deer
In the centre of the pinic area, likewise enjoying the tranquillity, were a doe and her fawn. They showed their displeasure at my arrival by leaving at approximately light speed. By the time my camera was out of my pocket, they were already halfway to Inverness. Ah whatever, I’d just have to photograph the view.
Looking back, I could see the Pap of Glencoe from the other side plus the strait of whatever it is that Caolasnacan is named after. Far off in the distance was Creag Bhreac (‘speckled crag’), which stands to the east of North Ballachulish. What I couldn’t see were the long-vanished deer.
Still, I had seen one. One and a half, even. And having seen a doe (a female deer), I still had far (a long, long way) to
run walk. Unfortunately, what the hills were alive with seemed to mostly be midges as I made my way along the last two miles of the High Road.
When first built, the road curved down into Kinlochleven through what is now a residential road, crossing an industrial railway by level crossing. The industrial railway was short, linking the aluminium factory to the harbour, but it was in everyone’s interests to separate it from the road.
Accordingly, in 1929 a new descent was constructed in the form of a viaduct passing over the line. The industrial railway is long gone, as is the factory it served, but the viaduct still carries traffic today.
Kinlochmore & Kinlochbeg
Kinlochleven (Ceann Loch Liobhann, ‘the head of Elm Loch’) didn’t really exist before 1905 when work began building the aluminium smelter and a hydro-electric scheme to power it. Prior to that, there had been two tiny hamlets — Kinlochmore (Ceann Loch Mòr, ‘big loch head’) and Kinlochbeg (Ceann Loch Beag, ‘small loch head’) — on the military road to Fort William.
The smelter was built and operated by the British Aluminium Company (founded 1894), which was bought by the Canadian company Alcan in 1982. The merged British Alcan Aluminium plc closed the smelter in 1996 but retained a second plant at Lochaber (which was sold off in 2016).
Losing the smelter was a blow to Kinlochleven, given that the village only existed to house and service its workers but, like much of Scotland, they’ve turned to tourism to plug the gap. It helps that they sit on the West Highland Way, a popular long-distance footpath that follows (in part) an old military road.
A visitor centre seeks to turn the village’s industrial history into a museum experience, a desire echoed in Kinlochleven’s taste in civic art.
The device shown above is a Pelton wheel, an impulse turbine devised in the 1870s by American inventor Lester Allan Pelton (1829-1908).
Unlike a traditional water wheel, which relied on the weight of overshot water to move it, Pelton’s wheel was carefully designed to transfer the momentum of water jets almost entirely into the wheel, so that, while water strikes the wheel at high speed, it has little left afterwards. It is a testament to the brilliance of the design that they are still the go-to design for hydro-power turbines today, almost 150 years since their invention.
I sat and ate lunch within sight of the Pelton wheel and generally took it easy for a while in Kinlochleven. I was slightly less than halfway through the day’s walk and figured I should refuel and recharge before setting off again. It also seemed like a good time to consult my map.
The Way Onwards
It was not my intention, on leaving Kinlochleven, to set off along the Low Road to North Ballachulish. I had been drawn to my meandering course by two things, one of which was the infamy of Glencoe. The other was the lure of the Old Military Road — I have a weakness for those for some reason —and this particular military road was all the better for being part of the West Highland Way.
You may recall that when I walked from Greenock to Glasgow — some 25 walks ago — one of my reasons for going to that city was because I wanted to give myself options. From there I could either set out west to do the sea lochs (which I did) or else head north up the West Highland Way.
Now, I could scratch the itch left unscratched, by ticking off a section of the WHW while simultaneously heading to a sea loch location. I was pretty pleased with myself, I can tell you.
Old Military Road
Initial Steep Footpath
On leaving Kinlochleven, the northbound WHW began with a fairly steep climb up the southern flank of the Mamore Hills. This initial section was a narrow footpath through some woods and, looking again at some old maps, it seems that it roughly approximated the course of a section of Military Road that is otherwise lost.
I climbed this section to about 70 m above Kinlochleven and then sat at the side of a surfaced road to get my breath back. I suspect the creation of this surfaced road, which leads to the Mamore Lodge Hotel and has a much gentler start at the bottom, is why the steeper climb has been so neglected.
Hotel Access Road
Having said that, the hotel road and the path now swapped over, the road following the military alignment as it zig-zagged east then west, while the WHW scoffed that such tactics are only for wimps and kept on going directly up the hillside.
I was entirely content to wimp out and follow the road in a rather more leisurely climb. I’m glad I did too. Not only was it gentler (though longer) but after it had passed the hotel and a couple of boarded-up buildings and reverted to the sort of surface one expects from old military roads, it gave me a view down Loch Leven that I wouldn’t have had from the WHW’s route.
Maj William Caulfeild (1698-1767) was the assistant to Gen George Wade—who is generally credited with building Scotland’s military roads—and took over from him after Wade retired in 1747. He actually built a lot more road than Wade did, creating 800 miles to Wade’s 300 though he was keen to praise his predecessor with these lines:
Had you seen these roads before they were made You would lift up your hands and bless General Wade.
Caulfeild may have had reason to laud the creation of decent, hardened roads where there had been tracks or no road at all but his lines do rather assume a certain loyalty to the establishment. I imagine the Jacobites — of whom the Glencoe Massacre had not been the end — may have felt differently; the primary purpose of the military roads was so that troops could be moved up to crush them whenever necessary.
Access & Abandonment
When the threat of rebellion receded, many of the roads were abandoned since the army no longer needed them and they hadn’t been sited with local use in mind Some parts were totally lost, while others persisted as local access tracks. Other sections remain a useful part of the modern road network.
I was now walking on one that falls under the ‘access track’ category, having continued to serve a couple of isolated farmhouses until they too were abandoned.
It’s actually quite remarkable how well it has persisted, given that it became largely redundant when the drove road circumvented its route without all the tedious climbing up hills that it entails in places.
Fortunately for me, I had done all the steep ascending that this section required and could look forward to fairly easy going as Caulfeild’s road turned inland, heading up the glen of the Allt Nathrach. The name of this stream means ‘adder burn,’ which sounds awesome, though I gather it’s actually a corruption of alltan darach (‘oak tree burn’).
Ah well. It was far too cool and damp a day to see adders anyway.
I would just have to make do with the road’s snake-like undulations as it weaved its way through the Làirig Mòr (‘large pass’), a broad valley separating Màm na Gualainn (‘round hill of the shoulder’) and Beinn na Caillich (‘hill of the old woman’) from the rest of the Mamore Hills. On the way, the military road was met by the WHW and confirmed in my mind that my route to its junction was the better one.
Three miles or so along the military road from Kinlochleven, I came to the first of Làirig Mòr’s two abandoned houses: Tigh-na-Sleubhaich (‘house of the gully’). Its last resident family moved out in 1980, after which its mouldering decline was cut short when someone — presumably hikers — set it ablaze.
A sheepfold next door to it remains in use (no one set fire to the sheep).
I found the gutted remnants of Tigh-na- Sleubhaich to be a little melancholy, as I usually do with the shells of dead buildings. The ruin stands — just about — at the highest part of Làirig Mòr, 330 m above sea level. Fortunately, the descent was as gentle as the post-hotel ascent, which is to say barely noticeable.
Fording Frequent Burns
There were plenty of other things to notice, such as the barren beauty of the moorland or the way that the burns ran straight across the road. Up till now there had been footbridges across the many streams but, from here on in, the choice was to jump across or ford them. Fortunately, they weren’t in full spate.
Price & Priorities
Even before the road was built, the Làirig Mòr would have been the main route south from Fort William. The road really does make a significant difference to the going and you can see why the army thought it so necessary as to invest in the time and expense to construct it. It cost around £90 per mile, an enormous sum at the time.
This staggering expense led Caulfeild to prioritise cost over ease of alignment, deeming the practicality of gradients and sharpness of bends as a secondary consideration to keeping it cheap. Indeed, that was actually his tertiary priority as keeping it short and direct was priority one,
These three priorities could hardly be distinct though and they bled into each other as he planned his route. His general method of so doing was to take a straight line from start to destination and then build on the nearest practicable alignment he could find. This meant that his roads, while tending to straightness on average, show considerable deviation on the ground.
I have to say, I really enjoyed the military road through the Làirig Mòr; the bleakness and solitude were an awesome contrast to Kinlochleven and the B863.
About a mile further on from Tigh-na- Sleubhaich I found the second of the valley’s derelict houses, this one named Lairigmòr after its location; it was nothing but rubble.
Path to Callart Ferry
Close to Lairigmòr, a small footpath sign pointed along a diverging trail that ran along the foot of Màm na Gualainn and over its shoulder, climbing to 475 m before dropping back down to the shores of Loch Leven. The end point of this footpath was Callart (Callaird, ‘hazel point’), where the Camerons had a country house and from where the ferry crossed to Invercoe.
This was a reminder that the Làirig Mòr wasn’t as isolated as all that and that its military road had in fact been integrated into a growing transport network.
Allt na Lairige Mòire
The military road was now running alongside the increasingly sizeable Allt na Lairige Mòire (‘big pass burn’), which showed every sign of flowing west into a dead end, since the flank of Doire Bàn (‘white grove’ though no trees grew on this side) rose up ahead to block the valley. But water always finds its way and, a mile after Lairigmòr’s ruins, the stream and its valley turned abruptly north. The road of course followed suit.
Fifteen Minutes of Rain
I’d love to say that some exciting new vista opened up before me as I rounded the corner but the heavens chose that moment to drop a ton of rain of me and visibility closed right in for fifteen minutes.
Even when the shower ceased, visibility remained quite poor only now, instead of water droplets, it was billions of midges that formed a living mist. I have never seen so many of the blighters.
Sudden Midge Apocalypse
Scotland’s midges — tiny biting flies — are infamous for making a misery of otherwise spectacular countryside and I am fortunate in that they generally don’t like the taste of me. This occasion was no different — they weren’t actually biting (or if they were, I wasn’t reacting) — but that didn’t stop them landing on me to see if I whetted their appetites.
I was just fumbling in my bag for my insect repellent (which proved ineffectual against such numbers anyway), when a family of hikers suddenly overtook me, putting the lie to my feelings of glorious isolation. They had invested in midge-net hats — like ultra-fine mesh beekeeping veils — but seemed to be having a worse time of it anyway. I guess the midges found them tastier than they did me.
The midge cloud cleared fairly quickly, dropping back to a more usual level, i.e. one that most would consider as ‘itchy annoyance’ rather than ‘life-threatening exsanguination.’ I remained largely uneaten but was nonetheless glad that I no longer needed to wipe a black film of them from my brow.
During the rain and the Sudden Midge Apocalypse, I had advanced about another mile to what my map told me should be forestry plantation. I saw no trees. So where was Lundavra Wood?
It turns out the wood was felled in 2009, something Ordnance Survey clearly missed when they revised my map in 2012. Still, the absence of the trees made a large cairn all the more obvious.
Clach nan Caimbeulach
The cairn stood in place of the Clach nan Caimbeulach (‘stone of the Campbells’), which marked where pursuing MacDonalds from the Royalist army of the Marquess of Montrose stopped chasing defeated Campbell soldiers after the 1645 Battle of Inverlochy. The battle, which was fought about six or so miles north of the marker, had been a decisive Royalist victory over the Covenanter forces of the Marquess of Argyll.
This was a significant moment in the Civil War, invigorating the Royalist cause and rousing the MacDonalds against the Campbells (the two clans essentially fought their own private war using the greater politics as an excuse). This event would be one of those contributory incidents of history that would prompt the Campbells to instigate the Glencoe Massacre half a century later.
It is a tradition that MacDonalds or their supporters add a stone to cairn when passing and those aligned to the Campbells take one away. As an Englishman, I affected an air of neutrality and left the cairn unchanged.
Blàr a’ Chaorainn
The Allt na Lairige Mòire, still flowing north, met a stream at the mouth of Lochan Lùnn Dà Bhrà (hence ‘Lundavra’) and became the River Kiachnish (Cìochnis from Cìoch Innis, ‘breast meadow’).
Nearby, at a place called Blàr a’ Chaorainn (‘field of the rowan’) the WHW met the public road leading to Lundavra Farm. There I encountered the family that had overtaken me earlier and I stopped and chatted for a while. They were, it turned out, from Lewisham — about 4 miles from where I live and 520 miles from where we were then. It’s a small world.
Opting for Asphalt
The family soon set off again along the WHW, which forked off to the right along its own path. I took the left hand fork, following the public road to Fort William, an option I chose for several reasons:
For one thing, it was shorter and I was already doing plenty of miles. Also, I wanted to get to Fort William in daylight. And finally but by no means the least of my priorities, it was the course of Major Caulfeild’s road.
Granted, it lacked the romantic ruggedness of the Old Military Road I’d walked so far, but that, in a way, was missing the point of the thing; if they’d had asphalt in 1750, Caulfeild would have been all for it. I don’t think he’d see what’s been done to this section as any kind of detriment at all.
The sheep on the road (in the photo above) were pretty keen on it too, moving aside only with great reluctance. They were the only other road users I’d see for at least the next mile and a half, where I passed through the settlement of Blarmacfoldach (Blàr Mac Faoilteach).
Historically home to members of Clan Cameron, today Blarmacfoldach comprises a light scattering of houses with a total population of about 50, one sixteenth the size that it was in the 19th century.
It was there that I met my first car on that road, an encounter that surprised me less than it did the driver. That the road is quiet is to be expected — it only goes to Blarmacfoldach and Lundavra Farm, after all — but just how quiet is beautifully illustrated by another driver who stopped not far from the village to allow his daughter to pedal her tricycle up and down a suitable stretch of the road. They seemed surprised to see me too.
The road (now officially the C1164) wound its way through the countryside for another two miles, coming to a viewpoint overlooking Fort William. The viewpoint was 137 m up a hillside and in theory commanded views of Ben Nevis (Beinn Nibheis), which is Britain’s tallest mountain at a height of 1,345 m. That may be modest by international standards but it’s the best that we’ve got.
It seemed appropriate, then, that I stand for a moment and respectfully admire what is best described as a typical view of it:
Very Nearly There
Ending the Walk
I made my way down the road and into Fort William (An Gearasdan, ‘the garrison’), a place whose military origins are proclaimed in its name.
It’s not the prettiest town in Scotland but I was glad to see it anyway and I wandered along its streets just as the sun set. I had greatly enjoyed the walk from Kinlochleven but now the twinkling lights of the town and its bustling crowds were just what I needed.
Just Shy of the Ton
I threaded my way through throngs of evening revellers, looking for my hotel. A bath, a meal and a stiff drink followed, not to mention a warm feeling of accomplishment. I had walked five days and 98½ miles from Kilmelford and my knee had behaved all the way. My only regret in hindsight was not finding a 1½ mile diversion to round out the distance.
Ah well, too late now.
This time: 23 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,086½ miles