I DECIDED back in September, against all sense and reason, that I would return at that month’s end and continue my walking adventure. And adventure of sorts was certainly a possibility, given the wind and rain warnings for the couple of days that followed. But the first day was relatively clement and went something like this…
I began by returning to Fort William, a place named for its garrison (which appropriately crushed those who fought William, specifically, William III). It wasn’t the first garrison sited there — that was a Cromwellian fort built from timber in 1654 — but the later establishment proved more enduring.
A settlement soon grew up to service it, though that was initially named Maryburgh for William’s wife and co-monarch (the 1688 Glorious Revolution had seen the pair crowned as ruling jointly). The growing town then experimented with other names — Gordonsburgh and Duncansburgh — before settling on having the same name as the fort.
Today, the town is still called that, though the fort itself was abandoned and demolished, making way for a railway station.
In modern Gaelic, Fort William is simply called ‘the garrison’ (An Gearasdan).
For all that it was raining when I arrived in Fort William, I had high hopes that the weather might clear up by the morning. I also had a weather forecast that told me that it wouldn’t but they wouldn’t be hopes if they were based on evidence, they’d be expectations.
Come morning, water was mockingly dropping from the sky, dampening my aforementioned hopes along with my clothes and map. Fortunately, I had thoroughly consulted the latter over breakfast while confirming my plan for the day.
A Cunning Plan
The question of exactly what route to take from Fort William had initially vexed me since it depended on subsequent plans that I hadn’t yet made. Would I, for instance, head round the shores of Loch Eil and then down Loch Linnhe, treading the far side of where I’d been before? For the most part, I had rather assumed that I would, feeling that it would create a satisfying neatness in that I’d thus walk the section of Loch Linnhe that my jaunt along the Old Military Road had cut out last time.
But — as Scotland’s national poet once noted — plans are hardly immutable and, as I’d stared at my map a few days previously, I felt them gaun agley like anything. A new plan formed, in which I’d head west along Loch Eil and keep going to Glenfinnan, after which I’d mock the concept of coastal as much as the weather would mock me.
In this new plan, I would not be traversing the far side of Loch Linnhe and I’d only walk Loch Eil one way. That loch had the dangerously busy A830 on its north side and the rather less worrying A861 on the south and I’d hitherto thought I’d walk both. Now, however, I could stick with the quiet one. Mostly.
All of which meant that, when I emerged from my hotel into the rain, I didn’t head north out of Fort William but instead strolled a mere few hundred metres to where I could find the Camusnagaul Ferry.
This is a tiny passenger ferry, capable of carrying no more than a dozen people, that runs from a pier in Fort William to the far side of Loch Linnhe, where a couple of houses form the hamlet of Camusnagaul (Camas nan Goill, ‘bay of the strangers’).
The ferry service has been running a while. Though not shown on William Roy’s 1747-52 Military Survey, it does appear on Ordnance Survey maps a century later and was also described by publisher Samuel Lewis (1782-1865) in his 1846 Topographical Dictionary of Scotland — a kind of gazetteer — which means it’s been going for something like 170 years.
The actual ferry I caught, Bhoy Taylor, wasn’t quite as old as 170 but was still getting on a bit for a vehicle, having been built in Buckie back in 1980.
Bhoy Taylor whisked me across the loch with one other passenger — a cyclist — to deposit me onto a narrow slipway which lived up to its name by being quite slippery. I think my lack of balance and frantic arm-windmilling amused the ferryman but I could hardly begrudge him that.
Though I was still in the modern Highland council area, by crossing Loch Linnhe I had returned to the historic county of Argyll, which still exists in its ancient borders for land registry purposes.
Having spent almost the whole year walking in Argyll, this was both slightly frustrating and yet comfortingly familiar. Helping push it into the plus column was that the rain appeared to have failed to catch the ferry with me and was barely spitting on the Camusnagaul side. That being so, I figured I should press on before Bhoy Taylor could make the return trip to fetch it and so set off along the fast-flowing vehicular artery that was the A861:
Quietly muttering ‘this is an A-road’ to myself as I walked (and other thoughts in the same vein), I headed north along the western shore of Loch Linnhe, gazing across the loch to Ben Nevis.
Below Ben Nevis’s hidden peak, Fort William gave way to the village of Corpach (A’ Chorpaich), the name of which means ‘the corpses’, said to derive from it being a point from which dead kings could be shipped to Iona (an honour also claimed for the rock of Carraig nam Marbh on the shores of Loch Feochan.)
Corpach is the western end of the Caledonian Canal and the one regret of my cunning new plan was that it meant I would not be seeing Neptune’s Staircase — Britain’s longest staircase lock, built in 1822 by famed engineer Thomas Telford (1757-1834).
Commercially, the canal proved a massive white elephant as ships grew larger than its locks. Before longm it faced a new kind of competition, when faster forms of transport were devised.
The West Highland Railway Line (Rathad Iarainn nan Eilean, ‘Iron Road to the Isles’) actually came quite late to the scene, with this section not being opened until 1901. In addition to the more usual Scotrail services, it is also used by the Caledonian Sleeper and, from May to October, by an iconic steam-hauled service operated by West Coast Railways and called ‘The Jacobite.’
The Jacobite only runs once or twice a day but given that it’s a steam train on arguably the most scenic line in the country, and that it crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct — featured in several Harry Potter films — it is highly popular with railway enthusiasts, sightseers and fans of school-age wizards. And, of course, the wizards themselves, though they’re supposed to keep a low profile.
Opposite Corpach, I found myself taking a hard left turn beside the narrows that join Loch Linnhe to Loch Eil (Loch Iall), which is arguably just more of Loch Linnhe except that, having turned a sharp bend, it gets a new name. I’m sure there are excellent geographical reasons why they are in fact different lochs but the fact remains that Loch Eil sticks sideways out of the head of the Loch Linnhe like some sort of lacustrine tumour.
I would be following Loch Eil’s southern shore for about the next seven miles, during which I would encounter just one car on the A861. To protect me from this appalling traffic danger, the A-road gained a short section of pedestrian pavement in the vicinity of the Narrows, which I kept to because it seemed rude not to use it.
The footway was actually there to link Achaphubuil Primary School to the small row of houses that forms the hamlet of the same name (Achadh a’ Phùbaill, ‘field of the tent’) but the school was closed in 2010 so I doubt it sees much footfall now.
Soon enough, I was back to not needing to dodge the non-existent traffic as I ambled my towards the next hamlet, which was called Blaich.
A small crofting village, Blaich has been MacLean country since the 15th century, being part of the Ardgour (Àird Ghobhar, ‘high place of the goats’) lands that were given to the clan by Alexander MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, in 1410, displacing the MacMasters in the process. Blaich’s name derives from Gaelic blàthaich, meaning ‘to warm’ because no one likes a cold goat.
There’s really not a lot of Blaich; even its attempt to capitalise on the tourism potential of its loch-side position yielded just one caravan that I saw from the road and that was not exactly the most modern model — it was, in fact, a vardo, or traditional Romany caravan.
Specifically, the vardo was a bow-top (vardos were made in various styles), as indicated by its lightweight, teal-coloured canvas roof, which kept the centre of gravity low and reduced the danger of tipping over in high winds.
The vardo developed in the mid-19th century as a stylish improvement on the humble but practical cart. Though now seldom seen, it remains powerfully associated with Romany people and is sufficiently iconic that it frequently finds its way into film in periods or settings where it is woefully anachronistic. Take for example Disney’s 1996 animation The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is set in 1482, more than three and a half centuries before vardos came into use.
The vardo shown above, sitting in the grounds of Blaich Cottage, set a high standard of colour and panache for the rest of my walk to live up to. Nature endeavoured to live up to the challenge.
A Spectrum of Sights
I took the rainbow as uplifting and resolved to disregard the pattering rain. Let the weather be as it would; I refused to be cowed.
As I headed west, I passed the hamlet of Fassfern on the far shore of the loch, which is the settlement almost receiving a direct rainbow strike in the photo above. Fassfern (An Fasadh Feàrna, ‘alderwood resting-place’) is traditionally where Bonnie Prince Charlie rested overnight after raising his standard at Glenfinnan in 1745.
Allegedly, a white rose plucked from the garden of Fassfern House became the source of the white cockade used as a badge by the Jacobites. I’m sure that it was pure coincidence that their Bourbon allies in France also wore a white cockade and that their Hanoverian enemies wore a black one.
The rainbow, having helpfully highlighted Fassfern for my attention, faded away and took the rain with it as it went. It was still grey and overcast but at least now the water was mostly in the loch.
The next settlement on my side of Loch Eil was the hamlet of Duisky.
Wikipedia and websites copying it want me to believe that the origin of Duisky’s name is Gaelic dùsgadh, meaning ‘to waken or rouse’. This makes even less sense as a place name than Blaich’s did and is not at all in keeping with the usual ‘what am I looking at’ basis of Celtic toponymy.
I couldn’t help but notice, though, that according to both my map and a sign on the bridge, the stream that the settlement is next to is called An Dubh Uisge, meaning ‘the black water’, which seems a far more obvious derivation and the Scottish Parliament’s list of Gaelic place names agrees — a reminder that while Wikipedia is a good place to start research, it is not always trustworthy.
Beyond Duisky lay South Garvan where I wasted several minutes diverting up the access track of Garvan Farm to look for an older bridge across the Garvan River — one that once stood slightly upstream from the current one but that seemed to have gone. I was getting close to the head of the loch now so I sat on the shore to eat my packed lunch, taking full advantage of the views.
After I’d devoured my sandwich and, crucially, before my trousers had absorbed enough moisture from the rock to make it look like I was incontinent, I set off again towards the head of the loch.
Head of the Loch
As the remaining amount of Loch Eil dwindled, the curvature of the shore allowed me to gaze back down the loch’s length to see how far I had come.
Two rivers flow into the head of Loch Eil, the Dubh Lighe (‘dark torrent’) and Fionn Lighe (‘light torrent’). I crossed a bridge over the former and followed the road north, aware that my coastal walk had just run out of coast — the rest of it would merely be a walk.
Road to the Isles
Joining the A830
I wasn’t overly disconcerted by my coastlessness but I was a little apprehensive about what would come next. It started well, with the narrow A861 heading upstream beside the Fionn Lighe and ducking under a railway bridge as the West Highland Line crossed overhead.
Directly north of the railway crossing, the A861 came to an end at a junction with the A830, which was the cause of my growing apprehension. It wasn’t as busy as I’d feared but it wasn’t exactly quiet either; fortunately there was a fairly broad verge to step onto as the cars and lorries passed.
Drochaid Druim na Saille
Before I continued westwards, playing my merry game of dodge-the-traffic, I diverted north onto what appeared to be an access track for a couple of cottages. It was in fact an older road alignment, this section of the ‘wee, twisty road’ having been widened and straightened in the late 1970s so that it crosses the Fionn Lighe on a modern concrete bridge.
But slightly further upstream and labelled on old Ordnance Survey maps as Drochaid Druim na Saille (‘bridge of the willow ridge’) was a hump-back bridge, built from rubble and faced in stone. It had been constructed by Thomas Telford in 1803-4 when he was building the road out to Mallaig.
It wasn’t all that much to look at but I went and looked at it anyway.
Walking the A-Road
Eventually — when I’d put off walking the A830 for so long that even I got annoyed with it — I set off down that A-road, leaping aside for traffic every few minutes. It used to be the only single-track trunk road in Europe but incremental improvements straightened and widened it (such as the 1978 works that isolated the bridge above) until the last single-track section was doubled in 2009.
To begin with, it was flanked on both sides by a dense screen of trees, which meant that I could not see any views. This was frustrating but it did mean that when a gap occurred — such as this one beside a lay-by, for instance — I appreciated the vista all the more:
As it meandered westwards, the A-road conveyed me over the Dubh Lighe, which was my second crossing of that stream. Then, curving south, it gave me another taste of something I’d already done, when it passed underneath the West Highland Line. Now sandwiched between the railway line and the River Callop, it curved north again and followed the river downstream to where it flowed into Loch Shiel (Loch Seile).
Loch Shiel is a 17½ mile-long freshwater loch at the northern tip of which sits Glenfinnan. I had not quite reached Glenfinnan village but I had reached its visitors’ centre, which sits at the very head of the loch.
There, I enjoyed a lengthy sit-down with a nice cup of tea and slice of cake. Tea and cake do not require justification but their consumption not only rested my weary feet but also gave the two coach-loads of tourists that were thronging about the place enough time to do their touristy things and move on. When they had, it was my turn to be a tourist.
Between the road and the loch stands the Glenfinnan Monument, a pillar upon which stands a statue of a Jacobite. It commemorates that Bonnie Prince Charlie — grandson of the deposed King James VII and II — raised his standard there in 1745, precipitating the Second Jacobite Rebellion.
Eight months later, his forces were crushed at the Battle of Culloden by the Duke of Cumberland (King George II’s son).
For decades afterwards, building a memorial to the rebels would have been politically unthinkable but, by 1815, the Jacobite cause was sufficiently historic that local landowner Alexander Macdonald of Glenaladale felt able to raise such a monument, designed by James Gillespie Graham (1776-1855). We’ve seen Graham’s work before at Torrisdale Castle.
The monument stands on the loch shore, commanding what would be an excellent view down Loch Shiel if the Highlander standing atop it weren’t looking the wrong way.
It is no doubt this historic and very real association with Highlanders that caused the writers of the 1986 film Highlander to have the film’s immortal protagonist, Connor MacLeod, proclaim that he was born in Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel. We’ll politely ignore that Clan MacLeod hails mostly from the Isle of Skye, while Glenfinnan locals were more likely to be Camerons or Glenaladale MacDonalds.
One of the latter, Alexander MacDonald of Glenaladale — cousin once removed to his namesake who later raised the monument — was one of the Jacobite cause’s most fervent supporters and, after being injured at Culloden, arranged to hide Bonnie Prince Charlie when the rebellion failed. Afterwards he returned to Glenfinnan and built an inn between 1752 and 1755.
Glenfinnan House Hotel
Alexander died in 1761 and the inn later became a tenant farmer’s dwelling before being enlarged and converted into a Victorian mansion by Angus MacDonald of Glenaladale (descendant of another cousin). Angus’s son, Andrew, died without heirs in 1916 after which the house fell into disrepair.
Restored, it is now owned by MacFarlanes rather than MacDonalds and is open as the Glenfinnan House Hotel.
John MacDonald of Glenaladale
While I was looking into the MacDonalds of Glenaladale — prompted by trying to discover the history of Glenfinnan House Hotel — I learned that, having partaken in a rebellion against the House of Hanover, it is perhaps fortunate that the inn-building Alexander didn’t live another fifteen years.
His son John emigrated to the colonies, where he donned the red coat and fought for George III in an effort to crush the American rebels.
I doubt that Alexander could have seen that as anything other than a betrayal, though I guess he could take comfort that John was following his father in what was becoming a family tradition of being on the losing side of civil war.
The Stage House
Had I been staying in the Glenfinnan House Hotel, I would now have had to head for Glenfinnan village and the road leading down to the hotel. However I was staying in the Prince’s House Hotel, built in 1658 as a coaching inn and long known as the Stage House.
That inn had grown larger over the years, benefitting greatly in the early 1800s when Telford turned a drove track into a proper road. It was located at the other end of the village, which meant that I still needed to head for Glenfinnan village. So off I went.
I got maybe a hundred metres before I decided to divert again and took a turning northwards in the full knowledge that I’d soon have to turn back and return to the A-road. But first, I followed a quiet road up the valley of Glen Finnan to where the West Highland Line crosses it in spectacular style.
The Glenfinnan Viaduct was opened in 1901 after four years of construction by contractors Robert McAlpine & Sons.
The firm’s founder, Sir Robert McAlpine was popularly nicknamed ‘Concrete Bob’ for his enthusiastic use of that material and, the local schist being hard to work, he was more than happy to live up to it by building the viaduct from concrete, which he did.
Standing 30 m high at its highest point and composed of twenty-one 15 m spans, the viaduct cost £18,904 to build. It carries only a single track, namely the West Highland Line to Mallaig.
Visitors to the Viaduct
Though not exactly pretty, being unfaced concrete, it’s pretty impressive to look at and I was not alone in my desire to do so. Most people are content to look at it from a distance though there was a spate of excited Harry Potter trespassing on the track after its appearance in the films.
Given that it is single-track with very little margin on each side, and that the momentum of a train gives it a stopping distance of approximately ‘way too far’, trespassing on the track is an excellent way to get yourself killed, which led the exasperated British Transport Police to ask people please not to do that.
I heeded their advice.
Had I planned things better, I’d have checked when the Jacobite made its return journey, so as to try to get a shot of it going across. As it was, I just stood and looked up at the viaduct for several minutes and then, having seen it, walked away. It was time to find my hotel.
Prince’s House Hotel
My hotel was exactly where I had been led to believe it would be, which meant I could enjoy a warm bath, a good meal and a drink without the hassle of any frantic searching. Clean, fed and rested, I retired to bed with a warm glow of satisfaction at another day of walking accomplished. Or possibly the warm glow was from whisky. One of the two.
Best, I thought, to appreciate any warmth while I had it; the forecast for the next day was high winds and rain. But that was tomorrow’s problem…
This time: 15½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,102 miles