THE weather forecast for the 1st of October 2017 was one of rain and strong winds. For some, the Met Office, despite a generally high level of accuracy, still labours under a reputation for the opposite, which it gained in past decades when meteorology was rather more hit and miss. I was therefore subconsciously hoping for blue skies and sunshine in total defiance of the forecast. It was, if you like, my personal forecast. Imagine then my joy and excitement when I woke that morning and threw back the curtains to reveal…
…Rain and strong winds. Score one for science and nil for blind hope and prejudice. There was nothing for it, now, but to eat a hearty breakfast, wrap up warm and trust that my waterproofs would only fail to live up to that description as much as they normally did.
Prince’s House Hotel
The Prince’s House Hotel — occupying the site of the 17th century Stage House coaching inn — duly fed me that breakfast and wished me well as I set off into the rain. The clouds, as if sensing that their handiwork would be wasted on a man so full of bacon and sausages, dialled down their efforts to a mere drizzle.
I made my way through the village of Glenfinnan (Gleann Fhionnain, ‘St Finnan’s valley’) via a route that diverted off the main road. Before long, I was back at the visitors’ centre, where I paused to look down the length of Loch Shiel (Loch Seile).
Loch Shiel is a freshwater loch, 17½ miles in length, and it was my cunning plan for the day to walk down most of its eastern shore. This meant that my walk would be more littoral than coastal but I justified it within my head on the basis that Loch Shiel was joined to the sea before post-glacial rebound lifted it up and cut it off. At that time, the northern end connected with Loch Eil, making what is now Ardgour (Àird Ghobhar, ‘high place of the goats’) an island. My walk was thus ex-coastal; I’d only missed it being the sea by about ten millennia.
A Bonus Bridge!
As I had passed the visitors’ centre the previous day, I’d noticed a footpath leading to a bridge across the Callop River. This made me very happy as there was no such bridge on my OS map. Without it, I would be looking at a detour of two to three miles. I thus bounded along the footpath with joy in my step.
The path was mostly composed of boardwalk, conveying me over marshy terrain, and, unlike the bridge, it was on my map, following an older road alignment towards this:
MacKellaig Memorial Cairn
The plaque on the cairn reveals that it is in memory of Donald MacKellaig of the Stage House Inn (now the hotel I had stayed in) and that he died in 1910. A little research tells me that he was a respected member of the local community who took over the running of the inn in 1900 and ran it until his death. The inn continued in his family’s possession until 1938, when it passed into other ownership.
Close to the cairn was the footbridge and I have to admit I was still slightly apprehensive as to whether it would or would not exist. I needn’t have worried; a bridge had been erected sometime around 2008, fashioned from planks like the boardwalk.
I made it across without incident and stood on what, a mere ten thousand years earlier, had been the island of Ardgour.
Loch Shiel Ferry
In more recent times — the turn of the 20th century — the loch shore near the footbridge had been the site of the passenger pier for the Loch Shiel Ferry. The ferry existed because, prior to the building of a new road in 1967, the village of Acharacle (Àth Tharracail) at the southern end of Loch Shiel was extremely isolated and the easiest way to access it was by boat from Genfinnan.
Ferry services were provided by the Loch Shiel Steam Boat Company Limited and the trip was by no means cheap: in 1905 a single passenger fare was 4/- and a return 6/6 (that’s 20p and 32½p in decimal pence but those pennies went a bit further back then; in 2017 prices that would be about £22 single and £36 return).
The Clanranalds & Lochshiel
In 1899, the company began operations with a steamboat called Clanranald but that was found to have too deep a draught to reach Callop Pier during summer months. A new boat, Clanranald II, replaced her in 1900 and lasted until 1953, when David MacBrayne Ltd (forerunner to the modern CalMac) took over the route with a modern motorboat, Rosalind.
In the words of the CalMac history website that boat’s English-sounding name ‘went down like a concrete kite’ with the locals — one of them even painted out her name — and MacBrayne quickly rechristened her Lochshiel. The Loch Shiel Steam Boat Company, which had already surrendered its mail contract to MacBrayne, gave up the ghost entirely at this point and was formally wound up in 1955.
Although Lochshiel was moved elsewhere in 1962, the ferries continued until the new road made them obsolete in 1967. After that period, ferries were replaced by loch cruises until those also ceased.
Today, tourist cruises are again available, Loch Shiel Cruises having commenced operation in 1998 with their 50-passenger vessel MV Sileas. Taking their boat would certainly have been a quicker way to travel down the length of the loch but I was resolved to rely on Shanks’s pony.
Loch Shiel Forestry Road
I set off along the rough forestry track that runs down the Ardgour side of Loch Shiel. The far bank — the Moidart side — lacked even that and would have been much tougher going.
Overhead, the clouds rushed busily from left to right and in the distance, echoing off the mountainsides, I heard the unmistakeable sound of a red deer stag proclaiming that it was his glen and any other stags should stay the hell away from his does.
At this point, the rain was still just light drizzle and I was rather enjoying my loch-side amble. Then, suddenly, the loch ahead disappeared; a band of serious rain was lying in wait.
A few moments later I walked into what is best characterised as a squall, which feels a lot like walking into a wall only colder and wetter. There was heavy rain and a belting wind and quite a lot of noise and then, just as suddenly, I was through it; the drizzle seemed almost comforting after that.
This set the pattern for the rest of the day with sudden bursts of intense rain and wind interspersed with light breezes and drizzle. I was fortunate, I realised, that the mountains on my left were diverting the worst of the wind up and over my head. The only downside to this was that I knew that later I would also have climb over those hills, face-on into the wind. But that was a problem for later. For now, I had my loch-side solitude to enjoy…
No sooner had I thought that, I saw a jetty reaching out into the loch with small boats moored to it. I didn’t see any actual people — it was a Sunday and noone was at work — but I knew this location was Guesachan (giùthsachan, ‘pine wood’).
Formerly a sheep-farmer’s cottage, it now acts as the road access point for Marine Harvest (Scotland) Ltd, a salmon-farming subsidiary of Norway-based fish farming giant Marine Harvest Group.
MHS operates 49 sea farms, with two sites in Loch Shiel since 1985. The actual farm sites are on the Moidart side but — as previously mentioned — that has no roads, hence the need for a jetty and a boat at Guesachan.
In the early Ordnance Survey name books, compiled when OS was first drawing up and labelling its maps, Guesachan was inhabited by a Mr Rankin who supplied names for many local features.
As an avid user of OS maps, I felt more than a passing gratitude and it seems appropriate that it was only because I had an OS map that I knew that Guesachan was where I was.
A small bridge crossed the Allt Coire Ghuibhsachain (‘stream of the pinewood corrie’), beyond which the track led to Camas Luinge (‘ship bay’), where it climbed slightly higher up the hillside.
About a mile onwards from Camas Luinge, I finally encountered some pine trees when I reached the edge of the Glenhurich Forest, a pine plantation that would flank the loch for the rest of my walk along it.
At this point, another fierce squall rolled over and I was at once both pleased for what little shelter the trees could offer and at the same time concerned. Where oak trees bend, pine trees snap and I’ve seen before the devastation that a strong, sudden downburst can wreak on pine forest (though thankfully only after the fact). I quickly concluded that it was too late to have such thoughts now — while in the midst of the pine forest — and if I was going to be killed by a falling tree or flying splinters there was precious little I could do about it.
With a fatalistic shrug, I pressed onwards and almost immediately the squall did likewise, the wind dropping back to a light breeze. It was as if the weather had written me off as no fun and gone looking for someone else to torment. I made the most of my respite and quickened my pace along the track.
Two miles into the forest, the track descended into a valley and crossed the narrow stream of the Allt Scamodale. Beyond it, set back from the track was the old farmstead of Scamodale, whose Victorian resident — AM Naughton — was as helpful to the OS name book compilers as his neighbour was.
The realisation that Guesachan and Scamodale are at once next-door neighbours and yet four miles apart really brought home to this London-dwelling mammal how sparsely settled the Highlands are in comparison with the rest of Great Britain (and arguably, this was still the crowded part).
Scamodale’s name is clearly not Gaelic but Norse (though can be rendered into Gaelic spelling as Sgamadal) and possibly derives from Norse skam meaning ‘short’ (thus ‘short valley’).
Eilean Mhic Dhomhnuill Dhuibh
I didn’t actually lay eyes on Scamodale, as it was screened from the track by trees. From its short dale, the track climbed again, still flanked by forest, until a gap in the trees gave me a rain-veiled glimpse of the loch:
The reason for the island’s name was no doubt connected to what lay directly across the loch. Looking over to the Moidart side, I found myself staring directly up Glenaladale, home to the MacDonalds of Glenaladale.
They were keen supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite cause and later raised the Glenfinnan Monument in memory of his failed revolt. The prince even stayed in Glenaladale House the night before he raised his banner at Glenfinnan.
Glenaladale is one of those names where two of the elements mean the same thing, The ‘Ala’ part comes from the Norse name Ali while ‘glen’ and ‘dale’ are Gaelic and Norse for valley. So, that’s two words for valley, neither of which — unlike the English — rhyme with ‘Ali’.
About another mile and three quarters further on along the shore I came to the third and last dwelling on Loch Shiel’s eastern shore, namely Gorstanvorran (Goirtean a’ Mhoirean, ‘Murray’s Enclosure’).
In addition to the bench in the photo above, there was another by the track and I thankfully sat and rested on it, rain be damned. That last thought proved unwise as providence, duly tempted, turned the rain dial up to eleven.
Moving on, I trudged along in torrential downpour as the visibility closed right in around me.
The rain had eased off marginally when I came to a sign warning me that unauthorised persons were not to enter the quarry that the track now passed. This was a surprise as I wasn’t expecting a quarry and had no other way to continue. I figured that, it being a Sunday, no one would be working anyway.
The quarry wasn’t entirely deserted however; in it I passed the only other people I saw while walking by Loch Shiel. They were a young, Italian-sounding couple clearly also out for a walk. The weather did not appear to be entirely to their liking.
I knew too that I was about to discover exactly why they looked so miserable for, though there were several more miles of Loch Shiel, I had come to the mouth of the River Polloch and would now be leaving it. And this meant, in the first instance, cresting a hill and receiving the full force of rain and wind to my face without all those mountains to shield me. I was not looking forward to it. And I was right not to.
Leaving Loch Shiel
Fortunately, the rain-blasting, gale-force horror of it was of fairly brief duration and I still retained some shreds of resolve and sanity as I dipped back down into the lee of the hills. The track was now running alongside the mouth of the Polloch and I was able to turn round and take one last, lingering look at Loch Shiel.
Polloch Car Park
The track wound along, roughly parallel to the Polloch and deposited me in a car park where I was able to stand in the shelter of a building’s porch and read my map. This was the hamlet of Polloch. A helpful sign warned me that I should have taken care on the walk I’d just done.
Actually the sign perplexed me slightly in that I had calculated the distance to be 13½ miles and, having gone back and measured it again on the map, I’m sticking with my figure. Still, it felt like it had been 16 miles and more besides. I asked the only local in sight how far she thought it was to walk to Glenfinnan…
Ms Common Frog
Actually, this lovely lady, warts and all, is no toad but a common frog (Rana temporaria). She was out and about enjoying what she no doubt thought was awesome weather and looking for a delicious diet of insects, slugs and worms.
The common frog hibernates in October so, had I been walking a month later, I’d not have seen her at all. As it was, I almost didn’t, which wouldn’t have ended well for her.
The Strontian Road
Taking my leave of Ms Common Frog, I headed out of Polloch on what was now a proper road. Polloch is the end of that road so I didn’t even have to worry about picking the right direction.
I’d gone maybe half a mile when the road crossed over the River Polloch on my second substantial bridge of the day. This one, to mix it up, was made of steel.
As I crossed the Polloch, I realised to my surprise that it had stopped raining. It must have surprised the weather fairies too as they promptly made up for their error by dropping another torrential downpour on my head.
When that had eased and I could actually see where I was going again, I found I was walking alongside Loch Doilet.
This was a much smaller loch than Loch Shiel, being only a mile and a half in length and 10 m deep (Loch Shiel is 120 m deep in places). However, given that I wasn’t diving in it and that the rain kept hiding its far end anyway, those figures were largely irrelevant to my experience.
On the shores of Loch Doilet, I had a choice. A footpath headed directly south, cresting the hills and making for Strontian, which was my destination. The road, meanwhile, first headed east, climbing slightly less steeply out of the glen and only then heading south.
When I planned this trip I had assumed that I would take the footpath but now I was having second thoughts. For one thing, I could see how high the hills were and they looked a lot more daunting in reality than they had on the map. The footpath promised to be not only steep but waterlogged and there was every chance that it would be poorly waymarked at the top, where the rainclouds would impede visibility.
I was, I realised, seriously considering taking the road route instead. This decision was confirmed when I reached the start of the footpath and found it flooded with rainwater. Some hasty mental re-planning followed as I continued on the road.
Tiring on Tarmac
It was almost certainly the correct decision. The road was steep enough to be brutal and climbed relentlessly for a mile and a half. On tarmac that was tiring, on boggy or uneven ground that would have been utterly exhausting.
For most of the climb I remained surrounded by Glenhurich Forest but when I got to 300 m I broke out of the tree line and into open moorland. A short final climb of 42 m took me to the summit where the rest of my walk was laid out before me. In the distance glistened Loch Sunart, on whose shores my walk would end.
Downhill All the Way
The next couple of miles were characterised by a fairly steeply descending road surrounded on all sides by moorland. As I got lower, the moorland turned into farms and the sky experimented for all of ten minutes with blue patches and sunshine before going back to greyness and rain.
The latter hit just as I reached Scotstown — a linear, spread-out village — and I saw a number of dog-walkers, no doubt lured out by the sun’s brief presence, scurrying back into cover. Further down, the stream that the road was running beside merged with the River Strontian, while Scotstown became Anaheilt and then Strontian proper.
Source of Strontium
Strontian (Sròn an t-Sìthein – ‘nose of the fairy mound’) is the main village of Sunart, which is the region west of Ardgour and south of Moidart. If you’re thinking that the name sounds like ‘strontium’ that’s no coincidence as that element was discovered in ores mined in Strontian in 1790.
By then, Strontian had been a mining town for almost half a century with the first mine opening in 1725. General Wade was one of its owners, along with the Duke of Norfolk and Sir Alexander Murray, who had discovered galena (a lead ore) there in 1722. Several mines soon sprang up and, though intermittently flooded and reopened, they continued to be worked until the 1980s.
Had I taken the footpath route, I’d have walked directly past one—the Corrantee Mine (Coire an t-Suidhe, ‘corrie of the seat’). But I was following the road, of course, and instead of conveying me past an abandoned mine, that chose to carry me past a closed village shop (it being late Sunday afternoon). I didn’t know that I was hungry until I saw that I couldn’t buy a sandwich and then it hit me with a vengeance.
And so, tired, damp and with my stomach rumbling, I crossed my third and last substantial bridge of the day, which spanned the River Strontian close to its mouth.
On the far side of the bridge I joined the A861 beside Loch Sunart. This was the road I’d walked the day before to its northern terminus at the head of Loch Eil. From there, it had followed the shore line down Loch Linnhe before cutting inland via Glen Tarbert.
This section of the A-road was considerably busier than the other but not all that much wider. Dodging the traffic, I crossed to the loch shore and looked out over Loch Sunart.
My hotel was also on the edge of Loch Sunart and I crossed the road once more to reach it. The hoteliers weren’t that surprised that I’d walked all the way from Glenfinnan — Scotland gets plenty of walkers — but they were a little bemused at my choice of weather in which to do it. They also confirmed that the footpath via Corrantee Mine is boggy and barely visible on top.
A hot bath and a good meal worked their usual wonders and I retired to my room to contemplate the next day. It also had terrible weather predicted and, just to add excitement, I’d thrown some ferries into the plan. Would they be running? Or would I have to devise a new plan? I’d find out in the morning…
This time: 21½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,123½ miles