CLXXXVIII – Mingarry to Lochailort

Helpful MammalTHE FIFTH day of my first walking trip of 2018 was also its last, a slightly-frustrating state of affairs that would see me reach Lochailort but not Mallaig. This had not been my original plan, which had included a sixth day, but ominous meteorological forecasts had promised that a Mini-Beast from the East would bring bad weather and likely heavy snow. I didn’t want to get to Mallaig only to find myself trapped there and so my plans had been curtailed.

Loch Shiel

Mingarry Park Lodge

In addition, I knew I’d be working through much of April and probably unable to return until May; I thus resolved to make the most of the opportunity and set off, after a hearty breakfast, with a spring in my step and, if not exactly a song in my heart, a tuneless cacophony that was meant to be a song.

I had stepped no more than a handful of metres out of the door of Mingarry Park Lodge when I was confronted with my first decision of the day.

Choosing My Adventure

Right up until the last minute before booking my trip, I had assumed that I would stay in Acharacle and that, after crossing Shiel Bridge, I would take the side road to Dorlin (Doirlinn) and the picturesque 13th-century Castle Tioram before walking along Loch Moidart’s southern shore to Ardmolich. The route along the shoreline there is called the Silver Walk and was built in the late 19th century and I had had every intention to take it.

But then, when actually booking accommodation, I had ended up staying at Mingarry Park, a mile or so beyond that turn-off. Should I now retrace my steps to the junction, or should I keep walking along the A861, which would take me past the northern shores of Loch Shiel (Loch Seile, ‘flowing loch’) and via couple of viewpoints? Tough call.

‘Well, I guess, I should keep going in the direction I’ve already gone in,’ I said to myself and, turning my back on the Silver Walk option, I set out east along the A-road.

Map showing that my starting point was the Mingarry Park Hotel
Leaving the hotel, you turn left and walk east, towards Loch Shiel. Ahead, you soon hear the sound of barking (turn to 308)

The sky was a patchwork of blue and white as the A861 snaked along, separated from Loch Shiel by about half a mile of marshland. After about a mile though, the distance between them narrowed and the marsh gave way to actual fields as the road entered the clachan of Dalnabreck (Dail nam Breac, ‘meadow of the trout’).

Dalnabreck is small and I have found no notes of historical interest that concern it but it afforded me a moment of confusion and amusement. As I was making my way through the hamlet I heard a dog bark to my left. Instinctively, I turned to look at it and saw, not a dog, but an elderly billy goat.

‘Blimey!’ I thought, ‘a barking goat!’

Progress map showing that I had reached Dalnabreck
I was impressed; there’s not too many goats that learn a second language!

Behind the barking goat were two other goats, followed by the farmer who owned them. Another bout of excited barking rang out without, I noticed, any of the goats opening their mouths. A barking ventriloquist goat, now that was a turn up for the books! Except, of course, behind the farmer lurked the dog actually making all the noise.

An Unhurriable Animal

By now I was staring at the goats in apparent confusion and, as I and the farmer locked eyes, I felt the need to explain, lest he take me for the kind of London-dwelling Englishman who’d never seen a goat in his life. He seemed pretty amused by it.

He was, he explained, taking them out to their field for the day, said field being a few yards down the road and on its lochward side. With great care and patience, he ushered the two younger goats along while the elderly billy sort of followed at a pace that suggested he’d get there when he felt like it.

‘Oh, he’ll not be hurried,’ said the farmer. The goat looked up, as if to dare me to try it. I declined the challenge.

The farmer and his goats soon turned off the road into their field and I continued out of Dalnabreck. Loch Shiel was pretty close now and looking much bluer than it had six walks ago. It was nice to see the loch again, like meeting an old friend.

Loch Shiel
Acquaintance, please. Let’s not get carried away.
Langal & Dalelia

The next clachan along was called Langal, taking its name from Old Norse for ‘long hill’. This was even smaller than Dalnabreck and marked the point where the A861 turned away from Loch Shiel to climb northwards over the hills.

An unclassified sideroad continued along the shore to Dalelia (Dàil an Leigh, ‘the physician’s meadow’), a tiny clachan which was the birthplace of Gaelic poet and lexicographer Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (c. 1698-1770), known in English as Alexander MacDonald.

Alexander MacDonald

A Jacobite officer, MacDonald had acted as Gaelic tutor to Prince Charles Edward Stuart (1720-1788) — also known as ‘the Young Pretender’ or ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ — and was the cousin of Flora MacDonald (1722-1790), who later helped the Prince escape (disguised as a maid) after his defeat at the 1746 Battle of Culloden.

Prior to his involvement in the Jacobite Rising of 1745, Alexander MacDonald had been a keen Protestant missionary of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (est. 1698 and still extant). He was employed as a teacher for the society and it was in that capacity that in 1732 he founded a school in Kilmory on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula (which village I had walked through the previous day); the society would eventually sack him when he deserted his post to join the Jacobite Rising.

MacDonald likely got his religious zeal from his father, the Rev Alexander MacDonald (Mhaighstir Alasdair) (d. 1824), who was the local Episcopalian minister. Residing at Dalelia, the elder MacDonald would regularly walk to Kilchoan to hold services and, though his exact route is not known, it was likely the path via Kilmory and Ockle that I had travelled the day before.

Progress map showing that I had reached Langal and the turning for Dalelia.
Apparently, yesterday’s walk was nothing special; to some, just a regular commute.
Eilean Fhianain

I did not take the road to Dalelia, for it is a dead end, becoming a track that ends in a pier from which boats would row across to Eilean Fhianain (St Finan’s Island) — an island in Loch Shiel upon which stood a chapel and a burial ground for Clan Ranald.

Clanranald arms

Clan Ranald, or the MacDonalds of Clanranald, are a branch of Clan Donald who claim their descent from the first marriage John of Islay (1336-1386), great-grandson of the Donald (Domhnall mac Raghnaill) for whom the broader clan was named. Their seat was at Castle Tioram and their arms bore a typical selection of Clan Donald iconography. The MacDonalds of Dalelia were a cadet branch of Clan Ranald.

Reclassified Roads

Now unclassified, this road was for about thirty years (1930s-’60s) designated as the B8006, a number now given to a road in Fort William. In those days, the A861, along which I continued, had borne a B-classification as the B850. As such, it had run from Salen, south of Acharacle, to Kinlochmoidart, where it came to an end.

Progress map showing that I had reached the second turning for Dalelia
Though not nearly as dead an end as the other, as it lacked a funereal ferry.

A and B designations were invented and assigned in the 1920s but by then the Kinlochmoidart Road was already over a century old, having been built by engineer Thomas Telford (1757-1834) sometime around 1810.

Last Look at Loch Shiel

The A-road, following Telford’s line, swung north and climbed to a height of 103 m. On the way up, I passed a rather sad picnic spot whose dilapidated table had hardly any seat left intact enough to sit on. I thus elected not to dawdle but did pause to take one last picture of Loch Shiel from my now elevated vantage point.

Loch SHiel from picnic site
Goodbye, old friend acquaintance. I shall take this photo, lest you ever be forgot.
Looming Hills Ahead

Near the summit of the road the road itself changed character, widening to permit a lane each way. As I approached this magical point of transformation, I saw much higher hills (400+ m) looming up ahead, a massive wall to halt my progress.

Moidart's hills ahead
Nuh-uh. You’re not coming through here.

Loch Moidart

Captain Robertson’s Cairn

Standing watch over the road at this point were three conical cairns, none of which were actually ‘Captain Robertson’s Cairn 1868’ as marked on my Ordnance Survey map.

Progress map showing that I had reached Cpt Robertson's (replacement) cairns
Ha! You cairn’t fool me so easily!

For one thing, the original cairn to commemorate the demise of army officer Capt WJ Robertson — a member of an important local family — no longer stands; these three were later additions erected as its close neighbours (perhaps because it was falling down). For another, he died in 1869, so my map would have us believe they built his memorial before he had actually died. That seems a bit rude.

Three memorial cairns
Or an unusually labour-intensive death threat.
Robertson of Kinlochmoidart arms

The captain’s coat of arms, as a Robertson of Kinlochmoidart, were the three silver wolves’ heads on red of Robertson of Struan (the chiefs of Clan Robertson, also known as Clan Donnachaidh) differenced by a bordure and three interlaced gold crescents.

MacDonalds of Kinlochmoidart

Captain Robertson’s family had presumably already been quite important when a member of an earlier generation — another army officer but a lieutenant colonel this time — married Margaret MacDonald of Kinlochmoidart, whose nephew owned pretty much all the land around Loch Moidart.

The MacDonalds of Kinlochmoidart were a cadet branch of Clan Ranald who came to own much of the area from the 14th century and whose seat was Castle Tioram. Staunch Jacobites, they lost the castle when it was destroyed during the 1715 Jacobite Rising.

Kinlochmoidart House

In the 1740s, Donald MacDonald of Kinlochmoidart built himself a nice, new house which he almost immediately lost by repeating the mistakes of his forefathers and supporting the 1745 Jacobite Rising of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Of course, Charlie was defeated and fled (at one point disguised as a maid) and Donald MacDonald was captured and executed. The house was burnt down in reprisal, which was in itself an act of senseless spite because the whole estate was promptly confiscated only now it didn’t have a country house.

The MacDonalds didn’t get it back until 1786, when Donald’s grandson John managed to buy it back for the sum of £1,111 15/5. John had no heirs, however, so when he died it went to his aunt, the aforementioned Margaret MacDonald.

The Robertson MacDonalds hung on to the estate for just under another century, during which it switched to sheep farming with the usual resultant wave of clearances, but sold it to Glaswegian distiller Robert Stewart in 1882 for the sum of £35k. He then built a new house, which cost him another nine grand.

Glen Moidart

Four years later, Stewart added Glen Moidart (the valley upstream of the loch) to his lands, having bought it from neighbouring landowner Hugh Robertson Ross (there’s the Robertsons again).

Glen Moidart
Glen Moidart — a more impressive extension than the average suburban conservatory.

The Stewarts still own Kinlochmoidart today but Glen Moidart they sold in the 1940s. Whoever owns it now, my view up it came courtesy of a second viewpoint, this time with a picnic table at which I could actually sit and munch snacks, drink coffee and generally take a breather.

Progress map showing that I had reached the viewpoint overlooking Glen Moidart
Sometimes, the best bit of walking is when you stop.

Looking in the other direction, I could see Loch Moidart in the distance, a patch of shining blue to which I would next descend. The road curved down into Ardmolich Wood to emerge, a mile later, beside the head of the loch.

View down Loch Moidart
The shoreline on the left was very much the Path Not Taken.

I was reminded as I neared the loch of the decision I had made on leaving Mingarry Park Lodge for, as I descended to sea level, I passed the far end of the Silver Walk. I had a brief stab of regret then that I wouldn’t be seeing the ruins of Castle Tioram but I assuaged my regrets at not walking Loch Moidart’s southern shoreline by pointing out to myself that I still had to walk its northern one.

To get to the northern shore, I first had to cross the River Moidart and for that purpose the hamlet of Ardmolich (Aird Molach, ‘the scrubby height’) offered not one but two bridges:

Ardmolich Bailey Bridge
Rdmolich Bailey bridge
This is the new bridge. By which I mean that I think it’s older than I am.

The bridge above, carrying the A861, is a metal Bailey bridge, built to the design invented by engineer Sir Donald Coleman Bailey OBE (1901-1985) in 1941.

I couldn’t find out for certain when this example was built but it seems probable that it was in 1966 when the B850 became the A861. Certainly, it’s not on Ordnance Survey maps from 1961 but is shown by 1974.

Ardmolich Old Bridge
Ardmolich Old Bridge
This one is definitely older than I am

The old Ardmolich Bridge dates back to when Thomas Telford built the first proper road from the Corran Ferry on Loch Linnhe to Kinlochmoidart. Sources seem to disagree whether it was built c. 1804 (which was when he surveyed the route) or 1815 but the latter seems more likely for when it was actually completed. Category B listed, today it serves pedestrians like me but is no longer open to motor traffic.

Old Brunery Bridge

As venerable as Telford’s bridge it is, it is still not the oldest bridge across the River Moidart, for that stands a mile further upstream.

The Old Brunery Bridge was built in 1799 by mason John Stevenson of Oban and cost £100. It linked the track road between Ardmolich and Brunery Farm (which is now an unclassified road meeting the A861 beside the Ardmolich Old Bridge) to a track running up from Dalelia. And indeed it still does, though the latter track is now downgraded to a footpath.

Progress map showing that I had crossed the River Moidart on Ardmolich Old Bridge
Now I have old bridge envy. Ah well, the moss is always greener on the other bridge.
St Finan’s Church

Having crossed the Moidart, I walked past St Finan’s Scottish Episcopal Church, built in 1858 by William Robertson-Macdonald (1802-1883).

It had a brief initial existence, falling into disuse by the 1900s but restored in 1965 so that the daughter of the estate’s then owner, Maj Gen Stewart, could get married there. Its second lease of life has now been longer than its first!

Progress map showing that I had reached St Finan's Church
William didn’t literally build himself; he has people for that. Architect Alexander Ross (1834–1925) was hired to design it, which he did in the Early English Gothic style.

The hamlet north of the Moidart was Kinlochmoidart (Ceann Loch Mùideart, ‘head of Loch Moidart’), though the latest version of Kinlochmoidart House (a baronial style shooting lodge built in 1884) stood a good half-mile from the A-road.

Seven Men of Moidart Memorial

As the road turned west to run beside the loch, it was initially separated from the water by a strip of marshy fields. In those fields stood a number of beech trees commemorating the Seven Men of Moidart, while a roadside cairn and expositary signs helped to explain who they were:

Seven men of Moidart info signs and cairn
Well, seven men, obviously. But mostly not from Moidart.

The Seven Men of Moidart were supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie during his doomed 1745 Jacobite Rising. Which means, given that they lost, that they were officially a bunch of vile traitors. As such, they didn’t get their little bunch of commemorative trees until the early nineteenth century, by which time the act of planting them wasn’t itself considered a crime of sedition.

1745 Jacobite Rising

The Jacobites actually did pretty well to begin with, defeating the Government’s troops at the Battle of Prestonpans and then invading England.

Unfortunately for Charlie, while the Highlanders were happy to follow him, their hearts bursting with romantic notions of patriotism, English and Welsh Jacobites were considerably less impressed. They might support his cause in principle but they were small in number and he had grown up in Rome and was now backed by France, England’s greatest enemy. Also, they just didn’t pick him for a winner. Of course, without support on the ground, that was a self-fulfilling prophecy and Charlie retreated back to Scotland pursued by the Duke of Cumberland.

Despite the Jacobites winning another victory at Falkirk on the way, Cumberland caught them at Culloden and crushed their dream once and for all. For the next five months, the Prince was a fugitive with a £30 k price on his head, eventually managing to flee to France and an exile from which he was never coming back.

The Seven Men

The Seven Men of Moidart were those who landed with him in 1745, on his way to raise his standard at Glenfinnan. They were:

  • William Murray, Marquess of Tullibardine (and Jacobite claimant to the dukedom of Atholl), who was captured and died in captivity.
  • Sir Thomas Sheridan, the Prince’s Irish preceptor, who managed to escape to France.
  • Sir John MacDonald, an Irish cavalry officer in the French Army who surrendered and became a POW.
  • Aeneas MacDonald, a Paris banker and actual man of Moidart, being a younger brother to the Laird of Kinlochmoidart; he was banished.
  • John William O’Sullivan, an Irish officer in the French army who successfully escaped to France.
  • Rev George Kelly, an Irish Protestant clergyman in the Prince’s service who also escaped to France.
  • Francis Strickland, an English gentleman from Westmorland who died at Carlisle.
The Trouble with Trees

The 19th century trees lasted until 1988 when storm damage required new trees to be planted. The new trees failed to thrive however so even newer trees were added in 2002. Looking at them now, I’d say it just looks like a handful of haphazardly-placed trees.

Progress map showing that I had reached the Seven Men of Moidart Memorial
If at first you don’t succeed / Tree, tree again.
Mud Fjord

As I left Kinlochmoidart and headed west, the A861 lunged sideways to run right along the northern shoreline of Loch Moidart (Loch Mùideart).

The loch’s name means ‘muddy sea loch’, with Mùideart being a Gaelic derivation from Old Norse mod (mud) and fjordr (fjord, firth or sea loch). I peered into the loch, to see if it looked muddy.

Kinlochmoidart Pier
Loch Moidart piered right back
Kinlochmoidart Pier

Kinlochmoidart Pier has clearly seen some better times, its wooden pierhead having been reduced to just the mouldering piles. The stone part closest to shore remains pretty solid though.

Stone is not only what it is built from but what it was built for, it having been constructed around 1882 to land the sandstone used for the 1882-4 construction of the current Kinlochmoidart House. It was not the first pier on that site though, a presumably less robust pier having been shown on Ordnance Survey maps at least as early as 1876.

Progress map showing that I had reached Kinlochmoidart Pier
The 1876 1st edition OS map for the area was actually surveyed around 1873; but that’s still just the earliest date we can show it was there. The original pier might have already been there for years.
Along the A-Road

With Kinlochmoidart behind me, I strolled merrily alongside Loch Moidart with its waters to my left and a wooded hillside to my right. Occasionally I would fancy that I could see bits of old stone wall or raised pathway amid the trees and, once or twice, I dived off through the undergrowth to investigate.

Old Drovers’ Road

A quick consultation with my map revealed that yes, there was indeed a footpath there, though quite overgrown in places. It was in fact the original track to Glenuig from before this section of modern road had been constructed in 1966 (Telford’s road had ended at Kinlochmoidart) and had, like so many old roads, functioned as a drovers’ road; in the 19th and early 20th centuries cattle were driven along it to (and from) Kinlochmoidart and Telford’s road to the market at Salen.

In the latter period, two brothers, Archie and Angus MacDougall of Egnaig, were employed to maintain it. Unfortunately, their efforts having ceased long ago, what was left of it looked to be tough going and so I opted to stick to the modern road, which also kept me closer to the loch.

Progress map showing that I was passing Meall na h-Uamh
I stuck with the road made for drivers, rather than drovers.
Brief Burst of Rain

As if sensing my appreciation for large volumes of water, the weather experimented with a short, sharp rain-burst at that point but, having not received the anticipated appreciation, it quickly moved on in high dudgeon.

Assorted Islands

Soon, I was reaching the western end of Loch Moidart, where I gazed across in the general direction of Castle Tioram, which was screened from me by several islands.

various islands in the loch
Tòrr Port a’ Bhàta (‘mound of boat bay’) on the left is a promontory of the mainland, while the opposite headland is Shona Beag, a peninsula of Eilean Shona. Seen between them is Eilean an Fhèidh (‘deer island’). Castle Tioram’s about two islands further back.
Eilean Shona & Shona Beag

Despite being part of the larger island of Eilean Shona (Eilean Seòna), Shona Beag (‘little Shona’) isn’t easily accessible from the main part of that island but can be walked to (at low tide) from the mainland via a causeway; the rest of Shona is only accessibly by boat.

Consequently, despite being physically one island, Shona and Shona Beag fell into two different estates, with the latter being part of Kinlochmoidart. Robertson MacDonald built himself a villa (Invermoidart House) on Shona Beag in 1882.

Port a’ Bhàta

On the eastern side of Tòrr Port a’ Bhàta (off the edge of the above photo) is the bay from which it takes its name. Uninhabited now, from the late 18th century to 1915, it housed a settlement (also called Port a’ Bhàta).

Most of the inhabitants were cleared in 1846 and the various tenancies consolidated into one sheep farm. This passed then through several owners but was vacated in 1915 and never occupied again.

Progress map showing that I had passed Tòrr Port a' Bhàta
Port a’ Bhàta had nine inhabited houses in the 1841 census but was down to four in 1851, just two in 1861 and one thereafter until that too was abandoned.
An Dùn & Bealach Carach

A little further along from where I took that last photo, both roads passed close to the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, known as An Dùn (literally ‘the fort’), the very existence of which suggest that a path along the loch shore might go back considerably further than the MacDougall brothers.

Once past An Dùn, the road veered inland and climbed, curving northwards towards the Bealach Carach (‘winding pass’), which was the route by which I’d cross Moidart’s hills.

Moidart War Memorial
At the top was a reminder of others who had passed
Moidart War Memorial

Although my OS map said it was printed in 2015, it didn’t have Moidart’s war memorial marked on it. The memorial was erected in 2014, marking a hundred years since the start of WW1, and this was largely due to the efforts of ex-soldier Donald Monro.

In 2013, the then-71 Mr Monro realised that Moidart had no memorial to its war dead and set about raising the funds to erect one. The local community proved generous and he quickly met his target of £5 k. Its inscription reads:

‘In proud memory of the men and women of Moidart who gave up their lives in two world wars 1914-18 and 1939-45. For your tomorrow we gave our today.’
Progress map showing that I had reached Moidart War Memorial
The memorial is a simple cairn, and lists no names; it turns out that five grand doesn’t stretch very far when purchasing memorials. But this is one of those situations where it really is the thought that counts.

Sound of Arisaig

Glen Uig

Once through the pass, the road began the long, slow descent through Glen Uig, taking a couple of miles to drop back to sea level.

An overgrown-looking footpath split off at the head of the valley and ran down the other side, following the line of the original drove road. It was tempting but I elected to stay on the tarmac of the A861. This made for an easy and largely — but not entirely — uneventful amble down to Glenuig.

This Little Piggy Says ‘Whatever’

The sole event of interest occurred about half a mile from the village, as I gazed across the glen towards a farmhouse whose access track, I was sure, must be the old drove road alignment (which it was). A snuffling sound close by arrested my attention and I suddenly became aware of two pairs of eyes watching me warily from the long grass of the verge. A sow and her piglet were nosing about there and I’d stopped right beside them, no more than five metres away.

I looked at them, they looked at me, both parties apparently quite surprised to see each other.

Progress map showing I had reached a point half a mile south of Glenuig
Er… hello?

Mother Pig blinked first, having come to the conclusion that I was no threat and she had some urgent snuffling about to get on with. The piglet kept watching me, still a bit uncertain, but soon joined its mother in rooting through the verge plants.

I, feeling like I’d just been snubbed by pigs, continued on my way to Glenuig.


Glenuig (Gleann Ùige, ‘bay valley’) is a small village with twenty-five scattered houses and a community shop. I was particularly glad of the latter because I wanted a cold drink and possibly an ice cream. But the question was, would it be open? Such shops often have limited hours and I have a knack of arriving at shops and cafés after they’ve shut. Was I once again too late?

Glenuig Community Shop
Nope, too early by a couple of hours!

It was frustrating to be denied my cold drink but that could only make me a more appreciative audience for an immediate burst of cool, refreshing rain, right? The gathering clouds gave it a go just in case.

Glenuig Inn

I glanced at my bag, in which my waterproofs were tightly packed, and then I looked about me in case an alternative course of action should present. What I saw was the Glenuig Inn, facing onto Glenuig Bay and open for business. Marvellous! I hadn’t been wanting alcohol but I wasn’t averse to it either; a gin and tonic would still answer the description of ‘cold drink’. And so it did.

The Glenuig Inn turned out to be a bit of a gin palace, with a bewildering array of gins and an equally baffling range of tonics. The barmaid turned out to be new and still learning so we concocted a semi-random choice of both based on her notes.

Since I was now going to be sitting down in a pub for a while, it also seemed an excellent chance to grab lunch, an opportunity that quickly cemented itself as a certainty when I saw Cullen skink on their menu. This, for anyone unfortunate enough to have never been acquainted with it, is a classic Scottish soup made from smoked haddock, potato, onions, cream and general warm, filling deliciousness. I couldn’t resist…

Progress map showing that I had reached the Glenuig Inn
If your Cullen skink contains actual skink, something has gone badly wrong.  Fortunately, mine did not.
Glenuig Bay

As I ate my Cullen skink and drank my G&T — and maybe another — the rain turned up in intensity as if still trying to get to me through the roof. This brought several other people running in through the doors but could not diminish my soup-eating experience. By the time I had finished and was ready to leave, the rain had run out of impetus and was reduced to a final few spots before stopping. The sky was soon mostly blue again and I was ready to move on. I bade Glenuig Bay farewell.

Glenuig Bay
So long, and thanks for all the soup.
Rubh’ a’ Chairn Mhòir

The road out of Glenuig led north up the eastern side of Glenuig Bay then curved around the headland of Rubh’ a’ Chairn Mhòir (‘big cairn point’) to head east while facing onto the Sound of Arisaig. I strode quickly and confidently along but soon passed a road sign that informed me that I had taken the A861’s hazards far too lightly.

'Sheep in road' sign altered to show an elephant.
I didn’t think it was a trunk road!
Coffin Path

Infested by elephants or not, the A861 stuck resolutely to the coast while an old coffin path alignment climbed up and cut across the headland. I gave this latter route enough consideration that I even started to climb its steep ascent but quickly decided that it had become too warm a day for such nonsense when I could be walking on the flat, right beside the loch.

The A861
Besides, I might see an elephant down here. Road signs wouldn’t lie.

It wasn’t long before I came to the point where the old, coffin path rejoined the A-road at Forsay Caravan Park.


In the 18th century, Forsay (Forsaid, ‘waterfall’) was the place in Moidart where Bonnie Prince Charlie’s boat landed on his way, via Kinlochmoidart and Dalelia, to Glenfinnan, which would seem to make it a more obvious place for memorial trees than Kinlochmoidart.

As we know, the 1745 Rising ended in disaster for Charlie and the Duke of Cumberland, to drive the point home, burnt the house at Forsay to the ground (as at Kinlochmoidart).

Progress map showing that I had reached Forsay.
That would explain the need for all the caravans, I guess.

Loch Ailort

Eilean nan Gobhar

Further along the coast from Forsay and opening onto the Sound of Arisaig from the east was Loch Ailort (Loch Ailleart) near the head of which my day’s walk would end.

I soon approached the mouth of the loch, passing Eilean nan Gobhar (‘goat island’) and Sgeir Ghlas (‘grey skerry’). Though uninhabited now, the island has the vitrified remnants of no less than two Iron Age forts.

Eilean nan Gobhar
It was Goat Island and the goats intended to defend it.

Before I could venture up the shores of Loch Ailort (pronounced EYE-lert), the road veered slightly inland through the hamlet of Roshven (Rosbheinn), named for Rois-bheinn, Moidart’s tallest mountain at 878 m.

Rois-bheinn’s name looks like it ought to mean ‘rose-hill’ but is actually a Norse-Gaelic mash-up meaning ‘horse hill’. I guess the horses liked to look down on the goats.

Progress map showing that I had reached Roshven
The horses were compensating for a crippling sense of inadequacy because they’d never learnt fluent Dog.

The hamlet of Roshven was previously named Irine and under that name its tack (i.e. lease) was granted to Ranald MacDonald in 1749. He was brother to both Donald MacDonald of Kinlochmoidart (executed in 1746 for his part in the 1745 Rising) and Aeneas MacDonald (the banished ‘Man of Moidart’).

Jemima Blackburn

In 1854 Roshven was purchased by Hugh Blackburn (1823-1909), a maths professor at Glasgow University and friend of the physicist Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) of absolute temperature fame.

Hugh’s wife Jemima (1823-1909) was the youngest daughter of James Wedderburn, Solicitor General for Scotland, and, having been given an illustrated book of birds at the age of four by her aunt, had been inspired to become a talented watercolourist and illustrator. So much so, in fact, that when she met painter and sculptor Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) at the age of twenty, he said that in the painting of animals he had nothing more to teach her. Landseer was, of course, the sculptor of the lions at the base of Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square.

Naturally, given an environment like Roshven, Jemima painted its birds and other wildlife extensively. She and her husband also built Roshven Farm, beside the gate of which I stole a quick rest some 160-odd years later.

Loch Ailort from Roshven
This photo I snapped there might not be amazing but it was quicker than painting a watercolour.

Beyond Roshven, the road swung back to run directly beside the waters of the loch and the loch itself curved northwards. I followed it around, tired but joyful as a band of dark and threatening rain clouds paraded past me but missed me by about quarter of a mile. For me, the sky remained blue and the sun was warm but not uncomfortable.

Before long, the road brought me to a junction, where a minor side-road led off to the farmstead of Alisary. This side-road was actually the alignment of the original track and coffin-path and I had until that moment intended to take it, but, on the day, I decided I was having too much fun down by the loch-side and that I was quite content to stay there. So I did.

Loch Ailort
And who can blame me?
Looking Back
Loch Ailort
I paused in several places to look back down the loch.
Progress map showing I had reached a point opposite Eilean Dubh an Aonaich.
These stops were about fifty-fifty between simply admiring the view and taking a bit of a rest.
Fish Farm

Loch Ailort is only about five miles long so my loch-side jaunt could not last forever. As the afternoon shaded into evening, I rounded a small headland and found myself gazing upon the last mile of its waters, which were dominated by a fish farm.

Fish farm
Do fish farmers shout ‘Oi! Get off my water!’ I wonder…
Inverailort House

Close by the head of the loch is Inverailort, where the River Ailort, carrying waters from Loch Eilt, empties into Loch Ailort. Overlooking this is Inverailort House, a farmhouse rebuilt as a shooting lodge in 1875.

The original farmhouse was bought from Clan Ranald in 1828 by Lt Col Sir Alexander Cameron (1781-1850), a veteran of the Peninsular War and Waterloo, who by the time of his death had become a major general and been knighted. After his death, his son Duncan (1819-1874) inherited the property but when he died in 1874 it was left to his 15-year old daughter Christian (1859-1941).

Progress map showing that I had reached Inverailort House
Residing in her newly-expanded shooting lodge home, Christian enthusiastically took up shooting of a very different kind…
Christian Cameron-Head

Christian may well have been the first person ever to photograph Loch Ailort, taking to that hobby with a passion in no way diminished by the unwieldy nature of early cameras or the fragility of their glass plates.

In time, she married an ex-army Captain and shipping magnate named James Head (1851-1922) and they legally adopted the hyphenated surname Cameron-Head.

Various arms of the Camerons and Cameron-Heads of Inverailort
Sir Alexander’s rather fiddly military arms comprised the three gold bars on red of Cameron differenced by an ermine bend and embattled silver chief which showed the hunting horn of the light infantry and his Peninsula and Waterloo medals. He married Christina MacDonell of Barrisdale, whose brother Archibald died without issue in 1862 making Duncan and then Christian his heirs . Christian’s even fiddlier arms showed this by quartering Cameron of Inverailort with MacDonell of Barrisdale. Her descendants did away with that quarter but made the arms more fiddly still by including a paternal quarter sub-quartering the chevron and unicorns’ heads of Head with the broken bones and ermine canton of Mendez.
Wartime Requisition

In a tragic development, given her family’s military connections, the War Office seems to have brought about the aged Christian’s death in 1940 when it requisitioned Inverailort House while she was on a trip to London. She returned to home to unexpectedly find soldiers in her house and her property being moved out; the shock sent her into a rapid decline and she died the following year. The house was then used for top secret commando training until returned to Christian’s son, Francis Cameron-Head (1896-1957) in 1945.

It remains in the hands of his family today though now in a ruinous state.

Inverailort House
Take note: going commando can shock an old lady to death.
Ailort Bridge

I crossed the River Ailort on a bridge upon which a plaque proudly proclaimed it as ‘Part of the new highway linking Lochailort with Kinlochmoidart’ and dating it to 1966 (when the A861 was opened).

From the bridge, the road climbed away from the loch and up the side of the valley. I knew it couldn’t go too far though since the settlement of Lochailort is called Cean Loch Ailleart in Gaelic, meaning ‘head of Loch Ailort’. That being so, since I was already at the actual head of the loch, I had to be close.

Progress map showing that I had reached Ailort Bridge
There was just a quarter mile left, though my tired feet complained that it felt further.

Just minutes later, I found myself looking at the Lochailort Inn, which is very nearly all of Lochailort by itself.

Lochailort Inn
Lochailort Inn
If it was good enough for Christian Cameron-Head then it’s good enough for me. She stayed in the inn when she found her house requisitioned.

The Lochailort Inn sat beside the A830 — the Road to the Isles — which the A861 had just met. An inn has stood on that site since at least the 1650s, when there was only a drove road passing through the Rough Bounds (na Garbh-Chriochain) as the region was known.

In 1803, Thomas Telford set about making the drove road into a hardened one (though not the adjoining track to Glenuig). Despite gaining an A-number in the 1920s and being classified as a trunk road — but where are the elephants? — the A830 still had single-track sections until as recently as 2009.

Journey’s End

I will be walking the Road to the Isles on my next walk, whenever that is (soon I hope), but reaching the Lochailort Inn marked the end of this trip.

Map showing that I had reached my destination, the Lochailort Inn.
Excellent! Can I sit down now?

I booked into the inn and enjoyed a leisurely bath and a hot meal followed by a generally lazy evening. The following morning, I caught the train back to Glasgow (tiny Lochailort has a request stop) and from there south to London. That second train broke down on the way and getting home felt as though it took forever; I did, however, get there in the end.

Distance Summary

Hasteful MammalThis time: 16½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,255 miles

Combined map showing the whole route

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