MY PLAN for this walk, as originally envisioned, had been that I would travel up to Lochailort on the 9th of May and spend the night at Lochailort Inn, ready to set off for Mallaig in the morning. That did not happen. Thanks to something of a travel nightmare, I awoke in Glasgow instead. There, I had a hearty breakfast and boarded a train that left at 8 am, the same time I’d hoped to start walking. The rail journey from Glasgow to Lochailort takes approximately five hours, which meant that I didn’t even reach my starting point until lunchtime. This did give me an excuse to nip into the Lochailort inn for a sneaky lunchtime G&T to kick my walk off, but it also meant I only had half a day to complete a walk of about 18 miles. Would that even be possible?
Well, there was one easy way to find out…
Lochailort & Polnish
Road to the Isles
If my late start affected the character of the walk, it was nothing compared to the weather and the route. The skies were grey and drizzling determinedly, while the route for the day would be part of the famous Road to the Isles. Ah, how ruggedly romantic. Except, of course, the Road to the Isles is not some winding beaten track, it’s the A830 — an actual, functioning modern trunk road. Romance isn’t necessarily its strong point.
In fairness, I should probably point out that the road wasn’t merely a winding, beaten track when it was first constructed in 1815 either, although it did follow an ancient drove route that was. It was built by famed Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford (1757-1834) — nicknamed the ‘Colossus of Roads’ — during his tenure as engineer to the Highland Roads & Bridges Commission.
Where the drove road had been an informal track, his road was metalled with compacted gravel and was designed with good drainage. His road, which he called ‘the Loch-na-Gaul Road’, lasted virtually unchanged for a century and a half, bar resurfacing with tarmacadam (invented in 1902) and receiving an A-number when modern road designations came into being in 1923.
The trouble was, Telford’s road was quite narrow, being single-track pretty much all the way. As motor traffic arrived and then grew in volume, it quickly became inadequate for purpose.
A series of road improvements commenced in 1965, culminating in the doubling of the last single-track section in 2009. During these works, the road was realigned in several places, the tortuous twists of Telford’s roads (following the easiest line of construction) being unsuitable for modern, high-speed traffic.
Though obliterated or isolated in some places, in others the old road alignment persists as access roads to nearby farms or even side-roads to nowhere in particular. The white bollards distant in the photo above mark one such farm access road that used to be part of the Road to the Isles.
Now, I love an old road alignment as it lends a visible air of history to a road. I especially love an old road alignment when the weather is dismal and I have a fairly busy highway to follow, as it helps alleviate any boredom that might arise on a day where the views are less lovely than they might be.
Having said that, even amid rainy greyness, Loch Ailort did have something interesting to show me, veiled though it was by a misty curtain…
Standing on its northwest shore were the unmistakable remains of long-vanished buildings, structures that once formed the settlement of Lower Polnish.
Lower Polnish was never a large settlement, comprising little more than half a dozen scattered houses, but its population halved in the 1840s, probably due to the potato famine that struck the Highlands in 1846. It declined further through the remainder of the 19th century until only a single house remained.
That final stubborn-holdout is still there, though today it is a one-bedroom, off-grid holiday cottage which you have to walk to as its access track (never a part of the Loch-na-Gaul Road) is merely a footpath leading off from a layby. Also in the layby is a plaque proudly proclaiming that this particular section of A830 was improved in 1998. Well, good for it!
More-or-less opposite what’s left of Lower Polnish stands the former Polnish Chapel, also known as Our Lady of the Braes.
Built as a Catholic chapel in 1874 to serve both Upper and Lower Polnish, it lasted only ninety years, being abandoned in 1964. Thereafter, it slowly and sadly mouldered, an empty shell until very recently. Within the last few years, it was bought and converted into a house and could now be yours for around £220k.
The narrow road winding around the rock on which the chapel was built is not another section of Telford’s Loch-na-Gaul road, that having curved away to the north a little before this point, but a modern access road. The chapel’s original access track ran north to where Telford’s runs.
Polnish Railway Cottage
Telford’s road sort of rejoined the modern A830 a little further on when, with the railway line (opened 1901) running beside it, it headed south to end by Polnish Railway Cottage.
There, the modern A830 crossed over the railway line and, it now being higher than the old road alignment, made no connection with its older self, leaving the latter cut off like a tarmac oxbow lake. The railway, having passed under the A-road, snaked away along the south bank of Loch Dubh (‘black loch’), while the road passed the loch to the north.
Loch Dubh is more of a lochan, a freshwater tarn some 30 m deep though the ‘freshness’ of its somewhat stagnant water can be disputed. It is very slightly deeper than it once was, having been dammed by the West Highland Railway to provide power for their construction equipment and the railway now clips its eastern end on a viaduct. In this, the loch fared considerably better than its immediate western neighbour, Lochan Deabhta, which the railway drained to get it out of the way.
After Loch Dubh, I encountered two more road spurs branching off to the north, each being the end of another loop of Telford’s old alignment but one that has been severed in the middle. Together, these served part of the hamlet of Polnish (formerly Upper Polnish).
I had not gone far past the second of these side-roads when the curve of the A-road revealed to me one of the West Highland Railway’s larger structures:
Loch nan Uamh
Loch nan Uamh Viaduct
There really is a dead horse in there, a horse and cart having fallen into the central pylon during construction sometime around 1898. There being nothing they could do for the animal, and no easy way to extract it without occasioning serious delays, they simply left it there and finished the bridge.
Allt a’ Mhàma
The viaduct was necessary to cross the valley of the Allt a’ Mhàma (‘burn of the hills’) on the level. Thomas Telford had less of a need to avoid losing height but his road likewise needed to cross the same burn and he did so slightly upstream from where the modern A-road accomplishes the same feat. To this end, his Loch-na-Gaul Road took a right-hand turn partway down the valley and its course is visible in the photo above as a low stone wall cutting across the field ahead.
The immediately transpontine section of the old road has not endured, surviving only where it meets the new alignment on the form of a small layby. From it, I could stand and admire the last resting place of an unlucky, unsteady equine:
Concrete Bob’s Bridge…
My first attempt to take that photo was ruined by a large, blue bus that barrelled round the corner at umpty billion miles an hour just as I was pressing the camera button. This completely obscured everything, leaving only a blue blur in which the bus company name — writ large — was visible. It was ‘Telford’s.’
Well, I thought, that’s appropriate.
Except, the viaduct was built by ‘Concrete Bob’ McAlpine (1847-1934).
Loch of the Cave
In the shadow of the viaduct, the Allt a’ Mhàma flows out into Loch nan Uamh (‘loch of the cave’). That ‘mh’ is pronounced like an English ‘v’, so uamh is pronounced something like ‘oo-av’.
Skirmish of Loch nan Uamh
It is a sea loch, opening onto the Sound of Arisaig, and in 1746 it was the scene of a naval skirmish as the French attempted to assist the Jacobites and the Royal Navy sought to prevent it. The French actually found themselves under fire twice as the Jacobites also shot at them due to a case of mistaken identity.
Two French frigate-sized privateers, Mars and Bellone arrived to land campaign funds. As privateers, the ships were not flying the plain white flags of the French navy but the crews were wearing black cockades in accordance with French privateer custom. This was a poor choice as a black cockade was also the emblem of the British Hanoverian monarchy and the Jacobites assumed they must be government supporters; a friendly fire incident ensued. The mistake was sorted out soon enough but it can’t have helped soothe French nerves — the privateers were already anxious because they knew the Royal Navy was bound to appear.
The privateers landed a considerable sum of money to finance the rebellion and took aboard several escaping Jacobites, among them Sir Thomas Sheridan (one of the Seven Men of Moidart). Coming, as they had, from the disastrous Battle of Culloden, the Jacobites must have been so relieved to see them.
Fear, Fighting & Flight
The privateers’ nervousness was well-founded as they were still at anchor in Loch nan Uamh when three Royal Navy sloops-of-war — HM Ships Greyhound, Terror and Baltimore — happened upon them. The sloops-of-war were smaller and carried fewer guns but had the advantage of number and manoeuvrability.
Bellone responded to their arrival by weighing anchor and getting under way but Mars remained at anchor where she was a sitting duck, receiving a broadside from Greyhound. A gunnery battle between Bellone and the sloops then ensued, disabling Terror and badly damaging Baltimore and Greyhound.
Mars was severely damaged in the engagement but she and Bellone were still able to power their way out the situation and escaped back to France bearing the news that the whole operation had been largely pointless because Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite army had been crushed at Culloden a couple of weeks earlier.
Four months later, after a lot of hiding and being on the run, Charlie himself would board a French ship that had snuck into Loch nan Uamh and thus flee to France, never to return.
The Prince’s Cairn
According to tradition, Bonnie Prince Charlie left from a point a little to the right of that last photo, which is today marked by the Prince’s Cairn, erected in 1956.
The A830 gained a cycle/footpath as it headed west from the Prince’s Cairn. This was the last part of the A-road to be upgraded and it cut a straightened swathe through Telford’s winding alignment like the central bar of a dollar sign.
Lovely as it was to not have to dodge the traffic, the respite was brief, lasting only as long as that 2009 section. Soon enough I was back on the road, trying not to get run over as I approached Beasdale Station.
Beasdale railway station was not built to serve a village — it doesn’t have one — but as a private halt to serve Arisaig House, which is about a mile to the west. This was a fairly common deal struck with landowners when railways were being constructed: surrender your land and you’ll get a private station just for you.
It became a public station in 1965 at about the same time as the Beeching Axe was closing better-used stations all across the country. The station house was sold off in 1980, becoming a private residence, which I suppose gave it at least one house to serve.
Just beyond Beasdale Station, the railway crossed the A830 on a bridge whose narrow arch had been the nemesis of the A830 improvements programme.
Replacing the bridge would not only have been expensive but would have simultaneously closed the road and railway, cutting Arisaig, Morar and Mallaig off from the rest of the country. In consequence, they had left the road under the bridge as a few remaining metres of single-track road and had installed traffic lights to control the direction of flow.
The lights, I was surprised but delighted to discover, had a pedestrian crossing button on them to shut off traffic from both directions while I strolled beneath the bridge, I felt so important.
The A830 now ran beside the Allt na Glaic Moire (‘burn of the big hollow’) and soon brought me to the turn-off for Arisaig House itself.
Built in 1863, it was the only Scottish country house designed by Philip Speakman Webb (1831-1915) — the father of the Arts and Crafts architectural style — but was badly damaged by fire in 1935 and its rebuild retains little of its original character.
The house was commandeered for training by the Special Operations Executive during WW2 on account of its remoteness and seclusion; many of those trained in its guerrilla methods were Czech and Slovak soldiers.
Borrodale Old Bridge
I didn’t take the turn-off, though I probably could have. I did, however, note that the first part of it was once again Telford’s alignment, with the modern A-road veering away to cut a corner. The road to Arisaig House branched off the apex to that cut corner, while Telford’s road crossed Borrodale Burn on a small bridge just before the old and new alignments merged.
The Green Gates
I took the next left-hand turn-off that was presented to me, which kept me on Telford’s Loch-na-Gaul Road while the modern A830 headed cross-country to do its own new-fangled thing.
This older road began mundanely enough but then, as I already knew it would, it came to a pair of closed gates.
Public vehicles may not have been welcome on this stretch of the Loch-na-Gaul Road but pedestrians could enter via the kissing gate at the side.
Beyond the gates, the surface was muddy in places and strewn with last year’s leaves but it wasn’t tarmacked. This was the road pretty much as Telford had made it.
It had clearly been looked after since and its bridges and retaining walls were still reassuringly intact (though the latter might, I suppose, have been added during its two centuries of existence). In any event, it was delightful and ran for almost a mile and a half.
After about the first half mile, a branch led off to the north, where it would become another road taken over by the A830 (the divergence of which had been to cut this corner). I kept heading west, enjoying every slightly squelchy minute of this road.
Camas an t-Salainn
Eventually, I emerged from a rather less impressive gate to find a couple of cottages and the continuation of the Loch-na-Gaul Road as their private access lane. From there, it was surfaced in rough, weathered tarmac and it carried on for another half mile before meeting a public road by the shores of Camas an t-Salainn (‘bay of salt’).
Camas an t-Salainn is an embayment of Loch nan Ceall or Loch nan Cilltean (variant forms both meaning ‘loch of the churches’), which is the ‘Loch-na-Gaul’ that Telford’s road was aiming for.
It was less than a mile from the end of the road into Arisaig, where I was glad to find a shop and purchase a sandwich and a drink.
Ferries & Trains
Arisaig (Àrasaig) was the terminus of the Loch-na-Gaul road because it was the ferry point from which Skye and the Small Isles could be accessed.
A small passenger ferry — MV Sheerwater — still sails from Arisaig to the Small Isles of Eigg, Muck and Rùm during the summer but the Skye ferry moved to Mallaig after the West Highland Railway extended its line to that village. The WHR also opened a railway station in Arisaig and it has the distinction of being the westernmost station in Great Britain.
Not far from where I ate my snack, watched intently by Mr Optimistic Robin, stood a memorial unveiled in 2009. It commemorated the Czech and Slovak soldiers who trained with the SOE at Arisaig House between 1943 and 1945.
When I was sufficiently snacked-up to feel refuelled, and Mr Successful Robin had leapt victoriously upon any crumb I dropped, I stood up and prepared to continue my damp trudge through the rain. Except, I realised, I couldn’t. Not, I hasten to add, because I was unable to perambulate. No, it was because it had — did I even dare believe it? — stopped raining. Inconceivable!
The road north from Arisaig to Morar (Mòrar) wasn’t part of Telford’s original road but it was certainly in place by the time of the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey maps (1843-82). In the 1920s, it became the A830 but lost that status in 2003, when a new alignment of high quality A-road was opened. The old Morar Road was reclassified as the B8008 and became a rather sleepy scenic coastal route. Well, I could hardly not take that option, could I?
The B8008 began by conveying me past Arisaig’s Catholic church and cemetery, in whose ground is buried the Gaelic poet Alexander MacDonald (Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair) (1698-1770). We’ve encountered reference to him before, as he was born in Dalelia (Dàil an Leigh, ‘the physician’s meadow’), a tiny hamlet by Loch Shiel, and taught in the school in Kilmory in Ardnamurchan.
He was the son of a Scottish Episcopalian minister and his teaching employers were the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, an Anglican mission that was at the time fiercely Protestant. He came to convert to Catholicism as a result of his ardent Jacobitism, which saw him join the doomed 1745 Rising and serve as Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Gaelic tutor.
The Coast Road
The B8008 was a wonderfully winding coast road which ran close enough to shore in places that I actually got a proper sea view. It was still grey and misty, admittedly, but in the distance the island of Eigg (Eige) emerged from the haze.
The B8008 undulated pleasantly over hills and along the ins and outs of the coast, carrying me northwards past Keppoch, Portnaluchaig and Traigh.
The first and last of those both appear on William Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland, for which he produced the first comprehensive map of Scotland for the Duke of Cumberland between 1747 and 1752 (the map was commissioned due to need to suppress further Jacobite rebellions). No road is shown on his map though, because at that time there wasn’t one.
If it seems odd that there were so many isolated villages without roads, then you’re probably thinking of the sea as a barrier rather than as the thoroughfare that bound them together. Traigh, for instance, (spelt as ‘Tray’ on Roy’s map) was long a crossing point from Skye.
Such roads as did form started off as drove roads because cattle really aren’t keen on boats — you need to get them across as best as you can and then drive them on land. Not that cows are all that good at roads, either.
The pleasantly winding road conveyed me through Glenancross and alongside the southern banks of the River Morar. The Morar has been called the shortest river in Britain, since there’s only about half a mile of it before it turns into estuary. That estuary is lined with fine-grained pale sands, known as the Silver Sands of Morar.
The modern A830 crosses the River Morar on a sizeable bridge, erected in 1994 as part of the Morar Bypass (another section of the A830 improvements).
The B8008 crosses the A-road at a staggered crossroads but an underpass is provided for pedestrians and cyclists, though I believe it is mostly used by cattle, having been provided as part of a deal with the farmer whose land was bisected by the bypass.
On the far side of the underpass, I rejoined the B8008 and followed it to a narrow steel bridge that crosses the Morar in the shadow of another of Concrete Bob’s railway viaducts.
Judging from OS maps, the steel bridge’s alignment appears to date from the 1930s, though the steel looks as if its been replaced since then. It replaced an older stone bridge that used to cross immediately downstream and was in place by at least the mid-19th century.
Once across the river, the road ducked under the rail viaduct and gave me a choice of continuing upstream or turning left towards Morar village. The latter option wasn’t available when the OS 1st Edition maps were made but seems to have arrived with the railway around 1901. Today it is a continuation of the B8008 and I followed it into Morar, which comprises a street of white cottages and a largish hotel with the railway cutting across the road via a level crossing.
North of Morar, the B-road merged back into the A830 but it took a pedestrian footway with it, which saved me playing a game of ‘who’s more impact resistant?’ with the speeding traffic.
One route or Another
I followed this section of the A830 — improved in 1989 — north for a smidgin over a mile, passing the tiny Lochan Doilead on the way. As the A-road reached Glasnacardoch Bay, the B8008 broke free of it again, branching off to the right to enter Mallaig via an older route. But not, it turns out, the oldest.
The B8008 route is shown on the 2nd Edition OS maps (1888-1913) but, on the 1st Edition maps, the road into Mallaig follows yet another alignment that no longer seems to exist on the ground. Not that I particularly cared; I’d done the whole walk briskly enough to reach Mallaig by just after eight and all I really wanted was a good sit down. So long as the route I’d picked led to one of those, it was all much of a muchness.
Growth of Mallaig
Prior to 1901, Mallaig was tiny. Roy’s map of around 1750 shows a settlement of that name but the 1st Edition OS map, a century or so later, uses that name for the scattered village on what had been Mallaigvaig Farm.
The farm was split up in the 1840s by landowner Lord Lovat who also built a pier in 1846 to promote the development of a herring fishing port in response to the Highland potato famine. The farmland lay to the east of the pier, which 1st Edition OS maps label as being in the hamlet of Port Faochagach. Mallaig Harbour at that time was called Acairseid na Coille Mòire (‘anchorage of the big wood’) despite no woodland being shown on the map for miles.
In 1901, the railway arrived, having extended there purely because they figured Mallaig would make a better ferry port than Arisaig, which was beset with rocks and reefs. They were right. Mallaig soon expanded and remains a key point of access to the Isle of Skye today despite the building of a bridge to the other end of the island. Ferries also run to the Small Isles and to the mainland peninsula of Knoydart. I would be catching the latter in the morning.
I quickly found my hotel (Mallaig is hardly large), followed by some food and that long sit down I’d been wanting. I retired that night feeling fairly pleased with myself even though the whole day had been on easy-going roads. The next day promised to be a little more rugged…
This time: 18½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,273½ miles