DAY four of my May ’18 trip began with a surprising absence of shuffling discomfort. My legs, feet and dodgy knee all appeared to have forgiven me for the 28-miler I’d inflicted on them the day before. Hurrying, lest they change their tune, I fuelled myself up with a hearty breakfast in advance of this day’s efforts. Fully fed, I then took stock of the weather conditions.
The night before, I had reached Invershiel soaked through from a downpour; would I again be wearing waterproofs all day?
This unexpected vision of blueness was most welcome, though it did have me scrabbling in my bag for sunscreen. Not that sunscreen will stop me from burning at all, you understand, it’s just a question of how much.
Once suitably besmeared, I returned to gaze down the length of Loch Duich (Loch Dubhthaich, ‘St Duthac’s loch’) from Invershiel. This tiny hamlet stands at the head of the loch, near to where the River Shiel flows into it, though its slightly larger neighbour — Shiel Bridge — actually sits on the river.
Battle of Glen Shiel
About five miles behind me, further up Glen Shiel, was the site of a battle during the Jacobite Rising of 1719. This saw the defeat of a Jacobite force — led by George Keith, Earl Marischal (1693-1778) — and a supporting contingent of Spanish soldiers. Spain was at war with Great Britain at the time and saw in the Jacobite Rising an excellent chance to divert Britain into fighting on a home front.
Unfortunately for this spearhead force, the main Jacobite fleet got turned back by a storm, leaving them without backup. The mixed force of about 800 Highlanders and 200 Spaniards fortified a position in a narrow part of Glen Shiel and made their stand against a similar sized force of British regulars who had thought to bring mortar batteries.
The mortar barrage softened up the Jacobite defences before determined assaults began to dislodge the rebels from their positions. The poorly armed and provisioned Highlanders were forced into giving ground to the British Army and this, in turn, exposed the Spanish regulars who had been holding firm. After three hours of fighting, the surviving Highlanders fled into the fog and the abandoned Spaniards had no choice but to surrender.
The fleeing Jacobites of 1719 may have been glad of their veil of mist but I was equally glad not to have such a thing to contend with. My plan for the day involved no battles but did encompass a moderate march down Loch Duich to its mouth, where it became Loch Alsh (Loch Aillse, ‘foaming loch’) and took a hard turn to the left. From there, I would head down Loch Alsh to the village of Kyle of Lochalsh (Caol Loch Aillse, ‘foaming loch strait’).
Kintail Lodge Hotel
My journey began on a surfaced footpath that ran past the loch-facing side of the Kintail Lodge Hotel, while the A87 ran past its landward side. I wasn’t fooled however, I knew an old road alignment when I saw one.
The A87 broadly follows the line of the 1820 road built by Thomas Telford (1757-1834) except where it was rerouted in the 1980s to either cut corners or to widen it. In the case of the section running past the hotel, the modern A-road now carves its way through a rocky headland via a cutting. Telford’s road-builders, who would have had to cut that by hand or black powder, went around it.
Clachan Duich Bridge
No sooner had the two alignments re-merged north of the cutting than they quickly separated again. The cause in this case was the tidal estuary of the River Croe, which was another obstacle that Telford went around, in this case heading a mile upstream to bridge it near the hamlet of Morvich.
The A87 now crosses the Croe on a causeway a mile downstream from Telford’s Croe Bridge. This not only cuts off a two-mile detour but smooths out the turns on what today is the main road route to the Isle of Skye.
Back in Telford’s day, not only was there not a Skye Bridge (opened 1995) for this road to lead to but there wasn’t even a road at all until he built it. In those days, traffic bound for Skye headed southwest from Shiel Bridge, climbing over Ratagan Pass to head to Glenelg’s ferry via the Old Military Road. Telford rebuilt that too for good measure but he didn’t let that stop him from dreaming up an entirely new road that followed Loch Duich’s northern shore. Even Maj William Caulfeild (who built the original road to Glenelg) hadn’t done that.
Roy’s Military Survey
In fairness, Major Caulfeild (1698-1767) built his roads to move soldiers about with a view to preventing new Jacobite Risings. Consequently, he didn’t much care if they were useful to anyone other than the army.
While he was busy doing this, his contemporary William Roy was conducting a military survey that resulted in the first broadly accurate maps of Scotland. Roy’s 1750 map showed a military road in Glen Shiel and the start of one heading to Glenelg but nothing at all where Telford would build his road round Loch Duich.
Not that there weren’t villages, though. The map shows ‘Inversheel’ clearly enough and two Morvichs on the River Croe — ‘Morvachbeg’ (‘little Morvich’) and ‘Morvachmor’ (‘great Morvich’) plus ‘Inchcrua’ (‘Croe island’) further upstream. But they were connected by boat or else by rough tracks, unchanged from the days when the 1719 rebels disappeared into the mist, some no doubt picking their way across the Croe’s tidal saltmarsh.
The modern causeway crosses the Croe at the hamlet of Allt a’ Chruinn (‘stream of the tree’), with Telford’s route now a minor side-road. I took the latter, passing by the saltmarsh shown above, as the narrow, single-track road led me slowly upstream alongside the river Croe.
A little further up was another tiny cluster of houses, this one called Carn-gorm. This literally means ‘blue cairn’ but doesn’t necessarily imply a heap of blue stones as ‘carn’ can also mean a rocky hill and ‘gorm’ can also mean a grassy shade of green. Either way, the hamlet of Carn-gorm was little more than a handful of houses, one of which displayed surprising evidence that it had once been something else:
This antique petrol pump was definitely in use into the 1970s and possibly well until the 1980s, when the causeway was built and the road to Croe Bridge ceased to be the A87. Thereafter, this became a sleepy backwater that no longer saw traffic hurtling to and from Skye. This could be a good or a bad thing depending on whether you were, say, a resident out walking your dog along the road or a garage-owner who relied upon that traffic for petrol sales.
Excitedly Curious Dog
I mention a dog-walker because I passed one in Carn-gorm and he seemed quite happy to not need to dodge traffic, especially since his dog was running back and forth all over the road. I was likewise glad of the quietness as I followed the road as it curved around to Telford’s bridge.
I passed a turn-off that would have taken me to Morvich and Innis a’ Chro (the ‘Inchcrua’ on Roy’s map) and soon saw Croe Bridge ahead of me.
Although I’d only walked just over a mile, I paused to sit on Croe Bridge’s parapet and apply some more sunscreen in the pretence that it would save me from radiant redness. As I sat there, the only car I would see on this road hurtled past at a speed more appropriate to a grand prix circuit. I can only assume that the Excitedly Curious Dog and its owner had been forced to leap for their lives.
Hopping off the parapet, I followed the road as it curved around to head back downstream to meet back up with the A87.
As the junction drew near, I spotted a memorial perched atop a hillock, with a graveyard and ruined church behind it. This was Clachan Duich, the ancient church and burial ground of Clan MacRae.
The church was dedicated to St Duthac — an 11th century Bishop of Ross — in 1050 but there was probably one on the site before that. It met its demise in 1719 when three Royal Navy warships— Worcester, Enterprise and Flamborough — sailed into the loch to engage the Jacobites.
By the end of the 1719 Rising, the MacRaes had lost their castle (destroyed), church (likewise destroyed), lands (confiscated) and a great many of their members (killed at Glen Shiel). It had not gone well for them.
Overlooking Clachan Duich was the Clan Macrae’s war memorial, commemorating its members who died in a far greater war two centuries later. It was erected in 1922.
Soon enough, I came to the junction where the road from Croe Bridge met the A-road. I was, however, given an opportunity to avoid the latter via a ‘forest walk’ signposted off the Croe road. This wound through part of Inverinate Wood above the A-road and was quite tempting though I quickly concluded the trees would likely block my view. Besides, I wanted to follow Telford’s route where possible.
I thus returned to the A87, finding to my joy that it had a pedestrian footway. It also had a view across Loch Duich to what had been the end of my previous walk.
It didn’t take long before I started passing houses and then trees along the roadside, which blocked the view just as effectively as those on the forest walk would have done. I decided to deviate onto Glebe Road, a loch-side back lane that not only provided access to several of the houses but also ran to the gates of Inverinate Lodge. Whether I could then go through the grounds was by no means certain, but I thought it worth the short detour to find out.
The present Inverinate Lodge was built in 1929 as a shooting lodge in a Tudoresque style for Capt Gerald Portman (1875-1948), a veteran of the Boer War and WW1. In 1946, two years before his death, he inherited his father’s title as Viscount Portman of Bryanston. His 14-bedroom lodge was a remodelling of an earlier 1880s house built for the Liberal MP and railway entrepreneur Sir Alexander Matheson (1805-1886). This in turn had replaced the 1801 original, which Matheson purchased in 1844, but which burnt down in 1864. That house had been built for Kenneth Mackenzie, whose family had dominated the area for centuries and had been the effective overlords of the MacRaes.
Today, Inverinate Lodge belongs to the Emir of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who is also the vice-president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (of which Dubai is part). Apparently the 14-bedroom lodge is a bit too small for his needs as he’s built another 16-bedroom lodge on the same grounds, which I guess explains the ‘construction site’ notice and barriers arrayed inside the red gates.
Ice Cream in Inverinate
Thwarted in my progress, I returned to the A87 and accepted that all I would see was the road and some trees for a short distance. Then, on the far side of the Inverate Lodge grounds, I found a short section of walled Telford road, where a bend had been smoothed out in the 1980s. This was also tree-lined but delightfully sun-dappled and I enjoyed it greatly for the several minutes that it lasted.
It spat me back onto the A-road in the settlement of Inverinate (Inbhir Ìonaid), which is spread thinly along the road. There, a rather more modern and extant petrol station than Carn-gorm’s sold me more water and an ice cream. I hung on to the latter, hoping it wouldn’t melt too quickly, as I made for the next turn-off to the right. A restraining wall near the junction proved a suitable perch on which to rest and devour it.
Carr Brae Road
Unlike Glebe Road, which was a spur-of-the-moment diversion, I had always intended to take this turn-off and follow a minor inland route. The A87 continued near the loch-side, following an alignment constructed in the ’80s but Carr Brae Road, which climbed steeply up the hillside, was Telford’s original Kintail Road.
I climbed with it, crossing a stream on a typical Telford humped bridge and ascending the lower flank of Sgùrr Aoide, past the farmstead of Keppoch to a road summit of 179 m at Carr Brae.
If you look closely at the photo above you’ll see a gabled wall and chimney poking up from the near hillside and the base of another building to its right. These are what’s left of the settlement of Carr, which is shown along with Keppoch on Roy’s 1750 map and was still there over a century later when the Ordnance Survey mapped the area.
It remained on the map as late as the OS 2nd edition (188-1913) but by the 1930s was shown on the one-inch-to-the-mile maps as a single building. It stayed as such until the 7th series (1955-61), when it vanished from the map altogether.
Glaswegians & Germans
Carr Brae is a stunning viewpoint and I was not alone enjoying it. Also present were a couple whose accents suggested Glaswegian, and whose enthusiams for exploring were not exactly matched. She wanted to climb to the top of the stickiest-out bit of headland and she wanted to get there by running. He would much rather have sat in the car and watched her do it without joining in.
I was distracted from the sight of her hauling him impatiently up the hillside by an eager bunch of about half a dozen German-speaking lads, who had comically piled out of a camper van that didn’t look large enough to hold them. Would I, they asked, take a photo for them? I decided I would. They decided that this kindness could only be paid for with beer.
Beer sounded great but I knew I still had some way to go in hot sunshine with limited water and beer was unlikely to help. My refusal caused them great consternation and they persisted in trying to force beer on me in gratitude for several minutes. It was touching and all, but really it wasn’t that big a deal. Eventually they gave up and I turned my attention to the view ahead:
The road wound gently down from Carr Brae (you can see it in the photo above) and I was about halfway down when the camper van, with Germans spilling out of every window, barrelled past cheering and waving.
Eilean Donan Castle
A Scottish Icon
A short while later, as I approached the village of Dornie, I caught my first sight of Eilean Donan Castle, one of the most iconic and much-photographed fortifications of Scotland.
Eilean Donan Castle is pretty. For a start it sits on an island, which always adds a romantic touch to any castle. The island in this case is Eilean Donan (Eilean Donnain, ‘island of St Donnán’), named for a 7th century Irish missionary who was martyred on the isle of Eigg.
Mathesons & Mackenzies
Although an Iron Age fort appears to have once stood there, the first proper castle was built in the 13th century and Clan Matheson alleges that it was one of their number who built it. Given that it was almost certainly intended to defend against the Norse-Gaels of the nearby Kingdom of the Isles and that the Mathesons became firm allies of the King of the Isles, their fall from grace in the eyes of the King of Scots was pretty much guaranteed.
Eilean Donan Castle became a stronghold of the Mackenzies who held it for the next few centuries, from the 14th century onwards with the help of MacRae warriors who became known as ‘Mackenzie’s shirt of mail’.
Come the 17th century and the Glorious Revolution, the chiefs of Mackenzie (who were now also the Earls of Seaforth) declared for the Jacobite cause. During the Rising of 1715, the Mackenzies and MacRaes mustered at Eilean Donan and marched off to indecisive battle and the collapse of the rebellion.
Four years later and a second attempt at Jacobite restoration led to the Battle of Glen Shiel already discussed. About a month prior, the Earl Marischal and his Spanish allies landed at Eilean Donan and garrisoned the castle with about 50 Spanish marines — stationed to guard their store of excess weapons and powder — before setting off up the valley.
Enter the Enterprise
It was in order to deal with this landing that HMS Enterprise and her consorts sailed into the loch. They initially tried to negotiate a Spanish surrender but their boat having been fired upon, the three warships commenced a bombardment of the castle.
Given that they mustered a total of 114 guns between them (meaning that 57 could bear on the castle at any one time), it must have been harrowing to withstand. HMS Enterprise then detached and sailed up the loch to destroy a powder store (and Clachan Duich church), which they learned of from a deserter. Meanwhile, the other two ships kept up an intermittent bombardment while they prepared a storming party.
The party stormed the walls that evening under cover of another intense bombardment and captured 42 men and 343 barrels of gunpowder; 27 of those barrels were used to demolish the castle.
For the next two hundred years Eilean Donan Castle remained a broken ruin until, in 1919, Lt Col John MacRae-Gilstrap (1861-1937) set about restoring it, having acquired it in 1912. It took him until 1932 to complete his project, which followed the original ground plan but which was otherwise basically a new build. An arched bridge was incorporated to make accessing the tidal island easier.
In addition to building the castle, MacRae-Gilstrap also had the war memorial at Clachan Duich erected and he and his wife are both buried in its burial ground.
Thanks to its history, Eilean Donan Castle would have been little more than stumps and rubble when Telford was driving his road through the area and he saw no reason to get particularly close to it. His road alignment led directly into Dornie (An Dòrnaigh), a small former fishing village at the mouth of Loch Long (but not the one I’ve already walked up) where a ferry used to cross.
Dornie’s Development & Decline
Dornie was created as a planned fishing village between 1794, when the area was surveyed for the Earl of Seaforth, and 1812, by which time it was thriving. It became a local centre for shipbuilding and shoemaking and had the only shops for miles as well as its all-important ferry.
It had already ceded its importance to other settlements in the region by the close of the 19th century but the ferry hung on until 1940 when a bridge replaced it. This was still sited in the centre of the village, close to where the ferry had crossed, and so still drew passing trade from traffic.
A new bridge in 1991 was sited slightly further downstream, allowing the A87 to bypass Dornie entirely, and the old bridge was demolished. Dornie still has a shop, an inn and a pub but most of the motorists whizz by them unawares and I can’t say that they looked busy.
Downtime in Dornie
I availed myself of both the shop, to replenish my dwindling water supply, and the inn, which furnished me with lunch and a gin & tonic. (I almost had that beer the Germans had been so insistent about but G&T shouted louder).
When I felt sufficiently rested, rehydrated and refuelled I set off again across Dornie Bridge. This marked an important moment of transition for the day’s walk for instead of heading northwards down Loch Duich, I would now be heading westwards down Loch Alsh.
The far side of the bridge was the village of Ardelve (Àird Eilbh), which the A87 also bypassed but Telford’s Kintail Road did not. I stuck with Telford’s route, a quiet single-track road through a village seemingly made entirely of farms and B&Bs. The road, far too soon, spat me back onto the A-road.
The A87 at this point was quite busy, a typical one-lane-each-way main road without a pedestrian footway. It remained so, forcing me to verge-hop to dodge traffic, for about a mile until it reached the turn-off for the tiny hamlet of Nostie. There it suddenly gained a pedestrian pavement, causing me to wonder if I’d missed some footpath that I should have been walking instead (I don’t think so).
Not being in the direct path of the motor traffic made the next mile considerably less stressful and it seemed like no time at all that I reached the village of Auchtertyre (Uachdar Thìre, ‘upper land’), which the A-road neatly bypassed. I headed into the village, following Telford’s original route, but the village is tiny and my diversion lasted only moments.
Half I mile further on I came to Kirkton, which obviously takes its name from its church. The present church was built in 1807, replacing its predecessor, which had been pulled down in 1803. A church had stood on the site for some time; a Presbytery record of 1649 complained that it was then in a ruinous state.
I paid its 19th century successor little heed for my interest was far more aroused by a sign directly opposite indicating a footpath to Balmacara. A quick consultation with my map followed and I ascertained that, yes, this was a broadly parallel alternative to my following the A-road. For all that I’d not actually walked much of it, I was pretty bored of the A87 and I seized this opportunity to abandon it with gusto.
The footpath continued much like the photo above for just over half a mile and then became road for a few dozen metres as it passed through the hamlet of Reraig (‘Rarack’ on Roy’s map). Beyond Reraig, it climbed onto a hillside of gorse and moorland with a view over the loch. It seemed like a good place to pause and reapply sunscreen, drink some water and eat coconut snacks (bought purely in case I smelt gorse flowers).
First Sight of Skye Bridge
From my vantage point, gazing out over the roofs of Reraig, I could see across Loch Alsh to Kyle Rhea (Caol Reatha), the narrow strait between Glenelg and the Isle of Skye. As views go, this was pretty awesome but when I stood up and turned around to continue, I caught my first glimpse of Skye Bridge in the distance, spanning the other kyle between the mainland and Skye:
Continuing on, the path joined a road linking a hilltop viewpoint (an even better viewpoint presumably) to the village of Balmacara (Baile MacRath, ‘MacRae town’). I followed this down the hillside until it met a road running north-south. This is today a side-road joining the A87 to Balmacara but was Telford’s road, which passed through that village.
I was heading to the village too and so could have simply turned right and followed the Telford’s road. Instead, I followed a footpath sign across it and found myself traversing a park. On the far side was another minor road and there I did turn right, taking me to Balmacara Square. I had to go there for my next rest break; a little old lady walking her dog in the park was very insistent on that score.
I had, with my usual gift for timing these things, just missed the café in the former Balmacara Estate stables but they sold me a cold drink anyway, despite just having closed, which was nice. I sat on a bench with my drink and watched an absence of ducks not swimming on what, by definition, clearly wasn’t a duck pond.
Behind me were numerous old farm buildings all beautifully restored and maintained by the National Trust for Scotland. The steading dates back to the 1770s.
From Balmacara, I had two obvious options. I could follow Telford’s road to its conclusion in Kyle or I could follow the A87, rerouted in this case in 1970. Telford’s road described three sides of a rhombus in order to avoid a rocky headland, dropping into Kyle of Lochalsh from the north. The A87 had blasted through that headland in order to do the one remaining side and enter Kyle from the east. It was, consequently, a lot shorter, But also a lot busier and more likely to get me run over and killed. What to do?
The third option wasn’t marked on my map but it was signposted from the minor road I’d followed to Balmacara Square. It was, it promised, a footpath to Kyle.
Footpath to Kyle
The footpath certainly started promisingly enough and I merrily let it lead me windingly through the trees. It kept this up for what felt like some time before breaking out of the treeline into open moor. It now undulated up and down hillsides — though mostly on average up — with a caveat that I might encounter work being done to the path. I did see one digger but no one was in it and I picked my way past it without incident.
So far, so good, I thought and paused to take one last glance towards Kyle Rhea.
End of Path
I have to admit this threw me for six. I wasn’t sure what to do. The path just stopped abruptly at that fence with no sign of continuing beyond it. A faint trail suggested that someone had clambered over some huge rocks to my right and tried to go around it but that quickly petered out into nothingness. Should I scale the fence and blaze my own trail, I wondered, or retrace my steps to Balmacara?
It was easily a mile back to Balmacara, so I didn’t want to do that if I didn’t have to. But I wasn’t too keen on trailblazing either. Some streams were cutting some pretty deep gullies and it looked like altogether too much hard work. Once again, I needed a third option so I sat and calmly thought it through:
This path was clearly under construction and had only got so far. They must plan to continue it or else it made no sense; they just hadn’t done so yet. But the footpath sign said that it went all the way to Kyle. Conclusion: Somewhere back behind me this new path had diverged from an existing one, one that they wanted to replace. That meant the existing path was probably awful but it should, well, exist. And the most likely point for the divergence was where the digger had been…
Old Path of Awfulness
And so it proved. Had I gone around the other side of the thing, I’d have found the old path no problem. I was right about it being awful too. It was another path best described as ‘mud, rocks and muddy rocks’ but it was also distinct and easy to follow, if not necessarily easy to walk.
I let it lead me across the hillside, swearing and muttering as my feet disappeared into ankle-deep mud or I stubbed my toes on a rock. It went up. It went down. It crossed one of those streams. Eventually it crossed a second one and surprised me with a crossroads of paths, complete with a mostly intact signpost. The obvious route was to go straight on and enjoy another mile of mud and rocks. Alternatively, I could take a left turn to Sgalpaidh Bay and return to the road and die by traffic.
The path down from where that last photo was taken certainly had a lot of ‘down’ in it. I reached the bottom to find myself in a dull but functional layby. The traffic was pretty terrifying but, once I had made it across the road, I had a fairly broad verge to walk on.
Kyle of Lochalsh
I stuck to this as the road wound past sheer rocky cliffs (made by blasting away the headland in 1970 in order to fit the road in) and this quickly brought me to another layby, this time on the lochward side. This, my map said, was a viewpoint.
From the viewpoint onwards, I had pedestrian pavement again, which I followed the final half mile into Kyle of Lochalsh. There, I passed by its railway station, the terminus of a line from Dingwall built in the 1890s under Sir Alexander Matheson (of Inverinate Lodge) at a staggering cost of £20 k per mile.
Beyond the station, I found Kyle’s Main Street, which has actual shops and banks and things in exactly the way that Dornie doesn’t. Kyle also has hotels, and in one of those is where my day’s walk ended.
This time: 17½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,333½ miles