THE previous day’s walk may have ended ended in grey raininess but the third day of September 2018 began with mostly bluish skies and sunshine, though a crisp bite to the air had developed. As I stepped from my hotel, I was confronted with the sight of the Cuillin veiled lightly in thin, misty haze.
Sligachan & Sconser
A Bite of Breakfast
I was well-rested and full of breakfast and, as many an emerging guest was to discover, it was now the turn of the Highland midges to eat theirs.
I watched in mild amusement as my fellow emergees flailed ineffectually at the tiny flying vampires gathering in something of a swarm. I remained unaffected as usual — I could feel the tickle of them landing on my skin but either they don’t bite me or I just don’t come up in lumps.
My personal nemesis is the much larger, painful horsefly and it was too cool and too late in the season for those; besides, I’d fed them enough that midsummer.
Sligachan Old Bridge
A small group of Chinese tourists seemed to be finding the midges particularly challenging, whereas I stood unaffected beside them on Sligachan Old Bridge and enjoyed the view:
This was not my first time on Sligachan Old Bridge as I crossed it five walks ago, when I had been enthusiastically nommed upon by horseflies. Perhaps because of that distraction, or perhaps because I had really, really needed a sit down and a drink, I didn’t spot this mark on that occasion:
Oh, all right, it’s an Ordnance Survey benchmark. Before the advent of GPS, a network of these were used to calculate contours.
How It Works
Basically, the horizontal line tells an OS surveyor where to set up a level surface of known elevation, from which surrounding elevations can be measured. Below the line is the government broad arrow that for centuries identified official things.
The height of this one is 41.2 ft (12.6 m) above mean sea level.
That I wasn’t very high up from sea level was hardly a surprise, as I knew I’d be seeing it pretty soon in the form of Loch Sligachan. But to get there I’d have to start actually walking somewhere instead of lounging about on a bridge while people nearby were exsanguinated. It was time to get on the road.
Heading east from Sligachan, the A87 started showing signs of slight alignment changes right from the start, with short snatches of old alignment visible to one side. They weren’t really enough to make an alternative to walking on the A-road but the grass verge proved to be broad and flat enough that it didn’t matter; I could make my way along without interfering with the traffic.
I’d not gone very far — to the end of the visible road in the photo above — when Loch Sligachan revealed itself as a shining mirror. Somewhere on its far side was the footpath I’d planned to walk the previous day but then ditched on account of the weather. I didn’t feel too bad about that; I had no great need to see the loch from both sides.
Not too far from where I took that photo, the A-road veered right, smoothing out a curve, and I saw that the original alignment was now a farm track. So naturally, I followed it, as that’s what I always do, right? Wrong…
Thanks to a full night and half a day of rain, it was a mire of puddles and mud. I noted it from the dry and reassuringly solid roadside and kept going, sure the two alignments would quickly reunite. And so they did.
A little further on, I started to pass houses as I entered the strung-out village of Sconser (Sgonnsair). Sconser’s most important feature is arguably its slipway, as it serves as a ferry port for ferries to the Isle of Raasay (Ratharsair).
I edged my way along the now narrow verge into the village, the heart of which has since been bypassed by another bout of A-road curve-smoothing.
Fortunately, this time, the old route was rather less muddy, being, not a farm track, but an actual village road.
The A850 is what this section of the A87 used to be before the Skye Bridge opened in 1995. Back then, the A87 ended at Kyle of Lochalsh and the road on Skye, being isolated on an island, had its own number. With the building of the bridge, the A87 absorbed most of the A850 and spelt the end of the Kyle Ferry to boot.
The road through Sconser may have been renumbered but its ferry is still going strong.
This particular boat is MV Hallaig, a Diesel-electric hybrid ferry launched in 2012 and which entered service in 2013. She’s one of three such ferries, her two sisters being Catriona and Lochinvar, both of which I’ve already encountered.
Hallaig is named for a poem published in 1954 by Scottish Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean (1911-1996). It in turn is named for (and about) a former settlement on Raasay, whose inhabitants were evicted between 1852 and 1854 as part of the Highland Clearances. Translated into English, the poem earned MacLean a wider following.
Sconser Lodge Hotel
The old road rejoined the new beside the ferry pier before curving around to head southwards at the mouth of Loch Sligachan. It led me past the Sconser Lodge Hotel, built in 1871 as a hunting lodge for the MacDonalds, and then to a junction with the unclassified Moll Road.
This minor road really is unclassified, being officially the U4853 to Highland Council. It runs around the finger of land that separates Lochs Sligachan and Ainort, while the A87 cuts right across.
Narrows of Raasay
It conveyed me firstly past a golf course and then a working quarry but after that it broke into open country. Its positioning gave me an excellent view of the Narrows of Raasay.
Just as I was really appreciating being able to see this after all, the weather had another go at ruining everything with rain. It was a fairly half-hearted effort, however, and the patchy rain combined with weak sunshine to create the faintest of rainbows.
Not One of Telford’s
Unlike many Highland roads, the Moll Road wasn’t Thomas Telford’s handiwork, having not existed until the 1920s. Prior to its construction, the tiny hamlet at Moll was linked to Telford’s nearest road by its own dead-end spur, which fell into disuse and vanished when the coast road was opened.
When I walked it, the Moll Road wasn’t exactly seeing a vast amount of use, either — apart from the quarry it serves only a fish farm and a couple of houses — but its quiet solitude made it a joy to traverse.
Lùib na Moil
The Moll Road was by turns open and wooded as it curved its way around the headland and led me to Lùib na Moil, where a cottage belongs to the fish farm and the old Moll access track used to reach the coast. The sky was still trying unsuccessfully to rain.
Slightly further along was the Moll for which the road is named (taking its name from Gaelic maol meaning ‘bald’ or, in this case, an unwooded headland).
In the 1st edition OS map, Moll was a settlement of just two roofed buildings, with six unroofed others suggesting that it was once much larger.
Today, neither of the two roofed buildings survive but one of those unroofed on the 1st edition map is now a cottage. This cottage was lived in by an elderly crofting couple until fairly recently but one died and the other moved to a nursing home and now the cottage is, like so many others, a holiday let.
After Moll, the road took a hard right turn, rounding the headland of Maol Bàn (‘white bare headland’) and running alongside Loch Ainort. Here, the road first gained some height, rising to 45 m, and then slowly dropped back toward sea level, passing the fish farm on the way.
I quite enjoyed this slow lochside descent and was disappointed to learn that, two weeks later to the day, part of it was lost in a landslide caused by heavy rain. A collapsed culvert took several metres of road with it, severing it completely and closing the Moll Road to through traffic until further notice. This seems a terrible shame. On the other hand, I’d not know that the road is the U4853 if I hadn’t read the news about the closure.
I really don’t know why they quote unclassified road numbers on public closure notices — C, D and U numbers aren’t supposed to be on road signs and usually aren’t on maps, so absolutely no one knows what road it is from quoting the number. It is useful to road contractors but they already know that they are closing the road. At least, one hopes that they do.
Kinloch Ainort Brideg
The intermittently spitting rain that I experienced was by no means sufficient to collapse the road and sweep me into Loch Ainort so I soon found myself at the head of that loch, gazing confusedly down it from a surprisingly Telfordy bridge.
Disappointingly, examination of some old OS maps provides an explanation that doesn’t rely on Mr Telford’s intrepid temporal voyaging.
Rerouting & Reclassification
When they built the Moll Road in the 1920s, they joined it to the A850 at both ends and then declassified the A-road between those points, while making the new Moll Road into the A-road instead. The bridge at the head of Loch Ainort was part of the original A850 after the Moll Road section. It isn’t part of the A-road now, however. That can be seen from it, crossing the valley further upstream, where it can follow a higher contour.
This is because, at a later date, they replumbed the A87 to abandon the Moll Road and follow the original inland route. Sort of. It’s not on the exact same alignment and it joins up further along than it used to, meaning there’s a section of Telford’s original road that got essentially demoted to a mere extension of the Moll road. Mystery solved, and not a time machine in sight. More’s the pity.
Old Luib to Strollamus Road
Approaching by A-Road
I followed the A850-that-was until it met back up with the A87-as-is and I then stuck resolutely to the grassy verge as traffic roared past at terrifying speeds. This wasn’t the most fun part of the day but it only lasted for about a mile before 20th century A-road planners and Mr Telford had another parting of the ways. This occurred at the village of Luib (Lùib, ‘fold’).
Here, in the reverse of the what had happened at the loch head, Telford had taken the higher contour round the valley and the modern A-road cut straight across, bypassing the village in the process.
Actually, from Luib’s perspective, the A-road has wriggled about over time a bit like a snake having fits. The above photo is taken from Telford’s road, which used to be the A850. The road on the other side of the stream, running past those houses, isn’t Telford’s but still used to be the A-road.
In the mid-1920s, road-planners pulled the exact same trick they pulled with Moll, creating a coastal route to replace one that went inland. That little bit of road through Luib had been a dead end but now turned into the start of the coast route. And so it remained until the bypass was built.
The Old Road
So what about Telford’s inland route? What happened to that?
Now demoted to a footpath and farm track, the old road from Luib to Strollamus (Stròlamas) never received a tarmac surface, since it was superseded at about the same time as so-surfacing roads became a thing. It was therefore a tad boggy and uneven as it climbed its way up to a height of 92 m, nestled between two hills; I imagine it’s that climb that caused the A-road to be rerouted.
A bunch of sheep stood aside to let me past as I made my way up the slope, trying to avoid the worst of the ankle-deep mud. I was doing moderately well at the latter until I stepped on what I thought was solid ground but turned out to be empty space above a tractor rut. I only hope the sheep weren’t offended by bad language.
I knew right away that I’d twisted my ankle but when the initial pain had subsided, it really didn’t that feel all that bad. Certainly, it felt fine to continue, not that I had a great deal of choice.
The largely-abandoned road soon took my mind off my ankle. It had open moor and surrounding hills and excellent views of the island of Scalpay (Sgalpaigh) — the hill on the left in the photo above.
Midges & Milestones
Something else the road had was a great many midges, which would have made anyone else’s life pretty miserable. I just wished they’d stop landing on my glasses and then moving about as out-of-focus specks.
While midge-o-vision added a fuzzy quality to things, I soon found something that threw the Telford road nature of this track into sharp focus. Namely this milestone:
This milestone, now largely unregarded except by sheep and biting insects, once stood duty to tell passing travellers that it was either ten miles to Sligachan or five to Broadford.
I would have been delighted to know I’d got that far already but, to be honest, I only know what it said because I later read it on an old OS map. Still, I could pretty much gauge my progress from my surroundings…
Dunan (An Dùnan, ‘the fortlet’) is a tiny village that, prior to the 1920s, sat on another dead-end road — its road and Luib’s were joined up to make the new A850 (now the A87); the road’s down there somewhere on the other side of that house. The rerouting of the A-road must have been something of a mixed blessing, transforming the village from a quiet backwater into a busy through-route.
Some will have railed against the intrusion, no doubt, while others welcomed their newfound connectedness. It doesn’t seem to have benefited all, though. I soon saw one building linked only to the old road by means of a very boggy path:
There seems to be a remarkable dearth of information on this structure. It’s clearly an old church and a datestone on one of the gables says it was built in 1906 but it doesn’t seem to show up in the OS 2nd edition (1888-1913).
A United Free Church was marked not too far away, also in the middle of a bit of empty bog, at a point where no remains stand. Was it moved? Was the map wrong? Who knows? Whatever happened, and whenever it was abandoned, the only flock it sees now is the literal kind.
Loch na Cairidh
After passing by Dunan, I found that the turns of both old road and coast meant that they now ran roughly parallel. To my left was Loch na Cairidh (‘fish trap loch’), the channel separating Scalpay from Skye. Ahead was a series of enormous muddy puddles, as the road tried ever so hard to emulate that loch.
I was a little damper-footed and more muddied when I’d picked my way past that section of the old road that rather more resembled a canal.
There, the old road veered slightly inland again and I passed another illegible milestone (Sligachan 11, Broadford 4). Had I really only walked a mile since the last one? I was, I realised, going quite slowly and my ankle didn’t feel quite right. I had probably sprained it but I had to continue; I’d just have to take it easy, as I went.
Drochaid Mhòr Strollamus
The old road descended slowly to a small, double-arched bridge that spanned the Allt Strollamus, a burn flowing down to the loch. I paused there, offering Mr Telford mental thanks, and gazed upon what the large-scale OS maps labelled a waterfall.
I was close to the end of the old road now, for it soon met the new on the shoreline, at the foot of the hill of Creag Strollamus (266 m). Just before it did so, it passed through a gate and through a copse of trees, where the shade had nurtured a vivid crop of toadstools with bright red caps and white spots.
Probably the most iconic of toxic toadstools, though nowhere near the most dangerous, the toadstools in question were fly agaric (Amanita muscaria).
Traditionally used as an insecticide, they are also known to have psychoactive effects in humans although various other effects of fly agaric poisoning — nausea, spasm, sweating, salivation and agitation — do not make them sound like a good idea to consume. Furthermore, just to turn them into a real game of fungal roulette, the concentration of toxins is not uniform throughout the toadstool and varies wildly according to conditions and time of year. It might take over a dozen caps to kill you, or it might take just a few.
If I was going to risk my life that afternoon, it was by other means. Braving the traffic on the A87 for instance. This was still just as terrifying as it had been at Luib, except now there wasn’t really much of a verge to walk upon. I made a halting sort of progress, stepping aside as much as I could to let traffic pass and feeling quite unsafe as it roared past me.
To begin with, I still had views of Scalpay on my left, though patches of woodland soon put paid to that. I’d done about a mile when I reached the bridge across the Allt Feàrna, upon the parapet of which I perched and rested. Beside it stood an older bridge, whose approaches were now quite overgrown.
My ankle was feeling okay but still indefinably not quite right. It was definitely weak, and now feeling slightly stiff. I should, I concluded, probably not be walking on it. If I let it rest now, it’d be fine for tomorrow. Except I couldn’t really let it rest yet, I was still over two miles from Broadford.
Camas na Sgianadin
The bridge parapet was a fairly precarious resting spot, so I removed myself half a mile further down the road, where a parking spot and picnic benches made for greater comfort. I sat there for a little while, martialling my reserves of energy and musing on the way onwards.
I was, unexpectedly, being offered a choice: there was the direct route into Broadford, or a slightly longer route sticking more closely to the coast. I knew I wanted to take the latter but common sense was touting the shorter route as more sensible.
Normally, I’d have been disposed towards telling common sense to go stick its head up a cow’s behind but, having got its way the day before, common sense was feeling pretty confident and browbeat me into submission. I would stick to the A-road.
Old Road Alignment
Fortunately, what I would actually stick to was mostly the old A-road. The section into Broadford had had some realignment and the old route had become a pedestrian footpath, without which locals visiting a nearby cemetery would likely have added to it every trip.
Apart from one short section where a lack of realignment had necessitated a purpose-built linking section of footpath, this meant my route into Broadford looked for the most part like this:
Thanks to some eclectic route choices on Skye, this was my third time of walking into Broadford. I had originally planned a leisurely stop for dinner but time was more pressing than I’d have liked. Instead, I bought what felt like half the Co-op and sat in the shoreside community garden, enjoying an impromptu picnic.
When I had eaten and further rested, I had decisions to make. I probably ought not to be walking on my ankle, for all that it still felt mostly okay. I was unlikely to catch any public transport this late though, and it was only another seven or so miles. Heh, only. That actually felt like quite a lot. But not impossible…
A87 Skye Bridge Road
I set off slowly, passing on my way a couple failing to hitch-hike their way to Armadale. I’ve found that in the Highlands random drivers often stop to ask if you need a lift, so it was interesting that that pair, who were actively trying to solicit one, were having no luck at all. I might not be moving particularly fast at the moment, I decided, but it was still quite a bit faster than they currently were.
Slowly by Sunset
The walk from Broadford to Kyleakin was essentially a re-tread in reverse of part of my first walk on Skye, some ten walks ago.
As I inched my way along the A87, the sun drew low and then the light failed. My pace slowed still further as my ankle made it known that I was right when I thought I shouldn’t walk on it. The sprain, exacerbated by my insistent stupidity, worsened as I went and my ankle soon started to seriously stiffen and swell.
Arrival After Dark
It was properly dark by the time I reached Kyleakin, and I was moving at a painful snail’s pace. The strategic consumption of single malt whisky went some way to ameliorating the discomfort, as did the application of a cold compress.
Proper Conclusion Postponed
In the morning, I climbed out of bed to prepare for my fourth day walking — some 22 miles to Strathcarron. The few paces it took to get me to the bathroom convinced me that that simply wasn’t happening. Day four would be a rest day, with the minimal painful limping I could get away with.
It took me an hour and a half to hobble across Skye Bridge to Kyle station and I was damned if I’d count that as a walk. It would have to be another time, a future trip, when I’d ‘officially’ walk off Skye…
This time: 25½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,557½ miles