Mountain grandeur behind the rugged shores north of Knoydart
For those who like scenery on the grand scale, this is the place. True, there are the steep-massed conifers planted by the Forestry Commission, a few pretty villages like Applecross and Plockton, some prehistoric forts and medieval castles. But all these are yesterday’s work when compared with the barren 750-million-year-old mountains that have nothing to do with the human race and will probably long survive it.
Loch Shieldaig, off Loch Torridon, was famous for herrings even in the days of the Norse overlords, and herrings too – until they went away – were the chief business of the little whitewashed, slate-roofed village by the shore. Shieldaig was founded by the Admiralty in 1800, when, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain was chronically short of trained seamen. It was intended as a ‘nursery’ for the Royal Navy, and tax remissions and boat-building grants were offered to fishing families who went to live there. With the coming of peace, official interest waned, grants slipped into abeyance and the fisherfolk were left to their own devices.
The roads from Shieldaig present the Highlands at their wildest and most magnificent. The view from the A896 running east along Upper Loch Torridon and looking north to the fantastically worn ridges of Beinn Alligin, Beinn Dearg and Liathach is especially humbling. Their reddish sandstone is 750 million years old, about the oldest rock on the face of the planet. To the west are the younger but scarcely less-dramatic ranges of the Applecross peninsula.
In 672 St Maelrubha built a monastery on the quiet bay at the foot of the great hills and declared it a sanctuary for all fugitives. Nothing of his foundation remains save the fragments of a stone cross preserved in the parish kirk which may well be parts of his own monument. But something of the sense of sanctuary can still be felt beside the row of cottages on the shore that forms the present village. This is due not so much to St Maelrubha as to the sheer remoteness of the place which, until the building of the coast road from Shieldaig in the early 1970s, was one of the most inaccessible parishes in mainland Britain.
The old road to Applecross is now called the Applecross Scenic Route, but is better known as Bealach na Ba – the Pass of the Cattle. From the side of Loch Kishorn this old drovers’ road shoots up in a series of dizzying hairpins to 2,053 ft, skirting a couple of dreadful precipices on the way. At the top it traverses a flattened moonscape of shattered rock before swooping down to Applecross.
Apart from the tremendous backdrop of the Applecross Forest, there is something Mediterranean about Plockton. Tucked away in an inlet off Loch Carron and surrounded by jewels of islets and promontories, the village consists of a line of houses along the shore, their bright gardens filled with roses – and with palm trees, too, for Plockton falls under the benign influence of the North Atlantic Drift. All summer long, yachts and dinghies flurry the waters of Piockton’s bay. It is a pretty place, as a number of artists have discovered.
Lochcarron village, at the landward end of Loch Carron, is also an attractive string of white-painted houses and hotel along the shore, but like most of the loch, its greatest concern is with the builders of the oil-rig platforms whose products brought much-needed work to the region.
KYLE OF LOCHALSH
The bustling little township with its provision stores, souvenir shops, abusive seagulls and general feeling of coming and going has all the air of a busy fishing port. It is the home of the British Underwater Testing and Evaluation Centre, and a ferry point for Skye.
Since it is a place of transit, not many people linger in the village, which is a pity, for it is an excellent place from which to explore the 6,400 acre Balmacara estate, belonging to the National Trust for Scotland, that runs over the peninsula to embrace Plockton and the southern shore of Loch Carron. No Highland wilderness this, but a gentle place of woodland walks, quiet lochans and streams.
EILEAN DONAN CASTLE
No scene in Scotland has been more photographed, yet familiarity does not dim its wonder- the castle on its islet, the blaze of gold down Loch Alsh, the great hills, and the dimming light in Loch Duich and Loch Long: a glimpse of true majesty.
The original castle was built by Alexander II in 1230, and a century later its walls were festooned with 50 heads by the Earl of Moray. This first building was bombarded into ruin by a pair of frigates of the Royal Navy in 1719, when it was held by a Spanish garrison for the Old Pretender, son of the deposed James II. Eilean Donan remained a ruin until 1912, when Colonel MacRae, a descendant of its hereditary constables, began to restore it. The building is open to the public daily in summer and contains MacRae portraits and furniture.
Another noble sight, not far from Eilean
Donan, are the famed Falls of Glomach, at the head of Loch Long, but they are by no means easy to reach. The best route, perhaps, is to take the road up the west side of Loch Long to Killilan House, where permission must be sought before proceeding further – deerstalking may be in progress. Five bumpy miles beyond the house there is a little bridge, and from there a rough, wet path that climbs 800 ft in Wi miles beside the Allt a’ Ghlomaich leads to the Falls. They are tremendous. The burn throws itself down a full 750 ft, though about half-way it hits a buttress then continues down in two white tresses.
The Bealach Ratagain, or Mam Ratagan Pass, is one of the major strategic routes through the western Highlands, which is why the British government confirmed it with a road at the beginning of the 18th century. The military road, and the modern one that closely follows it, come up in a series of breathtaking zigzags from Shiel Bridge to the head of the pass at 1,116 ft.
For a view, the visitor has to wait until he reaches the Forestry Commission’s viewpoint just above the treeline. Far, far below are the toy shapes of Invershiel village, Shiel Bridge and the tiny Loch Shiel, while to the north lies the whole glorious expanse of Loch Duich. But what immediately commands the attention is the group of great billowing hills, known as the Five Sisters of Kintail, to the south-east.
Sealed from the world by the wild hills of Glenshiel Forest, Glenelg’s only means of access from the landward side is the road that comes over the Mam Ratagan Pass and follows the Glenmore River to the sea. It was by this road that Dr Johnson and Mr Boswell came in 1773 to take the ferry that since time immemorial has run across the narrows of Kyle Rhea to Skye. It runs still, but only in summer.
Bernera Barracks, just outside Glenelg, echoed with the stamp of drilling troops in the 18th century, for the government kept a garrison there from 1722 to 1790. Now it is a desolate shell, with trees sprouting from the gaping windows.
Along Gleann Beag, south of Glenelg, are the remains of a pair of Pictish brochs – Dun Telve and Dun Trodden – said to be the best preserved of their kind in the country.
A road of sorts, rough and steep, runs round the coast to the north shore of Loch Hourn and another comes out of Glen Garry and follows Loch Quoich to Kinloch Hourn at the landward end. That is about the total extent of the world’s impingement upon Loch Hourn, the most remote and most spectacular of the western sea lochs. At its eastern end it narrows abruptly and becomes a dogleg that thrusts its way through mountains that tower 2,000 ft and more on either hand. The peninsula to the south is Knoydart -walker’s country, for not even the 18th-century London government put a road through it.
The only way of getting about in the neighbourhood of Loch Nevis is by boat or by putting one foot before the other. There are no roads at all, even to Inverie, the village on the northern shore, whose only obvious means of access to the outside world is by ferry to Mallaig. But with the great peaks withdrawn to the north and east and only the much lower hills of North Morar to the south, it is an open, happy place, quite unlike dark Loch Hourn, and does not feel nearly so remote.
Anyone with stout boots and a taste for long walks can work out all kinds of escape routes. Best of all, perhaps, is to cross over from Tarbet on the southern shore to Loch Morar, along whose side a path leads, after 8 miles, to Morar and eventually to Mallaig.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Lochalsh Woodland Garden (NTS), Balmacara estate, near Kyle of Lochalsh. Daily.
Strome Castle (NTS), north bank of Loch Carron. Medieval ruins. Daily.