Lochs and green hills at the end of the Road to the Isles
With the Islands beckoning to the west, this part of the Highlands offers new adventures, an invitation that is underlined at the busy little ports and by the westward-bound wakes of the ferries. Inland there are lochsides and hills that vary from the grand and desolate to the pretty and intimate. Every castle, ruin and white-sanded bay has its heroic legend, while over all there drifts the sad but gallant shade of Prince Charles Edward.
The Road to the Isles – ‘By Ailort and by Morar to the sea’ – comes to a triumphant end among the rattle of winches and the shouting of gulls at this busy fishing and ferry port. The harbour, surrounded by white-painted stone houses, a hotel or two and the terminus of the West Highland railway line, is a place of constant bustle. Lobsters, prawns and fish by the ton, it seems, are hauled out of the fishing boats; these are skirted by the big, red-funnelled ferries from Armadale in Skye, and by the little ones from Inverie on Loch Nevis and other places.
Providing weather, boots and inclination are in trim, it is an excellent idea to scale the rocky Cam a Ghobhair – a track goes most of the way from Glasnacardoch, 1 mile south of Mallaig. From its 1,797 ft summit, there is a panorama unrivalled in the Highlands. To the east are Lochs Morar and Nevis and the wilderness of Knoydart; and to the west, Rhum and the Cuillin Hills of Skye.
The hilly village of Morar looks out over its beach of pure-white quartzite sand to pale green seas and the grand silhouettes of Rhum and Eigg. The narrow neck of land on which it stands is all that divides the 11 mile long Loch Morar from the sea, and even this is cut by the half-mile-long Morar River. The thunderous weir on the river is all that remains of some once-famous falls; they were tamed to meet the requirements of a hydro-electric scheme, whose power station is discreetly built into a cliffside.
A narrow road runs along the northern shore of the loch to Bracora, which consists of little more than seven crofters’ houses and a telephone box; beyond this point the road soon turns into a footpath. It is a pleasant track, by fast-falling streams from the hills of North Morar, and with herons and buzzards for company.
The waters of Loch Morar conceal the deepest abyss in Britain, a fearsome chasm of 1,017 ft. The loch may also conceal a monster named Morag, a relative of the better-known creature in Loch Ness. However, she does not flaunt herself to tourists and is said only to appear when the death of a MacDonald of Clanranald is imminent.
The village of Arisaig on Loch nan Ceall looks over a shattered jigsaw of islets and skerries to Rhum, Eigg and the Cuillins of Skye. It is at Arisaig that the Road to the Isles turns north along the coast towards Mallaig, and this final stretch across the peninsula of Arisaig is celebrated with a gentleness and joyfulness not often associated with Highland scenery. The air is frequently balmy – a benefit conferred by the North Atlantic Drift
– the woods of birch, rowan and oak are mossy and deep, wild flowers grow in profusion and there are birds everywhere. Arisaig is not the only place on the western mainland from which to watch and be overwhelmed by the sunset over the islands
– but it is certainly one of the best.
LOCH NAN UAMH
To followers of the romance of Prionnsa Tearlach, or Bonnie Prince Charlie, there are few more significant places than this sea loch, where the adventure began and ended. With a few companions, Charles Edward landed on the shores of the loch on July 25, 1745, and thence, on September 20, 1746, he departed, with a larger number of companions and a price of £30,000 on his head.
Though lonely, the loch is a green and happy place, surrounded by woods of birch, larch and oak, trailing streamers of lichen, and full of islets and promontories, where seals pop their heads out of the calm water. Nevertheless, most of the memories seem to cling to the final days of the prince’s wanderings; to the cave by the shore below Arisaig House, for instance, where tradition has it that he and his followers lived for a week or more. At the head of Loch nan Uamh, a cairn marks the place where the fugitives embarked in the early hours of that September morning, and sailed to exile in France.
Just as Loch nan Uamh witnessed the beginning and the end of the 1745 Uprising, so Glenfinnan saw its moment of greatest optimism. It was also its point of no return, for there, on the afternoon of August 19, 1745, the clans gathered to witness the raising of the Royal Standard and to declare themselves for the prince and the Stuart cause.
A stone tower topped by a kilted figure now marks the spot; the statue is not of the prince, as is often supposed, but of a bearded warrior representing all the clansmen who gave so much in the Stuart cause. Visitors can climb to the top of the statue by an inner staircase for a good view of the surrounding countryside.
The lovely but fairly impenetrable tract of country known as Moidart that lies between Loch Ailort and Loch Shiel was once Clanranald territory, but now there are few inhabitants apart from river and loch anglers in their seasons, and deer stalkers in theirs. However, an adventurous road skirts its northern and western shores.
At the tiny hamlet of Glenuig, on its sandy cove, the road sweeps southwards and inland to emerge again at Loch Moidart, which at low tide consists mostly of sand-flats. In a meadow near Kinlochmoidart a group of seven beech trees commemorates the ‘Seven Men of Moidart’, the sum total of the army that Prince Charles Edward brought with him from France. At the southwestern end of the loch, on an islet usually linked to the mainland, stands the 14th-century Castle Tioram. Though apparently intact, the castle is, in fact, a shell, having been fired by its owner, Clanranald, during the Uprising of 1715 to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Campbells.
Those who find the Stuarts and their doings overwhelming may find it restful to sit on a hillock and look westwards over the ragged islands to the sea, and to a view that was heartbreakingly beautiful before kings were dreamed of.
Each of the peninsulas down the jagged coast of the North-West Highlands has a flavour of its own. Ardnamurchan is a good deal gentler than most, and in addition it is the westernmost place in mainland Britain. Point of Ardnamurchan – the ‘Point of the Great Ocean’ – juts some 23 miles further into the Atlantic than Land’s End, and the view from its lighthouse embraces Mull, Coll and all the Inner Hebrides, and far out, on a clear day, the distant shapes of Barra and South Uist.
The road enters Ardnamurchan at Salen, then runs west along Loch Sunart to Glenborrodale. The turreted and battle-mented Glenborrodale Castle was built at the turn of the century on the site of a much earlier stronghold and is now a hotel.
From there, the road runs inland to skirt Ben Hiant, the Holy Mountain, whose jagged ramparts of volcanic rock can be seen for miles around. Further west is the village of Kilchoanand, nearby, the shell of the 13th-century Mingary Castle. On the north shore there are white sands and good fishing, especially at Sanna Bay just north of Point of Ardnamurchan, and at Achateny Beach and Kilmory Sands, which are also excellent places for seekers after rare sea-shells.
From the demure village by Loch Sunart side, a nature trail climbs through oak and conifers – many hung with duck-egg green lichen – to the wild hills above that pour roaring spates down to the Strontian River. Just below the trail, a steep, bumpy road forks to the west to a place described on the map as Scotstown. It consists mainly of shattered, roofless cottages, while above them lie the old mine workings that made the name of Strontian famous the world over.
Between 1722 and 1904, silver, lead, zinc and other minerals were extracted from the mines. The minerals included one called strontianite from which, in 1808, a metallic element named strontium was isolated; this burns with a bright crimson glow, and was for many years used in the manufacture of fireworks and flares. The name is best known, however, from strontium 90, an isotope of the same metal that occurs as a by-product of nuclear fission.
Today the mines lie open to the sky, a sinister grouping of chasms, craters and shafts braced by ancient timbers, while far below there is the sound of water falling. Round about there is glorious moorland scrambling among the heather, white water and grey rocky outcrops. Take care to keep away from the workings, however.
The sea lochs Sunart and Linnhe and the Sound of Mull together almost turn the lonely moorland miles of Morvern into an island. The only road of any size runs from the head of Loch Sunart, across Morvern to the shores of Loch Aline and hence to Drimnin which looks across to Tobermory bay.
Lochaline village at the mouth of the loch was a pretty place once, but in 1940 it was discovered that its sand is almost pure silica, and some 60,000 tons of it are removed each year for the manufacture of optical glass. However, the church has a 15th-century Celtic cross, and the nearby ruined church of Keil has a medieval gravestone depicting a man wearing what looks very much like a kilt; if he is, it is the earliest known portrayal of that garment.