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Issue 49 - Magic of the Moor

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 49
February 2010

 

This article is 7 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Magic of the Moor

David McVey heads out onto one of the nation's last great empty spaces.

The Moor of Rannoch is a vast wilderness of rock and heather, bog and burn, loch and hill that can be truly Arctic in winter. ‘A wearier-looking desert man never saw,’ said David Balfour of the Moor in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, but he was being chased by redcoats at the time and that probably coloured his opinion.

Aeneas MacMaster, in Neil Munro’s The New Road, had a more complex view of the Moor; ‘God-forgotten, man-forsworn, wild Rannoch... it charmed and it repelled him.’ It can still do both; the Moor is wild and forbidding, but it also has a magical, untamed beauty. It can be unforgettable.

Oddly, the best approach to the Moor is by train. The West Highland Line, from Glasgow to Fort William, crosses the empty miles of the Moor between Bridge of Orchy and Tulloch, before circling round to Fort William from the north-west. The journey takes a wearisome time, but at least the scenery compensates. In 2009, a nationwide poll voted the West Highland the world’s most scenic rail journey; that’s pushing it, but it’s easily the best in the UK.

The railway was opened in 1894, and the stretch across the Moor was quite an engineering achievement. Over the wetter parts of the moor, the rails had to be laid on floating mats of brushwood, and soon after the railway’s first winter a snow-shed had to be fitted over the Cruach Rock cutting north of Rannoch Station to prevent blockage by snowdrifts. It’s still in use today, the only one on the UK rail system.

In deep midwinter I fulfilled a long-held wish by travelling to the heart of the Moor by train on a day of heavy snow cover. I’d only have an hour to explore Moor on foot but hopefully that would be enough time to experience something of its character. After Bridge of Orchy Station the train passed a frozen Loch Tulla and sped through Crannach Wood, a remnant of the great Caledonian Forest; already hundreds of red deer, both hinds and stags, pawed the snow for meagre pickings just yards from the railway. Stark white Glencoe peaks guarded the western end of the Moor.

A large body of water, fringed by sandy beaches, came into view on the left – Loch Laidon - and the train rattled into Rannoch Station. Here we’re at the end of a narrow road that spirals west from Kinloch Rannoch.

The nearby Moor of Rannoch Hotel specialises in breaks for jaded Londoners who step off the sleeper from Euston and into a completely contrasting world.

While Rannoch Station is fairly remote, it’s still civilisation. The next stretch, however, takes the line through the Cruach Rock snowshed and into a high tableland of moor and gleaming bright lochans with little islands crammed with stunted pine trees, all surrounded by 3000ft peaks. It’s the wildest landscape you’ll see from any British train.

Today, the outlook was breathtaking; faint shafts of pale sunlight glinted on wave after wave of snow-covered moorland, a landscape of fresh meringues.

Then the train slowed to a halt right in the middle of the wilderness; a bare station platform, a house alongside, a few trees and a dirt track coming in from the east. This is Corrour, originally a private station for the Corrour Estate. Corrour Lodge was several miles east and a pony and trap used to collect visitors from the train and deliver them to a pier at the western end of Loch Ossian, just over a mile away; a launch would speed them to the lodge at the other end of the loch.

From 1934, Corrour Station appeared in the public timetables. You might think that it would attract few passengers but walkers, climbers, mountain-bikers and bird watchers come in numbers. Hillwalkers are attracted by peaks such as Leum Uilleam (2971ft/909m) just west of the station and Beinn na Lap (3068ft/935m) to the northeast.

At Loch Ossian is a celebrated youth hostel, while the Station House offers bed and breakfast and even a cafe in the summer. This is a wilderness with plenty of attractions.

Today, only one other passenger climbed off the train at Corrour, a hillwalker carrying a vast pack and wearing snowshoes! It’s a moment worth savouring when the train whispers away through the snow and disappears north over the 1347ft summit of the West Highland Line; there’s a real sense of being abandoned. There was about 16 inches of snow on the ground. Happily, the snow on the rough track that runs to Loch Ossian had been beaten down by the passage of vehicles.

I walked in the direction of the loch for five minutes until out of earshot of the Station House generator, then stopped and listened.

Except for occasional raucous raven croaks and the ‘go back, go back’ of red grouse, there was complete silence; not a breath of wind came across the rolling moorland that looked like white sand dunes. I had plenty of time to make my way to the loch shore near the youth hostel; the building is a former Corrour Estate fishing cabin. Like the Station House B&B, the hostel is closed in winter; a pity. What a place to wake up on a winter day of snow!

The Moor has had quite a cinema career; scenes near the end of From Russia with Love were partly filmed on the Moor and, along with Ben Nevis and the Outer Isles, bits of the Moor appear in the stylised, druggy, landingon- Jupiter sequence of Kubrick’s 2001.

Corrour Station also made an incongruous appearance in Trainspotting.

On my visit, it would have been easy to remake Scott of the Antarctic or Ice Station Zebra here. I returned through the white Moor and climbed onto the next southbound train at Corrour. Few wilderness experiences are as convenient.

The Moor can also be approached from the A82 which runs along its western fringe, where the slopes of the Blackmount peaks rear up.

The Moor was once crossed from the A82 to Rannoch Station by inflatable dinghy, being hauled between burns and lochans, and finishing on a sandy Loch Laidon beach.

The West Highland Way footpath runs parallel to the A82, following the old road.

However you get to the Moor, bear in mind that it is a wild place and conditions can be inhospitable. The best times to visit are cold, dry, clear days in winter, or warmer days in April and May (before midges and clegs emerge). But don’t miss it; it’s the wilderness experience everyone can enjoy.