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Issue 65 - Lost in Lochabar

Scotland Magazine Issue 65
October 2012


This article is 6 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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Lost in Lochabar

Our exploration of Scotland's coastline continues in the West Highlands

We pick up our journey on the mainland just east of Skye; a stone’s throw separates these two land masses, just 550m at its narrowest point. This represents the shortest distance from Skye to the mainland, and every year for centuries from the Western Isles and Skye led up to 8,000 cattle overland to the markets in the Lowlands. At slack tide, the drover would rope the tail of the first cow around the jaw of the next – creating a string of six to eight cows. He would then row across the water to Glenelg, his cows swimming behind him.

For many centuries this narrow spit of water has been a strategic crossing point, not just for cows. In the aftermath of the 1715 Jacobite uprising the Government was keen to establish a military presence in the Highlands, and immediately set about building several large barracks. The best preserved of these is at Ruthven, but the Bernera Barracks, erected in 1722, are generally regarded as the finest of the four built. Four stories high and surprisingly complete, the ruins are currently fenced off to protect intrepid visitors from being brained by falling masonry.

Nearby are also the remains of two Pictish brochs, testament to the fact that the area was of strategic importance for a long time before the Hanoverian’s got involved. Dun Telve and Dun Troddan are the somewhat slumped remains of two defensive stone towers and may not look all that impressive, as far as ruins in Scotland go, but are remarkable for being older than the Colosseum of Rome (and subject to far more inclement weather). After 2000 years it is incredible that these walls – built from nothing other than stacked dry stone – are still standing.

This busy town was once one of Europe’s largest herring ports, and today the pretty harbour is crowded with smaller fishing vessels as well as the regular ferries that link to Armadale on the Isle of Skye, Inverie in Knoydart, and to the isles of Rum, Eigg, Muck, and Canna, also known as the Small Isles.

The town is linked to Fort William by the A830 road – the ‘Road to the Isles’, and the railway station is also the terminus of the West Highland railway line. Completed in 1901, and more recently made famous by the Harry Potter films, this has to be one of the most scenic railway journeys anywhere in the world.

The coastline here is dominated by the Small Isles, the largest of which, Rum, lies 15 miles off shore. Unfertile, mountainous and beset by midges – Rum seems an unlikely spot for human habitation, but has nevertheless yielded a great many artefacts hinting at some of the earliest human activity found in Scotland.

In 1826, Rum was home to some 400 or so inhabitants before they were all cleared off to Nova-Scotia to make way for sheep, as was the fashion at the time. Subsequently the island became a sporting estate and was sold in 1885 to John Bullough, a successful machinery manufacturer, whose son built the splendid Kinloch Castle. This striking red sandstone building is one of Scotland’s rarest treasures. Designed as a fantasy castle for an Edwardian mutli-millionaire, Kinloch was only ever used as a holiday home when the Bulloughs and their guests would travel up from London for a three-week summer party. These parties must have been wild indeed: the ballroom had a discrete hatch from which the butler could serve drinks to guests without observing what was going on in the room. Take the wonderful guided tour and you will hear numerous other stories of Kinloch’s extravagance. It was one of the first buildings in Scotland to have electricity, air conditioning, jet showers and an internal telephone system. A hydro-electricity scheme once heated warm pools in the grounds, which were inhabited by alligators and turtles.

The isle of Eigg is the second largest and most populated of the Small Isles. Dominated by the remarkable vertical cragg of An Sgurr, the island has endured a bloody history that belies its beauty – as is quite often the way with this unique country.

It began with the martyrdom of St Donnán in 617, an Irish missionary who brought Christianity to the island and founded a monastery – much to the disapproval of the island’s Pictish queen. St Donnán was promptly burnt along with all 150 of his followers. His remains are said to be buried at Kildonan Chapel.

The Massacre Cave is a reminder of an even darker hour in the island’s history. In 1577, when a rampaging bunch of McLeod’s from Skye landed on Eigg seeking revenge in a long running feud with the Macdonalds, the islanders hid in a cave on the south side of the island. They hid successfully for three days, and their enemies were leaving when they spotted a lookout. The Macleods were able to follow his footprints back to the cave in the freshly fallen snow, whereupon they built a huge fire and choked everyone to death with the smoke. Nearly 400 people died in the cave – the entire population of the island, save for one old woman.

The Arisaig area played an important part in the training of secret agents in World War Two. About 3000 secret agents went through rigorous training among the bens and glens of Lochaber, learning close-combat skills, silent killing, weapons handling, demolition and disguise. The secret agents were parachute dropped behind enemy lines to embark upon their covert missions.

The remote village was an ideal location for clandestine operations, as it came with railway access and only one road in or out; local people Where to stay were required to show passes if they wanted to leave the protected area.

Hidden corners of Scotland such as this hold more than one surprise for the traveller, just south of Arisaig is a Cairn that marks the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie boarded a French ship on 20 September 1746, having failed to take the crown for himself and leaving Scotland for good.

You can find out more about Bonnie Prince Charlie, secret agents, as well as local crofting, fishing, nature and archaeology at the Land Sea and Islands Centre in Arisaig.

The main road turns inland here towards Glenfinnan and Fort William, but plunge deeper into Ardnamurchan and you will discover many more hidden gems in this remote pennisula. Castle Tioram, for example. Pronounced ‘cheerum’, these dramatic ruins sit on a tiny tidal island and date from the 13th century. One of the most historically significant but least well known of Scotland’s castles, Tioram was home to the MacRuaris, one of the main branches of the descendants of Somerled, the original Lord of the Isles who first united the Western Highlands and the Hebrides. The island can be visited at low tide, where it is possible to get a good look at the castle exterior.

Contrary to popular belief, the most Western point of mainland Britain is not in Cornwall, it is here at Ardnamurchan Point. Alright, technically, it’s Corrachadh Mor – a headland just under a mile further west, but the lighthouse at Ardnamurchan provides a handy focal point (in much the same way as John O’Groats). The former keepers’ cottages and outbuildings are operated as a visitor centre, with a museum called the 'Kingdom of Light' – Rioghachd na Sorcha. There are many fascinating exhibits detailing the history and operations of the lighthouse, including access to the restored engine room and workshop with the original fog horn.

Where to Stay

Hostel offers 42 bed spaces in a mix of double rooms, twins and four six bed dorms.
Tel: +44 (0)1687 462 037

Mongolian yurts for hire on this beautiful island.
Tel: +44 (0)1897 460 317

Charming bed & breakfast overlooking the harbour.
Tel: +44 (0)1687 462 059

Comfortable small hotel and restaurant. Comes recommended.
Tel: +44 (0)1687 450 651

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