Fort William lies the start of the Road to the Isles. Situated on the western end of the Great Glen and north of Glencoe it is known to Gaelic-speaking locals as “An Gearasdan Dubh” or, the Black Garrison. The fort was built in 1654 by General Monk to accommodate Government soldiery at the time of the English Civil War and was substantially strengthened in 1690 by General Hugh MacKay, commander of King William’s troops in Scotland. Subsequently, the town grew around the fort. At the time of the 1745 Rebellion, it was still a Government post, central in fighting the Highland uprising and endeavouring to keep the clans under control.
Leaving fort William on the A82 you pass the ruins of Old Inverlochy Castle. Possibly built on the ruins of a Pictish Fort, its present ruins unchanged from the original, it dates back to the 13th century, and was an important stronghold of the Highland clans in many disputes with their Lowland enemies.
The West Highland Railway came to Fort William in August 1894 and the Mallaig extension was opened in 1901. The Fort William to Mallaig journey has been justly described as one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the world.
Today, Fort William is known as the Outdoor Capital of the UK where numerous outdoor activities take place. Nearby Ben Nevis needs no introduction here, being the highest mountain in the British Isles and a mecca for climbers from all over the world.
Turning on to the A830, we go left to Lochy Bridge and are now truly on the Road to the Isles.
A mile further on is Banavie Bridge, which spans the lower part of the Caledonian Canal. Built by Thomas Telford, to make a waterway between the west and east coasts of Scotland, in order to avoid the stormy passage around Cape Wrath, it opened in 1822. At this point on the canal, there is a series of locks known as “Neptune’s Staircase”. These eight locks raise the height of the canal by seventy two feet, thus elevating canal traffic to the level of Loch Lochy some miles further on.
One mile west of Banavie and situated at the basin of the Caledonian Canal, has three locks. A primeval settlement, Corpach is variously thought to be named for its peaty soil indicative of decayed wood or, “body place” where, in olden times the remains of illustrious people rested before taking ship for burial on Iona. Here too is Kilmallie Cemetery, one of the ancient burial places of Clan Cameron. In later times it was the site of a pulp mill, (1963-1980) now closed, built by Wiggins Teape
About a mile west of Corpach, is Annat. The name indicates the site of the church of an early local saint. It is said to be the place where St. Columba had his first mission station in Pictland and was also the site of a nunnery.
Loch Eil (Gaelic- Loch Iall – sun-glint loch)) a sea loch that runs east to west from Loch Linnhe to near Glenfinnan. Situated in Cameron country, it is the loch from which the head of Clan Cameron took its title ca. 1492. On its banks stands Fassfern House where Prince Charlie stayed on the night of 23rd August 1745 on his way south. Its then owner, Duncan Cameron, younger brother of Cameron of Locheil, absented himself on that occasion as he wished to have nothing to do with the rebellion.
Originally part of the extensive Clanranald lands, Glenfinnan was one of the policies of the Glenaladale branch of Clanranald from ca. 1674. It remained in that family until 1922 when the widow of the last heir died without issue. It is famous for being the rallying place of the clans when prince Charles Edward Stuart raised the standard in 1745, in his abortive bid to regain the British crown for the Stuart dynasty. The Glenfinnan monument was erected in 1815 by Alexander MacDonald of Glenaladale, to commemorate the Highland clans of the ’45. Alexander died before its completion. Notable too, is its curved railway viaduct of twenty one arches, constructed by Robert MacAlpine (Concrete Bob – so named for his pioneering use of concrete) when building the Mallaig extension of the West Highland railway ca. 1900. In recent years, the viaduct has become famous for its inclusion in the “Harry Potter” films featuring the “Hogwarts’ Express”
Here too, one can take a boat trip down beautiful Loch Sheil, surrounded by spectacular scenery and towering mountains. Near the lower end of Loch Sheil, is the little island of Eilean Fhianain, site of St. Finnan’s ruined chapel, built ca. 1500 A,D, by Allan MacRuaraidh, 4th Chief of Clanranald and former burial ground of Clanranald chiefs.
Continuing on, the road and railway come close together at the narrow pass of am Muidhe before descending several hundred feet to Loch Eilt and then on to Lochailort.
Formerly known as “Ceann a’ Chreagainn” is a hamlet situated at the head of the sea loch where the Scottish fish farming industry had its birth in 1966. During WW11, Inverailort Castle was commandeered by the army and became the first of several local training centres for SOE, (Special Operations Excecutive) the others in the area being Arisaig House, Traigh House, Garamore Lodge and Rubana Lodge in Morar. Movement in the area was severely restricted owing to the top secret nature of the training operations where men and women were instructed in spying, and guerrilla warfare before being dropped behind enemy lines. Local ghillies and stalkers were conscripted to train the operatives in hill craft.
A few miles further west stands the little chapel of “Our lady on the Braes” perched on a hill overlooking Loch Ailort. Built in 1872 by General Cameron of Inverailort to serve the people of Polnish and the Ardnish Peninsula, it is now no longer in use as a chapel as Ardnish is bereft of its former population. The chapel featured in the films, “Local Hero” and “Breaking of the Waves”.
Loch nan Uamh
Continuing west we come to Loch nan Uamh (Loch of the Caves) This is the loch where prince Charlie arrived in 1745 and from where he departed, defeated, in 1746.
The loch is skirted on the north side by road and railway. The railway bursts out of the cutting at Loch Beag and emerges on to the eight arched viaduct, revealing wonderful views to the west and the Inner Hebrides. At the building of the viaduct a horse and cart fell into one of the pillars and could not be removed. Recent x-rays of the pillar showed the skeleton of the horse, confirming this story.
Now on the way to Arisaig, several miles away, the traveller climbs away from the sea for a few miles. On the way we pass the entrance to Glen Beasdale where the old drove road ascends the glen. Starting at Rhu, Arisaig, this was the route taken by the drovers of old on their way to the southern cattle markets of Falkirk and Crieff.
Next is Borrodale. A flat fertile plain beside Loch nan Uamh, its name probably derives from the Norse “Borgar-Dalr” or Fort-glen, referring to the vitrified fort, Rubh’ Aird an Ghamhsghaill, on a near-by promontory
Arisaig (Norse- Aros –dwelling place. Vik-bay) and it neighbouring district of Rhu, situated around the shores of Loch na Ceall, have probably always been a centre of activity. Once, almost certainly occupied by the Vikings, the area later became part of the Lordship of the Isles in the district of “Na Garbh Criochan” or, “the Rough Bounds” After the Reformation, and under Clanranald rule, its remote inaccessibility made it a refuge for the proscribed Catholic religion. At the time of the 1745 rebellion, the strongly Jacobite people of the area played a major part in the Cause and the eventual sheltering and escape of Prince Charlie from Loch nan Uamh
Many families left here between the 1730s and 1850s, Some early departures were led by displaced tacksmen taking their people with them to Canada and America. Later, during the Clearances, people were driven out, some emigrating to America and the Colonies and some moving to cities like Glasgow or even further south.
The first road reached here in 1812 and the railway in 1901. Before the coming of the railway, the pier at Rhu was a busy place as the main landing place for a wide area, catering for passengers and goods in and out of Arisaig and the surrounding districts. Today Arisaig’s inhabitants are employed in various occupations, but the sea and tourism play a major part in its economy.
Leaving Arisaig village, we pass through the little districts of Back of Keppoch and Bunacaimbe, both mainly crofting communities. Once across the River Caimbe and until we reach the River Morar, we are in the old district of South Morar whose hereditary lairds were the Clanranald sept known as the Morar MacDonalds.Now long gone, their estate was sold and is today broken into small portions.
The river Morar runs a few miles further west. With its beautiful falls, it is the shortest river in Britain, only about half a mile in length. It runs out of Loch Morar, reckoned to be the deepest loch in Europe, at over one thousand feet deep. Loch Morar has its own resident monster, Morag, who has been seen by numerous local people and visitors too.
The silver-white sands of Morar, bordering the sea, are famous worldwide and eulogised in poetry and song. In summer, the beaches are enjoyed by many visitors drinking in the peace and beauty and absorbing the pure sea air.
Many of Morar’s children, too, left for foreign lands in previous centuries but, as in Arisaig, descendants return, to see the place of the old home.
Before the mid-nineteenth century, Mallaig was sparsely populated. A prosperous fishing industry was based at nearby Loch Nevis. In the 1840s, Lord Lovat made the land of the farm of Mallaig Bheag available and persuaded his tenants from the settlements beside Loch Morar and Loch Nevis to take up portions of the land, with a view to becoming crofter-fishermen. He also built a small pier and later a store. The fishing depended on the herring shoals appearing each year. Due to their size, the small boats could not venture beyond Lochs Nevis or Hourn. If the herring failed, the fisher families had no other resources and severe hardship was the result.
This situation prevailed until the coming of the railway in 1901. With improved transport facilities and in the expectation of fresh opportunities, many new people, both fisherfolk and other traders moved into Mallaig and it became the main fishing port of the area.
Mallaig became a thriving port and at, one point was the premier herring port in Europe. Despite the herring fishing ban in the 1970s, Mallaig continued to be a prosperous little port with steady white and shellfish catches. However since the 1990s the fishing has fallen off.
With the decline of the fishing industry, the Harbour Authority looked to attract other industries by a series of harbour expansions to cater for ferry traffic, sustainable fish farm traffic and marina facilities. The re-introduction of a summer service of steam trains from Fort William to Mallaig was implemented.
From Mallaig you can begin your journey to the Inner or Outer Hebrides and experience for yourself the truth of the oft-quoted remark, “You have never seen colour till you come to the West Highlands and Islands.”
Elizabeth Macdonald, October 2011.