A Journey into Scotland … Part 29
I’d anticipated that the first hour would be riding off the effects of a gallon of the stronger bitter beer that the Scottish people call heavy. The reality is that I spend it working off the effects of a glorious breakfast. After ten days riding it is my first full fry. It may have temporarily slowed my legs but I have no regrets. I’ve got plenty of time ahead of me to be fit and strong. A good breakfast is a good breakfast.
I’m soon on the shore of Loch Linnhe. It’s one of Scotland’s longest sea lochs and the only sea loch that is part of the Great Glen; a series of lochs and rivers (and these days canals) that follow the Great Glen geological fault line. Scotland is crudely three fat sections separated by three thin sections. (Almost like a sack of flour with three strings tied round it and pulled tight). The most southerly thin section is the border with England. The middle one has the Clyde at one end and the Forth at the other and is dominated by the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. The Great Glen is the most northerly of these. Each time you go from one fat section into the next you experience great changes culturally and geographically. And, even to my English ear, changes in the way people speak.
Loch Linnhe is flat calm and blue-grey: flat enough to pour cream on the top. To say that it is lovely is becoming a repetition. Everything up here is lovely. I’m heading towards Fort William. Fort William is by no means beautiful but it is undoubtedly lovely. It’s overcast with the odd spot of rain but this only seems to make the view even better. There’s not much to beat riding a flat road along the side of a beautiful lake with mountains rising on the opposite shore and the highest mountain of them all beginning to make its presence felt up ahead. All of that and the wind is at my back. It’s almost like having a small, silent engine on the bicycle.
Fort William is something of a controversial name for the second largest settlement in the Highlands (Inverness, if you were wondering). The seventeenth century army garrison (the Gaelic name for the town is An Gearasdan which literally translates as The Garrison) was called Fort William and the eighteenth century town that grew around it is also called Fort William but they are not to be confused. One is named after the Dutch King of England William III who was hardly popular in the Highlands and the other is named after William, Duke of Cumberland whose brutalities during and after the Battle of Culloden gave him the name Butcher of the Scots. In order to sweeten his reputation he also had the Sweet William flower named after him; though some in Scotland refer to the flower as Stinking Billy. (Both names are apt: the perfume from the flower is delightful but if you leave them too long in the vase the stems begin to decompose with a foul and foetid stench.)
The town was originally called Inverlochy and part of the settlement still bears this name. It became Maryburgh in honour of the joint monarch, then Gordonsburgh and later still Duncansburgh. They don’t sound like the names of an important town. A new name is sought. Invernevis has been suggested but I don’t expect to see the sign writers out any time soon. And anyway I’ve always fancied catching the sleeper from Euston to Fort William. It seems a romantically long way off both in space and time.
It’s popular with mountain bikers these days. Mountain bikers are people who go clattering through the previously unspoiled bits of the British countryside squealing and shouting at each other.
“Oh! My! God!”
“It’s so beautiful here!”
“I said.” (even louder) “I said it’s so beautiful here!”
“Yeah. And so peaceful!”
I like mountains immensely and I like bicycles. If there is a way of marrying the two together without creating a nuisance neighbour for those who prefer quieter pursuits I will withdraw my objections. I don’t deny it is skilful, dangerous, physically demanding. Parts of Ben Nevis are now given over almost exclusively to this pursuit and maybe I should be happy with that. But like losing wide swathes of beauty to army testing areas it seems a pity. At least the army testing areas, being almost free of human intrusion, have become important sanctuaries for wildlife. You also get permission every now and then, when they aren’t letting off high explosives, to walk on them. Just don’t pick up anything round or anything shiny. Perhaps they could build mountain biking routes through these.
Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in Britain but it is far from the most impressive unless you admire pure bulk. Granted it is enormous but it is one of the few high points that you would struggle to call beautiful. Impressive? Yes. Massive? Certainly. But stunning? Well maybe in certain lights. For much of the time the summit is in the clouds. With a little imagination it is possible to turn it into another Matterhorn until the sun breaks through.
Turning my back on Fort William I head west along the A830. I’m on the road to the Isles and on the verge of Scotland playing that, “You thought you’d seen the best, well, what do you think about this?” trick again. If you like trains then maybe this is the most spectacular line in the country. There’s a perfect public transport holiday to be had. Sleeper train from Euston to Fort William. Steam train from Fort William to Mallaig and then a Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry across the Sound of Sleet to the Isle of Skye. Perfect. And if like Colin Farrell in the Railway Man you get to share a carriage with Nicole Kidman, so much the better.
It begins gently enough. Nothing too specular. Just a sea loch and some mountains to look at and a nice bit of woodland to pedal through. As long as the road keeps to the northern shore of the loch it remains flat. The wind is now in my face, but it’s dropped to so light a breeze as to make very little difference. Loch Linnhe soon becomes Loch Eil. Another eight miles of shoreside beauty. The road is classified as an A road but it feels like a 1960s A road. In the middle of an October day there isn’t much traffic on it. It’s one of those times when you pedal and look around and think, and you struggle to find much wrong with the world. Up ahead tantalising glimpses of mountains still to come. I’ve planned this trip using road maps not guide books. I really have no idea of what lies ahead in terms of terrain, sights or splendours. My itinerary tells me that when I get to the end of it I, in turn, can catch my ferry to the Isle of Skye. What lies between me and there is a continuous unfolding splendour.
Leaving the loch behind the road begins to climb. The trees become thinner and rolling hills lead the eye across the horizon. Occasional houses on the right hand side. One of them a guest house. Quite a place to have your bed and breakfast, but imagine living a house like this and then having to put up with paying guests. Living out here is a thing of beauty in itself. As such it is a work of art. Instead of turning down beds and grilling sausages, these people should be in receipt of an Arts Council grant just to live here.
The railway line takes it in turn to be on your left and then on your right. As the road rises the trees and fields soon change to scrub and then moorland. Before long you’ve left houses behind and are in the middle of a huge and hugely beautiful landscape.
And with the same grace that the road brought you gently up, it lowers you down again. Sweeping bends through the autumnal trees. Hills that cry out to be walked up and picnicked upon. And, without warning I’m at Glenfinnan. I’d never heard of it until I saw it on a road sign five miles back and it is the only place in the world that I want to be on that early afternoon. There isn’t a soul in sight. The monument to the clans would have made the trip worth while but a steam train making its way over a railway viaduct that had just been illuminated by a beam of watery sunlight was even better. It’s the same viaduct that later finds fame in the Harry Potter films. Both paled into insignificance though, compared with the view that opened out as I pushed my bicycle towards the shores of the, until then, hidden lake. Loch Shiel. It’s a different world.