A Journey into Scotland … Part 31
There is something familiar about the next twenty miles though I don’t make the connection until it is pointed out to me. This is prime Local Hero country. The film rates as my joint favourite (along with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) just to sit back and watch. There are films that I think are better but none that are more enjoyable. The advent of DVDs hasn’t increased the number of films I have watched; I already go to the cinema an awful lot; it’s one of our great pleasures in life. But, it has led to me re-watching no end of films. Local Hero is one I will pop into the player in order to re-live a favourite scene. I invariably find myself watching the entire film. When you can watch a film five times or more with no diminution of pleasure then it’s either a good film or you need to broaden your horizons.
Glenfinnan can claim the interest of the movie tourist. (I can think of worse things to be; those location finders are experienced and skilful). As well as three Harry Potter films, the loch, the memorial and the viaduct have appeared in Charlotte Gray, Highlander, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Ring of Bright Water and Monarch of the Glen. (OK so that’s just a Sunday night tv programme but it did get sold all over the world – partly because of the location shooting. It also features the peerless Richard Briers and Susan Hampshire).
The road and the railway line keep each other company, parting briefly to take alternative views of the valley; either one side or the other. When they get to Loch Eilt one takes the high road and the other takes the low road. Nothing changes its bag of connotations quite like a railway line in moving from urban to rural. Some of the most desolate parts of our towns are ruled by rail and sleepers. In the wide open spaces those same lines add poignancy to the remote and the de-populated. Railways do desolation very well. Which is perhaps why they feature in so many films.
The first five miles going west from Glenfinnan are amongst the finest I’ve ever cycled. A road that has taken all the surveyors skills and all the muscle and dynamite at the road builders’ disposal. It is a thing of beauty which blends, with bends and boulders, into the highland hillside. But it is merely the gold chain between the real jewels, and as I reach the rise of yet another mossy hill, I catch a glimpse of speckled sunshine on the surface of what might be the loveliest loch yet. For fellow fans of Local Hero, this is the loch where they shot the scenes of the helicopter taking Mac back to Houston. It’s an emotionally important moment in the film and the location’s beauty is an equal match to the needs of the drama.
There is absolutely nothing to beat the pleasure of pedalling along a near empty road along the side of a glassy loch with a Grampian hillside rising above you. The trees just beginning to turn their autumn shades and a sun trying to break through. It is simply idyllic. I fear I may have dipped too greedily into the superlatives box in describing this whole area, but it is of almost indescribable beauty. My real problem lies in hindsight. I’m writing this nearly thirty years after the event. I haven’t changed my mind one jot about the beauty. It is just that I now know what lies ahead. The west coast has this repeated trick. Just when you think it cannot improve, it does just that. This simple road is more than a memory. The experience is so ingrained that it lives as a part of who I am. I only rode it once and I have been a better man since because I did. I would love to ride it again.
There is a fine looking inn at Loch Ailort but I don’t want to stop until I find somewhere to put up a tent. Pushing up past the village, I see what looks remarkably like the little church that the locals crowd into in the film. It can’t be. This is on an inland rise, and the one in the film is on a beach. The film makers are clever. The camera does play tricks. It would be discordant to say the camera lies but it isn’t being altogether truthful. It is indeed the church of Our Lady of the Braes. In reality it hasn’t been prayed in since 1964; not by a congregation anyway: but many people were seen going in and coming out after discussing oil and money and the threat to a traditional way of life during the filming.
We’ve moved from freshwater lochs to sea lochs now. They are quite unlike anything else. England doesn’t have them and neither does Ireland. Norway has its fjords and though I’ve only seen them in film and photograph, they don’t seem quite the same to me. These huge fingers of sheltered ocean with hills rising on the opposite shore, yet still as mighty and powerful as the sea always is. And as inviting! Little boats bob at anchor. I’m sure if I were to stop and rest and wait I’d have an even money chance of seeing a seal or a sea otter or a dolphin or even a whale.
After Loch Ailort there are more houses. It’s still sparsely populated but there is a tiny community here, a scattered hamlet there. Between Glenfinnan and here there had been hardly a house. Looking north over the moors and fells there is a huge wilderness of magnificence. Occasionally telegraph poles stand sentinel and cross the heather and the bracken and the ling. It must be some job to maintain them. It must have been quite some enterprise to have put them there in the first place.
If you head over the hills, you cross some of the most remote land in the country, and eventually come to a loch that inspired Tolkien among others. Loch Morar is the fifth largest in Scotland and the deepest fresh water lake in Great Britain at over 1000 feet. (If you placed the Eiffel Tower in the loch then only the top of the pinnacle would peep out of the water). The deep, dark waters hide another mystery. It too has a monster. It isn’t just Loch Ness. This one, predictably is called Morag and has been seen over thirty times. It is supposed to be between twenty and thirty feet long and like its Caledonian cousin has humps. Tolkien was a regular walker around Loch Morar and is thought, by some, to have based the Desolation of Smaug from the Hobbit on the area and the dragon itself upon the monster of the deep. The monster was not only spotted in 1969 but bumped into by Duncan McDonnel and William Simpson in their speed boat. It lashed out and hasn’t been seen very often since which may not be too surprising. As well as the great unlikelihood of an unidentified creature dating back to Jurassic times surviving in a modern country without being recorded; Simpson also shot it with a rifle. Conservation meant conserve yourself in 1969.
I arrive in Arisaig with light fading from the sky. I don’t fancy beer even though the pub is fine and friendly. They are happy to make me a pot of tea. A young fellow is the only other customer. He is English and has being staying at a nearby campsite for nearly a week. He is keen to play the local expert. When he answers a call of nature I ask the landlord where the campsite is. He has a better idea. Recognising someone who has come to find peace and quiet and the real west coast, he tells me I don’t want to be kept awake with a field full of campers and would do better following a track down towards the sea. I find the “piece of green” he’d described and happily put up my tent. I warm a tin of beans and make tea to the friendly roar of the primus stove. Once I extinguish it I am left with the lapping of soft waves on sand and the calls of the wading birds. The sky clears and I’m contented, beyond dreams, to see the milky way more clearly than I have ever seen it. In the film, Mac is sent to Scotland with the brief to buy a beach but with the secondary task of looking at the skies and reporting if he sees anything. Eventually he is rewarded with a display of the aurora borealis. I am not so lucky but with a place to camp like this and a river of stars above me, I feel lucky enough.