In September 2015 I drove the North Coast 500; this is day 5 of my adventure – Plockton to Fort William.
TODAY’S journey would be a mere 85-miles and the majority of it on fast roads. As much as I’d have liked to have stayed in Plockton a little longer, I’d planned my road trip so that I’d be in Fort William on a Saturday and my route there would be the most direct, which isn’t to say that it was as the crow flies – far from it.
From Plockton I’d be heading along single track roads for six miles to Balmacara before joining the A87 to Spean Bridge and the final few miles on the A82 all the way to Fort William, the self-titled Outdoor Capital of the UK.
The junction at Balmacara brought me to Loch Alsh with the 2,424 feet high Sgurr na Coinnich across the water, and the loch would be just one of many that I’d be driving alongside today.
At the far end where it meets Loch Duich and Loch Long lies Eileen Doran Castle on a small tidal island. I decided it was too lovely and important a place to drive past so I pulled into Dornie village and walked across the A87 to the castle while thinking how perverse it was that it sits next to one of the main trunk roads in the Highlands where traffic thunders past at 60mph.
It’s an impressive building, and I was once told it was the most photographed castle in Scotland, although surely that honour must go to Edinburgh?
Built in the 13th century, the castle became a stronghold of the Clan Mackenzie and their allies the Clan Macrae. In the early 18th century, the Mackenzies’ involvement in the Jacobite rebellions led to the castle’s destruction by government ships in 1719.
Lieutenant-colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap’s 20th-century reconstruction of the ruins produced the present buildings. So Scotland’s supposed most photographed castle isn’t as old as it seems.
On a hill at the side of the road at the far end of Loch Druich is the roofless shell of St Dubbtbach’s, the old parish church of Kintail dating from the 15th century, which looked eerie even on a sunny day. There’s also a cemetery and the Clan Macrae War Memorial dating from 1927.
The church was also shelled by government ships in 1719, but was later repaired; however, it fell from use in the middle of the 19th century and a replacement was built a mile away to the west.
Around the head of the loch the road turns sharp left at Shiel Bridge revealed the colossal Glen Shiel, where the five-mile long ridge of the Five Sisters of Kintail sat high above to my left. The road was also colossal; wide with small twists and turns and it went on for mile after mile. Past Loch Cluanie, then Loch Loin, Loch Garry, Loch Oich and Loch Lochy.
Around three quarters of the way down Loch Lochy the road veers away from the water as it makes its way to Spean Bridge. Just before the village there is a monument to the Commandos who trained in that part of the Highlands during World War 2.
It’s on a hillside overlooking the River Spean valley, and even on a sunny summer’s day it was quite desolate. Perhaps the designers were looking to recreate the kind of everyday conditions that the commandos had to endure during their training in the Highlands.
It was also extremely busy, mainly due to a couple of coaches that had arrived just before me from a London-based company that specialises in tours for Japanese visitors. There must have been around 100 Japanese people there, many far younger than me, taking in the history of the memorial.
After a good walk around I got back in the car and headed the few miles downhill to Spean Bridge. I’d stayed there many years ago at the Spean Bridge Hotel and all I’ll say is that it had lots of Saga certificates on the walls in the lobby, and it reminded me of the hotel in The Shining. I really hope it’s has been updated since I stayed there, although TripAdvisor would suggest otherwise.
At the time of my road trip Bill Bryson brought out a new book, Notes from Little Dribbling; a sort of updated version of his 1995 tome Notes from a Small Island. I read several interviews with him in the media around that time as part of him promoting the book and one subject he kept bringing up when asked what was the difference between Britain back in 1995 and Britain now was the amount of litter. Even Jeremy Clarkson has something to say about it. In a Tweet a few months ago he stated; “Been in Germany now for 24 hours. Still only two pieces of litter”.
If either should get the chance to go to Spean Bridge they’d be wise to take a bottle of smelling salts with them for when they keel over because the streets and hedgerows of Spean Bridge were literally littered with litter.
I pulled into the car park behind the Spar shop and all that I really noticed was rubbish strewn about the place, and lots of it. It had been like that on my drive into the village, and it turned out it was like that one the way out. It looked like someone had kicked several wheelie bins over in a storm; and it didn’t look like recent rubbish either. Britain has a massive litter problem; maybe it’s time to bring back the Keep Britain Tidy campaign.
I went to the Spar and bought a drink and packet of crisps, and as I was paying for them I spotted a bottle of Laphroaig whiskey and asked how much it was. £39.95. I didn’t buy it; I’m not all that keen on whiskey.
I then walked across the car park entrance to Spean Bridge Mill (part of the Edinburgh Woollen Mill group as so many of these “local” shops are), and picked up a bottle of Laphroaig from one of the shelves and looked at the price; £48.00.
When I arrived in Fort William I had to search for a B&B, so I drove around the only place I knew of where there would be lots of guest houses, which is the area up the hill behind the Tesco Metro on High Street.
I got a bed at the second time of asking (although to be honest at the first place I went to the owner couldn’t decide if there were any vacancies or not, but in the end he decided there weren’t. As I walked away he followed me down the path, got in a car and drove away. I don’t think it was anything I’d said.
Daraich Bed & Breakfast was in a magnificent old two-storey stone house at the end of Cameron Road, and just a few minutes from the town centre.
At the junction of High Street and Lundavra Road lies Gordon Square which has a bench in it with a statue of a seated hiker rubbing one of his feet. This is the end of the West Highland Way, at least it has been since 2010 when the original finishing point, a mile to the north-west and on the way into the town from Glen Nevis (and outside the Ben Nevis Highland Centre, yet another arm of the Edinburgh Woollen Mill group) was deemed too much of an anti-climax.
And they were right, because by extending the walk a further mile and along the High Street there’s now a real feeling of “I’ve done it”, and part if this is down to the people going about their daily business looking at you; many in admiration/bewilderment, as well as the other finishers milling around and who you can exchange a nod with in the knowledge that you’ve just achieved something magnificent.
Seeing as I’d experienced these feeling several times I decided to go there and sat on the bench for a while with a coffee.
On my way into Fort William I’d noticed lots of mountain bikers emerging from the Nevis Range area. It was the weekend of the Tour de Ben Nevis, a 42-mile challenge, and that Saturday evening the town centre was buzzing with cyclists just having a really good time and creating a happy vibe.
I went to the Wetherspoons pub, the Great Glen, to eat but because of the cyclist swelling the numbers in the town, the queue for food had about 20 people in it. So I headed to the Grog & Gruel, where I didn’t eat but instead had a pint of lager and some crisps and then went to the Pier Head takeaway around the corner and then it was time for a wander.
I had decided to go to the pier that juts out into the water on an area of sand banks near Morrisons, which was about five minutes away. Off I trekked only to find my path blocked at about the halfway point by a set of gates at the Underwater Centre, which is where you can go to train as a industrial diver.
I made my way back along the bypass, which is where the railway used to run until 1975 when it was shunted out of town to the other side of the dual-carriageway next to the bus station and the Morrisons. How lovely would it have once been arriving in Fort William with Loch Linnhe glistening from outside the carriage window?
I sat on a bench for a few minutes looking at the red warning light on the pier that I’d just tried to get to, and then returned to the Grog & Gruel for a night cap.
After breakfast the next morning I went into town for a look around the shops before bidding goodbye to Fort William. In another life I think I’d have liked to have lived in Fort William, and Ambleside and Staithes and Plockton and Edinburgh and Inverness.
In all I’d covered 1,300 miles by the time I arrived back home. It had been a magnificent journey but there was so much that I didn’t see. The scenery on the road trip had been jaw dropping, the villages, hamlets and crofts stunning, and the contrast in the landscape truly beyond description.
Here’s to the next time (but with a few more stops).