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Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Fort William

Ben Nevis from Corpach
Ben Nevis across Loch Linnhe from Corpach

I was a bit apprehensive when Mrs. D. and I set off for Fort William last week. It is thirty years since I was last there and when your age begins to begin with a seven you wonder what you can no longer do. Was I still up to walking in the Scottish Highlands? Did I have the stamina? Would my legs and back last out? How would I cope with the long drive? 

I used to go there a lot. The first time was in 1964 with my parents when I took this shaky photograph of the Ballachulish ferry with my Brownie Starmite camera. The ferry avoided a nineteen-mile detour round by Kinlochleven which could take over an hour in holiday traffic. It was replaced by a road bridge in 1975, but the old ramps are still serviceable as the modern picture shows. 

Ballachulish Ferry 1964

Ballchulish Bridge

I went again on camping and walking trips with friends in the seventies and eighties. We pitched our tents countless times at Glencoe and Fort William, and passed through on our way to Skye. 

We always walked the big stuff. We climbed Ben Nevis straight up the four thousand feet from Glen Nevis: up the steep grassy slope into the Coire Eoghainn corrie where we heard a cuckoo, then up the boulders of the right shoulder and on through the snow to the top. Much more fun than the relentless ‘pony trek’.

Climbing Ben Nevis 1974
Nearing the top of Ben Nevis from the south via Coire Eoghainn, 1974

We back-packed and wild-camped our way across Rannoch Moor which, unlike now, was practically empty of any other walkers. We traversed the ridge of Aonach Eagach in Glencoe, the scariest walk I have ever done, stupidly going around some of the pinnacles instead of scrambling over them. Even scarier than the Cuillin ridges above Glen Brittle in Skye.

Cuillin ridges above Glen Brittle, 1976
Paths along the Cuillin ridges above Glen Brittle, Isle of Skye, 1976

We tried nothing like that this time, not that we would have done anyway, but poor visibility and a wind-chill equivalent of -7°C (19°F) on the peaks around Ben Nevis gave a good excuse. We could see the mountains in the murk but rarely the tops. However, there are lots of low-level walks around Fort William I would never have considered in earlier years. 

There is a stunning walk of around four miles there and back from the end of Glen Nevis to the Steall waterfall. When I trekked the 13 miles from Corrour in the opposite direction in the nineteen-eighties there was hardly anyone around, but on this day there were lots, some coaxing five year-old children over the steep and rocky terrain, everyone soaked, but everyone with smiles on their faces. 
 
From Steall looking East
Looking East from Steall in Glen Nevis

From Steall looking West
Looking West from Steall in Glen Nevis

Steall Waterfall
The Steall Waterfall

For more solitude we went to Loch Arkaig to the west of Loch Lochy in the Great Glen. The track along the north shore is one of the routes to the remote and sparsely populated Knoydart peninsula, reachable only by boat along the coast or a sixteen-mile hike across rough country. The story of how the population was cleared by the landowner in the eighteen-fifties and left to survive out in the open is cruel beyond belief. We walked a couple of miles along a forestry road on the south shore before retracing our steps thoroughly soaked. Even my underpants were wet. Trying to survive out in the open in weather like that does not bear thinking about, even with the protection of modern outdoor clothing. 
 
Forestry track, south shore of Loch Arkaig.
Forestry track along the shore of Loch Arkaig
 
Eas Chia-Aig Waterfall
Eas Chia-Aig Waterfall near Loch Arkaig

Yet another day saw us in Glen Roy. What an incredible place that is. Twelve thousand years ago it was a glacial lake, marked out by three successive shore lines (the “parallel roads”) along the sides of the valley – the lowest is the oldest and the highest the most recent. Analysis of the sedimental layers show that the lake system existed for 515 years, and when the ice-dam finally burst it released five cubic kilometres of water in a spectacular “jökulhlaup” that carved out the River Spean gorge. The entire glen is full of glacial features. 
 
Glen Roy
Glen Roy - the "parallel roads"

Glen Roy
Glacial deposits in Glen Roy

Glen Roy
Glen Roy
 
Despite sunny periods to begin with in Glen Roy, the weather soon turned for the worse, and again we had to retreat. In fact, we got soaked every day. We originally booked the cottage for early June but rearranged it for the end of October because of lockdown. For the whole week we got out promptly each morning, returned to the cottage to dry out and have something to eat, and then went either for a touristy drive to somewhere like Oban or Glenfinnan, or did our local walk. 
 
The cottage was at Banavie at the end of the Caledonian Canal between the sea lock which opens into the sea loch at Corpach and the flight of eight locks known as Neptune’s Staircase, which made a handy three-mile circular walk, usefully past a bottle bank. All in all, we had a good week despite the wetness, with so many bursts of intense happiness I thought I was beginning to turn into Gerard Manley Hopkins. And yes, given drier weather, I might still be up to something a bit more challenging. Not Ben Nevis, though.

Neptune's Staircase
Banavie: Neptune's Staircase

Caledonian Canal at Corpach
Looking towards the sea lock on the Caledonian Canal at Corpach

Jacobite Express and Neptune's Staircase
Another view of Neptune's Staircase at Banavie:
Heritage 4-6-0 ‘Black Five’ 44871 running tender-first crosses the Caledonian Canal
returning to Fort William from Mallaig with the Jacobite Express excursion train
on the 30th October 2020

Lastly, for any bovine photographers out there, this is what you have to cope with on some of the quieter roads. Remember to fold your mirrors in. 

Cows on road to Strontian

38 comments:

  1. Stunning scenery

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    1. I agree, although there are those who consider it bleak.

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  2. Thanks for taking on us along with you--at least virtually. I love the soul-stirring landscape (reminds me the 12 Bens in Connemara) and your photos certainly gave evidence of why you were feeling poetic. Particularly like the one with the caption of the glacial deposits in Glen Roy. Frame-worthy.

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    1. I had to look up te 12 Bens and there looks to be a lot of similarity. It wasn't so much poetic as just bursts of intense happiness as captured by GMH in some of his poetry:
      What would the world be, once bereft
      Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
      O let them be left, wildness and wet;
      Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

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  3. It is a beautiful place even in the rain, although I would have wimped out on walking in it.
    You have reminded me of when we visited about ten years ago. We stayed on the coast and went on a sort of pilgrimage to see the places that my father in law had been when undergoing his Commando training at Achnacarry in the 1940s. By all accounts it was pretty tough for them and it was brought home to us when we saw where they had been billeted. His training took place during November; they had no mod cons, no heating, no hot water, just bunks with a rough blanket and twice-daily route marches, plus all the other training exercises.
    I had a comfortable, heated cottage with sea views, and it was a warm September. We walked along the Crinan Canal which was small but beautiful.
    I would like to go back when it is safe to do so. Thank you for rekindling this memory Tasker.

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    1. I would not have wanted to be camping. The heated cottage to dry out makes it bearable. I have another photograph taken in 1964 of the Commando Memorial near Spean Bridge. When I looked back at it I realised I stood in exactly the same place and took the same photograph agaim, 56 years later. They appear to have relaid some of the stonework on the plinth.

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  4. That makes us homesick. The photos are great but the colours in that last one are truly emotive. Coming down off Ben Nevis (in rain) about 10 years ago I encountered a Mum (human kind) coaxing a truly fed-up about 4 year old down over those massive granite blocks that form child height steps near the bottom. He'd been all the way to the top, he was tired out and grizzly, lowering himself wearily off each of these damned slippery blocks, and labouring like an ant in a shag-pile carpet. He and I had a conversation (which excluded a rather grateful Mum) that lasted until he'd cleared the last major obstacle to his descent about half an hour later and he forgot for a while how cross he was with his Mum for dragging him up there. I wonder if years from now he will remember topping a snowy Ben Nevis. (I went up NZ's Ben Nevis at about the same age, but was encouraged along my way by a friendly cat that seemed to know the way and would disappear into tussocks and reappear again further up the track as if to say 'keep going, it ain't far now'.)

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    1. I have been up the "pony trek" too and it really is relentless, and hundreds of people doing the same thing. I find the less-well frequented places more interesting. Apart from a few canoeists who we passed as we were driving along the road, the enormity of Glen Roy was deserted. However, you might have been homesick for the warmth of Greece if you had been there last week.

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  5. Smashing photos and some great scary adventures and wonderful holidays memories. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. It's strange to look back at what one once did. Although I feel the same and would like to try again, I suspect deep down it would kill me.

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  6. Like G.M. Hopkins you are into both *inscape* and outscape.
    Smashing post, and I enjoyed the comments from Mary, Jaycee, Tigger and Northsider. Two glorious waaterfall photos. The parallel roads at Glen Roy will have a lot of Covid stay-at-homes feeling stir crazy. The hills and glens and corries will be there when we are gone.

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    1. *the burn doon by,/ That deaves the corrie wi' its wilyart croon.*

      Robert Reid (died 1922) the Wanlockhead poet. He was poet laureate of the Montreal Caledonian Society. For three years he was president of the Montreal Burns Club.

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    2. The sun will expand and the earth will be scorched and arid, and a civilisation from the one of the moons of Jupiter will land a spacecraft to photograph the parallel levels on the side of the valley, and like Darwin, they will formulate the wrong theories about them. You must have unique software. I don't have inscape, only landscape and portrait.

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    3. Software? It's me you're talking tae. Inscape runs through your posts, delightfully. Hopkins used the term in his notebooks, in beholding cirrus clouds or the lip of a wild orchid. Did he peer through a telescope and gaze on the moons of Jupiter?

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  7. You did well! My days of hiking or even simple walking tours are over. Getting older sux.

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    1. One had to keep going but they weren't long walks - not like Meike and YP. I'd like to try the 13 miles rough country from Corrour station to Glen Nevis, but unless you can leave a car at the end it's about another 6 miles back to Fort William railway station.

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  8. What a wonderful travelogue! As I noted the names you cited, I started remembering The Road to the Isles, which I sang as a kid. Lovely names, lovely wild landscape.

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    1. There is a sign at Rannoch to the Road to the Isles, which is the path via Corrour and Glen Nevis.
      I like the Gaelic names. Ballachulish means village by the narrows, and it crosses Loch Leven - the loch of smooth water. Glencoe is Glen of the River Comhann.

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  9. Not an area I know, so thanks for sharing photos and memories. I enjoyed many of the memories in the comments also. Thanks to all.

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    1. Tis good when there are lots of comments. But Fort William is a long way from Yorkshire - the 350 miles takes 8 hours.

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  10. What a lovely holiday! I enjoyed seeing your pictures and especially the two comparing the same location many years apart with the ferry and then bridge. I understand your feelings about the hiking when you were much younger on the previous hikes. I am 68 and more and more I find situations where I can not keep up with the activities I did when younger. I do think it is important to continue to do what we can and enjoy it fully. It sounds like you definitely made the most of your holiday despite the rain! Thank you for sharing it with us!

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    1. Particularly as from today we are beginning a month of nationwide lockdown in England and are not allowed to travel for non-essential purposes. It looks possible that travel restrictions could be imposed in Scotland too.

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  11. You have do beautifully discounted to rain that a visit seems in order. It's not your writing that sold me, good as it is, but the sweet sentence of smiling parents encouraging laughing children on through the cold and mud.

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    1. It was windy and raining, the rocks you have to climb up were wet so your hands got wet too, and it was not very warm. Often at least one person in each group is being dragged along against their choosing, but on that day everyone looked happy.

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  12. With scenery as spectacular as that, I've got to say that I'd be walking in a downpour with a smile on my face as well. Thank you for taking us along on your excursion.

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    1. And the knowledge that within 30-60 minutes of getting back to the car you would be warm and dry.

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  13. It was very interesting to see the old Ballachulish ferry. My first time across it was 1960 and the bridge arrived the year I came to live on Lewis which was very handy.

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    1. There are videos of the old ferry on the internet. There were at least two and possibly three boats (you can see another in my picture) and took six cars each. I had forgotten they were turntable ferries so vehicles could drive on sideways, and that the turntables were turned manually. Queueing in summer could take longer than driving round. Getting to Skye was also by ferry in those days - we used to use Kyle of Lochalsh. Around that time I also drove in Norway where they then had ferries across some of the fjords - very well equipped - you could buy meals on some of them.

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    2. Thanks for that information, Tasker. I shall go and have a look. When I stopped at the gallery near the bridge a few years ago I was fascinated to see that one of the ferries is still lying rotting on the shore.

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  14. I envy you. Scotland is a beautiful place, its rugged beauty is a reminder that the human race can't conquer every terrain.

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    1. There is an enormous amount of empty space up there. It was a good break, and timely seeing that as from today we would not be allowed to go.

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  15. I wouldn't admit to having wet underpants these days.

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  16. A lovely blogpost embroidered with memories of happy times in Caledonia. I walk far more now in my late sixties than I did when I was young.

    I noticed that you wet your underpants. Unsurprising as there are so very few public conveniences in the countryside. With you being a fine, upstanding gentleman who follows the laws of the land, I can understand why you would refuse to go behind a tree for a widdle. After all, urinating in a public place is against the law.

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  17. I love that the cows really seem to take no mind of motorists.

    What stunning views you encountered on your trip. I really like the autumn foliage. I've only had the pleasure of visiting the Scottish lowlands. -would relish a another trip out that way and beyond.

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    1. It was a very quiet road and the picture was taken as we were pushing through - there were more cows behind us by then. By the time we came back they had found their way into the farmyard.
      There are some great walks (not necessarily mountaineering) and car drives, and it tends to be less costly to rent a cottage there than in southern England and other places more suited to young families.

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