A85/Loch Etive and Loch Awe
|Length:||24.5 miles (39.4 km)|
|Meets:||A816, A828, B845, A819, B8077|
|Old route now:||B8077|
|Route outline (key)|
The western end of the A85 follows the coast round the Firth of Lorne and up Loch Etive to Taynuilt, where it crosses to the freshwater Loch Awe through the Pass of Brander. While this may be the wild West Highlands of Scotland this is a surprisingly built up piece of road, with long villages strung along the roadside and scattered farmsteads filling the gaps.
From Taynuilt to Dalmally the A85 follows the old Military Road built by Major Caulfeild in the mid 18th Century. The start of the road appears to be the mouth of the River Awe at Bonawe, and while there doesn't appear to have been a bridge, Bonawe is a historic ferry point for Loch Etive and also the site of the Bonawe Iron Works. It is actually the minor road to Inverawe that was the military road, although while this joins next to the Bridge of Awe, the military road stayed north of the railway line to meet the modern route a little further east.
Running through the Pass of Brander, the A85 still roughly follows the route of the military road, but a little beyond the power station the old route climbs up the hillside through the forestry. This route is no longer accessible at this end, as the railway cuts it off, but the descent back into Lochawe village is via St Conans Road, and for almost a mile this old road is now the start of the access road up to Cruachan Dam.
Beyond Lochawe Caulfeilds route is still followed by the A85 until the junction with the B8077. The section of the A85 across the head of Loch Awe was built in the 1930s, with the B8077 being the A85s original route. This follows the River Strae north west before crossing the river at Strae Bridge and turning back to the south, and passing through the small village of Stronmilchan. The village is little more than the part of Dalmally north of the River Orchy, with Dalmally Bridge connecting the two, although the bridge itself only dates from c1780, suggesting that the military road either forded the river or used a much simpler structure.
Oban is not as ancient as it may seem. It was not until the mid 19th Century that it really started to develop, when the steamer companies identified the bay as a good harbour for ships en route to the islands. It therefore seems possible that there was no road beyond Bonawe until c1779 when the Bridge of Awe was built.
At the Oban end, the original road out of town was the 'Old Coach Road', which runs up Glen Cruiten, followed by the railway, and reaches Connel at the top of the hill immediately to the south of the village. This road is now only surfaced, and public highway, as far as the railway cottages at 'The Summit'. Beyond that it is a rough estate track as far as the access to Achavaich Farm, after which the quality improves slightly.
Between Oban and the Bridge of Awe there is only one point where the road appears to have significantly changed alignment in all the years since 1780. This is the short loop on the north side of the road up hill from the railway bridge at Achnacloich.
As with many of the roads in the West Highlands, the A85 was heavily upgraded in the 1930s. Much of the road was widened, with the Bridge of Awe being replaced in 1939 by a new structure. Unusually, for this route, the old bridge was left intact next to it - the collapse has happened more recently. The bridge over the River Nant at Taynuilt is of a similar date, as are the numerous smaller structures over minor streams. In Connel the road was moved from passing through the village, with a nasty bend outside the shop, to a new alignment along the shore.
The big change to this section of the A85 in the 1930s was the new alignment at the head of Loch Awe, across Kilchurn Bridge past Kilchurn Castle. While no precise date has yet been found for this structure, it appears to date from the late 1930s, as it is missing from the 1932 maps, and present by 1946. This saw the old A85 become the B8077, and the new A85 took over a short section of the A819 into Dalmally. That road was also given a new alignment, along the shores of Loch Awe instead of over the hill on the old military road.
The Modern Route
It may be thought that little has changed to this road since the 1930s, however that is only partly true. Minor widenings, junction improvements and re-profiling of corners have occurred on the busier section from Oban to Connel, and Dalmally village has been bypassed, but in between there was a lot more work done on the section through the Pass of Brander.
The Pass of Brander is a narrow V-shaped defile through which Loch Awe, or at least glacial action, cut a new escape to Loch Etive at the end of the last Ice Age. It is obvious that this is the main pass from Dalmally to Taynuilt, and Caulfeild brought his military road through here in the 1750s more recently, the Callander & Oban Railway also passed through on the hillside above the road.
Photos from the start of the motoring era show a road that is little more than a shore side ledge blasted out of the steeply sloping hillside, with the railway sitting almost directly above in places. The road was, necessarily, single track with passing places where land was available rather than where traffic needed them. This was not a road suitable for modern traffic. Doubtless some work was done to the route in the 1930s upgrade, but how much they were able to improve it is unclear - unfortunately the OS did not start marking single track routes early enough to be certain.
By the 1970s the route still had bottlenecks, predominantly around the site of the Ben Cruachan Hydro scheme works, and a daring plan was formulated that saw the construction of the Loch Awe Viaduct. This created a new roadway on stilts around the base of the cliff, standing in the loch. It also appears to have destroyed the old road completely. Further west, the road has been noticeably straightened and widened, with the many, well-used, laybys along the roadside marking the old alignment. Indeed one layby when heading west seems to provide a straighter route than the new road, the potholes being the only thing to put drivers off!