|To:||Spean Bridge (NN222817)|
|Distance:||40 miles (64.4 km)|
|Meets:||A9, B9152, B970, B9150, A889, A82|
|Route outline (key)|
The A86 Kingussie to Spean Bridge road is a key communication link of the West Central Highlands, and a great drive if not always very fast. It's the main east-west route linking Fort William, the West Coast and Skye with the A9 - and the only main east-west link between Perth and Inverness. It's always been a primary route, and gained trunk road status in 1995.
Section 1: Kingussie - Laggan
Starting in the East, the A86 leaves the A9 at a rare occurrence - a full-access grade separated junction for a crossing of two single carriageway roads. However, as the A86 runs straight on to the B9152 to Aviemore, the sliproads all look like side roads. This results in a surprising amount of traffic moving onto the B-road, the old route of the A9 north, which is often faster with less traffic!
Meanwhile, the A86 heads westwards, passing through Kingussie where the B970 turns off to pass under the A9 and then run up the far side of the Spey Valley. The A86 continues to follow the old A9 to Newtonmore, where a TOTSO junction with the B9150 sees us leaving the old A9 at the original start point of the road.
From here west for several miles the A86 is narrow enough (one and a half lanes wide) as it passes through Strathspey, to only intermittently have a line down the centre of the road, and really requires a lot of work to bring it up to trunk road status. Just past Laggan village we cross the Spey, to see it disappear into the mountains. The side road that passes through the village follows the river and eventually climbs over the Coireyarick Pass to Fort Augustus. This is one of the better known of Wade's Military Roads. Across the bridge is final junction for many a long mile, with the 'most dangerous road in the UK', the A889. It joins from the south, linking to the A9 at Dalwhinnie. We now cross the east-west Highland watershed to join the River Pattack at the scenic Pattack falls.
Section 2: Laggan - Spean Bridge
From Laggan, there are still something like 10–12 miles of tarmac ahead without a white centre line, just verge lines. Quite why is a mystery, as the road is clearly wider, straighter and of a better standard throughout than the A82 Tarbert-Ardlui section. Don't, whatever you do, use the tarmac seam as the centre line, however, as the westbound 'half' is considerably narrower than eastbound in many places!
This twisty stretch of the A86 is in fact showbiz city, passing Ardverickie estate where Monarch of the Glen is filmed (apparently filming could halt traffic on the road). On the right is a redundant filling station which, in a dilapidated state, appeared on the CD inlay of Teenage Fanclub's Songs from Northern Britain album. The A86 is now running along the north shore of Loch Laggan, and as it reaches Aberarder and the car park for climbers heading up Creag Meagaidh, suddenly the road quality dramatically improves for several miles, an EU-funded realigned stretch ironing out all the bends, with plenty of cuttings blown out of the rock in the process. All the way along this stretch there are fantastic views to the mountains to the south, as the road passes from Badenoch into Lochaber.
At the west end of Loch Laggan a viewing point is provided for the dam, and after that the road quality deteriorates slightly, although clearly two-lane and still better than the stretch east of Aberarder. We are now descending into Glen Spean, accompanied by the Glasgow Fort William railway which has joined from Rannoch Moor to the south (Corrour Station of Trainspotting fame is about 10 miles south of the A86 here, linked only by footpath or a long private track through the mountains). The A86 passes through the small village of Roy Bridge, with Glen Roy and its parallel roads (glacial feature) to the north. After that, there are only a few miles to go, all of which were improved and resurfaced in 2005. The A86 ends in Spean Bridge at a distorted T-junction with the A82.
Whilst at first glance, the A86 may seem to follow more or less the same route as it did when Telford finished building it in the 1820s, it has actually received many re-alignments over the last 50 years. Many of these were in the 1990s, using EU money to upgrade the road from a narrow, often single-track, route to the the wide, free flowing road we have today. Only a section along Loch Laggan really falls below modern standards, although east of Laggan isn't great in places, but it seems unlikely that any more funding will become available in the foreseeable future.
Kingussie - Laggan
Apart from the obvious extension to the A86 from Newtonmore to Kingussie along the former A9, little has changed on this section of road. The road has undoubtedly been widened, with very localised re-profiling of bends, but essentially follows the original route as far as Laggan Bridge and Drumgask.
Laggan - Spean Bridge
Even beyond Laggan, the road seems to be little improved at first. For a short distance beyond Drumgask, we are on the old military road that led to the Corrieyairack Pass, then as we climb through Strathmashie, there are a couple of obvious abandoned loops where the road has been straightened, but it is not until we reach the Craig Meagaidh car park at Aberarder that we find a proper centre line and wide S2 carriageway. This is probably the most recent improvement, with the new Moy Bridge at Moy Lodge dated 1993.
All the way along this section there are parallel abandoned sections, with old bridges literally just yards from the modern alignment. The most noticeable are at the junction with the estate road to Corrour Station, which crosses the River Spean, and is found between two long laybys on the old road line. The old alignment at Moy Bridge itself is even longer, and climbs steeply to meet the new road at the western end. This cannot be the original gradient, and shows how the gradient was also reprofiled when the new road was built.
There are numerous further short loops marking the old road, including a very faint one just before the Allt na h-Uamha Bridge, which was built in the 1930s. This shows that the road has been regularly improved over many decades. It seems probable that the old road past Tulloch Station was part of Telford's road, but it had already been bypassed by 1922. We are now descending through Glen Spean, where the valley is narrow and twists and turns offering little opportunity for major realignments. However, the road is still a decent width, with numerous short straights, and a reasonable speed can be maintained through all but the tightest bends.
We finally emerge in Roy Bridge, where the old bridge once sat immediately to the north of the current crossing. From here to Spean Bridge, the road was substantially improved in 2005, with pavements added for long stretches, resurfacing and other work. However, it was all on-line, and only involved limited widening.