|Distance:||64.9 miles (104.4 km)|
|Meets:||A830, B8043, A884, B8007, B8044, A830|
|Former Number(s):||B849, B850|
|Route outline (key)|
Drumsallie - Strontian
The road turns left off the A830 at Drumsallie, just to the west of Loch Eil, and passes under the West Highland Line before running along the south bank of the loch. It's a narrow road with passing places. After about ten miles the road passes the Corpach Narrows and turns south alongside Loch Linnhe and on past Camusnagaul. Fort William can be seen large across the water, reached by passenger ferry from here. The road continues south west along the shore to Corran, where the loch may be crossed, this time by the Corran Ferry, a vehicle ferry to Inchree (and thus the A82). The ferry and the road on the far side is marked as a spur of the A861; on this side all there is is a slipway.
In many places along the 25 miles we have travelled so far, the road shows obvious signs of being re-aligned, with grassy loops and parallel bridges over the smallest of streams. I had always assumed that these improvements, involving quite a lot of blasting of new cuttings, dated from the 1960s at the earliest, but a recent expedition into the undergrowth revealed a 1939 date stone on the side of a bridge. This bridge seemed to be in a similar condition to many others, the concrete deck propped up with acro-props and scaffolding, despite only spanning 8-10 feet. The 'original' bridge still sits alongside, slightly narrower by the looks of it, and with a hole in the deck where a tree has grown through. The bridge is concrete, including the parapets, while the new bridge has stone parapets and abutments.
Further south, at Inverscaddle, a long concrete bridge spans the tidal creek at the mouth of the River Scaddle (Which is what Inverscaddle means...). The bridge is in a pretty ropey condition, with the deck seeming to twist ever so slightly towards the northern end. However, all is well as a metal Bailey bridge has been built across the top! Looking into the river bed (dry on my visit), there is also a cobbled ford running across below the bridge.
After passing the Corran Ferry slip, the road, now S2, continues along the west bank of Loch Linnhe before turning inland at Inversanda where the B8043 branches left to Kingairloch and beyond. Our road then rides up Glen Tarbert, before dropping to Carnoch Bridge where it's joined by the A884 just before reaching Loch Sunart and the town of Strontian.
Strontian - Lochailort
At Strontian, the fast and wide S2 road suddenly shrinks, and while technically S2 it is better to treat it as a single-track road with plentiful long passing places. Strontian is home to Ardnamurchan High School, shops, hotels, a petrol station, and police and fire stations. After passing through the village, the road follows the north shore of Loch Sunart, and the close-by forest, before turning away to reach Salen. The woodlands around here are part of the ancient Sunart Oakwoods, some of the oldest native trees in Scotland. Here the B8007 leaves on the left on its long and tortuous journey to Kilchoan at the western end of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. This is where the original A861 finished, the road on being B850 until the mid 1960s.
The A861 continues north, weaving its way via Acharacle, Loch Shiel, Ardmolich, Loch Moidart, and Loch Ailort back to the A830. The village of Acharacle vies with Strontian as the biggest settlement in this sparsely populated region, and is in many ways the nicer of the two, lying on the flat banks of Loch Shiel instead of the steep dark wooded shores of Loch Sunart. At the northern end, the B8044 turns off to the west to Kentra and Ardtoe. This final section of the A861 is a dramatic drive through mountains, lochs and the west coast, with the unexpected benefit of becoming S2 again as you reach Kinloch Moidart. This is where the new road from Lochailort starts, and gives you the pleasure of driving fast on an empty road full of sweeping bends and dramatic views. The first little bit, however, is slightly slower as you climb over the hill to Glenuig.
The A830 is finally regained, after nearly 65 miles, next to the Lochailort Inn, just 15 miles from the start point at Drumsallie. Remarkably, perhaps, the A861 has recently been used as an official diversion when an accident closed the A830. But then again, there is no other road.
The first section of what is now the A861 appears to have been built by Thomas Telford in c. 1810. Before that there really wasn't a road from Corran to Strontian. In Autumn 1746 a Redcoat Major searching out Jacobite rebels in the aftermath of Culloden found the route from Loch Linnhe to Loch Sunart as a 'lengthy pathless scramble over the steep rocky overhangs and mountain streams' of Glen Tarbet. It was through this boggy wasteland that Telford's men constructed a Road less than 70 years later.
As mentioned above, the road from Kinlochmoidart to Lochailort is all 'new', having been built in the 1960s to try and support the communities along this remote shore. Before it was built, the A861 terminated at Salen, where the B8007 turns off to Kilchoan and the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. The onward route was the B850, which wound its way through Acharacle and on to Kinlochmoidart, having junctions with the B8044 as now and the B8006, which used to run down to Dalelia on the shore of Loch Shiel but has long since been unclassified.
Before that, however, the A861 number was not one originally allocated in 1922. Back in 1922, the road from Drimsallie to Carnoch, just east of Strontian, was the B849; the onward route through Strontian to Acharacle, the B850.
It is also interesting to note that a Ward Map of Inverness-shire dated in the 1840s does not show the Kinlocheil - Corran section of this road. Many other roads across the former county are marked that no longer exist (Strathan, Loch Arkaig - Sourlies, Loch Nevis for starters), but only the Ardgour - Salen section of what later became the A861 is shown. This suggests that in the century before 1940 the Kinlocheil - Corran section was constructed and then later rebuilt on a new alignment, and considering how little traffic uses this route today that is quite surprising!