|Location Map ( geo)
|64.9 miles (104.4 km)
|A830, B8043, A884, B8007, B8044, A830
|Route outline (key)
The A861 is a long-way-round route in the Lochaber area of western Scotland, connecting the A830 Fort William to Mallaig road with itself via the shores of Loch Eil, Loch Linnhe, Loch Sunart, Loch Moidart and Loch Ailort. The road is a mixture of single track and two-way road, and has seen many changes since it was first classified.
Drumsallie - Corran
The road turns left off the A830 at Drumsallie, just to the west of Loch Eil, and quickly passes under the West Highland Line before running along the south bank of the loch. It's a narrow road with passing places which serves a long string of small settlements. The road is rarely more than a few metres from the waters edge and is a delightful drive along a well aligned road under the trees and past pretty cottages. At first the hillside above the road is forested, but after crossing Garvan Bridge on a short section of S2 road, open fields stretch up the gentle slopes. The small settlements of South Garvan and Duisky merge together, as much as a scattering of houses can, before the road turns as far inland as it gets to cross the Duisky Bridge. Another block of forestry reaches the roadside before the settlement of Blaich. All these communities are old crofting settlements, with single houses in large crofts. A few additional houses have been allowed over the years, but by and large the properties are well spaced out along the road side.
After about ten miles the road reaches the Corpach Narrows and the village of Achaphubuil. Here a row of council houses stand, along with a former school built to serve these scattered communities. In the days before cars, ferries crossed the narrows providing a better connection to Fort William. The hillside is more generally wooded along here, with trees lining the loch shore more densely than before. The road then climbs around a small headland as it turns from the shores of Loch Eil to those of Loch Linnhe. The little bay of Camusnagaul still has a limited passenger ferry service to Fort William, which can be seen large across the water as it climbs up the slopes of Cow Hill. The road continues south west through Trislaig, the last of the string of villages that have kept us company so far.
As it heads south, the road is generally further from the waters edge than before, the hillside being steeper and rockier, making the road undulate and twist as it fights its way southwards. After sweeping inland to cross Stronchreggan Bridge, the road returns to the lochside, but with the shores thickly wooded, the water is only glimpsed, especially in the summer months. After a couple of miles, the road turns inland once more to avoid the wide flats of Inverscaddle Bay. After crossing the bridge, the road runs across the flats, signs warning of flooding at high tides, before winding its way round the headland. The Corran Ferry can now be spied criss-crossing the narrows ahead, and with the road back on the shore, and few trees to obscue the view, this is one of the finer stretches of the A861 as it sweeps along the loch shore, drivers keeping an eye on the ferry to see if they will meet it or miss it! 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.
Corran - Strontian
The Corran Ferry sails from the small village that clusters around the flatter ground on the west side of the narrows. The village, like many in the highlands, has grown together from a number of small settlements, and so is variously called Ardgour, (North) Corran and Clovullin (the southern part). After passing the Corran Ferry slip, the road becomes S2 as it continues along the west bank of Loch Linnhe. Clovullin has been bypassed with a series of fast sweeping bends just above the beach. The road then heads west and cuts across the neck of Sallachan Point before crossing the new Sallachan Bridge. Here it turns south west once more as the hillside above becomes much steeper. Apart from a small climb round a low knoll the road is fast flowing as it continues its journey along the shore of Loch Linnhe. Fields fill the irregular shaped spaces between road and loch, before the road turns inland at Inversanda.
Inversanda lies at the bottom of Glen Tarbert, named because the Vikings were allegedly able to haul ships across from Loch Sunart, although of all of the Tarberts in Scotland this is perhaps the least plausible. The road curves round the hillside under trees and suddenly meets the B8043 as it branches left to Kingairloch and beyond. Ahead, the view up the glen has opened up, with the road climbing its roller-coaster ride up and over. There is plenty of evidence of the old road on the ascent, a narrow twisty route which has been replaced by a fast flowing series of curves with excellent sight lines that let traffic cross to Loch Sunart in just a few minutes. The summit of the pass is only 110m, but it feels higher, the woodland and small fields of the lochside quickly giving way to steep rocky slopes with few signs of life. Across the summit, straggly areas of forestry climb up the slopes, and a couple of new tracks have been cut to access hydro schemes.
Whichever way you are travelling, the descent is enlivened by the view ahead, whether across Loch Linnhe or along the length of Loch Sunart. Both lochs are surrounded by hills and mountains, the jagged peaks and tumbling slopes producing an ever changing panorama as the sun flits between clouds. At the bottom, the A884 turns right on its meandering journey south for Mull, and soon after the wide modern highway of the A861 dwindles down to a wide single track. A few sections have been widened, particulary round a blind bend, but the passing places are well used as the road winds along the shore into Strontian.
Strontian - Acharacle
Strontian is home to Ardnamurchan High School, shops, hotels, a petrol station, and police and fire stations. Despite its small population, it is one of the larger settlements in this vast empty area of hills and lochs. After passing through the village, the road continues along the north shore of Loch Sunart, more often than not running through the woodland and forest which drops down the hillsides. The woodlands around here are part of the ancient Sunart Oakwoods, some of the oldest native trees in Scotland, and there are a number of laybys and picnic areas with trails to explore. There are a surprising number of houses too, often hidden away behind trees or down on the shore, but the numerous driveways and forest roads provide plenty of junctions. The road is entirely single track, and while passing places are plentiful the windy nature of the road keeps speeds down.
The road emerges onto the shore at Resipole, sweeping round the head of the bay past the campsite and over the old Resipole Bridge. It then climbs inland through more forestry to reach the little village of Salen huddled round the head of Salen Bay. 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 ahead being the B850 until the mid 1960s. The A861 now heads north, climbing through the shallow pass to Acharacle. The road is almost all single track as it runs between some much large forestry plantations. A pair of small lochans near the summit are an unexpected surprise before the road dips down into the village.
Acharacle - Lochailort
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. It lies 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, crossing over to the west coast proper at Kentra Bay and Ardtoe. The A861 then crosses over the River Shiel at Shiel Bridge, with a sharp left turn on the further bank. After a short run along the river, the road swings right again, the road ahead leading out to picturesque Castle Tioram. The road now winds along the base of the hills, never straight for long, as it avoids the vast peat bogs at the foot of Loch Shiel. The houses of Mingarrypark and Dalnabreack line the roadside before it starts to climb once more.
Viewpoints either side of the summit offer expansive and breathtaking views across lochs, mountains and moorland, with the added bonus of the road becoming S2 at the summit for the descent down Drynie Hill. Unfortunately, perhaps, this is a relatively recent improvement, all on line and so none of the bends or bumps have been removed, just widened. After plunging down through Drynie Wood, the road emerges at Kinlochmoidart, and reverts to single track as it crosses Kinlochmoidart Bridge and winds round the head of this scenic loch. Until 1966, this was the end of the road, a road originally built in the early 1800s by Thomas Telford as part of his commission on Highland Roads and Bridges. However, now the road opens up to S2 once more, as it flies along the north shore of Loch Moidart.
After just over a mile, the A861 turns inland for the final time as it starts the long gentle climb through the Belach Carach and into Glen Uig. This is the summit of the whole route, somewhere around 135m, with an equally long descent through trees until suddenly the view opens up ahead, across the tiny village and out into the Sound of Arisaig with the Small Isles beyond. Once through the village, the road winds along the spectacular rocky coastline for little over two miles, the views out to the islands mesmerising. There are plenty of places to stop and enjoy the view, especially on a warm sunny day when the rocky coves and beaches look extremely enticing. The shore is then left behind for a while as the road climbs through the scattered settlement of Roshven, before dropping back to the shores of Loch Ailort. The views are once more enchanting, both the shore in the foreground, and across the loch to the Ardnish Peninsula and beyond.
As the road approaches the head of the loch, is passes Inverailort Castle on the right, and then crosses the Ailort Bridge. 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.
In many places along the 25 miles from Drumsallie to Corran, 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. 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, there is also a cobbled ford running across below the bridge.
The 3.25 mile reconstruction scheme between Carnoch and Inversanda was almost complete per the 1972 Scottish Development Department Report. Forecast cost was £279,500. It is expected that this included the bypass of Sallachan which was shown on 1972 OS One inch map
The first section of what is now the A861 appears to have been built by Thomas Telford in c1810. 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. The 12.5 mile road across the Moidart Peninsula was to be opened on 29 July 1966 by E.G. Willis, Minister of State. It connected the A830 to the former B850 and provided Glenuig with a direct road link for the first time. It was the second road built under the Highland New Roads Programme.
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!