|To:||Shiel Bridge (NG934188)|
|Distance:||22 miles (35.4 km)|
|Former Number(s):||A887, B852|
|Route outline (key)|
Much of this section of the A87 loosely follows the line of the old military road built by Major Caulfeild in the 1750s from Fort Augustus to Bernera Barracks at Glenelg on the west coast. 60 or 70 years later the route was rebuilt, seemingly almost entirely off line, by Thomas Telford as part of his commission on Highland Roads and Bridges.
Move on another 100 years and only half of this road was classified as the A87 in 1922, the section to the east of the Cluanie Inn was originally the B852, but soon became the A887. However, in 1957 Loch Cluanie and Loch Loyne to the south were dammed to provide Hydro Electricity, so a new road was needed to replace the old road across Loch Loyne and the stretch of the A887 that was being flooded.
Beyond Cluanie, the road has seen less change, but is still a very different route from that created by Major Caulfeild 250 years ago. As the road from along Loch Cluanie has been the A87 for longer than any other number, it is detailed in full here.
The Military Road
We need to backtrack up the A887 to find the start of this section of the military road. Without further exploration, it seems most plausible that the route left the current A887 at Ceannacroc Bridge, and climbed up the hill towards Meall Doire nan Caorach. A long gentle descent then brought it down to the modern A87 about a mile west of the Cluanie Dam. The modern road then seems to follow Caulfeilds route as far as Lundie, where a bold track strikes steeply up the hillside opposite the car park. This track has been repaired to provide access to the mobile phone mast at the top of the hill, but nevertheless seems to follow the old road, zigzags and all. Again, a long gentle descent follows, and is easily walked today as far as the Allt Coire Laire.
Whilst the gradients on this route suggest that the soldiers had a far easier march eastwards than westwards, the Allt Coire Laire suggests that neither direction was particularly easy. The modern 'path' drops down to a wide, fairly level platform in the stream. It isn't shallow though, and the water is fast flowing even on a cold February morning when the hillside is frozen solid. There is absolutely no evidence of a bridge ever having been provided here, and it would have been a knee-deep wade to cross at times. Today it is possible to drop down to the road and re-climb on the other side, but the OS map is quite explicit that the old road crossed and continued.
Beyond the Allt Coire Laire, the old road is almost impossible to detect. Various lines in the landscape hint at the road, but soon give out. However, follow the fence line to a gateway and a few paces to the north, there are the faintest hints of a road once more. These lead you westwards until the modern road earthworks cut away the old road, and a gateway lets you drop down to the road. Old maps suggest that the military road then dropped down to the line of the pre-1957 road, but that is now underwater as far as the Allt a' Chaorainn Bhig, where a short stretch of road and the arch stones of an old bridge survive. Could this be a Caulfeild bridge, or is it Telford's?
Beyond the Cluanie Inn, the old military road once more climbs up behind a layby, and runs along the hillside at roughly the 250m contour as far as some forestry. Climbing through the trees, the road makes 300m, and although aerial photos suggest a narrow forest ride runs along the route of the old road it is uncertain how easy it is to follow through the trees. The descent brings the old road down to the A87 more or less at the watershed.
We are now in Glen Shiel proper, descending to sea level at Shiel Bridge, and the A87 follows the old roads through the glen much more closely than before. Just past the small building on the left of the road, the old road almost invisibly forks right, running around the outside of a couple of bends through forestry land. The footpaths that climb up from the laybys to the Five Sister of Kintail far above cross the old road, but it is difficult to follow for any distance. However, at the Eas-nan-Arm Bridge, the map clearly shows the old road forking off from the abandoned section of road across the old bridge.
For the next mile or so, the old road is sandwiched between the River Shiel and the A87. In places it is quite clear, in others almost impossible to trace. Things are not helped by the fact that construction of the new road involved the placing of thousands of tonnes of rock to provide a stable, level ledge on the hillside. Inevitably, much of this slipped and fell further than intended, landing on the old road below. However, for much of the way the route seems to run between 'kerb' lines, with rows of stones running at approximately 15 feet apart through the grass and heather. This leads to some improbably changes in gradient, blocked by jagged lumps of rock and with preposterous cambers, but 250 years ago this was the road!
The old road disappears into a small plantation, but then crosses the A87 and follows the footpath up the hillside beyond. Follow the path that runs up to the Allt Mhalagain, and the remains of an old bridge can be seen across the stream. Keep going, cross a footbridge and then drop back down, using stepping stones to cross the other stream. On the far side of the old bridge, the road is again easier to follow in places than others. At one point it has clearly been blocked by a landslip, although when heading west the onward route is fairly easy to see. Curve round the hill, and the broad new path up the hill is crossed, then drop steadily down to another stream. This is a broad fan of boulders, with a few trickles of water, but floodwater has obliterated any sign of the old road.
Beyond the stream, an occasionally boggy section of ground has a small wall running across it - an old kerbline again? This points straight at a (locked) gate at the back of some trees, but the other side of the gate can be easily reached from the old quarry area on the A87 itself. From here old and new roads appear to be the same line almost as far as Shiel Bridge.
When Thomas Telford started surveying his roads across the Highlands, he looked at the old military road network with despair. Some of the roads were less than 60 years old, but already in great disrepair - so perhaps the difficulties described above are more understandable! Rather than crossing the hill from Fort Augustus, he built two new roads west. One from Invermoriston to Shiel Bridge, and then on to Kyle of Lochalsh, the other from Invergarry to Kinloch Hourn. Later he added the Loch Loyne road.
His new road west of Bunloyne seems to have ignored the military road line for most of the route, and taken a lower line closer to the river, and shore of Loch Cluanie. This, of course, caused problems in the 1950s when Loch Cluanie was dammed, and as a result very little of that old road survives.
Between Bunloyne and the dam, a number of loops have been straightened out, including replacing the old bridge across the Allt nam Peathrain. From the last of these loops, the road up to the base of the dam is still Telford's road, but it doesn't go any further! We have to travel almost the full length of Loch Cluanie before any sign of the old road emerges from its watery grave. At the Allt a' Chaorainn Bhig Bridge, look left to the loch and the old bridge arch is just visible at lower water levels. Either side a short section of road crosses a slight rise, before being eaten away by the tides on the loch to the east, and running into the modern road to the west.
From the Cluanie Inn down to Shiel Bridge, it has to be assumed that the modern road follows Telford's alignment almost perfectly. Bends have been ironed out by blasting rock away, kinks straightened, and gradients improved but there is very little evidence remaining for the older road. Here and there laybys have probably been placed over former curves in the road, but it is the layby for the Glen Shiel Battle monument that yields the first evidence of the old road. It is only very slight, however, as the path down to the monument (really just a modern stone information board, left) is old tarmac, poking out from under the hardcore for the new road.
Around the corner, a corner held up over a stream by an impressive stone retaining wall looking more like 1930s work than 1810s, a lot more evidence remains. The Eas-nan-Arm Bridge built by Telford (presumably replacing a bridge or ford by Caulfeild) has a substantial stretch of the old, narrow, road on either side. At the western end, an old alignment can also be traced in the trees on the south side of the modern road. Further west, around the old quarry site, there is evidence that the bends were once sharper, but some of this could be service roads connected to the quarry rather than evidence for Telford's road. And then we are at Shiel Bridge, where the old bridges still stand.
1957 and the modern Road
With the flooding of Loch Loyne and Loch Cluanie the Hydro Board had to build a new road. One way or another, it was decided to build a brand new route from Glen Garry across to Bunloyne, rather than simply provide a new crossing of Loch Loyne. This new road then connected with the new alignment for the former A887 past Loch Cluanie, a route which is marked as under construction on OS maps from the 1950s (as seen on Sabre Maps).
Surprisingly, much of the route built in 1957, as an S2 route, to replace the old single track road has already been rebuilt. Telford's bends were not initially ironed out, but the new road struck off up the hill to bypass the dam. In the couple of miles to Lundie, a number of loops on either side of the road remain. Those on the lochside are generally preserved as wide laybys, those up the hill are accessible at both ends in places, but some are just ribbons of tarmac atop the cutting for the new road.
At Lundie, a long, wide loop curves around higher up the hill, complete with a pair of bridges. The new road is not appreciably wider or better aligned, but clearly it was felt that improvement was needed. More laybys and cut-off loops can be traced as we continue westwards, with another long cut off facing the island out in the loch. The western end of this loop sits a couple of metres above the modern road level, and is paired off with a layby on the lochside on the outside of the following bend. Clearly the gradient and curvature of the bend here was tighter than desirable.
There are further realignments leaving laybys and cut offs on the way to Cluanie, but clearly that is where the work from 1957 ends. It was perhaps another decade before work commenced to widen the road down Glen Shiel, with Malagan Bridge dated 1967. some of the other bridges are newer still, dating from the 1970s or even 80s.