|Location Map ( geo)|
|Distance:||11 miles (17.7 km)|
|Now part of:||Unclassified, partly abandoned|
When Thomas Telford's team built their road from Invergarry westwards in the 1810s, it initially just followed Glen Garry and Glen Quoich, before dropping down to the coast at Kinloch Hourn. This route is still highway (although realigned around Loch Quoich), and the longest dead end in the country at something like 24 miles. They also built the road from Invermoriston west past Loch Cluanie and so through Glen Shiel to Lochalsh. A little later they built a link between the two.
This link, which much later became part of the A87, is not the modern route of that road, however. Therefore, to find it, we first have to take that unclassified road to Kinloch Hourn, although we only go as far as Tomdoun. Here, just past the hotel, a sharp right (see left) which rapidly degenerates into a rough track starts climbing the hill. The road crosses into Glen Loyne, where two bridges took it across the River, and then climbs up over a higher pass into Glen Cluanie, joining the Lochalsh road near the Cluanie Inn.
Tomdoun - Loch Loyne
We therefore start our adventure, on foot, in Tomdoun. The junction sits below the village church and must have been a tricky corner for traffic to negotiate when the road was the main route between Skye and the south. Immediately after the junction, the road starts climbing up the hill, heading for a low pass across from Glen Garry into Glen Loyne. The route is characterised by a series of straights connected by gentle bends, as it heads north. Today we are climbing through forestry plantations, but back in the 1950s when this road was last public highway, it would have been crossing open moorland. The summit of the route is reached near Loch na Losguinn, around which the road takes a sweeping bend before starting the descent into Glen Loyne.
The engineering involved in this section of the road is generally limited to a couple of bridges and a handful of culverts. However, at one point near the summit, the road has to cross the head of a small valley. Rather than drop down and reclimb, or loop around the contours, the road has been built on a short embankment across the valley. This rises to about 8 ft above the tiny culvert letting the stream through.
Across Loch Loyne
What Telford could never have foreseen when picking his route, was that 130-odd years later, in 1957, Glen Loyne would be one of a number chosen for the Glengarry Hydro Electric Scheme. As such, a dam was built and the glen flooded. The water is held back at about 227 m above sea level, and then falls through a tunnel to Loch Cluanie at 201 m, from where it drops to the Generating Station at Invermoriston on the shores of Loch Ness.
Looking at the aerial photography, the route of the road crossing the loch, via an island, is still visible even though part of it is underwater. However, the image (2005) seems to have been taken in summer when the level was low. Nevertheless, it should surely have been cheaper to build a causeway or bridge than a completely new road. Maybe the new alignment really shows that Telford didn't always pick the easiest route...
HOWEVER it is not just in high summer when the water level of Loch Loyne falls. In the exceptional cold spell of January 2010, the surrounding glen was frozen under ice for over a month, and so with the constant pull of water out of the loch the level slowly fell. Even the surface of the loch had frozen over, causing the ice to crack and break up as the water sunk away below.
The upshot of this was that the old road emerged from its watery grave once more and there was the 'once in a lifetime' opportunity to cross the loch on the old road. Considering it has been under water for 50 years, the initial approaches to the Bridges are still in good condition, and even the bridges sport some remaining surfacing. Of course, fifty years is a long time and the water has caused a considerable amount of erosion on the final approaches, which feel more like causeways today. This is a little odd, however, as it appears that the sections of the road that cross the modern shoreline have remained largely intact, while those sections which have been submerged for most of the last fifty years are rather the worse for wear.
In the past, the loch narrowed to a pair of rivers in the middle, each crossed by a bridge, and the small surviving island is the remains of the land that sat between the rivers.
The southern bridge is still in reasonably good condition. The low arch extends to the full width and is essentially undamaged, although the remains of the surface consist of just a small patch of aggregate. The road then crosses the island itself, running along its eastern flank. It would appear that most of this road is normally free from water, albeit with the shore-edge badly eroded from lapping waves in places.
The north bridge is quite a different story. This was obviously the main channel connecting the two arms of Loch Loyne, and the approaches suggest that Telford's team may have built causeways into the river to minimise the bridge's span. Of course, erosion since the dam was built may well have caused this effect, scouring away the bog either side of the hard tarred road! The bridge therefore has a much larger and more substantial arch, or should I say had? Unfortunately, the western half had collapsed by 2009, leaving just four or five feet of precariously balanced masonry to complete the crossing of the loch.
It is interesting, and sad, to add that the Highland Council's record (see note below) shows that as recently as April 2002 the bridge survived to the full width. Considering, therefore, how much has collapsed in the last 8 years it is doubtful that the remainder of this historic structure will survive for much longer. Indeed, a further visit in June 2010 suggests that the remaining masonry is more precariously balanced than ever, and it would appear that when the reservoir does eventually refill it may be the end of this bridge.
2018 update: Unfortunately, as feared, this bridge is now no more. A visit in July 2018 shows that the arch has completely disappeared between the springings, meaning it is no longer possible to cross the loch with dry feet at any time. The remains at the abutments almost suggest that the arch was removed (on safety grounds), although the action of the water in the loch probably caused the collapse of the arch, and washed the rubble through to deeper water. The southern bridge remains in a similar condition to that seen nearly a decade earlier.
Loch Loyne - Cluanie
After crossing what was once a river and is now Loch Loyne, the road had another pass to climb to reach Cluanie. However, with the pass nearly 3 miles to the west, it was possible for Telford to construct a road with a very gentle gradient as it slowly climbed the contours. In several places, the road is supported by retaining walls, and on the odd occasion they are located on the uphill side of the road. There are also numerous streams to cross, each provided with a structure ranging from the smallest of culverts to substantial stone arches. Drainage was obviously still a problem however, and this road displays evidence that Telford had used a feature so common on Estate roads across the Highlands today - drainage channels running alongside the road to a culvert. Indeed, in at least one instance the culvert in question has been deliberately installed during the construction solely to drain the channel just as the road's gradient briefly levelled out.
After nearly three miles of climbing, the road starts to turn north, into the pass. A substantial, tall bridge crosses the stream that drains the watershed and then the road starts to snake across the undulating contours of the pass itself, stretching for over a mile as it crosses from Glen Loyne to Glen Cluanie. As the summit is reached, Loch Cluanie suddenly appears below but back in 1957 before the dam was finished, it was just the far western end of the loch that would have lain below, the rest stretching away to the east.
The road is now descending, dropping away gently as it slowly winds down the contours, with the house of Cluanie Lodge far below on the shore of the loch. As the road turns around to the west once more, the drive up from Cluanie Lodge approaches below, the two slowly converging. It is here that the road surface which has been prone to potholes and rutting suddenly improves, as there is presumably a significant volume of traffic to Cluanie Lodge, making the upkeep of this private road worthwhile. There is, however, just a mile to go before the modern A87 is reached just to the east of Cluanie Inn. All the time, the road slowly drops towards the loch shore, before turning north to cross the head of the loch and meet the modern road. The old bridge across the River Cluanie is long gone, although its site is still free from water and suggests that it may have been replaced for reasons other than the flooding of the glen. The modern bridge is a concrete structure which stands a little further west.
By 1957, most of the Highland's principal routes had been tarred. Indeed, the old bridge across the River Loyne was the county boundary, and allegedly the colour of the tarmac changed at the crest of the bridge, with each county using different coloured stone! Sadly, this can no longer be proven as the water has removed all evidence.
Tomdoun - Loch Loyne: Elsewhere along the route, however, the surface is still in surprisingly good condition, and there is no evidence on the snow-free sections of major patching or repairs having been carried out recently, suggesting that the surface seen today is over 50 years old. Of course, the lack of traffic on the road may have something to do with its survival! The surface course seems to be much stonier than modern roads, with only a small amount of tar to bond it. Nevertheless, it produces a very smooth looking surface on a par with many of the minor roads in the Highlands.
Telford's roads were allegedly built to a 'good width' of 15-18ft. However, while the gaps between parapets on bridges and culverts are about this width, the majority of the route today is about 8-10ft, with substantial grass verges on either side before the side ditches are reached. This, of course, may simply be the width that was worthy of tarring in the 1950s, as the few passing places found do extend to the full 18ft.
Loch Loyne - Cluanie:
Apart from the final mile which is now the private road to Cluanie Lodge, there is little doubt that the surface seen today is that used by traffic in 1957. However, this does leave some odd questions. Firstly, as noted above, the top surface seems to be of very coarse stone, with just a minimum of tar to hold it together. Secondly, where this has been eroded away there appears to be a much smoother surface below. Is this evidence of repairs made since 1957? The volume of traffic that uses this road would suggest not, especially as some potholes are clearly filled with concrete or, worse still, loose hardcore. Perhaps then this was a new surface laid in the last years of this road's life, when it was carrying lots of heavy construction traffic for the new dams and tunnels being constructed as part of the Hydro works.
As with the southern end, there are precious few passing places to the north of Loch Loyne. In fact only two are still obvious, within 100 m or so of each other near the summit. The roadway does however show evidence of being 15-18ft wide for much of the route although the section tarmacked is again just single-track and 8-10ft. Finally, due to the copious amounts of red paint surrounding the worst of the potholes on this road it would appear that some resurfacing work may be due after all!
The road is regularly lined with Milestones (every mile I believe), most of which still seem to be in place, although the destinations inscribed on them are now mostly impossible to read. Indeed on the northern section of the road, it would appear that the milestones have always been blank. However, on the modern A87 towards Invergarry, there is a milestone of the same design which is painted with 'Invergarry 4'. Perhaps they were all painted once upon a time.
The Tomdoun - Loch Loyne section of the road has two large bridges, and a number of small culverts. The bridges are of a similar basic design to those found on other routes originally constructed by Thomas Telford, such as the A82. The culverts are generally so overgrown that it is impossible to see what they look like.
It is impossible, or at least very dangerous to walk the whole of this route in one go. The precarious nature of the north bridge on Loch Loyne while still exposed should dissuade anyone from attempting such a thing.
The road turns off the Kinlochhourn Road just past the Tomdoun Hotel, in front of the church. The junction is wide enough to leave a car or two without causing an obstruction, or there is limited room in either direction within quarter of a mile. It is then a three mile walk up the road to Loch Loyne. The return journey should take the 'average' person 3-3.5 hours to walk. However, thanks to the tarmac surface it should be possible to cycle in around half that time.
The road turns off the A87 about 200 m east of the Cluanie Inn, on a slightly unsighted junction when heading west. There is a small parking area at the head of the road suitable for up to 6 vehicles, or alternatively parking at the Cluanie Inn. It is then 7.5 miles to Loch Loyne, so cycling is recommended. It should take the 'average' person about 3-3.5 hours for the return journey, or more than double that for walking.
In both cases, while the change in altitude needed to cross the pass may seem substantial, the road is well graded with a fair surface for much of the way. This means that a steady pace can be maintained even when cycling. It also means that pedalling is hardly necessary on the downhill sections, although some of the bends are particularly rutted with loose material so a thorough check of your bike's brakes is recommended!
- Roads.org.uk: Three Generations of the A82 with further information on Telford's road construction.
- BBC: Nick Crane's Great British Journeys Episode 8
- Highland Council Environment Record: North Bridge