|Location Map ( geo)|
|Distance:||5.6 miles (9 km)|
Two hundred and fifty years ago, the British Government were struggling to control the Highlands of Scotland. General Wade had already built a number of roads within the Highlands, connecting the forts together, but a major problem was apparent - the quickest way to Fort William was by heading north to Fort Augustus, a days march away. It was proposed to extend the military road network, and it fell on Wade's assistant, and successor, Major Caulfeild to complete the project.
Thus it was in 1752 that Caulfeild spent the summer constructing a new road across the bleak and inhospitable waste of Rannoch Moor. This route is more fully described on the A82 Rannoch Moor page. However, after passing Kingshouse, a decision had to be made. Would the road turn west to descend Glen Coe as the modern A82 does, or would it keep north, across the hills, to the head of Loch Leven.
Despite the steep ascent needed, the Kinlochleven route had two major advantages over the Glencoe route. Firstly it avoided the territory of the MacDonalds, the clan that had suffered the Glencoe Massacre at the hands of Army Redcoats just 60 or so years earlier, and secondly it avoided the need for a ferry, thus making it a permanent route, and not one that was broken at the whim of the weather or ferry man.
A couple of miles north west of Kingshouse, the lone cottage of Altnafeadh is found. It is here where the old military road starts the ascent to the 550m pass between Stob Mhic Martuin and Beinn Bheag. There is a layby here today, where the West Highland Way briefly runs alongside the A82, and the path to Buchaille Etive Mor heads south, making it easy to tackle the climb in an hour or two. However, in the 1750s the only shelter anywhere near by was back at the Kingshouse, with Kinlochleven being little more than a couple of farmsteads, and the Fort at Fort William still a days walk away.
From the layby, a clear path meanders slightly over gently rising ground, crossing a few streams before the gradient starts to increase. Whether the modern path follows the old road to start with or not is not entirely certain. Caulfeild often favoured straights, where the path wiggles, but if the geography dictated it, his route may have meandered. There is certainly no clear evidence of another route.
However, that all changes, as the path starts to make some curved switchbacks to tackle the steepening hill. Careful observation shows that the old road was gentler than the modern path, with a couple of short traverses at first, and then 6 much longer ones between 6 hairpins. The lower 2 of the 3 eastern bends are now completely bypassed as the path shortcuts in much shorter switchbacks up the hill. However, the old road can easily be identified in the landscape, and followed if the path is too steep. As you walk the old road, it is hard to imagine horses hauling carriages, wagons, cannon, and other military equipment, and equally hard to imagine a battalion of men marching north, carrying all of their kit, an image little changed since the days of the Romans.
The summit comes quickly, just a mile or so from the layby, and with some evidence of a 7th hairpin pointing westwards just below the top. A large cairn marks the top today, but the pause for breath and time to soak in the views that the modern walker has would not have been granted to the redcoats 250 years ago. They had the onward march, with another 5 or so miles down to the river crossing at Kinlochleven, and then another climb into the Lairig Mor and a dozen miles or more to the Fort.
Just beyond the summit, there is clear evidence of one of the cobbled fords that Caulfeild built. Undoubtedly restored to some extent when the WHW was constructed, it still reflects the construction of the original road. The descent is much easier on the legs, with the gradient descending gently for a little over 2 miles to the pipeline road, which roughly follows Caulfeild's route to Kinlochleven. Certainly, any deviations have been lost forever by the extensive engineering that occurred to bring Hydro Power to the Aluminium Smelter in the early 1900s.
The road was effectively replaced in 1786 when the new drove road was constructed through Glen Coe. The times were much more peaceful by then, and the military presence reduced. When Telford surveyed the roads as part of his commission for Highland Roads and Bridges, he naturally chose the new drove road, and so the old Devil's Staircase slowly sank into obscurity with less and less traffic passing that way.
This all changed in 1902 when the first Navvies started appearing to construct the Blackwater Dam for the Kinlochleven Smelter. With no real settlement nearby, shanty towns and camps were constructed as accommodation, but the nearest Inn was still the Kingshouse. Payday nights saw fresh battalions of men marching south to the Inn, and then stumble back to camp in the early hours, or even the next day. In the bleak snowdrifts and blizzards of winter a few didn't make the journey.