Road to the Isles
|The Road To The Isles|
|From:||Fort William (NN125758)|
|Distance:||44 miles (70.8 km)|
|Meets:||A82, B8006, B8004, A861, B8008|
|Old route now:||A830, B8008|
|Route outline (key)|
The Road to the Isles is an evocative name with a long history. Today it primarily applies to the A830 route from Fort William to Mallaig, from where a range of ferry services head out to the inner and outer Hebridean Islands. However, 200 years ago the route was somewhat different, and originated much further east, crossing Rannoch Moor and then meandering westwards to cross to Skye by either the Kylerhea or Kyleakin crossings. Even that is a rather simplistic description, with the name being more generic, and not applying to a specific, identified route, let alone an actual road.
The real origins of the name are lost in the mists of time, but it was perhaps in the late 18th Century / early 19th century when the name came to prominence, with the romance of the name featuring in the travellers diaries and so finding its way into fiction and newspapers. In the 1810s, when Thomas Telfords commission on Highland Roads and Bridges was at its busiest, he was looking at a variety of potential routes to formalise the Road to the Isles, including the unbuilt Rannoch Road. It is possible that the road across Skye to Dunvegan was also considered as part of the 'Road to the Isles', as this was the main route used by Drovers from the Western Isles.
In the early 20th Century, following the construction of the West Highlands Railways Mallaig Extension, the current A830 route took on the name of 'Road to the Isles', with Mallaig becoming a focal point for Island Steamer services, as well as a fishing port. Weekly steamers from the south would call at Mallaig as part of their circuit, and local daily services connected to the Isle of Skye, as well as (less frequently) to the Small Isles. Before the advent of the modern car ferries, Uig and Ullapool were unimportant ports in comparison to Mallaig and Portree, so a substantial volume of traffic destined for Lewis, Harris and to a lesser extent North Uist passed through Mallaig.
Whilst the Road to the Isles originated as a commercial, trade route, particularly related to the droving of livestock, its origins as a tourist route date back, as noted above, to the pre-Victorian travellers who wrote of their adventures in the Highlands. Today, the name is used as a marketing tool for the Fort William to Mallaig road, taking in the many tourist destinations that line the route.
Starting, then, at Lochybridge just to the north of Fort William, and opposite the distillery, the road heads west and quickly reaches the Caledonian Canal at Banavie. The canal is crossed just below the Neptunes Staircase, a long flight of locks climbing to the north, with a large car park just off the B8004 on the far side of the bridge. During the summer months, there are often boats in transit, providing 'entertainment' for visitors and locals alike. A pleasant stroll can be had along the towpath to Corpach Basin, where the canal meets the sea, with fine views back to Ben Nevis.
The B8004 also provides a detour to the north, running up above the canal to Gairlochy, with a couple of access points and some forest walks along the way. From Gairlochy the B8005 leads further north through the Dark Mile to the Eas Chia Aig Waterfall at the foot of Loch Lochy. There are more forest walks and trails in the area, and the Clan Cameron Museum at Achncarry. The B8004 then leads east across the Canal at Gairlochy to the Commando Memorial above Spean Bridge, from where the A82 can be taken back to the start of the Road to the Isles.
From Banavie it is just a short run to Corpach, where the canal basin is easily reached, and the Treasures of the Earth centre is nearby. Continuing west, the town is left behind and the road heads west along the shores of Loch Eil, although the loch is often hidden behind trees lining the railway. At Fassfern there are forest walks, and again at Kinlocheil where the A861 turns left for the very long way round via Ardgour, Sunart and Moidart, with roads leading south to Lochaline and the Isle of Mull, and west to Ardnamurchan Point, the most westerly point of the British Mainland.
The A830, meanwhile heads to Glenfinnan, a tiny village with a lot of history. The Visitor centre tells the story of the Glenfinnan Monument standing at the head of Loch Shiel, and remembering the raising of the standard at the beginning of the 1745 Jacobite Uprising. Meanwhile, a little way up the glen, which boasts two fine Munros to climb, is the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, as seen in Harry Potter! This was one of the first Mass Concrete bridges in the world, and what an amazing one it is too, still carrying steam trains in the summer months. More information can be found at the Glenfinnan Station muesum and shop, whilst boat trips are also available nearby on Loch Shiel.
From Glenfinnan, the A830 continues west through some beautiful but desolate landscapes, along the shores of Loch Eilt, and finally dropping into Lochailort. A little before this, a steep and occasionally difficult path climbs over the hills to the remote settlement of Meoble on the shores of Loch Morar - with no road connection, this tiny community uses boats up and down the loch to reach the outside world. Lochailort is another tiny settlement, and where the A861 rejoins the A830, 65 miles instead of 15 miles in distance! If you don't have time to do the full run, it is worth heading a few miles down to Glenuig, from where there are some fine views to be had west to the islands.
Back on the Road to the Isles, the next landmark is the famous church at Polnish, though semi derelict today, it has featured in films and also in advertising and marketing for a variety of products. A mile or so further on, and a large layby on the left marks the start of the path out to Penmeanach on the Ardnish Peninsula. This is an evocative spot, where a line of ruined cottages stands either side of a single roofed one, in use as a bothy. This village was still inhabited until the 1940s, but with a growing disparity between their way of life and other nearby communities, many of the residents moved away, the last few moving from the peninsula across the loch to Roshven around the time that the new road opened in 1967.
Back on the road, it drops down the hill and passes under the viaduct at the bottom of Glen Mama, to the shores of Loch nan Uamh. The viaduct has a large central concrete pier, and x-ray scans have proven that it is in this pier that the remains of a horse lie. For many years, the story was disputed, as to whether it was here, Glenfinnan, or just a tall story, but the horse and cart did fall, and still remain deep in the innards of the concrete. A short distance along the shore, the Princes Cairn marks the last place on the British Mainland where Bonnie Prince Charlie stood, just over a year after raising his standard at Glenfinnan just a few miles to the east.
The next section of road was built just a few years ago to replace the last single track trunk road in Britain. It is a fine road, but takes away some of the magic of the journey as it wound between drystone walls, trees, rocks and over narrow bridges. The road may have been a bottleneck in the summer, but it also helped to build the excitement, before suddenly bursting out into the sunshine at Arisaig. Whilst that is all now gone, it is a far better road for the local economy, and there are perhaps many who don't miss the tortuous old route!
Arisaig sits in a fabulous setting on the west coast, with views across the Small Isles, a hotel and cafe to eat and a boatyard from where boats sail to the islands, offering an alternative to the Calmac ferries from Mallaig. It is the older port, dating back centuries, and was the original end of Telford's road to the area, although that reached the coast further south on the Rhu Road. There are plenty of paths and tracks to explore inland, but it is to the north where most tourists flock. The coast between Arisaig and Morar is a delight of sheltered bays and rugged rocks, surrounded by some of the finest white beaches in Britain. Campsites make the most of the views and the access to the beaches, whilst the golf course at Traigh lies above arguably the best of the beaches.
It is the B8008 which winds its way through this amazing landscape, and is the Road to the Isles Tourist route, following the old route of the A830 which now cuts across inland on a faster route which nevertheless has none of the magic of the coast road. As the road winds its way past beaches and over rocky outcrops, the scenery remains outstanding, and the views west to Eigg and Rum are some of the finest on the west coast. After a brief turn inland, the road emerges on the shore once more, this time by the vast sandy beaches of the estuary to the River Morar, where the road virtually runs along the top of the beach for a while. There are a number of car parks along the road, although in the summer months they can get overwhelmed, or is it just the lazier visitors, wanting to park as close as they can to the beach, that clog the road?
The A830 and B8008 cross on the south side of the River Morar, both taking different bridges to continue north. The B8008 winds inland to the village of Morar, from where a road leads east along the shore of Loch Morar to a parking area, with a fantastic path continuing for several miles to Swordland and then Tarbert on Loch Nevis. Back on the tourist route, it is just a few miles left to get to journeys end at Mallaig, where the steam trains arrive twice a day in summer months, disgorging hundred of passengers. At other times, the port can be a quiet place to relax and while away an hour or three watching the boats come and go in the harbour, and enjoying a slower pace of life. A circular path leads over the hill to Mallaig Mor and Mallaig Bheag to the east, whilst the main draw for many is obviously the ferry port, leading to the isles of Skye, Eigg, Rum, Canna, Muck, South Uist and the remote mainland peninsula of Knoydart.