Sunday, 9 October 2016

West - Bay of Alders

“The landscape and seascape that lay spread below me was of such beauty that I had no room for it all at once; my eye flickered from the house to the islands, from the white sands to the flat green pasture around the croft, from the wheeling gulls to the pale satin sea on to the snow-topped Cuillins of Skye in the distance”

These words were written by Gavin Maxwell almost 60 years ago when he first arrived at the place he called Camusfearna, the setting of his book, Ring of Bright Water.  The place was no less beautiful to me as I stood before it now. In late summer there was no snow yet on the tops and a keen wind made the sea rough, pushing white horses to the shore but all the elements of the place as he’d described remained the same. Behind the bay the steep hillside was covered with woodland and rowans heavy with red berries. The Sandaig islands floated offshore, green turfed except for the white smudges of beach at their edges. And encircling the bay were the dark, peaty waters of the alder-lined burn, the “ring of bright water”.

The real name of the place is Sandaig and it occupies a remote spot in a quiet corner of the land on the Glenelg Peninsula. Rob and I passed on our September cycling holiday. Like thousands of people, the book had enthralled me, evoking as it did a sense of a simpler time and a wilder world. I’d always wanted to visit the place where the story had played out. It was a beautiful place as written but with very palpable undertones of melancholy that mirror the tragedies and sadness which were to follow after the book's success. I was especially moved by the memorial erected by Gavin Maxwell to his favourite otter, Edal. The inscription read “whatever joy she gave to you, give back to nature”. An epitaph or a mantra for the mad modern world.
It had been a convoluted and let’s say, interesting, journey there by bicycle. The train had put us out a few days before at Connel and we’d followed a wonderful disused rail route, now opened as the Caledonia Way. At times it hugged the seashore and at other times it meandered through woods and fields. Heavy showers of rain passed over and made the place damp and drippy.

A rough section of the West Highland Way had then taken us down into Fort William before we enjoyed an easy pootle along the Caledonian Canal to Invergarry. It felt still like the summer in the sun and the warmth and the midges. Midge-sucking machines at the campsite at Invergarry made little impact on the hordes of them. A café in Edinburgh has just started serving insect brownies, part of tackling climate change so that we get protein from insects instead of farmed meat which has a huge environmental impact. I wondered if the sucked-up midges in the machines at Invergarry were therefore baked into garibaldi biscuits instead of dead flies.
We cycled west along the longest cul-de-sac in Scotland, the 22 miles of single track road to the tiny outpost of Kinlochourn. The last couple of miles were spectacular as they plummeted steeply to the village which sits at the head of Loch Hourn, a long wiggly finger of sea loch that reaches deep into the hills. Our exit from the dead-end was a tough push through hills and river gorges to Corran, another delightful outpost with end-of-the-road charm and a sense of being far from the modern world.

We slept well at our wild camp spot by the river which was lucky as the road onwards to Sandaig and beyond to Glenelg and Skye was a rollercoaster of steep and ups and downs. The old ferry onto Skye, the Glenahullish, laid on more charm for us. Built in 1969, she’s the last manually operated turntable ferry in the world and pootles back and forward in summer between Glenelg and Skye.
If you want to enjoy the delights of the Glenahullish, you’ll have to cycle over the big pass in these parts, the Mam Ratagan. We crossed northwards, the easier direction, and were rewarded with a stunning panorama of Loch Duich and the Five Sisters of Kintail. I love the legend of the Five Sisters. The story goes that the five sisters were originally seven, but two brothers sailed into Loch Duich from a foreign land and were smitten by the youngest two sisters. Their father refused to allow them to marry before their older sisters but the brothers swore they had five older brothers who they would send back to marry the other sisters. The two brothers sailed off with their new brides, never to be seen again. The five remaining sisters waited... and waited... and were eventually turned to stone to preserve their beauty for evermore, forming the mountain ridge along Glen Shiel, with its five prominent peaks that we see today.

We left Kintail eastwards by another tough, remote mountain pass and lingered a while in the old Camban bothy, joined by a hiker from Montana, of all places. I’ve cycled across Montana and it was funny to be in this desolate spot in Scotland trading place names that most people have never heard of. The Montana man complained of the lack of sun in Scotland. We didn’t linger too long though before pressing on for the welcome woods and easy tracks of Glen Affric. The rain caught us before Cannich and the outside modern world caught us before Inverness.

More phtotos on Flickr - click here.

Fact File
Start: Connel on the Oban train lined
Finish: Inverness
Route: Take the Caledonia Way cycle route north to Ballahulish and continue to Glen Coe and Kinlochleven. Cycle the West Highland Way route to Fort William - join it via the road to Mamore Lodge and leave it Blar a'Chaorainn to take the road into Fort William. Use the Caledonian Canal to Invergarry and the road to Kinlochourn. Take the steep, rough and difficult hill path through to Corran. Cycle north from Corran to Glenelg. We made a short detour to Broadford on Skye via the Glenelg ferry then returned to Glenelg to cycle over the Mam Ratagan to Shiel Bridge. We cycled into Glen Affric via Gleann Lichd and another steep and difficult hill pass. From Cannich we took back roads into Inverness but you can also pick up the top end of the Great Glen Way.

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