Awoke to another spectacularly clear day and unimpeded views across the coastal sound of Loch Melfort on the A816 somewhere between Craigdhu and Arduaine, to layered vision of Shuna and Luing islands. And then off we set for what was about to become the scenic drive of our lives
Up the coast and through the port of Oban (previously visited with hangovers courtesy of Paella Night with Eric Hope and crew when we fished Loch Awe); onto the A85 (the “A” designation having absolutely no relevance in Scotland whatsoever) and then striking inland alongside Loch Etive before passing into the Pass of Brander, which gouged a path alongside an extended finger of Loch Awe, where we continued through the village of Loch Awe itself, marvelling that somewhere so perceivably remote should have its own railway station (and wouldn’t it have been excitedly glorious to arrive there, leather luggage in hand, in sepia-tinted times?)
Onwards on the A85 through Glen Lochy , the sun continuing to shine in a ridiculously cloud-free deep-blue sky as the scenery unfolded mile after mile and at every turn in the road.
At Tyndrum we took a left turn onto the A82 and the changing scenery just refused to stop – we were pop-eyed at the sheer scale of the magnificence around us and truly awestruck that we been gifted such an uncharacteristically beautiful day on which to see it all. Mountains to our left – Ben Nevis and Glencoe – soared layer upon layer into the sky while the comparative flatness of Rannoch Moor to our right left us overawed by the scale of the views – dispelling a long- held misconception that travel to the Canadian Rockies was necessary to enjoy scenery on a grand scale such as this.
At some point we stopped, pulling up at the side of the road to wander across a tussocked landscape pockmarked with peaty water and bogland, which spread to both sides of the road, the water surfaces reflecting azure-blue from the sky with peaty-brown clarity beneath.
Onwards in blazing sunshine, wending west again to run through Glen Coe itself – close-up mountainous magnificence, sunlight and shadow contrasting and colouring the rock faces, scree and greenery – so much so that we emerged breathless at the head of Loch Leven and diverted off the main road for a spot of recuperation at Ballachulish, a small village seemingly comprising a Tourist Office, Co-op food store and an enticingly interesting hardware and fishing store.
Like so many of the Scottish Tourist Offices we’d experienced so far it was manned only by the staff of the café so no real knowledge of the recently publicised North Coast 500 route but instead, local knowledge sufficient to suggest we check out the Ballachullish Slate Quarry.
En route there then, a visit to the hardware store – a fantastic emporium of old-fashioned hardware (screws by the ounce) and an array of fishing tackle for both fresh and seawater, where we felt compelled to buy a £23 spinning rod and reel combination.
Out again into the sunshine and across the road to find a magnificent quarry – disused now – but clearly of historic and economic significance to the village.
The cleaved surfaces of the slate shone lavender-metallic in the sunshine; the sound quality flat, focused and crisp amplified in the huge, lake-centred amphitheatre. We walked the water’s edge; sat on hot slate and enjoyed the peculiar, gentle lavender-sheen of the exposed stone in startlingly warm sunshine.
A brief food shop in the Co-op then ensued – crab-claws a seafood speciality just delivered – then a short walk to the water’s edge of Loch Linhe’s open-mouthed connection with the Firth of Lorne and the Atlantic beyond.
Then onwards in our trusty van alongside the inland section of Loch Linhe to arrive with high expectations at Fort William.
Well, at least the sun continued to shine, brightening the slightly down-at-heel feel of the town’s High Street which we were surprised to find had turned its back on the Loch Linhe (possibly its greatest asset) and instead folded inwardly on itself so all but one of the commercial buildings made anything of the waterside view. One brave seafood restaurant stuck out like a beacon to entrepreneurship, both overlooking the Loch and representing Fort William’s truncated pier. It had also – unfortunately for us – stopped serving lunch 15 minutes before we got there.
Slightly deflated we made our way back to the outdoor-clothing- and charity- shop-lined, characterless High Street to find just one pub with a balcony overlooking the Loch, sadly now in afternoon shade and similarly disappointing in both choice and quality of late lunchtime offerings, with rather sad platters of mussels failing to inspire.
The now ubiquitous Morrison’s Supermarket stood between us and the parked van so we undertook a quick visit to restock the larder.
Our final disappointment was of our own making rather than Fort William’s – but added to our overall sense of expectations dashed. Finding a ferry-booking office near the car park, we discovered to our dismay that the cost of our planned ferry crossing from Mallaig to the Isle of Skye would cost somewhere in excess of £50. Our return to the van and the roadmap then presented us with a change of both plan and route as we set off northwards again on the A82 through Spean Bridge, stopping to view a magnificent, incongruous and imposing Commando Memorial with giant statues of three steely-eyed Commandos staring resolutely and blank-eyed towards mountains which were apparently their training grounds.
We continued alongside the jokily named Loch Lochy (so good they named it twice?) then left at Invergarry and alongside Loch Garry through yet more incredible mountain scenery of the Five Sisters range, both of us rueing our lack of geological and geographical knowledge.
At Sheil Bridge we picked up the tail-end of Loch Duich and trundled onwards where – out of the blue on the approach to Dornie – we were surprisingly sirened by a blue-lighted police car which pulled us over to gently berate us for being “inconsiderate” to the trail of four cars following us into the village – in which we are about to stop anyway. The policeman suggested that if we were to travel at 30 to 40 miles an hour we should use our mirrors and pull over frequently to allow following traffic to pass. Well, even previous minimal experience had conditioned us that it’s sadly very difficult to argue the toss with an Officer of the Law and – on reflection – we think he himself just got a bit bored and decided -because he had the wherewithal in the form of siren, blue light and uniform – to make his feelings felt, leaving us subsequently paranoid about anyone whatsoever on our tail and causing us to endeavour to pullover at any and every opportunity henceforth.
Shaken but unstirred, we carried on towards the Kyle of Lochalsh, deciding to overnight on the mainland before proceeding onto Skye and thus “off-roading” into the hinterland promontory above the Kyle. Driving up a narrow country road we espied a track to our left ideally located off the road and affording a view across the sea, although a parked Citroen occupied the layby within it. So we travelled onwards, reaching a tiny harbour, where we turned round and headed back to find the Citroen still in occupation.
Having by now determined that this was to be “our’ spot for the night, we made several passes, turning each time and passing back past the entrance to the track when – lo and behold – between passes, Citroen had clearly got the message and departed!
Delighting in the improbably-capable turning circle of our cumbersome vehicle, we whipped it round yet again – now half-disappointed not to receive any friendly waves from the few bemused pedestrians whom we had now passed five times in quick succession – and eased ourselves down “our” track to “our spot” where we were able to three-point-turn and back ourselves into the undergrowth, coming to rest pointing vaguely uphill, with flowering gorse pressed close against one window which overlooked a couple of distant cottages with, to our rear, a view of (sea) Loch Carron into which the sun was slowly sinking.
A quick pedestrian recce down what was left of the track took us to the edge of a rock-fringed bay, the sea flat calm and a few small fishing boats languishing at anchor on the mirror flat calm of a gin-clear sea. We were reassured that our spot would suffice very well for a night of wild camping in the hamlet of Badicaul, with a view of the seemingly impossible elevation of the Bridge to Skye in the sun- setting distance.
Photos were taken of yet another awe-inspiring sunset silhouetting the distant misty humps of the minor isles of Pabay, Longay and Scalpay with Skye beyond, all layering into the distance and mirrored in the flat calm sea surface which lapped enticingly at our feet. Back up the track under a railway bridge (somewhat incongruously for such an isolated spot) to dine on something now ill-remembered, no doubt imbibing something similar before retiring to our cabin-bed, after no doubt attempting to achieve a TV signal and probably (in lieu of same) watching another gripping episode of Edge of Darkness on DVD.