Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Roads from the Isles: The drove roads and old tracks of the North-West coast of Scotland

This post takes its title from a book by D.D.C. Pochin Mould, published in 1950. I have recently purchased a copy second hand and am currently reading my way through. The writer makes the point that, unlike the rest of the UK, the Northwest has many more old, unused routes than it has modern roads. I am fascinated by these direct and logical routes and can feel a great urge building to shoulder my pack and sample them for myself.

The first route that the book discusses is one from Poolewe to Fort Augustus, not a route I have ever considered walking. It was formerly an important route thanks to Poolewe's role as a port for boats plying the waters of the Minch to the Outer Hebrides. Fort Augustus is the end point of this route, for the book restricts itself to the area north of the great glen, but for the historical walker it would merely have been a staging post en route to Inverness or Fort William by way of the great glen, or over the Corrieyairack to Dalwhinnie.

Approximate route of the old track between Poolewe and Fort Augustus

Examination of the image above reveals how direct and aesthetically pleasing the route taken by old track is. Completing the journey using modern roads involves considerable detours: eastwards via Inverness, Garve and Achnasheen; or westwards via Glen Shiel, Attadale and Torridon. One consequence is that the old route avoids roads to a large extent, the only significant sections being between Kinlochewe and Loch Clair and around Glen Affric. This scarcity of tarmac means that it would likely make a highly enjoyable backpacking trip. There are only a few trackless sections with much of the route being on good landrover tracks so I reckon it might even make a decent mountainbike ride.

Writing in the late 1940s, Miss Mould was optimistic about the potential of the first hydro schemes to bring development and hope to the depopulated highlands, yet I feel sadness at the impact of many of these schemes on the environment. When the modern traveler threads his through the Monar hills to the north shore of the loch by way of Strath Mhuilich he is not greeted by the croft house at Strathmore and easy access to the tracks leading west to Kintail. For Strathmore lies beneath the waters of the now dammed Loch Monar, the vastly expanded waters of which necessitate such a lengthy detour that the westward route to Kintail is all but dead; the traveller would be better advised to use the route over the Bealach Bearnais instead.

Another section that has been significantly altered by progress is that which crosses the moor between Glens Affric and Moriston. There is no need now for the cairns that aided Miss Mould's crossing, for the way is now clearly marked by track and pylon. I am delighted to find that this old track is largely still there to be walked as it has been for centuries, yet the huge changes that it has seen over the last 70 years suggest that it would be best to walk it soon, before it is further despoiled by progress.

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Monday, 20 September 2010

The nights are fair drawing in.......

Winter is fast approaching, the nights are fair drawing in and here in the highlands the trees are just beginning to turn. I've had to start using bike lights in the mornings and it won't be long before lights are required in both directions. For at least four dark months. It's a peculiar feeling when the darkness returns after a long summer of perpetual daylight (perpetual at least for those of us who retire early in the evening). Yet it's all relative; a level of light intensity that feels like complete darkness in September will feel encouragingly bright come February.

I always have mixed feelings at this time of year, on the one hand lamenting the passage of summer, on the other hand feeling excitement at the prospect of winter with all its sporting opportunities. I feel a primeval pull, perhaps similar to that felt by animals as they prepare to migrate or feed themselves up in preparation for hibernation. I have washed and proofed my winter gear and started thinking about the adventures that lie in store: the bothies that must be visited this winter; the classic skitours that will be seized when the conditions allow; the invigorating mountaintop bivvies. And the finest prize of all  - one that was conspicuously absent from last year's activities - the winter climb.

Round about this time last year I predicted that the North Atlantic Oscillation would serve up the  first of a long run of bumper winters. It didn't disappoint last year - let's hope it comes up with the goods again!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Canoe trip to Lochindorb Castle

Lochindorb is a sizable body of water on the Dava Moor, to the north of Grantown on Spey. Its most striking feature is Lochindorb Castle, the thick double walls of which are about 20 feet high. The castle completely fills the island, which is around an acre in size.

The castle was one of the residences of the Alexander Stewart, the Wolf of Badenoch, a rather nasty man who controlled the area in the 14th century. It's hard not to admire the Wolf's penchant for direct action; his response to being excommunicated from the church on grounds of infidelity was to burn down Elgin Cathedral, along with much of the town. He did the same to the Forres and Pluscarden Abbey, just for good measure.

I first became aware of the existence of the castle when out cycling a few years ago and have been keen to inspect it close up ever since, so on Sunday we loaded the car with canoe and picnic basket and set off for Lochindorb. The wind was stronger than I would have liked, but as the crossing is only a few hundred metres and the wind was directly astern I decided to go for it, thinking that if the wind intensified further we could always just let the wind blow us the kilometer or so to the far side of the loch. As is so often the case the wind got up as soon as we left the shore and we arrived at the island amid sizable white-topped waves.

Nervousness about the return crossing did nothing for my appetite - even behind the walls of the castle the gusts were strong enough to cause what MWIS would describe as 'considerable buffeting'.  I wished that I'd paid more attention to a small book I got for my christmas which describes how to forecast the weather based on the direction of the wind at low and high altitude. This would have given an indication of whether the weather was likely to get better or worse in the near future and would have provided a basis for the deciding whether or not it was worth waiting for the wind to drop.

In the end we did get a slight lull and a bout of decisive paddling saw us back at the car. I wrote some time ago about the dangers of canadian canoeing and to be honest it may have been more sensible to leave that trip for another day, especially as the boat was loaded with dogs and toddlers. My new rule of thumb is that if it's almost too windy to get the boat off the roof of the car then it's probably too windy for an enjoyable canoe trip.

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