Tour 15/22 : The Road to the Isles

Oh cruel is the snow, that raves Glencoe
And covers the grave of Macdonald;
And cruel was the foe, that raved Glencoe
And murdered the house of Macdonald

©1963 Jim McLean The Ballad of Glencoe

Charles waited at Glenfinnan. He had come from Italy to raise Britain for his father, the rightful Stuart king, and extirpate the Hanoverian usurpers. The Stuarts had moral support from several powerful lords, but it was well known that the overthrow of the incumbent king could not even be contemplated without at least, ooh, ten thousand well-drilled French troops and a vast pile of money. Charles had arrived in Scotland with only seven men and his personal charm. All but a small group of Macdonalds had rebuffed his approaches. But hark? Bagpipes! Charles' anxiousness turned to elation. Over the hill marched the clansmen of Cameron of Lochiel, whose sense of honour had been pricked by Charles refusing to return to France. He had responded to Lochiel's initial rejection by saying he would "rather be a fugitive and Lochiel could stay at home and read what happened to his Prince in the newspapers." Over the course of several days, Camerons, Clanranald, and Macdonnell of Glengarry gathered to the prince's banner at Glenfinnan. Charles had raised a thousand men. His     march to London was on.

Lochaber is the roughest and most intractable part of the Highlands. As the rest of the country converted to various flavours of Protestantism, Lochaber remained loyal to the old faith of Rome. Arable land is scarce and cattle droving lay at the heart of the economy, and into the 18th century neighbouring clans complained of cattle rustlers, of the thieves roads across the empty wastes of Rannoch Moor that they didn't dare cross. The MacIains hid their booty in Coire Gabhail, Glencoe's Lost Valley. To deal with the Highlands the government of King William decided to make an example of the MacIains, who had taken part in the first Jacobite rising of 1690. This is remembered as the     Massacre of Glencoe.

Rannoch Moor is an inhospitable place. One of many 'roads to the isles' crosses it, connecting the Lowlands with the Hebrides. The most famous today is a path for the strong walker, 'by Tummel and Rannoch and Lochaber I go.' Around Ben Alder and Rannoch Moor is wild and roadless country. One does not need to worry these days about thieves, bandits and walking cattle to market; just midges, rain, and     ghosts.

At the western end of Rannoch Moor a great rocky pyramid rears up from the plain like a child's drawing of a mountain. This is the Buachaille Etive Mor, sentinel at the entrance to Glencoe. Massacre apart, Glencoe is famous for its steep scenery, great hillwalking and rock climbing. The Buachaille, Bidean nam Bian, the narrow crest of Aonach Eagach and the Blackmount range rank amongst the finest hills in the country, and the northern slopes of the Blackmount host Scotland's oldest ski centre.

Lochaber has endless walking and climbing opportunities on its mountains, two ski resorts, an indoor ice-climbing wall in Kinlochleven, fast flowing rivers such as the Orchy, Etive and Nevis that are the delight of sports kayakers, deep freshwater lochs like Loch Morar and Loch Lochy, yachting berths on the coast, forest tracks for mountain bikes, and two long distance trails. It is no wonder the bustling town of     Fort William bills itself as the 'outdoor capital of the UK'. The Fort sits at the base of Ben Nevis, Britain's highest hill at 4,416ft (1,346m). Low by global standards, Highland hills should not be underestimated, due to fierce and changeable weather and a general lack of signposted paths. Ben Nevis's summit is shrouded in cloud for 300 days a year and receives 4m of rain annually. It appears as a great lump from the south or west - the approach taken by the tourist path - but a walk round to the north reveals 2,000ft (600m) high cliffs. My favourite route to the summit of Ben Nevis starts from the road end in Glen Nevis, takes in the Nevis gorge, Steall waterfall, Carn Mor Dearg, and the Carn Mor Dearg arĂȘte - though you should have a bit of hillwalking experience before undertaking this route, which is steep and pathless after Steall.

From Ben Nevis, you head west to increasingly attractive scenery. The hills become rougher and more complicated, the coast is indented by steep-sided, narrow sealochs, and the islands of the Hebrides reveal themselves. The Glenfinnan viaduct - famous from the Harry Potter films - conducts Britain's most scenic railway towards the coast. We are in Jacobite country, where Charles Stuart landed on the British mainland for the first time and raised his standard at Glenfinnan. It was from here too he left for France a broken man, leaving the Highlands to their     fate.

A knowledge of history is not necessary to enjoy the area, however. The scenic splendours are more than enough. The whole coast around Arisaig provides a great outlook over pale, sandy beaches to the mountainous islands of Rum, Skye, and Eigg, and the views from the coastal hills are superb. At the fishing port of Mallaig you reach the end of the 'Road to the Isles,' and can look forward with anticipation to the Hebrides, the jewels in Scotland's scenic crown.

Coire Ba on Rannoch Moor

Buachaille Etive Mor

Glen Etive

Glencoe is a paradise for scramblers

Bidean nam Bian

On the Aonach Eagach

Kingshouse Hotel

Steall Falls, Glen Nevis

Ben Nevis from Aonach Mor

Carn Mor Dearg Arete

Prehistoric standing stone at Onich

Romantic ruined Castle Tioram on its tidal island

Commando Memorial, Spean Bridge

The islands of Loch Morar

Canoeing on Loch Lochy

Sanna Bay, Ardnamurchan

Arisaig Boat

Rum from Arisaig - the end of the road

Skye from Morar