Around Loch Torridon

Lower Diabaig

The Beatles famously sang about a ‘long and winding road’, and while it might lead to the door of a loved one, I think we would all agree that it would be a much more comfortable journey on a road that is smooth and not one made from crushed rock and gravel. And yet that’s exactly what many roads in the Highlands were like until the 1960s and 70s.

Travel was hard going. Communities could only survive and thrive if travel and communications were, if not good, at least adequate. And very often they were neither. But the eventual arrival of tarred roads was to make a great, and very positive, difference to the lives of people in remote areas.

‘Cycling county’ 1930s style!

The roads around Loch Torridon in Wester Ross were a classic example of the tough going involved. A time when travelling by bike, bus or car involved a ‘right good jolting’ for both passengers and goods.

Poor roads also helped exacerbate worrying trends in depopulation, as they made trading, shopping, visiting friends and family, getting to secondary school, to church, to hospital, to and from work all much more difficult. While some today may hanker to be ‘off the beaten track’, it most certainly wasn’t always seen as a good thing!

Fortunately much has improved not only for Torridon’s residents but also for the many visitors drawn to this area of rugged and spectacular beauty. From the dizzying heights of Beinn Alligin, Liathach and Beinn Eighe to the rolling breakers and dunes at Redpoint Beach, there’s much to experience. And we are fortunate to be able to do so with an ease and comfort that our forebears could only dream of!

In the current issue of iScot magazine I take a look at the story behind the lives of the people of Torridon both past and present. At the challenges faced both then and now. And how we owe a great deal to those who went before us. It’s a fascinating area and though remote, there’s much more to it than you might at first believe.

iScot magazine

The Road to Shieldaig

Red Roof Cottage, Loch Torridon

It’s been a long lockdown but we’re gradually getting out and about a bit more – albeit very, very carefully. From home, I’ve been using the time to write more about that glorious part of northern Scotland, Wester Ross. I’ve been looking at the lives and times of the people who live and work there. Discovering places to be enjoyed at leisure like the gorgeous Attadale Gardens. Or the not-to-be-missed experience of that nail-biting drive (or cycle) up the hair-pin bends of the Bealach Na Bà. Or looking at the fascinating history of the village of Shieldaig, set up in the early 19th century to provide cannon fodder for the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Or discovering why Strome Castle ended up a ruin!

Yet there’s a lot more than just magnificent scenery here, though that’s undoubtedly a huge part of the appeal this area has for visitors. For it’s also a part of Scotland that’s lived through good times and bad, where people have had to struggle simply to survive in the face of both the rigours of the landscape and the depredations of landowners. Challenges indeed!

The Road to Shieldaig takes you on a journey from Glenelg to Shieldaig via Eilean Donan Castle, Attadale Gardens, Lochcarron, Strome, up-and-over the Bealach na Bà, around North Applecross and down onto the shores of Loch Torridon. And once there, you’ll also find some of the finest mountain scenery Scotland has to offer.

It’s all just waiting for you in iScot Magazine issue 64.

Sea Roads of Wester Ross

The Covid pandemic has turned life upside down. So many things that we took for granted suddenly became impossible. For the benefit of everyone, we’ve had to curtail travel and holiday plans. Frustrating perhaps, but a frustration that pales into insignificance in light of the horrendous loss of life all four nations of the UK have sustained.
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We may not have been able to go out while lockdown restrictions were in place, but for many of us it’s been an unprecedented opportunity to spend time at home and discover new interests and abilities.
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Yet even when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic, we’re still in a position to travel and explore ‘virtually’. To read and think about places we want to see again and to discover new places that we can look forward to visiting when the time comes. For me, one of those places is Wester Ross. We’ve visited many times before and hope to visit again when circumstances allow.
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For those of us who live in more densely populated areas, Wester Ross is often regarded as remote or isolated. But that’s a misconception. Not only is Wester Ross no stranger to excitement or danger, it’s also an area of outstanding scenic beauty. And rich in history. Everything from Russian Arctic Convoys to Gruinard (Anthrax) Island, to the Summer Isles and to what was the smallest distillery in Scotland. Be in no doubt there’s plenty to discover!
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In the first part in a new series, I’ve taken a look at the coastal area from Ullapool down to Loch Ewe. And even in lockdown I’ve discovered plenty to interest, and even surprise, me on the way!
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It’s all in issue 63 of iScot magazine.
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Scoraig – almost an island

There are one or two places on the west coast of Scotland that are not islands as such, but which are, to all intents and purposes, islands. Scoraig on Little Loch Broom in Wester Ross is one. To reach Scoraig you can either go by boat (the easy way – though always weather dependent!) from Badluarach on the south shore of Little Loch Broom – or you can walk. There is no road, no vehicular access, only a dramatic 5-mile cliff-side path. This was the route we chose. The walk starts at the road end at Badralloch and offers spectacular views down the length of Little Loch Broom.

Until the mid 1800s the peninsula supported a number of farming townships: houses grouped together surrounded by feannagan – ridge and furrow rigs for growing crops. By the mid-19th century, however, the estate had been sold and the new owner dramatically changed the landscape of the area by breaking up the townships and laying out crofts. These were hard, harsh times in the Highlands and Islands. New homes had to be built from scratch, infertile land worked until a living could be eked from it.  And all the while increased rents, both in kind and in labour, were being demanded by landlords.

But battle on they did, and that so many survived is a tribute to the courage and determination of the inhabitants. Life continued, families grew and according to Scoraig’s community website, there were 61 children at the school in 1873. However, as steamer transport declined and road and rail routes passed Scoraig by – as well as the drastic toll of two world wars – the population began to dwindle and it looked as though Scoraig was finished.

The path alongside Little Loch Broom towards Scoraig

But surprisingly Scoraig didn’t die. The story of the hard-work, determination and ingenuity that have kept Scoraig alive is one well-worth the telling. And in this month’s Scottish Islands Explorer I’ve tried to do just that. It’s a story with plenty of hardship and heartbreak along the way, especially when resistance from landowners doomed a ground-breaking post-war scheme to rebuild and repopulate the area. But persistance paid off and a new wave of settlers arrived in the 1960s and 1970s and have succeeded in rebuilding this unique community.

New housing in Scoraig!

Back then some of their practices were regarded as odd – but their approach to self-sufficiency, wind and solar power are now seen as the way forward for the rest of us. They were real innovators, hard-working pioneers ahead of their time. And thanks to them, Scoraig has continued to grow and thrive; that the community supports a nursery and a primary school is proof of that. What was once seen as ‘alternative’ living has stood the test of time and proven its worth. And can teach us all something for the challenges we face today.

The jetty at Scoraig

From ospreys to hula-hoops – XpoNorth had it all

Blythe Duff stars in the award-winning, life-affirming short film Hula

Question: What’s the connection between a magnificent osprey taking a 20lb trout out of a Highland loch and Blythe Duff mastering the art of the hula-hoop?

Answer: XpoNorth, Scotland’s leading creativity festival, which took place this week in a warm and sunny Inverness.

We were in the Highland capital as delegates at XpoNorth and were wowed by the wealth of talent on display. From all corners of the country there were people from the worlds of music, screen, writing, fashion, crafts, gaming, broadcasting, publishing and textiles. Based in Eden Court, the festival was a magnificent showcase for what’s happening creatively in Scotland right now. And there is a great deal going on.

Maramedia's breathtaking osprey clip from Highlands - Scotland's Wild Heart

To watch Maramedia’s/BBC Scotland’s breathtaking osprey clip, click here

On Day One we took in as many of the events relating to writing and publishing as we could. New writers, old writers, new publishing, old publishing – change and new developments helping to maintain a thriving sector.

On Day Two there were two particular screen events I wanted to see. One was a talk by producer Nigel Pope from Maramedia discussing the making of Highlands – Scotland’s Wild Heart.  Hearing about the skills, dedication and extraordinary patience of the crew as they wait for those perfect shots was fascinating. And the clips he’d chosen to show were absolutely breathtaking!

The other event was the world premiere of young filmmaker Robin Haig’s short film Hula. As director, Robin has created a delightful film that is warm, funny and poignant, combining to perfection the performance of the hugely talented Blythe Duff and the Highland setting of Dornie, a village in Wester Ross that sits at the meeting place of the waters of Loch Duich and Loch Alsh.  It’s not in the least surprising that Robin won this year’s BAFTA Scotland New Talent Award for Best Drama.

To watch the trailer click here

To watch the trailer click here

But films don’t make themselves and we were very fortunate to meet Lindsay McGee, Hula‘s producer. Like so many people, I wasn’t fully aware of all the hard work and skill that goes on behind the scenes of any film and I suspect Robin was very glad to have the talented and capable Lindsay as her producer.

All this talent, all this creativity and some of the most glorious scenery in the world – Scotland certainly has so much going for it. And who could ask for better than that!

For the BBC report on Hula’s premiere click here

Looking for Brigadoon? It’s in Wester Ross under Loch Glascarnoch!

A drowned bridge on a drowned road – across the bed of Loch Glascarnoch

It’s supposed to appear for one day only, once every hundred years, Brigadoon, the fabled Highland village.  Now, intriguingly, after almost 60 years under water, the old road through Glen Glascarnoch to Ullapool has reappeared in a similar fashion!

Up until the 1950s the main road from Inverness to Ullapool ran through the middle of the glen.  Though the term ‘main road’ may conjure up false images for many today: back then, as in so much of the Highlands and Islands, it was still only a single track road with passing places.

The old lost road to Ullapool

Throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s, an unparalleled hydro-electric scheme was created throughout the Highlands, bringing ‘Power to the Glens’ for the first time ever. Glascarnoch Glen was dammed and an artificial loch, Loch Glascarnoch, created to hold water from Loch Vaich and Loch Droma, before feeding into the hydro system at  Mossford Power Station, five miles away.  When the dam was built the road was lost forever – or so it seemed.

Looking north to the drowned bridge

Earlier this year SSE (Scottish and Southern Energy) decided to lower the water level in Loch Glascarnoch as a preparation for potential heavy autumn and winter rains, and suddenly there it was  – the ‘lost’ road – and with hardly a pothole to be seen!

It was a dramatic sight and when we arrived a number of people were already taking the opportunity to walk this ghost road while it’s still possible.  We walked for a mile or so, made it across the bridge (thanks to wellies) and perhaps half a mile or so further, but at that point the mud thickened and the road disappeared back into the dark water, and it was time to return to the car.

Old tree roots visible for the first time in 60 years

It was fascinating to see old tree roots, but also interesting to see just how quickly much of the area had become green: tiny plants and grasses taking this rare opportunity to burst out between rocks and mud.  But, just like Brigadoon, the rains will come and this old ghost road and its bridges will disappear once again too. And, who knows, might well become just another strange tale of the mysterious and misty Highlands!!