Thursday, May 15, 2008

Scottish Souvenirs Part: The Road to the Isles

This series on Scotland follows my steps on a recent trip to the magical land up north. Part I of these articles features Gretna Green, and Part II features the lovely area around Glencoe and Ballachulish.

Arguably one of the most scenic drives in Scotland, the Road to the Isles is chock full of stunning waterscapes, history, and charm. It refers to the stretch of road that lies between Fort William which stretches along Lochs Eil and Eilt until winding its way to Mallaig, revealing the gateway towns to the islands of Muck, Eigg, Rum, and Skye.

While popular with tourists, I was half expecting the drive to be overrun with tourist schlock and points of little interest. What I found, however, was that Scotland, once again, had a few more tricks up her sleeve for the cynical at heart.

The Gateway to the Highlands

From a location point of view, Fort William has just about everything going for it. "Fort Bill," as it's sometimes called, sits prettily at a point where Loch Linnhe and Loch Eil meet, and is overlooked by the majestic Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain at 4,406 feet.

I personally, however, feel the town should toss aside its nickname "The Gateway to the Highlands," and vote in a more descriptive name. On yet another grey, cold, drizzling morning walking around in Fort William, I felt the town should rename itself "The Boring, Ugly Town Where the Rain is Endless."

To be fair, when I renicknamed the town, I was seemingly wet down to my marrow. As a central gateway, Fort William does appear, however, to let down the visitor's expectations. Still, if you can bring yourself to overlook the plethora of tacky tourist stores, you will find Fort William a good place to shop for outdoor items and goods before heading out into the countryside.

A shining exception to the lack of charm of the town, I would be remiss if I failed to praise the small West Highland Museum (enquiries: 44 (0)1397 702 169). You will find the museum tucked away on Cameron Square, off of High Street. Out of the damp, you'll find a very traditional museum packed with historical memorabilia and information on the Highland lifestyle. My Mum-in-law and I were fascinated by the whipping table and the historical letters from political participants in the Glencoe massacre.

Once we were back on the drizzling streets again, a quest began for a cafe where my Mum-in-law could enjoy a nice not coffee. Now for those of you who have been to Britain before, you *know* that finding a cafe anywhere is not a difficult thing to do. The British, being obsessed with tea and coffee, have installed independent cafes in every nook and crannie of the country. We were gobsmacked, therefore, to be wandering up High Street, the main shopping street of Fort William, with a cafe nowhere to be found.

Like drowning rats, the smell of food lured us into a restaurant, having failed to find a cafe. We soon realised we had wandered into McTavish's Kitchens (enquiries: 44 (0)1397 702 406; web site:, a restaurant we'd seen advertised that offers traditional Scottish foods in a cafeteria, family restaurant environment. I can recommend the coffee, but it was too early for lunch. Everyone else seemed to be enjoying their meals, however.

During the summer, McTavish's offers a show of traditional Scottish music and dance, and you are welcome to come for the show only (adults £3.50, children £1.75), or for dinner as well (if dining, admission is £1.75 for Adults, £1.00 for children). I desperately wanted to see the show to evaluate whether it was tourist worthy, but sadly, our schedule wouldn't allow the time.

If you are going to head to Fort William, come for the natural attractions. Seal Island Cruises (inquiries: 44 (0)374 207 135) offers one pleasant way to do just that. From Fort William, you can take an hour and a half cruise along the extraordinary Loch Linnhe, enjoying great views of Ben Nevis (when it bothers to come out of the rain clouds), salmon farms, and Seal Island, with its colonies of seals.

Big Ben

Of course the highlighted natural attraction in the Fort William area is certainly the towering Ben Nevis. There are many ways to enjoy this area even if you aren't an experienced mountain climber. While Ben Nevis seems to many like a walk in the park, the ascent to the top should never be treated without precaution. It can snow near the summit even in the middle of summer, and more people die on Ben Nevis each year than on Mount Everest!

For anyone who wants a taste of this beautiful area, and isn't ready to take on Big Ben, Glen Nevis offers plenty of low-level walks, and rewards walkers with waterfalls and dramatic scenery. If you find yourself here, and get the feeling you've been here before...don't worry, you're not going crazy. Glen Nevis has been used as a location for several movies, including Braveheart and Rob Roy!

Another way to view the spectacular scenery in the Nevis Range is to take, erm, the Nevis Range. The Nevis Range (enquiries: 44 (0)1397 705 825) is Britain's only mountain gondola, and nearly all year round, you can take a trip up Aonach Mor (4,006 feet). Depositing you 2150 feet up the mountain, you can enjoy dry or winter slope skiing (depending on the time of year, naturally), marked walking trails, mountain biking (hired up at the centre at the top), or just sit back and relax in the Snowgoose Bar and enjoy the view.

On the Road Again

Wondering if the day was going to be a total loss, we headed for the car at Fort William and decided to stick with our plans for the day, despite the fact that it appeared we were in for a day of rain, obscured views, and grey skies. But lo and behold, the minute we left Fort William, the sun started peaking out of the sky! Angels sang, saints wept! Okay, well, it wasn't that much of a miracle but I am beginning to wonder if it only rains over Fort William.

Our first stop along the Road to the Isles was just out of town, on the way to Banavie. Follow the signs, take your car over the wooden bridge that doesn't look like it could possibly support your car, and voila!'ve arrived at Interlochy Castle. I should say you arrive at the ruins of Interlochy Castle, but they are worth a stop and a little wander. The four immense round towers date back from the 13th century, and you can stroll around for free as long as you like. The ruins sit on the banks of the River Lochy, and if you walk around the outside of the ruins you will easily find remains of the wall which at one point surrounded the castle. As an extra bonus, there are some great views back towards the Nevis Range from here.

After our short stop at the castle, we started down the A830, which is the actual "Road to the Isles." The road skirts along Loch Eil prettily, making you long to stop at every Parking lay-by to take photos that when you get home will all look the same. About 19 miles down the road, we found our next stop, which is an important one. We had arrived at Glenfinnan, which is the area where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard and rallied thousands of men to the Jacobite cause (see related feature for more on this historic moment in the next issue).

These days, the area holds a tall, proud monument to mark a memorial to the Jacobite cause. The National Trust of Scotland has a visitor centre here (enquiries: 44 (0)1397 722 250), which has displays explaining the Jacobites and the history surrounding the area. Besides being historic, Glenfinnan is a stunning area. By the time we'd arrived, the sun was beaming down proudly from the sky, and there were breathtaking views in all directions...over the loch, and in the other direction, highlighting the 21-arched viaduct. The viaduct, built in 1901, was one of the first large structures ever to constructed out of concrete.

Glenfinnan sits on the far north end of Loch Shiel, and you can extend your time in this magnificent area on a cruise, offered from April to October. Loch Shiel Cruises (enquiries: 44 (0)1397 722 235) offers a great way to experience the beauty and history of the area.

We continued onward from Glenfinnan. From here, the road begins to wind a bit more, and a real sense of isolation starts to take hold of you. It was a spectacular day now, sunny, and warm enough to roll the windows down while commanding a brilliant view as far as the eye could see. The road itself sits right at the bottom of a very mountainous area. The only towns are ones along the road, so be certain to fill up on petrol before you leave. At this point, you are entering an area that is virtually uninhabited, and probably all the better for it. It's also important to note that the road becomes single lane road for much of the remainder of the drive.

With the exception of the many scenic stops you can make along the way, the next main point of interest is a well-marked spot on the edge of Loch nan Uamh. Here you will find the "Prince's Cairn," which is a crude monument marking the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie sailed for France in September of 1746 after the defeat at Culloden.

Arisaig was our next stop along the peninsula, and we found it to be a charming little seaside village. Arisaig is a small tourist centre, known for it's beautiful views of the islands and its sandy clean beaches.

As this was the first town which showed any bustle whatsoever, or sign of life, for that matter, we decided this would be a fine place to eat some lunch. We chose the Upstairs Downstairs cafe, which sits right on the road across from the town's parking lot, and were very pleased with the fare on offer. My Mum-in-law had the Tuna-Sweetcorn sandwich (I know, I sounds disgusting but the British seem to like this combo) on a freshly baked bap, and I had a delicious meal of scampi and chips. We couldn't resist trying the tempting homebaked cakes, and can highly recommend the German Chocolate and the Lemon! Our meal was very reasonably priced.

The End is Near

"The Road to the Isles" continues on to Mallaig, but as the sun was setting, we realised we were running short on time, with only a day left for our trip. As we sat contentedly over our cake, we decided to head Ardnamurchan peninsula, and try to circle back to Fort William in the morning. Part IV of this series, in the next issue, will reveal the exciting end to this trip!

Marks out of 10 for Fort William: 4.5
Marks out of 10 for "The Road to the Isles": 8.5

Top Tips!

A stop at the Tourist Information Centre in Fort William (enquiries: 44 (0)1397 703 781) is a must if you plan on doing any walking or other outdoor activities in this area.
To find out more information on this area, hit the web!
If you don't have a car, but want to see the spectacular scenery of this region, catch "The Jacobite" Steam Train (enquiries: 44 (0)1463 239 026), which runs during the summer, from Fort William to Mallaig.

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