The winding A830 road in the western Highlands of Scotland is followed by a scenic railway line, both connecting the town of Fort William to the west coast port of Mallaig in just over 40 miles.
Having driven along the Road to the Isles' on a number of occasions, earlier this summer, I decided to take the train from Glasgow which later paused for a while in the shadow of Ben Nevis before passing through the Rough Bounds, traversing dramatic hills, sweeping glens and crossing the 380m long Glenfinnan viaduct before breaking out onto a beautifully scenic coastline.
Despite travelling on a rather tired Scotrail service and not the infamous Jacobite steam train, l still felt a timeless peace during the journey. I had brought some books to read but barely turned a page. The rectangular windows in the carriages were like moving paintings and for a while I frantically tried to capture the views in what turned out to be a series of rushed and blurred photographs. I told myself I'd probably take the train again in autumn or winter and so sat back down to enjoy watching the typically spectacular Highland scenery as it flickered and changed in the window frames as we travelled further west.
I'd come this way before to visit one of Scotland's geological phenomenon, the wildly beautiful Loch Morar - the deepest freshwater body in Britain, despite lying only a few hundred yards inland from the sea. I had also come to explore the rugged Ardnish peninsula with a friend. We followed a rough path through heather moors and oak and birch woodland leading to the abandoned settlement of Peanmeanach. Here we ate dinner by a campfire on the beach before sleeping inside a lonely stone bothy overlooking the bay.
After alighting the train at Morar station, I went to the local garage to collect my campervan which had broken down in the area a month before. Undoubtedly it is this last stretch of the A830 and the stunning beaches at Morar and Arisaig which draw many campers to this area every year. Even on a dull day when charcoal grey clouds smother the area there is still brightness along the long stretches of silvery white sands at Camasudarach. In finer weather friends and families have small picnics and barbecue in the sheltered islets and children play in the dunes and explore the rock pools with bare sandy feet. And the wilder folk who are mostly trying to avoid the popular spots, rain or shine, take to the sea to swim in the cold but crystal-clear turquoise water, later curling up in blankets and drinking cups of hot tea.
There is one particular thing which allures all people to the beaches here, first time visitors as well as lifelong locals. The view of the sun setting behind the islands. As it descends, old men stroll along the sand with their dogs and young couples climb the skerries to watch the skies change colour above the small isles the moorland plateau on Eigg and the peaks of the wild mountains on Rm. Kayakers float around the small fjords and pass by the audience on the beach as they pick out the jagged spikes of the Skye Cuillin in the distance. Once the sun has set, people make their way back inside their tents and cottages, to discuss with their loved ones, or to dream alone about the tangle of the isles.
Sure, by Tummel and Loch Rannoch
And Lochaber I will go.
By heather tracks wi' heaven in their wiles;
If it's thinkin' in your inner heart
Braggart's in my step,
You've never smelt the tangle o' the Isles.
O, the far Coolins are puttin' love on me.
As step I wi' my cromak to the lsles.'
The Road to the Isles' (1917) A tramping song from Songs of the Hebrides, M. Kennedy Fraser & Kenneth Macleod
Words and photographs by Kimberley Grant
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