Community paper for Mallaig, Morar, Arisaig, Lochailort, Glenfinnan
Glenuig, Knoydart and the Small Isles
List of Issues online
October 2008 Issue
Contents of the online version:
All photos are copyright either of the individual photographers or West Word.
COMMUNITY COUNCILS - A VITAL SERVICE
The recent call for nominations to serve on Community Councils has resulted locally in a famine or feast situation. Mallaig Community Council's Returning Officer has received ONE nomination to stand for the ten member council, while Arisaig & District, has had fourteen applications. Morar have enough members to form a council, albeit a depleted one. Glenfinnan also has a council.
When we look at the matters which have occupied our Community Councils over the years it is clear that without them things might have gone very differently. The campaign for the new road saw huge Community Council input for each of the three sections, making sure not only that the road went ahead but also that things like signage, speed restrictions, pathways and access were finely tuned. The housing schemes, past and present, in the area were also a result of perseverance from the community members. The ongoing attempts to secure a ferry link between Mallaig and the Outer Isles will need strong community input to go ahead. Things of less significance but still important, such as village enhancements and improvements, need the Councils to administer them.
It will probably be six months before a re-run is organised to form Mallaig Community Council. Meanwhile there will be a postal ballot this month among Arisaig residents to elect ten of the fourteen who have come forward to serve on Arisaig & District. The 'District' is Lochailort, and there were no nominations for its three seats.
When the call goes out again for nominations for Mallaig, let's hope a suitable number of nominations are received. Arisaig residents, please use your VOTE to make sure you have the council you want.
A sign of the times? Lochaber-wide, six Community Councils failed to form. The others are Inverlochy & Torlundy; Kilmallie; Caol; Kinlochleven; and Acharacle (which includes Glenuig).
BILL STANDS DOWN AFTER THIRTY THREE YEARS
When Community Councils in Lochaber first came into being in 1975, Bill Henderson was on the Steering Group which helped formulate Arisaig & District CC. He has had unbroken service on the Council since then, holding the office of Chairman for 15 of those thirty three years.
But at the last meeting of the current Arisaig & District Community Council on 30th September, it was time to say goodbye to Bill as he took well-earned retirement. Dunriona Stewart, on behalf of the Community Council, presented him with a painting of a local scene and colleagues met to raise a glass and wish him well. Present were Lochaber Councillors Allan Henderson and Eddie Hunter, former Councillor Charlie King, present and former Mallaig Chairs John MacMillan and Alastair Gillies, present and former Morar Chairs, Mairi MacLean and Alastair MacLeod, Elizabeth Fleming, who 'spelled' Bill as Chair for two years, and three of the Secretaries who had served with Bill. A presentation of flowers was also made to Bill's wife Sheila for her unstinting support, and to Dunriona Stewart
Vice-Chair Gerry MacDonald made a speech of thanks in which he listed a few of the more important things Bill had helped move forward, including the A830 improvements (all three stages) and housing schemes.
In reply, Bill thanked those prese nt for their collaboration and support in many projects - too many to list - over the years and said 'I'm pleased to see that fourteen people have put themselves forward for election - this shows an interest in the community and I hope it means that people recognise the usefulness of the Community Council.' .
Bill is pictured with the outgoing members of Arisaig & District Community Council
Hello. Hope October finds you well. Things still seem busyish over here with Rhona and Isla at the pottery telling me that the morning of the 29th was their most hectic yet. That said the ferry has moved to the winter timetable and Tuesdays and Thursdays will certainly become slower in the village. The pottery is moving into the production of pots, not tea and pieces, and the pub doesn't open until 4 on those days.
While some things may be slowing down there is always something to keep an eye on: the Old Forge is up for the Independent Pub of the Year this month with a gala dinner being held in Glasgow which will be attended by Ian, Jackie and big Rhona. Awards are it for the month as Rhona herself has been nominated as woman of the year and will be heading down to the Guildhall in London on the 13th, chaperoned by the rest of the Miller clan. Anyone who knows of the work she has put into charity and community endeavours, and laughed with her as she has done it, will know the accolade is richly deserved. Keeping on the charity front the pottery raised £675 for Macmillan cancer research the other week with Fraz gaining star status by being sponsored to the tune of £250 for getting his hair died green, shamrocks and all.
The social life of the peninsula has also moved onto winter settings with the bar being full of tweeds and camouflage at the end of a day on the hill, and people's houses being the base for the present fad of late night poker. Leaving parties are also part of the season, with Grace's held up at the bothy in Glen Meadall being a high point. Other comings and goings include the departure of Tommy from the Inverie to Airor, Jim and Claire's sojourn to Nepal for three months and the welcome return (without too much incident) of Josh the pet lamb to Inverguserain. On a sadder note Sam, Matt, Jasmine, Daisy and Felix have departed south for work reasons leaving the old chapel empty for the now and the school two down.
New additions to the Foundation board with Dave Bailey, Martin Davies and Aaran Watson being elected at the AGM. Aaran has already served some time but Martin and Dave come in as freshers. Thanks go to Lorna and Liz for the hard work they have put in over the last four years, they are due the rest from community affairs they no doubt will not take. After the excitement of the election and the following board meeting the mundane affair of approving the accounts seemed almost unimportant. But the books continue to improve and the community is on a surer footing because of it and that is to be celebrated. An invitation to be a founding member of Community Energy Scotland, along with Eigg, is another sign that some things are going in the right direction.
On the Renewables company front, this is the season for eels in the pipe and one large beast led to a shutdown this month. The picture of its mangled remains brought compassion even to those whose soap viewing had been interrupted. This month has also seen the unit price for electricity move up from 8 to 10 pence, still well below mainland rates. This is sensible and will hopefully lead to more money being put aside for any major renovation works in the future. Meanwhile Willie has been working away at the more minor, but nonetheless laborious, renovation of a transformer in the genny shed.
Other things ongoing include the new broadband, cutting and spraying of the rhodies, plans for the tenth anniversary of the buyout, plans for the music festival and investigations into the SRDP. And of course this month will see the premier of the new Knoydart movie, a black tie event if ever there was one.
ISLE OF MUCK
As the visitor season draws to a close it is time to take stock of the past season. Very successful, with greatly increased bookings have been Port Mor House and The Yurt, though neither have been full. Camping has been more popular too though the benefits to the island are indirect as it is free. Fairly static have been the holiday cottages and the bunkhouse but less successful with scope for increased bookings have been the B&B establishments.
The 15th of the month saw the last producers market in the Berber Tent. An incredible 40 varieties of vegetable were on sale including giant pumpkins and six varieties of potatoes. The challenge for Dave and Libby must be to get things earlier when the demand is greater.
Both our wind turbines are now back in action. Broadband has been installed in most houses and Jenny and Ruth's new kitchen is complete - all gleaming stainless steel and white paint. It is going to make Craft Shop baking a whole lot easier and as much of the world bakes in wood fired ovens, they will be in good company. Over the weekend of the 27th in an operation reminiscent of the 90's (when the main cable was laid) a team of islanders connected Patrick and Gwyneth Murphy's Pod to the electricity system. Candles may be OK in summer but.....!
On the farm it has been sale time. In an epic of cooperation Wave transported three loads of ewes and lambs to Eigg to share a sheep transporter and trailer with Duncan Ferguson. It took over an hour to load the animals while Loch Nevis was in Muck. At the sale Muck Farms had the last slot so the ewes in particular looked very empty by the time they were sold. Prices were greatly improved on last year's but not yet back to those of the 90's. It is calf prices which are presenting a much rosier picture. At Fort William on the 13th the farm achieved a top price of £610 for a November born calf from the byre. Unfortunately input prices are at record levels too, for fertilizer, fuel and silage wrap.
ISLE OF EIGG
August and September were very busy months on Eigg, what with weddings, concerts and world music on offer! The weather magically cleared for Sunday 17th August, when Tamsin Helliwell and Stuart MacCarthy tied the knot in the most romantic of celebrations, when Tamsin looking ever so glamorous in her beautiful dress and Stu, splendid in his kilt, led the bridal party out of St Donnan's Church in Cleadale to a Champagne moment on Laig beach before heading for the Community hall where after an emotional speech by the father of the bride (Simon, very dashing in his kilt, as was bride's brother Damian) the 230 guests - MacCarthys, Helliwells, friends and islanders from Eigg and Muck - twirled the night away to the energetic strains of the famed Squashy Baggers. Beautiful bridesmaids, great kilt legs, a great celebration and family occasion altogether!
The visit by Kaela Rowan and friends in early September was enjoyed by all: nice to have a concert set and a beautiful voice to listen to, and so was the visit by the fantastic 'IGUBI Family, a group of San people from the Kalahari desert who are performing throughout the UK in order to raise funding to buy their land. Eigg was an obvious stop for them and this cultural exchange ended very satisfactorily with the IGUBI granny jumping from her wheel chair to freestyle on Scottish traditional tunes, much to the amazement of all present!
Cultural exchange was the theme of the month, with myself and Brian heading northwards to Finland's south west archipelago for the annual meeting of the European Small Islands Federation's AGM, where 9 countries were represented: a great meeting altogether as ESIN has now made contact at highest level in the European Commission, with DG Region Commissioner Dick Ahner. Now that the Blue paper on European Maritime Policy has been published, it is all the more important that small islands - which are necessarily well represented by the CPMR - can make their own recommendations regarding safeguarding their inshore waters and their fragile environment. (Read all about it in the Scottish islands website,www.scottish-islands-federation.co.uk). Christmas came early this year, with a farewell 'Christmas in the Jungle' dinner on Saturday 20th September, complete with parrots in the greenery for Stuart Thomson who is heading for Costa Rica until January.
And thus, another busy summer season is coming to an end, with a bang this time, as all the Eigg 20 (Frances), 30 (George, Tamsin, Tasha, Sarah) and 50 (Colin and Marie) somethings are celebrating their rite of passage with a night which promises to be as good as our 12 June celebrations, on the last Saturday of the month, featuring the Eigg Ceilidh band, Damian and Amy Geddes, King Creosote and DJ Dolphin boys. You have been warned….
After all this, we will all beavering away at our new task for the year: to rise to the BIG GREEN CHALLENGE! With Eigg being amongst the 10 finalists, this promises an exciting time ahead as we convert our green dreams into realities and attempt to reduce our carbon footprint by a substantial amount. Congratulations to all those who were involved in defending our project to the funders; you have done us proud: a special mention here must made of Lucy Conway who tirelessly spearheaded the project despite a few technological letdowns!
ISLE OF CANNA
To cheer us all up, most of us made it up to the Big House on the Hill for our Macmillan Cancer Support coffee morning the other week (along with 50000 or so others) which managed to raise a respectable 250 quid. Scones and cakes aplenty.the tea was flowing free and the place was going like a fair. Indeed there was music, en Francaise, courtesy of Canna Primary School who sang for us the Canna House Vegetable Song. The Eurovision producers will be in touch.
Farewell to Liz, who sailed back to Eigg from her stint as Acting Head. Three cheers for a job well done, and another excuse for an extended lunch hour. We had a bit of trouble hanging on to the Quality Street so we kept the cocktail sausage rolls and pizza hidden till the last minute...along with the Ferrero Roches. Your ladyship, you are spoiling us!
Much intrigue on the pier earlier this month as a mystery object was hoisted off the Loch Nevis and swiftly whisked away on the back of a pick-up. We think that it's a rowing machine. so keep an eye out for Canna's own mixed double sculls team at the next Olympics. If they start now they might just make it up the Thames for 2012.
Canna sheep are reportedly doing well at the sales, and again we appear to be getting some good prices. Great news for an industry that's had it's share of ups and downs. Let's hope that sheep will become the currency of choice once the banks all go out of business. Which won't be long the way things are going.
There was some much needed training and instruction on generator maintenance. Which essentially means that there are now even more people qualified to push buttons in a random order. We still can't find the one that says 'Panic' but at least the engine shed is nice and tidy.
Just making it clear that this is not the Editorial ….
The planning permission for the car park for the Astley Hall has gone in, kindly under the auspices of the Community Council (because then it's half price!) but we're not sure if it will go ahead very soon. There have been hold-ups over the last few years which were occasioned by a number of things and have been no-one's fault. However meanwhile the funder we had hoped to source has changed its remit so we have to think again.
On behalf of the Hall Committee, I would like to give a big thank you to Heather Gillies for being the Hall Treasurer for the last four years, and doing a splendid job. There is now a vacancy! So if any member of a user group wants to volunteer, we'd like to hear from them! It's a busy hall - and we've just received a booking for 2010!!
Our Blas festival concert featuring Daimh drew in an audience of nearly 100 - not bad at all considering Mamma Mia was on at the same time in Mallaig.
The new houses are coming on apace - four (I think!) up and foundations of others laid.
LOCAL BUSINESSES CELEBRATE SUCCESS
Two local businesses are to be congratulated on their successes.
The Old Forge in Knoydart has been shortlisted for the 2008 Scottish Licensed Trade News Independent Pub/Bar of the Year Awards. Only three pubs/bars have reached the finals, representing the best of Scotland. The finals will be held on the 23rd October 2003 at the Glasgow Hilton. All three finalists will attend and the winner will be announced on the night. Good luck to Ian and Jackie and their staff in this latest in a string of awards and accolades!
Country Holidays, Blakes and Cottages4you have awarded Arisaig's Cynthia and Ian Buick a Gold Award for their self catering business - Bluebell Cottage. According to Simon Law, Vice President Property 'Gold Awards are only issued to those owners whose properties received excellent customer feedback, scoring 100% in the 'Accommodation Overall' category. This minimum quality score is set very high and you are therefore in the top 5% of our properties, hence this is a notable achievement'
Cynthia and Ian attribute the award to being dedicated to quality and committed to service. Good communication with their guests is also a key factor in their success as they listen to comments and suggestions for improvement and follow through on these. Congratulations to the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust who are one of the ten finalists - and the only one in Scotland - for the 'Big Green Challenge Fund' and now have a year and £20,000 to put their ambitious plans to 'Build your own Green island', into practice. They will be exploring ways for the islanders to reduce their carbon footprint by 50% over the year, in the hope of winning a share of the £1 million prize fund.
More details at http://www.biggreenchallenge.org.uk/finalists/
Birdwatch by Stephen MacDonald
Still plenty birds on the move this month, as many leave for the winter, while others arrive from further north. The first Whooper Swans of the season were 6 seen flying low over the Sound of Sleat on the 22nd. On the 23rd - 24th, 4 swans, presumably Whooper, were seen feeding on the South side of Loch Eilt. A single Brent Goose was seen off Loch nan Ceall near Keppoch on the 13th. The local Greylag Geese seemed to be gathering into larger flocks and a Canada Goose was seen with them on several occasions at Traigh and Back of Keppoch. Numbers of Wigeon built up on Loch nan Eala, with 19 there on the 29th along with a few Teal and Mallard. Red-breasted Merganser numbers also increased on the Morar Estuary and the Eiders were back feeding in Mallaig harbour by the month end.
Still a few waders around, the bulk seen at Traigh or on the Morar Estuary. Single Bar- Tailed Godwits were seen on several occasions at Traigh, Silver Sands and the Morar Estuary during the month, but on the 15th there were 3 at the latter site along with 4 Greenshanks. 15 Turnstone at Traigh on the 30th was the highest count. There were 34 Golden Plover at Traigh on the 10th and at least 8 Sanderling at Silver sands on the 3rd. A single Whimbrel was seen at Traigh on the 30th. Great Skuas were still around during the month with a few Storm Petrels in the Sound of Sleat. A Leach's Petrel was seen between Eigg and Arisaig mid-month. The number of newly fledged Manx Shearwaters coming ashore during the first 2 - 3 weeks of the month was fairly low, probably due to the prevailing weather, but with a change to a more Westerly airflow, there was a rush in the last few days, with 50 ringed and released by the 30th.
A good month for raptor sightings, with Peregrine Falcons seen over Fank Brae Mallaig, Traigh and Morar. Sparrowhawks and Buzzards were widely reported, with 8 Buzzards soaring together above the 'lily pond' between Morar and Mallaig on the 23rd. Sea-Eagles were seen on several occasions in Loch Nevis and an adult Sea Eagle was seen at Traigh on the 29th. Barn Owls were seen in Mallaig and Arisaig. A Tawny Owl found by contractors working on the new road at Arisaig seemed to recover well after being taken into care overnight and given some water. The most unusual raptor sighting was a Red Kite seen over Rhubana, Morar, on the 23rd. A scarce visitor to this area, it was probably a wandering bird from the re-introduction areas in the Black Isle or the Central Belt.
Still plenty of Linnets, Twites and Goldfinches on roadside weeds plus large flocks of Siskin and Redpolls at Morar and Arisaig, feeding mainly on birch trees. A single Jay was seen in Arisaig village on the 29th.
A SNAPSHOT IN TIME
Well known Spean Bridge railway enthusiast and photographer Gerald Rivett could not believe his eyes when he saw the recent publication of BBC Antiques Roadshow celebrity Paul Atterbury. The book entitled Along Lost Lines featured on its cover a photograph of Gerald as an 8 year old Trainspotter at West Wycombe station indulging in his hobby which became a lifelong passion.
Gerald contacted the publishers with the news and in turn Paul Atterbury met him in Darlington to explain how this photograph was selected. During an Antiques Roadshow programme Paul had purchased a box of old photos included in which was the now front cover photograph at West Wycombe.
The publishers felt that the scene was perfect for a book on the subject of Lost Lines and the bygone days of short trousered urchin Trainspotters.
'Fifty years on you do not expect to pick up a book and find yourself on the cover. However this has led to a number of friends from this era contacting me with the view of a reunion at the same place in October,' said Gerald.
West Wycombe station was closed in 1958 soon after the photograph was taken by the mystery photographer.
Paul Atterbury is also a well known railway enthusiast and apart from his work with the BBC Antiques Roadshow he has many publications on Railways, Antiques and Travel Guides to his name.
Gerald was born at West Wycombe but has lived in Spean Bridge for 6 years and now is the driving force behind the Station Garden Project at Spean Bridge which recently won a National Competition.
FISHING NEWS by John Hermse, Mallaig & North West Fishermen's Association
The weather has broken and already we have had some fairly severe gales which necessitated the fleet weather bound for a few days. The fuel price per barrel is coming down from the highs of $140 a barrel to around $95 a barrel. However, although the quayside price eventually drops accordingly, there always seems to be a delay which is never seen when prices have to rise! There has already been a vessel or two tying up for the winter as the skippers reckon that they will not be able to make fishing pay over the winter months. There are many, many boats for sale in both the mobile and static sectors, which does not bode well for the communities on the West Coast which fishing sustains.
Cabinet Secretary Visit
We had a visit to Mallaig from Richard Lochhead, the Cabsec with responsibility for fisheries. Committee members discussed a wide range of issues with Mr Lochhead including Environmentalism, Marine Closures, Quotas Discards and Minch Summit. The Cabsec showed himself fully conversant with fishing issues which is certainly a change from previous incumbents of the post. It was impressed upon the Minister that the proposed cuts in effort and quota would render the fleet even less viable than they are at present.
Inshore Fishery Groups were discussed in detail and the Mr Lochhead stated 'It is only right that those who depend on the sea and its fish for their livelihoods have a proper place in the management of those fisheries. 'Inshore Fisheries Groups (IFGs) will harness fishermen's expertise, allow them to drive fisheries management planning in the area and build for the commercial sector a strong voice in wider marine policy development. 'The IFG concept has been well supported so far and we look to fishermen and all those who seek a sustainable, economically viable future for their communities to support the launch of the IFGs and to make their operation a success.'
Scottish Government Marine Directorate
We also had a visit from Mike Nielson the new (relatively) Director of the Scottish Government Marine Directorate. Mike is on a steep learning curve and was able to acquaint himself with West Coast issues at first hand. Mike say round a local fishing vessel and had fairly detailed discussions with industry members in Mallaig and surrounding areas. Bill Ellis, the new National Co-ordinator for Inshore Fishery Groups (IFG's) also visited and gave an update on progress with the roll out of the new IFG's. It seems that Our Group - Mull to Skye is expected to begin formation in early 2009.
West Coast Quotas - West Coast Summit
There are many problems with fisheries management in the West Coast and the European Commission is advocating sweeping cuts in effort and quotas. There are also quota management issues on the West Coast which need resolving as well as discard problems. MNWFA are suggesting a West Coast Summit of all parties concerned to air the issues and seek the views of industry. We hope if possible to have this meeting sometime in November but are aware of many other meetings concerning Autumn negotiations taking place around this time.
The problem with discards is that they impact on several areas. The 5% limit on Spur dog fishing means that most dogs are now consigned dead back to the deep. There is no directed fishery for the species and fishermen cannot avoid them. Our quota for the species only reached approx 30% uptake last year. It seems incredible that the Commission on one hand says it wants to reduce discards and on the other hand imposes unworkable management measures which increase them! There can be nothing more sole destroying for fishermen than throwing dead marketable fish away.
Crab Size increase
There are severe marketing problems for crab fishermen at the moment with brown crab remaining unsold in many instances. At a meeting of the Crab sector interests on 25th September, it was decided to ask for catchers and processors to impose a voluntary 10mm increase on the minimum size with immediate effect until further notice.
Fish For The Kids
Our Fish For The Kids event at Inverness Royal Academy last year went extremely well and we have been asked to hold another similar event this year. Last years event saw 5th and 6th year pupils given presentations on fishing methods and politics followed by hygiene and a cook-in by local Restaurateur Norman Macdonald of Café 1 In Inverness. Every last morsel of fish was eaten and fish preparation, cooking methods and tasting was carried out with a dash o' panache by Norman and Davy, the head chef at Café 1.The The Cabsec is very interested in such initiatives and will hopefully endorse this and other such event we hope to hold in the near future.
Three 'shouts' for the Henry Alston Hewat for the month of September:
Tuesday 2nd September: Mallaig Lifeboat launched at 17.43 hrs at the request of the Stornoway Coastguard to investigate sighting of red flares of the SE coast of Skye. Lifeboat proceeded to search area but finding no trace of anything requested Coastguard to call out shore team to ascertain more information from the incident informer. Flares thought to have come from shore and landed close to the water's edge, so Lifeboat continued a coastal search along the shoreline to Armadale, but with nothing found the Lifeboat returned to station at 19.20hrs.
Sunday 7th September: There was cloudless, clear sky at 09.05hrs on the Sabbath day when the Mallaig Lifeboat headed out to Kintra Bay conveying a local Policeman, who had been asked to investigate a tent on a small island; a tent, reported by the skipper of the Curlew, as having been there for some considerable time.
On arrival at the scene, the Y-boat was launched to take personnel to the tent where 2 mattresses, 2 pillows, 2 sleeping bags and various bits of camping equipment were found. It was the policeman's informed opinion that it had been abandoned, so tent and equipment were recovered to the Lifeboat and taken to Mallaig Police Station. Lifeboat returned to station at 11.20 hrs.
Thursday 11th September: At the request of Stornoway Coastguard, the Henry Alston Hewat was launched at 17.53 hrs to convey local Police Sergeant to Isle of Canna to investigate a domestic incident. Lifeboat subsequently returned from Canna with one casualty who, along with the Police Sergeant, was landed at Mallaig Harbour at 20.50 hrs.
Lifeboat refuelled and ready for service at 21.25 hrs.
CATALOGUE OF ERRORS AT OBAN BOTHY
A cautionary tale kindly sent to us by Sarah Nelson
My summer wilderness walk to Oban bothy on Loch Morar could only be described as catastrophic. After this catalogue of blunders and misfortunes, I was surprised to be alive at all. One warning lesson is that being an experienced hillwalker (as I was) just doesn’t prepare people for long treks across wild country - nor for self-sufficiency in the outback. It’s a different ball-game altogether!
I blame it all on that famous volume, Hamish’s Mountain Walk. His quote about discovering Oban in the 1970s before it was restored inspired romantic longings to visit those spectacular routes of upper Glen Pean and Gleann an Lochain Eainnaiche, to drink in riveting views of Sgurr na h-Aide and find this mysterious cottage. His descriptions of Kinlochmorar and the rowans also seemed to capture the history of so much of the Highlands and its people:
“Anyone expeditioning in this wild west must be camel-like in self-sufficiency. Since Achnacarry I had not passed an occupied house…I passed an old, disintegrated landing-stage and there, tucked into the hill with a lawn of wild grass running down to the loch, was a cottage.
“Oban had a forsaken look about it. Great steel shutters and plastic gutters obviously showed a determined and recent occupation - yet it stood empty, the wind having already stolen a few sections of roof. Kinlochmorar, the house on the opposite side of the loch, had dark windows, empty like blind eyes, another deserted spot…a straggle of narcissi told of past affection…both buildings had solitary rowans not far from their doors. Rowans were grown for luck in times past, but luck has long since deserted the glens.”
Three of us had spent a weekend at Glenfinnan Sleeping Car hostel, hoping to climb magnificent Streap. I thought - why not stay on for a bold solo wilderness expedition, to banish the stresses of home and work? I imagined communing with something - or - other, sunbathing on Oban’s lawn with the waves lapping, and discovering the key to peace of mind.
The first portent came when I discovered I’d forgotten my walking pole, thermos, firelighters and most catastrophically, my jacket. I could only afford a cheap cagoule, but it had been a hot dry July so far. Thus I also experimented, for the first time ever, with strong shoes instead of boots.
Then the rain began - that relentless kind you often get in Scotland in July. We had to postpone Streap, my friends headed back South, I shouldered the high pack at Strathan and set forth for the Wild West.
Pean’s neat cottage must be one of the most civilised and cared-for in the Mountain Bothies Association network. Ian Mitchell’s and Irvine Butterfield’s researches into the Campbell family have also brought it to life, with a real sense of past affection. The ghosts on this track are happy ones: a loving mother setting out with sandwiches to fortify her children on their walk home from the unique, ugly school-cum-church building at Strathan. It’s a good haven to dry off in over lunchtime sandwiches. I should have stayed.
The walk-in to Oban via Glen Pean, almost Himalayan in places, has to be among the most wonderful and sensational in Europe. Hamish Brown called it “the finest pass in Scotland,” and ubiquitous stravaiger Peter Koch-Osbourne (he of the tiny guidebooks) “one of the most exciting low-level walks I have ever done”. Everyone should see it before they die (but not literally: even the southern path above Lochan Leum an t-Sagairt is so scary that you can quite believe the Campbells almost dropped their daughter Lexie from it on the way home from her christening, when they were rowed across the loch to Tarbet by their friends at Oban.).
There are lush meadows squeezed between huge crags hung with multicoloured plants; pencil-narrow paths along cliffs which plunge to dark lochans; dramatic boulder-strewn ravines and a great amphitheatre of descent to Loch Morar, overlooked by immense rocks like cathedral walls. These all unfold in dazzling succession.
That was the good news. I still wouldn’t recommend trying it solo, though. Wobbling with shock and nerves, wet and chilly, I finally sloshed into Oban bothy. But there was wood in the shed, and a good fire’s a great comfort for everything.
…Sans firelighters, and after three hours of increasingly desperate attempts, nothing would light the damp Oban pile. Rain plopped dismally into a metal pan outside. Far from drinking in the striking view of Sgurr na h-Aide, I had seen no mountains whatsoever. This was not the planned idyll at all. In despair I found one of those blue and white checked dishcloths you buy in packs, and lit it. WHOOSH! Whatever they coat them in, it worked.
Firelight and candles flickered. I tried my mobile ‘phone - no reception. H’m. If you have never in your life gone alone before into uninhabited wild country, uncomfortable thoughts begin to glide and insinuate as dusk falls. What if you were seized by acute appendicitis? What if a mad axeman suddenly splintered the front door? What if Morag the Morar monster loped up the lawn, searching for her supper?
The candles flickered again. I had only one book, a murder suspense story, but was now too frightened to read it. That just left the Bothy Book. Big mistake! “This bothy is definitely haunted” wailed one entry. “Heard screaming upstairs, and nobody there!”
Next morning rain was coming down in stair-rods. Hillwalks were out of the question. No option but to return the same way, before running the risk of being stranded. I squelched off with heavy pack, soaked and inadequate shoes already buckling in the bogs. But near the head of the pass, the unbridged wee river had turned into a raging torrent, impossible to risk crossing solo. There seemed no option but to return to Oban, and wait.
Stumbling back to the bothy I prayed that somebody would be there. Of course, nobody was. Shaking fingers counting my fruit bars, I suddenly realised I might be here for days or weeks - in darkness when the candles finished - and that the emergency rice and pasta supplies would be useless when the cooking fuel and matches ran out. Even if I escaped, my map was now an incomprehensible smudged blob. In October, my ossified remains might be found on the sofa.
Miraculously two young guys on a competent long-distance trek arrived, lent me a map and offered to escort me next morning over the substantial river in Glen Todhail - the westerly escape route, on the other side from Glen Pean.
End of story? Alas no. Next morning ropes were slung dramatically across, but I still fell in. Water surged into the pockets of my cheap rainjacket, wrecking my mobile ‘phone. Never cross rivers in overtrousers. They balloon with air and act as huge floats- unable to stand up again, you flail helplessly like an upturned beetle.
Deeply shocked, soaked to the armpits, sans comfort of a hot drink or the support of a walking pole, I waved goodbye to Mark and Richard with a ghastly grin and squelched up over the commando-style hill route to Arieniskill. This is, in Hamish Brown’s masterly understatement, “a magnificently wild and lonely route out”. After various military manoeuvres, you eventually descend to Meoble and its numerous estate buildings.
Spirits soar - human beings! A whirring generator increased the comforting impression of life. I badly needed to ‘phone home, and someone might offer me a cup of tea in my distress. But the beautifully-restored cottages for fishing and shooting guests were as deserted as the Marie Celeste. Pressing my nose pathetically to the window glass, I saw a book on the table: “How to be a Hostess”. This seemed unhelpful at the time.
By now it was evening and exhaustion, hunger and overgrown tracks can play havoc with your usual navigation skills. The next few hours turned into a nightmare of losing the path to Arieniskill, overshooting towards Glen Mama, re-climbing and staggering about mountain crags in the gathering dusk, great rainsodden pack a leaden weight. At last, road and railway lay below, beside each other in the dark.
I stumbled down to the line, looked right and left, then crossed. Exactly four seconds later, a silent Sprinter train glided past: I would have been squashed like a rabbit. Unnerved, I fell against the wooden fence which immediately collapsed, projecting me headlong into a mass of dogrose thorns, brambles and a deep gooey ditch. Blackened with mud, thorn-covered and by this time three-quarters dead, I rang the nearest doorbell - which miraculously turned out to be the local policeman’s house. After recovering from the sight, he kindly drove me back to Glenfinnan Sleeping Car which was beyond the call of duty.
End of story? Alas no. A light bulb flashed in my brain as I lay numbly on my bunk. My car was still sitting at Strathan by Loch Arkaig, and – without enough traffic to rely on a lift - I would have to walk nine miles through Glenfinnan’s famed V-shaped mountain pass to retrieve it.
Crying wastes time. Next morning in the rain at the Visitors’ Centre, the omens did not look good. This is normally one of the great Scottish mountain passes to walk, under the immense Harry Potter viaduct, past Corryhully bothy and beneath the great steep walls of Streap. Soaked and battered for three days, my toenails had turned black (later they dropped off). Bruises, blisters, incipient trench foot and angry red insect bites made a horrible sight. Hobbling with rolling sideways gait, I took nine hours at one mile per hour. Overtaken by several old men in shorts and even by impatient slugs, I imagined how the heavy-laden ghost of that farmer’s wife from Strathan, probably with boxes perfectly-balanced on her head, would snort in derisive disgust if she passed me.
She used to walk through to Glenfinnan once a week, catch the train to Fort William, then walk back through the pass with it. Finally, many hours later, I was bowling back down the wee switchback road along Loch Arkaig.
Determined to have just ONE enjoyable day of this holiday I crawled crablike onto the platform on my final morning, and caught the train to Arisaig. There’s a lovely restaurant called the Old Library which I would recommend to every weary walker. But I found I couldn’t walk unaided, and the only thing in the local shop to lean on was one of those kids’ shrimping nets with a long pole.
Thus the long-planned “wilderness walk of a lifetime” ended in farce. Attracting extremely odd stares, I hobbled into the excellent local history museum on the shrimping-net pole, where the ghastly truth emerged about my trip. This terrain I had been struggling through all week had been specially selected - from the entire British and indeed European landscape - to train wartime commandos in survival and silent assassination. Sitting in the Old Library quaffing Lobster Bisque, shrimping net appropriately on hand, I could truly understand why.
I’d love to return to Oban one day - but only in the company of friends, in fair weather, and in a boat filled with weekend comforts.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the MBA Newsletter. For more information about the MBA and how you can support their work, please see www.mountainbothies.org.uk
On and Off The Rails
Rail line to close for vital works
Network Rail is to carry out line renewal, rock cutting and stabilisation work on the West Highland Railway line between Mallaig and Fort William, requiring the temporary suspension of services on the route. From and including the last train into Mallaig on Friday October 17th until after the time of the first train out of Mallaig on Monday 3rd, all rail journeys will be replaced by bus services.
David Simpson, route director for Network Rail Scotland, commented: 'The rock cutting and stabilisation work being carried out during these closures is vital to maintain the reliable running of the railway in the Highlands. We understand that the closure of these lines is inconvenient and we have worked with First ScotRail and Highland Council to reduce delays to a minimum.' Steve Montgomery, First ScotRail's Operations and Safety Director, said: 'These works are necessary to keep trains running reliably on the West Highland lines, however we recognise the difficulties that these closures can cause our customers. We apologise to passengers for the delay to journeys, but remain confident that the replacement bus services will meet their needs.' Passengers are advised to arrive at stations ahead of their booked departure time by a few minutes to allow for luggage loading and seating positions on the buses.
As West Word goes to print, news is arriving of a proposed R.M.T. (Rail, Maritime and Transport Union) signallers' strike - which would mean no movement of trains - on the following dates: 1) From noon on Tuesday 7th October for 24 hours and 2) from noon on Thursday 9th October for 24 hours.
If the strikes go ahead, they will affect all train services around these times, including the regular ScotRail services, the Jacobite steam train service and the Fort William/London sleeper service. The best advice is to check nearer the dates with Fort William or Mallaig Booking Offices for on the spot information.
FirstScotrail relieve credit crisis for persons aged 55 and over
In order to help the financial crisis a wee bit, First ScotRail are extending their annual 'Club 55' special offer on tickets from its usual one month to nearly six months!
Those of us aged 55 and over are being offered, for the price of £15 return (or £13 return if you hold a Senior Raili Card - not a Highland Travel Card) we can travel between any two stations in Scotland on all First ScotRail services as well as the following operators' services in Scotland:
First Trans Pennine Express - formerly Virgin Cross Country
Cross Country (Arriva) - formerly Virgin Cross Country
National Express East Coast - formerly GNER.
Tickets (with free seat reservations) can be booked from now, and proof of age should be carried with you on your journey. The offer applies between Monday October 20th 2008 until Tuesday March 31st 2009. the only exemption period is between December 19th 2008 and January 11th 2009.
Tickets can be purchased from staffed railway stations (Suzie at Mallaig is now on Winter staffing time between 10 am and 4pm Monday to Saturday), First ScotRail Telesales by telephoning 08457 550033 and quoting 'Club 55', or order tickets on line via firstscotrail.com/club55. For further advice or information, call Mallaig Booking Office on 01687 462227. Leaflets will shortly be available.
Win a hard back copy of the book Along lost lines by Paul Atterbury.
Jacobite Season ends with a two day Scottish Steam Charter
The last official date of the Jacobite Steam Train between Fort William and Mallaig should be Friday October 10th, but this could be curtailed due to the proposed signallers' strike. What is certain is that on Saturday October 11th and Sunday 12th, a two day photographers charter will take place. On the Saturday it will run double-headed between Spean Bridge and Rannoch, and later in the day between Fort William and Mallaig. On the Sunday it will run between Banavie and Arisaig in the morning and Banavie and Mallaig in the afternoon. For booking information initially contact Sonia on 01687 462189.
See you on the train.
The Western Seaboard: An Illustrated Architectural Guide
The long awaited book The Western Seaboard: An Illustrated Architectural Guide by Mary Miers, was published recently by The Rutland Press, the publishing division of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, and is the latest of their architectural guides.
Drawing on a lifetime's knowledge of this wild corner of Britain, Mary Miers takes us beyond the familiar sounds and scenery of the West Highlands and Islands to uncover an extraordinary record of human settlement, from the earliest 'terraced' houses on the machair of Bronze Age Uist to Scots Baronial piles set amid semi-tropical gardens.
On the way she encounters the shrines and strongholds of medieval Gaeldom; planned fishing stations, canals and railways; houses ranging from the fashionable to the vernacular and the Highland urbanism of Portree, Fort William and Stornoway. Richly illustrated with hundreds of photographs, the guide reveals how the architecture of the Western Seaboard has transformed itself through at least four cultures - a compelling story of survival and revival. It is a story of holy men and holiday-makers, seafarers, warriors and crofters and of the enduring influences of religion and clanship in in the face of repeated waves of modernisation. This is the ideal accompaniment for anyone wishing to visit some of the most haunting landscapes in the world and learn something of those who inhabit them.
Moidart, Arisaig, Knoydart, Mallaig, Morar, Eigg, Rum, Muck, Canna & Sanday are covered in over 50 pages of photographs and descriptions.
The book, rrp £18, is available for £15 including p & p from RIAS Bookshop, 15 Rutland Square, Edinburgh EH1 2BE, www.rias.org.uk/ebookshop/ or through the Land, Sea & Islands Centre, Arisaig (tel. 01687 450263)
Watch this space for extracts from next month's issue!
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