Roads Less Travelled - West Highlands
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
THESE lines from Robert Frost’s classic poem, The Road Not Taken, came to mind as we discussed a possible theme for our BBC2 Christmas outdoor programmes for 2015. For the past seven years the theme has been simple, I’ve undertaken a long walk somewhere in Scotland. I’ve walked the length of Scotland, walked across Scotland twice from coast to coast, hiked and biked the length of the Hebrides and created other long distance walking routes including the Sutherland Trail and the Skye Trail but this year we wanted to freshen things up a bit.
For the past few years I’ve been enjoying a lot of cycling, particularly cycle touring, or bikepacking as it tends to be called these days. I’ve also been enjoying a fair bit of packrafting. Packrafts are tough inflatable boats that weigh a mere five pounds and pack up small enough to be carried in a rucksack. These lightweight yet tough craft originated in Alaska where adventurers use them to cross icy bays and negotiate wilderness rivers and the model I use is an Alpacka Yukon Yak, a multi-purpose boat that is ideal for wilderness travel and wild river running. It can be inflated very quickly using a nylon inflate bag and packs down to the size of a two-person backpacking tent. It carries me, and my backpacking kit, with considerable ease. It can even carry my bike.
By using the bike and packraft as well as my normal hiking gear we thought we could diversify a little from my usual long distance walk so we have filmed a campervan journey, with everything carried in the van. I’ve been a campervan man for more years that I can remember - I’m now on my tenth incarnation of the ‘mobile bothy’, a vehicle that not only provides my transport and accommodation but also carries all the gear I need for a variety of adventures.
Robert Frost’s idea of following less travelled roads appealed to us and so, maps scattered around, we worked out a sinuous and convoluted route that would allow me to climb some hills, cycle some trails and packraft to interesting places, as well as meeting up with some fascinating people, most of whom have chosen to live in lonely and isolated places and are completely at ease in doing so. We ended up with a rather complex journey between the Isle of Luing and Ullapool, making full use of ferries and minor roads, a journey that perfectly fitted the doctrine of “roads less travelled”.
A road trip like this is essentially about exploration, about peeping over the next horizon and I confess to an almost infantile habit of following minor routes on OS maps just to see what lies at the end of them. I get an acute sense of excitement when these minor, and often single track roads can be linked by ferries, and even more of a sense of anticipation when the tarmac roads simply run out to be replaced by tracks and trails. Beyond the black stump of the road-end was where I could leave the campervan and continue on foot, by bike or by packraft.
We decided to start the trip on the island of Luing. I knew a little about the island’s turbulent past and it’s more recent slate quarrying industry but I wanted to discover more and the island’s brand new information centre seemed like a good place to start. Local nurse Fiona Cruikshanks showed me around and took me on a great coastal walk to tell me about the slate quarrying heritage of the islands. I also wanted to enjoy a bit of walking on the lower hills of Luing and Seil and experience the stunning views to Mull, Scarba, the Garvellachs and the many other small islands that surround these slate islands.
From Oban I ferry-hopped over to Lismore, an island I’d never visited before. It was a revelation and I loved it and perfect summer weather helped me understand the origin of the island’s name – from the Gaelic word for garden. This big garden is relatively low-lying and is very fertile. It was also a major centre of Celtic Christianity. With a 6th-century monastery associated with Saint Moluag it later became the seat of the medieval Bishop of Argyll. The place is littered with ruined structures including an extremely impressive broch and two 13th-century castles.
Another lovely walk round the coast of Port Appin illustrated the complex geology of the area before I got on my bike and enjoyed a section of Sustrans Scotland’s new Route 78, the Caledonia Way. The route runs all the way from Campbeltown to Inverness (I cycled the route in August) but I reckon the finest section runs from Oban to Ballachulish, much of it on newly constructed cycle paths.
This section takes in the scene of the murder of the Red Fox, the historical event that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped, and since I had never actually visited the memorial stone where the murder of Colin Campbell took place I took the opportunity of learning a little bit more about the event.
I couldn’t pass Ballachulish without visiting my old friend Dave ‘Cubby’ Cuthbertson, mountain climber turned mountain photographer. Like many of us years of trundling up and down hills has had a hard physical impact on Dave’s joints so he has taken up photographing mountains rather than climbing them. On our wander up Beinn a’ Chrulaiste in Glen Coe we discussed the irony of now having to climb the hills with a heavy pack full of camera gear and a tripod! Climbing gear was probably more lightweight and easier on the joints!
From Lochaber I headed out west to Acharacle and a visit to the ceilidh king Fergie MacDonald, who not only gave us a tune or two on his button accordion but told us about a great walk in the locality that we later filmed.
Continuing on roads less travelled we stopped at Arisaig to meet sea kayak instructor Lizzie Benwell and she accompanied me in her kayak as I packrafted out to the Arisaig Skerries with seals popping up from the sea all around us, a truly magical experience.
Another ferry beckoned on Mallaig and it carried the campervan and I over the sea to Skye, to Armadale. While most of the other passengers turned right and headed for the glory of the Cuillin, or the wonderful volcanic landscapes of Trotternish, or perhaps even the shops of Portree, I turned in the opposite direction and headed for the most southerly point on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, the Sound of Sleat.
Here, at Aird, I met up with a young jewelry designer called Heather McDermott who gets her inspiration from the sea-shore. She spends hours, she told me, beach combing for ideas and I was fascinated by the link between old fishing nets, stacked creels and fankled ropes and beautiful necklaces and bracelets, or the simplicity between colourful floats that had been washed up by the sea and lovely earrings, small bouy earrings in Skye inspired colours of gorse yellow, sky blue, sea green or dreich grey!
Heather lives with her folks at Aird and she touched on a theme that I was to hear time and time again on my travels – the difficulty young local folk have in buying a house, even in remote locations like this one. The second-home market has killed the opportunity for local youngsters to stay and work in their own locality, an issue that I hope the current Land Reform debate can do something to address.
From Aird I parked the campervan and took to the bike again, with everything I required for a night’s camping strapped to it, and negotiated a hilly and bumpy track down to the Point of Sleat itself where crashing surf and the sound of gulls accompanied my slumbers at a wild and beautiful camp above the shore.
While I love the campervan even its four tin walls can occasionally feel confined and now and then some deep-rooted impulse urges me to break free and connect with the natural world. The best way to do that is to sleep close to the earth itself. A tent, with the door open to the sights and scents of the night, offers the opportunity to feed that particular rat.
Free from filming for a short while I made my escape and enjoyed a spectacular night beside Loch Slapin in the shadow of Blaven. In the morning the night mists took a while to blow clear but as they did I sat outside the camper, brew in hand, and watched the mountain spectacle unfold. You don’t always have to be on a mountain top to enjoy the mountain drama!
I returned to the mainland via the Kylerhea to Glenerg ferry, the only man-operated turntable ferry left the world. As the Skye Ferry has robbed the island of a wee bit of its romance this ferry makes a terrific alternative, and, as it’s a community enterprise, supports the local economy.
Once over the spectacular Mam Ratagan I caught up with an old pal, Wille Fraser, the property manager of the National Trust for Scotland’s Kintail Estate. In the past I’ve gone sea kayaking with Willie but this time we walked and talked all the way up to the Bealach na Sgairne, one of Willie’s favourite spots in Kintail, just below the big corries of Beinn Fhada. For the television camera it gave me a great opportunity to blether in depth to someone who is a keen mountaineer and an enthusiastic and appreciative deer stalker. The two disciplines don’t always sit well together and it was great to hear Willie’s wise and experienced perspective on both subjects.
One of the great joys of making television programmes like these is that I get the opportunity to visit some of Scotland’s most treasured landscapes and share them with folk who inevitably have fresh and insightful viewpoints. My next two guests didn’t let me down. Nevis Hulme is a geography teacher in Gairloch who has taught himself the Gaelic language so he could discover and record as many placenames on the Melvaig peninsula as he could. At a time when there has been considerable criticism about the value of Gaelic it was refreshing to hear why Nevis thought it was vital that we cherish Gaelic and remember the old stories behind the placenames.
This was a theme I continued in Torridon with Chris Smith, the only MP to have climbed the Munros. I’ve known Chris, a former Minister for the Environment and Minister for Culture for a long number of years and it was great to walk from his home at Inveralligin out to Craig Cottage, a former Youth Hostel which he once wardened. It’s been quite a career journey for Chris, from schoolboy days in Edinburgh to a youth hostel warden in the Western Highlands to ministerial positions in a Labour government. He was just about to take on a new role, as Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, his Alma mater.
I finished my long convoluted road trip in Ullapool, but before I climbed the Braes of Ullapool to look down on the old Norse settlement of Ulli’s Steading I wanted a final walk. This time I was accompanied by the UK’s Adventurer of the Year 2015, Will Copestake.
I wrote about Will a few months ago, a young man born and bred in Ullapool and someone with a strong taste for adventure. He took me to a magnificent gorge near Corrieshalloch where he roamed, swam and canoed as a teenager and it was clear from the conversation that he’s never lost his love of this part of Wester Ross despite all his foreign travels. I left him as he was about to prepare for a long trip to Patagonia where he was going to spend the winter teaching sea kayaking. Was I a little bit envious? Well, perhaps a bit…
But how can you be envious of anyone’s travels when you’ve just experienced a journey like my Roads Less Travelled? For sheer beauty and diversity of landscape and wildlife it’s almost impossible to compare the Western Highlands with anywhere on Earth. I hope these two television programmes will show off these qualities and perhaps encourage others to come and visit them, either on foot, on bike or on the water. We are truly blessed in Scotland by our wonderful landscapes and I’m confident our cameraman Richard Else has captured them on video in a way that portrays them as very, very special. Both programmes will be broadcast during Christmas week on BBC 2 Scotland and I hope you enjoy watching them as much as we’ve enjoyed making them.