Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Road to the Isles: Part II — Side-tracked

Getting to grips with Gaelic place names is part of the fun of travelling in the Highlands. Guessing the pronunciation of the jumble of letters on the road signs from the car when it’s raining certainly beats a game of I Spy. There are solid sets of paradigms to the Scottish Gaelic language but the inflection, morphemes and affixes to each word comprise lengthy sets of vowels and consonants in no particular order making articulation by a non-Gaelic speaker a lexicon nightmare, but a real bonus for Gaelic contestants on Countdown.
Beginning in Fort William and stretching across some of the UK’s most dramatic scenery, the A803, or Road to the Isles as it is affectionately known, is 42 miles of rich living narrative dating back to pre-history and the very beginnings of the Earth. It is an ancient place where dark, craggy peaks reach up to bite the skyline from wide, sweeping glens flooded with water deeper than the mountains that enfold them. It is a most beautiful, undisciplined wilderness and man’s attempts to tame it has resulted in dots and lines of tarmac, stone dykes and scattered villages scratching its surface. The crumbling crofts and mosaic scars of disused roads are evidence that, if left alone, the landscape eventually heals itself.
Travelling along the northern shore of Loch Eil, however, somehow 30 miles or so does not feel long enough. A quick glance at the map will tell you that there are actually two heather tracks wi' heaven in their wiles: one that will take you to Mallaig within two shakes of the cromak and the other that requires more than a bit of braggart in your step.
Take a left some 10 miles out of Fort William and you are on the A861 in the parish of Moidart, the road that runs south along the western shores of Loch Eil, into Strontiam, through the picturesque Sunart glen and bends northwards before the Ardnamurchan peninsula, Corrachadh Mòr being the most westerly point of mainland Britain.
Having learned a bit of Gaelic through a day or so playing with road signs, I called this road Àite de móran aite seachnaidh (my humble apologies to any Gaelic speakers who are outraged by my terrible grasp of the language) but I hope it translates to “place of many passing places” — don’t ask me how to pronounce it. The A861 is a single track road that winds up and bends down then winds up and down again before it bends along the sides of the lochs. If you meet any traffic coming the other way, need to stop to take in the beauty of the sparkling water and silent mountains, or need a pee, there are loads of passing places (although it is advised that you should not stop at a passing place for the latter two reasons).
Although Loch Sunart is a pretty place, with lots to see, there are few places to eat and little to do there, unless you are into watersports and sheep.
The Ardnamurchan Peninsula is much more dramatic and faithful to the romanticism of a Highland wilderness, the road narrower and the passing places more scattered. It is here that a traveller can drive across ancient volcanic craters and reach one of the most staggeringly beautiful beaches in the world: Sanna Sands.
Dotted with a few tiny crofts and enfolded by dark mountains, a long walk across the protective dunes opens out into a breathtaking sandy beach, so stunning that it could be in the Caribbean if the rain were not shampooing your hair with sand and the wind not blowdrying it into a mass of matted dune grass.
But, then, this is Scotland: it is an experience rather than a holiday and being here is a privilege and never a claim.
Slainte mhath

2 comments:

Michael Malone said...

Sara - I'm loving this. Very atmospheric. That's my favourite part of the UK, the west highlands. You gave me a hankering for another visit.

ginkers said...

Lovely piece but why so serious? I think you need to inject some mad Onion into your prose!

Just joking, by the way...