Wanderer at Large: Western Highlands

A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.

Sponsored by Your London Tours.

This autumn, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.

Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.

In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.

This week, northern Scotland including the Highlands and islands.


Glencoe, shrouded in the mists of mystery.

The Western Highlands
This section covers a route from Rannoch Moor to Mallaig and includes Glencoe, Fort William, Ben Nevis, Glenfinnan and Arisaig.

The A82 across Rannoch Moor is breath-taking drive. The Moor is 1000ft above sea level and is acidic-soiled moorland of the type that covers a third of Scotland. Here, you are surrounded by uplands. A hill or mountain over 3,000ft high in Scotland is a definition of a Munro. They were named after Sir Hugo Munro who in 1891 made a survey of all 283 mountains over 3,000ft. Climbers ‘collect’ them one-by-one. They are known as Munro-baggers. The King’s House Hotel is a the centre of the Moor. It is as remote a hostelry that you are likely to find in the UK, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find a warm welcome. Rannoch Moor was a location for the hit tv series Outlander. It is where Frank and Claire go for their honeymoon, and a location of portal stones.

As we approach the awesome mountain valley of Glencoe via the spectacular Clachaig Falls, the atmosphere changes. The steeper-sided mountains begin to hem you in. And as the curtain of mist descends, the sense of drama increases. The scene is thus set for one of the most terrible tales in Highland clan history: the Glencoe Massacre.

At its height, up to 100,000 people were linked to Scotland’s clan structure. Clans were tribal groups often based in the glens (valleys) of Highland Scotland. They were communities bound by kinship and linked by name. Name fathers (the first of the clan) became chieftains. Chieftains administered local law, common customs, boundary disputes, trespass, grazing rights and rustling disputes. Each clan had different war cry for rallying. Rallies of one or more clans were known as Gatherings. Often a fiery cross went ahead of the clan to warn of their approach. All clan power and activities were proscribed after the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, and that included all trappings such as tartan, kilts and bagpipes. From this point, the Highlands came under British law, not clan law.

The most famous traditional clan rivalry was between the Campbells and the MacDonalds. The Campbells occupied the region towards the western lowlands in Argyllshire, in and around Loch Lomond. They tended to back the established authority and this policy ensured they became the most powerful of clans, and made them most unpopular amongst rebels and nationalists. They backed Robert the Bruce in the 14th century and William III in the 17th century. For their loyalty they were substantially rewarded, and this, of course, meant jealous rivalries. Their symbol was a boar’s head depicted with a ‘wry mouth’. The Christian name Colin or Colen is traditionally used for the first-born male in Campbell families.

The MacDonalds occupied the Western Isles and the adjacent mainland coast. They tended to be very independently minded, backing royalists or rebels, depending on when it suited them. The MacDonalds were big supporters of the Jacobite cause. Their symbol was a cross in hand. The Christian names Donald and Malcolm are traditionally used for males in MacDonalds families. In the Civil War of the early 1640s, the MacDonald ‘Royalists’ clan led forces against the Campbell ‘Covenanters’ culminating in a succession of victories in the Campbell heartlands of Inverary, Loch Fyne and Inverlochy.

In 1692, a new royal and government regime demanded clans show loyalty to the Crown. They were ordered to swear fealty at specific meeting points. Part truculence, and part bad weather, meant the Chieftain of the Glencoe MacDonalds missed the deadline. Sometime later, the government-backed Captain Campbell of Glenlyon arrived at Glencoe with troops to demand an explanation. According to MacDonald lore, after 12 days hospitality, the order was given to slaughter the MacDonalds hosts. 38 were slain, and 300 escaped. It became known as the Glencoe Massacre. What actually took place is still debated, but Glencoe as a place certainly has a strange atmosphere. A sign above the door at the local Clachiaig Inn still reads ‘Nae Campbells’. Glencoe was the location for the opening scene in the hit tv series Outlander.

Fort William was a garrison town built by William of Orange to defend against Jacobite rebellions. It marks the beginning of the Great Glen fault, the deepest geological crack in UK. It also sits at the base of Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain at 4,400ft. It is a 30-mile circumference around the base. There are many pleasant woodland walks here. Nearby is Neptune’s Staircase, the entrance to the Caledonian Canal. In 1822, the Scottish engineer Thomas Telford Series built a series of eight locks that lifted boats 70ft above sea level. Queen Victoria thought it was a tedious journey and was once famously overheard to remark: ‘We are not amused.’ The Inverlochy Castle Hotel is a luxurious place to stay in the area. The A823 ‘Road to the Isles’ runs westwards from Fort William to Mallaig. The West Highland rail service basically follows the same route. It runs a steam train, ‘the Jacobite Express’ which doubled as the famous ‘Hogwarts Express’ in the Harry Potter movies.

Glenfinnan Viaduct

Glenfinnan Station is the first stop on the West Highland line between Fort William and Mallaig. There is a small museum in the station. The Glenfinnan Viaduct is regarded as one of the most spectacular railway crossings in the UK. At 100 feet high and 416 yards long with 18 arches on a curve, it was the first large-scale concrete structure in the UK. Indeed, the largest of its time. The local rock was too brittle for such a crossing, so the material used was championed by the engineer Sir Robert McAlpine, aka ‘Concrete Bob’. The viaduct appears on Scottish £10 note.  It also had a starring role in the Harry Potter movies, as the Hogwarts Express puffed its way over the arches. Harry Potter production teams lived here locally on and off for 10 years filming the action shots. The first production team that lodged in Glenfinnan village was over 400, dwarfing the local population of 100.

The Glenfinnan Monument at the edge of Loch Shiel marks the point where the Jacobite rebellion, known as ‘The 45’, began. Bonnie Prince Charlie, the ‘young pretender’ to the British throne, first landed with French help in the Hebrides in 1745. Then with the ‘seven men of Moidart’ he reached the mainland. At Glenfinnan he was met by several highland clan chiefs, 800 men of the Cameron clan and 500 MacDonalds of Glencoe and Keppoch. The Jacobite standard was hoisted here. Had all clans showed there would have been an army of 30,000. However, the small force made astonishing progress. They moved from west to east gathering recruits and momentum. Under clan commander Murray they took Edinburgh, defeating the British forces at Prestonpans. Soon they controlled most of Scotland except Stirling.

A 5,000-strong Jacobite army then marched into England taking Carlisle, and reaching as far down as Derby. London panicked, but the Jacobites dithered, and allowed the government to regain the initiative. Many of the original Jacobite force were jailed for treason. Their sorrow is captured in the lament of the Jacobite prisoner in England who wishes his soul to return home: “You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road, and I’ll be in Scotland afore ye.” Still the remaining Jacobites fought on, scoring some remrkable victories. While retreating they won the battle of Clifton Moor, the last military conflict on English soil. In 1746, they besieged Stirling Castle and Blair Castle (the last military siege in Britain), defeated the government forces at Falkirk, and captured Fort George and Fort Augustus. However, their eventual retreat to Inverness would lead to their final downfall at Culloden.

The Glenfinnan monument was erected in 1815 by the son of Glenaladale, a chief who stayed with Bonnie Prince Charlie on his first night here. The figure on top is a symbolic highlander added in 1834.

Around Lochailort and Inverailort is a wild landscape which was once given over to all manner of hunting sports, including grouse-shooting, deer-stalking and salmon fishing. In Victorian times, the wealthy would pay up to £5,000 per week to rent a lodge here. During WWII, a centre for special military training operations was set up here, in effect, the first commando school.

In 1746, two French ships loaded with gold landed at Loch nan Uamh to support the Jacobite cause of Bonne Prince Charlie. They left after a fierce gun battle with the Royal Navy, leaving their gold behind them. The treasure was never found. This legend may have been the inspiration for a famous novel: 70 miles out to sea from Arisaig, the Barra Head lighthouse on the island of Mingulay. was constructed by local man, John Silver. It was designed by architect Thomas Stephenson. His son was Robert Louis Stephenson, writer of Treasure Island. After the defeat at Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie eventually fled to France. The Prince’s Cairn, at the tip of Loch nan Uamh marks the spot where he finally left Scotland for good. Further along the ‘Road to the Isles’, Arisaig beach is famous for its silver sands.

Mallaig

Mallaig was once just a railway village of 28 houses. Now it is a large fishing port. In the 1960s it one of the largest in Europe, with access to Scotland’s most lucrative fishing waters. Here, herring was smoked into kippers, a favourite breakfast dish. However, it became overfished and herring fishing was banned here in 1977. Now Mallaig is famed for its langoustines. Also known as Norwegian lobster or Dublin Bay prawns, they are caught in cages called creels. Up to 400 pounds can be caught daily by one boat. Today, a third of the world’s langoustines are landed in Scotland. It is an industry worth £100m a year. They are caught, sorted, packed, refrigerated and air-freighted to Europe in just 24 hours. Spain can’t get enough of them. You can eat them fresh in a Barcelona restaurant the very next day. Their tails are turned into scampi. There’s not a huge local taste though, although you can try them at Jaffy’s Seafood shop in Mallaig town. From Mallaig harbour you can take the ferry Over the Sea to Skye.

Western Highlands: gateway to myths and legends.


Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.

For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com


*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:

  1. London
  2. Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
  3. Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
  4. Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
  5. Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
  6. South coast (Hants/Dorset)
  7. Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
  8. South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
  9. Wales (north & south)
  10. Welsh Borders (Worcestershire/Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
  11. Western Midlands (Brum/Warks/Staffs)
  12. Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland)
  13. Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
  14. East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
  15. Yorks (all ridings)
  16. North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
  17. North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
  18. Southern Scotland (Lowlands/Midlands)
  19. Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
  20. Ireland (Northern/Southern)

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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