East Highland Way Day 4: Feagour to Newtonmore

Published 25 February 2015

Waterfalls at Feagour, just off the East Highland Way

“The guide book says that the pool at the bottom of the waterfall is ideal for swimming in, during summer months.” I looked up from the book, and looked at the waterfall for a moment. “Although I suspect it might be a bit cold.”

Tal said nothing, which probably meant he was thinking it through, although he didn’t seem like he was about to strip off and dive in.

A few years earlier I’d walked the Southern Upland Way, a long distance walking trail which went across the south of Scotland. When I was planning the trip, I had this slightly romantic notion of wild camping alongside attractive lochs every night, and heading in for a bout of night swimming at the end of a long day. By sheer coincidence, a few weeks later there was a documentary on wild swimming on the television, which mentioned several times the temperature of the water, along with copious references to wetsuits and warming drinks. After watching this, I swiftly filed the wild swimming idea in the idea in the “probably not going to happen” category. And it didn’t. Although mainly because there wasn’t actually enough quiet, isolated lochs to camp next to.

We’d been given a lift back to the East Highland Way from our B&B in Laggan, and had been dropped off at the waterfall car park. It wasn’t quite where we’d stopped walking the previous evening – it was about a mile further to be honest. Importantly though, it was a mile that would be spent walking along the side of the busy A86, on a section which had no pavement, and lots of traffic and far too many blind corners for comfort. Not walking along it was a sacrifice we were both willing to make.

Sending walkers to walk down a busy road like the A86, which has no pedestrian facilities, is hardly ideal for a walking trail, which is why there are plans to re-route it down the edge of a forest. The proposed route was even marked with a dotted line on the route map I’d purchased, although we’d been told it wasn’t quite ready for use by the masses.

“It’s a bit overgrown at the minute,” offered Simon, the owner of the B&B we were staying in. “We’ve had a few people who have taken it, and they’ve all said it caused them some trouble. A couple of us have been discussing going out to clear it all up, in order to make it work. But at the minute, I’ve not really been recommending people use it.”

Given Simon was one of the people who had suggested to me that we should head down the two lochans rather than Loch Laggan, I worked on the presumption that he probably knew his onions. And when he offered to drop us off at the waterfall car park, close to the end of the road section, so we could avoid walking down it, well it was a real no-brainer.

The waterfalls themselves weren’t on the East Highland Way either. Still, as Tal had remarked, he did like looking at water, so a swift walk to view them was definitely in order, and a lovely way to start the day. Thankfully it would be a far shorter one than the day mere – a mere fourteen miles to do – but first there was the trifling matter of walking back to Laggan again.

Enchanting path in Black Wood, near Laggan on the East Highland Way

A wide track skirted the edge of Black Wood, providing us with some great views of the valley, at least it did until the path headed off to the left and plunged into the forest.

Initially the forest walk was delightful; a path lined with purple heather, and ferns of many shades of green and gold.

“How enchanting,” I thought as I gazed happily at this idyllic sight. “I hope it stays like this for a bit.”

Thirty seconds later, everything had changed. The merry colours and fantastic fauna were suddenly replaced by dark greens and greys. In a matter of seconds we’d gone from an explosion of colour, to walking in an area that looked like someone had come along and sucked out all the colour, leaving just a monochrome filter over the land. Or perhaps I’d just got some muck on my glasses.

Spey Dam

“The River of Whisky,” I said, pointing at the River Spey ahead of us.

“Do we just help ourselves?” pondered Tal.

“I believe so.”

The Spey certainly is a river of whisky. Further to the east it lends its name to an area known as Speyside which houses over half the commercial distilleries in Scotland. There are over fifty in the area, and the two biggest selling single malt whiskies in the world – The Glenlivet, and Glenfiddich – both hail from Speyside. Whilst neither are based near the Spey themselves, about twenty distilleries are.

All that is, however, downstream. There’s no distilleries near Laggan, but here the Spey does play its part in another industry. Its waters are funnelled away to help power our old friend, the Lochaber Hydroelectric Scheme. At the nearby Spey Reservoir, water is diverted first down a canal, and then into a large tunnel which leads the water into Loch Laggan. It was strange to think that four days on, and after many miles walked, we were still under the influence of the Fort William Aluminium Smelter that we’d passed on our first day’s walk. The Spey Reservoir would, however, be our last interaction with it though, as the reservoir forms the upper-most limit of the scheme. We would be passing more water on our journey, but none of it would be playing any part in smelting.

From our vantage point at the edge of the forest, we could see the reservoir, and its dam, in the distance and we stared at it, wondering whether to make a detour to pay homage to this last bastion of hydro-electricity, but there were diggers, excavators and portacabins everywhere. Maintenance work was going on, and somehow a dug up reservoir didn’t seem particularly worthy of a visit.

Entering the village of Laggan on the East Highland Way

We arrived back through Laggan. Not being exhausted, we were able to pay it just a bit more attention than we had been able to the previous evening. We spotted the village doctors surgery, and off on a side road was the B&B we’d left just a few hours before, with its giant pro-Union “NO!” banners fluttering opposite equally oversized “YES!” logos on the house opposite. Local opinions were divided; neighbours were at war. What would it be like after the referendum, I wondered. Would the two sides be able to reconcile peacefully? Or would there always be bitterness and resentment between those on opposite sides of the argument?

Laggan also included a closed village shop, complete with a sign outside informing people it would be back open “soon(ish)”, and that a “micro-store” was just across the road. And then it was time for a trudge up the busy A86 road, with cars zooming by. Sadly this road section couldn’t be avoided, however the road was at least mostly straight, and with wide verges on which the walker could leap when a lunatic in a car came rushing past. One in particular seemed to delight in going up and down the road; we saw – and heard – the same blue car with an insanely loud engine, roaring up and down the road at least five times in as many minutes.

You could probably hear the engine approaching for miles around. The car had one of those over-loud, revvy engines that mean absolutely nothing for engine performance, and are all about showing off. For the life of me I’ve never quite understood what I, as a bystander, am supposed to think when such a car goes past me going “VRRRROOOOOMMMM” at ear-piercing volume. No doubt in the eyes of the driver, I’m going “Wow! What a car! I’m so envious. I wish I had such an amazing vehicle,” whereas what I, and I always assume most people, think is “What a complete and utter idiot.”

As we turned off the main road and into a small cluster of houses in a hamlet called Balgowan, I saw the same car speed down the road for a sixth time. Yeah, idiot clearly was the best description.

A walker on heather topped moorland

We ate lunch on a narrow ledge under some trees, and then set off with gusto towards the open moorland. We’d spent the morning getting back to where we’d been at the start of the day, which felt vaguely unsatisfying. Now it was time to head into uncharted territories.

Our first order of the afternoon was to head round the western side of a hill named Binnein Mòr. This required making our way over pathless heather-topped land, devoid of anything other than narrow sheep tracks. At least it wasn’t the most complicated navigation going; all we had to do was make for the clear track that passed around the base of the hill, and do our best not to pay too much attention to the sheep tracks which would head off in random directions. What could possibly go wrong.

Nothing was the answer. We met the track without any particular problems. Although that does make the tale slightly less interesting.

The track wound its way gently towards a small bothy near the head of Glen Banchor, and it seemed rude not to pop inside and take a gander. Primarily used by deerstalkers, Dalnashallag bothy had one room, furnished with two extremely old looking sofas and a calendar printed by the Oban Times newspaper for the year 2009. There was even a ceramic plate with a rural scene attached to the interior wall, and an investigation of the attached shed revealed that there was also a BBQ stashed there. There was nowhere to sleep, other than the floor or the sofas, and based on the bothy’s log book, going for the latter would put you at risk of being attacked by bed bugs. Still, whilst you’d be a tasty meal for parasitic insects, at least there was somewhere you could cook your sausages.

Dalnashallag bothy in Glen Banchor, on the East Highland Way

In the 19th century Glen Banchor had housed about 20 households. A small community lived here, split over several locations, and in 1841 records showed that 85 people lived there. By 1891 just twelve people remained; the rest turfed out as part of the Highland clearances. Today no one remains here. Most of the buildings have gone, with the few that remain being left to decay, such as the ruins of Dalballoch which stood dramatically against the hills.

From the bothy, we were once again without a path to follow. Our mission instead to simply follow the north bank of the River Calder, as much as possible, for a couple of miles until we picked up a track close to another ruined building. This was easier said than done. The Calder was a particularly winding river, joined by several wide tributaries. Crossing over them required some skilful boulder hopping, and the ability to pick a path over the rocks that wouldn’t result in us both getting soaking wet.

This was easier said than done. Almost every stream we needed to cross seemed to have been designed in such a way to make crossing over extremely difficult. The guide book wasn’t much help either, helpfully informing the reader that picking the correct route was a “fun navigational challenge”.

Crossing the River Calder

Ah, yes, fun. And with a hint of jeopardy too. Which of the boulders would be “rock solid”, and which would be the one that would wobble dramatically, as soon as you put your foot on it? Inevitably it would be the one which is just at the tip of your reach, meaning your stability is already poor. But will you be able to regain your balance just in time, before you fall in the water?!

I can think of games that are more fun. It also didn’t help that we just didn’t seem to be very good at navigating. For one particular crossing, where three streams all joined the river at the same time, we ended up taking twenty minutes before we got safely to the other side. Twice we found ourselves stood on completely the wrong side of the Calder, utterly flummoxed as to how we’d even got there, let alone how to get back.

Eventually we made it, and remarkably bone dry; again not the finest result in terms of a narrative, which would have been far more interesting had we put our foot down on an unstable rock before falling flat on our faces, and getting totally soaked.

Looking down Glen Banchor

The worst of the fording over, we could now make our way over the heather topped, and slightly boggy land, following the river closely until a distinct track began to form. This then led us into a small plantation where we very quickly found ourselves under attack!

No sooner had we passed through the plantation’s fence than the insects were swarming around our heads, arms, and legs. They were impossible to bat away, and delighted in being as irritating as possible. Any exposed skin was seen as a fair target, and they were nothing if not persistent. They weren’t even put off when threatened with the dreaded midge spray we’d been carrying, and that stuff smelt so terrible that I didn’t even want to be near it.

We raced through the trees as quickly as possible, flapping our arms and cursing loudly the insectoid menace. But then, at exactly the same time as we passed through the fence on the other side of the small plantation, they disappeared. Did this fence have mysterious powers? Was that the entire reason for this plantation to exist? A trap for small and insanely curious insects? Or was it simply that the insects were scared of the abandoned farm buildings of Glenballoch, that were just outside the plantation? Although neither the fence nor the old farm were enough to put off one particular insect in particular, who decided to hitch-hike on me all the way to the B&B, and who I found on my shoulder just before I was about to go in the shower.

Old, boarded up, farm buildings at Glenballoch farm, in Glen Banchor

The farm at Glenballoch had outlasted most of the residences in the area, but now it was empty and forlorn; left to decay slowly. The windows had been boarded up, and yellow signs on the boards warned that this was a dangerous structure. Besides the main house, there were a couple of other buildings – presumably barns and stables – which were also in a similar state. I wondered how long they’d all last. What would the scene be in twenty, or forty years time? Based on the other former houses we’d past on our travels, it seemed unlikely anyone would bother sending in the wrecking balls. Indeed, the rickety wooden bridge that led to the property looked like it would barely hold the weight of a modern car, yet alone any larger forms of mechanical equipment.

There’s something about old, derelict houses that looks sad to me. I think it’s because of the questions that these empty buildings instantly pose. Who lived here? Why did they leave, and where did they go when they left? What tales and memories were wrapped up in those stones? The hopes and dreams that were here, or were left behind. All these questions, and no answers forthcoming. The romantic part of me always imagines the former occupants being prised away from their old homes, but the truth may be far from that. They may have been delighted to leave; to head somewhere with modern, ultra efficient heating systems and double glazed windows. I may never know. Tal certainly couldn’t provide any answers, although to be honest, on this one he wasn’t much help at all as he’d been far more interested in the voicemail he’d had. He’d spent the last couple of miles trying to get a signal on his phone, and wondering who “John” was, and why someone had left a voicemail on his phone, in their quest to find John.

The River Calder, approaching Newtonmore

“My dogs are barking,” said Tal as we headed up the track from Glenbanchor to the small car park nearby.

“You what?” I replied, stopping for a moment, completely puzzled by this rather random outburst.

“A friend says it when his feet are tired. Can’t remember which friend right now, but they do. Perhaps its something to do with being barking tired. I have no idea.”

It was a mystery and no mistake, and I couldn’t answer it. Still, it gave us something to think about as we walked along the track to a nearby car park. This then led to a single track road that would take us to Newtonmore, and our B&B. There were a surprising number of cars parked up, but then we’d seen quite a few walkers out on the hills since we’d left Laggan; most of them walking in the opposite direction to us. One couple we’d seen, and chatted to, were now heading towards us in a car, driving in the direction of the car park. And a few minutes later, they returned, this time driving a car each. Presumably they’d left a car at either end of their walk, and were now heading home. For a moment I wondered if they’d stop and invite us to share their cars, but they just drove straight past, barely giving us a glance.

Of course I never would have accepted such an offer – despite the protestations of my feet. And Tal’s were barking too. And if they’d offered – and we had accepted – we would never have had met a woman out walking her dog, carrying a bag which Tal initially took to be mushrooms.

“Oh no, she replied. “They’re dried pigs ears for the dogs! But there’s plenty of great mushrooms up there. I sometimes go out and collect the ceps and chanterelles. Not many people seem to take them, although the Polish people who live round here do. They certainly know their mushrooms.”

Fungi near Newtonmore

We’d past so many mushrooms on our walk that we’d inevitably been wondering if any of them were edible. Tal at one point had even suggested that we could pick some and cook them up for tea, although quite how and where we’d be able to cook them was left unanswered. As was the frankly more important question of how two fungi novices would know which of the mushrooms we passed were edible, and which would send us down with some horrible form of fungi poisoning. As far as I was concerned, there are some things better purchased from the greengrocer or supermarket; a view confirmed back at home when I learned some of the ones we’d seen a lot of, had hallucinogenic properties, and was commonly sold as a “legal high”

Newtonmore seemed to be a long way away. Perhaps that was due to our legs, still slightly weary after the previous days exertions. Or perhaps we were just being slow. What we did find when we finally made it, was a street festooned with “YES” banners and signs. They were everywhere. Every lamppost had at least one on it, and many of the houses had them too. If there were any no voters in the area, they were certainly keeping quiet.

Arriving in Newtonmore also meant we could play our now compulsory game of “Guess how the B&B owner is going to vote”. So far we had a clear and dominating YES from Tulloch, and a similarly loud NO in Laggan, and a “who knows” for Spean Bridge. In Newtonmore our B&B was joining Spean Bridge in being discreet, but as we entered in the front door, we found our answer. Attached to the washing machine was a small “YES” sticker, and the landlady was wearing a pro-independence wristband.

Walking along Newtonmore’s main street

We checked in, and were simultaneously plied with tea and home-made cakes, and intensively interviewed about our trip – and other, non-political subjects – by the B&B’s owner, before we managed to head to our rooms to freshen up. It was going to be a big night. After two nights in isolated communities, we were in a town! A town which boasted several restaurants and multiple pubs!

Our landlady told us that The Letterbox Restaurant was the place she went on one of her rare nights off, and this seemed to be as good a recommendation as any. It proved to be an excellent choice, and we dined well on fresh mackerel and local pigeon, noting at the same time that almost everyone else seemed to be chomping down hamburgers, and fish and chips.

Suitably fuelled, we headed down the town’s main drag to investigate the pubs. The first few we visited were almost deserted, which didn’t exactly seem to be a good omen. But then, at the far end of town, we found where everyone was hiding. The Glen Hotel was absolutely heaving, with barely a table spare in the place, but with just enough to space to squeeze in at the bar.

As people finished their meals, the place began to empty out, allowing us to spread out on a table whilst sampling the pub’s fine selection of real ales. As the pub emptied, the bar staff came over to ask us if we’d like a final drink as “when it gets this quiet, we usually close up”. I looked at my watch. Half ten. Yeah, I could cope with that for last orders.

“You know, I think that friend says ‘my feet are yelping’”, commented Tal as we strolled merrily down the town’s deserted streets, towards our B&B. “Although I’m not sure that makes much more sense either.”

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