East Highland Way Day 1: Fort William to Spean Bridge

Published 4 February 2015

The start of the East Highland Way

“We need to go down this street, just to that Travelodge.”

“Why? Is that where we’re staying?” asked Tal with an eyebrow raised in a way that only someone who has seen a fully detailed itinerary of the trip, complete with names, addresses and phone numbers of each evening’s accommodation provider in a printed format, and who knows that a Travelodge is most certainly not on that list, can do.

“We’re going there because that’s where the end is,” I replied, perhaps just a touch enigmatically.

Given the silence that followed, I may well have overdone it. But the truth was that we really did need to go to the end, for the end was where we would begin. That’s because the East Highland Way starts from the exact same spot where the West Highland Way finishes.

This was a great call made by the creators of the East Highland Way. It allows people to link the two routes together, perhaps walking one straight after the other. And also it means that the East Highland Way could set off in style, with a grand start afforded by a large statue of someone sat on a bench rubbing his feet. For the West Highland Way walker, the statue is a sign of what they have done; for the East Highland Way walker, it’s a warning of what will be.

Such is the popularity of the West Highland Way, that there can sometimes be a queue of people waiting to have their photograph taken with him. I’d been in Fort William two years earlier. Sitting outside a café, sipping a latte, I watched as a steady stream of people headed down Fort William’s high street towards the metallic walker; cameras poised for a celebratory photograph. The statue has only been there a few years, installed in 2010 when the end of the West Highland Way was moved from the edge of town, to the end of the main shopping street. It was a move that is estimated by the local Chamber of Commerce, to have added a whopping £2.5m a year to the local economy.

But that’s all in the afternoon. In the morning the statue’s pretty much deserted, passed only by bemused tourists, and locals heading off to the shops. We had it all to ourselves, and spent several minutes posing for the statutory “Look, we’re about to start walking a walk!” photographs.

“Right then, where do we go now?” asked Tal, finally tiring of being photographed in daft poses with an inanimate metal object.

“Well you know how we’ve just walked down the high street from the railway station to get here? Well what we need to do now is walk down the high street to the railway station again.”

Another long silence followed.

Leaving Fort William on the main road

Fort William is the second biggest town in the Highlands, and its size was more than evident as we attempted to leave it. From the town, the East Highland Way heads east, but first the walker has go along a couple of miles of roads lined with B&Bs, shops, several churches and even a petrol station. During our travels, we learned where a carpet store could be found should we needed one, and were been left wondering just why the local branch of Argos was so unpopular on this particular Saturday morning.

There were enough cars on the roads to suggest that Argos might well be receiving a boost in popularity later in the day. The pavement was less popular, although did seem to be in use for a local running event. Marquees had been set up at regular intervals, with people ready and waiting to supply water, or take down details on their trusty clipboard. It didn’t seem to be a particularly busy event – the marquees seemed to be more numerous than the runners – and there weren’t many times we needed to move to the side of the narrow pavement in order let someone go past. Although perhaps, like a well known catalogue based store, it would be busier later.

I silently wondered what Tal was making of all this. Walking two miles alongside a main road wasn’t exactly the most inspiring way to start to a six day walking trail. It was with relief when we arrived at a bright red sign informing us that the clumsily named “RioTintoAlcan” was welcoming us to “the Lochaber Smelter”. Ah, an aluminium works. Yes, I was certainly treating Tal to all the best places for this trip.

Near Lochaber Smelter in Fort William

Located in the shadow of Ben Nevis and opened in 1929, the smelter’s one of the town’s bigger employers and provides work for nearly 200 staff, who, between them, produce 40,000 tonnes of aluminium every year. Not that there’s a large source of aluminium ore in the Scottish Highlands. Far from it. When it comes to smelting, a local source of the raw ingredient is not a particularly major factor. Far more important is that there’s a reliable source of cheap electricity; the smelting process requires a substantial amount of it, so the cheaper you can get it, the better.

For the Lochaber Smelter, the electricity source comes from a dedicated hydro-electric system. Water from several rivers and burns flows into reservoirs many miles away, before being diverted down an enormous network of pipes and tunnels, to the smelter site, arriving in big pipes which stuck out of the side of Ben Nevis. When it finally arrives at Fort William, the water is used to drive massive turbines, which then generate the electricity. Such is the scale of the operation that RioTintoAlcan also own 45 hectares of land in the area; a sizeable amount of land, some of which we’d pass over later on our trip.

The East Highland Way skirts round the edge of the smelter, on a track that took us past a series of out buildings and parking spaces. Being a Saturday, the place was silent. Not even a single car stood in the car parks, and the only activity was from the cars driving down the nearby main road, or the birds circling overhead

Public footpath to the distillery

Interesting as all this was, we hadn’t travelled five hundred miles to be enthralled by the industrial processing of aluminium ore, nor wander around the outskirts of Fort William. And now, we were about to leave both behind and head into the highland countryside, although a signpost pointing off the route and towards the Ben Nevis Distillery, did make us pause and contemplate a brief diversion until we decided 11 o’clock was just a tad early for a wee dram.

Trees and bushes lined the path, breaking now and then to provide a view back to Fort William, or across the valley. The West Highland railway line and the A82 were also going in the same direction, with the road being by far the busier of the two; the noise of the traffic making it difficult for the local birds to make themselves heard.

“I think we should have a rule where we don’t talk about work at all this week,” Tal proclaimed suddenly and slightly unexpectedly. I nodded in agreement, more than happy to escape the mental clutches of the office for a few days. Although within half an hour Tal had broken his own commandment after raising the subject of the difficulty of organising team lunches when working in a small office. Swiftly it was decided that breaches in the anti-work policy would result in a “warning” being issued; after three warnings the offender would be “out” and would have to immediately return to London on the next available train. Talking about work could be an expensive business.

Lochaber Farm Shop

The track arrived at a large and completely empty road, and we left the East Highland Way for a while in search of lunch in a nearby farm shop, which also boasted a café. Its website, which I’d read up on before leaving London, had made a great deal about its pies, although this turned out to be the “take home, put in an oven and feed 8 people” variety, rather than a pork pie served with a nice bit of chutney. This naturally caused some disappointment – especially with the pie loving Tal – although the toasted sandwiches ordered instead went down well.

“It’s not going to be like this every day,” I warned Tal, as I dusted the crumbs of an Empire biscuit from my t-shirt. “For the rest of the trip, it’s going to be packed lunches, eaten whilst huddled under bridges in the pouring rain.”

Despite seemingly being in the middle of nowhere, with limited passing trade, there was a steady stream of customers; some clearly keener than others. Through the café window I watched as one car pulled up and its three occupants got out. Two headed to the shop with big smiles on their faces, desperate to check out the wide range of organic vegetables and local chutneys. Meanwhile, the car’s third occupant around outside scowling, sucking furtively on her cigarette, and giving the impression that she wanted to be anywhere else than this windswept hill in the heart of rural Scotland.

I contemplated offering her one of the fabulous Empire biscuits to cheer her up, but by the look on her face, it would take just a bit more than that.

A lovely path

“If we go a little further up the road, we can go on the gondola up to the top of Aonach Mòr,” I suggested as we left the café after lunch. “That’s a mountain,” I added, staving off the inevitable follow-up question.

Tal looked at me, confused.

“A gondola? Isn’t that a boat?”

“Well, yes. But it’s also a type of cable car.”

“Hmm,” Tal paused for thought and looked up the road before replying with an incisive “Nah.”

It was a sensible decision. Cloud had been hogging the tops of the hills all day and the chances of us seeing anything from the top of the mountain were pretty slim. And we certainly wouldn’t have found out how the name of a Venetian flat-bottomed rowing boat came to be applied to a cable car either. At least at a lower level, we’d be able to see something. So we did the next best thing, and headed down the road to rejoin the East Highland Way as it made its way to Spean Bridge.

As we did, we found something blocking the path; a particularly large Highland cow, which had decided the middle of the path was the best place to lie down for a rest. Tal took one look at the cow, and stopped.

“Let’s go round,” he suggested.

Highland cattle

In all the years I’d known him, Tal had never struck me as the kind of person to be particularly bothered by cows, but despite my protestations that Highland cattle were pretty docile and friendly things, we headed off the track in an attempt to circumnavigate the beast. This then posed a different problem; the path turned out to be heavily waterlogged and I swiftly found myself in a situation where my next foot forward would end up with me being up to my knee in water. Suddenly the potential risk of upsetting a large cow with a sizeable pair of spiky horns seemed to be a far more preferable option. And, naturally, said animal didn’t move a single muscle as we sneaked past it. Despite that outcome, Tal seemed far happier once we’d left the occupied by the cows, and entered another with sheep in, instead.

Shortly after, we headed off down a tarmac road. Our guidebook had suggested a swift detour in order to visit the “Highbridge Jacobite Memorial”, and it seemed an opportunity too good to ignore, even if I did have little idea exactly what the “Highbridge Jacobite Memorial” was.

It turned out that it was a cairn commemorating a piece of history; namely an event that occurred during the Jacobite rebellion in 1745.

Jacobite Memorial Cairn

The rebellion was ultimately a response to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when King James II of England and VII of Scotland, was turfed off the throne following the so-called Glorious Revolution. The full story of the Jacobites is long and complicated, and I’m no history writer and this isn’t a history book. However, it appears the whole saga can essentially be boiled down to the fact that James was a Catholic and was a supporter of (gasp) religious tolerance for Catholics. In a country which ditched the Pope some years earlier, so that the monarch of the day could get a divorce, this simply wouldn’t do. And when James’s son and heir was born and raised as Catholic as well, for some members of the ruling elite, things really came to a head. A Dutch man, William of Orange – who, importantly for those concerned, was a Protestant – was invited to invade, and there hasn’t been a Catholic monarch of the UK ever since.

Not that some didn’t try. In 1715, a failed rebellion by the so-called Jacobites (the name being derived from the Latin for James, Jacobus) attempted to obtain the crown for James’s son, James Francis Edward. And in 1745, another (failed) uprising followed, this time led by James’s grandson, Charles Edward Stuart, who is perhaps best known to most people as Bonnie Prince Charlie.

The cairn had been erected in memory of an event in this second uprising. For it was in the area we were in now that a small group of twelve of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s supporters were successful in halting the advance of a couple of hundred members of the government army.

A victory worthy of a cairn indeed, although the mile and a half round trip down a quiet country road just to see it, perhaps wasn’t. But I had another sight to see up my sleeve. For near the memorial sat a discreet set of steps that would take us to the structure that the cairn was named after. The High Bridge.

Boardwalk near Higbridge

The steps led to a board-walk and as I walked down it I suddenly heard an almighty “WHACK”. It took a moment but eventually I realised that Tal was no longer walking in front of me, and was instead lying on the floor groaning loudly in pain. Seconds later my own feet started slipping forward, only stopped when they prevented from moving any further by the top of Tal’s rucksack.

After a stunned pause whilst images of having to call out mountain rescue, and of Tal being winched up on a stretcher into a helicopter, flashed through my mind, I finally managed to regain enough composure to ask Tal if he was all right. Thankfully he was merely slightly bruised, and after he’d made his way to his feet again, we headed on again, this time much more cautiously.

Other sections of board walk followed, most of it in a poor state of repair. It looked like it been a long time since anyone had even walked down this path, yet alone visited to do some repair work. On another section, bracken and weeds grew out of the cracks, masking missing planks, as I discovered when my foot suddenly disappeared into the void below.

Remains of the Highbridge

Somehow we avoided any further injury, and made it to a spot high above the River Spean where the remains of the High Bridge could just about be seen. Built by the military ten years before the rebellion, the bridge had once towered over the gorge, looking like something that had come straight out of Lord of the Rings. But over time it had fallen into a state of disrepair, and now just the struts remained; their tops covered with grass and moss. Funnily enough, still looking just like something out of Lord of the Rings.

“Hello!” came a call from the other side of the gorge, and we looked over to see a small child waving enthusiastically from the path on the other side. Her parents were busy reading an interpretation board, which I strongly suspected contained a detailed history of the bridge. It seemed unlikely they’d risked life and limb to get there, and they probably had better views of the bridge remains too. We certainly couldn’t see much from where we were. The overgrown trees and bushes prevented us from seeing anything, and our reward for making it to this point, was to head back from where we came, preferably without suffering any further injury.

Leanachan Forest

For most of the day our path had been running closely to the railway line. Not that we’d seen many trains. There’s only a handful of passenger services a day on the West Highland Line, with a smattering of freight trains in-between. But now the East Highland Way decided it had had enough of the tracks, and headed off to walk through the Leanachan Forest instead.

For the most part, the forest proved to be a rather dull and lifeless plantation; a bog-standard commercial forest with wide gravel tracks and tall conifer trees planted in tightly packed rows. The kind where everything looks the same, meaning you have no idea how far you’ve gone, or how much further you have to go.

Such is the nature of such commercial forests. To make money you want the trees to be all the same kind, and to be easy to fell. Yet sometimes in such places, if you know where to look you can find lurking a section that’s far more attractive. A little slice that’s planted with a diverse range of trees, growing in a more natural pattern, and surrounded by attractive clumps of wild flowers. The kind of path that lulls people into thinking that all forests are quaint, varied, beautiful and pleasant, when the reality is much more different.

The East Highland Way headed down one such path now, and needless to say, we loved it. And needless to say as well, that section of the path didn’t last anywhere near long enough.

The Royal Scotsman at Spean Bridge station

Before we knew it we were stood on a bridge overlooking Spean Bridge railway station, just a few metres away from our B&B. As we did, a train pulled into the station, and not just any train, but “The Royal Scotsman”. A luxury touring train, the nine carriages on the train accommodate a maximum of 36 passengers and 11 staff on a multi-day journey across the railway lines of Scotland, with fine dining and sleeping cabins. If you’ve ever wanted to go on a six day rail tour of the Scottish Highlands, eating your dinner in a dinner jacket whilst sat in an oak panelled dining car, well this is the train for you.

The train wasn’t waiting for us; besides, I couldn’t fit the tux in my rucksack. Our accommodation was a little simpler. However, after a good shower and freshen up, we did return to the station.

The station buildings on the West Highland line had been sizeable; the number of waiting rooms and ticket offices far greater than the local demand usually ever warranted. In most parts of the country, with stations unstaffed, such buildings have often at best boarded up, and at worst demolished. However, the West Highland Line stations had mostly survived, with new uses found for them. At Spean Bridge that new role was as a restaurant named The Old Station House, which seemed to be doing a roaring trade.

Settling down at our table and enjoying some fantastic produce, I looked around at our fellow customers and idly wondered at the difference. When the line first opened in 1894, it must surely have been pretty dead in these buildings at 8pm on a Saturday. Now, it was packed. Although not one of them was here for a train. For that was the one thing that was absent. Such is the rareness of them on this line, that not a single one passed through the station in all the time we were there.

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