East Highland Way Day 2: Spean Bridge to Tulloch

Published 11 February 2015

Remains of the High Bridge, seen from the Spean Bridge side

“You might remember this from yesterday,” I told Tal, pointing at the remains of the High Bridge. This time however we were seeing not at the end of some treacherous board-walk, but from a well-made path. Getting there had involved no heart-attack inducing slips, and absolutely no fuss. And there was a better view of the remains of the bridge as well. Indeed, had I known the day before that we’d be able to get such a great view of the bridge from the other side of the gorge, and that it would be so easy to get there, I may never have bothered suggesting popping off to see that cairn.

We’d arrived at the bridge as part of a detour; a few miles heading off the East Highland Way in order to see some other local landmarks. Overlooking Spean Bridge stands the Commando Monument, a large sculpture dedicated to the commandos of World War II who were based locally and who had trained in the area. And from the village itself, there was a gentle path that took the walker to the monument, via the High Bridge. It seemed rather rude not to head up the path and pay our respects.

For part of the way the path also followed an old railway track, passing by the remnants of a large viaduct that also once crossed the River Spean. Built by the Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway, the line was a complete white elephant that probably should never have got off the ground in the first place. With the line serving only a few hundred people, and having very limited freight potential, the only chance the line ever had of making any money was with an extension to Inverness, however each attempt to do so failed after lengthy legal battles.

Old railway embankment, leading to a long gone viaduct

Such was the expense of the line, when they finally finished in 1901 the owners had run out of money, and couldn’t even afford to buy any rolling stock. The line was offered to other companies to operate, but further legal battles, and even clashes in parliament meant it took until 1903 before the line finally opened. And when it did, next to no one actually used it. Just three years after opening, the station at the northern end of the line – on a pier at Loch Ness – was closed completely, and dismantled. And then, in October 1911, services were suspended completely, with an attempt to sell the whole thing for scrap. Embarrassingly, the line’s profitability was higher when it was closed thanks to the fact that fewer staff were needed, meaning that company houses and station buildings could be rented out.

Services did finally resume in 1913 when Inverness County Council agreed to subsidise the line, however it was to be a relatively short lived reprieve. Passenger services ended in 1933, leaving just a handful of freight services running before the whole thing closed for good in 1947. The viaduct, many bridges and some substantial concrete lined embankments had been used for a mere 34 years. The line had done little but suck up money, which would never be seen by the investors again.

Commando Memorial, Spean Bridge

The pinnacle of the detour was not the remains of a massive railway folly, nor the remains of an 18th century bridge, but the Commando Memorial itself. Standing high on a hill above Spean Bridge, with a mighty panoramic view of mountains galore, it was an impressive spot to remember some of those who had played their part in thwarting the plans of Hitler and the Nazis in their attempts to conquer Europe.

Many people had come to admire the memorial, and to pay their respects. Nearby was a small garden full of plaques and memorials dedicated to the lives of those original commandos, and to their modern counterparts who had recently given their lives in service for their country. It was hard not to look at some of them, and pause. The 24 year old who had fallen in Afghanistan, or the 80 year old whose memorial politely asked if that anyone who knew of the deceased’s exploits during World War II, could they please ring the given phone number as the family wanted to know more. Presumably their relative had never spoken of his wartime experiences, and had taken his story with him to the grave.


Road near Spean Bridge

We left the Commando Memorial, returned to Spean Bridge by the road, and picked up the East Highland Way again at the edge of the forest, joining a deserted side road which ran alongside the bubbling River Spean. The river splashed noisily, and with the sun sneaking its way through the trees, the fact that we were walking on tarmac was soon forgotten.

At a relaxed pace, we meandered our way to the Insh Scout Campsite, with its multiple “No Unauthorised Camping” signs posted all round the edge. It was here that the road gave way to a similarly pleasant track, again running alongside the river. And then, just a little further along, we even encountered a rare beast: an East Highland Way waymark. For the most part the trail has no signage and walkers need to rely on their map and guidebook in order to find their way. But here little red discs with arrows have been placed to guide walkers.

Its timing couldn’t have been better. I hadn’t really been concentrating on where we were going, and it was only by spotting the sign from the corner of my eye that meant we didn’t miss our turn off. Had the waymark not been there, who knows where we would have ended up.

Whilst we’d been walking near the River Spean all morning, it had always been fenced off, but on the edges of Insh Farm, the barriers disappeared and we got our chance to admire the river as it flowed along. It looked like it would make a fine picnic spot, with plenty of boulders to sit on. This was convenient as it was lunchtime, and rucksacks were swiftly discarded, and packed lunches pulled out, whilst we sat listening to the river.

At the River Spean near Insh Farm

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I love the sound of water,” remarked Tal.

Notice? He’d said the same thing five times that morning already. I would have had to be pretty absent minded not to. But who could fail to be relaxed, nay enchanted by rivers and streams in the countryside. Walking next to them, even from the other side of a fence, is a wonderful experience, and the sound of flowing water always brings joy to my heart.

The East Highland Way, however, isn’t a riverside walk. It doesn’t spend all its time next to water, and inevitably we would have to leave it at some point, at least for a while. By coincidence, our chosen picnic spot also marked the point where our path would diverge from the Spean for a few miles. Next to a deserted looking cottage with no road access but an immaculately trimmed garden, the path bade the river farewell as it headed through a large field, and past the ruins of former crofters’ houses.

Slopes of Beinn Clianaig

“See that metal shack on the hillside?” I asked Tal who nodded to the affirmative as I pointed it out to him. “According to the guidebook if we scramble up to it, you can get an absolutely fantastic view of the area. Plus we could follow the remains of an old narrow gauge railway, which you might also be able to see. Up for it?”

Tal paused for a moment, deep in thought.

“Hmm, no, it’s all right.”

“Yeah, I didn’t really fancy it either.”

We stayed in the fields and admired it all from afar. It was pretty good from where we were, and required a lot less exertion. Plus you could stand there and try to imagine little trains running across the hillside.

The shed was a remnant of the railway, perhaps used by workmen to shelter from the rain. Who knew? The railway itself was built in order to assist in the construction of the tunnels required for the Lochaber Hydroelectric scheme – yes, the one that powered the smelter at Fort William. Intended to shuttle materials and equipment around, it was only ever meant to be temporary, however it ended up being retained and operated for 52 years until 1977 when it had been retired, and maintenance vehicles were moved to forest tracks instead. However, whilst most of the tracks have been lifted, the railway’s impact on the landscape remains; a flat ridge, cut out of, and tracing the side of the hillside.

Warning sign at Monessie Bridge

Tal was far more inclined to take up our next option for a detour, which came a short way away at Monessie; his enthusiasm no doubt increased by the fact that it didn’t require him to climb a steep hill. It also allowed us to visit the River Spean, where we found a distinctly rickety looking wooden suspension bridge which crossed the river. A stern and insistent sign warned that only two people should cross at any one time, and that three people certainly shouldn’t. Just two, thanks.

We quickly counted how many of us there were. Two! Perfect! We could cross. Excellent. Putting our best feet forward, we stepped on and began to make the short crossing, feeling the bridge wobble and sway every time we put our foot down. No wonder they didn’t want three or more people on it; the swaying from just the two of us was rather substantial.

Of course we hadn’t needed to go over the bridge, so as soon as we got to the other side we headed back again and enjoyed the swaying again. And then over, and back once more. This was better than some fairground rides! So much fun was it that we did the trip several times, and enthused about the experience to two fellow walkers we met so such an extent that they went off to try it as well.

The two women – a German and an American who lived in Germany – were the first East Highland Way walkers we’d come across. Rather than stay in B&Bs, they’d opted to wild camp and I had a tinge of jealousy at their choice. It was perfect weather for going to sleep in the middle of nowhere, sitting in your tent’s entrance as the sun hit the horizon in the evening. Yes, I was jealous, although maybe, just maybe, I would have felt differently had it been raining heavily instead.

Up until that point, we’d thought that we had the East Highland Way to ourselves, but now fellow walkers were coming out of the woodwork like flies. Well, if by flies, you mean a further two walkers. At the bridge, just ahead of us, we spotted another couple – a husband and wife – who we initially took to be day hikers based on the size of their rucksacks, although we later found out they were having their luggage transported. We spotted them several times through the afternoon, always ahead of us, and always setting off just before we got to them.


Inverlair Lodge

“Are you humming the theme tune to The Prisoner?” asked Tal as we walked through the forest. Or, more accurately, an ex-forest. The loggers had been in, and the whole area had been decimated, like a band of Orcs had raged through the land.

I was indeed humming that particular theme tune. It seemed appropriate. We were, after all, heading towards Inverlair Lodge which is a large house in a sleepy hamlet, and is also said to have been one of the main influences for a certain cult 1960s sci-fi drama.

If you’ve never seen it – and if you haven’t, I’m not sure we can still be friends – the concept of the show is simple, and fully explained in its extensive title sequence. A secret agent, played by Patrick McGoohan, resigns from his job. He drives to the office, parks his car in an underground car park, stomps down some dimly lit corridors, and storms into someone’s office where he throws his resignation letter at the unfortunate member of staff, and thumps the desk a lot. Once he’s finished, he drives back to his house and packs his cases ready for a holiday. We know he’s going on holiday as he packs a large picture of a tropical beach into his suitcase. I mean, who doesn’t do this when they’re going on holiday. I certainly do. Before I’d left London, I’d stashed several 6×4 sized photographs of the Lochaber Smelter into my rucksack.

Naturally there’s a sting in the tail as our now former spy doesn’t make it to the Bahamas or wherever it is he’s going. Patrick McGoohan swanning around and sipping cocktails out of a coconut on a beach with golden sand, probably would not have made for compulsive viewing. Instead, before he leaves the house, he is gassed by a man dressed as an undertaker, and awakes to find himself a prisoner in a mysterious village which is full of former spies and other people with too much information.

It all sounds a bit bonkers – and is – however it was inspired by the rumoured goings on at Inverlair Lodge during the Second World War. In 1941 the building was requisitioned by the Special Operations Executive who had been created by the British government in order to conduct reconnaissance, sabotage and espionage in Nazi occupied Europe. The SOE set up a number of centres across the country, including several in the Highlands. Inverlair Lodge was one of them, and over the years enough has been revealed to suggest it was something more than a standard training centre.

Informally known as “The Cooler”, the Lodge was used as a place to keep failed agents out of the way until it was safe to release them back into the general population, and also where other agents could be sent if they needed a safe-haven. There has even been a suggestion that Hitler’s number 2, Rudolf Hess stayed at the Lodge in 1941 after he arrived in Scotland by plane in an apparent attempt to negotiate peace with Britain, although that’s regarded as a myth by some.

The Lodge is now in private hands, with no outward trace of its former purpose. It seemed to be deserted, with no one sitting out in its gardens. Our arrival outside it was also where we’d turn off the East Highland Way and head to our accommodation for the night. Unfortunately this also required a substantial walk. The lodge’s isolation from civilisation – no doubt one of the principle reasons why the SOE wanted to use it – also poses a problem for the East Highland Way walker. There’s nowhere to stay in the immediate vicinity; the nearest beds being found a two mile walk away at a hostel based in the buildings of Tulloch railway station.

Tulloch railway station

If the hamlet at Inverlair was small, Tulloch was positively tiny. It had clearly been built to the same template as Spean Bridge station, and must have been completely out of scale with the local demand given how few houses we’d seen on the two mile walk there from the Lodge. I wondered how full the many waiting rooms the station must have once had, ever got, and how many people had ever purchased a ticket from its ticket office.

The size of the place did mean that the buildings leant themselves rather well to their new occupation as a hostel. Inside somewhere were our beds for the night. All we had to do was get in.

“Call at the cottage,” said a handwritten sign in the hostel’s front door.

“What, this one?” I said to myself, as I wandered over to a neighbouring building.

“YES” screamed a giant sign outside it.

“Wow. That’s one way to give an answer.”

Sadly the cottage hadn’t been reading my mind. The giant YES sign was a less than subtle indication of how the hostel’s owner’s intended to vote in the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence.

Although the vote was just a few weeks away, we’d so far barely seen any evidence of it. Fort William’s streets had been rather devoid of political banners and posters, and if there’d been any in Spean Bridge I clearly hadn’t been paying enough attention. Here was our first introduction to the whole matter, and the hostel’s owner was certainly setting out their stall. As well as the YES sign outside their front door, there were several other large banners overlooking the station’s platforms. Those who made it inside could then choose from a wide range of pro-independence literature displayed on a table in the common room. Several of them were emblazoned with the view of “experts” that only way to protect the NHS was to vote for independence, which seemed to contradict a story I’d read in the newspaper a few days earlier where “experts” were informing voters that the only way to protect the NHS was to reject independence. You can find an “expert” who will say anything, I mused to myself.

Scotrail train standing at Tulloch station

After finding our dorm – and noticing that we would be the only ones in it – we went outside to sit in the sun on the platform. As we sat on a bench, the evening train for Glasgow pulled in. It was a four car train and looked pretty full. The guard leapt out, opened the doors and stood looking optimistically as absolutely no one alighted and not one person boarded. Then she jumped back on the train, pushed her buzzer and the train slowly pulled away leaving Tulloch to resume its slumber.

A few hours later, as the two of us sat eating enough food for at least five people, the Caledonian Sleeper pulled in, headed for London. Form the hostel’s owner, we learned that until recently, four local people would commute from Tulloch to London on a weekly basis. But tonight there was no one. The Sleeper sat quietly on the platform for a few minutes whilst the train staff stood on the platform, taking in the air, wondering if anyone would turn up to board. Eventually they all got on board, without any new passengers. The guard blew a whistle, and it left us alone in the night. Tulloch’s excitement was over for the day and the station could slumber once more.

Rambling Man Walks The East Highland Way

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Your Comments

Andy

22 February 2016 at 3:02 pm

Well it turns out staying as part of the U.K. and under the Conservative government was not good for NHS after all. Who knew!

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

22 February 2016 at 4:18 pm

Well this isn’t a political website, however it’s worth noting that the NHS in Scotland is devolved, so decisions in Westminster do not impact Scotland’s NHS.

Andy

14 May 2016 at 8:36 pm

Agreed! Apologies, I have picked up a rather bad habit of typing a permanent comment to a passing thought.

Thank you for your blogs and reviews. I’m starting the East Highland Way on Monday 16th May and last year I used your material for prep for the Southern Upland Way.

Excellent stuff! Thank you again.

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