East Highland Way Day 3: Tulloch to Feagour

Published 18 February 2015

“You’re making Tal walk 20 miles in one day?” Jacko was stunned, and was not afraid of showing it as he supped his pint in the pub near London Euston station. The same station where, a few hours later, Tal and myself would be catching the Caledonian Sleeper for Fort William. With a few hours to kill between me leaving work for the day, and the train setting off, I’d arranged to meet some friends for a pre-journey pint or two.

“It’s about 21 miles actually,” I replied. “And I did warn him beforehand.”

This didn’t particularly pacify Jacko, who spent several minutes agog at the notion, by repeatedly saying “20 miles” and shaking his head.

Once upon a time, Jacko had been a bit of a walker himself. Many years earlier he’d told me that he’d spent a pleasurable Saturday walking from his then flat in the suburbs of South West London, all the way to the heart of the capital, before popping for a pint then catching the tube home. Some years later, I’d taken him and Tal with me on a stretch of the South Downs Way, during which he spent several minutes taking photographs of a parked tractor.

He doesn’t walk much these days – family life apparently getting in the way. Although I confess I always half suspect that one day, when we’ve both turned 45, he’ll turn up at my house with a fully loaded rucksack, and insist that we’re going off to walk the Pennine Way together. Tal had even idly wondered if we’d have to stop him getting on the train with us there and then, although the likelihood that he would be rushing off to pack his walking boots was swiftly reduced on learning about the fact that he would be required to walk 21 miles in one day.

I didn’t particularly want to walk such a distance myself, but we didn’t really have much choice. The East Highland Way was about to go through a section that was remote, with limited transport options and even fewer places to stay. There was just no real way to break it up into a shorter distance. And believe me, I’d looked.

Red telephone box at the turnoff for Tulloch railway station

Red telephone box at the turnoff for Tulloch railway station

Back when I’d first been planning the walk, I’d planned to wild camp most nights, doing the whole thing over seven days and breaking this long stretch up by bedding down near the end of a remote loch; a plan that only changed when Tal invited himself along and proclaimed that due to other commitments, we’d have to walk it in six days instead. After much thinking, I decided walking 82 miles over six days whilst carrying all my camping gear was just a bit too much for me, yet alone Tal who had never even done a long distance walk before. But there were consequences. Day three would end up being long. Too long.

To make things worse, after walking 21 miles we wouldn’t even be at our accommodation, for the nearest B&B was actually a further six miles away. At least we wouldn’t need to walk that last bit – the B&B’s owner would be coming to pick us up – but there was still something rather disappointing about ending your day’s walk and having to hang around at the side of the road for ages until someone in a car arrived.

Two of the twenty one miles were related to the detour we’d had to make in order to get to the hostel at Tulloch train station, walking along busy roads. Rather infuriatingly the hostel was a mere half a mile away from one part of the East Highland Way, however there were no roads or paths which connected the two. Had there been, we would have been able to walk a little further the previous day and make this third one a lot more manageable.

“Some people – and I am absolutely not saying you should do this at all – follow the railway line down,” we’d been told over breakfast in the hostel.

I nodded as I’d noticed this was an incredibly direct way of getting back to the trail. The railway met the East Highland Way about a mile and a half south of the station. Go the direct way and you’d be able to knock off about three miles off the day’s walk. There was even a forest track which followed the railway for most of that way. There was just one problem; we needed to cross the River Spean, and the only way to do so would have required us to actually walk on the railway bridge. Even given how quiet the West Highland line was, this was not an enticing notion at all, as well as being trespass. Had we been on the bridge just as a train came by, we would have been snookered. Finding out when the passenger trains would be due was easy. The line’s freight services, less so.

Some other walkers apparently took a different approach, attempting to take a shortcut by crossing over the River Spean to the south west of the hostel. And then there was the third option. Take the proper route round and simply accept that your feet are going to be very tired at the end of the day.

Naturally that was the option we went for.

Knowing the distance we had to put behind us that day, Tal and myself had agreed that we should to set off as early as we could – which turned out to be twenty past eight. After fuelling ourselves with a Full Scottish breakfast, complete with haggis and black pudding, we set off down the road as fast as we could.

Near Inverlair Lodge

The first five or so miles would be over tarmac, which whilst not being particularly kind to the foot would at least allow us to get up a good speed. The two miles back to Inverlair Lodge were swifter than either of us anticipated, which just left another three miles of road walking towards the tiny hamlet of Fersit before we could get on a decent path once more.

“Would you like a lift?” called a voice from the inside of a distinctly battered blue car, as we passed by An Dubh Lochan, whose name apparently means “small, inky black lake” or something equally descriptive.

I paused for a moment, severely tempted due to my feet already feeling a tad sore so early on, before Tal swiftly waved the driver away with a polite “thanks, but we’re walking the East Highland Way.” I silently cursed myself for being the one to almost crumble. This wasn’t the image of the experienced long distance walker that I particularly wished to portray.

An Dubh Lochan, near Feagour on the East Highland Way

It turned out that even if we had taken it, the offered lift wouldn’t have actually been very long at all. We turned the corner of the road just in time to see the car parking up next to a sign which informed drivers that the public road ended there, and that there must be absolutely no parking.

The driver was heading off to bag some nearby Munros and waved hello as we walked towards the hamlet itself. Fersit lays a short way off the public road; a handful of cottages and farms clustered around the railway line and the river, and all in the shade of the mighty Corrour Forest which lay a short way to the west.

The forest would be our home for the next six miles or so, walking on a good wide forest track. We marched in silence, doing our best to get some miles behind us whilst we still felt like we had some energy. Occasionally I’d stop and peer into the rows of trees, deep into the forest, and marvel at how dark it was.

Corrour Forest

“You could probably hide a body in there and no one would find it for years,” I mentioned to Tal, who suddenly wondered if he’d been wise to join me on this trip. “At least until they came to chop the trees down anyway,” I added, although this didn’t seem to make him feel much better.

Despite being a commercial plantation, there was something pleasant about the forest. The tracks were never particularly direct, preferring to wind around and make slight detours. We were also not alone. Up ahead of us were the couple – Brian and Kathy – who we’d seen ahead of us the day before, and who we’d finally said hello to at the hostel on Tulloch station the previous evening. Later we passed the two wild campers, who had spent the night not far from Fersit.

We’d been expecting to run into the four of them at some point. It would have been rather strange if we hadn’t. However, this most rural and isolated stretches of the trail turned out to be one of the busiest. A large group of teenagers passed us, heading the way we’d come. Silent and sullen, they passed us without saying a word, and barely lifting their heads. Clearly they were having fun. But most curious of all came a little further on where we found a group of bags shoved to the side of the path, and a small group of people standing amongst the trees.

“Did he have a boom mic?” I asked, trying to look at them without making it too obvious I was doing so. “I’m sure he had a boom mic.”

“What, you think they were filming something? Out here?” replied Tal.

“Well, yes. Why else would someone be holding a boom mic next to some people standing in the trees? There’s just one problem. I didn’t actually see anyone holding a camera.”

Of course they could have been recording something for radio. Although why you’d stand in the middle of some trees to do that, I couldn’t work out. And whilst I’m not a massive expert on radio production, I’m pretty sure that you don’t need massive boom mics with furry covers on them for radio recordings. Something smaller and easier on the arms can generally do the job. Whatever they were doing, the group weren’t going to let us know, and our friendly nods in their direction were greeted with long, cold, hard stares in return.

River Spean seen from Corrour Forest

Although we were walking through a forest, recent logging had opened up the views across the valley, allowing us to see the nearby Loch Laggan reservoir and the road on the other side. The influence of the Fort William smelter was still being felt; the water stored here can be diverted off to power the smelter’s hydroelectric turbines when it is needed. Although, there didn’t seem to be much of it there. My map showed a valley floor nearly full of water, yet there seemed to be a distinct absence of the stuff. We found out the next day that this was due to a dam upstream being repaired, but at that point all we could do was speculate that the smelter had been working particularly hard of late.

The logging meant that there wasn’t a massive difference when we left the forest and headed down a track to a cluster of houses at a place called Moy. We greeted Brian and Kathy once again as they ate their lunch next to the river. Recently retired, Brian and Kathy had spent their life doing day walks, and fell-bagging in the Lake District. Now they’d chosen the East Highland Way to be their first long distance footpath. And they could seriously put their foot down when they wanted to, which seemed to be all the time. Barely had we bade them farewell and they’d zoomed off, scarcely visible in the distance.

Even with the benefit of a light pack, I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to match their pace. Nor, for that matter, would I particularly want to. I’m more of a fan of walking a tad slower, allowing time to meander, take it all in and to take life as it comes. Although given it was lunchtime and we still had another 11 miles to do, tarrying awhile probably wasn’t the best idea. Still, if there’s one thing that helps when trying to cover very long distances in one day, it’s rest stops, and our lunchtime break had an extension when the German-American duo of campers stopped to say hello and consult our map.

The pair had not managed to find a guide book in Fort William and had plotted most of the route on their OS maps, using a dodgy internet connection in their hostel. All well and good except they’d been unable to get the last two days of the walk noted down, and had been trying to find a reliable internet connection ever since. Easier said than done when wild camping in the Scottish Highlands.

We chatted and chatted for a whole, learning that they were called Olga and Ingrid, that one of them was doing a music degree and played jazz, and that the gas for their camping stove had been confiscated at the airport meaning that they’d been living off cold food for the whole trip. Meanwhile, they learned that we were two IT boffins who lived in London. When it came to anecdotes and interesting life stories, I’m absolutely sure I know who the winners were. We obviously won, hands down.

One of the key discussion points was which route to take for the afternoon. Not that the East Highland Way offers a choice. The trail simply goes alongside Loch Laggan – a long, thin loch with a path on one side, and the A86 on the other. However, I’d from two different sources that the path there had been recently “upgraded”. Previously it had been a simple, pleasant forest track but was now a wide logging road. Far better, both sources had told me, was to head slightly off to the east where another pair of lochs could be found, and take the delightful path around them instead.

Approaching the Two Lochans

The two lochans – which share the same name of Lochan na Earba – sounded much more promising, however there was a catch. Going down that path would add an extra half a mile on top of an already long day.

The other four walkers were all planning to take the official route, however the more we thought – and discussed it – the more appealing a diversion away from a logging road was to us. With nods of agreement, we left Olga and Ingrid and headed off the East Highland Way.

A wide track took us round a hill and away from Loch Laggan, curving round to the bottom of the larger of the two lochs. Almost immediately we knew – despite having not seen the alternative – that we’d made the right choice as we found ourselves walking along a very welcome stretch of sand; our feet sinking in gently as we walked through it.

This was a welcome respite after spending most of the day on hard, stone tracks. But it was the view that was really what made it. The two lochs nestled gently between hills on both sides, isolated from the world, silent and peaceful. There was no one around, and the busy A86 that ran alongside the neighbouring Loch Laggan was a long way away.

Back when I’d still been considering wild camping as an option, the two lochans had been an area I’d considered for wild camping. On the map it looked perfect; out of the way, with some flat land to pitch a tent, and a good water source. I knew from bitter experience that sometimes what looks a good camping spot on a map, can be far from it when you actually see it in real life, so I was happy to see that in this case, my judgement was correct. It looked idyllic and I had a pang of regret that I’d be missing out on spending the night at this perfect location; one which I swiftly put out of my mind by the thought that there was a comfy bed waiting for me at the B&B.

Lochan na h-Earba

“It’s beautiful,” I muttered, emitting a rare piece of conversation on a day which had mostly been chat free, allowing us to save our energy for the necessary miles rather than speaking. With cameras in hand, we looked at each other, nodded in agreement and snapped away.

We may not have had any clue at all what the main Loch Laggan route was like, yet somehow we knew we’d made the right choice. Later that evening, beer in hand, it was confirmed as we learned from Brian and Kathy that the Loch Laggan section had been a right old trudge. It’s always good to know you’ve made the right call.

Entering Laggan Forest

At the head of the two lochans, we rejoined the East Highland Way and it began to feel like the end was in sight, even if we did still have another five miles to walk.

That five miles seemed to drag on and on, even if the surroundings were more than pleasant. But since leaving the lochans, the track had reverted to stone and gravel. My legs and feet were beginning to ache, and Tal had discovered that the source of the discomfort on his feet was due to a blister forming between two of his toes.

After leaving the lochs we’d entered what seemed to be an attractive woodland, but which swiftly reverted to your standard commercial forest, with wide logging tracks and endless rows of uniformly planted conifers; the biggest problem with which was the distinct lack of anywhere to sit. In desperate need of a rest, we ended up sitting on the side of the path; our feet dangling into a drainage ditch as we munched crisps, chocolate and whatever other energy giving snacks we could find in the depths of our rucksacks.

No matter how many calories fried bits of potato covered in salt provided, the day was beginning to blur. Tree after tree, mile after mile, our heads began to hang wearily from our bodies. The end was in sight though. No sooner had we passed a cottage did we find ourselves next to a sawmill. And then we were out of the forests and into farmland; fields filled with sheep. The A86 was just around the corner, and with it Gallovie Bridge; the spot that marked the end of our day’s walking.

Standing at Gallovie Bridge

The last mile seemed to take the longest, and it was a weary voice that came out of my mouth as I phoned our B&B to arrange our promised lift to civilisation, also known as the village of Laggan. And then, the call made, I collapsed and waited by the side of the road until the owner’s green car pulled up and it’s driver bade us jump inside.

Weary we may have been, but we’d done it. 21 miles – and an extra half too – all done. We’d made it, and in reasonable time, taking just eight and a half hours to do it. It may have been hard going, but we’d still managed to average two and a half miles an hour.

Laggan Village

After a hot shower and a reviving cup of tea, I felt almost human again; alive enough at least to move to our B&B’s dining room. Laggan’s not exactly a tiny place, but it is distinctly lacking in the pub department. Until recently the village had had two large hotels on its doorstep, both with public bars and restaurant areas, but one had recently been converted to a self catering holiday villa, whilst the other had decided to only open its doors to large coach parties.

All of which meant that there wasn’t particularly much to do for two weary hikers in Laggan besides stay inside the B&B and while the night away. Which was fine as it had a well stocked bar, with several local ales and an extensive whisky selection, which took up eight pages of the thirteen page drinks menu.

Given the place was a three room B&B, it was hard to imagine that they had quite that much demand for such a large amount of whisky, although things became a lot clearer when we discovered that the owner, Simon, was a whisky fan himself; even the bar itself was made of an old whisky barrel. A bit of an expert on the stuff, he was able to give an extensive lecture on the subject after our evening meal. It seemed more than likely that being able to occasionally sell some of it was an excuse to expand his collection a little more. It was an excuse I wished I could have had myself. Although maybe that would also make you less keen to part with it. This may be the reason why, on reaching the point when I had finished my first and was contemplating a second, Simon had mysteriously disappeared.

It was probably for the best. It had been hard to choose my first whisky, eventually settled for a rare glass of Dallas Dhu single malt, from a distillery that originally ceased commercial production in 1983, but which is now a museum. Goodness knows how long it would have taken me to select a second one to sample.

Besides, everyone else had gone to bed, and beginning to feel the day’s exertions take hold of me, I dragged myself off to join them. After the distances we’d done, sleep was ultimately the best reward. And Jacko could rest assured that we’d made it in one piece.

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