A Scottish Road Trip into the Mountains and Snow

Glasgow

“Yellow Snow Warning”.  The signs above the M6 and M74 motorway could do with a little bit of reordering and perhaps, an added comma; “Yellow Warning, Snow” but we have fun with the message and smile our way towards Scotland through thin rain and very fine snow. Both of the elements have just about disappeared when we stop to look at TripAdvisor just north of Erskine Bridge beyond Glasgow. Fort William is another two and a half hours but the computer is telling me that there’s a four star hotel nearby with a room at £28 apiece including breakfast; well it would be rude not to!

The hotel is clearly aimed at honeymooners and horsey types and we watch youngsters riding ponies in indoor gymkhana areas that are a double glazed window away from us as we eat an excellent dinner.

The room is large and populated with twin beds. This followed an uneasy moment when we checked in. The receptionist was happy to book us in to a double room until I pointed out that we’ve been good friends for many years but not that good! She took it in her stride and promised that it would be a twin by the time we got back from the bar (how did she know we would be going to the bar?)

Both Dave and I are both snorers so there is an unplanned competition between us as we make unconscious and increasingly stentorian attempts to out-snore the other. By morning the decision is to make every effort to find hotels with separate rooms where possible!

The dawn brings alternating snow and blue skies and sometimes a combination of the two. The paths are covered in ice and there is a hoar frost on the hedges, it’s all very beautiful and the delight is that we don’t have to exit the warm cocoon of our block until we’re filled with an excellent Scottish breakfast.

It takes several minutes to clear the ice off the car windows and the way out of the parking area is negotiated with trepidation as the ice crackles under the wheels. The roads are clear though and the atmospheric ripple in the high pressure that’s brought the snow is now gone leaving a deep blue backdrop for the silhouetted limbs on the trees that combine with the mountains and create wonderful reflections in the still water of the loch.

The mountains become higher and the snow line lower as we approach Glencoe. As we turn off for the Mountain Resort and a cuppa there is a good covering of snow all around us. The resort is the focus and sustenance for the ski lift that’s running continuously to take skiers and snowboarders to the pistes another thousand feet or more above us.

Glencoe

The cafe is reasonably priced and, more importantly, warm. There’s a stove at the end and the guy that serves us is clearly multi-tasking as he sorts out more wood for it between serving us coffee and tea. Outside, the views of the snow covered mountains are wonderful and we scramble around the carpark to gain maximum advantage from the height and scenery.

There’s also a gallery of webcams offering a window into what’s happening on the mountain in real time here: http://www.glencoemountain.co.uk/webcams/

We discover a skeletal-man-sculpture in the car park and I email Andy Meldrum at the resort who responds almost immediately – it was built by a Fort William local for a Mountain Festival and sat on the dock in Fort William for a couple of years. It was then liberated to Glencoe for a snowfestival back in 2015 and has been in situ ever since. It’s wonderful and I’m grateful to Andy for his quick response.

We continue into Glencoe proper and I reflect on the tales we were told when we first came to this wonderful area about the McIans who are part of the clan McDonald and were massacred supposedly by the Campbells.

It wasn’t as simple as that of course, King William of Orange was feeling a bit belligerent about the uprisings in the Highlands and wanted to draw a line under them but only on his terms. He offered a full pardon to all who would swear an oath of allegiance to him by 1st January, 1692. Alastair McIan (part of the clan McDonald) waited for the nod from the deposed King James VII of Scotland and through a mix of the above procrastination, dreadful snowy weather and going to the wrong place, he didn’t quite make the deadline although he did take the oath.

William was miffed and if you couple that with the fact that he didn’t like him anyway, decided to make an example so he composed the following, chilling order in his own hand and it was issued on his behalf by the wonderfully named John Dalrymple who was the Lord Advocate.

“You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels, the M’Donalds, of Glencoe and putt all to the sword under seventy. You are to have special care that the old fox and his sons doe upon no account escape your hands. You are to secure all the avenues, that no man may escape…. This is by the King’s special command, for the good of the country, that these miscreants be cutt off root and branch. See that this be putt in execution without feud or favour, else you may expect to be treated as not true to the king’s government, nor a man fitt to carry a commission in the king’s service. Expecting you will not faill in the fulfilling hereof as you love yourself, I subscribe these with my hand. Master of the Stair (John Dalyrmple).”

Jim McClean wrote a wonderful poem/song in the 1960’s that sums up the evening well:

The Massacre of Glencoe by Jim McClean

They came in a blizzard, we offered them heat
A roof for their heads, dry shoes for their feet
We wined them and dined them, they ate of our meat
And they slept in the house of MacDonald.

O, cruel was the snow that sweeps Glencoe
And covers the grave o’ Donald
O, cruel was the foe that raped Glencoe
And murdered the house of MacDonald

They came from Fort William with murder in mind
The Campbell had orders King William had signed
“Put all to the sword” these words underlined
“And leave none alive called MacDonald”

They came in the night when the men were asleep
This band of Argyles, through snow soft and deep
Like murdering foxes amongst helpless sheep
They slaughtered the house of MacDonald

Some died in their beds at the hand of the foe
Some fled in the night and were lost in the snow
Some lived to accuse him who struck the first blow
But gone was the house of MacDonald

The King wasn’t the only one with a penchant for massacre, they were all at it and life was not important; however, the reason for this being so infamous was the fact that they accepted the hospitality of the McIans/McDonalds and were fed and sheltered overnight as was the custom for travellers in those days; then, in the morning, they began the slaughter!

Glencoe is beautiful and the river Coe adds to the drama of the mountains as it meanders and cascades along the valley floor. The glen begs us to stop several times and we do, it’s cold but the views are priceless and each time we stop the temperature has dropped another degree.

Fort William

I need gators to keep the snow out of my boots and the bottom of my walking trousers dry so we call into Fort William. Dave has just finished reading a book about the Commandos and ungentlemanly warfare and would like to visit the a part of the museum that celebrates their service. Sadly, it’s in use by a school party so we’re not allowed in but we’ll make every effort another time and I would urge you to check out this facility if you make this trip.

So, gators purchased at Cotswold with a 15% discount with Dave’s National Trust card, worth baring in mind if you’re in this lovely shop and we’re off again towards our first objective, the cable car to the Nevis Range.

Nevis Range

The cable car is about 7 miles along the A82 towards Inverness and is well signposted. The car parks in the winter are free (it’s February 2018 as I write) and it runs continuously except in high winds or poor weather. We purchase tickets and we’re off.

Travelling in a cable car is eerily quiet except when the car goes over the rollers that suspend the ropes above the firebreak in the forest. It’s so quiet that we can hear the birds calling in the trees and the sound of the water as it cascades down rapids and waterfalls. The ice on either side of the stream is almost meeting in the middle and forms a roof for the snow so you can hear the water but, in some places, you can’t see it.

At the top the snow covering is complete and we squint in the sunshine, the reflection is pleasant but only just bearable, I can understand snow-blindness for those exposed to this for any length of time.

Our objectives are to use the facilities, get warm, have a coffee then take a walk in the snow. These objectives will be repeated but not necessarily in the same order when we return from the walk.

Our first trudge will be across the ski slope down into a channel then up to Sgur Finniosgaig (I’m sure there are accents on some of these letters but I can’t find them on the keyboard so apologies to Scottish friends). It’s an extremely easy walk in the summer and beautiful too, it’s a little more challenging in winter with equally stunning views but different colours.

At the top we make Dave a documentary star with some FaceBook Live going out to the internet-world as he points out the direction of Ben Nevis, the Isle of Eigg and other landmarks. The air is crystal clear and it’s a privilege to be here.

After a couple of hours and more rambling we make our way back down the cable car and decide against an overnight stay in Fort William in favour of somewhere a little further up the road to Inverness when we’re treated to a sight that will compensate for the disappointment at the museum, it’s a statue dedicated to the Commandos and we stop to pay our respects and whisper a thank you for the ‘work’ of this highly specialist unit.

Commanda Memorial

The men serving with the Commandos were awarded 479 decorations during the war. This includes eight Victoria Crosses awarded to all ranks. Officers were awarded 37 Distinguished Service Orders with nine bars for a second award and 162 Military Crosses with 13 bars. Other ranks were awarded 32 Distinguished Conduct Medals and 218 Military Medals. In 1952 the Commando Memorial was unveiled by the Queen Mother. It is now a Category A listed monument in Scotland, dedicated to the men of the original British Commando Forces raised during Second World War. Situated around a mile from Spean Bridge village, it overlooks the training areas of the Commando Training Depot established in 1942 at Achnacarry Castle.

A quick look on hotels.com and we’re fixed with a two bedroomed apartment for £35 apiece, (Normally £160 for the unit), excellent, we both get some sleep!

The Black Isle

Whilst contemplating the next move Dave, who ‘doesn’t need a smartphone’ on account of using mine, has found a walk on the Black Isle. Generally speaking, it’s not quite an Isle and it’s certainly not black. It is thought that its name is derived from the fact that its proximity to so much water means it has a microclimate that is not conducive to snow and the snow that does lay in the surrounding countryside makes it appear to be black. That’s the story; however, on our walk, the snow theory doesn’t hold!

So, we’re wonderfully refreshed with a snore free night’s sleep and looking for breakfast. Surprisingly, we find one at a ski store in a trading estate on the way to the Black Isle and it’s remarkably inexpensive so a bacon and black pudding sandwich later and we’re off.

The start point is a little seaside town Rosemarkie. The name comes from the Gaelic Ros Mhaircnidh meaning “promontory of the horse stream” (Yes, really – a romantic name based on a horse peeing).

The initial 3km is via the beach which, initially, is sand and easy going; then we encounter the odd boulder and a few rocks, then it gets challenging. After the initial apprenticeship of about a kilometre (half mile-ish) on the sand we’re challenged with a couple of kilometres (mile and a bit) of scrambling between huge boulders and trying to avoid small rock-pools with huge cliffs on our left and the sea on our right. We have three hours before the tide makes this bit ‘interesting’ and in fairness there are routes up ravines that could get us out of trouble should that be necessary. The latter should not be necessary as we’d checked tide times and allowed a huge amount of extra time for this element of the walk.

There are gannets, guillemots and plenty of shags, Dave stresses that he likes the guillemots and gannets but, on the whole, prefers a shag…!!


A Shag.

After about an hour we arrive at the sign indicating our route is up the cliff and the overgrown wooden steps that have been helpfully provided are evidence that this is the way. They zig and zag up the face with small shrubs binding the soil that enables the track to be maintained. Neither of us are that keen on heights but we get on with it anyway and only look down when it’s absolutely necessary. We’re about half way up when the snow begins to fall and initially it’s quite gentle and comes in short bursts. Thankfully we’re near the top when it really starts to blow and as we make our way from the cliff top inland we call George Renwick and the rest of the team who’re walking in Yorkshire – in sunshine!

The terrain up here is undulating and together with the snow and wind is chilly. We get to a large gate and the track appears to wend its way around a perimeter fence and we take that route down into a dip then back up a track to a fence – a three wire electric fence!

I have a couple of painful childhood memories one of which was me accidentally peeing on an electric fence, I think it was several hours before I stopped shaking and the act of remembering now is making me uncomfortable.

“We’ve two options, I think”, says I, “We could go the way we came and cut through the gate that we thought was private or climb over the electric fence by using the pig wire fence adjacent to it”.

Dave, ex-farmer and a person who knows about these things responds, “…or we could unhook the top wire, climb over, and then reconnect it”

I’m thinking of wet trousers and whether the other two wires are live. The top one that Dave is proposing to unhook certainly is, we can feel the pulses through the wet insulation and its not a comfortable feeling although Dave’s quite relaxed.

Perhaps it’s my vivid imagination but I can see Dave unhooking that top wire and holding the insulated end away from the fence whilst I step across it; however, my estimation is that the wire that that will become top is about two inches below the area that a tailor would use as the datum when measuring my inside leg. Two inches! Any slip would mean spending the rest of the day with three Adams apples, a glowing scrotum and bulging, watering eyes.

“Err, I’m not sure about this Dave”, was my response.

“It’s not a problem”, says he and reaches forward, grabs the insulated end of the pulsing top wire and with a deft twist, unhooks it.

I’m thinking bollocks (well I was thinking that anyway) but now its more of an expletive, and get ready for the crossing – then I think I can utilise a mixture of plan “A” i.e. use the pig wire to get a bit more elevation and step across the intimidating wire that’s now the new threat.

Dave’s standing with the insulated wire draping into the grass but there’s enough energy left in it for the muscles on the back of his hand to tense a little bit on each pulse. I also note he’s both staring into space and blinking in a rhythmic manner that could be associated with the wire but he’s still vertical so I make no comment.

My first move is to grab the pig wire fence near a stake and bounce on it to test its strength and see if it’s going to sag, it passes both tests and before I know it I’m three squares up. I look down at the live threat and then at Dave, the wire is still intimidating but Dave hasn’t moved, I mean he really hasn’t moved but he is glowing a bit so I suppose he’ll be OK. I shuffle three squares to the left and clear the fence then step down thinking it isn’t as difficult as I thought then I feel my feet begin to slide in the snow – towards the fence – I grab the pig fence and haul myself upright then step away from the live wire that could have been such a source of pain.

Dave is looking pensive, well I think that’s how he looks. He’s moving towards me in short jerky movements a bit like a robot and he offers me the insulated handle covered in snow. I’m slightly apprehensive as I take it and I’m relieved to say he begins to show signs of life as his eyes focus again and the rhythmic pulsing ceases. I don’t see a lot more as I begin to stare and my eyes begin to blink to the beat of the electric pulse.

Dave may have been daydreaming due to the benefits of the electro convulsive therapy but he’s obviously taken in my technique and he’s got his feet firmly in the same wiry squares that I used. He’s sharp now and it’s my turn for a mini trip as my mind drifts in tune to the pulses of energy. They’re not shocks, that would be painful and cruel, albeit funny, but the water on the insulator is certainly responsible for the transmission of a few electrons and the subsequent effect is strange involuntary contractions in the hand muscles.

He’s cleared the electric fence now and takes the insulator from me and I return to the real world and as my eyes focus I notice he’s re-hooked the fence and it’s back to working normally.

We’re nearly back on to the defined route although a few metres south of where we need to be; however, we are on a lane and it’s much easier going. The snow is horizontal but beginning to ease and we see a lady snipping the tops off brambles that are poking out of the grass on the side of the road. She’s using an industrial pair of bolt croppers that could take out a Yale lock with a simple snip. We take her at her word as there are no Yale locks to speak of on this moor and from the evidence of what we’ve seen so far there is nothing to steal.

A little further and we see another couple with a dog in the distance, they’re walking much slower than us and we catch them up easily. They’re on holiday in the village and originate from Manchester. We introduce ourselves and find ourselves in step with their walk as we talk about retirement and its benefits. They know the area well and show us a wonderful detour that takes us through Fairy Glen where we pass enchanting waterfalls, pass over footbridges and meander our way along the track that hugs a very lively stream.

Fairy Glen

 

Aviemore, Cairngorm and Boat of Garten

We emerge near the pub close to where we parked the car and discuss the merits of a drink and bite to eat concluding that we’d leave it until we’d made a dent in the journey to Aviemore. It’s a good decision and we eventually call at a little cafe in Carrbridge. In the Carrbridge Kitchen we’re served with Orange Drizzle cake that’s nothing short of divine. It’s lactose and gluten free which can mean that it’s also short of taste too but that’s not the case here, it’s made by the owner’s mum and we get to thank her as she’s come into the cafe as we leave.

We’re on to TripAdvisor and hotel.com again and between the pair of them identified another great deal that includes bed and breakfast at the Boat Hotel at the Boat of Garten in separate rooms!

It’s a wonderful friendly place and we meet Anne, a lady of a certain age who’s been taken there by husband Martin on a romantic break. Martin is a walker and has just completed the Camino with his daughter.

Breakfast is excellent and sets us up for the trip up the funicular railway at Cairngorm. We’re told there were blizzards here yesterday and the ski slopes closed. There’s plenty of activity today and we join a full cabin of snowboarders and skiers all looking excited at the prospect of their return trip from 3000 feet.

We’ve already been informed that walking beyond the ski areas has been suspended due to the snow and, given the conditions, we’re happy to accept that although we had enjoyed the walking on the Nevis Range.

At the top we venture out on to the slopes to watch the skiers and are filled with admiration for a parent with two tiny girls aged about 4. They’re wearing complete insulated ski kit and are practicing jumping and twisting through 90 degrees with their tiny skis and whilst it does involve a little bit of falling over, they really are mastering it.

We manage a few minutes in the wind then go in to the cafe area. After a warming coffee apiece we take a walk onto the viewing platform. The wind is significant and is blowing snow into drifts around us as we stand and the icy blast hurts our eyes.

There are huge machines removing drifts from the ski runs and firming the snow that remains and within minutes they’ve reopened the long run to the base station many hundreds of feet below.

We take the funicular back down and record the experience in 4k video, I’ll be editing this with some music when I return. At the bottom it’s started to rain and a quick look at the forecast informs us that it’s likely to be set in for the day so we decide on a return home such is the whim of a wanderer.

With two driving (not together) we gobble up the miles and the final treat is a meal at the truck stop at Penrith. Two good size meals involving a mince and onion pie, chips, peas, two slices of bread and a cup of tea all for a tenner; oh, and it’s drowned in a gravy that’s divine.

The rain continues as we cross the Pennines in the dark and the ‘Yellow Snow’ signs are switched off.

Thanks Dave, It’s been fabulous.

Enjoy the snaps…G..x

2 thoughts on “A Scottish Road Trip into the Mountains and Snow”

  1. Commando Memorial, Spean Bridge
    Saint Nazaire – Operation Chariot: March 1942
    Wife’s Uncle: Lance Corporal Robert Cockin [ 4 Troop 2 Commando – South Lancashire Regiment ]
    Motor Launch 267 hit on entry into the attack on the Normandie dry dock at Saint Nazaire, France.
    One of twelve launches in the flotilla that transported the commandos for the raid with specific objectives.
    HMS Campbeltown loaded with delayed action explosives in the bow to destroy the dock gates.
    Robert survived the destruction of his launch and was a prisoner in Stalag VIIIB Lamsdorf, Poland.
    Film: Gift Horse [1952]
    Documentary: Jeremy Clarkson War Stories – The Greatest Raid of All

    Reply
    • Thank you Michael for this wonderful piece of history. It all adds to the interesting things on this site and beyond.

      I must look out for The Greatest Raid of All.

      Thanks again,

      George

      Reply

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