Road to the Isles: Part III – Back on track

A803, camping, Cuillins, gaelic, Moidart, Road to the Isles

There is no doubt in my mind that the best way to travel the Highlands is with a tent. Only under the cover of canvas can you hear the whisper of the wind; know the sound of heavy rain; and become familiar with the call of the stag or the cry of patrolling eagles across the glens. Forced outdoors, a sunset becomes an emotion and the sight of those far Cuillins standing in the mist across a sparkling sea is a life-defining experience.
Of course, living on a campsite does have its downfalls but most of these can be overcome with a bit of careful planning: lots of waterproof clothing, a good quality blow-up bed, a bottle or two of midge repellent and a few buckets of good quality Cava.
Leaving Loch Sunart, the A861 heads northwards from Salen, bends east at the mouth of Loch Shiel, continues west again along the shores of Loch Moidart (of the Seven Men fame); northwards through Glen Uig; then straight on beside Loch Ailort where it reaches the A803 Mallaig to Fort William road “by Aillort and by Morar to the sea” and straight on ’til morning.
This is ancient country where the MacDonalds of ClanRanald once ruled its rugged shores until the outcomes of their allegiance to a certain Bonnie Prince forced many of them to pack their claymores and flee. Moidart is the place where Charlie took his first steps on Scottish mainland soil. Later on he would rally the clans in a place not far from here; and later again he would leave them dying in a field at Culloden and sneak off back to France via Skye, vanquished, demoralised and experimenting with transvestism.
This route takes in a bleak landscape with few tourist-friendly tracks and does not attract many hillwalkers as there are no munroes in the area to wear out the enormous tread of the extreme yomping fraternities.
Once on the A803, you can put your foot down and head up to the end of the journey: the tiny port of Mallaig with uninteruppted views across the sea to Skye.

There is obvious evidence of regeneration cash being thrown into this more affluent area of the Highlands. Many new and half-built houses dot the landscape, especially around the shoreline of Morar Sands, which has a sea-side resort feel to it. The angry grey skies and the choppy waters of the Sound of Sleat, however, are a cold reminder that these lands do not domesticate easily.
Mallaig is a bit like Oban in miniature inasmuch as it exploits its Scottish fishing port status to the extreme. Here every restaurant and cafe will boast fresh fish and chips – even the Indian restaurant – and some will go as far as elevating themselves above their rivals by claiming that they are the best. A word of advice without giving free advertising: the best fish and chips in Mallaig can be found at the back of a restaurant in a tiny close through a side door just off the high street. Trust me.
I suppose that a Road to the Isles traveller normally intends to cross the sea to seek out the blue islands from the Skerries to the Lews, Wi’ heather honey taste upon each name. For me, however, this was the end of the line on a journey that opened the eyes as well as the heart. It re-affirmed the powerful adoration that the Scots hold for their land and the significance of belonging.
For a nation which has lost its lands to more powerful neighbours throughout history, the importance of reclaiming it, wee bit by wee bit, can never be properly appreciated until you are actually standing beneath the protective shade of a frowning mountain and know that you are home.


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