Saturday, 19 June 2010

A ‘Ness’-essary Evil

Day 28:

I have deliberately tried to avoid express services and long distance coaches on this journey of mine because the whole idea was to test out local public transport and see if it was possible to cross from one local network to another all the way from one end of the country to the other.

However, when it came to the Highlands of Scotland, it was obvious right from the start that there would be very few local bus services to use. And those that there were looked to be, on the whole, very, very local – connecting outlying hamlets and villages to towns where there are important local services such as ferries, High Schools or clinics. Very few of them seemed to connect with neighbouring towns.

So, having put myself of the Isle of Skye the day before, I was already resigned to the fact that my only realistic way of getting off the island and onto the road to Inverness was to take a City Link bus – an express coach , effectively – all the way there.

I therefore turned up at the Market Square in Portree this morning for the 913 service to Inverness, which allowed me to quickly retraced my tracks past the Cuillins to Broadford and then onwards to Kyleakin.

Kyleakin used to have an important place in island culture as it was the Skye end of the crucially-important and therefore heavily-used ferry crossing from the mainland.

However, one of the conditions for the building of the privately-built Skye Bridge in the 1980's was that this ferry be forcibly discontinued to remove any potential competition for the bridge and allow its owners to levy a significant charge on anyone using it – as people would have to, as there are few practical alternatives.

Shutting the ferry effectively deprived Kyleakin of its sole purpose, but it carries on valiantly ibn a quieter way ably catering to the needs of the island's many visitors. The hustle and bustle of a busy little ferry terminal has gone, though, and I personally think the village is a little poorer because of it.

Many people regarded the building of the bridge as an essential, because it would provide a lifeline with the mainland that was not weather dependant. Others thought it ugly and intrusive and would lead to an explosion in crime. And at £5 a crossing, many thought it a rip-off. This last complaint was effectively dealt with by the newly-devolved Scottish Parliament in one of their very first acts - they abolished the toll completely. There was probably dancing on the streets of Portree that night!

We take a quick five minute stop in Kyle of Lochalsh, the other end of the former Skye ferry, near the now largely disused ferry ramp. Then we were off again, along the shores of Loch Duich which leads us past what is probably the most photographed castle in the whole of the UK, the improbably attractive Eilean Donan Castle.

Everyone in the UK knows what this castle looks like, even if they have never been there and don't know its name – it's on every postcard, every tin of shortbread, every website about Scotland, in every leaflet, in every film about Scotland, it's on the cover of thousands of different books; it is, in short, the ultimate Scottish icon. It's more famous than Sean Connery, for goodness sake.

It's easy to see why. The castle itself is quite small, but it is dark and craggy and so very, very Scottish. It is also absolutely perfectly formed, to a design that could easily have come from the crayon of a four year old child. It is so recognisably a castle, but what really gilds the lily is its setting. This trim little castle sits on its own rocky little island with a tiny stone bridge connecting it ever so picturesquely to the mainland. On three sides there is open loch and fabulous views to distant mountains. It is perfect. In fact, it is so perfect it looks like a film set. No wonder tens of thousands of people stop to take its picture each year. I'm surprised that Kodak haven't approached the castle's owners to sponsor it...

Our road takes us further along the road to the end of the loch at Sheil Bridge, sitting at the foot of Glen Sheil. This is a fabulous glen overshadowed by the towering peaks of the Five Sisters of Kintail, five huge mountains that seem to be trying their best to trip us up and block our way. In fact it's not at all clear for a while that there is a road up the glen, but we eventually find a way up what I believe is one of the wildest and most attractive glens in the Highlands.

The road eventually levels off and runs alongside the huge Loch Cluanie through what appears to be a barren, empty wilderness with no habitation of any kind for miles around – apart from the Cluanie Inn, that is, which suddenly appears as if out of nowhere. Then the road heads into Glen Moriston and the long descent to the Great Glen begins.

The Great Glen is the result of a huge primordial crack in the earth which runs from one side of Scotland to the other, much of it filled by the dark waters of Loch Ness. Those bits that aren't filled with water were eventually connected by canal, and then lock gates built at each end – Fort William in the west and Inverness in the east – to create the Caledonian Canal. This canal effectively provides a short cut for shipping wishing to travel from the North Sea to the Atlantic but without the faff of having to go all the way round the top of Scotland. This can sometimes though up the bizarre site of an ocean going trawler chugging purposefully along the clearly land-locked Loch Ness!

The road along Loch Ness is narrow and quick, and in a very short while we arrived in Inverness, the most northerly city in the United Kingdom – and my home for the night. It's been a long, three-hour journey through some of the best scenery Scotland can offer. And, from my position high up in a coach, I could scarcely have had a better view. It's been a brilliant day, relaxing and, thanks to the ever-changing scenery, endlessly interesting.

Tomorrow I get back on City Link coach for the final day of my journey which will, after 29 days on the road, take me to Britain's most distant and most northerly village, John O'Groats.

Then again, it will be a Sunday so who knows what will happen...

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