Sunday, August 21, 2022

The A87 #6 - the Ghost Road from Tomdoun to Cluanie

To remind you from episode 3 of this tour along the A87, the stretch of it from Glen Garry to Glen Moriston - which leaves the shore of Loch Garry at the turn-off to Kinloch Hourn and goes over the hills to join the A887 up from Invermoriston at Bunloyne (orange on the map above) - only dates back to the 1950s. Before that, the A87 continued along Glen Garry to Tomdoun then turned north to meet the A887 at Cluanie. However that route was cut in 1957 by the flooding of Glen Loyne, which it passed through, to create Loch Loyne hydro-electric reservoir. So, after a proposal to build a viaduct over the new reservoir had been abandoned, it was by-passed by the present route to Bunloyne (orange) and, because nobody lived along it, the old road from Tomdoun to Cluanie on either side of Loch Loyne was simply abandoned. But it's still there with most of its stone bridges and retaining walls as built by the Highland Roads & Bridges Commission (HRBC) under the supervision of Thomas Telford between 1815-20 still intact. So let's go for a walk along this wonderful ten miles of "ghost road".

Below is the junction 250 metres past the Tomdoun Hotel - straight on to Kinloch Hourn, right on the A87 to Cluanie:-

And here's the junction looking back east having arrived from Kinloch Hourn - left on the A87 to Cluanie and straight on to Invergarry:-

Google Streetview

The Google Streetview car has been up the first 600 metres of the old road so you can go for a virtual walk that far - start here. Beyond the gate which stopped the GSV car going any further, I walked as far as Loch Loyne in 1987. The views are rather obscured nowadays by forestry plantations right up to the edge of the road which weren't there when it was still in use and this was back in the days of 35mm film which I could scarcely afford but I did manage a photo of a nice bit of early 19th century HRBC walling:-

between Tomdoun and Loch Loyne

And one of what I'd come to see - the ghost road disappearing into the waters of Loch Loyne although the one below by Glen Wallace is much better than my effort so I'm going to show it instead:-
the old A87 disappearing into Loch Loyne

There's more comprehensive photographic coverage of the old road on the wonderful Geograph website (which, if you've never seen it before, collects photos of every grid square in Great Britain). Start here and use the square at the top of the page (with "Go" in the middle surrounded by NW, N, NE etc.) to navigate from grid square to grid square along the road.

At the point where the road crossed the floor of Glen Loyne, at a spot called Na Paitean, the River Loyne divided into two streams before recombining again 250 metres downstream leaving a sort of island in the stream. The road crossed this island necessitating a bridge over each branch of the river as you can see on the map below:-

Ordnance Survey 6 inch map, 2nd edition: National Libraries of Scotland

The floor of Glen Loyne is a pretty marshy place and I'm guessing from the fact that Na Paitean translates as 'stepping stones' that this was the only solid enough spot to carry the road across, albeit at the cost of having to build two bridges instead of one.

The north bridge - which the OS map above shows acquired the name of Drochaid nam Paitean ('Stepping Stones Bridge') - was the bigger of the two. It made it onto an engraving of thirty seven of the HRBC's most significant bridges you can see here (top row, second from right). Both bridges disappeared under water when the glen was flooded in the 1950s but they re-appear when the reservoir is drained down. The arch of the larger north bridge was still standing in 2013, albeit reduced to half its width, but had fallen by 2018. The arch of the smaller south bridge is still standing to its full width. Here's a selection of images:-

Aerial imagery of Loch Loyne at a low level revealing the still intact south bridge and the fallen north bridge - National Libraries of Scotland
First, the south bridge viewed from the east. Note the quality of the stones around the arch - it's testament to the inherent strength and structural properties of an arch that it's the bit still standing when most of the rest has been washed away:
South bridge from the east - photo credit: Colin Cadden
Next, the north bridge of which pictures are more plentiful:- 

The north bridge still standing in 2013 viewed from the east - photo credit: Martin Briscoe

close up on the north bridge from the west - photo credit: Trevor Wright

The reduced width of the north bridge in 2010 - photo credit Peter Goddard

the north bridge at higher water - photo credit RdGA09
Beyond the bridges, the old road climbs the north flank of Glen Loyne towards a pass in the Cluanie Ridge which separates it from Glen Moriston to the north. Remember to use to go for a virtual walk along the road - there are no forestry plantations here to obscure the view: start here.
The rather grainy picture below is the only one I've ever seen of this part of the old road when still in use. It's about half way up to the top of the pass looking back (east) down into Glen Loyne:
looking down into Glen Loyne from the old road from Cluanie to Tomdoun - photo credit: Flickr user 'Totally Random' (account appears to have been deleted)

Here's a couple more pictures of this part of the old road in more recent times since it was abandoned:-
looking up towards the summit of the pass - photo credit: Trevor Wright
One of the original HRBC bridges built 1815-20 still in good condition - photo credit: Chris Wimbush
Looking east from the Cluanie Ridge into Glen Loyne with the reservoir quite low. The old A87 climbing up to the pass from the bridges is clearly visible on the left - photo credit: Johnston

The pass between Glen Loyne and Glen Moriston doesn't have a name marked on OS maps but I've seen it called Mam Cluanie on a postcard (below). Anyway, whatever it's called its elevation is 1,424 feet which made it Scotland's second highest trunk road after the Drumochter Pass (A9 - 1,513ft). Higher than the Slochd (A9 - 1,328ft) or Carter Bar (A68 - 1,371ft) and also the present A87 to Bunloyne (1,150ft), it's no surprise the old road was regularly closed by snow in winter. There exists a wonderful tale of two Hydro Board engineers who got stuck in snow drifts up here in the winter of 1951/52:-

British Newspaper Archive

It's too big to post a legible screengrab of all of it but the gist of it is this: Electric power to the whole of Skye was lost in bad weather after Christmas 1951. The Hydro Board's local depot at Kyle of Lochalsh was beginning to suspect the problem lay with the underwater part of the cable linking the island to the mainland but needed specialist equipment to confirm this so an engineer, the splendidly named Dysart Pattullo, and a driver, J W M'Donald (pictured), were dispatched with it from Dundee. They left there in a van at 10.00 on 31 December:-

"They found the roads icy and slight snow falling, but reached Tomdoun in Glengarry, by 7.45pm.

They called at a hotel there before trying the climb over to Cluanie, in Glenmoriston. As they drove out of Tomdoun the snow began to fall heavily and soon there were six inches on the road.

By the time they had covered about five miles of the steep climb [past the bridges and about half way up to the summit of Mam Cluanie] the snow had reached a depth of 2ft. 6in. and visibility was almost negligible.

Seven and a half miles from Tomdoun [i.e. at the summit] the van mounted a deep snow bank and came to a standstill. When M'Donald got out to test the depth of the snow with a shovel, it disappeared.

Realising the van could not move, and as it was 11pm on New Year's eve, the men decided to spend the night in blankets they had brought along.

Just as new year came in they began to worry. The snow was still falling and they had no guarantee they would even be able to see the road the next morning.

Wrapping their coats around them, they set off back to Tomdoun. After a nightmarish journey through nearly eight miles of deep snow the men arrived back at the hotel.

There they found the owner, Miss Grant, her farmer brother, and another brother home on leave just finishing their New Year celebrations.

The near frozen men were given a true Highland welcome, and, after having their "New Year", the programme was tea, sandwiches and bed, with hot water bottles."

All I can say is that, considering they set off to walk through eight miles of snow drifts in the dark at midnight, the Grant siblings must have been pretty hard party-ers if they were still on the go when the hydro boys arrived! And they must have drunk the place dry if all that was on offer by that time was tea!

I've not been able to find a picture of Mam Cluanie, or anywhere between there and Tomdoun, in winter conditions so the one below at the top of the pass looking north to the mountains between Loch Cluanie and Glen Affric will have to do:-

Photo credit: Trevor Littlewood

The sequel of the tale is that the Grant brothers had a car each so, the next morning, one of them and Mr M'Donald drove to Invergarry for the nearest phone (!) to inform the Hydro Board at Kyle what had happened and request a snow plough be sent up to the pass from the Cluanie side. The other brother and Mr Pattullo drove the other way to try and recover the abandoned van but had to turn back to Tomdoun. In the afternoon, there must have been a bit of an improvement in the weather because all four set off again and managed to get to within two miles of the van. They walked to it but it couldn't be freed from the snowdrifts, nor was there any sign of a snow plough so they returned to Tomdoun. The following morning, they returned to the scene to find the van had gone! Unbeknown to them, a snowplough had been up during the night and recovered it so there was nothing for it but for the hydro boys to walk on to Cluanie whence they got a lift to Kyle. (Incidentally, the testing equipment in the van was none the worse for its ordeal and located the fault in the cabling to Skye on the seabed just off Kyle. New cable was dispatched from Glasgow on the puffer Invercloy although the newspaper report ended on the discouraging note: "Last night the [Hydro] board was informed that the Invercloy had run into a gale on its way to Lochalsh.")   

The Dundee Courier reckoned the men from the Hydro Board had walked 23 miles in the snow in 48 hours although I think that involved an overestimate of the distance from the top of the pass down to Cluanie which is only three miles. It's a shorter, steeper drop than the climb up from Glen Loyne.

Glen Loyne in the caption is a mistake - it's Strath Cluanie, as the upper most part of Glen Moriston is called
There are some fine old retaining walls and bridges still intact along this stretch of the road. Here's a selection of images:-
Looking back up towards Mam Cluanie - photo credit: John Ferguson
Drochaid an Uillt Ghiubhais ('Birch Burn Bridge') - photo credit: Steven Brown
Drochaid an Uillt Ghiubhais - photo credit: Gordon Brown
Drochaid an Uillt Ghiubhais with Loch Cluanie in the background - photo credit: Toby Speight
a nice bit of HRBC retaining wall - photo credit: Hugh Venables

Approaching the bottom of the glen, the old road passes Cluanie Lodge. Perched above Loch Cluanie in its clump of trees, this is a familiar landmark seen from the modern road on the other side of the loch - see here for example. But here are a couple of views of the lodge from the angle far more people would have seen it from when the old road was still in use - and when the lodge wasn't in a loch-side setting because Loch Cluanie hadn't yet been enlarged to its doorstep by the hydro-electric schemes.
'Marn' is a misprint for Mam. Cluanie Lodge in the clump of trees. Loch Cluanie now fills the whole bottom of the glen
Cluanie Lodge from the south east

From hereon, the old road remains in use as the private road to the lodge and finally, ten miles from leaving Tomdoun, we cross the River Cluanie and arrive at the junction at the Cluanie Inn with the A887 (as was, now the A87) from Invermoriston.
Approaching Cluanie from Tomdoun. That HRBC bridge was demolished during the hydro works in the 1950s and replaced by a new one 30 metres upstream to serve Cluanie Lodge. I think that was because the original bridge would have been too vulnerable to the waters of the enlarged Loch Cluanie.
Cluanie Inn from the south beside the bridge over the River Cluanie carrying the old road to Tomdoun

I shall come back and write about the new road, Loch Cluanie and the Cluanie Inn in future posts. I leave you here with a One Inch map of the old road from Tomdoun to Cluanie (click to enlarge).
Ordnance Survey 1956 One Inch map, extracts from Sheets 35 (Loch Arkaig) and 36 (Fort Augustus)


Wednesday, August 17, 2022

The A87 #5 - Kinloch Hourn

It's never been on the A87, of course, but it would be rude to pass through Tomdoun (which used to be on the A87) without nipping along to Kinloch Hourn for a quick look.

approaching Kinloch Hourn - Google Streetview

The whole 31 miles from Invergarry to Kinloch Hourn was one of the first roads built by the Highland Roads & Bridges Commission, on their usual basis of 50% state funding and 50% by local landowners, between 1805-12. The population of Glen Garry is sparse enough as far as Loch Quoich but after that, there's nothing (Glenquoich Lodge having been flooded by the Hydro Board in the mid-1950s as described in this post) until you get to Kinloch Hourn itself and it's just another lodge, a farm and a few estate workers' cottages - you can go for a virtual walk round here. So why did the HRBC build a road to nowhere? Have a look at the map below:-

A key plank of the HRBC's strategy was to encourage the herring fishing industry by linking the Great Glen and the east coast road network north of Inverness with what were described in the 1803 report by the engineer Thomas Telford on the industrial opportunities of the north west Highlands that led to the creation of the HRBC (see here) as "the lochs at the back of Skye" - that is Lochs Torridon, Carron, Alsh, Duich, Hourn and Nevis - where the herring were most plentiful. Hence why it built the roads coloured red on the map and this led to the creation (or expansion) of fishing villages like Shieldaig, Jeantown (called Lochcarron today), Plockton, Dornie & Bundalloch and Arisaig.

Fishing boats on Loch Hourn in 1815 by William Daniell

But why, considering Loch Hourn was one of the most prolific herring fisheries, did nothing happen at Kinloch Hourn? Well, this is just an educated guess but I think it's because the terminus of the HRBC's road at the head of the loch was too far inland - it was just too far from the fishing grounds for the fishermen to sail home to and land their catches when there were more conveniently sited spots like Shieldaig and Plockton etc. It's perhaps significant in this respect that the fishing village which did emerge on Loch Hourn - Arnisdale (which is strictly two neighbouring villages called Camusbane and Corran) - is on the outer part of the loch. HRBC plans to establish "boating piers" at Kinloch Hourn came to nothing.
Arnisdale with Corran top left and Camusbane bottom right. This is the part of Loch Hourn in the Daniell print above - photo credit: StephenH16
The HRBC's original proposal had been to continue the road past Kinloch Hourn along the north shore of the loch to Kyle Rhea which, at that time, was the principal crossing to Skye rather than Kyle Akin. But that was soon abandoned in favour of another route to Kyle Rhea from Invermoriston via Cluanie, Glen Shiel, Shiel Bridge (today's A87) and the Mam Ratagan plus a link to the Glen Garry road between Cluanie and Tomdoun. That's because these were the routes preferred by cattle drovers. Seven years later, in 1812, with the road from Invermoriston via Glen Shiel having reached only as far as Ceannacroc in Glen Moriston and further progress west held up by wrangling over costs, the new owner of Glenelg Estate, Patrick Bruce, revived the plan of reaching Kyle Rhea from Kinloch Hourn (albeit by an inland route rather than along the north shore of Loch Hourn). This intervention allowed the HRBC the opportunity to give the backers of its preferred option, the Glen Shiel route, an ultimatim: deposit their 50% share of its cost by 1st June 1812 or else it would reluctantly fund the Bruce route instead. This did the trick - the Glen Shiel road with its Cluanie-Tomdoun link was built and Kinloch Hourn was destined to remain forever a dead-end. 
Kinloch Hourn as depicted on an 1857 Admiralty Chart - photo credit: National Libraries of Scotland

All this meant that the 16 miles from Tomdoun to Kinloch Hourn must count as the least successful road, by some margin, the HRBC ever built - most of the rest of them remain integral parts of the road network to this day. It's a pity because the road to Kinloch Hourn was also one of their most challenging from the engineering perspective. This led to it being completed six years behind schedule and it was literally the death of the contractor, Mr Dick from Perth - he was killed by "falling down a precipice" on his way from Loch Hourn to Arisaig where he and his partner, Mr Readdie, were also building the HRBC road from Fort William. Dick's nephews took over the contract and managed it well enough: the Commission's consulting engineer Thomas Telford remarked somewhat sniffily that their bridges "though somewhat rudely are all strongly built".  
a tight corner near Kinloch Hourn
In the 1930s, there were proposals to build a power station at Kinloch Hourn powered by water sent down through a tunnel from a dammed and enlarged Loch Quoich: the short steep drop from the loch to the sea (about 650 feet in less than 3 miles) is a hydro-electric engineer's dream if a road engineer's nightmare. But the proposal was defeated in parliament and when the waters of Loch Quoich were harnessed by the Hydro Board in the 1950s, it was on the basis of the water being sent eastwards to the turbines (more about all that in this post). Thus was the seal set on Kinloch Hourn as the remotest of scenic backwaters, frequented only by hillwalkers and deer stalkers and untouched by the industry Thomas Telford had hoped for it 200 years ago.
Kinloch Hourn looking east (inland) in 1987

Sunday, August 14, 2022

The A87 #4 - the Tomdoun Hotel

Tomdoun Hotel in the 1950s - photo credit: daves_archive1


At the end of episode 3, we'd arrived at the Tomdoun Hotel ten miles up Glen Garry from the beginning of the A87 at Invergarry. 

Sadly, it's no longer a hotel, though, as it ceased trading at the end of 2011. It was placed on the market but didn't sell as a going concern and was eventually sold in December 2014 (for £235k) for conversion to a house. 

I've long been fascinated by the Tomdoun Hotel - a wayside hostelry one would have thought cast into oblivion by the trunk road which ran past its front door having been re-routed so dramatically (see map in episode 3). I made a point of going to stay at Tomdoun (a reminder that it's pronounced "Tom-DOWN") in the late 1980s and I'm glad I did now that I can't anymore. It was everything I'd imagined it would be - a classic stags' heads and stuffed fish mounted on the wall, dark polished wood, log fire and malt whisky after dinner sort of place: for Python afficionados, it was about as woody as it comes. Regrettably, I didn't have the wit to take any internal pictures but fortunately other people had the presence of mind to do that before the hotel closed. Here's a selection:-

photo credit: DJMS Photos

photo credit: qrtzcntrl

photo credit: Qrtzcntrl

photo credit: Andy Jaffray

photo credit: pete "lilo lil" varley

photo credit: Chris Firth

The hotel was built in 1895, one of the many public buildings erected under the auspices of the Ellice family who owned Glengarry Estate in the late 19th century (most of them in Invergarry village as described in this post). So it's not very old but it is relatively unusual amongst Victorian country house hotels in not having been spoilt by 1950s/60s extensions (like the Balmacara Hotel for example): the Tomdoun Hotel looks almost exactly the same today as the day it was completed. 

The 1895 hotel replaced an earlier inn which stood 200 metres west at the junction of the Kinloch Hourn and Cluanie roads: it was probably built around the same time as these roads were (c.1810-20). You can see the old inn on the 1872 OS 6 inch map below. The 1895 hotel stands at about the "ow" of "Tomdown".

OS 6 inch map, 1872

The old inn and "new" hotel stood side by side for a time as you can see on the second edition of the 6 inch map surveyed in 1899 here but it's gone now. I don't know when it was demolished. 

I've not been able to find a picture of the old inn and would kill to see one ... but wait a minute, what's that in a photo on the wall in one of the internal pictures of the hotel above?

Could that be the old inn?

If not a confirmed photo, there does exist a brief account of a visit to the old inn. It's written by the pseudonymous "Nauticus on his Hobby-Horse" who made a tour of Scotland on a Cheylesmore tricycle in 1881:-

I found Invergarry Inn half a mile farther along the north bank [of the River Garry from the old bridge over the river: this too would be the old inn at Invergarry before the present hotel was built in 1885]. I had tea with an elderly gentleman, who appeared to go in for enjoying life, hunting all the winter and fishing all the summer. From him I gained the following information:- (1) Glengarry caps are named from this glen; (2) The Garry Falls should on no account be missed; (3) Tomdoun Inn is a good one, and situated in the finest valley in Scotland; (4) The roads on the west coast would be too hilly for my tricycle.

7.30 [pm]. All the inhabitants turned out to see me start, a tricycle never having been seen here before. [After describing a stop at the Garry Falls, Nauticus resumes at the west end of Loch Garry] The road, which from Spean Bridge had consisted of hard sand, now became soft, and covered with fresh metal [gravel]. Hereabouts I began to look out for the "finest valley in Scotland" but bleaker and bleaker became the way, until Tomdoun, a solitary inn, was reached at 9.30. It was being enlarged [this isn't referring to building the new hotel which wasn't till twelve years later], which was unfortunate, but as I was the only lodger I managed pretty well. While they were preparing my meal I took a survey of this wild place among the hills, and while watching the national game of "Throwing the Hammer" I felt that I was really in the Highlands.

[Next morning] Although I had arrived late, I decided to make an early start in the morning. I was called at seven; but as the festive rat had kept me awake the best part of the night, I gladly availed myself of the excuse that it was raining to turn over on the other side and "drive my pigs to market" again."

I don't know what the reference to the "festive rat" means. Did he literally mean he was kept awake by rats scurrying about or is it another metaphor like "driving your pigs to market" (snoring - which I didn't know)?

Advert in Inverness Courier, 7 February 1896 - British Newspaper Archive
Nauticus the tricyclist's host at the Tomdoun Inn was Peter Grant who would have rented it from the Ellices of Glengarry Estate. The estate built the new hotel (for £7,000 - about £650k in today's money) and advertised for a new tenant for it (see above) but Peter Grant seems to have secured the lease anyway. He died not long after and was followed in the tenancy of the hotel by his son, another Peter, who had it until his death in 1940. Thereafter it was managed by Peter the younger's daughter until, I believe, the 1960s - three generations over about 80-90 years is quite an achievement.

During the earlier part of the 20th century, the "new" hotel appears to have been more like a sort of hunting lodge open to the public than a typical wayside inn or hotel. Only open during the fishing and stag stalking seasons, J M Barrie was a regular visitor with the Llewelyn Davies brothers who were his wards after their parents died and the inspiration for the characters of Peter Pan. I found the following quotes in a biography of one of the brothers:-

"[The Tomdoun Hotel was] both a family home and provided accommodation for the staff that worked on the farm the Grants owned. It also housed the telegraph office. There were four or five 'suites' to let, guests had a bedroom and adjoining sitting room and shared a bathroom/WC. Meals were provided, either in the private rooms or in the dining room. You took what was offered. There was no bar but drinks could be taken in the drawing room."


"[The menu consisted of] mutton broth, trout and then mutton, which one could seldom masticate with any ease. So far as a bath was concerned, and you were fortunate enough to get there first, you might manage to find a trickle of tepid water and God help those who followed. The bedrooms were always spotlessly clean but had the oldest iron bedsteads and the mattresses so hard that [it was] only through real tiredness after a hard day's fishing that sleep came one's way."

It doesn't sound a great improvement over what Nauticus the tricyclist had to put up with in the old inn!

Fishing the Tomdoun water - photo credit: Cap'n Fishy
Trout fishing rather than salmon was the speciality on the Tomdoun Hotel's five miles of private fishing on the River Garry. For eight years (1957-65) it held the record for the biggest brown trout caught in Britain at 17lbs 8oz. It was preserved in a glass case in the hotel and its record was broken by an 18lbs 2oz fish caught just downstream on Loch Garry. (The current record is 30lbs 8oz caught on Loch Awe.)

Tomdoun in December 2019 - photo credit: Allan Maciver

So, closed since 2011, what of the Tomdoun Hotel today? Well it's back as an even more upmarket hunting lodge. Owned together with the neighbouring 9,800 acre East Glenquoich Estate since 2019 by Richard Tuxford, it's been rebranded Tomdoun House and Estate and is available to rent for huntin', fishin' & shootin' parties - there's no tariff on the estate's website so I guess if you need to ask, you can't afford it! As you can see from the photo above, externally there's no change but internally it's had quite the makeover:

Tomdoun in the 2020s - photo credit: Tomdoun Estate

More pictures here. No sign of that photo of the old inn. Or the record trout. I wonder what became of them?