West Highland Way Day 5

The West Highland Way
By Mark Walford
Day Five

Route: Inveroran to Kinlochleven
Date: Thursday September 7th 2006
Distance: 21m (34km)
Elevation: 33ft (10m) to 1,801ft (549m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 2,461ft (750m) and 3,012ft (918m)

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Sing-alonga-Rannoch ....

I checked the weather as soon as I woke up - clear blue sky. I sent up a quick prayer of thanks to the weather gods. Rannoch Moor and the Devils Staircase were the most exposed stretches of the West Highland Way and walking them in the sort of weather we had enjoyed, for instance, on Wet Tuesday was not a prospect to gladden the heart. The Two Ronnies were already halfway through their breakfast when we went downstairs, Ronnie was testing the young German waiters grasp of English (as well as his patience) by ordering 'extra toost' and 'broon soss' and Shugie was smiling gently at the flock
WHW Day3 Pic 1

The River Ba

wallpaper. The two ladies from Croftamie were also finishing their breakfast as we arrived, we wouldn't be seeing them again as they had decided to make an overnight stop at the Kinghouse Hotel before tackling the Devils Staircase. We wished them well.
Humming 'Wooden Heart' (for some strange reason) I sat outside to put on my gaiters. I didn't need them as the day ahead was forecast to be fine and dry but I kind of liked wearing them. They gave one, to my mind at least, a certain panache. As I fiddled, bent at an awkward angle, with the Velcro fasteners a troupe of friendly chaffinches
hopped around me, perhaps admiring the way my gaiters lent me a rakish air, until they were scared away by an advance party of midges arriving to dine on freshly washed hiker. I added another chapter to the video diary and tried to say sensible, interesting things as I swept the camera across the Inveroran Inn and out beyond to where Rannoch Moor lay waiting. I think I failed on the whole as I mainly waxed lyrical about chaffinches.
So we set off, the three of us, on this long slog of a day. At first the trail wound its way through coniferous woodland, climbing gently all the time. This was the domain of the midges and every time we stopped for water or to adjust our kit squadrons of the little black menaces appeared, eager for human flesh. I applied 'Jungle Formula' which seemed to work although I'm told the very best deterrent for them is 'Skin So Soft' by Avon. I never had the chance to compare the two products but I doubt that 'Skin So Soft' would send your lips numb in the way that 'Jungle Formula' did. As well as the ubiquitous midges we were also tormented by a type of fly that had the knack of getting into your ears, hair, nostrils and many other inconvenient nooks and crannies. They were sturdy little buggers - I thought I'd squished many of them between thumb and finger only to discover that they were largely unharmed by this treatment and actually seemed to be trying to take a swing back at me.
Kath had decided on a new quiz - we had to sing lines from songs. It was a difficult task because we discovered that the three of us had eclectic tastes in music and it was therefore difficult to outwit each other. By the time we had resorted to early Genesis songs from the seventies we decided to give it up. However, by this time we had left the pine forest and its flesh eating hordes behind us and were on the approaches to Rannoch Moor.

Moor haste, less speed ....

The trail, an eighteenth century military road built by General Wade to help tame the naughty
Jacobites wound its way for several miles through this huge empty piece of Scotland, flanked by the slopes of Creag an Fhirich and Leacann nam Braonanon to the east and rolling moorland to the west, it snaked its way down to the white granite peak of Buachaille Etive Mor from whence it was but a short walk, for us, to the Kinghouse Inn and our scheduled lunch break. Rannoch Moor, like Mamm Carraigh the previous evening, was putting on a smile for us. The bright sun turned the moor into a counterpane of green and brown splashes, its profile softened by a thick matting of moss and heather that rolled away westwards, out into a hazy unguessable distance., The mountains reared up on our left, sheep clinging to their steep flanks at impossible angles. The river Etive gleamed like a ribbon of quicksilver to our left.
We were not alone on the trail today as many people were walking this section of the West Highland Way; it was good for a single day's hiking and within easy reach of Glasgow. However, this was such a wide and open landscape that we never felt crowded or part of a convoy. Here and there we passed the ruins of old crofters cottages or cattle pens. It was impossible to tell how old these ruins were or how long they had been derelict but it must have been a harsh life for those who chose to live there, Rannoch Moor would have been an unforgiving landlord.
We had a short break at the picturesque stone arch of Ba Bridge. I don't know where the river Ba begins or ends - it just sort of snakes laterally across the moor on a seemingly random journey and the bridge was constructed to take the military road over it, but it did provide an opportunity for a photo shoot and pictures were duly taken.
The path rose and fell gently and at the crest of one such rise we spied The Two Ronnies seated by the wayside and having a fag break just a few hundred yards ahead. Deep joy - we were about to be barracked again. Then somebody (and I think it may have been me) had the bright idea of jogging past them until we were out of sight beyond the next hill. Amazingly the others agreed and so we set off, water bottles sloshing, at a brisk trot. Kath struggled manfully for about three seconds before realising that this was in fact a bloody stupid idea. Colin and I lumbered on, passing by the surprised Ronnie and Shugie. I had a vague impression of Ronnie shouting something at us but by then the blood had begun to pound in my ears and its meaning was lost. We mounted the next hill and as soon as we were out of sight we stopped to get our breath back. Colin found his quite quickly, it was merely lying at his feet ready to be picked up, but my breath had vanished irretrievably.
WHW Day3 Pic 1

A bald guy on a lump of stone

When Kath joined us a few minutes later I was still gasping like a landed Pike and my ribs seemed to be rising past my ears with every lungful of air I sucked in. Conversation was impossible so I just grinned idiotically and made giggling noises. It was a long time before my breath finally returned - with no apology for its tardiness - and I made a mental note to myself to never run anywhere again unless it was a life threatening situation. I'm just not built for it.
This little episode aside, the rest of the morning passed rather uneventfully. We stopped near the summit of a hill which according to Kath's map, bore no name, it's cairn clearly visible against the skyline, and sat on a rock for our lunch. As I munched my sandwiches I gazed at the mountain slopes across the valley. Little creamy dots moved about on their heights, flocks of sheep grazing the thin grass that crept high up the mountain sides almost to their bare rocky summits.
"How do the farmers get the sheep down from up there?" I mused aloud.
Colin took a bite out of an apple. "A high velocity rifle with telescopic sights," he ventured.
I decided to take a short excursion across the heath to visit a rock framed artistically against the sky. Walking on Rannoch Moor is a bit like walking across a thick layer of wet wool slung across a turgid lake. The ground squelches and gives under you, and makes strange creaking noises. You end up leaping from one tuft of grassy ground to another hoping you don't get it wrong and sink in up to your knees. I eventually made the rock and clambered inelegantly onto it. I insisted that I had my photograph taken looking out across the moor, walking pole in hand. I wanted to look windswept and interesting but, actually, I look like a bald guy balancing precariously on a lump of stone.

A sombre scene ....

We swung up and over the hill-with-no-name and were treated to a spectacular view along the Pass of Glencoe with Buachaille Etive Mor looming massively to the west and the tiny white speck that was the Kinghouse Inn lodged like a piece of lint in the green navel of the valley floor. The A8 ran along this valley and the inn lay perhaps a half a mile beyond and even at this distance we could tell that there was something unusual about the traffic on the road; namely, it wasn't moving. There appeared to be a traffic jam in this most unlikely of places but we couldn't yet see the cause of it.
WHW Day3 Pic 1

Blackrock Farm

We assumed road works but as we began to pick our way down to the glen a helicopter droned overhead and banked away in the direction of the long line of stalled vehicles, I couldn't be sure but I thought I made out the markings of an air ambulance.
"I think there's been a smash," I said. It was some time before we made it to the roadside, time enough for the helicopter to depart without landing, which I thought was an ominous sign, and time enough for us to take the obligatory photographs outside of the picturesque but lonely Blackrock Farm, a pretty whitewashed cottage built at the foot of the Glen Coe ski-lift. With the mass of Buachaille Etive Mor as a backdrop the cottage practically begged to be photographed. I lingered for a while at this spot, taking some video footage, so by the time I crossed the A8 Colin and Kath were well ahead of me. It was obvious that something bad had taken place. A policeman was directing traffic around a coned-off area and I was confronted by the sight of a minibus, nose first into a ditch, and pieces of a motorcycle strewn around the place. There was a general low key atmosphere in the way the policeman and the breakdown recovery men were going about their business. I caught up with the others just before Kinghouse and they had received an update from another hiker. A young German motorcyclist, touring the Highlands with his friends, had turned right towards the Glen Coe ski lift and straight into the path of the oncoming mini bus. The bus had hit the motorbike side-on at 60 mph and the rider had been killed instantly. Miraculously nobody in the mini-bus was seriously hurt. Had we arrived twenty minutes earlier we would have witnessed the accident, and as we later learnt, some of our fellow walkers had not only witnessed the collision but had taken an active part in taking care of the other bikers in the party.
It was a sobering moment because, being surrounded by so much wild beauty, it was difficult to imagine that somebody could meet death on the road a mere ten minutes walk from Glen Coe. That sort of bad news surely belonged to another world, a world of concrete and motorways and overcrowded city suburbs, and yet it had happened here, in this peaceful isolated spot.
We were in a sombre mood as we approached the Kings House Hotel.

At the Kinghouse ....

Kath told us that she had fond memories of this place. We never did find out exactly why but she mentioned a card game, a lot of noise, and a lot of lager and she just kept describing it as 'a wild night' whilst smiling quietly. The Inn was predominantly a climber's tavern where, allegedly, bearded guys in heavy sweaters and multi-pocketed trousers blew the froth off their pints of real ale and swapped stories about near death experiences. In fact, when we walked into the bar there was not a mountaineer in sight. There were a lot of pictures of mountaineers, some mountaineering based paraphernalia decorating the room which probably belonged to mountaineers, but not a single bearded rock hopper. Instead, the Kings House Climbers Bar boasted a motley collection of hikers in various states of lameness, including The Two Ronnies who had unaccountably overtaken us at some point along the way. They were eating soup and they both appeared to be strangely subdued, they acknowledged us as we went to the bar but said very little. We ordered soup and a pint and sat next to a guy who looked particularly crestfallen. He told us that he had slipped whilst crossing a stream on Wet Tuesday and had hurt his back. He had struggled on since then but now had conceded that for him the walk was over. We commiserated with him and admitted that to have to drop out now would have been a major blow. The longer you walk the more determined you are to see the finish line, and with just twenty miles to go it would have been sheer misery to have to give it all up.
"It's the thought of making that finish line that keep people like Mr. Blister going," said Colin.
"I smiled. "Mr. Blister?"
"Yeah you know - that young guy we keep overtaking, the one with the mate in combat gear that keeps sodding off and leaving him."
I nodded and I realised that now, even if I had a boot-full of blisters and lumps of raw reddened flesh for feet I would still carry on. It was a matter of principle [Note: Sadly, future walks would prove me wrong}.
The Two Ronnies made their way outside, looking for a spot to rest for a while. Ronnie was limping noticeably - maybe that's why he was so quiet.
We didn't stay at the Kings House Hotel for too long as we were conscious of the distance we still had to cover, and the climb that lay ahead and, after a swift lunch, we regained the military road beyond the Inn and began the long trudge along the Glen. Kath had an advantage over us as she had already climbed the Devils Staircase a few years before. She pointed out a long straggly path that threaded up the flanks of a mountain ahead of us.
"That's the Devils Staircase right there," she proclaimed knowledgeably.
We thought it odd therefore when the path veered off at right angles to the path she had indicated. Instead we followed a gently rising track that led us away down the valley.
"Maybe the path turns back on itself at some point," she said, but a seed of doubt was sown.
"Are we actually on the staircase now then?" I asked dubiously. It seemed very tame. Not so much a staircase as an access ramp for pushchairs.
"Oh aye," she nodded, "I told you it wasn't as bad as it's made out to be."
I relaxed- this was going to be a doddle! Dad phoned me.
"Hi dad. Yeah we're ok. Yep the views are ace. No we're not pushing ourselves too hard. In fact we're about a third of the way up the Devils Staircase right now and we all feel fit as a fiddle. Taking it nice and easy."
Soon however the track began to lose height again until we found ourselves, anti-climatically, back alongside the metalled road on the valley floor once more. I looked back. The path identified by Kath was no more than a memory in the hazy distance, which made it unlikely to be a staircase of any kind let alone one claimed by the Devil. I wondered if we were heading in the wrong direction entirely and contemplated the unpleasantness of retracing our steps for the remainder of the afternoon, but the tiny yet unmistakeable figures of Ronnie and Shugie were following us some half a mile back along the trail. It was unlikely that The Two Ronnies
were blindly following in our footsteps so this had to be the right route. The uncertainty was solved about an hour later as we noticed a small group of cars parked in a purposeful looking lay-by not far ahead. Kath eventually piped up. "Ok, ok - I think that's the start of the Devils Staircase. I remember it now because we cheated and drove along the road to that lay-by and missed this bit out. Sorry. It was bad weather."
I thought it had been too easy.

The Devils Staircase ....

All in all, the Devils Staircase really wasn't that big a deal. It began, without ceremony, just beyond the lay-by and made an immediate but stately ascent up the approach to Stob Mhic. It's name probably reflected the sheer hard work involved by General Wade's men in constructing it rather than an indication of any fearsome heights to be scaled. Sure the path was steep in places, and it was a sustained pull uphill, but it wound back and forth across the face of the mountain, and to a fit and able body, used to hill climbing, it presented no challenge at all. Unfortunately that particular body didn't belong to me. After climbing about three hundred feet we stopped for a drink. The Two Ronnies caught up with us. No parade ground tirade this time, just a few words exchanged about the climb and the views and then they were off again, Shugie talking ten to the dozen and Ronnie climbing implacably and in silence. We set off again but I soon waved Colin and Kath on ahead of me. I may have mentioned already that hill climbing is something I need to work on. It's not that I couldn't do the climb, but I had to stop frequently to gulp air and allow the lactic acid to drain out of my legs. Luckily the views got better and better as you went higher so I had enough of an excuse to take a photograph at almost every bend of the climb. The Two Ronnies, Colin and Kath had disappeared from view and I climbed alone, stopping fitfully and enjoying the solitude but not the repetitive refusal of my legs to carry me further than fifty yards at a time. I made it in the end however, a climb of over two thousand feet and easily the highest climb of the week - twice as high as Conic Hill in fact.
At the top was an untidy pile of stones and an untidy Colin and Kath. The Two Ronnies were some way off down the other side, holding a map and pointing at things generally. Kath was searching for a missing hat. Looking back along the route we had followed all afternoon gave us an idea not only of the distance we had traversed but also of the sheer scale of the landscape.
Long ago an ancient ice flow a mile high had barged its way through here, gouging great chunks out of the solid granite of the mountains and leaving behind the U-shaped valley when it finally retreated. One peak in particular fascinated me as it was basically just half a mountain, the other face had been sheared clean off by the relentless ice and was now probably so many thousand boulders strewn across lowland Scotland and northern England. But, though deeply and permanently scarred the mountains had survived the ice. They stand today as they have stood for more than 80 million years - serried ranks marching away northward toward their birthplace, the fault line of Scotland called the Great Glen .
I was taking video footage as Colin and Ronnie engaged in a shouted conversation, barely audible above the blustery wind that raced about this summit. Colin approached. "Ronnie says that the big peak over there is Ben Nevis," he said. I followed his directions and sure enough way off in the distance a great grey bulk reared itself above the heads of the Mamores. It was a huge shoulder of rock, crouching over its neighbours like a panther, tensed and ready to spring.
"Yeah I recognise the shape," I opined knowledgeably, despite the fact that Ben Nevis had ever featured much in my life before and I doubt I'd have been able to pick it out from a random set of mountain photographs. I zoomed in on this distant giant and recorded myself claiming that I was filming Ben Nevis - the end of our journey, just twenty miles distant.
"Where's my ha-a-a-t?" Kath lamented as I faded the video to black.
WHW Day3 Pic 1

Climbing down to Kinlochleven

We were on the last leg of the day's journey and the weather remained fine clear and dry. The military road wound down the northern flank of Stob Mhic and snaked across the last section of Rannoch Moor. Blackwater reservoir lay like a misty blue dream far below us to the west. It was a hushed, expectant landscape and there was little of anything man-made in this area, just a line of telegraph poles marching bravely across the heath, carrying phone services to the town of Kinlochleven where lay our beds for the night. Views to the east were blocked by the looming bulk of Odhair-big and we walked in its shadow for quite a while. At one point Colin edged out onto a ledge of rock and threw his own 'pebble from a far off place' out onto the moor; a stone from the front garden of our parents house in Birmingham - now there is a corner of a Scottish moor that is forever Meriden Drive.
The Two Ronnies had made a good head start and we could make them out far below us as the track lost height in preparation for its approach to Kinlochleven. Distance had proven to be deceptive on this walk and we had convinced ourselves that we had just two or three miles left to do. It was getting into late afternoon and our feet were beginning to hurt again. It was all downhill from here as well, which I found more uncomfortable than climbing as it used a whole set of muscles my body normally ignored as irrelevant. We moved out of the shadow of the mountains and back into sunshine and now we could see the lower slopes, clothed in trees, that led down into
Kinlochleven. We spied a hint of water far below - a river of some sort, and a cluster of tiny buildings that could only be the town itself. It really did look close, no more than two miles at most, or so we thought, but the West Highland Way Effect was about to kick in again and what seemed like a relatively comfortable stroll soon became something else.

The never-ending road to Kinlochleven....

The path bumped and stumbled along the hem of the hills and didn't seem to be in a hurry to do anything adventurous such as going downwards. It was a broken rocky path which played merry tunes on our sore feet as we crested endless small gradients, optimistically believing that we would see the way down off the moor on the other side, only to be presented with yet another rise to be negotiated. After a while we saw a lone figure ahead, inching along with the hobbled gait of the truly footsore, it was actually painful to watch. It was, of course, Mr. Blister. We soon caught up with him.
"Still struggling on then. Bloody hell you're a brave man - or foolish," said Colin.
Mr. Blister smiled a weary smile. "Aye, if you've any room in your rucksack I'd take it right
"Where's your pal?" asked Kath, referring to the slightly psychotic-looking, combat clad companion Mr. Blister was supposed to be walking with.
"Och he's gone ahead. It's fine, I told him to."
This was a bit much.
"What, he left you up here in that state?" I said incredulously. "Some pal!"
"No no, it's fine. I'll get down to the town all right."
Kath decided to cheer him up. "Well it's really not so far now; only about a mile."
His pain-etched face brightened a little. "Really? Oh I can do that nay bother."
Reluctantly we left him behind, he was the last person up there on that lonely trail and the day was slipping away. We hoped he'd be all right, we all believed that there was indeed no more than a mile left to cover and we were sure he'd make it down before darkness fell, but we still felt a degree of guilt about leaving him to fend for himself. We walked on, Mr. Blister a dwindling figure silhouetted against the skyline behind us until he was lost from sight.
Presently the unexpected noise of a motorbike bit through the still air and an off-road biker appeared, bouncing and jigging up the track towards us, he passed us with a barely perceptible nod, a middle aged man on a machine that had no saddle and enormous knobbly tyres. Ten minutes later he was back, his motorbike snarling and growling down the track, spitting small stones out from under its wheels. He drew up alongside us.
"That yer friend back there?" he shouted above his revving engine. We assumed he meant Mr. Blister.
"Well, sort of," said Colin unwilling to accept the implied responsibility of having abandoned him out on the moor.
The cyclist nodded. "He says he's ok and, y'know, he will be all right soon - it's all downhill in a wee while. Does this belong to any of you?" He produced a hat with a flourish. "I found it about a mile back there."
Colin nodded. "Yeah - it's mine. Thanks." He took it with a sideways glance at me. I had been ribbing him about losing things all week but after a long tiring walk I realised that the joke might be wearing a little thin, so I said nothing.
The biker throttled up and slithered away, bouncing down the broken path with amazing skill. We were soon to learn that these sorts of bikes were very popular in Kinlochleven and when you walked into town it became obvious why (more of this later).
The descent off the mountain, when we finally got to it, was both abrupt and severe. One minute we were picking our way over a lunar landscape of rocks and boulders, the next we were pitching down at an alarming angle, our legs having to make exaggerated crane-like strides in order to cope with the sudden change in aspect. The path dropped down into the forest below and we all but slid down it for the first few metres. I was reminded of being in a roller-coaster cart, staring down into that first big plunge. Down and down we went, winding through pine-wood forests in a series of hairpin bends. We crossed a stone bridge, panted up a short sharp incline and then went down and down again. On our right we were joined by a cluster of huge pipes knifing through the trees and cutting, arrow straight, down into the unseen town below. They looked as indestructible as the mountain they were anchored to. Each pipe was at least six feet in diameter, iron black, and was clamped to its neighbours with bolts the size of telegraph poles. We had seen a few signs belonging to the local water authority back near the stone bridge and we guessed (correctly as it happened) that they carried water down into Kinlochleven for some unknown industrial purpose. We half considered the idea of clambering onto them and tobogganing all the way to the bottom but decided that this was not only illegal but probably suicidal as well. Meanwhile we marched on for what seemed like a small eternity with no sign of the town of Kinlochleven in evidence. The previous glimpse of its rooftops peeking coquettishly at us from the valley now seemed like nothing more than a fatigue
induced mirage. We had already exceeded Kath's estimates of a mile to the finishing line by at least a factor of two and still the path beckoned us on, taunting us with blind bends, promising on the next turn the cheery sight of a metalled road, lamp-posts, or a street of houses but delivering instead yet another turn in the road and yet another downhill slalom. We were now hemmed in by the forest and the views consisted of pine trees, giant pipes, and an occasional glimpse of the river that chortled in the creek below us. How nice it would have been to see a mini bus come trundling down the hill, it's cheery driver offering us a lift into Kinlochleven, free whisky, and a portable foot spa. A forlorn hope as this didn't look like the sort of road that carried much traffic - and you could probably substitute the word 'any' for 'much' in that sentence. It was an enormous surprise therefore when a 4x4 station wagon appeared around the corner, chugging uphill. Damn! It was going in the wrong direction.
Kath threw herself in front of it impulsively, forcing it to come to a halt. I had the mad idea that she was about to hijack the driver and force him to drive us to our guest houses at walking pole-point.
"Sorry to bother you," she said to the farmer behind the wheel, "but there's a poor man up there on the moor and he's really really struggling with blisters."
Farmer 4x4 smiled a smile that never quite reached his eyes. "Aye that happens a lot," he murmured.
Kath persevered, "I was hoping that, if you're going up there, could you perhaps bring him down? He's in a lot of pain."
Farmer 4x4's face remained impassive, "Ok," was all he said.
Kath looked relieved. "Thanks!" she called after the departing vehicle as it sped away from us.
In reply the farmer's collie dog barked boisterously. Colin and I knew that Mr. Blister wouldn't be rescued by Farmer 4x4. It wasn't his business and it wasn't his problem and, as he had pointed out, it happened all the time. If he pulled every crippled hiker down off the mountains he would barely have enough time left to claim his EU subsidies.
We turned yet another corner and behold! there lay Kinlochleven, unexpected and unlovely in the setting sun. The giant black pipes punched straight down, and into, a huge squat building that declared itself as an aluminium smelting plant. We had to walk past its looming bulk and we peered into its darkened windows searching for signs of life. We were wasting out time because the plant had been closed in 2000. We walked past a dodgy looking camp-site and reached the high street of the town. Kinlochleven had an odd look about it, as if all the shops, houses, pubs and civil buildings had sprung up at the same time, out of identical building materials, from the dull imagination of a single uninspired architect. I don't mean to be disrespectful about the town, after all I'm a Brummie and I live in close proximity to ugly industrial wastelands and arid council estates, but Kinlochleven is depressingly concentrated in its lack of identity; a distilled elixir of all that's bad about a place that has lost its main income and has nowhere else to go. We left Kath at the main bridge over the river Leven and turned in the opposite direction to seek out our bed and breakfast. The high street was full of listless teenagers, many riding the sort of trail bike we had seen earlier up on the moor, a lot of the front yards of the houses boasted similar machines. Looking beyond the serried rows of rooftops it was easy to see why such modes of transport would be attractive to Kinlochleven's citizens; the place was hemmed in by mountains. They frowned down on the tiny town, entirely surrounding it with a wall of towering granite that only something with huge knobbly tyres and a skilful rider could breach.
Kinlochleven's horizon had been stolen.
The whole place had depressed me at first sight and the brooding oppressiveness of this granite girdle didn't help my mood. I decided, a little unreasonably, that I wasn't going to eat in this place. I would find a taxi, have it take me anywhere else but this bleak wide place in the road. Colin listened to my grumbling and to his credit ignored me.
Outside of the post office we discovered Shugie smiling gently as a squadron of midges danced gleefully around his head. "Ronnies inside buying Irn Bru and I'm out here getting eaten alive.
Where are you staying?"
We gave him the name of our BandB but it wasn't the same one they had been booked into. The midges had now transferred their attention to us and reinforcements were no doubt on the way so we left Shugie and carried on up the high street until we had almost walked clean out of the place. Our bed and breakfast took some finding but a friendly local guy not only asked us if we needed help but walked us to the entrance of the guest house. It did a little to redress my misgivings about the town.
The BandB owner seemed to be in a hurry. He hastily booked us in and ran through the breakfast choices with nary a tick in sight and mentioned a special that we readily agreed to as a change from the fry-ups we had been scoffing all week. I asked him if the town was safe for foreign English types to wander about in after dark.
"Sure - half the towns English," he smiled at me.
"Why's that then, did the aluminium plant bring them here?" I asked.
He looked nonplussed. "No - it's just that Kinlochleven is such a lovely place to live."
He appeared to be sincere in this belief and not wishing to seem rude I shoved a complimentary mint in my mouth to stop me from saying something hurtful.
We were ushered into a section of the house that had its own front door and its own entrance hall; we had a whole wing to ourselves it seemed. Then in a flash the man had disappeared, leaving us with the impression that we were the only two people in the entire establishment.
The room, following the usual pattern, was even larger than Inveroran with three spacious single beds and a bathroom you could have held a party in, if you were so inclined. The view outside was interesting too, an iron bridge ran past our window carrying the road out of Kinlochleven, and beyond it squatted one of the mountains that stood guard over the town. This knoll was, unlike its brothers, heavily forested and about half way up a wreath of smoke curled out of the trees and into the evening sky, the dull orange of a respectable fire glittering at its base. I wondered if this was a case of arson or a controlled fire, or indeed a case of controlled arson. Kinlochleven had a fire station but there didn't seem to be much activity in that direction. The mountain was burning with an almost leisurely grace. As I gazed out I spied a sweaty, dishevelled Ronnie yomping over the bridge, Shugie in close pursuit. They were heading out of Kinlochleven so God only knew where their BandB was located. I waved energetically at them but they didn't see me. They were engaged in earnest conversation, Ronnie's arms were wheeling about and Shugie was smiling and nodding. They walked by, passing beyond my field of vision, and out of the town into the gathering dark. It was the last I ever saw of them and I never did get Ronnie's email address.
I had a call from Kath. She had booked herself in to the Tailrace Inn and had then wandered back through the town to seek us out. She had become a little lost amongst the towns anonymous side streets so I set out to search for her. Just down the hill from our BandB was a small cul-de-sac of houses and Kath was marching about at its nether end wearing an almost audible frown. When I had caught her attention she strode back down the little avenue.
"Well," she said in a voice that was unexpectedly amplified by the dead end street "isn't Kinlochleven a LOVELY place!"
Curtains twitched.
Kath said that the food at the Tailrace seemed to be reasonable and it was served until nine pm and as there was precious little in the way of eateries at our end of the town we took a walk back down the high street. In the short time that had elapsed since we first entered its streets Kinlochleven had packed itself away for the night. Gone were the youths and the noisy motorbikes, gone the steady stream of traffic passing through the town. All the businesses were firmly closed, including those one might expect to be open - like the restaurants. We tried one at random, a bistro specialising in sea food. It was only eight o'clock but its doors were locked. A few people were inside gathered around a small bar but when we peered in through the windows they made various gestures that told us, generally, to piss off.
The Tailrace Inn was busy; locals rubbing shoulders with walkers, and I recognised quite a few of the assembled crowd and found myself nodding repeatedly, the way you do when you see a familiar face. I went to the bar to order food and found myself next to Captain Combat, the fickle walking companion to Mr. Blister. He recognised me and said hello and I couldn't help but ask about Mr. Blister and why he had left him to make his own way into Kinlochleven. To be fair he gave a reasonable account - somebody had to get into town in time to book rooms and get provisions and Mr. Blister would have prevented this if they had walked at his pace. Mr. Blister had insisted that he walk every day despite his friends pleading with him to drop out
or at least take a days rest. However, it was now eight in the evening and practically dark outside and Mr. Blister still hadn't appeared. Captain Combat went back to his friends. There were about half a dozen of them and they all looked vaguely concerned - not exactly worried but certainly thoughtful.
The food was acceptable without being fantastic and the couple of pints we quaffed were even better however tiredness was setting in and when a space was cleared for the live band to set up we decided to call it a night. We left Kath wondering how she was going to sleep with a live gig in progress below her and wandered home along the silent high street. The mountains were now vast two-dimensional black shapes propped up against the starry sky. Maybe it was the beer or the chance to have had a rest but I felt more kindly towards Kinlochleven. It was never going to be my favourite place in the whole world but neither did it deserve the negative reaction it had given me earlier. It was ok.
We later learnt that Mr. Blister finally shuffled into Kinlochleven, down from the dark of the mountains, at nine p.m.

See Route on ......

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