The Road to the Isles from Fort William to Mallaig
Mallaig is a small fishing town in the west highlands of Scotland at the north end of the Road To the Isles (Am Rathad nan Eilean). The road is more prosaically known as the A830 and is the route from Fort William to Mallaig, ending at the ferry terminal. The area is also at the northern edge of the area known as the Rough Bounds (Na Garbh Chriochan), an area of land between Loch Hourn in the north and Loch Shiel in the south. The road has been improved in recent years whilst the building of the Skye Bridge has moved a lot of traffic off the Mallaig road, leaving it relatively quiet and immensely drivable. The combination of scenery and road surface make this road a delight to drive and is highly recommended for motorcyclists.
As the road leaves Fort William it passes by Neptune's Staircase, a lock flight which acts as the entrance to the Caledonian Canal carrying water traffic along the Great Glen between Fort William and Inverness. Road and rail traffic cross the canal at this point using swing bridges. From this point the road and rail routes criss cross as they make their way toward Mallaig. Both follow the north shore of the upper reach of Loch Eil before arriving at the head of Loch Shiel where the railway crosses the spectacular 21 arch Glenfinnan Viaduct seen in numerous films, most famously the Harry Potter series. Between early May and late October the Jacobite steam train is used to haul day trippers from Fort William to Mallaig and back. A glance at the Jacobite's on line timetable at should allow you to work out if you can grab some photos of the steam train crossing the viaduct, or even if you fancy a trip yourself. At the time of it's construction (1897-1901) the viaduct was one of the largest structures built using unreinforced concrete and was built by Robert “Concrete Bob” McAlpine, founder of the construction firm Sir Robert McAlpine. On the other side of the road from the viaduct is the Glenfinnan Monument. This marks the spot where, on 19th August 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his flag in Scotland and, by claiming the throne in his father's name, began the rebellion which culminated in the last pitched battle fought on British soil at Culloden on 16th April 1746.
From Glenfinnan on, the scenery becomes wilder and more remote. Leaving Glenfinnan the road soon arrives at and travels along the north side of Loch Eilt whilst the railtrack hugs the south shore of the loch. A number of small islets in this loch give the impression of a drowned land whilst the surrounding mountains plunging straight into the loch can give it a dark and claustrophobic feel.
At the head of the loch, the railway passes under the road and tracks alongside the road for the next few miles past the railway station at Lochailort. Not far beyond the railway station the views open up to reveal the spectacular sea loch of Loch Ailort to the left. As the road begins to climb the railtrack passes below the road and moves to the west of a small loch whilst the road continues along the east side.
The road the drops to sea level and as it approaches another sea loch (Loch Nam Uamh), the Loch Nam Uamh viaduct carries the railway over the road. In spite of it's relatively modern looks, the viaduct was constructed in 1898/99 and is another work by the builder of the Glenfinnan Viaduct, “Concrete Bob” McAlpine. The large pier in the centre of the viaduct contain the remains of an upright horse and cart believed to have been local legend but confirmed with the use of a radio survey in 2001. A plaque marks the demise of the unfortunate animal which is assumed to have been dragged into the pier when the cart it was pulling slipped.
The road clings to Loch Nam Uamh for a distance before turning inland and climbing again, the scenery giving way from mountain to moorland as the road bends to a more northerly direction. Just before it does, a junction allows for a diversion through the village of Arisaig on the B8008. A short distance further along, another junction takes a more direct route into Arisaig, whilst a mile or so further along, as the Cuillin mountains on Skye become visible, a third junction marked Back of Keppoch also allows access to the B8008 avoiding Arisaig altogether. The B8008 is a smaller more winding road which hugs the coastline, revealing glimpses of some of the most beautiful beaches to be found anywhere, with white sands, clear blue seas and views of the islands of Skye, Rum and Eigg.
A few miles on, the road veers away from the coast to join the River Morar, at 1/4 mile long the shortest river in Britain, linking the outflow of Loch Morar to the sea. This road climbs to rejoin the main road where a right turn continues on toward Mallaig. Alternatively a left then right dog leg takes a more scenic route through the village of Morar. This route follows the River Morar and crosses an older, smaller bridge upstream from the main road. Where the road crosses over the river, it also passes below the railway. A few yards further on a junction is signposted to Loch Morar. Following this road off to the left follows the river to it's source at the outflow of Loch Morar where a junction to the left reconnects the road to the B8008 at the village of Morar. Although this detour adds a little time to the journey, it does allow you to travel the entire length of a river in around 5 minutes, as well as providing a dramatic view of Loch Morar, the deepest body of fresh water in Britain. This loch is said to be inhabited by a monster, Morag. Being up to 1020 ft deep and 12 miles long, the loch affords plenty of space for Morag to hide. A road extends along the first 4 miles of the north side of the loch but further travel is by foot. From the most easterly point of the road at Bracorina, it is possible to follow a well trodden path around 4 miles up the side of the loch to a track which crosses a pass to Tarbet on Loch Nevis. A ferry service provides a service from Mallaig to Inverie and Tarbet. Accommodation is available at a hostel in a converted church. The only access to Tarbet is by foot from Morar or ferry from Mallaig.
Back at Morar, as the road arrives in the village, it crosses the railway at a level crossing before rejoining the main road on to Mallaig. This is another superb vantage point to watch the steam train if you can time your journey to meet it. Once through the village the road then joins to the main road for the last few miles to Mallaig. A mile or two before reaching Mallaig, the road arrives at the coast with views toward the flat topped island of Rum and the sharp toothed Cuillin mountains on Skye. Passing the railway station, the road arrives at a roundabout signalling your arrival in Mallaig. Travelling straight on the road enters the docks and heads toward the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry terminal for embarkations to Skye and the Small Isles (as the islands of Canna, Eigg. Muck and Rum are collectively known). Turning right, the road takes you into Mallaig centre.
Mallaig is a pretty little town which doesn't suffer from the “end of the line” dinginess which can affect so many ferry ports. The hub of the town is without doubt the harbour which hosts a fishing fleet and marina as well as a couple of ferry services, whilst the town is reasonable serviced with a handful of bars, restaurants and cafes, all within easy waling distance of the harbour. Be aware though that the town largely closes in winter, opening during the tourist season, usually defined as being late April – early September. The Fish Market is a coffee room and well regarded but unpretentious sea food restaurant overlooking the harbour which is probably where yor dinner was landed. On the other side of the road, at the bottom of Davies Brae, is the Tea Garden, a comfortable little café with a raised outdoor seating area overlooking the road and harbour with an ideal aspect for watching the world (or at least the Mallaig part of it) go by. Opposite the Tea Garden is a small corner shop with a fish and chip restaurant above. The entrance to this is along the harbour road, whilst there is a take away from the restaurant a few yards up Davies Brae. Opposite the take away is another fish and chip restaurant, The Cabin, whilst next door is the Steam Inn, a traditional bar serving a range of real ales and classic pub food. Further up Davies Brae is the slightly more up market Clachain Inn and at the top of the brae is the West Highland Hotel and Island View restaurant. This hotel has a pleasant bar, well regarded restaurant and fantastic views over to Skye and the Small Isles.
As mentioned, Mallaig harbour is home to two ferry services. Caledonian MacBrayne run services to Armadale on Skye and to the Small Isles. The Small Isles ferry visits different islands on different days and it is possible to visit some of the islands for a day trip. The return to Rum for example leaves enough time ashore for a leisurely stroll to the village and a visit to Kinloch Castle with enough time for a cup of tea before strolling back to the pier in time to meet the ferry. Alternatively, a return ticket to one of the further islands such as Canna may not allow time ashore, but is a scenic trip with a strong possibility of seeing dolphins, porpoises or even whales in the water or sea eagles in the sky. Binoculars are highly recommended for the trip. A more expensive but focussed wildlife spotting trip can be taken from Armadale with Seafari who are based next to the Skye ferry disembarkation point. Seafari actively monitor wildlife and have built up a great deal of knowledge on the best places to see whales and dolphins. More detail on their trips can be found on the Seafari web site.
A smaller ferry operates from Mallaig up Loch Nevis toward Loch Hourn, calling at Inverie and Tarbet. Inverie is on the Knoydart peninsula and is one of the most remote parts of mainland Britain. It is not possible to travel to Knoydart by road as there are no roads connecting Knoydart to the road network. Knoydart is accessible by foot, walking the 17 miles from Kinloch Hourn to Inverie which is a strenuous but spectacular walk. A far easier and more relaxing trip can be had by taking the Knoydart Ferries service which runs between Mallaig and Inverie several days a week. Accommodation in Inverie is scant, but details of what is available can be found on the Knoydart Foundation web site. Britain's most remote mainland pub is The Old Forge at Inverie and is worth a visit and is well known for it's atmosphere and local seafood. On certain days, the ferry trip is extended to Tarbet further up Loch Nevis. Tarbet can be reached by walking along Loch Morar and over the pass at Swordland. This is a very popular walk and advance booking on the ferry is advised. Details of this service are available from the Knoydart Ferries web site which includes a spectacular image gallery. For those with limited time or unable to walk to Tarbet, taking a return trip from Mallaig to Tarbet (with binoculars) is highly recommended.
Leaving Mallaig, and assuming not too long a trip home, there are two seafood shops, Jaffy's beside the railway station and Andy Race which can be reached by following the signs to the industrial estate from the roundabout at the roundabout near the railway station. Although both have an internet presence and can deliver within the UK, a visit to either shop before heading back to Fort William and picking up the pace of life again allows you to carry home a tasty memento of your trip
Of course, you may not be heading south, your destination may be further north toward Loch Carron and Torridon, or further out to islands, across Skye and to the Hebrides. But those are different stories.