Romance, history, drama and scenery that fills you with awe, can all be found along the 46 miles of the road to Mallaig – also known as the Road to the Isles. It is packed with beautiful mountains, silver lochs and dark, green swathes of forest which give way to white sands brushed by the fresh salt wind of the sea.
No, we’re not exaggerating, the landscape really is amazing. Whether it’s the trees reflected in the calm water of Loch Shiel, sitting on the beach at Morar or watching the boats come into Mallaig habour, you will be reaching for your camera to capture the moment.
The journey begins at Neptune’s Staircase, Banavie, where boats are lifted 64ft up from sea level to the Caledonian Canal through the seven locks designed by Thomas Telford. After watching this fascinating spectacle, head back along the road to the busy village of Corpach where diamonds, sapphires, gold and silver are displayed along with fossils and dinosaurs at the Treasures of the Earth exhibition. After Corpach the scenery changes subtly, replacing grey stone with green hills. The road continues along the shores of Loch Eil. Find your own favourite spot down by the water and admire the snow-capped Nevis peaks behind you. Ahead lie two of the most photographed views in Lochaber. The first is the towering Glenfinnan Monument. Standing at the head of Loch Shiel, with the blue mountains flanking either side of the long silver stretch of water, you can imagine how inspired and invincible Prince Charles Edward Stuart must have felt as he raised his standard here in 1745. What a place to rally your troops. On the edge of the water, the tower with the unnamed Highlander adds to the sense of place and history here. Built in 1815 as a memorial to all those who fought and died in the cause, you can climb to the top for a bird’s eye view. But first visit the Glenfinnan Visitor Centre to get a grasp of why the Jacobite rebellion took place in the first place. For a real treat, take a boat cruise down the loch and see the monument from yet another perspective. Don’t forget your camera. Over your shoulder are the dramatic arches of the Glenfinnan Viaduct which in one curving sweep carries the train to Mallaig over the valley far below. In its day it was the first structure of its size to be built from concrete. Surrounded by the green lush hills, the grey viaduct shines in the sun. The viaduct stars in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when Harry and Ron chase the Hogwarts Express in a flying car.
You can catch the Glenfinnan steam train from Fort William to Mallaig and take the rail to the isles rather than the road. It stops off at the Glenfinnan station museum where train enthusiasts and casual visitors alike will find lots of interesting objects and memorabilia. The added bonus is that you can be carried over the viaduct by the steam train rather than see it from a distance.
Leaving Loch Shiel behind, the road soon joins Loch Eilt and continues along its shores. More hills, more water, more photo stops.
Just past the village of Lochailort, where the fish farming industry first began in Scotland, is Loch nan Uamh (loch of the cave) where Bonnie Prince Charlie first stepped foot on Scottish soil in 1745. It is also where he hastily boarded his ship in 1746 to leave Scotland and never return. A cairn marks the spot. The road now follows the coast and as you drive round the headland the islands of Muck, Eigg, Rum and Canna beckon from the sea. Catch the ferry at Airsaig for these Small Isles, but you’ll have to leave the car behind. All of the islands are perfect for birdwatchers and naturalists or just for a stroll along their deserted beaches.
The village of Arisaig has fine views of its own with the mountains of Skye and Rum silhouetted against the sea and sky. Take time for a game of golf here at the nine course Traigh Golf Club. Be warned. The views of the islands, the sea and nearby beaches make this course one of the most distracting to play.
Visible from Traigh are the white sands of Morar which stretch around the bay. With little effort you’ll find your own deserted spot from which to enjoy the views.
A short strip of land only quarter of a mile wide, separates the sea from Loch Morar the deepest inland loch in Britain. Like Loch Ness, Morar has its own monster - Morag. Loch Morar does have a spooky and mysterious character to it thanks to the dark, cold water and the surrounding shadowy hills.
Mallaig is the end of this journey and the gateway perhaps to another. With ferries leaving regularly for the Small Isles and Skye you could easily explore further a-field. The busy fishing port was saved by the railway that spins up here from Fort William and at one time fish landed here was taken straight away by train down to London.
With catches of fresh fish on the doorstep, it is no surprise that there are a number of excellent seafood restaurants in Mallaig, where the fish lands from the boat straight onto the plate.
This is certainly one of Mallaig’s proudest boasts. But another must surely be its panoramic views and the pure quality of the surroundings. There’s a real buzz about this small port and it’s particularly pretty on a summer’s evening.
While in the village ‘a must’ is a visit to Mallaig Heritage Centre, built in 1993 on the site of the former Railwaymen's Dormitory. Inside you’ll find an interpretive centre, museum and archive for Mallaig and West Lochaber, packed with fascinating information on the way of life in the area in bygone times.
After exploring Mallaig, it’s time to either catch the ferry or head back the way you came. No hardship as you’re bound to see something you missed the first time around.