We had the entire day today to spend in and around Spean Bridge. Our two best options were either a gondola ride up the slopes of Aonach Mor to a height of 650 m in the Nevis Range, or a boat cruise on Loch Linnhe with the hope of spotting some wildlife. We chose the latter.
After breakfast at the hotel we stepped outside and immediately realised it was going to be a different sort of day to what we’d been having. The skies were grey and overcast and there was a chill in the air. Although we’re approaching summer, the predicted top temperature today was only 12 degrees. We’d rugged up in preparation for a cold day.
Our host at The Old Pines dropped us off at the bus stop. We waited for the bus with a group of people from Key West, Florida who we’d met at the hotel during breakfast. They’d decided to take the gondola ride. The bus dropped them off at the gondola station at the base of the mountain, then continued on into Fort William.
We walked along the sea front to the pier, read the advertising board for the cruise and realised we were an hour and a half early. It was about 11.30 am and the cruise wouldn’t leave until 1 pm. So we crossed the road and walked into Fort William’s main shopping district just a short distance away.
We found a cafe that was open and sat down to an early lunch. We took our time over lunch, and as we were leaving the cafe we could see the cruise boat returning to the pier from an earlier cruise. It was quite full, most likely a tour group.
By contrast, we had a comparatively small group on the boat, so there was plenty of room to move around. Marg went into the cabin with Neil and Janie, but I decided to stay out on deck in order to get better photos. Thankfully it never rained, but the cloud cover never went away and it was quite cold out there. At times I climbed the ladder to the upper deck. It was really cold up there, especially when the boat was moving fast. I kept my hands in my pockets most of the time just to keep my fingers warm enough to feel the buttons on my camera.
Inside the heated cabin, they were serving drams of malt whisky and coffee with Bailey’s, so Marg, Janie and Neil managed to stay warm and cosy throughout the two hour cruise.
Loch Linnhe is a large sea loch, over 50 km in length. It is about 20 m deep near both shores, but in the middle of the loch is a fault line, and here the depth drops to about 120 metres. Fort William lies at the north end of the loch. Just behind Fort William is Glen Nevis, renowned for its beautiful scenery. It was a filming location for both Braveheart and Rob Roy, and has been used in a number of lesser known movies as well. And just behind Glen Nevis is Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest peak. Apparently its peak is only visible, on average, 60 days per year. Yesterday there were few clouds in the sky and it was visible. Today it was obscured by clouds all day.
Our cruise was promoted as one with a good chance of seeing wildlife. When we boarded we hoped we might see eagles, dolphins, porpoises, seals, red deer and otters. So we set off with high hopes. The boat slowly cruised past the Caledonian Canal and parallel to the railway line that carried the famous Jacobite Express train, often referred to as the Harry Potter train. We passed a small island with lots of small sea birds circling.
The boat crossed to the opposite shore and began heading south west, in the direction of the sea and the Isle of Mull. We passed a black house, a form of croft house near the promontory. The people who lived in these houses were very poor farmers, and were the ones most impacted by Scotland’s infamous land clearances.
As we continued to cruise south west we passed close by some salmon farms. Our cruise captain told us that each of the farms could hold up to a million salmon. A pipe from the operations centre on the shore carries the food pellets out to the farms and distributes them into the water, where the salmon feed on them. I imagine the water might get quite murky and polluted, and, though I don’t know the facts, I am aware that some people over here object strongly to the salmon farming in this area.
Just a short distance further on we came upon a mussel farm. The mussels are filter feeders and remove the harmful algae from the water, so this industry is encouraged and supported by the government with a range of concessions. I’ve been eating a good deal of salmon and mussels over here in Scotland and I’m loving it. We cut the engine and cruised very slowly along this shore searching for a glimpse of the sea eagles that frequent the area. The day’s earlier cruise had spotted a pair of them, but unfortunately they seem to have left the area by the time we arrived. Our skipper told us to also keep our eyes open for red deer in this area, but once again we were out of luck.
The backdrop to our searching was a range of high mountains. The sky was dark and moody over those in the foreground, but, further away behind them, the sunlight was breaking through the clouds, shedding its light on the distant peaks.
The cruise boat once again cut its engines and drifted quietly past a small treeless island. A colony of seals lay scattered over the rocks. One or two raised their heads to see what we were doing, but most just lay motionless and watched us go by. Had we made a racket and startled them, our captain says they would have all gone down to the water and disappeared to a safer place. We came around the other side of Seal Island for another look. When the seals were well behind us, we increased our speed and headed back to Fort William.
Back in Fort William, we had one last job. Marg and Janie wanted to visit a wool shop. You can tell from the smile on Marg’s face in the photo below that she enjoyed this little stopover. Neil and I waited out in the street. At about 4 pm, with all of our shopping done, we found a taxi to take us back to Spean Bridge. It’s about a 15-minute drive, and we chatted to the driver all the way. He proudly boasted that he owned the only London cab in the Highlands. He said he’d gone down to London and bought it on eBay
Almost as soon as we got back to the hotel from Fort William, we went out on a walk through the fields directly opposite where we are staying. We crossed over a stile and followed a path past the grazing sheep and into some trees. The trees soon became a thick forest, dominated in places by massive leafy oak trees. The path led downhill, and we knew we were walking in the direction of a river and a bridge, but we still got rather a surprise with what we discovered.
Suddenly the dense trees parted just enough to reveal the ruins of a very tall, very ancient bridge. It didn’t seem to be attached to any road. There had been no signposting anywhere to alert us to its presence deep in the forest. A lone information panel informed us that we had stumbled upon General Wade’s High Bridge.
The bridge was built in 1735 across the Spean River. Following the Jacobite uprising in 1715, British commander General Wade supervised the construction of a network of military roads across the highlands. This particular road connected Fort William to Inverness, allowing Wade’s soldiers to move swiftly through the Great Glen in an effort to outpace and outsmart the enemy Jacobite rebels. Where it was necessary to cross streams such as the Spean River, Wade ordered bridges to be built.
It was here at High Bridge that the first military action in the Jacobite Rebellion took place on 16 August 1745. A number of Jacobite men tricked the British into thinking the bridge was heavily defended. The British retreated and the Jacobites pursued them, caught them and forced them to surrender.
Several sections of the bridge collapsed over a century ago, and it has now fallen into disrepair. We returned to our hotel in time for a drink before dinner.