Pete Scullion continues his tour of the north’s coffin roads. Ancient byways that were the final journey for the dead and which conveniently make great trails for the living.
Words & Photography Pete Scullion
For countless thousands every year, the A87 that runs across north-west Scotland allows easy access to the unspoiled spectacle of the Western Highlands. They gaze at the many, many Munros from the comfort of the driving seat, instead of looking at the road, much to the dismay of the locals. What many miss is the history, and a tumultuous history it is at that, of Scotland and its Highlands.
Centuries before the A82 met the A87 west of Invermoriston, taking traffic through towards Skye, the military road built by William Caulfield, the successor to General Wade, wound its way along the northern shore of Loch Garry, before swinging north from Tomdoun and into Glen Shiel.
It would take the Jacobite Risings in the 1700s to really spur the building of military roads and mapping of this vast wilderness, a place where droving roads were the best means of moving about the mountains – mountains that the Jacobites knew well and the English did not. It would be in Glen Shiel that the English would fight the Jacobites, augmented by Spanish soldiers, making it one of the last foreign engagements on British soil. The infamous Rob Roy MacGregor commanded the Jacobites here, and the coffin road out of Kinlochhourn features on a map he made of the area from 1755.
Take away the modern roads, take away the military roads, return the lochs to their pre-reservoir status, remove the English landlords and put back the natives forced out by the Highland clearances that followed the Rebellion and you have the context in which our route exists.
The coffin road out of Glen Quoich starts at the now monstrous body of water that is Loch Quoich, dammed in 1955, and heads north towards the now derelict hunting lodge at Alltbeithe, before swinging west to the corrie at the western end of the glen. This coffin road is unique in that it shared its route with the drove roads that lead to Invergarry and Fort Augustus to the east, and Kinlochhourn and Arnisdale to the south and west. The vast majority of these ways of the dead would be used for a single purpose, and across ground that would be unsuitable for livestock or carts.
An early bird.
Fast forward to late 2017 and the inky darkness of night starts to give way to the pale hues of morning as we dodge suicidal blackbirds along the old Skye Road past Tomdoun. As we reach the Glen Quoich dam, deer and Highland cattle throng the road and the pace slows as the morning starts to make itself known. Beyond Loch Quoich bridge, along with local Fort William pinners Miles Mallinson and Mikayla Parton, I saddle up for the spin into the middle of nowhere.
Stags and hinds at this point have been so frequent they stop piquing our interest and getting out on the trail for sunrise is the order of the day. Atop the rock that the road cuts through stands a mighty 11-pointer stag, looking us straight in the eye. Naturally, I hop out to pap a snap, silhouetting the beast against the sky, only to notice a dozen larger animals bearing down on us. Clearly fed regularly, a few tonnes of spiky venison start vying for position, and it’s not long before the leftover testosterone from the rut starts a few clashes of antlers.
Wary of being impaled, we slink into the van, knowing that our route is blocked by cattle with calves. Also not an attractive proposition. Eventually, as the sun crests the horizon and our opportunity is missed, I decide enough is enough and question whether the stags would ‘like to just F off’. English must have been their first language, as they entertain my request. Sunrise missed… Bollocks…
With the deer gone and the cattle safely navigated, the first stint of the ride takes in a large estate track leading to an estate house in construction, complete with hydro schemes. Not quite what I’d expected. We soon pick up the track from the boarded-up stalkers’ lodge and it’s clear very early on that the dual use of this path through history, plus its continued use for stalking, means it remains in very good condition.
The going is quick as the glacial moraine gives the trail a somewhat graded feel and despite the damp weather leading up to the ride, the ground is firm and we’re aiming to get into the sun and bask in the first rays of dawn to get body heat back to acceptable levels. Once in the sun, we spot the remains of what was one of the many smaller steadings that would have used this path for moving both animals and bodies. Drystone walls being reclaimed by nature are the only remnants of the clearances that moved people out and put sheep in their place.
As we ride, the trail rises and falls over the moraine banks left by retreating ice thousands of years ago and we come to our first of many river crossings. Up until now it’s only small streams crashing across the path that we’ve had to contend with, but this one is beyond axle deep in the wrong place and barely beyond the tyres in the right. As the track and the river exchange places we’re left to get our feet wet a few more times before we climb away from the now slower, mirror-like stream.
Away from the burn we’re still crossing water, less of it but more frequent. After all this is the Highlands and this is November. Climbing away from the river below we come across the first real evidence of the track’s use as a coffin road, with a somewhat worse for wear coffin stone plinth hacked roughly into the ground above us. Above this relic, the path steepens and loses its perfect surface, so chat thins and top cogs are engaged as we three try to find our own way up the corrie.
To the bealach!
Soon another river crossing has us scratching our heads. The drove road clearly swings south, up and over towards Kinlochhourn and Knoydart further afield. The map says carry on to the bealach (Scottish for pass or col), but there really is no path. We climb the drove road to gain height and survey the corrie beneath us. There really is no path. Our options are to try to hunt out a non-existent path, head back the way we’d come, or follow the drove road over the hill to the south and pick up the Loch Quoich road back to the van.
After a brief sortie to try to find the coffin road route to the bealach, we opt to retrace our steps over the pass to the south and make a loop out of the day. Above our last river crossing, the path has clearly not been trodden for some time. Wet grass atop rock offers low grip coefficients and it feels like one step forward, two steps back. We’re glad to be on a path with a hefty descent to come though, so no real complaints. The forecast cloud hasn’t appeared and once atop the corrie walls, we’re bathed in an unusually strong November sun.
From our vantage point of bare rock, we can see the route down the glen to Kinlochhourn glistening in the sunshine. Good and bad. Glistening means sunshine, but also a fair amount of its liquid equivalent. The sound of stags still firing on the rage from a rut not long past can be heard filling the glen as they offer challenges to anyone who will listen.
It’s here where we’re effectively reversing the route taken by Prince Charles Edward Stuart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie, the second Jacobite Pretender to the English throne, on his wanderings after escaping from the Battle of Culloden in April 1746. Charlie would leave Skye and escape the attention of Hanoverian soldiers south of Kinlochhourn, hiding in the very corrie where we’d stopped for lunch before escaping over our original planned route into Glen Shiel. After seeking shelter at Achnagart, near where the coffin road would have met the military road, now the A87, he would again take shelter under what is now known Prince Charlie’s Stone. This stone that sits above the site of the Battle of Glen Shiel is where he’d spend a day that summer before being sheltered further east by ‘The Seven Men of Glenmoriston’. The Bonnie Prince had, at the time, a bounty of £30,000 on his head, roughly the equivalent of five and a half million pounds in today’s money.
We’d have substantially fewer government cordons to dodge, and more singletrack that came and went as its lack of use has surrendered it to the elements and Mother Nature, as well as deer hidden beyond crests and brows that would bolt in all directions as we startled them. It was very quickly evident that this route might be better suited to a summer raid. Water was ever-present on our descent, but we’d battle on, as when the going was good, it was really rather good indeed. We’d not seen a single person since we left the construction site some hours ago, and the deer weren’t particularly good company either.
Slick rock slabs glistening.
Every time we stop to regroup, the smiles get wider. Slick rock slabs give no indication of their slimy nature. Wet grass grips and then gives way; gravel no longer the predictable material we’d become so used to. Getting down the upper slopes is a case of hold on, go floppy and let the bike do what it needs to do, knowing we just need to keep pointing front wheels vaguely in the right direction and we’ll generally be OK.
Greasy corner after greasy corner tests our ability to keep the bike on the rubber and our teeth off the dirt. The slabs here are so slick that even going in a straight line seems somewhat precarious. Engaging it certainly is, and even with the height we’ve dropped, we’ve still some way to go. Steep-sided burn crossings appear from nowhere out of the marram grass, demanding a split-second commitment or flinging the anchor overboard. Everything about this descent is keeping us on our toes.
After the best part of an hour fighting the lack of grip and the bike’s tendency to do anything without severity, the path flattens as it meets the drove road from Arnisdale and the sogginess kicks up a couple of notches. We pause to refill water bottles and inhale sweeties next to a rather fetching waterfall, and wonder at the height we’ve still to lose despite what we’ve just endured.
From here the trail takes on more of an access track feel, but is no less wet or sketchy – I’m starting to really feel the grit attacking and kicking myself for not fitting a mudguard… It’s not long before we meet a tall deer gate, and a lack of quadrupeds mean the silver birch has taken over. Trees don’t seem to make any difference to the wetness and we start a long traverse at warp speed around the hill to the left before picking up the road back to the van. It’s across another river we spot what looks to be another coffin stone opposite the ruins at Coireshubh. From here we wind our way through bleached white trees back to the start point.
What strikes me about this one, of all the coffin roads I have ridden, is the sheer isolation of this route to the final resting place. It would have been a foul proposition even in the best weather and ground conditions.
There’s such a vast quantity and quality of wilderness to explore here that you could quite easily tack a mountain or two onto this route and make it part of a ride in a series of days covering some serious ground in empty terrain. This route has definitely sparked a need to get out the maps and plan some real exploring for when the longer days come around again.
What in the blazes is a ‘coffin road’?
In the late medieval period, when the Catholic church’s power dictated people’s lives from the arrival of a newborn to the journey to final rest, Britain’s population was expanding rapidly. With that growth came a similar increase in church construction. Older church minsters had long since relied on tithes and mortuaries for their income and associated power.
Over time, bishops felt their power – and income – waning, and reacted by connecting the outlying villages and churches to their ‘mother’ church by way of what was known as a corpse road. Holding the only licence to bury the dead secured mortuaries their pay and snatched back power for the monks and bishops.
While it was believed the spirit would travel in a straight line from the home of the deceased to the church, the physical entity would need to be carried overland by family and neighbours, crossing water as many times as possible to ensure the spirit could not return to haunt the living.
And, in order to avoid these routes being used by traders or drovers, these ‘ways of the dead’ would more often than not pass through inhospitable terrain – which is why they’re now of interest to mountain bikers, because inhospitable terrain often means fun and remote trails.