The Road to Recovery (Dalmally to Taynuilt)
For now the hills are off limits, but the roads aren’t. Cycling is one exercise I can manage and by it’s very nature is low impact. That’s not to say it is easy and doesn’t cause its own strains and stresses, but for the moment it’s all I can manage. Cycle commuting is one way of keeping the fitness up, but it’s nice to have a change of scenery as well. One of my hobbies is Geocaching, or as one person put it, hunting for tupperware boxes using billion dollar defence satellites. Some of these caches are what is termed “cache and dash” which means they are located at or within a short walk from the roadside. I have a few caches strewn across Scotland. One of these is located at Loch Awe, near Kilchurn Castle, and it has been out of commission for some time, having been ‘muggled’, the term used for being found (and sometimes destroyed) by non-geocachers. For much of last year, physically, I was unable to get to the cache site to replace it, in two senses. My back and leg problems meant I couldn’t walk to the cache. Last October when I finally was able to manage to do so I went up to Loch Awe to find the area flooded and the route to the castle under four feet or so of water. I decided to leave it until spring.
Spring sprung, and work and holiday commitments meant that time ran away from me. Eventually I had a day free and jumped aboard the train to Oban from Glasgow Queen Street, alighting a few hours later at Dalmally. There I was met by the station cat and Angus, the station dog, as well as a local who ran into the station two minutes after the train had departed. A man with my own sense of timing, as I regularly find myself two minutes from everywhere…
According to the book The Oban Line (An Illustrated History) by Tom Weir, the station was opened to passengers in 1877, although it was a further three years before it made it all the way to its termination in Oban. As a terminus though, Dalmally was a jumping off point to catch a coach to connect with the Clyde steamers at Inverary on Loch Fyne. Now it houses a craft shop and a collection of knick-knacks to amuse the waiting passengers. The signalbox still sits on the platform, although it is now long since empty, its workings having been taken over by the Signaller at Banavie near Fort William. Eventually it is planned that Banavie will go too, and the entirety of the Scottish rail network will be controlled from only two boxes, in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Leaving the station I take a wee detour. One of the things about doing nothing but big hills is that you tend to cherry pick hills, come in and climb them and then depart, seeing little other than what you came for. Today I’m taking it easy and taking in a few sights. I’m not looking for big miles or record speeds, and I’m certainly not going to find that as I drop down the gears and pedal uphill to the monument to the poet Duncan Ban MacIntyre. This really is an impressive piece of craftsmanship and enjoys a fine view over Loch Awe. There is a geocache in the vicinity and I’ve soon found it, and sit in the sun filling in the log book and listening to the first cuckoo I have heard this year. I considered continuing along the old military road so that I am not returning the way I came, but in October on my last vist I travelled to the other end of the track at Achlian which was ankle deep in glaur, so I give it a miss. Instead I hang on for a downhill zip back to Dalmally and pick up the A85. First stop, Kilchurn.
The car park is quiet, only a few cars are parked up there. There is no sign that a few months back this was under water. The eye is drawn to the level crossing, but the way to the castle veers off to the right, going under the railway, not over. I cycle out to the castle, past an angler camped up with a trailer and enough equipment that hints that he may be there for a while, if not the whole season. Kilchurn Castle was here long before he arrived and will be here long after he is gone. Built around 1450, this former stronghold of the Campbell clan sits at the head of the loch and though it’s roof is gone it is still one of the most iconic and impressive ruins in Scotland. I take a wander through the castle and it’s a hive of activity. Swallows flit back and forth before landing in the many nooks and crannies along the walls, recesses where floor joists used to sit. Before I leave I carry out the task I came to do. The site for my cache was too exposed and I find a better, more secure nook to place it in. I take a wander through the trees nearby and I am met with a scene of devastion. The floodwaters have receded and have left in their place all the rubbish and debris which they have stirred and swept up, and it is not a pretty sight. The angling community really do have a lot to answer for in this area, and my blood boils as I pick my way through discarded bottles and cans, stove canisters and bait boxes.
It’s behaviour like this which has been used to implement the present ban on camping in some areas of Loch Lomond, and it is a clear example of why Scotland should have a Ranger service operating in the ‘honeypot’ areas such as this. As I leave the castle and head towards the road I pass a group of tourists who have just got off a ‘Rabbies’ coach and bringing up the rear is their guide, armed with a bin bag and litter picker. I thank him for his contribution and he confesses that he does this off his own back, as he is “embarassed” to bring his clients here at times.
Once on the road it’s time to put the miles in. Despite the headwind it is an enjoyable run, and I stop briefly a few times along the way, at St Conans Kirk for photos and at the Pass of Brander for a breather. It’s not as bad as I had feared although the traffic can be a bit hairy at times. From the roadside I can see some of the “Stone Signals” which are installed on the railway line here. The Pass of Brander is notorious for rockfall, so a system of signals linked to a strung wire screen were erected on the uphill side of the railway, the idea being that any falling rocks would break the wires which would drop the semaphore signals to the danger position thus warning the drivers of obstructions on the line ahead. It’s a strange system and prone to damage, but it works.
There’s been very little wildlife to see along the route, although I did spot a golden eagle at the start of Glen Strae. Around 20 miles through the highlands with virtually no animal life is unusual, but I am rewarded when I reach the village of Taynuilt. The air seems to be filled with buzzards, wheeling and mewing. While they keep their distance I get up close to one sitting bold as brass on a fencepost, it sits long enough for me to get a few quick photos before it flies off to a nearby tree.
I pop into a cafe to refill my flask for the journey home before heading down to the station. I have the best part of an hour to kill here and it flies by as within a few minutes I have spied a red squirrel darting high among the trees. My initial attempts to photograph it were thwarted as it disappeared, however a stroll along the platform led to me discovering it again, sat immobile on a branch, it’s mouth stuffed with material I can only assume was for the construction of a new drey. We eye each other from a distance of only a few feet, both staying as immobile as rock. I turn away and then glance quickly back to find he has moved very slightly. In the end I release him from our Mexican stand off by walking up to the end of the platform where I spy a number of Roe Deer, on and off the track. This final hour in Taynuilt has been a fine reward for all that pedalling.