Opening up the road to the isles

IT HAS taken more than 40 years, but those who have campaigned for improvements to the famous A830 Fort William-Mallaig tourist route can finally see their efforts nearing the end of the road.

Tavish Scott, the transport minister, announced yesterday that the final four miles of the Road to the Isles which is still single-track is to be upgraded.

Morrison Construction has been given the job of converting the final section of the A830 Fort William-Mallaig road into two lanes. Work is due to start in June on the tortuous, single-track carriageway, complete with passing places, between Arisaig and Loch nan Uamh. It will take about 18 month to complete.

The improvements will reduce delays on the road, where traffic from fish lorries to tourist coaches heading for the Small Isles and Skye have to share the same stretch of tarmac.

A series of improvements to the 17-mile stretch of the road between Mallaig and Lochailort has cost 22.8 million.

Historic route hailed in song

"BY TUMMEL and Loch Rannoch and Lochaber I will go..." is a familiar line in the ever-popular song, The Road to the Isles. It more readily recalls, in fact, the old road south out of the West Highlands, in the series of ancient trackways which acted as trading routes to the southern burghs and the cattle droving roads from island grazings south to Stirling and Falkirk. The song did not seem to take us much further than Lochaber, and we are left, in a flurry of knapsacks, "cromags" and heather, to imagine the last stretch through to the Minch and the Hebrides.

There was always something less familiar about the road west at this point, to the extent that the 19th-century guidebooks, such as Robert Hall's Scottish Tourist and Black's Picturesque Tourist, would wax lyrical on the locations of Scott's poems and novels, or diligently follow the footsteps of Prince Charlie. In all their sustained flow of editions, they remained strangely vague over the bits in between.

West of Glenfinnan was unknown territory - known traditionally as Moidart and Arisaig - and it always seemed to retain much of its rugged mystery as Na Garbh-Chriochain or "The Rough Bounds". This was the eastern buffer territory of the former Lordship of the Isles of Clan Donald, and more recently the estates of Clanranald. Gaelic language and literature, song and music flourished in this stronghold, whose links were as readily with Spain and France as with Edinburgh and London.

The district had been opened up by that energetic engineer Thomas Telford, when he directed the government to build the so-called "Parliamentary Road", beginning in Banavie and Corpach in 1803 and running out to Arisaig. It was called in the official papers of the Commission for Highland Roads and Bridges the "Loch-na-Gaul" road, and it is this same piece of road, from Loch nan Uamh to the village of Arisaig, that is now finally going to be engineered to finish the process begun by Telford in the early 1800s.

If we think of the Highlands as bare and rocky hills and high tops, this once-hidden land to the west of Fort William challenges this impression with its cover of birch and rowan and its ancient oak woods.

The last winding stretch of the former "Parliamentary Road" will always be remembered for the trees crowding down the slopes and obscuring the view of the motorist. But this was a symbol of the wealth and fertility of the lands of Clanranald, praised by its poets and remembered proverbially as "dark Arisaig of the woods" - Arasaig dubh ghorm a' bharraich.

The exceptional qualities of the road to the isles were also recognised by the outstanding folklore collector of the mid-20th century, the late Calum Maclean of the School of Scottish Studies.

The description in his 1959 Batsford edition, The Highlands, glows with admiration for Morar, Arisaig and Moidart, but focuses on the people as well as the views. His esteem for the friendliness and hospitality of the district, the wealth of tradition and a faithfulness to the past, is a timely reminder that nothing makes the road to the isles so rich as the folk who dwell along it.

HUGH CHEAPE