Glum in Glenelg

View from Mam Ratagan

One of the things I definitely wanted to do while we were staying in Dornie was to make the circular trip to Skye via the Glenelg ferry and back over the bridge. Day 2 of our week was another beautiful, sunny day which seemed the perfect opportunity. The first step is to take the steep and winding Mam Ratagan Pass (1115 feet) with fabulous views as seen above and below.

The village of Glenelg itself, or Kirkton of Glenelg to give it its full name, Glenelg being the name of the whole valley, was a strategic centre in the 17th century when a large barracks (the ruins of which we’d visit later) held the clans in check. Now, it’s a sleepy row of cottages round a shingle bay. The roofless storehouse seen by the bay was built by local farmers during the potato famine of 1837, to receive the quantities of food aid which came from the south. Just behind the old store is the Glenelg War Memorial, one of the most remarkable in the West of Scotland. It was presented to the community by Lady Scott of Ellenreach, designed by Robert Lorimer and sculpted by Louis Deuchars. The first name on the list of fallen is Valentine Fleming, father of Ian, the creator of James Bond.

After looking round the village, we took a side road to visit Glenelg’s three brochs. Brochs were built all over the west and north of Scotland and in the islands from about 500BC onwards. They are huge structures with double walls protecting against the elements. The first is Dun Telve. This one survived almost complete until the 18th century when it was partially demolished to reuse the stone for other buildings.

A short distance up the glen is Dun Troddan, the second broch. These two are unusually close and a bit of a mystery – did one replace the other, or were they lived in at the same time?

As luck would have it, the farm opposite Dun Troddan runs a small outdoor café and a bar. It was a little early for the latter, but coffee and cake at 11:30 are always welcome!

After our cake, we set off to reach the third, and apparently most spectacular broch, Dun Grugaig. I can’t tell you how spectacular it is because this was the point at which things went badly wrong and we never got there. We continued to the end of the public road where a narrow, wooden bridge led into a farmyard. Had we continued straight across this we’d have probably been alright, but we stopped and pulled in slightly to consider if we would be trespassing or not. Across the farmyard, we noticed a signpost to the broch and space to park, so we decided it was ok to carry on. However, we approached the bridge at the wrong angle and the back near-side tyre caught its curved, metal lip. Instant puncture!

Oh, my goodness, this was a low point. Newish cars these days don’t come with a spare wheel, just a repair kit which pumps a sticky substance into the tyre where it is supposed to set over the hole until you can get to a garage. This would be fine if we’d run over a nail and had a small pinhole, but we had quite a big rip and as fast as the substance was pumped in, it ran out again. You can just about see the rip about 2/3 of the way down on the right hand side.

I should add that we are entirely at fault here. We knew we had no spare and had intended to get one before we left, but hadn’t. Neither of us had any phone signal. In retrospect, I don’t know why we didn’t call at the farmhouse to see if anyone was in and could let us use their phone, but we chose to limp slowly back to Glenelg. Still no phone signal, but the barman at the hotel let us use the phone there. He was also reassuring. I had been very worried about how a breakdown truck was going to get across the steep, single-track pass to reach us, but the barman was blasé – oh, just phone your breakdown service and someone will come out from the garage at Kyle of Lochalsh in about four hours. Happens all the time!

So we had lunch, then took it in turns to take short walks to view the aforementioned barracks while the other waited with the car. Bernera Barracks were built around 1719 at the time of an abortive Spanish invasion. They also guarded the road to the isles and discouraged cattle rustling and blackmail. Today, only ruins remain.

In fact, it didn’t take four hours for rescue to arrive. By the time I got back from my walk a very nice young man was already loading our car onto his truck and off we set. It was the fourth time that week he had been over the pass to Glenelg – and there can’t be better views to have in your workplace. Sitting high in the cab was the only advantage of such an ignominious return journey: we saw so much more than on the way over.

Once back in Kyle, the wheel was swiftly changed and we were on our way. There was still quite a bit of afternoon left, so we had a quick walk round the village which, until a bridge was built in 1995, was the main gateway to Skye. Now traffic mainly thunders past over the bridge and Kyle is a bit of a backwater. There is still a small station at the harbour, part of which is now a museum. We noticed a memorial to the Iolaire which left from Kyle and sank off Lewis on New Year’s Day 1919 losing 205 passengers (mainly returning soldiers) and crew.

We climbed the Plock, a small hill with great views all around, including of the bridge which, as you can see, is actually two bridges with landfall on an island in between.

On the way back to our apartment, we made one final stop at Murchison’s Monument where there was another great view back to the bridge. Colonel Donald Murchison was loyal kinsman and factor to William, fifth Earl of Seaforth, during the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1719. When Seaforth’s title and lands were forfeited to the Crown, Murchison risked his life time and again to collect the rents and take them to his master in Paris. He was caught and imprisoned in the Tower of London until King George I, admiring his loyalty, pardoned him and gave him a grant of land. Unfortunately, Seaforth did not recognise the King’s gift. Murchison moved east and died disillusioned in middle age.

So although the day did not go to plan, and I was extremely glum in the middle of it, it could have been worse. We visited Skye a few days later, but by the prosaic bridge method. What did we miss? A passenger ferry has been in existence at Glenelg since at least the 17th century, and a car ferry since 1934. The current ferry, the MV Glenachullish, carries six cars and is the last operating manual turntable ferry in the world. Fortunately, Ruth’s Coastal Walk has an excellent post on the ferry, with some great pictures, if you want to know more. Someday, we’ll go back. But this time we’ll take a spare tyre.