The Ghost of a Highland Road
This is an article taken from the first issue of 'The Bicycle' published on February 25th 1936. Before we go any further I'd like to make it very clear that this is not a suggestion for the next CycleSeven get together! Today the Corrieyairack Pass is rated as a serious MTB expedition due to the wildness of the terrain and the fact that there is no option for escape other than turning back. I know the pass fairly well, Lochaber AC, (of which I was a member), used to hold an annual race across some 16 miles of it. There is now a rough Landrover track and a line of Pylons to make navigation straightforward. It was not like that 75 years ago and the thought of trying to cycle across it on a machine of that era leaves me quaking in my boots!
' It is 9am of a cold May morning. I am standing in Fort Augustus, in front of an hotel, with an old, tried comrade. He shall be nameless. You may probe the secret of his real identity by studying the signature of the pictures here appended.
The twin peaks of the Corrieyairack above are heavily misted, and rain obviously gathers. We have been gazing towards the peaks with interest since early breakfast, for we are going (we say) to climb the road that crosses the web between them. A member of the Scottish Mountaineering Club is laughing heartily.
He has been laughing heartily since we told him our plan, to take our bicycles over the Corrieyairack Pass by Wade's Road to Kingussie. He knows the road. We do not, but he is a sportsman, and if we are fools enough to mountaineer with bicycles he will carry our baggage to Kingussie by car, via the modern road that goes 60 miles round.
9.05 am.-Off. We wave goodbye to the sportsman, two commercial travellers, the boots, the postman, the hotel manageress and a maid. We feel like an expedition. For one and a half miles the going is easy on the main road of the Great Glen; then, through a left-hand gate, we come to Wade's Road itself.
In the early eighteenth century General Wade was appointed "Superintendent" of Highland highways. Actually, his duty was to weaken and ultimately destroy the Scottish militant clan system by thrusting lines of roads, like swords, through the heart of the hills to the Hebrides. Beginning at Crieff, he forced a way first to Dalwhinnie, and then across the Corrieyairack to Fort Augustus, continuing thence to the Isles. The work was tremendous, for the roads, in the main, were laid across country hitherto only touched by wild and broken paths. Five hundred soldiers earned 6d a day extra for blasting rock, smashing boulders, building bridges and cutting traverses, working like blacks from dawn until sunset.
A hundred years later the road was used by coaches bound for North-West Scotland. Then easier ways were built, and the grandest highway in Scotland began its decline. Now, even in its lower stages, we find it grass-grown, broken, and in many parts indicipherable.
The First Error
9.22 am – We swing away left by a cart-track and are heading toward an impenetrable tangle of hills, before doubt overtakes us. We ask the way of a shepherd, who points across the valley to a bouldery mass, actually a remnant of the road we should have taken.
We cut downhill about a mile through heather and join it by a footbridge. Two low banks, with grass, heather and bog between, define the "road". In a series of zigzags, it jumps a couple of hundred feet in less than a quarter of a mile, and a vision of the great hill ranges of Western Inverness-shire is openend up behind. Fort Augustus appears mistily at our feet. Loch Ness is opalesque.
9.35am.-The heather between the banks has given place to water, coursing over boulders. The road, however, is fairly level. We ride a little. Already we have topped a thousand feet, from a hundred feet start.
10.00am.-Now we bump downhill to a ruined shepherd's hut, by the ford of Lagan-a-Bhainne, misread the map, and wander hopelessly through bog and reeds. Rain begins. The Laggan-a-Bhainne is a racing Highland River, running in a deep gorge. Wade's Road crossed it by a bridge. We find it and venture on for a few feet, but the middle has long fallen in, and even without bicycles the gap is too wide to jump. Later, at Kingussie, we learn that a footbridge is to be constructed, but that's no consolation now. Gingerly, therefore we creep down the river bank and essay to leap from rock to rock. Inevitably we slip and finish by wading thigh deep. The flood is caused by melting snow-water. Is it cold? What do you think!
10.55am.-Again climbing fiercely. Road less bouldery, but infinitely wetter. Abandon all hope of avoiding streams. They are coursing everywhere and to leave the road is to get into bog. Hatred of mountains fast developing. Gloom increasing.
Up in the Clouds
11.30am.-Tramping hard and hating bicycles. Climbing above the rain level, only to be bothered with mist. The road is sliced along the hillside – one bank gone, surface a mixture of slime, snow-water, reeds, grass and stones. Strongly inclined to turn back, but boggle at thought of second encounter with Laggan-a-Bhainne. Anyway our kit is now half way to Kingussie.
Noon.-Still going up. Try to cut a zigzag. Badly bogged. Mist clears. Magnificent view behind. Look downward on a rainbow. Begin to plough through snow-drifts. Summit evidently near.
At the Summit
1pm.-Up! Wild excitement among some sheep. A mountain is 1000ft. The Corrieyairack Pass is 2507ft. We are therefore sitting on two and a half mountains. Ecstasy intense. View of peak after peak after peak, endless ranges all aglitter with snow and bright May sunshine. The whole of Scotland appears bathed in deepest silence. Realise that this is a unique moment of our touring lives, never perhaps to be repeated. Expanses of snow, 18 inches deep, curve outward out of sight to the abyssmal corrie yawning on our right, progress to the bottom of which we must next attempt.
And now for food. Pockets empty, except for two oranges. Search frantic, but unavailing. Gloom profound. The nearest bothy is 3 miles down. Ride madly, crash over boulder, walk soberly.
1.45pm.-Bog, almost impassable. The stony bed of a stream through the centre is the only safe way. But we have at almost negotiated the famous zigzag traverses by which the road descends the southern flank of the mountain. Parts of them have been washed away, and in cutting from corner to corner we have half walked, half slithered, over masses of scree on a gradient of 1 in 2.
Beyond an almost perfect bridge the road is shrunken to a 12 inch path with the hillside dropping precipitously away to the right. Looking backward to the pass, it seems impossible that a road could cross it. The mountain rises almost sheer from a great cup. The traverses are scarcely visible. Wade certainly was an engineeer, and no road half so sensational has ever been built elsewhere in Britain.
2.15pm.-The path has broadened into a road again. And what a road! Neither of us has ever seen the like of it. Mountain streams have taken complete control. It is littered with rocks. There is a 4 inch depth of water, sometimes welling into 2 foot holes. And this is the road we must take or be bogged. We are making a mile an hour, cursing our bicycles, cursing mountains, cursing ourselves and abominating Wade.
2.50pm.-Gathering speed. We now surge madly forward at 3 mph.
3.30pm.-A house (and possibly food) in sight.
3.35pm.-House discovered to be empty. More depression, but the road is really rideable at last. With a hundred yards to go among the boulders my friend mashes his gearcase. What do we care? The road is rideable. Four miles, ten fords, and we find another house. A real house, with real people, and a fire with a kettle on.
7.30pm.-Kingussie at last. Thirty-four miles from Fort Augustus, fourteen of them walked, many with the bicycles on our shoulders. To prove to myself what a man I am, I ride on to Ruthven Barracks, where Wade's men were quartered, a mile outside the town. A branch of the road leads up to the ruins. Within are hollow voices, a white shape and a glimmer. Campers.....or the ghosts of the old soldiers? Campers they are. Yet I wish that the ghosts were there. I would like, dearly like, to peep just once at the men who made the worst, grandest, heartbreakingest, noblest road in the British Isles.'