Saturday, 1 August 2009

Day 19 - Scotland West Coast - Kinlochleven and Fort William - Don't mess with these guys!

While I was staying in Kinlochleven, I drove the 30 miles to Fort William, just to the north. I wanted to see the Braveheart Games. It’s a mini-version of the traditional highland games that are held every year in Scotland. Men resembling mythological Scottish giants - some say they are at least 8 feet high, and over 150 kg - compete against each other in one of the oldest competitive forms of sport known.

The events include:

- shot-putting (probably the best known event, and similar to the Olympic event);

- hammer throwing

-“over-the-bar” throwing (which involves hurling a 26kg weight with one hand backwards over a bar set at about 13 feet. The presenter at the games – himself once a competitor - liked to compare the weight to that “of a seven year-old child”). The record is an amazing 18 feet 7 inches, thrown by Dutchman Wout Zylstra in 2000.

- caber-tossing, the most popular event for the crowds (the competitors throw a tree trunk end-over-end, weighing anywhere between 100 and 200 pounds and a length of between 14 and 22 feet).

The caber toss is won – not by how far the competitor throws it – but how accurately the tree trunk falls on an imaginary clock-face, once it’s gone end-over-end. Twelve o’clock is the goal, and minutes to and minutes after are judged by a referee. The closest throw to twelve o’clock wins! It apparently takes years of practice to get right – there’s obviously a lot of technique involved.

Check out the videos from last lasted three hours, cost only £5, and was entertaining all along. There were also girls performing Scottish highland dancing, and a bagpipe band, of course!

Day 19 - Scotland West Coast - Oban - The road north

The road from Kilmartin takes you through the quaint town of Oban, one of the more popular tourist spots in the highlands. I didn’t find it that special, but I did only pass through. There is the popular Oban distillery, which offers tours, as well as boat cruises from the harbour, with SeaLife Adventures, Oban Wildlife and Craignish Cruises (which can take you to the fascinating Corryvreckan natural whirpool off the island of Jura).

Pretty Oban harbour, on the way north from Kilmartin to Fort William. Click on image for full screen version.

Border Collie sheep dogs aren't only found on farms in Scotland. Here's an Oban local with his human side-kick.

And not only do big, hairy clansmen play the bagpipes...another Oban local busking on the street.

Brings a new meaning to "straight into the pot"!

Day 19 – Scotland West Coast – Kinlochleven – Into the dark light of the lochs

After Oban, my destination was Kinlochleven, a tiny village at the dead-end of Loch Leven, deep in the mountains just south of Fort William. The mountains lord over the narrow sliver of water below. To the south is the peak of Bidean nam Bian, to the north is Ben Nevis, at 1344 metres the highest mountain in the UK.

These Scottish "peaks" - most of which are under 1000 metres - aren’t that high in world terms (the Himalayas hosts several over 8 000 metres), but they seem big. When you’re at the water’s edge of the loch, and look up, they look ominous and intimidating. The steep gradient is perhaps the trick – the ground rises quickly from Loch Leven – it would be very difficult to hike straight up these slopes. But there are great walking routes which follow the streams and valleys...check out this excellent site for walks in the area.

There's a strange light in The Highlands that I've never seen before - bewitching but also beguiling. It's hard to explain, but it's a kind of "dark" light, if you know what I mean?! These photos are of Loch Leven, where the movie Rob Roy was filmed.

Click on the image for a full screen version...

Waterfalls abound, and because it’s been raining now for two days, they sound like a symphony of bass drums. And the loch is very narrow, only a couple of hundred metres at its widest, so you feel like you’re wedged in. It’s dramatic. Don’t miss it.

What’s peculiar about the coast in Scotland is that you can be seemingly entrenched in the mountains, twenty miles from the “sea” and still be on the coast...Loch Leven, for instance, flows into the bigger Loch Linnhe, which in turn flows into the Firth of Lorn, which in turn eventually becomes the Atlantic Ocean. So even though Loch Leven is probably 90% fresh water (I'm guessing here), technically, I could jump onto a yacht, and sail 40 miles through lochs and firths, until I reach the “ocean”. It’s all connected.

The village of Kinlochleven isn’t particularly pretty itself – it’s definitely not ugly either. It used to host an aluminium smelter, closed in 2000, and it was powered by a hydro electric plant further up the valley. But you'd never guess there was any type of industrial activity. The area has been completely restored to an eye-poppingly beautiful and pristine state.

The south road along the loch to Kinlochleven undulates up and down the side of the mountain, while the north road hugs the waterline. A round trip will be 20 miles – it’s the most beautiful drive yet on my trip. Look out for the turnoff on the A82 about fifteen miles south of Fort William.

I am staying at MacDonald Hotel, a country and family hotel on the north east end of the loch. It’s just outside the village, and is an ideal spot from which to go exploring. There’s no fussing over guests – you can be left alone to your own devices, and come and go as you please as if it is your own home.

But you don’t really want to be indoors in a place like this. Outside is spectacular Scottish scenery – make the most of it. There are plenty of walks which are signposted, and the village is on the route for the West Highland Way, one of the iconic treks through the Ben Nevis range, and 153 km long.

If the weather really is that bad, and you can't get outside for fear of death, there are two good reasons to stay indoors.

First, Kinlochleven is home to the world’s biggest indoor ice-climbing wall at The Ice Factor, in the middle of the village, and just a three minute walk from MacDonald Hotel. It’s won a few awards for its innovative development, and is a very slick operation, with shop, cafe and climbing lessons. When I was there, kids and adults of all ages were giving it a go under supervision of the climbing instructors. There are also three or four normal climbing walls, with varying degrees of difficulty. It’s reason enough to check out Kinlochleven.

Then, if you're a beer fundi, then there's another reason to visit the village. Atlas Brewery is based right next door to Ice Factor. They are a small microbrewery, making real cask ale for the local pubs. It's right on the river, and they offer free tours every evening.