The indicator on the front of the bus read “Portree”, the capital of the Isle of Skye, and the bus operator’s name was, in Scottish Gaelic, “Busaichean Seile” or, in the English language, “Shiel Buses”. It was Friday afternoon in Buchanan Street bus station in Glasgow and I was on my way north to Fort William to attend the funeral of my late aunt Betty.
In my younger days central Glasgow seemed to have a bus station round every corner. Some were discrete buildings others were just extended pavement parking. Amongst the latter was the stand on the Broomielaw beside the River Clyde where the long distance coaches to London departed, sometimes more than twenty at a time. Nowadays everything is centralised at Buchanan Street. And looking at the buses lined up for departure is like reading a gazetteer of Scotland. It seems every town and village in the country can be reached from here.
It’s also a place where people come to dream as I discovered. I was early for the bus so had time to pick up a timetable and get a seat at the front of the queue. For a long time there were only three of us, myself and two ladies in their sixties who had been shopping in the big city. One had all her purchases in a canvas bag and the other in a shopping trolley. They didn’t know each other but soon got to talking. A man appeared and hovered. Then he said “is this the bus stop for Portree?”. “Yes” we all said. “Great” he said, “how long does it take and is there a toilet on board?”. One of the ladies told him that all the coaches now had on-board toilets and I offered him my timetable to find out when it would arrive. “Thanks”, he said, “I’ve always wanted to go there but I’m going home now to Ayr”. And with that he walked away with my timetable. I hope he reads it and really does catch the Portree bus one day.
The bus was popular, indeed over popular. Most of the passengers had tickets issued locally but a crucial number had tickets issued by English bus companies and these tickets were not registered “on the system”. So there were more passengers than seats and, of course, on a long-distance bus there is no provision for standing passengers. In the end the driver managed to squeeze all but one onto the bus with a last comment to the supervisor that he hoped there would be some no-shows at Glasgow Airport, the first pick-up stop. And that proved to be well founded as there were only three passengers at the airport instead of the booked five.
The driver bore a remarkable resemblance to Robert Carlyle the actor, more in the role of Hamish MacBeth the Highland Bobbie, than Gaz in The Full Monty. He turned out to be a safe and a courteous driver.
To call the route from Glasgow to Fort William scenic would be a gross understatement. As you leave the airport, the view to the north is across the River Clyde to the Campsie Fells that mark one of Scotland’s defining geographical features, the Highland Boundary Fault. Way back in geological time a strip of the land stretching from the Atlantic to the North Sea dropped a few hundred feet creating the flattish Central Belt which now includes Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee and clearly separating that area from the mountainous regions of Scotland collectively known as The Highlands. The visual effect, looking north, is dramatic and draws you towards a land of mountains and lochs.
The bus called at Glasgow Airport which is on the south bank of the Clyde, so the motorway to the north has to cross over the river. The Erskine Bridge rises high above the river and gives great views along the Clyde in both directions. To the east the view is over the City of Glasgow and to the west you are looking down the Clyde towards the Firth of Clyde which used to be home to Glaswegians’ holiday resorts. When the bridge was built in the 1960’s there was still a thriving shipbuilding industry and the height of the bridge was determined by the clearance requirements of the big ships, including the QEII. Now shipbuilding on the Clyde is on a much smaller scale and the height of the bridge largely irrelevant.
In a very short time the bus had crossed the Clyde, driven along the north bank to the outskirts of Dumbarton, and turned northwards to the “Bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond”. For the next 23 miles the road follows the loch for its entire length. At the start the loch is several miles wide and the road crosses flat fields but soon the loch narrows and the road hugs the water’s edge. On the far side the view is dominated by the mass of Ben Lomond, a mountain of nearly 1,000 metres, or a little over 3,000 feet, in height. From the top you can see as far north as Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain, and south down the Firth of Clyde as far as Northern Ireland on a clear day.
There has been a constant battle between conservationists and motorists over the line and the width of this road. For the most part, the conservationists have won so the bus often had to pull right into the side of the road and sometimes stop to pass on-coming traffic. Every few years the road users gain a small victory, and a short stretch of the road is widened or straightened. One such project is currently underway at a point where the road is so narrow and so close to the water that for as long as I can remember, there have been traffic lights to control one-way travel. The new piece of road will actually run over the shoreline on steel cantilevers. Just past the roadworks and on the left is a large boulder possibly nearly 30 feet high. In mountaineering days we always stopped here and did a bit of boulder climbing or bouldering as it is known in the trade. Bouldering is great practice for delicate rock moves and is almost always carried out without artificial aids.
The bus stopped at Tyndrum for a comfort stop and here the lady with the shopping trolley left the bus. She was last seen pulling the trolley through the village in a couple of inches of snow. Up to this point the snow had been confined to hills but the on/off sleet had now turned to real snow and everywhere was white. As the bus continued northwards and uphill, the road runs alongside the West Highland Way, Scotland’s first long distance footpath running for nearly 100 miles from just outside Glasgow to Fort William. It did not look very inviting today but we have a plan to walk the northern half of The Way later in the Spring.
The road from Tyndrum to the sea at Glencoe Village was constructed to a high standard in the 1930’s. Apart from one or two bridges it is wide enough for two buses to pass each other without reducing speed. At one point the road climbs up from Loch Tulla onto the wilds of Rannoch Moor via the Black Mount. This a long climb although not excessively steep. Nevertheless I do remember in the 1960’s being in the back of my uncle’s Morris Minor ex-Post Office van on our way to climbing and skiing weekends in Glencoe and we always had to get out and walk behind whilst Ken manoeuvred the vehicle up the slope. Engines weren’t all that powerful in those days. Even today the bus driver had to change down a few gears to get to the top.
And then the snow started in earnest. This was the real thing, and it was lying on the road. It wasn’t very deep, maybe 5-10 cms, but sufficient for vehicles to increase their separation from the one in front and to drive in one set of grooves. The hoped-for view of Buachaille Etive Mhor (The Great Shepherd of Etive) was not to be tonight. This grand mountain presents itself as a high, steep-sided, rocky pyramid approaching 2,000 feet in height. But all that could be seen now was the base rising up from the edge of Rannoch Moor and the rest was a white-out. Also largely obscured were the Three Sisters, three prominent, rocky bluffs that embrace two high, hidden, glacial valleys.
As the bus approached Glencoe Village at the bottom of Glencoe, the snow turned to rain as we reached the coast at Loch Leven, a sea loch leading out eventually to the Atlantic Ocean. In years gone by, ore-carrying ships came up Loch Leven to the aluminium smelter in Kinlochleven at the head of the loch. This plant was built in the early 1900’s to take advantage of cheap hydroelectricity essential for the production of aluminium from its mineral source bauxite. A side effect of the electricity generation was that Kinlochleven became the first community in Britain to have electricity in every house. The smelter was eventually shut down in 2000 and the big ships went, possibly for ever, from Loch Leven.
Crossing the loch by the Ballachulish Bridge, we headed round the coast to another sea loch, Loch Linnhe. The lady with the canvas bag of shopping had been on her mobile phone to someone – her husband? – arranging to be picked up. And sure enough we stopped in a few minutes at the Corran Ferry that takes traffic across to the remote peninsula of Ardnamurchan. Presumably she was going to be met on the other shore.
The bus was now on the home straight to Fort William. You know you’ve reached the town when the Croitanna Hotel appears on the right-hand side of the road. This is the first of a row of hotel after hotel, many catering for the holiday coach trade. Our coach pulled into the bus station which is sandwiched between the railway station and a Morrison’s supermarket. And, unexpectedly but most welcome, there was my cousin Alison (Betty’s daughter) waiting to meet me. A reminder of the purpose of my journey and that tomorrow would be the funeral.
The expression “The Road to the Isles” technically refers to the road that runs onwards from Fort William to Mallaig a key port on the West Coast of Scotland. I adopted it for the title to this post as many journeys to the Inner and Outer Hebrides start on the road from Glasgow to Fort William and today’s bus was going to the most famous island, the Isle of Skye.