Glenelg… Mars. Really.

Two-wheeling it down Glen More, I was hot on the heels of General George Wade. He’d passed this way just 291 years before me. Well, to be clear, he had not only traveled this same road, he’d also built it, a single-track headed to nowhere important, dead-ending in wee Glenelg. But there would be more to this little village than first met the eye, so I’d soon discover.

Shortly after the First Jacobite Uprising in 1715, when James Stuart, a.k.a. “The Old Pretender,” made an unsuccessful grab for the British throne, the powers-that-be in London earmarked the good General for a clean-up job. First, they dubbed him “Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Forces, Castles, Forts, and Barrcks in North Britain,” then they tasked him with bringing a measure of control over the troublesome clans north of the border.

General George was a busy little bee for the next twelve years, constructing three military barracks along the Highland Boundary Fault: one at Fort William, Fort Augustus and Fort George, and a fourth at Glenelg. Then, to facilitate the rapid deployment of troops between them, he laid down 240 miles of military roads punctuated by 30 handsome stone bridges. The four sites were strategically important for one reason. Each was located amidst a hotbed of Jacobite sympathizers (think Roman Catholics bent on displacing the Protestant Monarch). In the case of Glenelg, the Bernera barracks sat on the eastern shore of the Strait of Kyle Rhea, overlooking the shortest crossing point to the Isle of Skye.

The Government troops garrisoned there were intended to prevent Jacobite troops from crossing the strait, but they saw little such action. Instead, they served as de-luxe policemen, spending most of their time discouraging smugglers and trying to convince local farmers of the novel idea that it was wrong to nip over to Skye to steal cows, even if they didn’t beat the owner to death in the process. Following the suppression of the Second Jacobite Uprising in 1745 (Bonnie Prince Charlie, Culloden, Flora McDonald, et al.), the barracks gradually fell into disuse and were de-commissioned in 1797. Today they are in a state of ruin, a protected monument.

In his travelogue, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, poet, playwright and essayist Dr. Samuel Johnson descended into Glenelg in 1773, only to find the local inn provisioned copiously with negatives, but little else. He recorded the following in his diary: “No meat, no milk, no bread, no eggs, no wine.”

Fearful of a damning national press, the presbyterian minister of the day scoured the village and came up with a cup of sugar, a sheep’s bladder of rum, and a bale of straw, so that Dr. J. could hunker down and drift into an alcohol-induced sleep, albeit fully-clothed and unbathed.

Things must have improved over the years, as travel writer Bill Bryson dropped by the Glenelg Inn in 1995, describing it as “an outpost of comfort, tasty fare, and graciousness.” Maybe I’d be as lucky. I was booked in for two nights.

I was halfway through an eight-day solo ride around the Highlands and the Western Isles and had been told by the good folk at Dalkeith BMW rentals that Glenelg would tick all the boxes on my pre-trip planning sheet…

  • out-of-the-way, privately-owned hotels (no chains);
  • local food and traditional ales;
  • connected by single-track roads of asphalt (no sand, gravel, dirt or highways); and
  • scenery to die for.

“Aye,” they said, “Glenelg has all that, and quirky too. Mind you, the weather could be a wee bit swappy (sic. buckets of sideways rain, courtesy of gale-force winds off the North Atlantic) but the midges (sic. teeth with wings) shouldna be so bad.”

With an early start from the Tigh an Eilean Hotel in Shieldaig, I tootled along the single track that hugs the rocky Atlantic coastline. Single-tracks are civilized. Just wide enough for one vehicle, they’re punctuated by a passing place every one hundred yards or so, first left then right, to allow for overtaking or for opposing vehicles to pass. The duly-signed passing places also provide folk with a chance to stop and exchange pleasantries…”How’s the family?…Lovely weather today!…Anything blocking the road ahead, besides the usual horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, ducks, deer, peacocks, sea otters, grouse, frogs, red squirrels, or semi-feral children?” Most single tracks are unfenced and run through country with many more animals per square mile than humans.

The track south from Shieldaig was full of twists and turns, rising, falling and turning back on itself for no reason at all, but my BMW G 650 GS rental, with gobs of low-end torque, took everything in its stride. It was not a fast bike, but who needed “fast” when the scenery was so grand? More than once, I was left teary-eyed and speechless at the sheer beauty of the wild, empty landscapes. There was not the grandeur of the Andes or the Rockies, but the perfect placement of craggy peaks, dark-water lochs and forested glens streaked with purple heather and flashes of golden broom under an ever-changing light, all combined to make the Highlands of Scotland one of the most magical places that I have ever set eyes upon.

The G 650 GS is a single-cylinder thumper, a hardy bike that’s right at home in the vagaries of Scottish weather. I was wet more often than dry, wind-beaten more often than calm, and cold more often than warm, but then the bike never once complained or faltered. It just burbled along, sipping petrol at 70 miles to the gallon, which suited me fine. The price at the pump was equivalent to $9 per US gallon.

I took a break at the Bonnie Prince Charlie monument on the south shore of Loch Shiel. A few yards inland stands the Glenfinnan viaduct that carries the Jacobite Steam Train from Fort William to Mallaig every day at 10:30 a.m and 3 p.m. Harry Potter fans know it as the Hogwarts Express. I was too early for a Kodak moment, and National Trust parking rates made it cheaper to keep riding and use petrol than to park, so I rode on. At Shiel Bridge, I turned right and up, up, up into the clouds that sit atop Mam Ratagan even on sunny days thereabouts. Then it was down, down, down the other side to Glenelg. The road sign at the entrance to the village announced that “quirky” lay ahead: Glenelg (Earth), twinned with Glenelg (Mars).

The village hit the headlines on October 20, 2012, when the Curiosity Rover mapped a small crater on planet Mars, traversing it forward and reverse. The mission commander aptly named the crater after palindromic, Earth-bound Glenelg. Official visits, gifts and cultural exchanges between the two Glenelgs are on the books, but none have taken place to date.

Riding down Glenelg’s only street, I stopped at its only shop. I knew it was the only shop as the sign above the door stated so. I bought a chocolate bar, a small wedge of cheese, and the shop’s only apple for a late roadside lunch. “We had a run on fruit and vegetables earlier today,” the shopkeeper beamed. Continuing south along the Sound of Sleat, I came upon the WW1 Memorial. It is a splendid piece of sculpture depicting a Highland soldier being garlanded by a winged Victory of Peace, while another female, somewhat incautiously and scantily dressed for the climate, makes a supplicating gesture at Victory’s feet. It is one of the finest monuments in Scotland and well-earned by a tiny village that sent 21 of its finest to the trenches and saw only seven return home, some with missing limbs, others without their sanity.

The first name on the roll of honor is that of Major Valentine Fleming, once Laird of Arnisdale, who fell at the Somme in 1917, aged 36 years old, but not before he had sired a son. Named Ian, he would see action in WWII, then later sit down and write novels about Bond, James Bond. I would return to the memorial more than twice during my time in Glenelg, not through any morbid sense of loss, but because it was the only place in the area with a decent mobile signal.

With time on my hands, the track south beckoned for a further ten miles, past a scattering of cottages, through Arnisdale to its end in Corran, with fine views across to the Knoydart Peninsula. It is Scotland’s last wilderness, accessible only by ferry. There are no roads on Knoydart, only paths worn by craggy highland cattle and wind-blown sheep. A handful of bothys dot the landscape, providing shelter for extreme hikers when the weather turns sour, which is often. And sour, nay swappy, turned the weather on my ride back to the car park at the Glenelg Inn. With sodden gloves shrunk onto frigid fingers, I struggled with my helmet strap.

“So, what’s a young man like you doing…” Off popped my helmet to reveal Colonel Sanders’ colored hair. “…er, I mean, what’s a man of your age doing on a motorcycle in this weather?” she corrected.

Her name was Alice. She dripped bling from every finger. Alongside stood husband Harvey, in shoestring necktie and bejeweled Navajo silver clasp, with a matching belt buckle bigger than my helmet. Cowboy boots and Stetson hat completed his ensemble. Between them, and slightly to the rear, stood their chauffeur, immaculate in grey peaked service cap, shades, grey suit, white shirt and black tie. He held an umbrella the size of Delaware to protect all three from the elements. Without my asking, Harvey explained that they were on a buying trip for two breed bulls for their cattle ranches in Boise, Idaho, and Kenai, Alaska. “Had to hire Dave and his limo here. You folks drive on the wrong side of the road, you know. Say hello to this guy, Dave.” Dave smiled and nodded.

“Ugly Americans Abroad Waylay Sodden Elderly Biker, Biker Runs Amok” ran through my mind, but I knew I’d get to like them all the same. “Sorry. Too wet, too cold and too tired to talk just now. Maybe we can meet for dinner tonight?” I said. “We’ll look forward to it at eight then. We need to find out why you do this, don’t we Harvey?” smiled Alice.

I dripped and slopped into the lobby and there, sat Jeannie. The patch on her collarless white jacket told me so. Camouflage pants and army boots covered her lower half. Goth tattoos peeked out from jacket wrists and neckline. Gold clips bedecked her ears, nose, and eyebrows; her head was shaven on the left, with locks down to her shoulder on the right.

“Good day, I’m Alan, the BMW guy from Dalkeith…”

“Oh, you’ll need to sign in at the bar. Sheila will look after you. You can bring your wet things down to the kitchen. I’ll put them next to the stove to dry out. I’m Jeannie, the chef, by the way, just waiting for a delivery.”

“So, what’s on the menu tonight?”

“That depends on who brings in what. It’s all local, all fresh. Could be salmon, venison, shellfish. Too early to say. I’ll be posting the menu at six o’clock. Check the chalkboard by the fireplace. Whatever you choose will be epic. Guaranteed. Didn’t you see our Michelin star by the front door?”

I did and suspected it was an inside job.

Glenelg Inn was everything a country pub should be, with wood-paneled walls crowded with a jumble of prints and paintings and a flagstone floor scattered with rugs. A quiet corner was lined with books, and half a dozen tables were set in front of a roaring log fire. Sheila, barmaid and owner, dispensed pints of craft ales, G&Ts and single malts in generous measure and encouraged locals and tourists alike to mix and mingle before dinner.

At six ‘o clock, as promised, Jeannie emerged from the kitchen, chalk in hand, and began to write in the finest script…Loch Houn langoustines, Arisaig mussels, Mallaig haddock, Moyle venison. Sandaig salmon… “You can place your orders at the bar between six-thirty and seven o’clock, and I’ll be serving at eight prompt. Sit wherever you fancy…”

We were twelve that sat down to dinner that evening, randomly mixed between three tables of four. John was an out-of-work performance artist from Leeds. He was looking for inspiration for his first novel, Zen and the Art of Catch-and-Release Salmon Fishing. Heinz was a Swiss helicopter pilot contracted to seed salmon fingerlings from loch-based rearing stations into the surrounding waters. I had spotted him buzzing around the area, drop bags slung underneath until low clouds grounded him. Alf and Hattie were from Lancashire, seventy-something, sun- bronzed, all wrinkles, muscle and bone. They’d been cycling around the Western Isles each summer since they retired. “We’ll have bagged ’em all by next year,” said Hattie with pride.

Bill, a supply chain manager for Newcastle Coal Mines, and wife Meredith were from New South Wales, Australia, on a second honeymoon, a sea kayak tour to the Knoydart. They shared a table with a Dutch guy and his son (their names escaped me), who were off to Skye for a little rock climbing. “We love mountain climbing, but we’re a bit limited in the Netherlands, you know.” No kidding.

Driver Dave had retired to the book nook for a little “alone time,’” with a crab sandwich and a pint of oatmeal ale. That left Alice and Harvey, me, and Eleanor, an imperious, tweed-clad Sociology professor from Glasgow University, who, as her calling dictated, was much inclined to pontificate and proselytize.

“I’m here to research the brochs at Dun Telve and Dun Troddan,” she declared. “The what?” asked Harvey.

“Iron Age drystone double-walled roundhouses. Probably defensive towers or rudimentary castles. No one knows for certain. They’re right by the roadside on the way to Arnisdale.”

“Oh yeah.” said Harvey, “Dave pointed them out to us. But they’re nothing more than rock piles, I reckon. Dave said that General Somebody or Other had robbed them of most of their stones to build his barracks. That right?”

Professor Tweedy harrumphed. “What about you, Alan. Surely you saw them?”

“Er, sorry, Eleanor, it was raining and blowing so hard; it was all I could do to hold the bike upright. There was no time to be looking left or right.”

Alf shouted over from the next table, “Oh aye, brochs, they’re every-bloody-where. Common as sheep all over, I’d say.”

PT tut-tutted and harrumphed a second time. She was apparently surrounded by heathens, devoid of any saving graces or powers of observation. Eleanor was the first to leave after dinner, retiring to her room to read a good book, so she said. By that time, Chef Jeannie had joined us, offering a free nightcap to all, a wee dram of single malt, and asking “How was dinner?”

“So Alan, why do you ride, especially in all this weather?” asked Alice.

“Well, Alice, look around the room. You just can’t meet people like this by sitting in the comfort of your own home, now can you?”

“Even the Eleanors of this world?”

“Especially her.”

Alice winked. She got it.

Early next morn, I was off to Skye. Folks in a hurry can always zip across the brand-spanking-new parabolic arch bridge that spans the Kyle of Lochalsh. I’d ridden past it on the way to Glenelg. There was also the high-speed ferry from Mallaig to Armadale, but I was going the old-fashioned way, from Glenelg across to Kyle Rhea, on the MV Glenachulish, the last manually operated turntable ferry in the world. It is community-owned and operated, supported by passenger fares, donations and the proceeds of their un-manned gift shop, where you pay on the honor system.

It was only 534 yards across the strait, but they were hard yards for the skipper, who had to navigate against a fierce tidal race. At the ramp on either side of the crossing, the skipper’s mate manually rotated the deck to allow easy roll-on and roll-off by the six cars (and me) aboard. Two deckhands, border collies named Bob and Izzie, “helped” with the mooring lines. En route, I watched sea otters, porpoises, and sea eagles angling for their breakfast. All for the grand price of five pounds sterling each way. Worth every penny, I reckoned.

Off the ferry and up the ramp, I pulled over for one last look back at Glenelg. It had been quirky, as advertised. Across the strait, distant figures were enjoying breakfast in the waterside garden of the Glenelg Inn. I thought I spied my newfound friends, Alice and Harvey, her bling and his belt buckle glinting in the morning sun.

Maybe I’d see them somewhere, sometime down the road…