Paul Murton takes a tour of Scotland's lochs. In this edition, he explores the wilds of Loch Etive, from the Falls of Lora to Buchaille Etive More.
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The beautiful waters of Loch Etive, hemmed in by high mountains,
lie at the centre of a landscape that fuels the imagination.
There's an almost primeval feeling about this place.
These shores are wild and inhospitable,
and steeped in Celtic myth and legend.
Lochs are Scotland's gift to the world.
They're a product of an element
that we have in spectacular abundance - water.
It's been estimated that there are more than 31,000 lochs in Scotland.
They come in all shapes and sizes,
from long fjord-like sea lochs,
great freshwater lochs of the Central Highlands,
to the innumerable lochans that stud the open moors.
In this series, I'm on a loch-hopping journey
across Scotland, discovering how they've shaped the character
of the people who live close to their shores.
For this grand tour, I'm exploring the origins of a mythic world,
as I follow a loch from sea to mountain.
My destination for this grand tour is Argyll and Loch Etive,
which runs from the White Dogs of Connel through the lands of Lorne,
before turning north-east towards the high mountains of Glencoe.
Loch Etive is a classic fjord,
and was fashioned by ancient glaciers that scoured out
the landscape, as they made their way slowly to the sea.
The untamed shores of upper Loch Etive are truly remote.
There is no public road into this wilderness,
and no settlements along its farthest reaches.
The loch meets the sea and the Firth of Lorne at its narrowest point,
where the early Gaels settled 1,600 years ago.
They called their kingdom Dal Riata,
and its history is populated with heroes and their mighty deeds.
The narrowest part of the loch is the closest to the sea.
Today, it's spanned by a bridge at Connel.
Connel means "the White Dogs" in Gaelic.
So-called because of the tidal race
that rips through the narrows at an incredible 12 knots.
The White Dogs are known in English as the Falls Of Lora,
and when the tide is running, the Dogs
become a playground for the brave.
The tide is in full flood and, to watch the sport,
I've joined kayaker Dave Bleazard
on a powerboat in the middle of the falls.
Well, Loch Etive runs about 15 miles up behind you,
up to Taynuilt and then all the way up to the head of the loch.
And the tide drops - today it's stopping by about three metres
in height, so all that volume of water,
three metres of all the surface area of Loch Etive,
has got to all come piling through this gap.
But it's amazing, the force of water that we're looking at here.
There's great boils erupting on the surface,
as if there's something alive down there.
Yeah, the bottom's not flat, so there's pinnacles and hollows,
and it forces the water up and it forces it down and, yeah,
it's just not a straight run through at all.
Now, if you were in a kayak over there,
what kind of challenges are you faced with?
Staying upright is the first of them!
There's plenty of boils and things that are going to push your boat
-around, push you sideways.
-But this is strictly for experts,
-Yeah, the boys that will be on here today
are some of Scotland's top paddlers, absolutely.
Oh! He's gone, he's gone.
He's back up again.
Oh! Dearie me! THEY LAUGH
That water's gone right up his nose.
I thought he was a goner for a moment.
It's amazing how quickly they can recover.
Some of the kayakers are making use of an unusual two-metre wave
that's formed under the bridge.
-That's a big wave.
-It is, yes.
But it's not actually moving anywhere, is it?
-It's a standing wave.
So that's, like, quite a strange phenomenon, is it not?
Well, in ocean terms, it is.
In river terms, it's not.
We get a lot of waves on the river that stand still.
And so, it is, it's a river feature on the sea.
So, you'll be able to have lots of opportunity as a kayaker
to just constantly surf this wave.
-And it's not going to ever break and reach ashore?
No, that's right.
It's hardly surprising that the early traveller Dorothy Wordsworth
never forgot the Falls Of Lora.
In 1803, she and her brother, the poet William Wordsworth,
crossed in an open boat with their horse and trap.
"The horse fretted and stamped
"its feet against the bare boards.
"The tide was rushing violently
"and making a strong eddy so that
"the motion, the noise and foam terrified him still more,
"and we thought that it would be impossible to keep him in the boat."
Fortunately, they just managed to stop the horse from jumping
overboard and capsizing the boat.
And guess what? They never took a Highland ferry again.
Paddling at slack tide,
with the fury of the falls but a memory,
I make my way to one of the most ancient castles in Scotland.
The imposing fortress of Dunstaffnage
has guarded the entrance to Loch Etive for centuries.
In the Middle Ages, Dunstaffnage became a centre
of Clan MacDougall power.
Now, unfortunately, they backed the wrong side
in the Wars of Scottish Independence,
and were defeated by Robert the Bruce,
who confiscated their lands and gave them to their arch rivals,
Clan Campbell, who have reigned supreme here ever since.
With so much Campbell history embued in its ancient walls,
Dunstaffnage is a place of legends,
where the past and the supernatural seem to be ingrained into
the very fabric of the building.
Lorn Macintyre has known the castle since he was a boy.
Having spent his formative years in its shadow,
the place and its Campbell keepers
have left a great impression on him.
Now, Lorn, you've known Dunstaffnage since you were a boy,
-is that not right?
we grew up beside Angus Campbell, the 20th hereditary captain
-of Dunstaffnage, as he never failed to remind people.
My grandmother was his housekeeper in the mansion house,
which burnt down in 1940, and she was really,
for the rest of his life, his confidant, and looked after him.
He's a very colourful character.
He was a very, very colourful character.
He was, I would call,
one of the last of the traditional lairds.
He was steeped in his own heritage,
but also very much steeped in a kind of Celtic, mystical,
He lived, I think, in a world of ghosts,
and he lived in a world of rituals.
When you walked up the avenue with him in the twilight,
and the moon was rising, he insisted on stopping
and opening his sporran and turning the coins over,
because he had a superstition about that,
and when you were in my grandmother's kitchen when he was
taking his coffee, you daren't look at the new moon through glass.
-Right, why was that?
-Because he thought it would bring misfortune
onto you. He was enormously superstitious.
He believed, somehow, that these supernatural apparitions -
and there were apparitions -
were part of his heritage like the paintings on the walls,
and therefore just to be accepted.
The captaincy of Dunstaffnage is
a hereditary title, granted by the Campbell Duke of Argyll.
In addition to a peppercorn rent,
the captains are traditionally obliged
to spend each Midsummer's night in the gatehouse,
which has the reputation for being haunted by a poltergeist.
So, he'd come here by himself on a camp bed,
and spend Midsummer's night here?
He came here and he had a torch.
-He had a West Highland terrier to...
..to alert him if any ghosts should appear and disturb him.
And then, he put the light out, he stopped reading
and he was fetched again in the dawn and taken back home,
and my grandmother made sure that he had not been disturbed during
the night by any spectral interventions.
And were there any spectres that he might have seen, do you think?
Well, the principal one is a lady called the Elle-maid.
I'm not quite sure how she gets her name,
but she seems to have been a very real presence
in this castle down the centuries.
And one of the attributes, according to tradition,
of the Elle-maid is that she has a man's tread, a heavy man's tread.
What about you, Lorn? Would you spend the night here?
I don't think so.
From what I know of the place and what I have actually heard and read,
I think I would have to have people with me and perhaps
a very, very good guard dog.
It is spooky. It is very spooky.
Out of a strange sense of bravado,
I've decided to spend the night in the gatehouse.
I'm doing this not to challenge the claim of the Campbell keepers of
Dunstaffnage, but to see if it's possible to get a good night's sleep
in such an ancient and haunted place.
According to Lorn,
the Elle-maid announces her presence with the sound of very heavy
footsteps, which is bad news if you're unlucky enough to hear them,
so I've got these earplugs
just in case and, as an added precaution...
..in case I see anything
that's particularly ghoulish and disturbing,
I've got this eye mask.
So, time for bed.
After a rather fitful sleep,
I leave Dunstaffnage and its supernatural connections,
and continue my journey eastwards up Loch Etive,
heading to Bonawe and the village of Taynuilt,
where I come across a little-known monument with legendary connections.
This standing stone, curiously called the Nelson Stone,
was the first-ever monument erected to the memory of Admiral Lord Nelson
after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar.
So, what, you might well ask, has a Highland village
got to do with a one-armed, one-eyed naval hero?
And the answer, of course, is balls.
Cannonballs, to be precise.
Remarkably, some of the cannonballs fired by the Royal Navy at Trafalgar
could well have been made from iron smelted here
on the shores of Loch Etive.
At Bonawe are the impressive remains of an iron foundry built
in the 18th century.
These days, it's also a museum.
Now, this is a rare and rather unexpected example
of early industry in the Highlands,
and this is a lump of iron slag,
the waste product from the smelting process.
It's rough and quite heavy,
and you find it on the ground everywhere around here.
Now, the iron ore itself actually came all the way from Cumbria,
brought here by the ironmasters for the smelting process.
And the reason they chose Loch Etive
was because of this stuff - charcoal,
which came from trees round about.
To find out more about charcoal-making,
which kept an army of men busy in the oak forests of Etive,
I meet up with one of the few charcoal makers left in Scotland.
Alasdair Eckersall is a ranger with the National Trust for Scotland.
He combines charcoal making with woodland conservation.
-This is a kiln?
-A charcoal kiln?
Well, I have to say, it doesn't look quite as high-tech as I imagined.
It's basically just a big oil drum, is it not?
It is, indeed.
But it's higher tech than you would have come across in days gone by.
There are certainly more advanced ways of making charcoal
these days, right enough.
Now, what exactly is charcoal?
So, charcoal is just the carbon element of wood.
If you take a piece of wood,
and you burn it without the presence of oxygen,
everything else in the wood will disappear,
and you're left the carbon skeleton of that piece of wood.
So, how do you take the oxygen out of the equation, then?
By getting a good hot fire going in a controlled fashion.
Using a kiln like this, we can seal out most of the air,
just let a small amount of air in.
The next phase of operations is to stack the kiln,
which means that we actually have to climb inside it to lay the wood,
which Alasdair's volunteers have prepared,
a task that would have been familiar to charcoal makers of old.
The charcoal-making families would have just lived in the woods.
Some of the archive photos,
you'll see the very basic stone and little thatched huts that they would
build themselves in the words.
And the whole family would live like that?
The whole family would live there.
The nature of charcoal-making then meant they had to be on site
-all the time, watching their burn.
The team keeps feeding us with wood, and gradually the level rises.
I'm then granted the honour of removing the centre pole
and pouring burning embers into the space to set the fire.
And how long will this burn for?
This is going to burn for about 14, 15 hours.
With the lid in place and sealed with mud,
the burn will need to be tended carefully,
and the airflow adjusted using four pipe chimneys
to make sure the wood doesn't turn to ash.
After the smoke finally clears the following morning,
I join an anxious Alasdair
to lift the lid on his charcoal-making skills.
And this is the moment of truth.
-It certainly is.
I thought there might just be a pile of ash!
But that's really impressive, Alasdair, isn't it?
-That's come away OK. Yeah.
-That is really impressive.
That's not a bad burn. So, you can see there how the wood's kept
-its integrity. We've still got the...
..the shape of the original piece of wood,
but everything else has gone out of it,
and we're just left with the carbon.
You can even see the grains in the wood and the rings.
It's really quite beautiful.
It's almost like a work of art.
It's amazing to think that Alasdair's charcoal-making process
links Loch Etive to be cannonballs
fired by Nelson's fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar.
As mist descends over the forest, I move on,
heading to a place that continues to make use of the area's abundant
resources - oakwood and salmon.
At Inverawe Smokehouse, salmon and trout are prepared daily.
Once filleted, the fish are placed on racks to be dried and cured,
using the age-old process of cold smoking.
-Yes! You beauty!
I help the owner, Robert Campbell-Preston,
to load up with freshly split oak logs.
He then introduces me to the arcane art of smoking.
The smoke goes under the floor here,
and then up through the kilns and out through the roof.
-It's very simple.
-Passing through the fish on its way.
-Oh, yeah, yeah.
So, I'll just pull this out for you.
Now, how you make the smoke is
really with this little contraption down here.
-Is that controlling the air supply?
-That controls the air.
-And when you're cold smoking and you don't want flame,
-you just want smoke, every fire is different.
You get to know the quirk of each fire.
-So, lift the lid off...
-So, this is a 24/7 operation?
And the secret to good smoking, I think,
is to keep stoking the fire every four hours.
That's perfect. Now,
what you need to do to make a good heart in your fire,
what they always do is bang it.
Bang it. Go on, bang it. That gets a good heart going.
It puts the wood down.
And heart to a fire is really important.
-Now, see how it's getting...
-There's a lot of stuff out.
Now, the smoke is increasing. Even though the lid's off, the smoke's
-..because we put fresh wood in
and, obviously, the more...
The fresher it is, the more smoke you get.
And that's why it's so important that you stoke the fire
every three to four hours.
You love your smoke!
Yeah, you'll love it, too! Right, lid on.
Now, this is important to, again,
control it, because that controls how the fire works,
but where you place this in here matters, because,
remember, when we are smoking,
we mustn't let the fish get warmer than 30 degrees.
-I'm smoking already, Robert.
-OK, push it in, push it in.
Push it in. That's it.
So, you must have shift work here?
Oh, yes. 7/7, yeah.
-We've always got somebody here.
-And the fires never go out?
But at night, we just stoke it down, and...
-Do they ever go out?
-Oh, yeah, of course they do.
That's when the boss starts shouting!
And then starts to get angry. Why are the fires...?
Who let the fires go out?! You know, just like the wife at home.
Who let the fire go out?!
-You know what I mean?
-You're very passionate about this.
I've never heard of someone speak so passionately
about smoke in my life before.
-Yeah, that's crazy, isn't it?
Leaving Robert in a cloud of his beloved wood smoke,
I bid farewell to Inverawe, taking a lovely side of smoked salmon -
a present for my dear old ma.
Back on the water, I head further up the loch,
in the company of Natalie Hicks,
a research scientist working
at the Scottish Association Of Marine Science.
Natalie has been studying the extraordinary ecosystem hidden
beneath the deep, dark waters of Loch Etive.
So, Natalie, we certainly picked the weather to be at an Loch Etive,
which, from a scientific point of view, is a really unique loch.
Yes, it is, indeed.
I mean, is one of 110 sea lochs that we have on the West Coast of
Scotland and, for scientists, this is particularly interesting,
because effectively we've got a marine-dominated system
in the lower basin here, and we've got a more freshwater-dominated
system in the upper basin,
very much like a fjord you would find in Norway.
So, what does that mean in terms of the marine life
that you might expect to find here?
So, we've got a few unique species in the loch.
Most of them you do find in the open oceans.
For example, we've got a Zooplankton population and a Copepod population.
They're small organisms that feed on Phytoplankton.
They form the basis of the food chain.
There's a huge population in the loch.
-It's an ideal environment for them.
So, they can tolerate the changes in salinity,
and there's not many predators, but there's a lot of food.
So, what kind of abundance are you talking about?
You can just scoop it out of the water?
You can scoop it out of the water, and it looks like a pink soup -
because there's so many of them,
it changes the colour of the water itself.
-I know you've got a net.
-We have got a net.
Are we going to do some scooping?
-I think we should scoop some out and see if we can catch some.
The Zooplankton we're after form an important part of the food chain.
Their bodies have a very high omega oil content,
and it's what makes the fish that feed on them,
like herring and mackerel, so healthy to eat.
Natalie's method of catching them takes me back
to a happy childhood spent rock-pooling with a shrimp net,
although this one is considerably longer
and has the collection bottle at its base.
You don't want to lose that, now, do you?
No. Definitely not.
It's as simple as lowering the net into the depths
and bringing it up to the surface.
Here it comes!
-Have you got anything?
-Let's have a look.
Let's tip it into a bucket and see what we've got.
Ooh, we've got a couple of jellyfish! Look, you can see there.
-Is that them?
-Yup, so, all those little pinky, browny colours.
-The pink stuff?
-Yup. You can see them zipping around.
Some of them are in clumps,
and that's why the water's this sort of pinkish, brownish colour.
Looks like we got lucky and we've got two Moon jellyfish as well.
-Do they sting?
-These ones don't sting us. Yeah,
you're safe to pick these up. That's not a problem.
-Here you go.
-Wow. Are you sure it doesn't sting?
-It doesn't sting. It doesn't sting, folks.
-You can pick them up.
-But only the Moon jellyfish?
Yeah, only the Moon. Don't pick any of the red ones up that you see
around the coast, they definitely sting.
I'm surprised to see so many of these tiny little...
They look like little shrimps.
-They do, and they move very quickly, don't they?
-Do they bite?
-They don't bite.
-I've never known of a Copepod to bite a human.
-Let me see.
THEY LAUGH It got me.
Leaving Natalie and her Zooplankton,
I head up lonely Glen Etive,
a place which is steeped in the legends of the early Celts
who settled here.
I can see why the landscape fed into the collective mythology.
This is a place that excites the imagination
with every turn of the road,
which eventually emerges onto the bleak expanse of Rannoch Moor.
There can be few visitors who are unimpressed by the imposing
mountains which dominate the moor, especially Buachaille Etive Mor
behind me, which translates from the Gaelic
as the "big herdsman of Etive".
To fully appreciate the epic scale of the Buachaille,
which, I have to say, is my favourite mountain
in the whole of Scotland,
I'm meeting up with Murray Wilkie,
who specialises in taking extraordinary mountain photographs.
His secret is to capture them in the magical light of dawn, sunset,
or both. But to do this, he goes to exceptional lengths.
I'm joining him on a trek to the summit of a hill
overlooking the Buachaille.
The plan is to camp at altitude.
So, what's the idea behind this high-level camping, Murray?
Well, it's the views you get, I think.
The sunsets and the sunrises.
When you get them, you just can't beat it.
It's the best light. You get great views, but when you get the light,
-it's just amazing.
-It's a real privilege to be up here.
I'm not quite so sure about the privilege of camping up here.
-We'll have to see how that goes.
-Well, let's see. There it is.
-That's what we want.
That's what we're chasing.
I think we might get a view in a minute, the view we've not seen.
It's getting spectacular with every step.
Or more spectacular with every step.
Look at that. Isn't it just...?
Some people wonder why you come to the mountains,
and you don't really know until you get into these positions, do you?
Such an impressive view, Murray.
-It's not bad, is it?
-Ben Nevis in front of us, look.
Yes. You can make out its north face and the moors in front of that.
-The Ossians over there.
And then, if you go further round, you can see Ben Alder,
and right round to Schiehallion again.
And in front of us, we've got this great chasm.
The beginning of Glencoe.
Sunset, which is what we've come for, isn't too far away.
But there's still time to put up the tent and have a blether before the
magic hour arrives.
It's the first serious mountain I ever claimed.
-When I was a wee boy. Yeah. I was about 13 or 14.
And I was scared rigid.
-A curved ridge in early December.
Snow and ice, and I was dragged up there kicking and screaming.
But I loved it!
I absolutely loved it. And we got to this summit as the sun was going
down, so the way, watching the sun go down behind the Buachaille is
-kind of reliving that.
Have you got any favourite mountains that you've climbed and managed to
-capture the essence of?
-In your photography and your videos?
Yeah, I think the one that stands out, I think,
I did a wild camp on top of Beinn Alligin, which is up in Torridon.
It was getting dark. I looked outside back at the summit,
and I saw a wee flash. Somebody's out taking pictures already.
So I thought, "Right, I'll get out", and I started taking the
pictures, and as I scan north,
I took a picture, looking, you can just see...
You couldn't see it with the naked eye, because it was still quite
light, but there was a wee band of green,
and as the night progressed, the lights became visible to the...
-The Northern lights?
-The Northern Lights. Aurora borealis,
yeah, became... You know, you often see them on the cameras,
but you can't see them with the naked eye.
This is only one of three times I've seen them with the naked eye,
and the only time I've seen them on top of the mountain.
It was spectacular, though?
-Oh, it was amazing.
-It's strange, though, because,
doing what we're doing, it's... Well, the way that you do it,
is essentially a very solitary pastime.
But you're not a solitary person.
-Do you come up here to contemplate,
do you feel because you're high somehow,
you know, you're on the summit of the gods,
looking down on the rest of humanity?
-Because we are! We see the cars driving past down there on the A82.
-Tiny wee things.
-And we're up here.
-For me, personally,
not that I'm not enjoying your company tonight,
but I do like it when I'm by myself and I don't meet another soul.
You appreciate things as well,
I think, when you do go back, back home.
-It's a bit zen.
-Yeah, well, absolutely.
-A bit of zen.
A bit of meditation, maybe, yeah.
But look at it. I mean, you can't argue with that, can you?
We are exceptionally lucky.
The clouds have kept away,
allowing the dying rays of the setting sun to catch the Buachaille.
The great herdsman of Etive looks very imposing now,
as I take a photograph
to capture the essence of my favourite mountain.
Now, this has definitely been worth waiting for.
Because I've never seen the Buachaille in this light before.
He looks truly epic, a real giant,
making this the perfect place for me to end my grand tour among the
legends of the west.
My next grand tour takes me to the far north-west,
exploring both above and below the waves.
Paul Murton explores the wilds of Loch Etive, from the spectacular tidal race of the Falls of Lora, where kayakers revel in the overfalls and ride a three-metre standing wave, to high-altitude camping on a hill opposite Buchaille Etive More, watching the sunset, and lights up the hundreds of lochans across Rannoch Moor.