The long march

After a quick getaway from Glasgow to avoid the incoming pope we drive north along the west bank of Loch Lomond, taking a quick detour (in Scotland there is no such thing incidentally) down the scenic route our skipper had suggested. Three hours and two rolls of film later we arrive at Tyndrum, where you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve landed in Austria, with its pine lodge rest stops and plethora of climbing equipment, OS maps, and Hikers – thousands of them. We park up and step on to a 2 mile stretch of the 96 mile West Highland Way to join a marching army of Gore-Tex. We smile bravely and nod to our fellows, who doff caps and nod back, unaware that we’ve been sat in a car all morning.

Following the rushing waters of the River Fillan, we pass the hill-ringed site of the battle of Dail Righ, where Robert found himself attacked by a kinsman of John Comyn – John of Lorn – in the wake of the battle of Methven. It was an assault his beleaguered forces were sorely unprepared for. This whole area is closely connected with one of Scotland’s most prominent saints – St Fillan, and is where Robert sought sanctuary in the aftermath of Methven. We continue on to the evocative, moss-stained ruins of St Fillan’s Priory, endowed by Robert in 1317, perhaps in light of the refuge he’s believed to have been provided by the monks of nearby Inchaffray Abbey. It’s a remote, stunningly beautiful place and we spend some time, and another roll of film here before trekking back. Leaving Tyndrum, we wind our way west, quite inspired to return one day and join the Hiker Army for real. Little do we know that our 4 mile stroll is just the beginning of our long march today.

The Pass of Brander follows a torturous route beneath the shadow of Ben Cruachan, the hulking mass of which looms 3693ft over a narrow limb of Loch Awe, which at this point becomes more of a gorge, with Cruachan on one side and mountainous cliffs on the other. It’s the kind of road Jeremy Clarkson would love, each swing of the car revealing another gob-smacking vista. Lee grips the wheel and grins, as my pen skitters across my notebook. I was here in 2007, following in Robert’s footsteps for Requiem, which I’d anticipated him having a major role in. During his struggle to win back his kingdom this was the site of one of the most spectacular battles of the period. Heading west to confront his enemies in Argyll, Robert was attacked once again by John of Lorn, who met him on the field at Dail Righ. Lorn prepared an ambush as Robert’s army came through the pass, stationing men on the slopes of Cruachan, who pushed boulders down the hillside on top of Robert’s forces, whilst Lorn, on a galley on the loch, fired stones from his ship’s siege engines. Robert, knowing they were waiting, sent a band of men under the feted James Douglas higher up the mountain to attack Lorn’s forces from above, with yet more boulders and arrows. It was a battle made for Hollywood. It was here in 2007 when I reread that battle that I realized Robert’s story couldn’t be contained in a novel about Templars and to do such scenes justice would require a whole new series.

I viewed the area – exact site unknown – of the battle from the road last time and now I’m determined to see it from above. Discovering a route which ascends the mountain to a reservoir, we make to turn off, only to discover said road barred by locked gates and covered in No Entry signs. Refusing to be defeated we drive a couple of miles to a visitor centre, which offers tours around a power station built inside Cruachan itself – think James Bond meets Gimli the Dwarf. A nice lady informs us that no, the only way to get up to the reservoir is by the road – closed, she says with a certain amount of eye-rolling, for “health and safety” reasons. God damn the nanny state, I mutter, as we wonder what to do. The nice lady had said we could walk – it’s only a 6 mile round trip to the reservoir. Trouble is, the day’s wearing on, storm clouds are gathering and we’re due at our B&B in Oban. Oh, sod it, is the decision as we do what Lee gleefully refers to as a screaming U-ey, and hare back down the road.

Parking up, we don gaiters and waterproofs, and clamber over the gates. At first we’re rewarded for our potential foolhardiness by increasingly breathtaking views out over the expanse of Loch Awe and I get an awesome sense of what it might have looked like with boulders and men crashing down the hillside. Buzzards circle above us, their wings catching the gold of the late afternoon sun. A huge rainbow appears and we dig into the steep climb. As we get higher, the clouds begin to thicken and through the murk we spy a loch hidden in the peaks on the other side of the pass. We smile at one another and agree it was worth it. In moments, the sun is blotted out, the temperature plummets and the rain begins to – no, not fall, that’s far too gentle – hammer, lash and pound. I discover that my state-of-the-art waterproof isn’t proof against Scottish rain, which is a special kind of wet. Now we’re up in the lonely heights, where strong gusts of wind threaten to blow us off the mountain. At every twist of the pot-holed road is a new sign warning of the danger of falling rocks. I mean, really, what on earth could you do if they did?! Finally, out of the mists above us loom the dark arches of the Cruachan dam, straddling a defile in the mountain’s side. We stand at the highest point we can get to – the walkway along the dam itself, and look down over – well, bugger all, because we’re in the clouds. Frozen and soaked to the bone, bearing blisters the size of oranges, we limp our way down. Back in the Mini, feeling like new recruits at the end of a forced march, we drip and shiver all the way to Oban, where the twinkling lights of our B&B and the promise of warm food and a wee dram have never, ever felt so inviting.