By Mike Lidwell, Dumbarton AAC, 16th April, 1975.
The pursuit of the athletic ideal may lead to the staging of long distance running events but is not so often associated with the appreciation of scenes of landscape beauty. More often urban scenes are the runner’s lot: seen through a maze of traffic signs and between smoking motors. Yet the happy union of a good running course and spectacular scenery was achieved by Dumbarton AAC in a long distance relay between Glasgow and Fort William. As a final inestimable boon the event was blessed with the best weather conditions so far experienced this year. The sun rose shortly after the runners and shone on the participants until the eventual massing of the clouds heralded the descent into Fort William. Perhaps in deference to the romantic appeal of this traverse of the MacGregor country, the old name of Inverlochy should be used.
The aim of the exercise was to counter the trend in modern running away from natural point-to-point events towards artificial courses on prepared tracks or soul destroying road running. This breath of fresh air will have helped to revitalise the sport. Accordingly, no course as such was defined: only a set of conditions was imposed on teh teams to preserve the desired character of the event. The route used is believed to be the fastest possible without the use of public roads and if we or any other club wish to repeat the run, any time-saving modifications that are suggested will be incorporated. In practice, some road mileage is unavoidable, a limit of 20% is suggested and of this, less than 5% on major trunk roads. Only 8 baton carrying runners were employed but additional support runners were not excluded and in view of the rugged nature of certain sections of the course are an essential safety provision. It is hoped that the time of 11 hours 03 minutes 44 seconds achieved by the club is a challenging one that may provoke a response from other clubs. However like all records it is undoubtedly doomed once the greater runners tackle it. The distance run was about 90 miles, excluding involuntary excursions, and the intended route did not differ by a large amount from the straight line, so that an ultimate limit nearer 9 hours 30 minutes is expected.
A large amount of effort was spent organising this inaugural run. Maps were prepared and trial runs made over most sections. In many instances, the available maps were found to be deficient in significant detail and these deficiencies were carefully charted. Study of the maps reveals the problem of establishing changeover points. The aim was to arrange 30 stages of about 3 miles or 20 minutes running time but some double stages of 7 miles with up to triple our target times were necessary. The problems of transporting the runners to their starting points were solved by splitting the runners into two teams of four runners, each team having independent transport. The ‘A’ team was responsible for the first section between Glasgow and Killearn and the third section between Falloch and Kinlochleven; the ‘B’ team was responsible for the second and fourth sections. In this way the support parties were given time to drive round from Stronachlachar to Glen Falloch and to deposit runners at Kinlochleven where the route is considerably shorter than the road.
The runners were all allocated their stages prior to the start although changes could be made subsequently. One virtue of this type of event is that legs can be found to suit the tastes of each runner provided there is a sufficient mixture of abilities in the club. The fell runners necessary for the stages before and after Glen Falloch are perhaps the key to a successful run but the long stretches of old road and forestry track are significant to achieving a good time. Finally inspection of the calendar showed that the event must be staged after the vernal equinox to ensure sufficient daylight. As the 15th March coincided with the date traditionally set for the club point-to-point event, it was chosen.
The City Link
Just before 6:00 am the ‘A’ team runners assembled in George Square, Glasgow. The dawn was just throwing aside the shadows from the facade of the City Chambers as the runners and officials assembled on the starting line in front of the GPO beside the steps of the Cenotaph. The morning traffic not yet on the move, the field was free for Gordon McLaren to take the first strides across the square then through the streets to join the canal towpath at Port Dundas. This branch of the Forth and Clyde Canal provides footpath access to the centre of Glasgow although closed to boat traffic. The eventual construction of the Maryhill motorway may cause this route to be abandoned perhaps in favour of the newly constructed Kelvin Walkway. After 18 minutes running on the level towpath, Colin Martin took over at Wyndford at the junction with the canal proper. The morning light was now illuminating the still waters of the canal with all the signs of a fine day to come.
In Maryhill it was necessary to leave the canal and make a short link along the main road to reach Rannoch Drive. This minor road led through a suburb to the next changeover at Boclair at the gates of the cemetery by the Roman Wall. Colin being one of the fastest members of the ‘A’ team soon completed this stage to arrive at 6:47, well ahead of schedule. The next stage was a rather complicated route skirting the Hillfoot Golf Course and then following the banks of the Allander Water into Milngavie, hopping over a fence on to the main road. Here the North wind could be felt and Ronald Paton was perspiring with the effort when at last the hill up the road through Milngavie to the reservoirs had been surmounted.
The Pipe Track
Here, the city section complete, our route joined the line of the water pipes by which Glasgow is supplied from the pure waters of Loch Katrine. Various tracks and footpaths giving access to the pipes for maintenance are kept in spick and span condition by the efforts of the corporation and enable this route to be followed with ease. From the banks of the reservoir which form a customary Sunday afternoon perambulation for the citizens of the West End, a wide view over the City is obtained but Alistair Lawson, one of the pioneers of this enterprise kept his head down as he concentrated on getting over the Mugdock Hill to Strathblane as fast as possible, taking care not to get bogged down in the marshy stretches between the small lochans on the moor. He was soon seen by the watchers at the fourth changeover negotiating a slippery descent down a grassy field to the memorial at Netherton Cross. Here Campsie Dene Road an attractive track following the water leat, runs along under the crags of the Campsies. Gordon, taking over for his second run,sped along the track taking the many gates in his stride. In some little woodland glades the birds were startled by an unaccustomed apparition as this scantily clad runner rushed by. The morning sun could still be seen hitting the hills of Luss across Loch Lomond. The next changeover the last of this section, was more difficult of access. The timekeepers and photographers were left gasping after a sharp ascent to the track above the Glengoyne Distillery. However Colin, the next stage runner, was obviously not affected as he completed this stage to the tennis club in Killearn before his support arrived. Here the ‘A’ team withdrew after having achieved a very satisfactory start handing over to the ‘B’ team some eight minutes earlier than expected, even after having started 10 minutes late. The ‘B’ team were in fact caught hopping but their first runner, Harry Martin, did not lose much time stripping off and starting off down Drumtian Road to the footbridge over the River Endrick. Here the first setback came as, running unrehearsed and returning from his recent honeymoon, headed off trail along the Endrick towards Drumtian Farm. Once again, after rejoining the trail, his direction went askew as the perturbed watchers waiting by the pipe crossing on the Drymen to Aberfoyle road saw him continuing up the road straight for Aberfoyle. A valuable 4 minutes must have been lost by the time he had retraced his steps from the garage at Ballat.
Meanwhile Michael Lidwell was waiting for his stage across the moor to the Moorpark changeover warming up in the sun’s rays now flooding over the old plug of Dungoyne which forms the terminator to the mass of the Campsies. A landmark for much of the first half of the route. Eventually the change was made and he set off across the damp grass chasing the rabbits as they plunged for their burrows. Occasional stone pillars mark the pipes buried underneath but there is little else to show the route across open moorland. Eventually a dark line of the forestry heaved over the horizon and the trail veered downhill to the right and the changeover at the entrance to the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park. Here another rushed changeover as the support was delayed by a horsebox on the narrow road. Ian McWatt, the runner on this long stage through the forest was helped by Allan running in support. This was fast running again on an access road but then the hard track degenerated to a loose grit surface as the trees closed in beyond Corrie. Roe deer may be come upon suddenly when runners swiftly swing round the bends. Occasional glimpses of the snow plumes summit of Ben Lomond were caught through the gaps in ranks of spruce. It was while on a training run here with Alistair that the idea of the relay was born. Our route went over Duchray Water by a planked bridge shared with the water siphon then was followed by a short stiff climb by the piped to reach the level of the aqueduct at the Loch Ard changeover on a private road in the middle of the forest. Billy Cairns now took over leaving Ian and Allan to drive round to pick up the trail again at Glen Falloch while the rest of the team leapfrogged on to Loch Dhu, driving from Kinlochard by a narrow dead end road. The trail here departed from the pipeline following the infant River Forth winding up to its source under Ben Lomond, before at Stronachlachar it crossed a low ridge back to the pipes and into another river system which flows from Loch Chon to Loch Dhu then Loch Ard before joining the Forth. The runners were still making good time but no spectacular gains on the schedule.
At Loch Dhu, Harry took over again, as Michael husbanded his resources for the mountain stage over the pass at the head of Glen Gyle. The trail now took a delightful little path through mixed woodland along the shores of Loch Chon. At Frenich however the path becomes confused. It is necessary to duck low under the branches of a small cluster of firs to find the oath and Harry chose the farm access track at the road losing a further two minutes. Billy took the baton at the stile at the start of a path above the pipes tunnelled through the hill to Loch Katrine to the water inlet at Royal Cottage. The hill is steep but short before the waters of Loch Katrine lie at your feet. The rivers on this part of the route run east to the Forth. Our route crosses the main watershed of Scotland no fewer than six times and in this respect may be considered a successor to the much publicised Pennine Way. The watershed is highly convoluted, the rivers Clyde, Falloch, Orchy, Etive and Leven flow west, while the Forth, Cononish and Ba flow to the east. However man has tampered with this natural distribution, the water at our feet is destined to flow west into the sewers of Glasgow but I doubt if this was bothering Billy as he descended into the birch groves speckled with sunlight and turned on to the little road that runs over rocky promontories along the loch shore to Stronachlachar.
The Drove Way
Harry Martin at Loch Katrine
At the white gate marking the start of the private road, controlled by the water board, Harry took over again. The photographer with the party was moved to take a mood photograph of the light playing among the trees on the loch shore and slanting over the distant summit of Ben Venue. The runners tiring, the ace was maintained by running short relay sections alternating between Harry and Billy. At the head of the loch started one of the key runs of the day, following the route of an old drove road from Argyll to markets in the east. This is the first of four mountain stages: Glen Gyle to Glen Falloch, Glen Falloch to Glen Atrioch, the Devil’s Staircase and the Lairig beside the Mamore Hills. Each of these and the other double stages through Loch Ard Forest and over Rannoch Moor has been assigned to a runner as his prime task: six miles of rough mountain going may be considered a day’s outing in itself. Michael took over at the gate and threaded his way through a heard of bullocks then slithered over the wooden balks of timber that take a track over the marshy ground. Soon after crossing the burn the gradient steepened and Eve’s road, made by the contractors to place the electricity pylons, became rough and stony and took a rising traverse on the north side of the glen. All was still and very quiet in the shelter of the surrounding hills basking in the warmth of the midday sun. The time is now approaching 11 o’clock and we are about 30 minutes up on schedule. Running this ascent for the third time, every stone was familiar as the glen narrowed and the track petered out, it was helpful to know the best line as the trail crossed and re-crossed the diminishing slope to the burn. The ground steepened and a large boulder marked the place for increased effort on the final slope to the col. Once over the pass at 1420 feet the physical effort was diminished but the terrain became difficult. By keeping well to the right the worst of this was avoided and the runner wove, jumped and fought his way over the black muddy wallows and deep beds of heather. After wading the Beinn Glas burn the going became easier and the end of a rough track leading to Glen Falloch was reached. A short spurt ascended some 200 feet on the track before the test of making a descending traverse across a steep untracked hillside, etched with stream gullies to the river crossing far below. However he was pleased to splash through the river well within his personal target of 65 minutes for the stage.
The Falls of Falloch are the halfway point and our time to this point was 5 hours, 34 minutes 32 seconds. An encouraging result which suggested an arrival in Fort William shortly after 5 o’clock. The ‘A’ team now resumed running with Alistair repeating his trial run over the next stage. Against the 1400 feet of vertical ascent and six and a half his early morning run over Dumbuck moor was a gentle warm up. The hill rose uncompromisingly directly ahead of him and the best line lies direct up the drier ground past an old boundary stone of the Britons. The rest of the team who have been taking a rest period enjoying the sun, lying out on the grass, packed up while Michael washed off in the cold water! The joys of Glen Falloch are often missed because of the proximity of the main A82 but some fine mountain summits such as Ben Vorlich and Cruach Ardrain lie on either side and all of them today present glittering snow tops.
The gap Alistair passed through between Fiarach and Ben Dubhchraig is at an altitude of 1520 feet and not too far from the snow. Small patches lay in the hollows of the broken ground of the upper corrie. Once over the top he descended to the burn and then ran down its easy grassy banks in Glen Atrioch to a vestige of the old Caledonian forest by the River Cononish. A panorama of the route ahead opened out over the wood towards the peak of Ben Dorain peeping through the Meall Odhar pass. Arriving in Glen Cononish the possible problem of the river crossing was solved by using the railway viaduct, although this was not recommended as the trains are infrequent. The survey faced a difficulty with the next stage to Tyndrum as the originally proposed route had been ploughed with ditches by the Forestry Commission, the only sensible route was to continue beside the railway. The Cononish rising near the peak of Ben Lui with its precipitous north face is the source of the Tay and here near the sacred pool of St Fillan is deep with rocky pools. A changeover by the railway bridge over the track leading from Dalriach up Glen Cononish might have been an advantage but as the support would have to walk in it was not carried out, leaving Alistair to plod alone for a last weary mile into Tyndrum.
Mike Lidwell splashing through the Falloch
The Military Road
A reunion took place here as Ian and Allan arrived after their drive from Loch Ard and a discussion took place as to whether Ian should run again to save Ronald for his run over Rannoch Moor but it was decided to keep to the original scheme. Alistair arrived worn out but on time and Colin took over using the old road which was abandoned by motor traffic in the 1930’s. The surface, though eroded in places by small burns that become torrents in bad weather, was good. Coming down the hill towards Auch with the famous railway horse-shoe. Colin hesitated as stags blocked his path but continued as they took to the hillside. At Auch the support waited by the parapet of the old stone bridge and began to feel chilly as a layer of afternoon cloud moved over the sun. The level of the terrain had risen as the route moved towards Rannoch Moor, a large, wild upland area which isolates the north of Scotland. Ron took over for the ‘A’ team for the run down to the old road just past Kingshouse. Alistair took over the baton and the others scuttled back to their cars. Driving along the main road it was just possible to pick out the lonely figure picking his way along the track on the other side of the valley.
At Bridge of Orchy there was a general reunion as the teams met again, the first real chance for a chinwag at Killearn was such a rush. Jack Brown brought Billy and Harry round the long road from Stronachlachar passing round Loch Lomond by Balloch, a round trip of some ten miles. In obedience to the old sign, a left-over from the time when tjis was a main road we routed the run through the subway at the station and changed over in the station forecourt. Soon Ron hove into sight behind a herd of highland cattle. A fearsome sight these beats in full flight with their impressive spread of horn. However seeing the crowd in front they peeled off from the track to allow our runner through: a traffic hazard not so often met on the alternative road route. Here the direct line concept demanded that we follow Invercauld’s old military road over the hill to the hotel at Inveroran, but the Forestry Commission have been at work across the start of the path and our survey had not properly extended to the northern sections, so our first runner, Colin Martin, took the easy and probably faster road round, a little road dipping and rising over hummocks and through clusters of old pines, that is surely mis-classified as an A road. An auxiliary car was sent out to cover the changeover at Forest Lodge. The point at which the road terminates after crossing the Victoria Bridge in fron tof the big white gate. The bridge is one more in the sequence of fine old stone arches which once took the old road north. The stage over Rannoch Moor followed a long, remote track, winding its way round the edge of the moor under the shadow of the mountains from Stob Gobhar to Clach Leathad. The gradients are easy but it is easy to underestimate the climb of some 850 feet in addition to 7.3 miles of distance. Conditions were good but the chill breeze from the north wafted around Ronald as he appeared to be isolated from his comrades and indeed the whole world. Once clear of the stand of pines around the lodge, the track rises rapidly up the Black Mount and looking back one surveys the icy ridge of Ben Achalader over the smooth waters of Loch Tulla, then the route passes into a defile before coming into a wide corrie around Ba Cottage. The building a ruin long ago, but the old bridge still stands and does its job of aiding such travellers as care to pass this way. A changeover here, the support walking in along the path up Loch Ba from the main road might have been an advantage but involve too much effort. As it was, Ron was flagging as much from lack of company as exhaustion but the time he reached the summit of Meall a’Bhruidh before he picked up again on the run in to Black Rock. His time however matched that produced by Alistair and Billy in the New Year trial. The other runners have been taking things easy at Black Rock, snoozing in the van well wrapped up for warmth, or testing the binoculars by watching the ski-ers sporting themselves on the slopes above, near perfect snow conditions it appeared. Colin goes to the phone at the ski-lift to publicise our efforts through Radio Clyde. At last Ron appeared and Ian stripped off to lend his support to the ‘A’ team for the run down the old road past Kingshouse. Alistair took over at the road junction with the Glen Etive road and failing any reasonable alternative took the main road for the stage to Altnafeadh. These short two-mile legs were dominated by the vast mass of the Buchaille culminating in the vertical cliffs of Carn Dearg, a sight which dwarfed the runner seemingly crawling underneath.
The Devil’s Staircase
At Altnafeadh, Gordon took over for the climb to the highest point of the course, at the summit of the Devil’s Staircase, 1850 feet above sea level. He takes with him Allan, the reserve runner, making his second run of the day in a support capacity. The organisation to this point has been going like clockwork and the runners are almost an hour up on schedule but the gains were on the early sections and now times are close to the estimates with only the odd seconds being pared off. The path up was rough and stony, the steepness forcing the runners down to a walk, but once over the crest the greatest descent of the day, down to sea-level at Kinlochleven pulled them forward. At Kinlochleven in the narrow valley between hills which attract the highest rainfall in Scotland lies the aluminium works powered by hydro-electricity from the fall of waters penned in the Blackwater reservoir. The route followed the pipes down into the small town.
Meanwhile the support had been busy. A fast car was sent off for Blair a’Chaoruin through Fort William carrying the ‘B’ team runners for the last two stages. Another went immediately on to Kinlochleven with Billy for the Mamore Hill stage and Michael to act as guide for the initial footpath out of Kinlochleven. The others follow more leisurely, having no particular urgency. The road detours through Glen Coe and it might be possible for the runners on their much shorter route to get ahead, however Kinlochleven was reached in ample time and the runners had time to warm up and the photographers to reach viewpoints. Occasional flashes of sunlight illuminated the snows on the peaks of the Mamores but in general the early brilliance of the day was over. The changeover was beside the public conveniences on the main road, an error really as we learnt from a local that the old road route took the other bridge further upstream. Allan and Gordon came in together and handed over to Billy who set off in pursuit of Michael well ahead and intent on drawing him out to a good start. Just past the last houses, a green sign indicated the start of the path which runs up the hillside through the light birch woods but a few false lines must be avoided. After crossing the track up to the lodge, Michael faltered and Billy proceeded alone but was eventually reduced to a walk up a series of hairpins. A number of paths traverse this hillside and here the path was joined by a stronger strand for the steepest part, then the track rising from the lodge to the Lairig was reached. This track is good, rising gradually for the remaining altitude to the summit of the pass at about 1000 feet. Here the runner found the going harder as the track became strewn with loose stones and dissected with streams. It was dry as for the preceding week so the runner fared well. The run seems to go on for ever, down the valley, until at last the woods signal the end.
The fast car had problems. Choosing the ferry at Ballachulish rather than the long drive round, Jack Brown was delayed. The last stage runners received a shaking as he raced into position, along the bumpy road through Blairmafoldach. Ian was just in time to meet Billy, whio just beat the hour for his run. The Lochaber man, Eddie Campbell, came out to meet us and prepare for our reception. To speed the pace, Colin took over for a short run before handing over to Harry who carried the baton to the finish. The clouds swirled up and rain was in the air as Fort William appeared before us. The pulp mills at Corpach were prominent across the water at Loch Linnhe. All the runners fell in behind Harry for the run-in bringing this event to a triumphant conclusion. The timekeepers rushed on and found the finishing line through the centre of the square, by the museum, at the notice board. Harry came past the Post Office to cross the line. The timekeepers went into a huddle and announced the result: 11 hours 03 minutes 44 seconds. This was well up to expectations but all regretted that we had just failed the 11 hour mark.
Besides the organisers, others had been estimating time and staked their money on the result. A girl from Cardross. perhaps aided a little by Gordon, guessed within 20 seconds of the time to win herself a Westclox Quartzmatic clock. This cliock had been carried throughout the event as an auxiliary timing check and was proved accurate. The runners were photographed before departing to relax their muscles in a warm shower at the sports ground. All pronounced themselves to have had a most enjoyable day and expressed their hopes that other clubs may feel moved to follow their lead in tackling this course.
This basic route was adopted for further runs in the following years and even attracted some competition between Lochaber, Clydesdale and a University team with Clydesdale setting a record of 10 hours 48 minutes 08 seconds in 1982. The construction of the West Highland Way and in particular the engineering of a path along the precipitous eastern shore of Loch Lomond, has drawn attention away from our route. Previously this shore was impassable unless by a diversion up the Snaid Burn and a steep descent to Doune. Even now our route has attractions as it is shorter and permits more frequent access for changeovers. One change for subsequent runs has been the adoption of the West Highland Way route from Milngavie to Killearn following the Allander Water, then an old railway track with a marginal time reduction. The stage from Falloch to Cononish has been destroyed by aforestation in Glen Atrioch involving the construction of a high deer fence across the path, but there is now a footpath from Dalriach to Tyndrum to avoid proximity to the railway. The main road from Kingshouse to Altnafeadh can also be avoided by the new West Highland Way footpath with the sacrifice of a little speed for safety.
Inevitably solo runs have been made. First Bobby Shields (Clydesdale) in a northerly direction, then |Eddie Campbell (Lochaber) managed to reach Milngavie in 19 hours 30 minutes continuous running from Fort William. Now an event is run over the West Highland Way route but I suppose some of its meanderings are omitted.
Revised by MO Lidwell, August 2006.