CORROUR Halt was made for the opening scene of one of those slow-moving art house films where imagery replaces dialogue and nothing ever happens. I could have written the script. In fact, I think I will . . .
Fade in to an empty station. A train arrives. A whistle blows and the train departs. We see the empty station again – exactly the same as it was before except there’s a man standing on the platform with a bag. He doesn’t move, he just stands there in silence. Fade out.
There. That’s the first scene. Perhaps I’ve given you a flavour of Corrour Halt – one of the desperately lonely Highland stations in the vast expanse of Rannoch Moor. There is nothing up here but bogs, a loch, mountains and a railway line. No public roads lead to Corrour Halt, just stony tracks along which drovers once herded cattle. It’s a station with no link to the outside world other than the iron rails it straddles.
I like the word “halt”. Stations are romantic places, just ask Celia Johnson. But halts raise the romance to a higher level. They are remote. They bring an air of transient expectation. They come and go in the blink of an eye and the shriek of a whistle – yet they are part of the landscape. And the difference between a station and a halt? Don’t go there. I’ve just spent ten minutes on Google trying to come up with some definitions. The only thing that’s clear is that no one knows but everyone has an opinion. To me, Corrour is a halt and that’s what I’m going to call it.
So I’ve set the scene. The train pulls into the halt. But unlike the scenario in the opening paragraph, about 20 people – me included – with rucksacks and cases pile onto the platform. At this point the guard leans out of a door and harangues us.
“Look at yis all. Ye’ve all come up here fer peace and quiet yet there’s mair of ye getting aff than’s staying on the train. Wa-hey.”
This isn’t in the script. It’s also wildly inaccurate, because the train is packed to the bulkheads with several hundred people heading for Fort William and Mallaig. But this doesn’t deter the guard, who turns to a bunch of blokes supping lager in the corridor behind him and gestures with his thumb to we few on the platform.
“Get a load of this, these guys oot here. They came in search of paradise. Wa-hey. There’s enough of them for a fitba’ match. Call that peace and quiet?”
He presses his buzzer and the train departs. A handful of bewildered travellers disappear into Corrour Station House, a railway building which has been converted into a hostel and place to seek refuge from the weather and railway guards. The remainder clamber aboard a white minibus that rattles off along a potholed track to Loch Ossian and God knows where. I sit on my rucksack, alone on the platform – the man in the movie, not knowing quite what to do next.
I have a sort of plan. Loch Ossian is hemmed in by three Munros. The sort of plan is to climb two of them tomorrow – Carn Dearg and Sgor Gaibhre – then Beinn na Lap early the next morning and catch the midday train back to Bridge of Orchy, where I’ve left the car and the remains of a bean salad. It’s a pretty straightforward sort of plan.
I pitch my tent about a mile from the railway halt on a hillock above a stream that runs into the loch at its west end. The sky is cloudy and the wind blustery, but there are patches of blue up there, and golden streaks of sunlight on the flank of Carn Dearg. In front of the tent the stony track forks, with one branch running along the loch and the other slicing across the lower slopes of Beinn na Lap. A little signpost says “The Road to the Isles”.
I’ve a feeling “The Road to the Isles” is one of the old droving routes. It crosses my mind, as I snuggle down into my sleeping bag, that if there are still drovers about and they’re as mad as the railway guards, then three-hundred head of cattle might well come charging over my tent in the middle of the night. That’s a scary thought. Because I remember Rawhide. But only just.
Fade out. Credits.
NEXT DAY – THE SORT OF PLAN IN ACTION:
I’M up at 5am. Yes, 5am. There is logic behind this unprecedented manoeuvre. If I am to climb Beinn na Lap tomorrow, return to the tent, have a brew and pack up to catch the 12.31pm train, then I need to do a trial early start today. Also, I couldn’t sleep because I had a bad dream about scary cattle. And Gil Favor wouldn’t keep still. So I’m up at 5am.
I’m on the road for 6.10am, and pass another youth hostel – this one a rather appealing shed-like structure set beneath a stand of pines on a delightful promontory in the loch. Despite embarking on the wrong track along the banks of Loch Ossian, I’m on the summit of Carn Dearg for 8.30am in a very cold and blustery wind.
The bealach between Carn Dearg and Sgor Gaibhre is wide and green, and is an absolute pleasure to cross. I don’t know why, or perhaps I read something in the guidebook, but I’d been expecting an expanse of peaty lagoons and stinking black sikes. Instead, firm green turf runs practically all the way between the two peaks, spoiled only by the fact there are several hundred feet of descent and a steady though sweaty ascent to gain the summit of Sgor Gaibhre. But it wouldn’t be a bealach otherwise.
From Sgor Gaibhre there are wide views of Ben Alder, which is wreathed in cloud, and the western end of Loch Ericht. And on the horizon, like a mystical pyramid rising from a blue land into a blue sky, one of my favourite mountains – the magical Schiehallion.
I cross another bealach to the summit of Sgor Choinnich – Sgor Gaibhre’s little sister – and drop down to the forest at the eastern end of Loch Ossian, where I enter the world of the Victorian landscape gardener. No kidding. I am completely taken by surprise. It’s like stepping from one planet onto another. Above the forest, everything is wild and rocky – while inside the forest lies the manicured stronghold of the Corrour estate.
In this silent fiefdom of neat and sanitised estate buildings, the words wealth, privilege, private property and opulence are scattered around like last year’s leaves. This outpost of feudalism must be a dozen miles from the nearest public road and five miles from the railway halt at Corrour. But when children were dying of TB, measles and malnutrition in the slums of Glasgow, and families were being turfed off the land to make way for sheep, someone was living here – in the middle of nowhere – in the lap of absolute luxury. They came in search of paradise – and they kept it for themselves.
I follow an estate track along the southern shore of the loch, through forests of pine and colourful displays of flowering rhododendrons and other exotic shrubs. The track is strewn with blood-red petals. There is a scent in the air – an overpowering scent – that would probably have reminded some long-dead aristo of the Punjab or Kashmir.
Those aritos lived in Corrour Lodge, which burnt down in 1942. But in 2003 a sumptuous replacement was completed from 600 tonnes of Portuguese granite and masses of glass. It cost £20m and has been described as “the most blatant symbol of secret ownership of Scottish land”.
So. I’m not going to spoil a good day with a rant. I’m in an easy mood. But if you’re of the opinion that “we’re all in this together”, that the country is broke and the class system no longer exists, take a look at this report about the Corrour estate from the Sunday Herald while I’m strolling back to my tatty little tent:
- Skirting the intriguing question of how you get planning permission for a £20m edifice built from glass and non-native stone in the middle of nowhere (I’m writing this as 86 traveller families face eviction from land they own in Essex because they can’t get planning permission), you can rent Corrour’s Fairytale Castle for £25,000 a week. CLICK HERE for the Scottish Sun’s revelation.
- The Road to the Isles – Alistair at eBothyBlog has some fascinating notes, and there’s more HERE.
- Planning a backpacking trip that takes in Corrour Halt? Mike Knipe at Northern Pies passed through earlier this year in some dodgy weather.
- The history of Corrour Halt is pretty interesting. Apparently, the station appeared in the cult film Trainspotting.
- A good port in a storm, Corrour Station House.