GLEN Roy is the place that thwarted Darwin. That’s Charles Darwin – the man who turned conventional knowledge on its head with his revelation that our ancestors emerged from the sea, not the Garden of Eden. Glen Roy is a snapshot in the evolution of the world; it is the original puzzle for lateral thinkers; and it’s the perfect place to spend a wet day in Scotland. That’s why I’m here. Dark clouds have swallowed the Nevis range and Grey Corries. I’m in Glen Roy – walking on sunshine . . .
On many occasions down the years, when planning walks around Fort William, my eyes have strayed to a series of curious markings on the Ordnance Survey Landranger maps. The markings are labelled “Parallel Roads” – and indeed, that’s exactly what they resemble on the map: roads running along the contours of the glen’s steep sides. In places there is only one road; in others two; but in several sections of the valley there are three on each side, one above the other, remaining equidistant and perfectly level as they slice across the terrain. They are, though, roads that go nowhere.
The Parallel Roads are not confined to Glen Roy, although that is where they are revealed in their greatest splendour. They veer north-west into Glen Turret; they can be traced along the sides of neighbouring Glen Gloy, spilling into Glen Fintaig; and they are in evidence on the slopes of Glen Spean, where they endeavour to entangle themselves with the course of an old tramway system, just to complicate matters.
So what are they, these Parallel Roads – something to do with the Forestry Commission, perhaps, or the Fort William aluminium smelting industry that spawned the tramways? Why have they been singled out, like the Borrowdale Yews, to be immortalised on our Ordnance Survey maps? They must hold some significance. It’s time to find out.
According to Celtic legend, they were roads used for hunting by the giant Fingal. He’s the bloke who slept in the cave on the island of Staffa and influenced Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. He’s also the chap who hurled abuse and clods of earth at his Irish counterpart, Finn McCool, who retaliated by lobbing stuff back and inadvertently creating the Giant’s Causeway and any number of geographical anomalies between Ireland and Scotland. Fingal is, therefore, a bit of a Celtic cop-out who was woven into legend to explain the inexplicable.
The Parallel Roads have also been attributed to fairies. I like this notion. It’s somehow comforting to think there might be other beings in this world who venture out in the half-light of dawn and dusk to tramp mountain roads between places we can’t see. That would explain why the roads go nowhere. They actually do go somewhere – it’s just that the beginnings and the ends are obscured from the view of we humans. Perhaps if we climbed the slopes of Glen Roy in the chill air of pre-dawn, and sat motionless at the side of a Parallel Road with our plaid pulled around us, we might glimpse their shadows pass and hear their whispers. There again, maybe not.
In the 19th Century, intrigued by a phenomenon that appeared to be manmade though was presumed to be natural, the scientific community arrived at the conclusion that the Parallel Roads were not roads at all – they were beaches. That’s right, beaches. They were ancient shorelines positioned one above the other. But how did they get up there, hundreds of feet above the valley bottoms? Were they remnants of times when the sea was much deeper or the land a great deal lower? That was the tantalising question that captivated many eminent thinkers.
I’M going to digress here and take you back to 1977 and the Isle of Barra for some lateral thinking, because this is more or less how the problem was solved. It’s August and I’m camping on the outskirts of Castlebay after hitch-hiking around Scotland and down through the Outer Hebrides. A dozen tents are scattered along the shore, and at nights a mixed band of wanderers congregates round a fire to sing and tell tales. One of our number, a bloke from Norwich called Ian Hawthorn, introduces me to a concept called lateral thinking. This is where a puzzle takes the form of a short story, and the listeners have to unravel the mystery from the information they are given. Here’s an example:
A man walks into a bar. He says to the landlord: “Sorry to bother you, but can I have a glass of water please?” The landlord reaches beneath the bar, pulls out a shotgun, points it at the man, shouts “BANG”, and puts it down again. The man says thank-you and leaves. What’s going on?
It’s very tempting to let you work this out. But the answer is, quite simply, the man had hiccups. He needed a glass of water, the landlord realised what the problem was and decided a sharp shock would be more effective – which it was. Not that I advocate pulling a gun on someone to cure their hiccups – but you get the drift. So here’s a problem that has exactly the same solution as the mystery of the Parallel Roads, and why those beaches are halfway up a mountain. See if you can work it out.
In the desert there’s a tower, thirty feet high. There are no steps up the tower and no ladders. But a man has committed suicide in the tower and is hanging from the top by a 20ft rope. There is nothing in the vicinity except an empty lorry – parked some distance from the tower – which the man used to drive himself there. How did he climb the tower to kill himself? I’ll leave that one with you.
Enter Charles Darwin, the man who bestowed on humanity the theory of evolution and changed the course of science. Darwin was intrigued by the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy and its neighbouring glens, and built on the work of his good friend and geologist Sir Charles Lyell, novelist and amateur geologist Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, and chemist and geologist Dr John MacCulloch. Lauder and MacCulloch favoured the idea that the beaches had been created by freshwater lakes – but they had absolutely no explanation for how the water had been boxed into the glens at such high levels. Darwin was adamant that the beaches were marine in origin. The Parallel Roads were ancient seasides.
Darwin visited the glens in 1838, and in 1839 presented a paper, entitled “Observations on the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy, and of other parts of Lochaber in Scotland, with an attempt to prove that they are of marine origin”, to the Royal Society.
But Darwin’s theory of ocean beaches was wide of the mark. His lowest beach was 972ft above the present sea level. So that’s a great deal of sea that had disappeared over the years or a great deal of land that had risen out of the ocean. And what about the rest of Scotland? Where were all the raised beaches to prove his theory? They don’t exist, simple as that.
Yet beaches they are, the Parallel Roads, that’s for sure, all the way along these majestic glens. And if they were landlocked lakes, where were the colossal barriers that would have been required to hold back the water? They had disappeared without trace. Not one single scrap of evidence to support a barrier theory existed.
Darwin’s theory of marine beaches held water for less than two years. His painstaking work was fatally undermined by Louis Agassiz, pictured left, a Swiss glaciologist and geologist who pioneered the concept that the world had at one time been largely covered with ice. He was, essentially, the man who invented the Ice Age. He took one look at the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy, Glen Gloy and Glen Spean, declared that the beaches had been formed by the freeze-thaw effect of landlocked lakes, and that the lakes had been hemmed in by a colossal barrier of ice.
This barrier is now known as the Lochaber Ice Lobe and was formed during the final stages of the last Ice Age, about 11,000 years ago, thrusting in from the sea. It advanced in three stages, pushing the lakes up to three levels, and then withdrew in three stages, leaving the raised beaches etched into the mountains. When it finally melted it left no obvious trace – certainly none visible to scientists who had no idea an Ice Age had existed.
So how did the man hang himself in the tower? That’s right, he had a load of ice blocks in his lorry. He built steps up the tower with the ice and hanged himself from the top step. The ice melted and the water evaporated, leaving no trace. Louis Agassiz would have got it in a jiffy. Not impressed? Don’t blame me, blame Ian Hawthorn.
But spare a thought for poor old Charles Darwin. His theory became known as his “gigantic blunder” and he referred to it in private correspondence as “that confounded paper of mine”. Which just goes to show that we can’t all be clever all of the time. I suppose evolution plays its part in this. Perhaps one day we will all be clever all of the time.
So here I am in Glen Roy. This is an absolutely fantastic place to spend a day when the rain is scything down on the high tops. I’ve taken a left turn off the A86 in Roy Bridge, headed north along a delightful single-track road up Glen Roy, and parked for a brew and Scotch pie in a parking area on the crown of a hill where an information board explains the origins of the Parallel Roads. I’ve then continued three or four miles to the end of the public road at Brae Roy Lodge, ditched the car, and continued on foot through some rather private looking estate buildings where barns are festooned with antlers and moles are in charge of the lawns.
Beyond Brae Roy Lodge, Glen Turret branches off to the north-west while Glen Roy continues almost due east. The raised beaches are in evidence on all the slopes. Glacial moraines and banks of detritus fill the valley bottoms. This is a fascinating place. This is the final footprint of the last Ice Age in all its glory, etched into the hillsides and dumped in the hollows. This is pre-history leeching into the present and dragging itself into the future, making a mockery of that manmade thing called time. In Glen Roy, the past and the present are one.
So I climb to the highest Parallel Road, the uppermost beach of the deepest glacial lake, and stretch out in warm grass with the sun on my face. I really should have brought a deckchair and straw hat, but you can’t take everything into consideration. To the south, the Grey Corries are still imprisoned behind a barrier of dark clouds, but here in Glen Roy the larks are singing on the scented wind. And I haven’t seen another soul all day.
So there’s something to take into consideration, those of you who have never sampled the delights of the Parallel Roads. When the mist is low on the Ben, head for Glen Roy and its pleasant open skies. Next wet day at Fort William, I’ll venture over the fell into Glen Gloy and explore its corners. Meanwhile, while I’m lying here in the sunshine, I’ll retrieve from my deteriorating memory another of Ian Hawthorn’s puzzles, just to keep you on your toes.
A man lives on the 20th floor of a tower block. Every morning he takes the lift to the ground floor and goes to work. When he returns at night he takes the lift to the 15th floor then climbs five flights of stairs to his flat. Why?
Serious answers in the comments box, please. Okay, silly answers as well.
- Charles Darwin’s paper “Observations on the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy, and of other parts of Lochaber in Scotland, with an attempt to prove that they are of marine origin” in a reader-friendly format and in its original form
- The Parallel Roads of Glen Roy and Forestry, Environmental History Resources
- Glen Roy, Landscape Fashioned by Geology, SNH Publications
- Wikipedia on Glen Roy
- The Parallel Roads of Glen Roy, In the Footsteps of Charles Darwin – a field guide by Martin Rudwick, Geological Society of London, History of Geology Group
- Louis Agassiz, the man who gave us the Ice Age and worked out the origins of the Parallel Roads, went on to greater things. Read this paragraph from Wikipedia: “An ancient glacial lake that formed in the Great Lakes region of North America, Lake Agassiz, is named after him, as are Mount Agassiz in California’s Palisades, Mount Agassiz, in the Uinta Mountains, and Agassiz Peak in Arizona. Agassiz Glacier and Agassiz Creek in Glacier National Park also bear his name. A crater on Mars and a promontorium on the Moon are also named in his honour. In addition, several animal species are so named, including Apistogramma agassizi Steindachner, 1875 (Agassiz’s dwarf cichlid); Isocapnia agassizi Ricker, 1943 (a stonefly); Publius agassizi (Kaup), 1871 (a passalid beetle); Xylocrius agassizi (LeConte), 1861 (a longhorn beetle);Exoprosopa agassizi Loew, 1869 (a bee fly); and the most well-known, Gopherus agassizii Cooper, 1863 (the desert tortoise).” That’s some legacy.