We arrived at Castle Tioram on a perfect summer's morning. The old Clanranald stronghold stood reflected in the mirror surface of the sheltered sea loch. Golden seaweed glistened on the shores of wooded islands; bare mountains framed the far horizon. The castle, we decided, should be our destination rather than our starting-point, so we walked on past the sandbar leading to its entrance, and at the far end of the beach we climbed a narrow path that wound its way precariously above the shore through tangled trees and tumbled rocks.
When the path was being cut, a century ago, Elizabethan coins were discovered in a crevice. Hence the name Silver Walk. But there's a darker aspect to the tale: of a theft from Tioram's coffers, and of a serving girl suspected of the crime tied by her long hair to seaweed on a rock that can be seen below the path, the Rock of James's Daughter. Some say that only a small fraction of the loot was found... Distracted by the possibility of finding coins in an intriguing cavity beneath a fallen tree, I almost stepped out into empty space 50ft above the loch. Rhododendrons, I discovered, have surprisingly strong branches.
We stopped to rest beside a burn as the walk descended to the water's edge, then, at a little cairn, we headed inland up a rougher path that climbed into the hills. On a lonely plateau high above the loch we found the broken walls of old stone cottages and byres. The village's entire population was forcibly evicted and transported to Australia in the 1840s, when Clanranald's vast estates were sold and a better price could be obtained for land that had been "cleared" of penniless inhabitants. Rummaging among the tumbled stones and bracken, we found, not silver coins, but the rusty fragments of a cooking-pot.
The path continued climbing up behind the village to a ridge that overlooked an awe-inspiring wilderness of crags and hill lochs. A pair of eagles circled in the cloudless sky, and waterlilies floated on the placid surface of Lochan na Fola, "the little loch of blood". This idyllic spot was once the site of a ferocious brawl between Frasers and Macdonalds, occasioned by some social gaffe committed at a banquet in the castle.
We forked right by the lochside, climbing through a gully to another small hill loch perched on the very summit of the pass. Sitting on a dam, the relic of an old experiment in hydroelectricity, we soothed our feet in ice-cool water under the hot sun. Far below us lay Loch Moidart with its archipelago of islands, while the larger isles of Muck and Eigg floated on the blue horizon. A steep but easy path beside a stream took us back down to the road along the shore.
The tide was in, leaving only a thin strip of sand connecting Castle Tioram to the mainland, and we were the only visitors. Relishing such atmospheric solitude, we explored the roofless halls and kitchens, peered into the dungeon and discovered a medieval lavatory strategically positioned just above the entrance gate, a system of defence that might strike a sympathetic chord with modern eco-warriors.
But Castle Tioram's future lies in the balance: it is currently for sale, priced at just pounds l00,000. The present chieftain of Clanranald is co-ordinating a campaign to preserve it for the local community rather than letting it slip into private hands and be redeveloped - in which case the Highlands might lose a ruin of magical enchantment.
A good pub lunch can be hard to find in the west Highlands, where prepacked breaded haddock all too often masquerades as a local speciality. On the road back to Lochailort we were fortunate to find the Glenuig Inn, where we ate freshly landed prawns that the landlord had "diverted" from their route to Barcelona. The old inn has had a chequered past - torched after the disastrous '45 uprising, closed down in the 19th century for operating an illicit whisky still and, until a road was built just 30 years ago, accessible only from the sea. The history of Scotland, as we were discovering, is not learnt from books so much as from walks and bar-room tales.
lCastle Tioram lies off the A861 between Lochailort and Acharacle.
lTurn right out of car-park and follow shore to end of beach. Climb steep path, continuing along shore for one and a half miles.
lAt small cairn, turn sharp right up hill. Follow path through deserted village and over crest of hill to loch.
lFork right at intersection above shore of loch.
lClimb pass to hill-loch and follow path downhill. Turn right along road to return to castle.
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