The Lost World of Loch Mullardoch

I awoke to the shrilling of greenshank and the loud piping of oyster-catchers. My holiday had indeed started. Not a breath of wind stirred and the green hills around me were overdrawn by a grey line of settled clouds. There was no knowing what the day would bring forth, so I had a leisurely breakfast, picking up my binoculars now and then to watch a sandpiper or redshank go about its business. From the wood came songs of blackbirds and thrushes, and the little chorus of wrens and willow warblers thrown in made a lovely little choir.

Tom Weir, Highland Days

Weir’s idyllic awakening is something that many of us who own a tent have shared. But none of us will ever again be able to share Weir’s specific experience. Here’s why:

Mullardoch dam
The car park below the Mullardoch dam (Click to enlarge)

The monstrous Mullardoch dam blocks off all but the most determined access to upper Glen Cannich. Behind it, Loch Mullardoch stretches westwards for 15 kilometres. Access to the surrounding hills is limited to one truly horrible path that stretches partway along the north side of the loch: muddy, undulating, and in places obliterated by landslides. The south side of the loch has no access paths at all.

A walker standing at the outlet of the Allt Coire a’ Mhaim, eight kilometres west of the dam on the north shore of the loch, has a certain sense of commitment—the way back to the car park is either up and along the An Riabhachan ridge or back along that horrible path. (Usually, as this realization sinks in, it starts raining.)

But it wasn’t always like this. Before the dam was built in 1951, Loch Mullardoch was a mere seven kilometres long. A single-track road ran along its north side. There were cottages by the roadside at Mullardoch, Cosag (or Cozac, or Cossock) and Coire na Cuilean. At the head of the loch, flatlands opened out. There were two lodges (Old and New Benula Lodge) and multiple estate buildings at the loch-head, and a bridge spanning the broad river that entered the loch at its western end. From the estate buildings, a path ran through Caledonian pine forest most of the way back along the southern shore.

Old Benula Lodge
Old Benula Lodge and outbuildings, looking across the river from above the road. The right of way continues up towards Loch Lungard in the distance. Beinn Fhionnlaidh looms in the background. Picture from Iain MacKay’s privately-published “The Last Highland Clearance”, uncredited in the original.
New Benula Lodge
New Benula Lodge from the road. The Old Lodge lies on lower ground  to the left. Coire Mhaim, below An Socach, is in the background. Picture from Iain MacKay’s privately-published “The Last Highland Clearance”, uncredited in the original.

The road continued westwards on the south side of the river, and then along the southern shore of lost Loch Lungard (now submerged and assimilated into Greater Loch Mullardoch). Eventually it reached the settlement of Lungard—a few cottages tucked under Meall Shuas. Beyond that,  a path went farther west, crossing the watershed and letting down into Glen Elchaig.

Mullardoch and Lungard
Ordnance Survey map of Lochs Mullardoch and Lungard, before the dam. (Click to enlarge)
Current shoreline
Shoreline after the dam, from OS Open Data. (Click to enlarge)

The whole system made a direct link between Kintail and Cannich. It was cycleable throughout its length—or at least, it was reputedly cycled on at least one occasion, by a Reverend Mackay, in 1910, in a blizzard.

The hydroelectric scheme submerged all these paths and buildings as far west as, and including, Lungard. Beyond that point there’s just a sad little stump of path, still making the connection to Glen Elchaig via Iron Lodge.

Old and new Mullardoch shorelines
Bartholomew’s 1912 “Survey Atlas of Scotland”, which best shows the buildings in the area. The current Ordnance Survey shoreline is marked in blue. (Click to enlarge)

A few traces remain: a couple of gable-ends and a chimney standing on the shore of the new loch at Am Mam (NH 123303); tumbled walls of two bulidings at Dorus a’ Choilich (NH 102288); and some ruins at the head of the loch, beautifully photographed by a pair of valiant canoeists in their blog here (the relevant photos start about halfway down the page). From the background in these photographs, I think they’re the remains of the buildings at Gobh-alltan (NH 088291).

The completeness of the inundation may well be the explanation for why the “Hydro Board” was not required to re-establish access to upper Glen Cannich, as it did in other cases—there was simply no functional community left in the upper glen to require that access.

The water level of the new loch is variable, and the effect of changes in level is most marked in its upper reaches, where the surrounding terrain slopes gently. The level seems to have been at its highest shortly after the dam was placed, notably in the OS seventh series mapping of 1961. It’s now lower than the shoreline marked on current OS maps. We can switch back and forth between a range of map coverage at the National Library of Scotland‘s wonderful selection of georeferenced maps and overlays. (All the maps I’m using here come from that source.)

Here’s the shoreline from the OS seventh series mapping of 1961, superimposed as a blue line on Bartholomew’s 1902 map, which dates from before even the Old Lodge was built:

1961 shoreline
(Click to enlarge)

And here’s a recent shoreline traced from the Bing satellite map at the NLS:

Current shoreline
(Click to enlarge)

With the fall in water levels, it seems that the ruins of Lungard should have emerged into the air again. And they have. Here’s the OS 1:10,000 map of the settlement during the 1900s:

Lungard map
(Click to enlarge)

And here’s the Bing satellite view of the current shoreline in the same area (NH 103300). The line of the river is pretty much the same, and gives you orientation:

Lungard ruins
(Click to enlarge)

Highland Days, Tom WeirIn Tom Weir’s Highland Days, he describes a five-day stay in Glen Cannich in the 1930s, from which I quoted at the head of this piece. He hitched a “bumpy ride” in someone’s car from the Glen Affric Hotel to Benula, and then set up camp close to the Lodge to explore the surrounding hills. Even in May, months before the stalking season, the keeper was forbidden to accommodate climbers in the Lodge, but that didn’t stop him leaving eggs, milk and scones beside Weir’s tent of a morning.

One day the rain went off at 3pm, so Weir nipped out to quickly bag An Socach—nowadays rather more difficult to access!

More Days from a Hill Diary, Adam WatsonIn More Days from a Hill Diary, 1951–80, Adam Watson describes driving up to the New Lodge in 1951 (he must have driven past the construction work on the dam), and taking the zig-zag path behind the lodge straight up on to Sgurr na Lapaich, before making a circuit on cross-country skis over An Riabhachan and then down the Allt Socrach to the lodge again.

If I make a rough plot of the routes taken by Weir and Watson (Weir gives little detail, especially of his return routes), it’s a fine indication of the outdoor possibilities that are now lost to us beneath the waters of Loch Mullardoch:

Approximate routes taken by Weir and Watson
(Click to enlarge)

 

 

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