Coastal Command: Surveying Scotland’s maritime superhighway

Coastal Command: Surveying Scotland’s maritime superhighway

By Dave Cowley and Colin Martin

Current Archaeology, No.258 (2011)

Introduction: In the past, Scotland’s western seaboard was linked not by roads, but by the sea. This was the superhighway of its day, tying communities together and creating connections between places that, to modern eyes, can seem frustratingly hard to reach. Anyone travelling to Skye, or walking out through the isolated peninsula at Knoydart, is likely to be struck by the remoteness and sense of wilderness.

As a result, they totally misunderstand these landscapes. Such perspectives are urban-centric, the product only of the last 200 years or so, and based on the distance of a place from modern roads and population centres. Taking flight in a Cessna 172 light aircraft gives a different perspective on this world – a seabird’s view of an environment that would be impossible to reconnoitre on any scale by other means.

The climb out of North Connel airport, near Oban on Scotland’s west coast, has become familiar. Rising first over yachts in the marina, then Loch Linnhe, the view gradually shifts from one of blocking mountains to reveal natural, interconnecting corridors. First comes the Great Glen, carving through the Highland landscape towards Loch Ness. Then, at 3,000 feet, Fort William is shadowed by the looming bulk of Ben Nevis, and the massive scale of the mountainous West Highlands becomes clear, as serried ranks of jagged peaks march off into the distance. Turning west, following the ‘Road to the Isles’ – the iconic road and rail approach to Mallaig with its Western Isles ferry terminal – the seaboard stretches as far as the eye can see. Ardnamurchan, Rum, Knoydart, Skye, and Applecross: a roll call of dramatic landscapes where land and sea mesh, awe-inspiring and beautiful.

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