Heading to his home village of Kinlochleven professional guide, Andrew Baxter urges us to unfold the map to discover a place almost hidden away in the Highland mountains. In his latest Marvellous Maps post, celebrating National Map Reading Week* Andrew reveals a place almost forgotten after the building of a bridge and the closure of a factory. But now enjoys a steady stream of visitors tramping along the West Highland Way.

Move along nothing to see

Take a look at the Ordnance Survey map produced in 1897. There is little to see in the Kinlochleven area. The name doesn’t appear on the map. North of the river is a couple of buildings and to the south, a place marked Tartan Cottage. There are dashed lines heading deep into the mountains suggesting paths engineered by Victorian stalkers. This was a place beyond off-the-beaten-path. If you had ventured this way without an invitation you were not welcome. This was private land, the plaything of Victorian gentry using it as their Highland shooting estate.

1897 OS Map of Kinlochleven
Kinlochleven doesn’t exist in 1897 but there is a Post Office!

Kinlochleven appears amidst the mountains

Fast forward sixty years, to the One-inch map, and a different picture is revealed. Kinlochleven is firmly on the map. The red line of the main road loops through the village. It marches down on side of the loch and out through the village on the other side.

Look more carefully at the map. The reason why a village has appeared from nowhere in the middle of the mountains becomes clear. Besides a grey block in italics is the word “works”. Industry had arrived in this part of the Highlands. Those works were the site of an aluminium smelter constructed in the early 1900s. The smelter is long gone, replaced with a regeneration scheme at the centre of the village. However, the huge dam high up in the mountains and the pipeline feeding a hydroelectric power station remain. You can walk or mountain bike all the way to the dam following the impressive pipeline.

Loch Leven overlayed with a map of Kinlochleven
Kinlochleven has grown but the views remain spectacular

It’s an odd place for a factory?

But why was a smelter built here miles from nowhere? Was there bauxite, the ore required to produce aluminium mined here in the hills. The map shows no sign of mining operations. No, the only reason for industry coming to this part of the Highlands was a high rainfall. Plentiful rainfall meant the industrial pioneers could generate cheap electricity. And aluminium smelting requires a huge amount of electricity.

A centre for outdoor explorers

Today, Kinlochleven is a perfect base to enjoy the West Highlands, particularly if you enjoy the outdoors. It’s the penultimate stop on the West Highland Way bringing thousands of walkers along the trail every year. For something more strenuous there is easy access to the surrounding mountains. If you are into Munro-bagging there are plenty of those high-level peaks to aim for from here. There are gentler walks around the village. The Salmon Trail alongside the River Leven explains the life cycle of the king of fish through a series of sculptures and display panels. Or you can head to the old pier for stunning views down the loch towards Glencoe.

Loch Leven towards the Pap of Glencoe
Loch Leven from above Kinlochleven

Part of the old factory complex was converted into the Ice Factor. A climbing centre, where you can receive training from expert instructors. Or you can grab a coffee, sit back and watch climbers tackle the large indoor ice wall. It’s set inside the largest freezer you are ever likely to see. If you want to find out more about the local history there is a small heritage exhibition with fascinating photographs from the early 1900s. And don’t miss the full-size Pelton wheel displayed in the village square. It’s a piece of original engineering heritage that over a hundred years ago powered not only a new industry but a new village.

*National Map Reading Week

Britain’s national mapping agency, the Ordnance Survey, lead an annual National Map Reading week every October. Its aim is to encourage the awareness and use of maps, following a survey that revealed that many Brits couldn’t place major cities such as London or Birmingham on a map of their own country.

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