Keri Wallace, co-founder of running guides Girls on Hills moved to Ballachulish 15 years ago, intending to stay only a year. But the place grew on her and she has since got married, bought a home, and is now raising two small children in Lochaber. It's both a rewarding and a challenging place to live, she says. Here's why.
I 'stay' (as the locals would say) in the village of Ballachulish, just five minutes from beautiful Glen Coe and 20 minutes from the bigger town of Fort William - home to Ben Nevis. The village is small enough to have that 'everybody-knows-everybody' feel and a real sense of community, despite being the largest settlement in a scattering of smaller ones. It is welcoming and friendly, and is definitely a growth area, with people moving here to get access to the mountains while still being within commuting distance from Fort William (15 miles) and Oban (33 miles). Just off the A82, Ballachulish has a small supermarket, a doctor's surgery, two garages, several good cafes and restaurants and a few small independent shops, as well as a tourist information centre.
The nearest big supermarket is in Fort William (where there are several) but the nearest cities are Inverness (88 miles) and Glasgow (95 miles), which both have airports. There is a small hospital in Fort William, The Belford, but for a major hospital you again have to drive to Glasgow or Inverness. I do most of my shopping online for convenience but the mail is a bit erratic, with even next-day delivery taking a couple of days (and sometimes incurring you an additional fee).
Access to the hills is frankly unrivalled. The nearest Munro summit is less than 2km from my back door. Few other places in the UK have 2 ski resorts within a 30 min drive
There are lots of young families here and four small primary schools within a 5-mile radius. Though we have a nursery and small playgroup, childcare provision in the area is limited. There are however outdoor nurseries (Stramash) in both Oban and Fort William. The nearest secondary school is the remote Kinlochleven High School (7 miles). Thankfully the area feels very safe, with low crime rates and locals looking out for each other.
As in most places, house-prices have soared in the last two years. Properties on the market sell within a day or two for a great deal more than the 'offers over' price, so it can be challenging to get a foothold in the area. There is a limited but growing rental market.
There are quite a number of holiday lets/Airbnbs around the village but it still feels very residential. Of course, there's a lot of people passing through in the summer. Although the population is largely made up of 'incomers', those who relocate here seem to be passionate about the Scottish Highlands, embracing the lifestyle and celebrating a 'west is best' philosophy that is both proud and infectious!
There is however considerable rural poverty in the towns and villages of the west coast, which is reflected in the general standard of living and opportunities available for well-paid employment. Fuel poverty is significantly higher than the national average, which is exacerbated by the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.
I might have lied about the biggest challenge being the weather - it's actually the midges!
On the upside, access to the hills is frankly unrivalled. The nearest Munro summit is less than 2km from my back door, as the crow flies, and the mountains of Glen Coe, Argyll and Lochaber are all within striking distance. In Glen Coe there is no walk-in, as the hills rise up dramatically from the roadside. I find it's quick and easy to get walking, fell running or scrambling, even during a lunch break. The rock-climbing here is adventurous and almost exclusively multi-pitch, with accessible cragging largely restricted to Glen Nevis (and a few esoteric venues).
Being located close to Oban, the so-called 'Gateway to the Isles', we enjoy easy access to the Hebrides. Somewhat surprisingly, there are also great beaches along the west coast – many with white sands and island views (several good options within a 1.5h drive). Being coastal, there is plenty of opportunity for sailing, wild-swimming and diving, just minutes from home.
Few other places in the UK boast two ski resorts within a 30-minute drive [we checked, and King Charles might just manage it from Balmoral - Ed]. For this reason, people often think that they're going to get snowed-in if they visit in winter; but in reality, while the snow gates at Glen Coe do sometimes close to prevent traffic over Rannoch Moor, we rarely see lots of snow to village level. The road via Oban (also providing access to Tyndrum) almost never closes due to snow, on account of its coastal position.
If you can make this lifestyle work for you, then you will discover a limitless playground and far more sunny days than you ever thought possible in the west highands
Still the roads aren't great though, and we have more than our fair share of fallen trees, potholes and landslides in stormy weather. Due to the sparse arrangement of major roads through the highlands, traffic incidents which result in a road closure can mean a huge detour. It's usually quicker to sit it out! Bus services to town are regular and reliable and there is a train station in Fort William (unfortunately the West Highland Line to/from Glasgow isn't frequent on Sundays or in the winter months).
The biggest challenge with living here is the weather. The west highlands is one of the wettest places in Europe with annual rainfall of up to 4,577 mm (180.2 in). This rain often comes with strong winds and, in winter, savage storm cycles. I have known it to rain every day for a month and it can be pretty depressing! Combine this with short day-length in the winter months and you are looking at a very real Vitamin D deficiency.
Winter conditions on the mountains are highly variable and in general we get milder temperatures, with less snow than further east in the Cairngorms, so winter climbing and skiing here requires extra determination and well-informed route-selection.
I might have lied about the biggest challenge being the weather - it's actually the midges! Given the wet climate, the midges thrive here between May and September. This can be a real problem for rock-climbing (assuming you want your belayer to remain in place), camping or generally doing anything in your garden. The good news though is that you can learn 'the way of the midge' and simply make your plan around them. These days I rarely get midged, sticking to venues or routes that catch a breeze or are usually dry. As long as you're moving or are up high, there's almost always enough wind to keep them at bay.
My local area has seen a surge in tourism since Covid and parking in Glen Coe is now fraught with difficulty throughout spring and summer. In the past we found our home to be a great base for adventures all over the Scottish Highlands and the west coast. We would just go wherever the sun was shining. But these days we find it's hard to book a campsite at short notice and it's necessary to plan road trips well in advance.
The best way to enjoy an outdoor lifestyle in Lochaber is to be a generalist and an opportunist. Pick whichever recreation suits the weather and conditions, and be ready to pounce whenever a weather-window appears. If you can make this lifestyle work for you, then you will discover a limitless playground and far more sunny days than you ever thought possible in the west highands!
Check out these hill routes in Lochaber:
- REVIEW: Book Review: Voices From the Hills 19 May
- Hut to Hut in the Tyrol - A Family Adventure 30 Aug, 2022
- INTERVIEW: Nicky Spinks on the Lake District 24 Hour Record 9 Sep, 2021
- On the Ramsay Round with the Black Trail Runners 19 Aug, 2021
- INTERVIEW: In pursuit of purity: going solo on the Winter Bob Graham Round 25 Feb, 2021
- Desert Island Peaks: Keri Wallace 18 Jan, 2021
- Walk Before You Run - winter skills for hill runners 21 Dec, 2020
- FEATURE: A Celebration of Women in the Hills 8 Mar, 2020
- No Climbing Experience, No Race – The Future of Extreme Skyrunning? 9 Sep, 2019
- Your First Skyrun - What to Expect 30 Aug, 2018