THOUSANDS of people gave the Olympic torch a rapturous welcome as it passed through Lochaber at the weekend on the first stage of its journey through the Highlands and islands.
In glorious sunshine on Saturday locals and visitors lined the streets in Glencoe, North Ballachulish, Fort William and Spean Bridge as the flame made its way from Glasgow to Inverness.
Scottish singing star Emeli Sande was a surprise torch bearer in North Ballachulish, carrying the famous flame across the Ballachulish Bridge. The chart-topping performer later headlined a special torch relay concert at the Northern Meeting Park in Inverness.
The torch arrived in Glencoe just before 12.30pm and an estimated 500 people lined the A82 as the torch bearer ran from Glencoe Hotel to nearby Taigh Phuirt. An Olympic-themed party was held at the hotel for local schoolchildren.
Pupils from Ardnamurchan schools joined with those from St Bride’s Primary to wave the flame across the Ballachulish Bridge.
At 1.30pm the torch relay arrived in Fort William and the flame was run from Ashburn Lane to High Street and the Parade watched by thousands of people young and old, many waving Union Jack or Saltire flags. The Lochaber Senior Pipe Band led the flame and its entourage through the town centre.
After a short break at the Nevis Centre, the colourful cavalcade moved on to King George V Park, next to Lochaber Leisure Centre, and there were especially loud cheers from the spectators lining both sides of Belford Road and packed inside the park, as the torch was carried by local schoolgirl Lorna Linfield from Banavie.
During a brief ceremony in the park, the flame was welcomed by Provost of Lochaber Allan Henderson, Lochaber MP Charles Kennedy and Lord Lieutenant of Inverness-shire Donald Cameron of Lochiel.
Provost Henderson said he was "thrilled" that the once-in-a-lifetime torch relay had come to Lochaber.
Thousands of fans attending the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup at Nevis Range were also able to lap up the torch occasion when the flame - contained in a lamp - was carried on the gondola up Aonach Mor before top UK mountain biker Tracy Mosely held it aloft at the top of the downhill racing track.
At Spean Bridge, more than 300 spectators lined the main road to cheer the torch relay as it passed through the village and the nearby Commando Memorial.
Later, the torch travelled to Fort Augustus and Invermoriston before it was taken by rigid inflatable boat up Loch Ness and on to the main stage at the RockNess music festival at Dores.
Lochaber man Nick Tooms was one of the torch bearers at Drumnadrochit.
At Saturday’s final destination, Inverness, thousands of people lined the streets to watch the torch procession and 19,000 packed the Northern Meeting Park for the celebratory concert.
There had been fears that the torch relay, combined with three other major events at the weekend - Mountain Bike World Cup, RockNess and the Curtis Cup golf tournament at Nairn - would cause roads chaos and stretch the emergency services, but the day passed without incident.
Chief Inspector Colin Gough, of Northern Constabulary, said: "The crowds that turned out to welcome the Olympic flame far exceeded our expectations.
"The relay passed without incident and our thanks go to the well-natured crowds for turning out in such huge numbers.
"We are pleased with the multi-agency planning and response that contributed to the success of this unprecedented event."
Neil Gillies, Highland Council’s director of transport, environmental and community services, added: "What a fantastic day for the Highlands.
"I am delighted to see so many people give such a warm Highland welcome to the Olympic Flame."
Yesterday the torch visited Orkney and Shetland before travelling to Stornoway in the Western Isles.
Monday’s stage of the relay will take the flame from Stornoway to Aberdeen, including visits to Aviemore, Grantown and Royal Deeside.