Fort William to Inverness

The Great Glen Way

June 2006

The long-range weather forecast for Fort William was horrendous, gale force winds with heavy rain. It looked as though our luck had changed.

As usual, I walked along the river to Reading Station. At 7.30 am the sun was already warm and the flower meadow was alive with butterflies, dragonflies and other insects. A large slow worm crossed the towpath at Kennet Reach. It must have been thirty inches long.

At Birmingham I had a pizza for lunch before joining Rosalind’s train to Glasgow. The rain clouds gathered, and we got soaked walking to Queen Street Station where we caught the clackety-clack train to Fort William with minutes to spare.

The staff on the train were very friendly and there was a good atmosphere. As we had not yet walked the West Highland Way we were not familiar with the countryside we were passing through. The wind got up and we had to close the windows, but there were gaps in the clouds which afforded us some pleasant views. Everyone moved to the right-hand side of the train to marvel at one spectacular waterfall as it cascaded down the mountainside.

It was 10 pm before we arrived at Fort William, found our B&B quite easily and were allocated the room reserved for disabled people. Are they trying to tell us something? We went straight to bed.

A man with a very large beer belly was boasting about his hiking exploits over breakfast. He and his friend were walking the Great Glen Way and we hoped we wouldn’t see too much of them.

We donned full wet weather gear including a cover for the rucksacks, bought rolls at the station for lunch and set out into the gale. It was extremely unpleasant as we battled against the wind and rain along the shoreline of Loch Linnhe, but the going became easier as we turned inland along the Caledonian Canal with our backs to the weather.

The Canal was constructed by Thomas Telford in the early 19th century to provide employment for the highland region following the clearances. It runs along the geological fault which forms the Great Glen, linking with the lochs to provide a continuous waterway between Fort William and Inverness. Although it has never really been commercially viable, the dramatic scenery it passes through has been a popular tourist attraction since Victorian times.

The flight of eight locks called Neptune’s Staircase is the longest staircase loch in Britain, taking about 90 minutes to lift boats 64ft in all. Here we visited the Caledonian Bear Workshop. These famous bears could be purchased for prices up to £160. They were quite appealing but not worth the money.

As we continued along the canal Rosalind realised she had left her walking pole behind. She went back for it, but the workshop had closed for lunch, so it couldn’t be retrieved.

Resuming our journey, we kept meeting friendly waterways officials who were spending their time going up and down the towpath in their van. There was no traffic on the canal so there was little else for them to do.

The breaks in the rain were few and far between, but we managed to find a sheltered spot for lunch before continuing to Gairlochy. Here we passed four soggy but friendly Americans who were waiting to be taken to their accommodation at Spean.

Our B&B was further from the towpath than I thought, and we had to ask for directions from the lock keeper. We found the cottage was in a very pretty setting above the gorge formed by the fast-flowing River Spean. In the garden there was a pond lined with yellow water irises. Our digs were very homely, and we had scrumptious ham for dinner. It was too wet to go out for an evening walk so we watched Holland and Argentina draw in the World Cup, firstly in the sitting room and then from our beds. We both slept very well.

In the morning I couldn’t find my ‘waterproof gloves’ (plastic bags held on by rubber bands). I concluded that they must have been thrown away when our landlady put newspaper in our boots to dry them. Hopefully I wouldn’t need them again.

It was raining a little as we left but from then on, the weather kept improving. The walk along the edge of the woods above Loch Lochy was a pleasant ramble. Although the midges were about they weren’t too much of a nuisance. A cyclist who had passed us yesterday, passed us again and stopped for a chat this time. He was doing some of the cycle route every time he could get away for the day. He told us that the miniature ‘Venus fly traps’ which Rosalind had noticed in a boggy patch were in fact butterwort.

When we stopped for lunch a group of ‘serious’ hikers blasted past us, going in the opposite direction. They wouldn’t have been interested in butterwort or any other distraction, concentrating on covering as much ground as possible in record time.

Reaching the little community at Laggan we came to a boat on the canal which had been converted into a fish restaurant, went in for a cup of tea and ordered an evening meal. We then walked along a pleasant tree-lined path, doubling back on the main road to the hostel where we were spending the night. There was no-one else in our dormitory which was warm and cosy. The showers were excellent. There was a martin’s nest just above our window and the parent birds were busy dashing to and fro with insects for the chicks.

We walked back to the restaurant where I was presented with an amazing mixed fish platter. Rosalind had bass. Two impressive salads, garlic bread and a bowl of new potatoes completed the meal. I rather let the side down when I knocked the potatoes all over the floor, but consoled myself by the fact that there were too many to eat anyway. The ‘skipper’ must have liked us because we certainly weren’t charged the full rate for the meal. We staggered back along the canal to the hostel (is that why we were undercharged, poor old ladies who couldn’t afford proper accommodation?) and slept soundly till morning.

The hostel shop provided cereal and milk for our leisurely breakfast, after which we wasted time, not leaving until 9.30 am. Loch Oich was now on our left and the disused railway that used to run between Spean Bridge and Fort Augustus was above us on the right. An ornate turreted railway bridge carried the track above a meadow full of yellow iris and orchids. Broom and gorse bushes lined the way.

We left the path along an estate road – the back way to a garden which we hoped was open to the public – passing a farm where two hostile sheepdogs tried to bite my ankles. Outside a farm cottage a tired-looking sign indicated that teas and biscuits were on offer, so we decided to investigate. It was the elderly aristocrat herself, Miss Ellice, who answered our knock on the door and served us excellent coffee with home-made ginger biscuits in the porch. Her two dogs, miniature flue brushes, were running up and down the low wall outside. Miss Ellice informed us that they had been ‘accepted by Crufts’. Lucky dogs.

The hillside gardens weren’t open yet because the weather was still too cold for Miss Ellice to bed out her plants, but we were invited to look around. The ‘big house’ commanded an imposing position and was let as a holiday home, equipped to sleep twelve people. It didn’t look occupied. There were peacocks and other exotic birds as well as some rather less exotic hens. The gardens were in a natural setting with hidden paths meandering between trees and climbing beside waterfalls. We were very glad we had made the diversion.

After waiting for a boat to pass we crossed the swing bridge on the canal and saw the famous Bridge of Oich across the river. In 1847 floods has caused considerable damage in the Great Glen and the stone bridge across the River Oich had been destroyed. Five years later it was replaced by a single span bridge to avoid the dangers of further floods.

Some people on a boat going through the lock waved to us before we continued along a causeway between the river and the canal. Trees separated the two waterways and the mix of flowers on the banks included lupins and dog daisies. At one of the locks we passed the ample-bellied bore and his companion whom we had met at the B&B in Fort William. Neither looked very fit and I was surprised they could walk at all.

Reaching Fort Augustus, we enjoyed scones and jam while watching the boats negotiate the flight of locks. The Bank House where we were staying was in an elevated position with good views from the windows. It was run by a father and son team. We had a meal at a pub just down the road where a gathering of bikers was watching a massive cruise liner negotiate the locks before it moored for the night. The whole operation took a considerable time.

We had been a little disappointed with the wildlife seen along the way: Fawn – dead, polecat (?) – dead, 3 frogs – flat and dead, numerous black slugs – alive, midges galore – alive.

Three bikers sat with us at breakfast. They were about to depart on a 150-mile tour of Skye and the Highlands, covering rather more ground in a day than we were. It was only about eight miles to Invermoriston so even at our leisurely pace we had time to kill. The landlord had told us about a walk up a hill not far away with a good view of Loch Ness, so we left our rucksacks and set off across the golf course. We had some difficulty finding the path to the top but when we reached the highest point the view along the length of Loch Ness was well worth the climb.

Back down, we had a cup of coffee, picked up our rucksacks, bought bananas and packets of crisps for lunch and set off just before midday.

It was quite a pull-up on the path through the forest above Loch Ness. We met some cyclists who had been staying at the hostel, four young walkers going in the opposite direction and Fred, our day tripping cyclist friend who again stopped for a chat. The weather was dry with sunny spells and we found a midge-free viewpoint for our lunch-stop. The wildlife consisted of slugs, black beetles, dragonflies and butterflies, all alive. The midges were also very much alive, and I was bitten on all exposed flesh. As I’ve said before, they don’t like Rosalind.

Invermorriston is no more than a crossroads between Fort William, Inverness and the Kyle of Loch Alsh but very pretty. The River Moriston was undermining the rocks as it rushed under the bridge, which was designed by Thomas Telford, of course. Another tourist attraction, St Columba’s well, was blessed by the saint in AD 565. Before then the water from the well caused ‘pistules and ulcers’ but St Columba cast a spell so pure water would be produced for ever after. I didn’t sample the pure water. The cigarette butts floating on the surface put me off.

After partaking of scones and coffee at the Pig’s Nose we went on to our accommodation for the night. The landlady was not very friendly and although the B&B had ‘all facilities’ the little touches were missing. The key to the room was broken, the heating turned off and the shower was impossible, either too hot or too cold. At least the Pig’s Nose, where we had an enjoyable evening meal, was welcoming.

An indifferent breakfast was shared with the four Americans we had met at Gairlochy, now quite dried out and good company. Before setting off we bought some sandwiches at the local shop and were having a moan about the midges. A bottle of Avon’s ‘Oh so Soft’ beauty product was taken off the shelf and placed before us. Apparently, it was an efficient midge repellent. Of course, we bought some. Who could resist being beautiful as well as midge-free?

The lane from the village climbed steeply out of the valley. We kept meeting the Americans on the first stages and we took some photos before they eased ahead of us. There were lots of ups and downs; from some of the ‘ups’ we could see the whole length of the loch. A woman coming the other way was walking from John O’Groats to Land’s End, quite an undertaking.

The weather became hot and sunny which meant we hadn’t enough water to keep hydrated. I changed into sandals to cool my feet down. Wildlife count; numerous wood ants – alive, toad – alive, narrowly escaping death by being stepped on, dragonfly eating butterfly which was first alive then dead, horsefly – still alive after I didn’t manage to zap it and midges – very much alive. At least we had protection from the midges now.

Emerging from the forest we walked along a pretty lane across a heather and gorse moor with cotton grass growing in the boggy areas. The lane descended to Lewiston where it joined the main road to Drumnadrochit. Here we stopped at a shop/café for tea, water and shortbread.

Our B&B accommodation was a short distance inland, but it seemed a long way to the well-appointed converted kirk. We had a warm welcome and, after fourteen miles of walking, an even more welcome hot bath. A Swiss couple who were touring the Highlands were also staying at the kirk. They told us that England had managed to beat Ecuador in the World Cup. There’s hope for us yet. In the evening we wandered down the road to The Fiddler for our evening meal. Rosalind had Aberdeen Angus steak while I had lamb.

My waterproof gloves turned up in a corner of my rucksack (the plastic bags, remember?).

After an excellent breakfast George, the taxi, picked us up at nine o’clock sharp and drove us to Foxholes, from where we were walking the seven miles back to Drumnadrochit. On the way we met our American friends again who were completing the eighteen miles to Inverness in one day. They had started early and were making good time.

The path was rough at first but became less rutted and more pleasant as it wound through the trees and gently descended to the shores of Loch Ness. At the harbour Rosalind used her mobile to book a 4 pm boat trip to see Urquhart Castle. There was a boat moored in the harbour which we had last seen at Fort Augustus. It belonged to an Israeli family and we walked back into the village with them, a long way along the main road.

We couldn’t locate the cruise company Rosalind had booked but there was a boat departing at two pm with no-one else on board. We had a private trip with a knowledgeable Loch Ness researcher who told us all about sightings of the Loch Ness monster and how some of the myths had arisen. The close-up view of Urquhart Castle was rather less interesting.

The present ruins date from the 13th century. After the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century the royalists held the castle before it was handed over to the Grant clan in 1509. Throughout this time, it was constantly raided by the Macdonalds before being abandoned in the mid-17th century.

A jovial tour guide from Birmingham who was driving the minibus back to the village invited us to join her group which was visiting a 500-year-old burial chamber a little way inland. She would only charge us £1 each. As we had time to spare we agreed, not suspecting any ulterior motive.

We soon found out the reason for our inclusion; we were the scapegoats for her gibes as she gave her Scottish history lessons. Every time she recounted some heinous crime perpetrated by the English, the minibus load of foreign tourists booed us enthusiastically. The tour guide also produced a piano accordion and had us dancing the Gay Gordons in the car park of the burial chamber. Appropriately, a cuckoo in the woods joined in. It was stupid but good fun and at least we didn’t have to kill time in the Nessie museum with all the coach parties.

No one else was staying at the kirk that evening, so it was very quiet and churchlike. Later, we dined at the Glen Café which was cheaper than The Fiddler but good value for money.

After breakfast next morning George, the taxi, arrived at the appointed time to drive us to Fox Holes again. He then went back to pick up our portly fellow travellers, informing us that their names were Nigel and Charles. They were being transported two miles further along the road. It wasn’t long before we caught up the two men who had stopped for a drink of coffee from their flasks.

As it was the last day and we were feeling charitable we stopped to talk to them. Rosalind discovered that not only did she live in the same area as Charles, the quieter of the two, and they had several friends in common, but also that she was distantly related to him! It’s a small world and I must stop being rude.

It was a pleasant walk along quiet roads and forest tracks in the sun. A fit young man who was walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats overtook us. He looked as though he was thoroughly enjoying his trek and we envied him.

The lane gradually descended to the outskirts of Inverness where the route became rather convoluted around the housing estates. For the final section we re-joined the Caledonian Canal then followed the track through the Ness Islands beside the river. It was a very attractive walk and it was here that we finally met up with Nessie!

The finish of The Great Glen Way was in the castle forecourt, teeming with tourists, which didn’t seem right. We sunbathed until Nigel and Charles had come and gone then found our accommodation close by at Castle View. There were a lot of stairs to climb to our room, but we weren’t disappointed when we got there as it was very comfortable with little extras provided, like the man renovating our shower. He told us of a pleasant walk along the canal to the estuary and where the best fish and chip shops were. We had a wash and brush up, Rosalind only discovering the hole in the washbasin after she had flooded the floor.

We ate our fish and chips by the canal, and then walked down to the last lock to watch the sunset across the Beauly Firth. It made a fitting way to finish the trek along The Great Glen Way.

Next morning, after patching the leaky basin with waterproof tape and reporting the problem to the landlord, we had an excellent breakfast with porridge, took two peaches from the courtesy supply and caught the 9.20 train to Glasgow. It was a long journey and we passed the time by discussing the feasibility of walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats in easy stages. We had already completed several long-distance walks over the years and we could join some of them up.

It was agreed. We would walk Land’s End to John O’Groats the Pretty Way, tackling the more difficult sections first, aiming to finish by Rosalind’s 80th birthday in 2019.

It wouldn't be until 2014 when we would be up here again ready to tackle Inverness to John O'Groats.