Thick with cold and unfit, what to do? It was obvious, go and backpack the Great Glen Way in Scotland. I waited a week to see if the aches and cough went away and the headache subsided. They didn’t. It looked like one of those ‘super-colds’. So I booked train tickets and was away within days.
The Great Glen Way is one of ‘Scotland’s Great Trails’. The 75 mile trail follows the entire length, from coast to coast, of Scotland’s greatest geological fault. The Great Glen encompasses three major lochs- Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and the mighty Loch Ness, all linked together by the engineering masterpiece that is the Caledonian Canal. Most people walk the route South West to North East, keeping the weather on their back and that was the direction I chose. This entails starting at Fort William and finishing at Inverness. Despite the promise of poor weather, the trail was reputedly to a high grade and there were a couple of low level options if the weather was particularly foul, so I had no qualms with a November trek. Most will complete the route between four and seven days. I was in no hurry and respecting my general lack of hill fitness, I decided to walk it over six days. I now feel this was the perfect duration that permitted me to take the higher alternatives that many who walk the trail over less days choose to alternate from. I slotted in an overnight halt in a hostel midway at Fort Augustus to give me opportunity to recharge electrics and possibly dry out if necessary. Expecting seasonal outlets to be closed, I carried sufficient provisions for the whole trip.
Three Points of the Compass lives in South East England so the trip north entailed a seventeen and a half hour, four train journey. As it was, I and others were turfed out of the train at Crianlarich and had to wait in the rain for an hour for a rail replacement coach service for the final leg into Fort William, which added on another two hours to my journey. I shall not dwell on how I felt about that.
The Great Glen Way, days 1-3
Day one: Fort William to Gairlochy- 10.5 miles, 130 feet ascent
I stayed the night in Fort William in a clean and reasonably priced Travelodge. The last time I was in Fort William was just prior to walking the Cape Wrath Trail in 2018 and I had then discovered a fantastic Indian restaurant and had again booked a table for a good send off for this trail. The Tandoori Spice, just across the street from my hotel, delivered. Truly excellent food. That and a couple of good local beers (Highbridge IPA from Glen Spean Brewing Co.) combined with barely any sleep over the preceding couple of days meant I slept well the night prior to a 10.00 walk down the quiet, wet street the following morning to the beginning of the Great Glen Way at the Old Fort on the shore of Loch Linnhe. An obligatory photo prior to setting off, all very excited to be back on trail even if I was thick with conjestion, coughing up sputum, had a thumping headache and was wheezing just ever-so-slightly. I was hopeful that exercise and air would see illness fade over the first three days. I knew I had shortish days of gentle walking to start with followed by some climbs on days four and five. My first day simply entailed getting out of Fort William by following the edge of Loch Linnhe round to Neptune’s Staircase at Banavie. This is part of the initial lock system that took boats and smaller shipping into this watery shortcut across the Scottish Highlands. After that it is level and easy walking along the Caledonian Canal all the way to the first nights halt at Gairlochy at the entrance to Loch Lochy.
The late autumn colours were fantastic. A windless day meant few ripples on the canal and the hills and trees frequently posed mirror image. The sky was still unsure which way it would go and occasional sun danced across the hillsides. Other than the occasional more ambitous dog walker and half a dozen cyclists I had almost all of the first days walking to myself. No boats passed (I found out why later) and it was a joy to be out. The hulking Ben Nevis range sat on my right shoulder though the tops remained hidden in cloud the whole day. It was a good start to my trail.
After a leisurely midday halt with one of my best on-trail lunches ever; Chicken Tikka Palak, Mushroom Rice and a tear of Colcha Nan from the previous night, I reached my night’s halt at Gairlochy at three in the afternoon. I was content with this as I knew daylight hours were limited and had not experienced the designated canal-side ‘wild camp’ spots on this trail before and wanted plenty of time to familarise myself with what was provided not only for camping but also the well-appointed facilities provided for those walking, cycling and paddling the route who were armed with a key. More on that in a blog to follow.
Day two: Gairlochy to Laggan Locks- 12 miles, 1080 feet ascent
As expected at this latitude and time of year, it was a long night. I had bought my Zpacks Duplex rather than my MLD Duomid as I knew I would be mostly camping lower and the two-person Duplex offers so much more internal space to move around. Breakfast simply consisted of two mugs of tea. I think I have now given up on trying to eat breakfast in camp when on trail as I simply cannot stomach it these days. Moving to consuming oatey breakfast bars while on the move, and/or halting mid morning for something more substantial, seems to suit me better.
Despite a touch of rain overnight, the weather was fair as I set off from Gairlochy full of snot and coughs, still hopeful health would begin to improve. Today was simply a series of gentle ups, downs and alongs, the alongs being tracking Loch Lochy beside me. After soft wide paths there was two and half miles of road walking, harmless enough with just a single car passing me. Also giving opportunity to look over a remarkable wartime survivor. The concrete base of what was once a mocked up Landing Craft. It was here and elsewhere locally that Army and Marine Commandos practised their disembarking under fire in World War II.
I had plenty of time for today’s section so at Achnacarry I wandered off-piste to visit the tiny St. Ciarans. Situated up a small rising path and set amongst trees, this is a surprisingly young place of worship. The Mission Church was simply built in 1912, costing just £750; monies raised by the local community. It sees few services these days. Chatting to a villager as I returned to the trail route she told me that she watched numerous trail walkers halt at the turning, look at the sign to the church, look at their map and simply walk on. Such a shame as they are missing out on a quiet few minutes halt. Apparently at Christmas, weddings and Christenings up to a hundred have squeezed in to the little building. As I signed the visitor book, I noticed that the last entry was a month previous.
Rejoining the loch side paths I passed through a stretch of ugly forestry work. I usually abhor this but the cleared trees did mean I was able to enjoy a great view as a Golden Eagle flew over my head, the only one I saw over my six days. I was also hopeful of seeing Pine Marten but was denied this, however their curved dark droppings were prevalent along this part of the trail. I met Phil, a lad from Wolverhampton who was also walking the Great Glen Way in the opposite direction. Walking B&B to B&B he was opting for any low alternative he could so as to fit the trail into four days. I mentioned the scat to him but he showed remarkably little interest…
I passed Glas-Doire, a Trailblazer Rest campsite and though I wasn’t stopping there the night, I considered a late lunch. However I was very conscious of a bank of rain advancing at walking pace up the loch behind me so decided to put my head down and speed walk to my night’s halt at Laggan Locks, less than three miles further on.
Reaching my destination, I filled my Evernew bladder with two litres of water, walked out on to a tiny spit of land protruding into the top end of the loch, threw the tent up in the lee of some gorse and dove inside, minutes before it began hammering down, result! Again, the temperature immediately dropped so I enjoyed a tent wash, changed into insulated clothing, messaged home and prepared chicken noodles in lieu of my abandoned lunch. A lull in the rain meant I could take these to the end of my little patch of ground to enjoy with the view back down the length of the loch I had hand-railed all day. The rain again set in so my second evening meal was consumed in the tent, this time in the dark. This was another barely adequate Firepot dehydrated meal- a poor Dhal and Rice. I am not sure I will continue with this brand as it simply isn’t delivering much in the way of taste or satisfaction, calorific value is modest too. As to the day’s walking, it had been superb. Some people complain of the noise from the A82 at this campsite but I couldn’t hear it at all above the noise of the rain throughout the night.
I am a pretty experienced backpacker, but every now and then, will still cock-up. By 19.30 I had settled down to watch a film on my phone while the rain hammered down outside and about a third way through got thoroughly fed up with not being able to hear the dialogue over the sound of the rain. I needed my ear buds and sighed as I knew it meant extricating myself from my oh-so-cosy quilt and digging out my electronics baggie from wherever I had secreted it. Just as well. I put my headtorch on, turned over and knelt, to reveal my error. My pillow had slipped beneath my head, pushing against my foodbag that I had placed at the top end of my shelter which had pushed the bathtub groundsheet beyond the fly. This had been compounded due to my having set the shelter high to reduce condensation overnight. There was an inch of water in the end of my tent.
THAT is why I always pack along a little thin Swedish Cloth. Ten minutes of mopping it up and squeezing out into the vestibule sorted things and all that was wet were my hiking clothes and the outside of individually sealed foodstuffs inside my now trailworn and porous foodbag. But if I had lain there to watch all of the film and not bothered moving, another hour of torrential rain running straight into my shelter would have dramatically worsened things. Potentially wet dry clothes, wet insulated clothing, wet quilt. I had got off lightly.
Day three: Laggan Locks to Fort Augustus, via the Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway trackbed- 10.75 miles, 100 feet ascent
Packed up and away, just the other side of the lock gates was the Eagle, the ‘Inn on the Water’. This floating Dutch Barge restaurant is strictly seasonal and like many of the businesses along the Great Glen Way, few that they are, was firmly locked up until next year. Carrying sufficient supplies for the whole trail anything I encountered open would be serendipity, hence my choosing to take the southern shore option away from Invergarry as I had no need to stop in there. Glorious walking away from camp on day three led me through Scots Pine, Aspen, Rowan, Birch, Rhododendrom and countless varieties of fern.
Other than not wanting to divert to Invergarry, I also wanted to see what remained of the long gone Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway. The last train ran in 1946 but the present heritage organisation hopes to resurrect a decent length of track and get trains running again. I strongly suspect the cost might be against them. I did have slight hope that the cafe at the Great Glen waterpark beside Loch Oich might be open an hour and a half down trail but if it was I never saw it as I missed the turning, instead I got the flat and easy walking of the trackbed to enjoy. There were a small number of people out enjoying this section of the trail, no doubt because it was a lovely section with the dimutive Loch Oich below, but also because it was the weekend. Amongst these only one person was walking the Great Glen Way. At the turn off to the Leitirfearn Trailblazer wildcamp site I chatted to Maria, from Germany, who was studying her map and wishing she had done so earlier as she was planning on finding a B&B at Invergarry. The little town was only about a mile and a half away from us both, but unfortuantly, that was as the crow flies and on the other side of the loch and she should have taken the alternate route on the far side. This was her first long distance hike and she was enjoying herself immensely. She was certainly forming a mental ticklist as to what to exclude from her pack next time. Despite staying in accommodation each night her pack was twice the size of mine and probably weighed twice as much too. She called me ‘hardcore’ for camping in November. I thought back to my kneeling in the cold, mopping out a sodden tent the previous night and quietly demurred- “idiotic some might call it“.
The end of Loch Oich sees the end of the trackbed and my trail proceeded with the Caledonian Canal on my right and the River Oich on my left. Cullochy Lock and Kytra Lock both had impressively expensive works being carried out. The extent of work at both would have meant any overnight camp would not be enjoyed but I was already booked into a hostel in Fort Augustus so was pleased to keep moving, other than a brief halt for a brew up and light lunch at a handy bench between the two locks.
While I was finishing my brew, a homeward bound pike fisherman paused to chat. I asked him how he had fared. With little prompting he showed me the pictures on his phone. One, the best of five caught that morning, was particularly impressive- “must have been 25lb but I’ve caught larger“. I asked if this were a particularly good stretch of water for the fish “I tell you, I wouldn’t go swimming here. They are ferocious. I’ve seen them take duck off the surface!“
After Kytra Lock, it was simply another four and a half miles of easy walking to Fort Augustus. Reaching the town it seemed strange to see activity- people milling about, pubs open, a chippy with a queue outside, even some bloody annoying bod flying a drone over my head while I explored the canal lock. Just beyond the five locks was Loch Ness. Reputedly, a body of water that held the equivalent volume of water to all that in the lakes and reservoirs of England and Wales combined. It is a big loch. It would take me three more days to walk its length.
I was booked in to Morag’s Lodge, directly on the route of the Great Glen Way. This is affiliated to the SYHA and they had a hard time of it during the pandemic lockdown. I was pleased to put even a bit of trade their way. Collecting my room key I chatted to Claire briefly before she went home and asked for any recommendations for my evening meal. Lovely that she was, I should have ignored her suggestion.
I had been having issue with my phone for the last couple of days. It was alerting me to ‘damp in the charge port’ and instructing me to ‘disconnect immediately’. Phone, power bank and charge lead were placed over the radiator in my large private room which soon sorted them out. Having put electrics on to charge, draped clothing and quilt around the various bunk bed, enjoyed a steaming hot shower and washed skiddies and socks, it was into town clothes for a wander back into town to the suggested Lock Inn.
The meat in my expensive steak pie at the Lock Inn was good but the pastry topping was both undercooked and burnt, chips were cold and undercooked and the vegetables overcooked. An unwanted long black hair that accompanied my meal attracted little interest from the bar staff who were too busy enjoying loud classic rock music. Despite having enjoyed my Merlot, they had no draught or bottled beer so I left so as to pop into The Bothy on my way back to the hostel. The Bothy offered friendliness, attention, and excellent pints of Skye IPA and Skye Gold. The menu looked good but, alas, it was too late. Back to the hostel where I think I was the only occupant. Despite an overly warm room when it switched on in the early hours, I slept well.
I was half way through the Great Glen Way and enjoying the trail immensly. A night in a ‘real’ bed and proper food set me up for the final push to Inverness. Rain and snow was promised, my trail was to go higher, my cold had yet to subside and I was wheezing on any incline. I couldn’t wait to get back on trail in the morning.
Days four to six follow…