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Trudging in the footsteps of the ancient Scots

Trudging up a never-ending hill with 15 kilos on my back it was difficult to believe I was on holiday.  The midday sun beat down on my two companions and me as we walked up the winding, wooded track.  It was only when we stopped for a much needed water break and looked down from our vantage point high above Loch Ness that we remembered why we had come. 

The interminable length of the Loch stretched out below us, the water looking-glass still.  To the left and right we couldn’t see the end or the beginning of the famed Loch, nor could we make out even a shadow of a monster.

We were on day four of the Great Glen Way, a 73-mile walk from Fort William, on the West coast of Scotland, to Inverness, on the East.  The walk  traverses a route that has been used since before St Columbia’s presence in Scotland in the sixth Century. 

Spanning the length of Scotland’s greatest geological fault and greatest Glen, the route takes you along the shores of Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and finally the myth and majesty of Loch Ness itself.  The three lochs are joined by the Caledonian Canal, masterfully engineered by Sir Thomas Telford between 1803 and 1822 to allow easier movement from one side of Scotland to the other.

The three of us, Paul, Ali and I, had chosen to spread the walk over six days.  I had never attempted a walk of this length before, with or without 15 kilos on my back, and so was a little apprehensive.  Tempting as it was to pack less and rely on B&Bs or even have our bags carried for us, we had decided to carry all our own equipment.  With the long summer nights and generally gentle nature of the walk, if the weather was good the only thing we had to worry about were the midgies and the ever-present threat of blisters.

Under the watchful gaze of the mighty Ben Nevis we had left the town of Fort Williams four days earlier.  Meandering along the flat, stony banks of the Caledonian Canal, the morning’s mist gave way to a pale sunshine.  Passing numerous dog walkers and cyclists we marched on, stopping for a respite at the famed Neptune’s Staircase, a collection of eight locks, raising boats an astounding 19.5 metres from bottom to top.  We munched on peanuts and watched holidaymakers in their sailboats move from lock to lock – the water levels rising and falling between the ancient, stone structures.  The only difference between now and two hundred years ago was the old hand-operated pulleys that lay redundant, replaced by modern mechanics which slowly ground the locks into motion.

Sixteen kilometres in and the second day saw overcast skies and blustery winds as we approached the moody, moss covered banks of Loch Lochy.  We watched awestruck as the wind blew in gusts across the Loch, advancing low clouds, like an ancient, ghostly, army marching across the choppy waters.

Disaster struck when, as the morning’s clouds gave way to weak afternoon sunshine we sat down for lunch by the side of the track in the Kilfinnan Woods, a dark and soulless pine tree plantation.  We had unpacked our pita bread and tuna fish, our cooking stove and tea, when Ali paused and said ominously, ‘Here they come’.  Suddenly we were surrounded by thousands of midges.  A frantic spray of repellent proved useless and so, lunch forgotten, we repacked our bags and hurried on our way.  The irritating, black cloud of tiny insects disappeared leaving behind them only nasty red bites.  How the Scots survived through the ages, bare legs under heavy kilts, was a much discussed topic as we trampled on in search of a more suitable place for lunch.

Day three began along a mossy, disused railway following the smaller and less moody Loch Oich.  We were the first to use the track that morning as spider’s webs gently broke against our arms and faces, the luminous green, mossy forest crouching in on us, bustling with early morning bird life and insects.  Forest disappeared to make way for open ground as we were once more led along the now familiar banks of the Caledonian Canal.

From here we trekked into Fort Augusta amid a frenzy of Loch Ness Monster mad tourists.  Struggling on through the bustling town and upwards we experienced our first glimpses of Loch Ness, a tectonic lake that was formed over 500 million years ago, holding more water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined.  We finished up in a campsite on the Loch itself, as an eerie, monster-inspiring mist settled across the still waters.

And so it was that we found ourselves the following day, trudging up the longest hill of the journey, gazing down on the eerily still Loch Ness.  Our initial energetic gait slowly dissolved into a trudge as we neared the town of Drumnadrochit, the most common place for sightings of the great monster.  Despite keeping our eyes trained on the dark waters, we saw nothing except a few sailboats and the ancient, 13th century castle of Uruquat nestled on the cliffs.  The closest we came to seeing any monster was in the hordes of hopeful tourists crowding into busses and museums in the hope of sighting the great beast. 

The final day wound us across the rugged,  purple and rusted orange highlands of Scotland.  We camped in the Abriachan Forest, one of the largest community owned woodlands in the UK, before trudging into the city of Inverness.  We followed the canal for the last time as it led us towards the castle. 

One last hill and we were there.  The end of the Great Glen Way!  The three of us collapsed on our backpacks in front of the end stone marker and asked a kind tourist to please snap a photo!  We had made it with only a few midgie bites (but still too many), the odd blister and not one single photograph of Nessie.

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