By Julie Snyder
My husband, Joe, believes he was a Scottish Highlander in another life. Broad of chest and bearded, it’s not hard to imagine him as kilted and saber-bearing. The first time we traveled to Scotland some 15 years ago, he took to the country like the proverbial duck to water—only in this case the “water” was single malt whisky.
We’ve returned several times since to explore “the bens (mountains) and glens,” and in between trips, satisfied our curiosity via Scotland Magazine. It was there that Joe read about the Great Glen Way—a 79-mile footpath along waterways that separate Northwestern Scotland from the rest of the country—and we decided to build our next trip around it.
Paralleling a major geological fault from Fort William to Inverness, the Great Glen Way takes in some of Scotland’s most impressive natural attractions—Ben Nevis, the country’s highest mountain at 4,409 feet; Loch Ness, its most famous and largest loch; and the Caledonian Canal, a Victorian engineering marvel. The walking is fairly easy—we averaged 10 to 12 miles a day for seven days—and the footpath well-signed, in both English and Gaelic.
Though the Great Glen Way’s official website offers enough information to organize the trip on one’s own, we opted to work with Easyways, a UK-based booking service, which arranged our lodgings, luggage transfer and the odd shuttle for a reasonable fee. We were then free to set off each morning carrying only what we needed for the day—which, given the vagaries of Scottish weather was plenty. Though most days were a blend of rain, drizzle and gray skies, we were outfitted in head-to-toe rain gear (including a waterproof backpack cover) and found the misty landscape to be rather magical.
After a day exploring Fort William—the self-proclaimed outdoor capital of the UK—and enjoying the hospitality of Rhu Mohr Guest House, we set off. The Great Glen Way officially begins seaside at the ruins of Fort William’s namesake fort and meets the 62-mile-long Caledonian Canal a few miles later at Corpach.
Opened in1822, this historic canal boasts 29 locks, 4 aqueducts and 10 swing bridges in the 22 manmade miles of waterway that connect lochs Lochy, Oich and Ness. We took time out for tea while watching leisure craft negotiate a series of eight locks called Neptune’s Staircase, the U.K.’s longest.
The Braes Guest House on the edge of Spean Bridge was a welcome haven at the end of our first day. The next morning, after indulging in scrambled eggs with lox (a daily treat of which we never tired), we followed the west shore of Loch Lochy to South Laggan, our second day’s destination. Along the long rolling track through Clunes Forest, the mini-waterfalls flowing from the highlands on our left competed for attention with the emerald moss-carpeted forest cascading to the loch side.
Our third day’s route followed an old railway bed through woodlands along the shore of Loch Oich, and then led down a narrow wooded causeway bordered by the canal and the River Lochy. We walked alongside a series of five locks that drop down to Fort Augustus, an idyllic village wrapped around the southern tip of imposing Loch Ness.
There we settled in for a two-night stay at Thistle Dubh, a modern country bed and breakfast. The well-timed rest day afforded a chance to visit the Caledonian Canal Heritage Centre and take in the sunset loch side at the Boathouse Restaurant, part of a one-time Benedictine Abbey that’s been transformed into luxury condominiums, as well as attend to more mundane tasks like laundry.
Refreshed and back on the Great Glen Way, we took the high road (as opposed to the auto road that traced the loch shore below us) and reveled in glorious views of Loch Ness. In Invermoriston, we dined with London friends Dick and Margaret—who joined us for the rest of the journey—at the Glenmoriston Arms Hotel, a vintage Highlands oasis.
The path from Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit was perhaps the toughest, with an endless winding hill that lead to a high plateau. At walk’s end, the luxury of Drumbuie Farm, home to a herd of hirsute Highland Cattle, soon made us forget our weary bones.
Instead of walking a marathon 18 miles on the final stretch to Inverness (there’s not a convenient lodging between Drumnadrochit and Inverness), we taxied to the half way point and walked back to Drumbuie Farm. This afforded us time to explore the fascinating Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, where the monster legend lives on.
On our final day, we taxied back to the halfway point and headed in the other direction. Heaths of heather, fields of sheep and forests of ancient oak and larch all too soon gave way to civilization, as we followed an urban path to Inverness Castle on the bank of the River Ness, where the Great Glen Way comes to an end. Needless to say, we toasted our adventure with a very fine single malt.
If You Go
While you can walk the Great Glen Way year-round, support services are only offered between April and October. We chose to walk in mid-October to avoid midges (nasty “no-see-ums”) and crowds, though weather is warmer and dryer in the summer. You can start the walk at either end, but most start in Fort William, typically undertaking the wettest weather at the beginning and saving the most challenging terrain for the end. Places to stop for lunch or tea during the day are rare along. Some inns will provide packed lunches but we opted to carry a variety of snacks purchased in Fort William and as available along the way. Don’t leave home without a small thermos—benches at viewpoints were the perfect spots to enjoy tea or hot chocolate.
Julie Snyder lives near Lake Tahoe, where her current pet project is Nevada Humane Society. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.