Ever since we arrived in Fort William last year, at the trail end of the West Highland Way, Paul, Nathanael and I have been planning some sort of continuation. The obvious choice was Fort William’s own Great Glen Way, a route that crosses back east, not to Milngavie in the south but Inverness in the north. Unlike our first long-distance footpath this one would take us along the Caledonian Canal, past Loch Ness and lead us not into the highlands but on to the regional capital. Although slightly shorter than the West Highland Way, the Great Glen Way could be covered in four long days instead of six relatively short ones, meaning that it still met our criteria of providing a challenge.
In many senses, however, it would indeed be more of the same, and that was part of the appeal. We would once again be walking B&B to B&B, our larger luggage being ferried from one stop to the next by a local baggage carrier, so that we could enjoy some home comforts at the end of a difficult day’s hiking. We would also be completing the Way out of season — in October this time, rather than April — in order to keep costs down and avoid the worst of the nightmarish midges. We wanted to push ourselves, to strive, to achieve something, but it was important to us all that we got more out of the experience than just blisters and bites — there would even be a hot tub at the end of the first day, just like last time.
You might ask why we even wanted to do it all again: why, having already completed a long-distance footpath in Scotland, we would choose to walk another one? The West Highland Way had indeed had its hardships, but as the last paragraph might suggest it was also an incredibly positive and rewarding experience. Those six days delivered one unforgettable experience after another, facilitated and fostered a sense of camaraderie between the three of us, and left us feeling unusually fit and inspired. Although we had walked together since, nothing had felt quite as special or as satisfying as the West Highland Way. More than anything, however, it had always felt like the start of something rather than the end.
Technically, we started walking the Great Glen Way in September, not October, on Wednesday the 3oth. Our B&B in Fort William was located on the Way itself, a five-minute walk from the official trailhead opposite McDonalds, leaving us to choose between getting it out of the way then and there or doubling back on ourselves in the morning. Conscious of the long day ahead — we had estimated a 27-mile walk to Invergarry, though official figures varied — we opted for the former, taking our photographs with the waymarker upon arrival — our suitcases just out of shot. We had been much more reverential to the route on the West Highland Way, but with one already under our belts we decided to cut ourselves a little more slack this time around.
Our first night was to be spent at Braeside House, on the outskirts of Fort William, a comfortable if slightly kitsch establishment run by a man with a thick Gaelic accent and a creepy collection of China dolls. There was also a cot in the room, for some reason, and we turned in for our first night on the Great Glen Way half expecting to be woken by the phantom cries of a ghost baby in the middle of the night. I obviously turned to Twitter with this wry observation only to find that there was no signal in the room, and later having connected in the hallway that the code provided didn’t work anyway. It had been a long journey — the train had been delayed out of Glasgow Queen Street due to a passenger attempting to smuggle her dog aboard — and we were soon out for the count. Little did we know that it would not be like the West Highland Way at all.
As far as we’re concerned, our second long-distance footpath began in earnest the next morning, at 9am, on a quiet cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Fort William. We rose early, consolidated three people’s belongings into two bags for reasons of ease and economy, and headed through to the dining room for our first full Scottish breakfast of the trip — perhaps my favourite tradition of all. None of us wished to spend the entire journey comparing every little detail to its west highland equivalent but this first breakfast had a lot to live up to. It was nice, the black pudding in particular, and our host pleasant enough, but there’s no denying that it didn’t quite hold up to Mrs B’s spread in Balmaha. Then again, we hadn’t climbed Conic Hill the afternoon before, so our appetites weren’t quite as voracious. We left our bags in the hall for Great Glen Baggage Transfer to collect at their own convenience and set a course for Inverness.
It was no secret that we hadn’t been particularly enamoured with Fort William on our previous visit; it had seemed like a rather ignoble end to the West Highland Way, particularly since the official end point had been moved a mile farther into town compelling hikers to walk the length of its dismal and deserted shopping precinct in order to complete what appeared to us an otherwise noble quest. This morning, however, it felt like a rather more appropriate setting: it was an incredibly crisp autumn morning, a thick fog hanging over the town’s suburbs as we rejoined the trail and left Fort William behind, but it was the Great Glen Way itself that cast it in a new light. No longer a destination, Fort William felt much more suited to its role as a relay station or half-way point. Nat would later muse on it as being the petrol station of the north.
We made our way past a stationary steam train spewing smoke into the early morning mist, over an old cast iron bridge with partial views of the river, and then along the opposite bank where the spectre of an abandoned fishing boat haunted the beach. It was cold — much colder than expected, given the unseasonably summery forecast — but the sun seemed to be shining on the hills in the distance which bode well for the rest of the day. It was hard to focus on the trail ahead as Ben Nevis hovered behind, the mist around its base giving the impression of a floating mountain, affording better views of the United Kingdom’s highest peak than we had ever been able to enjoy on the West Highland Way, due to the less than agreeable weather conditions we’d had to endure on the last day. With second impressions overwriting first, the prospect of one day coming back to scale it seemed much more appealing.
After a mile or so we joined the canal at Neptune’s Staircase, doing an about turn and making our way north-east towards Loch Lochy. At first we were flanked by dog walkers and joggers but before long we were on our own, save for the boats that passed along the canal, carrying inquisitive tourists to Gairlochy or Laggan or perhaps all the way to Inverness. We waved into their camera lenses, wearing genuine smiles as we basked in the morning sun and drank in the autumnal air. Mindful of his blister-prone feet, Paul stopped a number of times to apply a liberal coating of Compede in a pre-emptive strike against irritation. Unadvisedly, I was debuting a new pair of shoes on the Way, but thought I’d give them the benefit of the doubt before reaching for my own box of plasters.
Curiously, the canal was lined by what looked for all the world like wet candyfloss. I wasn’t keen on spiders at the best of times, and the sheer volume of silk coating the bracken on either side of the path set my teeth on edge as I recalled images of whole trees cocooned during floods — surely a holdover from midge-season, when such nets would have trapped more than just dew. I had read that spider season was supposed to be particularly bad this year, but hadn’t thought to prepare myself for such a spectacle. You couldn’t help but search for Shelob from Lord of the Rings or Aragog from Harry Potter in the undergrowth, particularly where entire bushes had been cloaked in white. I bisected the path as best I could, cursing the fact that I hadn’t packed a single Tupperware box, or thought to bring a hardback book in my day luggage — for protection.
We made it to Gairlochy in high spirits and in good time. Still too early for lunch, we pushed on along the north bank of the loch as the sun began to make its presence felt. We followed a combination of roads, cycle paths and lochside trails as the Way took us along Loch Lochy, the latter two providing sometimes shortlived relief from the unforgiving repetitiveness of the former. Roads are horrible underfoot, and it wasn’t long before Paul began to blister despite his preventative measures. Although often punishing, however, the Way remained picturesque throughout, particularly as we approached Bunarkaig and passed a scattering of grand, alpine, European-looking residences, and a small peninsula where we agreed to stop for lunch. Nat dipped his feet in the loch while I seized the opportunity to take photos of the scene before us.
Shortly after leaving Bunarkaig we entered a forested area at Clunes, still optimistic about our progress as the route description seemed to suggest that we had reached our half-way point. Hours seemed to pass, however, and we were still no closer to Laggan, or indeed Invergarry, the Way eating into our afternoon as the sun began to drain us of energy and enthusiasm. We veered away from the loch, entering an evergreen corridor where we encountered a troupe of wild campers, with packs both bigger and bulkier than our own. They were just packing up after lunch, so we overtook them with glee only to spend the next hour struggling to hold the lead and regretting our haste. With desperate times calling for desperate measures, Paul swallowed something called a protein bomb, though — somewhat worryingly — we’re still waiting for it to go off.
Eventually, near Kilfinnan, we exited the treeline, at a sign warning drivers to slow down for the safety of children and chickens. Paul was already out of water, forcing Nat and I into the role of camels, but it was a group decision to call it a day at Laggan rather than Invergarry. It had always seemed a little ambitious, having never come close to walking 27 miles in the past, and with so much uncertainty surrounding the distances involved (amazingly, nobody seems quite sure of the Great Glen Way’s actual length, with estimates ranging from 73 miles to 79) there was no guarantee that it wasn’t even longer than that. Besides, to walk to Invergarry would mean taking an alternative route along the opposite bank of Loch Oich, and although not beholden to the route map as before we still wanted to walk the Great Glen Way. We would pick up where we left off in the morning.
We still had to get to Laggan, however, the location at which our hosts offered to pick hikers up as part of the service, and as we crossed the twenty-mile mark we all started to experience our own respective discomforts. My right calf had been bothering me earlier in the day but now it was my feet that were giving me the most hassle. As loch gave way once again to canal we passed Eagle Barge Inn, a boat offering refreshments to travellers, crossed yet another lock and then entered another never-ending channel in the trees. The tedium was only momentarily broken by the roar of a Eurofighter Typhoon overhead, presumably having travelled from RAF Lossiemouth, 75 miles to the north. It was an unwanted reminder of the relativity of distance, showing that what would take hours, if not days on foot only took minutes by air.
In light of the distance we were covering — even stopping short at Laggan we were still walking farther than any of us had before, in a single day that is — Nat and Paul had imposed a series of restrictions in terms of what I could and could not photograph. Sheep and non-predatory birds were completely off the table, while in the unlikely event that we should encounter a deer or an eagle I was permitted to take a couple of snaps. Although largely respectful of their desire to make good time, and despite knowing that I already had too many photos of farm animals to justify any more, I stole a few as we came into Laggan, not least because of the scenic backdrop that framed them. It was amazing how quickly the Great Glen Way afforded scenes of such spectacle, not least because it had been days on the West Highland Way before we had encountered anything of such spleandour.
Our pain and discomfort, if the two are distinguishable, didn’t stop us from walking another couple of miles to The Well of the Seven Heads, a shop on the A82 opposite the monument of the same name that promised beer, cider and ice cream with which to begin our recuperation. We collapsed onto a picnic table overlooking Loch Oich with our wares and tried to get sufficient phone signal to call our B&B — Glen Albyn Lodge, run by Dennis and Helen — and request a lift to Invergarry. We had chosen their B&B because it promised a hot tub, and after showering, dining on delicious homemade pork steaks and conceding a quick scan of social media we made our way out to the tub. Admittedly, it was a little disappointing in size, but having just stubbed my flip-flopped toe on a paving slab — by some distance my sorest injury of the day — it was just what I needed to mask the throbbing. We sat, knees under our chins, and listened to invisible deer rutting in the woods beyond the garden wall.
Later that night we found a selection of DVDs in a cabinet on the landing, including a number of films themed around nearby Loch Ness. Given that we would reach Scotland’s most famous loch in the morning, our third of the journey after Oich, it seemed only appropriate to watch one in anticipation. After all, we needed to know what we were looking for as we entered Nessie country. We opted for 1996’s Loch Ness, starring Ted Danson and Joely Richardson, and delighted in the outdated effects and borderline offensive Scottish accents, not to mention the liberties taken with reality: having been to Eilean Donan Castle in January, Paul and I could vouch for the fact that it probably wasn’t home to the Loch Ness Monster, not least because it wasn’t located anywhere near Loch Ness. We could only hope that other hoteliers along the Way had similarly extensive collections, and that we might end each day with something equally cheesy and enjoyable.
The two had a lot in common, then, but the Great Glen Way was already taking on a character of its own.