It was another early start on day two of the Great Glen Way. We had arranged to have breakfast at 07:15, having ordered from a set menu at dinner the night before, and duly rose at the last possible moment to hobble down the stairs to the dining room. A good night’s sleep had undoubtedly done me good, as had the hot tub that preceded it, but even after a relatively early night I still felt a little sore in the morning. But then I suppose walking 23 miles (or 25, according to Paul) will do that to a person.
I liked our hosts Dennis and Helen a lot; he identified as half Welsh, half Irish, while she had Scottish parentage — though they actually hailed from England, prompting Nat to ask who they supported in international sporting events. Coming through from the kitchen with a jug of water Dennis described a dream he’d had the previous night, featuring Nat of all people: we’d told him about Nat being ID’d in Wetherspoons at the end of the West Highland Way, and Dennis had imagined that it was because he’d had a Beano comic under his arm.
Helen, meanwhile, rather reminded me of Helena Bonham Carter, an actress I’d always found inherently likeable. It had something to do with her tone, I was sure, and perhaps her matter-of-fact delivery, more than any physical resemblance. They had a lot of personality, anyway, and seemed happy to chat whenever they had a moment to spare, imparting advice and having a laugh often at the same time. It was also a beautiful house, with a large bronze stag visible from a bright and welcoming front porch, which they were to spend the day repairing with the assistance of a rented cherry-picker.
First, however, Dennis had agreed to deposit us back in Laggan, where we’d been plucked from the Way the day before. Beginning at the Great Glen Water Park, we planned to walk roughly twenty miles to Invermoriston, via Fort Augustus, a substantial settlement at the south-western tip of Loch Ness. We bade farewell to Dennis, who insisted that we call him should we have any issues on the track ahead, and set off into Letterfeirn Nature Reserve, by the Invergarry Railway Project, currently under development as a static railway museum.
We passed beneath a series of wildlife crossings that Nat joked must be for gnomes, leading to a protracted punning session that got progressively more absurd with every passing step. Let’s just say that the producers of Gnomeo and Juliet (and the apparently in-development sequel, Sherlock Gnomes) didn’t leave an awful lot left to play with. This got us through the woods, along a carpet of golden leaves, over a bridge and back out into the open, where we rejoined the loch. I was surprised by how busy the watercourse was on a Friday morning in autumn, as a variety of pleasure boats passed us by — each apparently owned by Le Boat.
At Aberchalder Swing Bridge Loch Oich comes to an end, splitting its volume between River Oich, which could be crossed using James Drudge’s double-cantilevered Oich Bridge, and the Caledonian Canal, along which the Great Glen Way continues. It was shortly after Kytra Lock, with its small weirs and pretty cottages, that I spotted my first deer of the trip — a stag with truly enormous antlers that was almost immediately occluded by bushes on the other side of the canal. It re-appeared a short time later, just as Paul and Nat were beginning to doubt my claim, chasing a doe across the field. It was clearly some kind of farm, but a deer’s a deer and as per the terms of our verbal contract it was one of the few animals I was actually allowed to photograph. Which I did. At length.
Paul had been stopping at semi-regular intervals to apply new Compede or reconfigure the collage of old ones, so it wasn’t until lunchtime that we alighted at Fort Augustus, or FT, as he mis-abbreviated, furnishing Nat with fresh ammunition as we approached the village and its mighty array of locks. Paul had suggested that we stop for a lager shandy, or an LS — presumably for lager and lemonade, joked Nat — leading us to believe that he’d orchestrated the whole thing. We’d passed a number of promising possibilities, including The Moorings and The Bothy, but The Boathouse’s reputation had preceded it so we made a beeline for there, through the grounds of a school that had been on the news the night before — its own reputation of a far more questionable nature. The Abbey aside, however, Fort Augustus was perfectly charming — right down to That Cute Little Highland Shop.
I ordered the soup of the day, for some reason — carrot and coriander — and though perfectly tasty it was nowhere near substantial enough to last me out of Fort Augustus, let alone over the hills to Invermoriston. Paul and Nat had chosen rather more appropriately — the halloumi and haggis, respectively — and after a short rest-stop on the outdoor tables overlooking Loch Ness we recrossed the canal along the A82, cutting left up the hill shortly after the local petrol station, which allegedly boasted a dedicated foot doctor, who in a moment of bravado Paul declined to visit. Passing signs for Morag’s Lodge, Mount Pleasant and the village hall, we followed the Way away from the water, across a wooden footbridge and into a dense fir forest. Although once again enclosed by evergreens, this section of the trail was much more pleasant than that we had traversed the previous day.
At a small clearing overlooking Cherry Island the path appeared to split in two. We had been expecting this — a number of alternate routes had been added in recent years, to afford those willing to climb with clearer views of Loch Ness — but Nat wasn’t sure it looked established enough to be an official part of the Way. He was proven right a short while later when the path split again, and with an information post promising red deer and birds of prey on the high route we forked left and began a steep zig-zag ascent through the trees. According to the aforementioned post, the high route would add .9 of a mile onto our hike to Invermoriston, which we expected to reach in a couple of hours. Providing, of course, that we didn’t encounter anything interesting, in which case another hour might have to be added on for photography.
This section of the trail was incredibly difficult, and already working on an empty stomach I expect I was feeling it more than either Nat or Paul. Somehow immune to it on the West Highland Way, I was beginning to appreciate the cumulative effect of walking long-distances across consecutive days, and as we left the treeline and stepped out on open moor I was really beginning to struggle. It wasn’t as warm as it had been the day before, and a thick cloud cover meant that we were only occasionally walking in direct sunlight, but I couldn’t stop sweating (or swearing, it must be said) as we continued to clamber uphill. My feet hurt, my rucksack weighed heavily on my shoulders, and a weariness had set in that no amount of water or Eat Natural bars could dispel. The views of Loch Ness and the Great Glen were sensational even at this early stage in the ascent, but having switched to a long lens in anticipation of seeing wildlife I couldn’t be bothered stopping to change back.
Nevertheless, we did stop to take photos, mine of the soup bowl I’d licked clean five miles back in Fort Augustus, and for Paul to use his binoculars for the first and only time on the Way, but shortly after setting off again I fell further and further behind. There was always another climb, as even after we’d apparently plateaued the route would begin to undulate as it worked to incorporate minor peaks and troughs. I wore my jacket as a windbreaker but soon overheated, and having at first spearheaded the high route I was now eating my words — out of snacks, they were all I had left. I came to love the bridges we encountered along the way, for they at least were level and even underfoot. In my isolation I sang songs and spoke solitary words of encouragement, hoping all the while that the other two might stop and wait for me to catch up — which they did at a partly-sheltered viewpoint below Carn an Doire Mhoir. I clearly needed the company.
We made the descent together, through another forest, though Nat had initially tree-empted it by about a mile. This, though, was arguably even worse than the climb, and we took it in turns to eulogise our knees as we trundled down the track towards the point at which it met the low route that all things considered we probably should of taken instead — after all, we hadn’t seen a single deer. Drainage ditches had been incorporated into the path, killing any momentum you might otherwise build up and putting even more pressure on the legs. Even at the convergence, however, it was still a few miles to Invermoriston, and though it soon came into view over the trees we resigned ourselves to another hour of walking, as the path veered left and appeared to take us away from our destination. I told myself I was done with my camera for the day, but when we startled a flock of pheasants before I could get my lens cap off I fell to my knees in mock despair. Unfortunately, the exhaustion I felt was completely genuine.
It wasn’t until early evening that we reached Craik Na Dav, across Invermoriston Bridge. We were staying with ex-nurses Lindsey and Manda; sisters, though not in the religious sense, as some of their guests (Nat included) seemed to assume. They invited us to join them for tea and coffee once we’d showered and changed, and — serendipitously — our arrival in the living room just happened to coincide with that of a hungry pine marten who had wandered into their garden in search for food. In addition to its three resident dogs — Skye, Angus and Fraser — Craik Na Dav also seemed to be home to just about every bird indigenous to the area, with countless feeders serving an alternating array of birdlife. We were introduced to Jorum, their only other guest, a hiker from Köln who was also walking the Great Glen Way having completing the West Highland Way (twice, in fact), and let loose on their DVD collection. We settled on Beneath Loch Ness, which we would watch after dinner.
We limped down the drive to the Glenmoriston Arms, Paul and I trying desperately to out-slow one another, while I vowed to have pheasant should it feature on the menu — there was a stuffed specimen displayed on the wall next to our table, so I was hopeful. It wasn’t to be, sadly, so I ordered the lamb shank instead, and an LS for reasons of refreshment and responsibility. Getting up in the morning was going to be difficult enough without a hangover making matters worse. It was bonier than I might have liked — the lamb, not the shandy — and I nearly lost a tooth on the second mouthful, but it was undeniably delicious. We were all shattered, with even Nat admitting to a bit of fatigue, so we didn’t hang around once we’d finished. Thankfully, there wasn’t any cheesecake on the menu to tempt me to stay for dessert.
Having already chosen our evening’s entertainment we poured a complimentary whisky from the bottle provided and sat down to watch Beyond Loch Ness. Amazingly, it wasn’t actually set at Loch Ness, and following a short-lived sepia prologue the action relocated instead to Lake Superior, never to return. It was awful, obviously, but not always in a bad way — the special effects were just about serviceable and there was a shamelessness to it that was almost endearing. It imagined a Nessie who bit everyone in half, commuted happily between Scotland and Canada, and was as happy on dry land as it was in water. We amended our expectations accordingly, for while we had reached Loch Ness that day we wouldn’t be arriving at Drumnadrochit (or the self-styled Nessieland) until later in the trip.
As demanding and resolutely deer-free has it had been so far, I was by now head over heels in love with the Great Glen Way. The West Highland Way is a more popular walk, and in some ways an easier walk, but its less famous relation was far more personable. We’d had better weather, better accommodation and better company, while I was looking forward to seeing Loch Ness up close in the morning. After all, I’d returned to the Way for many reasons, but I’d chosen this route for just one: Urquhart Castle.