Long-distance footpaths can do strange things to the human body — at least, that was our experience, anyway. But it’s not just the body that reacts in unexpected ways to walking long distances across consecutive days (sore nipples on the West Highland Way, I’m looking at you); it takes a toll on the mind, too. By now there was no denying that the Invergarry to Invermoriston stretch of the Great Glen Way had tested me to my very limits — on both counts.
Ever since preparations began for the West Highland Way in late 2013 I’d longed for a day of such unending torment that I felt as though I had proven myself in the Great Outdoors; I wanted to struggle, to question, to strive. We’d had difficult days before — as Paul could surely attest, having been forced to miss a day of the West Highland Way due to illness — but nothing so far that had truly shaken my confidence or forced me to seriously consider any sort of surrender. That is, until now.
Everything hurt — literally everything — from my aching shoulders to my blistered feet. Even the toe I’d stubbed at the hot tub back at Invergarry still smarted, while strange dreams and a fitful sleep had left me feeling groggy and worn-out. Upon waking on day three I made a clumsy gambit for the shower, wincing as I worked my way across the room — from the foot of the bed to the door, from the door to the sink, and so on. The day ahead was to be our shortest of the trip — sitting at a rather pedestrian fourteen miles — but as I clung to the windowsill it might as well have been forty.
I’m not sure whether it was the shower or the breakfast that followed that did it, but as I mopped up the last of my breakfast with a slice of sub-Drymen toast I felt reborn, renewed, rejuvenated. I must have still looked like a wreck on the outside, however, because our host — Manda, taking the morning shift — didn’t seem so sure. She’d dubbed the three of us Larry, Curly and Moe, as in The Three Stooges, our tales of woe from the previous evening (Paul’s map-misreadings; my misadventures in wildlife photography) clearly fresh in her mind. They certainly inspired a few laughs at the breakfast table, which we shared with Jorum and an English couple who were bound for Skye, the latter of whom were glad to be travelling in the opposite direction to us — so that they at least might actually see some animal life.
I laughed along; Manda was very funny, and it was a welcome distraction from the day ahead. Besides, I was ninety percent sure that Nathanael — or Nathan, as she insisted on calling him — was scheming to steal one of her Westies, so I figured I should probably keep her preoccupied. That said, when the opportunity presented itself to photograph a red squirrel at the window and prove everyone wrong I positively jumped at the chance, darting through to our room for my camera and returning just in time to capture it diving head-first into one of the many feeders scattered throughout the garden. It was around this point that I realised I had stopped limping, and somewhat reassured I decided that quitting really wasn’t an option, at least for today. It was only walking, after all, and all I had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other — for the next five hours, and then another day after that — and I’d be fine.
Surprisingly, it was Nat who seemed to be struggling as we departed Craik Na Dav, leaving down the driveway and straight onto a sharp incline. He was feeling a bit queasy after breakfast, and his stomach wasn’t really taking to the early exertion. None of us were particularly keen to take the high route for a second day running, with the previous day’s slog still reverberating in our limbs, but it seemed that nobody wanted to be the one to say so. We each kept bringing up the issue without ever actually dealing with it; instead the silent consensus seemed to be that we would cross that bridge when we came to it. Instead, we talked about the movie we had watched the night before, the walk so far, and what might actually constitute a Basic B&B — the exact wording used by Google Maps to describe our accommodation for the coming night. Would we be both sleeping and breakfasting on hay?
Having left Invermoriston through essentially the same forest we had entered it, we soon emerged onto open moorland akin — uncannily so — to that of the high route the day before. We wondered whether we might have missed the fork in the path, but reluctant to backtrack to the B&B in search of the turn-off we could only continue on in the hope that it was still to come — that this was just the hill before an even bigger hill. As taxing as it at times proved to be, this was undoubtedly my favourite stretch of the Great Glen Way so far. I’d seen the Great Glen listed alongside the likes of Kyoto and New Hampshire in surveys of the best places to experience autumn colours, and the hillside here was every hue you could possibly imagine: the yellows of the leaves; the purples of the heather; the browns of the bracken; and the greys of the exposed rock beneath — all aglow in the morning sun. Scotland shone.
I kept catching glimpses of another hiker a few hundred metres ahead, and at first I thought it was Jorum having beaten us out of Invermoriston. As we closed the gap, however, I began to discern what the walker was wearing. Jorum had spoken of another hiker on the Way, an Australian with a white hat who walked with poles and an enormous pack — an uncannily apt description of the figure we were about to pass. Jorum had also alluded to the man’s age, and as we prepared to overtake him at the Viewcatcher Wheel — a distinctive wood and stone structure — I saw that he hadn’t been exaggerating at all; the man was in his seventies, at least. He introduced himself as Dave, from Brisbane, and revealed that he’d hiked six long-distance trails the previous year to our measly one. He had everything he might need packed into his over-sized bag, and only once he’d arrived at his destination — wherever it might be — did he stop to search for accommodation.
I felt a little bad leaving him behind — patronising, I know, but it really was a humongous pack. We did, though, once we’d paused to take pictures at the wheel. We stayed on the moors for a mile or so, before making a gentle descent into another covering of trees. Here we passed a sign for Alltsigh, a name we didn’t recognise, and rather than stop to consult the map we pushed on along what we assumed to be the main trail. Having been extraordinarily lucky so far with the weather we hadn’t had to worry about midges at all, but here in the woods we found ourselves swarmed by beasties. I had bought and brought a gaiter — or head tube — for precisely this reason, but had stupidly left it sitting in my suitcase, which was right now being helpfully transferred between B&Bs by car, where it was heroically protecting the rest of my clothes.
After a carved “troll” bridge with an accompanying poster designed by local school children the track shot up at a frankly ludicrous angle. We stood, looking almost directly up, our mouths agog and our minds ablank. We could see intermittent sections of the trail further up the hill, and from here they looked a million miles away, practically in the sky. By now united in our determination not to do the high route and risk suffocating somewhere in the stratosphere, we decided to consult the map, only to end up confirming our worst suspicions: we had missed the turn-off — or rather we had seen the turn-off, to Alltsigh, and decided not to take it. Instead, now swarming with midges, we faced an hour-long trudge to the top, which none of us really felt up to attempting. We didn’t have much of a choice, however, and after a few swigs of water we set off up the side of Creag Dhearg.
The last mile of every walk is always the worst. By then you are ready to finish, to sit down and relax, and — overeager — your brain has a tendency to warm down prematurely. For us, this manifested daily in schoolyard pranks, running jokes and rhyming verse as we regressed slowly into childhood. Recently, we — well Nat and Paul, as the previous day I had been too busy dying on my feet to join in — had taken to making up folk chants about our misadventures along the Way. Worryingly, however, these symptoms of immaturity were taking up more and more of our time as they began to manifest earlier and earlier in the day. We weren’t even half-way to Drumnadrochit when the singing started, and by the time we reached the viewpoint at the top of Creag Dhearg we must have sounded certifiably insane. We made it, however, in body if not in mind.
We followed a forestry track down to an s-shaped seating area overlooking Loch Ness, where we stopped for a short break before pushing on down the hill. We planned to stop for lunch at Loch Ness Clay Works, a part-pottery, part-cafe affair that has been something of an institution on the Way since its inception, located within two hundred acres of ancient, isolated woodland. We were getting pretty hungry as we reached the road that serves it, crossing a small stream to find it right at the end of the tarmac track. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, resembling more of a workshop than a gallery, but we were short of options and so knocked on the door (the sort of thing you might use to access a stable) and made our way inside. It was spartan to say the least, and not entirely sanitary, but we were served hot tea from in-house pottery so it’s hard to fault it on character, even if we had to settle for a cake instead of something more substantial. We were just finishing up when Jorum and Dave appeared at the doorway.
As we left I realised that my knee — perfectly fine prior to sitting down — was now killing me, so I rubbed ibuprofen gel into my leg and hoped it might be enough to sustain me to Drumnadrochit. Paul, however, looked as though he would need much, much more than ointment to get him to the B&B, and as we set off along a quiet country road he began to fall further and further behind. Tarmac is no walker’s favourite terrain, but having by now covered well over half of the entire Great Glen Way in less than three days it was proving more punishing than ever. My pain subsided but his only got worse, spreading to his shins and instep. Even so, when we encountered a dog walker who spoke of a short-cut to East Lewiston, where our B&B was actually located, we refused to let him take it, knowing that he would thank us for it later down the line. Instead of following the road we took another forestry track, lined with waymarkers, winding our way down the hill through forest and around farmland. By the time we made it to town he looked on the verge of collapse.
This didn’t bode well for Urquhart Castle, which isn’t actually on the Great Glen Way, but requires a short detour to reach. It was the main reason I’d wanted to do the Great Glen Way, rather than another long-distance footpath somewhere else in Scotland, and I was reluctant to miss out on a chance to see it while I was in the area. I walked with Nat and Paul to the B&B, but as it was only 3pm I decided to leave them there and continue on alone. My knee wasn’t quite as sore as it had been, and I had enough time until dinner — booked for 18:30 at The Loch Ness Inn — to allow for a more leisurely pace. I was actually looking forward to it, not least because I could take as many pictures as I liked, indeed as possible, without anyone passing comment. At the edge of town I passed a sign stating that Urquhart Castle was just a mile away, but I knew better than to trust road signs as a hiker, for one mile in a car is not the same as one mile on foot. And I was right; a mile and a half later I caught my first glimpse of the castle by the loch, and made my way down to the box office where I picked up a ticket for…wait, how much?
So it cost £8.50, but it was worth it. Urquhart Castle is one of my favourite heritage sites in Scotland, not least for its proximity to one of my favourite lochs in Scotland. It’s probably time I gave you some Loch Ness facts, my favourite being the astonishing statistic that it alone contains more fresh water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined. It’s not the largest loch in Scotland by surface area (that would be Loch Lomond, which we passed last year on the West Highland Way) or even the deepest, but it is by far the most voluminous. I’m no monster hunter, but I’m not going to deny the odd double-take as I looked out on it from the castle walls. Together they form a spectacular scene, and I spent two short hours exploring its every nook and cranny with my camera. I was also able to indulge in my first hazelnut latte in days at the cafe overlooking the castle, a near religious experience for someone who is used to having two or three a day.
I won’t say that it blew my mind, because it didn’t, but it did help put me back together again in time for my fourth and final day on the Great Glen Way. Little did I know that our film for the night — 2001’s Beneath Loch Ness, possibly the worst, definitely the most inept movie ever made — was about to lobotomise me anew.