As film critics, Paul, Nathanael and I are very well versed in the law of diminishing returns.
We have watched many would-be franchises fall at the first hurdle, pre-empting a greenlight that would never come, while those that do receive the sequel treatment have all too often failed to live up to the original. And it’s little wonder: how do you recapture or recreate the essence of a thing, years later, in different circumstances, and with everything that’s happened in between?
It was a question that I came back to while planning a follow-up to the West Highland Way with Paul and Nathanael. Rather than go the usual route and assume that bigger equals better we opted for a shorter distance, done over less days, and at an even quieter time of year. There was a very good chance that we’d spoilt ourselves by choosing to do Scotland’s most popular long-distance footpath first, rather than save it for some sort of big finish, so it was important to change tact.
I’d tried to avoid making comparisons between the Ways until we’d finished walking the Great Glen, but with the end now in sight it was a conversation which seemed impossible to avoid. I went into our last day on the Way with the sense that something was missing, that although amazing in its own way our latest adventure was lacking something that the first hadn’t. Novelty, perhaps? A sense of exploring the unknown? Or maybe just eighteen months of nostalgia? Either way, for all of its smaller surprises, we had generally gone into the Great Glen Way knowing almost exactly what to expect.
Nat disagreed, and as he made his case again and again it became increasingly more compelling and difficult to ignore. There was the substantially better weather, for one — we’d had glorious sunshine on the first day, and not a drop of rain on the whole trip — but there was more to it than meteorology. Next to the West Highland Way the Great Glen Way felt undiscovered, undeveloped and uncompromised. The people we encountered felt genuine, the culture authentic, and the landscapes ancient. Something like Loch Ness Clay Works couldn’t have existed on the West Highland Way — it had become too popular, too storied, too self-aware. Walking it felt more like a shared experience than a personal one.
The Great Glen Way was different — ironic, really, given the fact that we were to start our final day in Drumnadrochit, home to Nessieland. Of course, this is just one person’s opinion, cultivated from a unique set of circumstance (specifically those days, those distances, those B&Bs), but I could see that Nat had a point. It had so much more character and charm, from The Well of the Seven Heads and The Eagle Barge Inn on the first day to That Cute Little Highland Shop at Fort Augustus. The West Highland Way’s Green Welly Stop seemed positively corporate by comparison. The Great Glen Way wasn’t an industry yet; there was still room for individuality, idiosyncrasy and even interactivity. Heck, in places you could even choose your own route.
Having had a fry-up for breakfast every day of the Way so far, I decided to mix things up when Aslaich (our “Basic B&B” in East Lewiston) advertised pancakes as one of the available alternatives. Usually it was just salmon or, shudders, Continental, neither of which competes with the Full Scottish Breakfast, with its sausages, beans and black pudding. There was a shop in Drumnadrochit, so I knew I could buy rations to tide me over until we arrived for lunch at the Abriachan Eco-Campside and Café should they not prove sufficiently filling. Among the syrups and preserves provided was a jar of Tesco Value Chocolate Spread, which Sarah — our host — proclaimed to prefer even over Nutalla. Obviously skeptical, I applied a liberal coating to one of my crepes and dug in. She may have even been on to something.
We paid up and set off, unsure at first whether Paul would make it through town, never mind all the way to Inverness — nineteen miles to the north. Drumnadrochit was achingly pretty, in places at least, largely by virtue of the colourful foliage and handsome high street, but the trail through it was rather less inspiring. More roads, that is, or roadside paths, as we crossed in front of Nessieland, passed The Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition, and confused one interchangeable souvenir shop for another. It wasn’t until we had left the town and travelled half a mile down the A82 that conditions started to improve. We left the road just before the RNLI Lifeboat Station, climbing a path between farming enclosures until Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle were visible over the treeline. I stopped to take photos while Paul and Nathanael — having built up some momentum — pressed on.
I caught up with them both a short time later, at a gate demarcating the boundary between forest and farm. On the forest side a stick was propped up against one of the trees, and eager to give it a go should it take some of the pressure off my knees I picked it up and put it to use as we began our ascent. There was no high route today, at least not one you could opt out of, but this being the Scottish Highlands there would be a few climbs (and declines) along the way to Inverness. I think it probably hindered me, if anything, but I made it to the top — literally the highest point on the Great Glen Way — without any additional discomfort so I was happy to call it a success. After a disappointing viewpoint thatched in by branches, the track lead us through the trees to another moor, this time with truly stunning views of the Cairngorms. Then it was back into the woods as we entered Abriachan Forest.
Mistaking the Abriachan Forest Trust for the eco-café, I left Paul and Nat on the Way to see if I could get hold of a menu. We still had a short way to go, apparently, but I was confident we’d be scoffing cakes within the hour, and eager to sit down and have some lunch we set off down the road. Abriachan Eco-Campsite & Café is inaccessible by car, so to reach it you have to worm your way through a narrow channel in the trees, hoping that the tick population had already had its fill of hiker’s blood, or that there wasn’t a swarm of midges planning some sort of ambush. Intermittently, signs could be seen sticking out from the shrubs, advertising tea and coffee and, er, bovril. We eventually alighted on a small clearing, carpeted with tanbark, the entrance marked with flags, bunting and two incongruous, crossed oars. We just sort of looked at each other. Where the hell were we? And exactly how long did we have left to live?
We were greeted by a great bearded man in blue overalls and a pair of well-worn Crocs. He told us to take a seat, indicating a small number of wooden tables and plastic chairs surrounded on all sides by pigs and chickens, and asked if he could take our picture for the cafe’s Facebook page. Apparently he’d just bidden farewell to an Australian man — Dave, no doubt — and that’s why he already had his iPad to hand. It was the strangest thing. We weren’t offered food, and given the state of the place I was in no hurry to order anything anyway, but he took a drinks order and left us to fend off the animals while we waited. One of the pigs started snuffling my bag, contaminating my bottle of antibacterial gel, so I had to borrow a wet wipe from Paul to clean my hands. Our drinks arrived, and not wishing to offend, I poured boiling tea over my stained mug and dirty spoon and took a reluctant mouthful. It was lovely.
It was the Great Glen Way once again setting itself apart from other walks I had attempted. Here we were, in the middle of a…whatever this was, drinking posh tea with one of the weirdest waiters around. I asked how long he and his absent wife and been doing this, to which he replied: “Ever since I got out.” I honestly couldn’t tell if he was joking; I didn’t know whether to laugh or to whimper. It was the sort of experience you’d pay a fortune for elsewhere, in Bohemian Edinburgh or hipster Glasgow, but here it felt wholly natural and irony-free. After the man — I never did catch his name — had left to seat a pair of cyclists who had just appeared, Paul sent Nathanael to ask if he could refill his waterbottle. Nathanael returned empty-handed, having been told that while the farmer was happy to drink water “from the mountains” he was unable to give it to his customers. Without missing a beat, Paul and I glanced at our now empty tea pot, only for Nat to add that he instead makes their drinks using bottled water. And that’s an eco-café how?
Confused but undeniably amused, we settled the bill and left through another corridor in the trees. Once again we found ourselves walking on tarmac, and with Inverness almost visible over the next range of hills we were more than a little worried that this might be it until the very end. Luckily, a path branched off from the road a short distance away and, ignoring a diversion, we found ourselves walking through a section of deforestation. As the temporary route rejoined ours we caught sight of Dave, who’d lost the best part of an hour trying to navigate his way through the forest after the diversion deposited him in the middle of nowhere. We reassured him that there really wasn’t too much further to go, and left him gathering his things together as we made the final approach to Inverness. Amazingly, given that the city was soon in sight, we passed a milestone that announced we still had four miles to go.
We entered Inverness from the west, at Great Glen House, the headquarters of Scottish National Heritage. From here we crossed parks, circled golf courses and cut through trees until finally rejoining the Caledonian Canal for the first time since Fort Augustus. The Great Glen Way wasn’t quite done with us yet, however, and rather than continue on a direct course it lead us on a wild goose chase through Ness Islands until finally positioning us on the east bank of the river, at the base of Inverness castle mound. We walked up to the obelisk, having officially completed the Great Glen Way, and were soon joined by Dave, who must have closed the distance between us over the last few miles. We paused to take photos with the sign, sit in the seats and lay on the grass, before bidding Dave a final farewell, collecting our suitcases from Great Glen Baggage Transfer, and crossing the road to celebrate with an LS at The Castle Tavern. Once sitting comfortably, I couldn’t begin to imagine how I’d ever get back up.
We ate at Wetherspoons — and drank, too, since this time Nat had his ID with him — where we spread our things over a pair of tables, one of which had a much-needed plug socket. There were no trains running from Inverness that day for some reason, so we would be making the return journey by bus, to Perth, where we would each go our separate ways. Once aboard we travelled almost in silences, having ran out of things to say or reasons to say them. By the time we had reached the suburbs of Inverness our once-witty rhymes had been reduced to half-finished chants, as nobody had the energy or patience to complete them. We’d walked, and walked, and walked, and walked. And walked, and walked, and walked, and walked. And now we were done.
So there you have it: three lochs, three terrible Loch Ness movies, four days, ten cooked breakfasts, seventy-nine miles and twelve hundred photos later we’d made it to Inverness, the capital of the Scottish Highlands. We’d also disproven the law of diminishing returns, having now unanimously outdone ourselves for the second instalment of our hiking adventures. All that remained was to stop, snooze for a week, and then sit down and work out how on earth we were going to round out the trilogy. The Speyside Way? The South West Coast Path? The Appalachian Trail? Who knows. We’ll just have to sleep on it.