A druid travelled through a valley where water was everywhere, but none pure enough to drink. Marshes and bogs formed where snow had melted and fallen slowly down the peat covered sides of the mountains, and whilst there were many pools; they were all dark with mud and covered with a constant haze of midges. Now aware of the ongoing plight of the locals, the druid blessed a spring to always flow the clearest and cleanest water for the residents of the valley to use. He warned though, that when not in use the spring had to have the entrance covered by a stone or desolation would overtake the land.
His warning was solemnly abided by until, one day, a woman was filling her vessel at the spring and was alerted that her home was on fire. Fearing for the life of her infant who was inside the house, she ran to save him, neglecting to place the stone back. The waters of the spring overflowed its well and rapidly filled the entire valley. A great loch now stretched between all the mountains and gone was the clarity of the spring; the peat covered ground quickly darkened the water and the spring never ran pure again.
I personally think its rather harsh that this is the punishment for a parent prioritising their baby’s life, but what do I know about curses and prophecies? Apparently there’s no room for mercy.
So it was that the Loch Ness came into being. It is both the second largest lake by surface area in Scotland, with Loch Lomand being the first, and the second deepest after Loch Morar. However these two second places together means that it holds more water than all the lakes of England and Wales combined; at up to 230 metres deep and a surface area of 22 square miles, it holds 263 billion cubic feet of water. Yet, the water is famously dark and murky; a huge expanse of impenetrable gloom, perfect for the genesis, propagation, and continued curiosity about the stories of what may lie beneath.
I had no intentions of going beneath. I had every intention of an invigorating hike. The path along the north side of the loch shares its route with that section of the Great Glen Way and the starting point was at the Great Glen Way trailhead; Inverness Castle. It was a bright afternoon after a train ride that had taken me through the mountains where snow was still settled, cool and blinding white, on the peaks above the scree and dark green tumbles of grassy granite. Lowered pale caps to the last of the winter winds.
A bridge crossed to the Ness Islands; small tree-covered islets connected with footbridges forming a shady and charming park between the shores. Despite the clear and impressive efforts to not only preserve, but to prosper the natural species of trees and wildlife on these small shores, the main recent claim to fame for the Ness Islands is that the biggest salmon caught in Scotland might have been caught here. It was apparently a whopper; coming in way over the current record holder of 64lbs. The fisherman had his photo taken and let it free only to then have his victory denied; his scales were deemed to be dodgy and uncalibrated. At least the giant salmon was allowed to live; perhaps spawning many more giant salmon that continue to evade the hopeful fisherman who stand around the island banks hoping to catch another elusive record-maker.
From the other side of the river, a swingbridge crossed the Caledonian Canal and I walked up the towpath in the gently lowering afternoon light before leaving the road to head uphill, winding along the golf course and the last of surburbia.
The canal runs from Fort William to Inverness and only about a third of it is manmade; the rest utilising the lochs throughout the glen. Way back when I was a nipper, my family hired a boat and we went up the length of the Caledonian Canal for a week or so; through Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness. It was great for my dad who got to sit on top in a hat and drive the boat, uninterrupted by the excitability of three young children, and it was great for us kids who felt like we were off on some sort of pirate/monster spotting adventure. It was, however, awful for my mum who somehow ended up being tasked with having to singlehandedly deal with all 29 locks in the rain as her children ran riot and her husband evaded responsibility by playing captain. Looking back, I’m honestly amazed she didn’t just leave us after two days and check into a spa.
The Canal and the Prophecy
The Brahan Seer, a Highland prophet, foresaw in 1620 that one day full rigged ships would be able to sail around the back of Tomnahurick when, at the time, the only navigable water route ran to the front along the River Ness.
In the 1700s, plans for a canal were rejected as it was believed that the mountains would channel the wind, and sailing up the glen would be too precarious. It was only later, with pressure to expand the fishing industry and make an alternative, shorter and safer route to the treacherous travel around the Pentland Firth, that plans were seriously made. It was also believed that the depression of the Highlands, brought about by the clearances and the bans on cultural emblems that had now diminished the culture and caused mass emigration needed addressing. Providing jobs not reliant on the landowners would encourage the communities to stabilise and grow again.
It was our old friend Thomas Telford; the Scottish civil engineer extraordinaire that devised the Canal. This gent had also put together the world’s first suspension bridge over the Menai Strait and the Ellesmere Canal with the amazing Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, he had redesigned London Bridge and managed the seemingly impossible task of placing a road through the difficult and desolate terrain of the Isle of Arran. If you aren’t a fan of Telford’s, you should be. This man went from a rural farmboy to being dubbed The Colossus of Roads.
Anything involving Telford was always going to be fascinating. Construction for the canal begun simultaneously at both ends, allowing materials to be transported along each as they built towards the middle. Telford understood the limitations of rural landscapes, and utilised local knowledge and tools however, even in his element the project threw him multiple grievances. When the local construction workers left for the harvest, he had to bring in Irish navvies which left him open to criticism for employing non-Highland workers. The large locks, the biggest in the world at the time, proved challenging over and over. Construction finally ended 12 years after it was predicted to, by which time the steam powered boats that had now become commonplace were too large to use the canal.
Decades of constant repairs to the locks, as well as deepening of the manmade sections to accommodate the larger vessels meant that the canal was never a industrial success. However, it absolutely took off as a tourist attractions after Queen Victoria travelled the length and, it seems, just could not shut up about how magical the scenery of the journey had been.
Now half a million people visit the canal each year. It may have failed in its original endeavour, but it has nonetheless succeeded.
Finally I was going up and away, with the homes and buildings of Inverness growing smaller beneath me, and the sound of traffic became quieter. Now I was in woodland, the path paved with a carpet of pine needles. Some half frozen as the last patches of winter ice clung on. The woods grew dense and an old, moss covered stone wall sat wide, short and stoic along the left side. I had seen from my research that it wasn’t too much further on the area became deforested; with it about to become a windy night I was now going to have to make a decision whether I chose a more exposed camp in a couple miles and risk a blustery attack on the tent, or camp in the forest and risk being squished by a falling tree.
I eventually chose to camp early, right up by the stone wall. The trees in this area all looked fairly stable and I was far from any deadwood. In my head, any tree falling across the wall would be prevented by the wall from hitting me, and there was enough distance between me and the other side of the path for the shorter trees on that side to fall short. I may have been worrying too much; since the death of my previous tent in Pembrokeshire I had become very yippy around exposed tents and wind. Moreso, apparently, that I was around trees, tents and wind.
I was off the path but not hidden, so it wasn’t ideal but it was safe. The last couple cyclists of the day waved at me as they returned to Inverness and I patted the heads of a few inquisitive dogs. It was only March, but I felt spoiled for sunshine; when I had started the Wales Coast Path back in December I was having to set up the tent by four in the afternoon because of the dark, and could only leave at eight in the morning if I didn’t want to be walking with a headtorch. Now the sun was only fully set by seven and would be rising again by six. I, essentially, had five more hours of light to play with than on my midwinter hiking and that felt luxurious.
It had only been a five mile day, a short but fair leg stretch after the seven hour train journey spent restlessly shuffling around on my seat. Tomorrow, things would get interesting.
- Distance: 5 miles
- Total Elevation: 895ft
- Terrain: Urban paths, gravel tracks, forest paths
- Toughness: 2/10
- Maps Used: Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 416: Inverness, Loch Ness & Culloden Map | Fort Augustus & Drumnadrochit. Hiiker Map; The Loch Ness 360 downloaded to phone, Walkhighlands; Loch Ness 360 (Inverness to Drumnadrochit) dowloaded to Garmin
- Loch Ness 360: Introduction, Itinerary and Kit List
- Loch Ness 360: Day 1, Inverness to near Blackfold (5 miles)
- Loch Ness 360: Day 2, near Blackfold to Ruskich Wood (20 miles)
- Loch Ness 360: Day 3, Ruskich Wood to Fort Augustus (16 miles)
- Loch Ness 360: Day 4, Fort Augustus to Inverfarigaig (20 miles)
- Loch Ness 360: Day 5; Inverfarigaig to Inverness (19 miles)
- Loch Ness 360: Information, Advice and Personal Reflections