What started as a cold night eventually became a cosy one. I could hear the wind beating and whining around elsewhere, but not a single leaf rustled around me; I woke up unsquashed with an intact tent which really is about as good as it gets. The frost on the outside of the fly was less welcome, but I was hopeful this was the last month I would have to deal with icy mornings for a while.
I entered the plantations where forestry work had cleared large amounts of ground leaving a naked, brown and boggy earth trembling around sad stumps. Mature woodland took over again; always a drastic change to go between the uniform, identical rows of a plantation to the scattered and brilliantly untidy moss covered trunks and tall, solid heights of old growth. The orange bark of the scots pines was amplified in the morning sun, like each was aglow.
This route that the Great Glen Way, and the Loch Ness 360, now follows down the north side of Loch Ness was originally an old drove road. Cattle farming in the Highlands reached its peak in the 1700s and every year thousands of the hardy, hairy, horned cows and bulls would be walked south through the remote mountain passes and glens to be sold at markets in Crieff and Falkirk. These mapless missions were lead by the drovers who acted on knowledge and instinct to get the herds through safely. Through May to September each year, these men would live an austere and nomadic existence; walking the cattle many, many miles through challenging terrain, and then returning to do it all over again in an extraordinary life of solitude, exertion and self-reliance. One of the paths I really hope to do in the future is the Famous Highland Drove Walk that follows the drovers’ route from Glenbrittle in Skye down to Crieff. Unsurprisingly for many, I would do my best to avoid all cows. Cows do not like me, and I am not too keen on them either.
The mountains lumbered up on the horizon, blue in the morning mist, and the path came down through the trees to a small lane, breaking off again into the Abriachan Forest.
The 540 hectares of forest here are community owned, and have been since 1998. Now managed as a social enterprise, the land creates local employment, preserves and improves the environment, and provides numerous outdoors education sessions and workshops.
I’m for all of that. Until a café in the middle of it gives me a menu without prices and then, on enquiring, tells me a piece of cake is thirteen quid. The remoteness of the location is given as a reason for this extortion but, frankly, that’s a load of codswallop. The café/campsite is located barely a ten minute walk from a well tarmacked lane which is then a 25 minute drive to the Inverness Tesco. So it might not be the most convenient but consider this; in Knoydart; the most remote place in the mainland UK, which has no road access and can only be reached by ferry or a long multi-day walk, a slice of cake costs a fiver. In conclusion, it’s a total cheek and not even impressively so. At least have the balls to put your insane prices on your menu and own it.
Suffice to say, I did not buy any cake there. Neither should you. Instead donate any money you wish to see the rest of this brilliant forest project thrive into the boxes at the carpark twenty minutes or so further up the path and back on the lane. Because, ultimately, it is a brilliant community project. The forest is beautiful and thriving, and has been completely decked out for everyone from hikers to mountain bikers. The Forest School has set up a whole initiative of reintegrative education to get kids that have fallen off the bandwagon back into traditional schooling through outdoor immersion. Numerous huts and shelters sit throughout the woods to engage with children, and recent school leavers and adults with support needs are employed in roles to encourage their growth and confidence. All in all, a brilliant place.
A number of other visitors were starting their day from the carpark. A couple of hikers, also from Manchester, chatted to me for a while as their dog scurried impatiently along the track, looking back and barking every now and then to try urge them on. They had been heading in the opposite direction to me but knew the area well and started warning me about the boars.
Now, I know there are boars in Scotland, but I hadn’t quite expected that they had become a problem. The way these gents were talking it sounded like it had reached the destructive heights of some biblical plague. I started to get suspicious that they were trying to wind up a tourist but they insisted, the boars will crush tents, are easily outraged, and have no fear. That I must camp close to banks or walls and not in the open. I desperately, desperately, wanted to ask if the boars were why the one man was having to currently wear an eyepatch, or if he was just a pirate, but I think my mum would be proud that I held off on being so indiscreet.
I was still highly skeptical about the boars, but nonetheless, as my path became a lonely one again, occasionally my bottom would twitch as I started to half expect a tusky pig to come roaring out the bushes and plunge its underbite into my fleshy bits. The neat gravel path became a rough gravel path and became a track as I went up, through the moorland and into the scattered trees again. There were still the occasional banks of snow holding fast at this height, and small ponds were frozen over. A great, grey cliff rose to my right, and soon I had my first real view of the Loch. From up here, it spread out below, vast and dark to the opposite banks where shadowed mountains rose. Magnificent and wide, the boats were so small upon it as to look almost invisible.
I took a seat on a rickety bench that overlooked it, and was joined by a Great Glen Way hiker walking east; an older man with an old fashioned wooden walking stick. He had stayed in Drumnadrochit the previous night, stated he was too old for camping anymore. As the wind picked up around us again, sending sticks scattering and wobbling the tops of the trees, I confessed that it was my main worry these days and that I would check predicted wind speed five times a day now and rarely temperature. He assured me that I should never ever trust the weather reports because all they are is a man in a tower that just shouts every time a cloud moves. I am fairly certain that modern meteorology is more advanced than that, but if that is a job then I want it please.
He wanted to reach Inverness before tea, and set off thumping his heavy wooden stick on the ground like a travelling wizard. I carried on too, but more like a messy hobbit.
The Great Glen Fault
The fault that created the Great Glen extends far further than it appears. Coming into being at the end of the Caledonian Orogeny, the geologically violent time of collision that birthed the Highlands, Appalachians, Atlas Mountains and the Svalbard, the fault was created in the impact between the Laurentia and Baltic tectonic plates. The earth around erupted and rose, and the massive cleft scarred the new land, running northeast to southwest, not just across what is now Scotland, but all the land that was then joined to it. The fault runs through Ireland too, and for 300 miles across Newfoundland in Canada.
A second movement occurred in the Carboniferous era, this time grinding the plates in the opposite, rightward, direction, and the final activity to date was in the late Cretaceous age. Where the sides of the fault lie now have moved 64 miles since the first disruption. The glaciations came, and ice carved into the line, leaving behind the lochs when the time came for them to retreat.
Tremors still occur. None to cause much concern, but a seismic buffer is still built into the bridge that carries the A9 road out of Inverness. A quake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale occurred in 1901, and since then there have been a handful that disrupted the residents of the glen; a large set of tremors in 2014 saw confused locals woken in the night but most just went back to sleep.
The UK in general is not known anymore as an earthquake prone place and it is estimated that quakes significant enough to cause harm or disruption only occur every 38 years. The parameters of ‘harm and disruption’ here are very different to other countries – in other places this term refers to entire streets crumbling, roads destroyed, flooding and loss of life. In the UK, our last harmful and disruptive earthquake occurred in 2008; it measured 5.2 on the Richter scale, woke a few people, and one man broke his pelvis after a chimney collapsed.
I started slowly going downwards and the loch disappeared behind the trees again. Scattered through the gorse, grass and moss covered stones were quiet broken walls and small tumbled ruins; all that remains of a WWII lumberjack camp. No, I haven’t become Americanised; I use the word ‘lumberjack’ rather than ‘logger’ or ‘woodsman’ because these forestry workers weren’t Scots, they were Canadians.
For all the industrial advancements that the World Wars inspired, it was still estimated that every soldier would require the use of five trees; one for living quarters and leisure, two for crates, and three for all the rest that included explosives, ships, factories and, sadly, for many their own coffins. The initial plan to ship Canadian timber over was limited by cargo space, so the Canadian Forestry Corps instead shipped across their own men.*
24,000 forestry workers came to Scotland throughout the First World War, and many of those veterans returned in the Second World War. Newfoundland was, at the time, its own country, but had joined efforts with the rest of Canada. Many would join the Home Guard whilst in Scotland, and the 3rd Inverness (Newfoundland) Battalion Home Guard was the only Home Guard made up entirely of men from abroad.
This forest was dense, the pine needles provided a soft amber cushion to walk through the dappled light. Trickling blue streams frolicked around small rocks and the whole space would have been a fairytale level of magical if it hadn’t been for the last of the predicted angry winds shaking and creaking the trees in such an alarming cacophony that I was speedwalking through most of it. The tops of the trees were all moving around so fast they were a blur, and every crack from a tired, battered trunk made me walk just a little faster.
Lazy switchbacks ambled me down the slopes, eventually to a gate down at the shore level again and out of the woods and onto the grass fields beside the road. The view was clear again, this time to the jutting rise and fall of the hilly headland that protruded into the lake and, at the far side of its slope by the water, Urquhart Castle.
The mediaeval ruin was itself built upon a more ancient fortification and was most likely a site of conflict between the Scottish kings. Unfortunately documentary record for it only really starts with its capture by Edward I and, in the following centuries, changed hands many times between rebellions, invasions and and raids. It was the only Highland castle to hold out after the death of Robert the Bruce. Eventually the gatehouse was blown out and the castle intentionally ruined to prevent its continued use as a stronghold for the Jacobite uprising. Now the picturesque remains are in a manicured garden that stares out peacefully across the water.
Urquhart Castle, and the long length of loch before it, was also the place where John Cobb, a wealthy English racing driver with a passion for all things fast, attempted to break the water speed record. He had already broken his own land speed record twice, the latest of which was in 1947 where he clocked in at 394.19 mph, and wanted a new challenge. He designed and built a jet propelled speedboat which was dubbed ‘The Crusader’ and set off to Loch Ness.
The Crusader was 31 feet long and powered by a De Havilland Ghost 48 Mk1 engine. Now, I have no idea what that engine is because I know nothing about mechanics and don’t even drive, but Wikipedia tells me that this is an engine designed for turbojets; a pretty beasty piece of kit to attach to a boat.
Just below Urquhart Castle, at Temple Pier, Cobb set off on the 26 August 1952. Rules at the time dictated that he was required to do two runs of the measured mile. On the first run, he did indeed become the first person to reach 200 mph on water, but the second run was less successful. In fact, it was tragic.
The Crusader hit a boat wake that was not meant to be there and nosedived into the loch, killing Cobb instantly. The remains of his vessel were left where they had failed. For all his racing credentials and pursuit of glory, John Cobb was well liked and much respected and had made many local friends. A memorial in the shape of a traditional Highland cairn was placed by the people of the glen to commemorate not only his ambition, but also his humility and gallantry.
The fields gave way to the main road, which I followed into Drumnadrochit. I stopped for a bowl of soup by the Loch Ness Monster Exhibition Centre and then went shopping. The walls of the various gift shops in this Nessieland town were cluttered with so many alternative types of monster toys that they started to look like really illegal taxidermists. I prodded and squished some of them and then I found it; a Nessie the size of my backpack with a tartan hat that squealed out a loud and obnoxious version of, oddly, ‘The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomand’. This one was perfect.
“I don’t think you’re going to be able to carry that where you’re going” laughed another customer.
“Oh it’s not for me” I was grinning wildly like a madman “My brother and his missus have a baby now and this looks like the most annoying toy I can send him”
“Sent my sister a motion sensitive singing doll thing when she gave birth. Unfortunately she didn’t even try and pretend she was grateful and instantly put it in the bin which removed all the fun” He said “God that toy was terrible”
“You’re going to post it?” said the shopworker “I’ve got to warn you, it’ll put you back thirty quid easy”
“But it’s light and I’m sure it squishes down!”
“Trust me, you’re not the first.”
I looked into the Nessie’s big cartoon eyes under her tartan hat and sighed. I placed her back on her shelf. Maybe it was a sign I should try look for nice presents.
Leaving Drumnadrochit, I followed the road until a track took me up through an estate. I had taken my time in town and forgotten that after this estate came a really long section of road bashing. Previous research had suggested not leaving it too late in the day to do it since finding a camp would be a right pain if the light started leaving. Whilst occasionally a gate left the quiet road, the ground off to the sides was tussocky and often waterlogged, and it would really not be ideal for a tent at all. Damn all those toy Nessies and their warbling, electronic siren songs.
I got a wiggle on and pumped out the miles of the road, stopping at a bench outside a group of holiday lodges. The caretaker came out for a chat.
“I hate roadwalking” I whined “it absolutely destroys my feet”
“Put that bench out ‘specially. The glen walkers always hate the road. Not many out usually this time of year though”
“I’m on the Loch Ness 360”
“March has been quite good to me so far” It had. It didn’t sound convincing in that moment as drizzle spat around us, but the days had been pretty bright, I hadn’t been awfully cold, the wind had now died down, and there really wasn’t too much to whine about.
I had about an hour and a half left of light so, grateful for the bench and the natter, I continued. Now on the hunt for a pitch, the road came to an end shortly after and went up a forest track. I had assumed finding a pitch once I hit the trees would be easy, but it seemed I’d ignored the fact that the path was simply a path in the middle of steep sloped woods on either side, the sort that would see a tent tumble quickly into a peat and moss covered disaster, smacking into a fair few trunks along the way.
I had to go a few miles in before I hit a viewpoint, back from which was a small, flat, grassy area at the base of a stone bank. I was relieved, it was perfect. I set up my tent, went over to the viewpoint to look at the sunset and then turned back.
Up above the stone bank, a tree had fallen and was only suspended by the two conifers that sat on either side of my tent. This was not as clever a pitch as I had thought. I undid the guys and quickly dragged the tent out of harms way across the small clearing, this time actually looking up as well as just around.
I might have avoided the trees, but what the morning hikers had said about boars and their tent-flattening proclivities started to niggle. I was still somewhat sure they were exaggerating, but if anyone is going to innocently attract the ire of any animal, it will be me.
- Distance: 20 miles
- Total Elevation: 2182ft
- Terrain: Gravel tracks, forest paths, grassy footpaths, lanes
- Toughness: 3/10
- 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 & Drumnadrochit to Invermoriston) downloaded to Garmin
*For more information on Canadian lumberjacks in Scotland, check out Elinor Florence’s site.
- 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