I had now extensively asked about the boar plague and, it seemed, that their numbers were far, far more significant on the north side of the loch than the south. Once I turned the canal again by Neptune’s staircase I would no longer have to be concerned about a midnight death caused by a stampede of feral pigs.
Why is it that the death that becomes most likely on my long distance hiking is never the one I anticipate? On the Snowdonia Slate Trail, amongst all the mountains, it wasn’t exposure from climbing to a height; it was being sucked into the marshes like a character from a 90s cartoon. On the Wales Coast Path, in the dead of winter, it wasn’t hypothermia but electrocution from a the possibility of falling pylons in the middle of Storm Barra. On the Skye Trail, it wasn’t fatigue from the relentless undulations of the Trotternish Ridge, it was that absolute bitch of a cliffside path that threatened to spill me over continuously. Now on the Loch Ness 360, it wasn’t the famous monster than might get me, it was wild boars. I suppose I should really start expecting the unexpected.
Neptune’s Staircase is an undeniably impressive series of eight locks that raise and lower boats 20 metres between them all. Another one of Telford’s creations, it takes boats an hour and a half to traverse. Whilst the locks have now all been mechanised (which I’m sure my mother was grateful for way back on our childhood boat holiday), the series still requires three full time operators. It is the longest staircase lock in Britain. Looking up from my crossing at their base, the top of each lock emerged above the other going backwards like black and white dominos.
A neatly constructed path went over the fields rounding the end of Loch Ness, the closest I would be to its shores. The sky was lazily pink with fat, flossy clouds drifting over the far edge back towards Inverness. The neat path zig zagged up the bank, crossed the main road, then continued its brief and steep ascent until I was high above the tarmac. Heading away and inland from the road and the loch now, the landscape was instantly very different to the lush and busy bank on the other side. Here was more rough moorland, a patchwork of browns, golds and yellows with long dark grasses and a lot more silence; the constant chatter of birds that was there before was gone. The path would become rougher. I wouldn’t see another person walking for the whole rest of my hike.
There was something satisfying about it. There was charm and warmth on the other bank, a welcoming and easy grace to it. Here, it was less concerned with you, an apathy as to whether you were impressed or not. There were no more information panels brightening up the route and maybe only one bench throughout. Fellow cat people would really love the south bank. The north bank desperately wanted to see me happy, the south bank didn’t give a damn.
The quietness and the growing isolation had many benefits. Several times I saw small groups of red deer grazing or walking. The comparative lack of disturbance had them unconcerned with human arrival. They would all seem incredibly surprised to see me and, when they did, they would flee; bounding long and tirelessly with incredible ease to higher ground where they would turn to watch me, now with aspect on their side. Large, splayed horns and muscular flanks in defiant silhouettes.
The path, at this point, was clear and clean. Made of gravel, it wound its way up and down over the small hills of the moorland, over footbridge and small waterways with the dark purple mountains watching all around. Loch Tarff soon appeared on the left, a lonely lake suspended in the hills and fed from the streams that fell from them.
A prominent islet sat in the middle. Loch Ness itself has no natural islands, only one that is manmade; Cherry Island. Cherry island was constructed in the Iron Age from beams fastened together, edged with trunks and covered in rubble and has somehow endured through all these centuries, though the rising water levels caused by the construction of the Caledonian Canal has made it much smaller than it originally was. It’s thought there was a castle, which was really more of a refuge, placed on it in the fifteenth century but why it was originally constructed no one really knows. It is likely it was either put there as a defensive or watching post, or it could just as likely have been a hunting hall; where parties of hunters would gather before or after setting out.
Loch Ness never freezes, but the relatively slight additional elevation gain of Loch Tarff means it freezes over most winters. It’s smaller size amongst the hills shields it from much of the low, midwinter sun that will only dance over the surface in small sections throughout the day.
I went down to the road by the side of the loch and crossed it to the official start point of the South Loch Ness Trail, now waymarked by a squirrel. Instantly on the other side, the neatness of the gravel path was replaced by a rough track, heading instantly upwards towards Càrn an t-Suidhe and its viewpoint. The views from here would see the shine of many other smaller lochs and the U-shaped groove of the Great Glen. Of course, as soon as I started making my way up the hill, the drizzle started and the wind quickly picked up. This narrow track, which would be very easy all on its own, was made rougher and more desolate by the howls of the wind coming in from the south, the scattering of small rocks and the gathering of grey clouds. Up and down over the darkening moors, I had the exhilaration of being the only person as far as I could see.
I could see to the far lochan the lower hills surrounding them on my left, the valley of the Great Glen a smudge of green, to my right the higher snow capped tops rigidly clinging to winter. It was never strenuous, but here more than before, it was easy to feel small and tiny and like nothing more than an ant on the continuous, rolling mountain moors. It was fantastic.
As I went down again, the wind that battered the short elevation quickly was blocked and the howling was above, rather than around me. As the path took me away from the empty road again, I went into an area of felled forestry. There’s always something sad about these now empty spaces. Whilst the industry does a lot to be regenerative and sustainable these days, there’s no covering up the areas of so many downed trees all at once, time has to pass before growth can start here again. In the in between it all looks so wasted, brutal and lonely. Neglected stumps and crackling discarded sticks like a forgotten graveyard.
I turned left, the distant gleam of Loch Knockie appearing, going down and down gradually until I arrived at a lane and then track and continued downhill. Eventually I arrived at Cumrack Burn, a brilliant blue stream flowing high and wide, and followed it over far greener grasses between trees far more gnarled than those tall conifers on the north bank. Where the scots pines and the birches I had seen the day before were ones that preferred the higher and drier ground, down here there were alder and hawthorne that flourished in the moist earth.
I was hungry, I hadn’t eaten today yet aside from a Naked bar chomped by the side of a waterfall a few miles back. As the meandering and lovely path by the burn came to an end, I was soon pounding a long straight farm track that turned onto a long straight lane. There was an honesty shed nearby; once it had been truly well stocked and enthused about but recent reports had warned that since Covid it had not yet had reason to be replenished to its former glory. It was a comfortable place; with seats and cushions, but not much given out for the nibbling.
I passed over the bridge into the small hamlet of Whitebridge where the hotel beckoned my rumbling stomach into its comfortable seats and dark wood walls without any resistance whatsoever. A giant and fantastic burger and perfectly crispy chips followed by a sticky toffee pudding managed to put the spring in my step again without knocking me out nearly so much as yesterday’s monster roll had managed to. Seriously; that roll was definitely made for six foot tall foresters because someone as small as me absolutely failed to have my digestive system rise to the challenge without sedating every other system in my body.
The Occultist of Boleskine House
“The first essential is a house in a more or less secluded situation. There should be a door opening to the north from the room of which you make your oratory. Outside this door, you construct a terrace covered with fine river sand. This ends in a ‘lodge’ where the spirits may congregate.”
These were the starting instructions from a series of operations known as the “Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage”. At the end of a lengthy and dangerous series of exactly prepared and performed rituals, a guardian angel would be expected to be summoned.
So explained Aleister Crowley, the famed occultist and writer, for why he purchased Boleskine House in 1899. He saw it as a perfect venue, surrounded by the moody and mystical landscapes of Loch Ness, to perform the operations. These operations were prepared for with six months of celibacy and abstinence from alcohol and during which Crowley would summon the 12 Kings and Dukes of Hell to bind them and remove their negative influences on his life.
He was called to Paris by the leader of The Golden dawn during he lengthy ritual, and it was said he didn’t have the opportunity to appropriately banish the demons, leading to strange and unexplained happenings to this day occurring at the mansion. The Lodge-Keeper, Hugh Gillies, suffered many personal tragedies, including the loss of his two children, which was ascribed to the black magic getting out of hand.
Crowley resided in Boleskine House for fourteen years, leaving in 1913. Subsequent owners were tied up in scandal, endured the tragedy of suicide, and suffered neglect, abuse and abandonment. Musician Jimmy Page, a long term collector of Crowley memorabilia, bought the house in 1970. Page himself rarely visited, leaving the house under the care of his long term friend Malcolm Dent.
During his lengthy residence, Dent endured constant experiences that he ascribed to supernatural bombardment and many instances where he claimed to feel the presence of pure evil. Despite it all, he stubbornly remained until Page sold the place. After all, he said, he had met his wife there and raised his family within its walls and all the supernatural intrusion would not change its position in his life as a place of pure happiness.
After several other private owners, the house caught ablaze in 2015 and only part of the roof and outer walls survive. The cost of repairs is so high that is unlikely to ever be rebuilt.
A track crossed one bridge, but there was another; a single arch stone bridge built by General Wade in 1732 across the River Fechlin. Wade had been tasked by the British to build a series of roads to make the Highlands more accessible after the Jacobite uprisings, so that should another rebellion occur, their troops were not impeded by the difficult and rural terrain. Wade had 240 miles of roads built, including the modern A9 and the Great Glen Road that ran down by the shore here, Amongst them they crossed 40 bridges.
The hotel I had eaten at was also linked to General Wade. During all the time of construction, he had encampments every ten miles for the workers. Within these inns predictably sprung up and were known as ‘Kingshouses’, a few of which survive today with the Whitebridge Hotel among them.
I eventually came to Dell Farm and the path wound to the back of the farmhouses where cows mooed at me out of their open barns, and then along a grass track by the side of a handsome stone wall, a large towering bank of stone to the other side, leading up and away to the hills. I walked through a few small burns that trickled around my boots and followed the main stream of water into woodland again where the cushioned path of pine needles wound me down to a track and then the road that lead into Foyers.
The falls could be heard crashing beyond the wall to my left. I stopped briefly in the shop for a cold drink before noting the time and deciding that I would find a place to camp in the forest between here and Inverfarigaig. The forest track seemed straightforward enough, but the South Loch Ness Trail had decided that keeping on the nice, straight, organised path was not going to be the done thing and plunged off to the side into a wonderworld of tussocked ground and humped stoney paths, sheltered and narrow and more easily lost. I decided it was wise early on to take a bearing; I was now tiring and knew pretty soon my understanding of left and right would become all fuddled and ridiculous. Thankfully I only needed to refer to it once, after a brief session of daydreaming had me wander off path amid all the languid shadows and waving shrubs into the cluster of trees. Springs ran beside bright and damp grasses under tall branches.
I eventually re-emerged on the original track and continued on. I went past the turnoff to Inverfarigaig and off the path into a wooded clearing above it where I set up my tent for the night. I would be safe from the boars, but the owls in the trees above decided tonight was the night for a good old gossip.
- Distance: 20 miles
- Total Elevation: 2,400ft
- Terrain: Gravel tracks, rough paths, forest tracks,
- Toughness: 6/10
- 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 (Fort Augustus to Foyers & Foyers to Dores) downloaded 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