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Issue 44 - The legendary loch

Scotland Magazine Issue 44
April 2009

 

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The legendary loch

Not too big to explore in a day, Karen Messruther takes on a tour around Loch Ness, Scotland's most famous loch.

Loch Ness may be big enough to conceal a legend, but at 23 miles long and one mile wide it is the perfect size to circumnavigate by road in a day. The round trip provides a perfect bite-sized chunk of Highland landscape, well seasoned with history and folklore both ancient and modern.

Inverness is a good starting point. Leaving the city on the A82 following the Caledonian Canal, the first stop is sure to be at one of the irresistible viewpoints beyond the hamlet of Lochend where the canal meets the loch itself.

Early birds may be lucky enough to see the loch at its most ethereal, with the long, low white cloud that is often suspended over the water in the morning. If you wonder, as you gaze at the loch, how deep those crystal waters are, then look up. At more than 700 feet, the loch is as deep as the surrounding hills are high.

A stop at Aubriachan Gardens will surprise those who think Scotland is too northern and too chilly to grow spectacular flowers. The terraces of this woodland garden are home to an astonishing variety of plants and also boast one of the best viewpoints on the lochside.

Look out for the mysterious round stone which is reputed to be the christening font used by St Columba who travelled part of this route in the sixth century. The water held in its hollow never runs dry even though it is not connected to any spring or well, and until recent times it was not unknown for some of the water to be quietly added to the font in the local church.

Continuing south, the village of Drumnadrochit is a lively centre for learning about Loch Ness and its people. If the legendary monster holds a fascination for you, then allow plenty of time in ‘Drum’ as the village is affectionately known.

There are two exhibitions which will tell you all you need to know to make up your own mind about the loch’s most controversial inhabitant, which was first ‘spotted’ in the summer of 1933. Take one of the boat trips on offer for a first hand taste of ‘Nessie-hunting’ as well as a monster’s eye view of the water.

For a different slant on the history of the glen, visit the small but friendly World of Shinty exhibition, dedicated to this popular Highland game which started as a way of training clansmen warriors.

Don’t get too settled when you get back in the car, as just outside Drumnadrochit is Urquhart Castle, brooding on its craggy promontary over the loch. Now maintained by Historic Scotland, the castle is one of the most photographed views in the Highlands and has seen some of its bloodiest history.

The first reference to Glen Urquhart was in St Adomnan of Iona’s Life of St Columba, written around 690AD. The story is told of how the saint, on his journey to convert the Picts, stopped to baptise a good man of the glen who was on his deathbed. The angels waited for Columba to reach him before taking the good man’s soul.

Urquhart Castle began as a Pictish fort and was re-built and developed over five centuries to become the extensive site which still captivates the imagination in its ruined form today. The castle played a significant part in the Wars of Independence when it was won by Robert the Bruce, and was one of only five Scottish castles that held out against England’s Edward III after his defeat of the Scottish army in 1333.

During its turbulent lifespan this mighty stronghold changed hands many times. It was occupied by the Crown, attacked by the Lords of the Isles and finally blown up by the Covenanters in 1691 to prevent it falling into Jacobite hands.

At the southern tip of Loch Ness is the village of Fort Augustus. The remains of the fort, which was built following the Jacobite defeat of 1715, can still be seen in the grounds of the Lovat Hotel. Some of the original building was incorporated into the Benedictine Abbey which cast a more benign shadow over the village and was in use up until 1998.

In contrast the Caledonian Canal is a piece of history still in daily use.

Providing a navigable route from coast to coast across Scotland, it was completed in 1822 by the renowned Thomas Telford and links four lochs, of which Loch Ness is the most northerly. The canal is now maintained by British Waterways and at Fort Augustus the spectacle of pleasure craft passing through the flight of five locks is surprisingly mesmerising.

A boat trip from Fort Augustus affords a good view of Cherry Island, the loch’s only island which was investigated in 1908 by Dom Odo Blundell, an intrepid monk from the abbey who borrowed diving equipment from engineers who were working on the canal.

To everyone’s surprise, he discovered the island is not a natural one, but the remains of a ‘crannog,’ an early dwelling that stood on stilts on the loch, affording its inhabitants protection from wild animals and wilder neighbours. Crannogs have since been found on other Scottish lochs including Loch Tay where there is a reconstructed one to visit.

Many who travel from Inverness to Fort Augustus automatically turn round and return the way they came. They miss the natural delights of the south side of Loch Ness, which offers a slower, more winding but satisfying way to continue the journey.

The road leaves the lochside for a few miles to climb through craggy hills to Whitebridge.

The scenic route re-joins the Loch soon after this, winding through woodland of birch and aspen to reach Foyers where you can follow in the footsteps of Robert Burns and walk down a shady path to view the spectacular Falls of Foyers.

If the cascade of 165 feet inspires, you may want to do as the Bard did and sit down on a rock, whip out a pencil and write a poem there and then. Burns’ lines in praise of ‘the roaring Fyers’ can be read, carved in slate, at intervals on the path.

At the village of Boleskine a beautiful cemetery nestles by the shore. Tranquil as it is now, the graveyard was once linked to one of the area’s most notorious residents who lived nearby. Aleister Crowley, the other ‘beast of Loch Ness’ was a wild child of the Victorian era, a writer and occultist who became addicted to heroine after being prescribed the drug for asthma. His uninhibited lifestyle branded him ‘the wickedest man in the world’ with rumours of black magic and a secret underground passage to the graveyard.

Just past Boleskine, walkers and naturalists will not want to miss the woodland trails of Inverfarigaig which sits at the mid-point of the loch’s south shore. This is classic red squirrel country and you may also spot roe deer and pine marten as well as birds such as siskins, goldcrests and the colourful Scottish crossbill.

Alternatively, continue on the road to Dores, the last village on the route, and don’t forget to look back for a final view down the length of a remarkable loch.