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Issue 99 - The Great Glen Way

Scotland Magazine Issue 99
June 2018

 

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The Great Glen Way

Keith Fergus treks from coast to coast along the Highland boundary fault

The Great Glen Way is one of Scotland’s finest walks. A spectacular coast-to-coast tramp, it takes in some of Scotland’s finest scenery, offers the opportunity to spot a vast array of wildlife and passes a number of sites of historical interest.

The route is named after the Great Glen, known as ‘An Gleann Mor’ in Gaelic, which follows a major geological fault that runs for 62 miles (100km) from the head of Loch Linnhe at Fort William to the Moray Firth at Inverness. The Great Glen Way is 75.5 miles (121.5km) in length and utilises the towpaths of the world-famous Caledonian Canal, as well as lochside paths, forest tracks and sections of minor road. The waymarked route offers lowlevel and high-level alternatives and therefore can be tailored to suit most walkers.

It makes for a pleasant five to six-day ramble, or can also be cycled in around two to three days. No matter the means by which the route is explored, travellers are sure to revel in the delights offered by this beautiful slice of Scotland.

The Great Glen Way opened in 2002 and is now recognised as one of Scotland’s 'Great Trails', which are defined as routes over 25 miles (40km) in length. It primarily follows the course of the Caledonian Canal, which opened in 1822 to provide safe passage for ships traveling between the North Sea and the Atlantic coast, negating the need for the arduous journey through the Pentland Firth and around Cape Wrath. Designed by Thomas Telford (See: Scotland Magazine #98), following survey work by James Watt (See: Scotland Magazine #92), the Caledonian Canal runs for 60 miles (96.5km), between Corpach and Inverness. Over half of the route is made up by the lochs of Lochy, Oich and Ness, and there are 28 locks along its length.

Beginning from Fort William, the Great Glen Way quickly leaves the town’s hustle and bustle behind with the attractive River Lochy soon reaching Inverlochy Castle, which once held a strategic position at the Great Glen’s southern entrance. Despite having been built around 1280 by the ‘red’ Comyns, Lords of Badenoch and Lochaber, the castle remains in good condition and is worth exploration.

Once across the River Lochy, the Great Glen Way continues easily to the village of Corpach from where the Caledonian Canal begins its journey. Corpach’s somewhat melancholy name translates from the Gaelic meaning ‘Corpse Place’, as it was where funeral processions between Fort William and Annat used to rest. From here you also gain an exceptional view of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, and its massive, shapely bulk dwarfs Fort William.

The canal towpath then heads northeast to reach Banavie and Neptune’s Staircase, the greatest feat of engineering along the Caledonian Canal. The staircase was named after the Roman god of the sea by the men who built the locks between 1803-22. The eight locks along its 457-metre length allow  boats to rise or fall 64 feet (19.5m). At first, 12 men were employed to open and close the locks but since its automation, which was implemented during the 1960s, this has reduced to only two. Today, it takes about 90 minutes for boats to negotiate Neptune’s Staircase, which is still in regular use.

An easy few miles alongside the canal, through a wonderful rural landscape, passes the distinctive cast-iron Moy Bridge. It was constructed in North Wales before being assembled here in 1821 and is the only original bridge along the canal. The next stop is Gairlochy, from where a section of minor road and then gorgeous path runs alongside Loch Lochy. These offer marvellous views out to the hills and mountains of the Great Glen. A mixture of quiet road and wooded paths and tracks leads to Laggan Locks, the highest point of the canal. It was near here that the curiously named ‘Battle of the Shirts’ was contested in 1544 between the combined forces of Clan Fraser/Clan Grant and Clan Cameron/Clan Donald (See: pp.56-58). It is said that, as the day of the battle was so hot, both sides tossed aside their plaids and fought in their shirts.

Leaving the canal towpath behind at Laggan Swing Bridge, the walk then runs along a wooded section of the dismantled Spean Bridge to Fort Augustus railway line, which was built between 1896-1903. A great path then travels beside the eastern bank of Loch Oich, which means ‘Loch of the Stream Place’, and then continues into Aberchalder Estate, soon passing the 18th Century redroofed Leiter Fearn Cottage. The area's name translates as ‘Hill of the Alders’ and is a beautiful spot for a break.

Beyond Aberchalder Swing Bridge, we are soon back on to the canal towpath and embarking on a straightforward amble into Fort Augustus, one of the Great Glen Way’s main settlements. It is an incredibly scenic spot and a great place to watch the boats come and go. Originally called Kilchomain, Fort Augustus was renamed after the 1715 Jacobite Rising, in commemoration of William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland.

The next few miles to Invermoriston has a choice of low or high routes. Thicker woodland limits the outlook on the early stages but as progress is made then marvellous views open out along Loch Ness, where the vista back to the Caledonian Canal is superb. Again the next 14 miles (23km) to Drumnadrochit offers a choice of routes.

If I were to offer an opinion, I feel the high route is well worth the extra exertion as it leads above the treeline to a spectacular view beneath Creag Dearg, granting an incredible spectacle along Loch Ness. Having said that, the low route still provides some fine scenery. A narrow road leads all the way into the attractive village of Drumnadrochit, which is a great spot to rest weary limbs.

The famous Urquhart Castle, one of Scotland’s most historic and popular visitor attractions, can also be found here. This lochside fortress figured prominently in the Scots’ struggle for independence and came under the control of Robert the Bruce after he became King of Scots in 1306. It is a fantastic place for a wander, to learn about a hugely turbulent point in Scotland’s history, and to enjoy yet more superb views along Loch Ness.

The final stage of the Great Glen Way is the longest, with 18 miles (29km) culminating at the Highland capital of Inverness. Forest tracks climb away from Drumnadrochit before open moorland bestows wonderful views south towards the magnificent Cairngorm mountains. The final few miles are relatively simple, much of it flat or downhill, as the Great Glen Way reaches the River Ness and the compact beauty of Inverness.

The River Ness cuts its course through the city, which has a population of approximately 55,000, and Inverness simply means ‘Mouth of the River Ness’. After enjoying the rural seclusion of the previous 75 miles, the city makes for a wonderful place to spend a couple of days dawdling and enjoying everything it has to offer.

The Great Glen Way may not have the drama of the West Highland Way but it is nevertheless one of Scotland's most enjoyable and sceneic routes.  

Top 5 Places To Visit Along The Great Glen Way Way

Inverlochy Castle, Fort William:  Inverlochy Castle was the scene of two major battles, in 1431 and again in 1645.

Caledonian Canal Centre, Fort Augustus:  The centre provides a fascinating insight into the history of this engineering marvel.

Urquhart Castle, Drumnadrochit:  The present ruins date from the 13th to the 16th Centuries, although they are built on the site of an earlier medieval fort.

Ness Islands, Inverness:  Ness Islands is a local beauty spot with lots of flora and fauna to see. Great spot for a picnic.

Inverness Castle, Inverness:  Built in 1836, Inverness Castle today houses the city’s Sheriff Court. The grounds offer a magnificent view of the city and a viewing platform is accessible.

Route Information

Distance: 75.5 miles (121.5km)

Total Ascent: 9032 feet (2753m)

Maximum Height: 1253 feet (382m)