The newest addition to my bucket list this year is to climb a mountain. I don’t intend to die anytime soon, but I watched a film called the Guitar about a lady who finally does all of the things she wanted to do after finding out she has terminal cancer and thought to myself, why wait until you only have a certain time left to do the things you really want to do? So I started a bucket list that I have been ticking off for the past few years and this year I decided to climb a mountain. I grew up in the country and have therefore always been a walker. As a writer, it is an incredibly inspiring hobby, the thoughts in my mind tend to slow down and flow as I walk, and taking myself out of the towns and cities allows restores my sense of balance.
The only hill I had ever previously climbed was Loudoun Hill, in my home town of Darvel, an old volcanic plug seven miles walk from my parents’ house and a 316m summit. It’s a pretty walk along an old abandoned railway line and there are great views of Arran from the top, but it’s hardly a mountain. If you go at Easter Weekend, you’ll find numerous local families taking their kids up to roll their decorated boiled eggs down the hill, as I did as a child.
I had looked at various Munros, but it was a relatively late winter this year and most were still covered in snow. Being a novice, I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks by trying to master an ice axe and crampons. I decided instead to try one of Scotland’s many recognized walks, and being me, I decided to go for the lesser known Great Glen Way which starts at the end of the more travelled West Highland Way at Fort William and carries on to Inverness. I only had a few days off work, so decided to do a few of the last stages from Fort Augustus to Inverness, via Invermoriston and Drumnadrochit, still a respectable 64.5km or 38.7miles. My Sunday afternoon walk is generally around 8 miles and a few months earlier I had run a half marathon, but I had never before done any long distance walking and decided to test my capabilities.
On the Wednesday, I drove to Inverness. It was a wonderfully sunny spring day and the drive up to Inverness was beautiful, particularly after I left Stirling behind and hit the A9. I parked in the Old Town Rose Street multi-storey car park, just above the bus station, put on my backpack and took the 919 to Fort Augustus. I arrived around tea time in Fort Augustus and made my way to Morag’s Lodge, the hostel I had booked into for the night. Morag’s Lodge didn’t look like much from the road, but once past the driveway, I could see that it was a very well kept, modern little hostel. The lady who welcomed me was very cheery and informative. That night there were only two other girls staying at the hostel, so I was given a room to myself. It struck me that the person who ran the hostel must have done some travelling in recent years because there were so many little things that make all the difference when you are a backpacker like each bunk having a plug point; there being a mirror in the girl’s dorm, the heating turned on for you arriving, everything in the kitchen clearly labelled, free tea and coffee, tags and a pen sitting above the fridge to label your food. It also put on entertainment in high season and I bet it would be a lively place full of young Europeans in the summer months. I asked if there were any places I could get food and was directed to a couple of pubs or a takeaway place that was described as “much better than just a chippy” at the Caledonian Canal. The Moorings, even at such a quiet time of the year, had a waiter ready to serve you and well presented tables with chequered table clothes. It reminded me of something you might find in Mallorca, an amalgamation of several restaurant styles in one; it served meals, fish and chips, kebabs and ice cream. Being on my own, I chose to use it as a chippy and ordered my favourite sin, chips and cheese (I had to fuel up before my long walk the next day). I walked along the canal and ate them on a bench at dusk, smiling at an elderly couple out for an evening walk. I took a walk along the other side of the canal and came across The Boathouse. It would be a gorgeous setting for an evening meal in summer with tables overlooking the loch which was looking a luxurious colour of blue as the sun set.
My stomach full, I walked back to the hostel to read (fittingly Far from the Madding Crowd) and have an early night in preparation for the start of my first walking adventure.
I left around 7am on Thursday morning and unfortunately, but not surprisingly, it was raining. I had of course prepared for rain and pulled on my waterproofs, filled myself up with eggs and pancakes before setting out. Having no real map reading skills, I followed the written directions on www.walkhighlands.co.uk and found that these were mostly detailed enough to keep me on the right track. I had bought a compass, but typically for me, I had left it in my car. It wasn’t long before I had walked out of the town and up into the forest track. I reached a bench where I had planned to rest for a while, but felt eager to keep going – my deep fried chips obviously had enough calories to keep me going for several hours.
The walk through the forest was a slow ascent and before I knew it, the trees cleared around me and I could see a huge stretch of Loch Ness to my right. It was raining softly, but I got some lovely photos of the sun settling on raindrops and at various points, the sun coming through the clouds created a lovely deep blue colour in the loch, a Scotland blue, I thought to myself.
There were some lovely little waterfalls coming down the hill towards the loch and I was generally happy to be surrounded by it all.
This first stretch from Fort Augustus to Invermoriston was only around 7 miles and was not very steep, so I walked it comfortably. My friend wasn’t able to come with me, but there are benefits to walking on your own; I was walking at my own pace, stopping when I liked for how long I liked, and the air and presence of the water were working their magic, making me feel serene, replenished and inspired. I walked downhill past holiday cottages and camping grounds and over a bridge with one of those rivers that crashes downhill, the water spilling over the rocks creating a clean white foam.
I reached the tiny village of Invermoriston about an hour before I had intended and sat down on a bench to eat my packed lunch and text my mum to let her know I had found my way to the first stop (despite being 32 and having travelled Australia on my own for two years, she still worries).
I walked past a clog shop and up a steep hill to the point where you can decide to take the low route or the high route. I was in two minds about it, I still felt good with plenty of energy and my feet were holding out fine. I did decide to take the high route but made a mistake and ended up doing a circle. I decided that was a sign and continued on the low route. I took the detour to the stone seat and enjoyed the views across the loch. I headed back through the woodlands and after going downhill for a short time, up another steep climb. I was glad I didn’t decide to take the high route. The trees cleared and there were some nice views of the loch again.
I had taken plenty of water with me, but did stop at the various freshwater springs that were marked as drinking water and tasted the cold freshness of the mountain.
I found the markers and the descriptions of the walk I had printed from the walkhighlands website quite straightforward and the landmarks they pointed out kept me right. I passed a group of guys sitting taking a break at one of the lookout points, said hello but kept going, I was determined to get there now that my legs were beginning to feel tired.
After a time, I headed back downhill and my ankle began to hurt, I could feel a blister. It didn’t stop me playing catch with a dog from one of the houses along the country road into Drumnadrochit. It was raining again, and finally after 20 miles, I was becoming tired, so Drumnadrochit seemed a bit dreach compared to Fort Augustus.
I arrived at Loch Ness Backpackers (previously Coiltie Farmhouse although the German boy in reception was not aware of this). Loch Ness Backpackers was more like the hostels I had been used to in Australia, there was nothing wrong with it really, it was clean enough with friendly staff, but everything was a little dated and worn looking. The German boy at reception was very genial and eager to please, and there was a resident Englishman who appeared to be on a permanent holiday. I didn’t have the energy to make anything to eat so went to the Loch Ness Inn and had haddock and chips. The Loch Ness Inn was a lovely pub that still looked like an old-fashioned Inn. It had lots of young friendly staff and a cosy feel. It also appeared to have a regular Gin Tea Party and I thought that it would be a great place for a night away.
I returned to the hostel, the guys I had passed on the way there had arrived there, but I had no energy to socialise and I knew I had the hardest day to go the next morning. I was also slightly embarrassed as they clearly seemed to forget the bathroom was mixed and that meant it would have been polite to close the bathroom doors. I did some yoga to try and stretch off my legs and back and had an early night.
Drumnadrochit definitely looked much more pleasant in the morning light and I saw nice hotels and B&Bs further along the road. I decided not to take a walk out to Glen Urquhart castle but enjoyed the view of the castle from the trail towards Inverness instead.
I felt restored after my rest and had my ankle in plasters so I set out at a good pace along the road and up into the forests to the left of the loch. The shadows of the tall trees made me feel like I was walking into a German fairytale, but the trail was an upwards climb and it wasn’t as easy for me as the day before.
There were also some fallen trees to climb over and I was aware of how far I had still to go to get to Inverness. I planned to drive back to Ayrshire that night, so I was putting some pressure on myself to get back at a certain time which doesn’t always help your frame of mind. I turned my tunes on however, and I kept going.
This was the longest and hardest part of the route, but it also the most varied. Once through the forest, it was out onto moorland and then up into a forested area which was quite high. I took a detour up into the hills and stopped to eat my pieces and crisps. There were spectacular views of the Cairngorms and I could feel the sharp cold of the snow that still lay on the tops of the mountains.
I put every layer back on and went back to the road. This part of the road has signs with the distance to Drumnadrochit and Inverness which I was glad of, although it did make me aware that although I had come 9km, I still had 18.8km to go.
I followed a minor road for a stretch which led onto another moorland. It was one of those places where you feel completely exposed, a minute dot on the earth. It thrilled me and scared me in equal measure. I could turn around and see the road I had just walked for miles into the horizon.
I entered another forest and continued along the path right through it. I was interested in the information sign explaining that the path had been used for cattle droving having stayed in a small town in the Australian outback called Camooweal which had a Drover’s Museum during my travels in Australia. The guide was an old drover himself, Jeff. He used to drink in the pub I worked in, and told me a story about a barmaid who had two drovers in love with her, one of whom shot the other in a fit of jealousy. He said I reminded him of her. He had one of the most wonderful faces, completely covered in lines, but with gentle, smiling eyes.
I kept putting one foot in front of the other, but I was very tired and every time I took off my boot to remove a stone, my ankle throbbed. Funnily enough though, after a while it would go numb again as though it realised that I was not going to stop. I never lost my spirits although I was tired and uncomfortable. . I half considered stopping off at Abriachan Cafe for which there were numerous signs offering every kind of hot beverage you could dream of. I was determined to get back by daylight, and avoided the temptation however I do regret it now since I have discovered that it is a quirky little shack with various farm animals as guests at your table – next time.
I was pleased when I walked past a small reservoir to find tiny toads all along the path and then to see the Forestry Building that sat below the city of Inverness. I foolishly, as I am sure many before me have done, thought I was nearly there, but in fact it was still some distance until I reached Inverness city centre.
I walked past the Forestry building and through residential streets of council houses, past schools and sports fields, before coming to the canal again. It was here after a much needed trip to the toilet that I eventually made a wrong turn and was rather peeved to have gone a good bit along the canal in the wrong direction before I had to turn back and cross at another bridge.
The weather was pleasant and there were plenty of people out walking dogs and prams, probably wondering what the heck I was up to covered in muck with a backpack on my own. I was so pleased to see Inverness Castle, I took a picture of the Castle and used an app on my phone to direct me to the car park through Inverness city centre.
The city centre looked much more modern than how I remembered it. However I was probably around 10 when I was last there and on a holiday to Inverness would have been boring to me then.
I felt an amazing sense of achievement when I reached the car at around 5.30pm, one slightly sore ankle, but generally well and proud to have found my way all on my own.
The Great Glen Way was a truly gorgeous walk. The view of the loch from the hills is quite something and would be well worth a drive and a relatively short walk up one of the paths. This was training for climbing my mountain later in the year and I was proud of my determination and the distance I had walked. I never appreciated Scotland as I should have until I returned from travelling Australia. Now, I would much rather go rambling in the Highlands than lie on a beach in Spain. This year I will climb a Munro and will also do the North Coast 500. The North Coast 500 is a North Highland Initiative promoting the stretch around the North of Scotland from West to East for 500 miles. A group of us will do this in July, so keep your fingers crossed for me that the rumour is true and we will have a glorious summer.