Not a lot of people know this – and that includes many Scots themselves – but there is a canal that runs from the West Coast of Scotland, all the way up to the North-East, from the Atlantic to the North Sea.
Big enough for narrow-boat barges and cabin cruisers alike, it is a triumph of 19th engineering that will take you from the slopes of Ben Nevis – the highest mountain in Britain, to Loch Ness (monster optional) and beyond.
It was never the critical trading link across the Scottish Highlands that you might imagine. In fact it was more of an early 19th Century job creation scheme, and the brainchild of a couple of engineers who saw the straight line of a geological fault as an invitation to connect the lochs it had created.
However, it did allow troops and munitions to be transported across Scotland during World War I, avoiding the foes lurking around the northernmost extremeties.
The Caledonian Canal’s main function these days is to take tourists through the forested and heathered rolling hills and glens of this part of the UK. And if boats are not your thing, you can hike or cycle woodland and hilltop tracks in a challenging but eminently doable five or six-day adventure.
In fact, one company, Caledonian Discovery, allows you to do both; cycling, hiking or even canoeing during the day and catching up with your travelling B&B at night
But we are hikers, and my regular walking companion Kieran and I took advantage of the lifting of covid travel restrictions as well as some family matters I had to attend in Scotland, to book a one-week hike along the Great Glen as it’s known.
The idea is that you walk an average of just about 20km a day and stay in B&Bs (real ones, not the Air variety) and eat in local restaurants along the way, while most of your luggage is transported to be waiting your next billet. A great way to see the countryside and meet the people, we thought. And mostly we were right.
One spanner in our works was industrial action on Scotrail which meant that our train from Glasgow to Fort William was cancelled and replaced by a 13-hour “alternative” bus service. Our rescue by my niece and her husband is detailed here.
We correctly anticipated a similar problem on the way back and booked a couple of seats on a “MegaBus” from Inverness to Glasgow. So much for the problems – on with what turned out to be a terrific sojourn through some glorious countryside.
If you are heading from the South-West to the North-East, as we were, you start in Fort William which is basically a tourist town at the ends of both the Great Glen way and the West Highland Way. The latter is a much more challenging hike from Milngavie (pronounce Mull-guy) just north of Glasgow. It involves camping and carrying your own gear so that was never going to work for us.
We wanted to thank our personal Uber drivers by buying them lunch but, to be brutally honest, the food in the Ben Nevis Bar – half the eateries around here are named after the mountain – was a mountainous disappointment.
K and I both like Cullen Skink – a very Scottish potato and smoked fish soup. What we were served was a watery, slightly fishy gruel thinned out with excessive cream. It’s a standard practice among many tourist-trap eateries … cater for the lowest common denominator and let the serious foodies find somewhere better, if they can.
Just looking at Tripadvisor, you will see we “lucked” into one of the lower-rated restaurants in the town. Should have checked BEFORE we wandered in.
It’s worth noting here that we were advised to book our evening meals in advance along the way. It turned out to be a wise move. Tourism in Britain is just recovering from the various restraints of Covid-19. Everywhere we went, there were “Hiring” signs on café and pub windows. But the Tavern in the High Street squeezed us in and it was fine.
B&B: Craig Nevis Guest House, Belford Road, Fort William (4/5)
Meals: Ben Nevis Bar, High Street, Fort William (2.5/5)
The Tavern, High Street (3.5/5)
Fort William to Gairlochy
Fort William is a pleasant little place, if very touristy, and things only got better day by day as we headed North-East. We were barely out of town when the “Harry Potter” steam train puffed its way past us at a level crossing. Gogs, our host at the B&B the previous night, also runs the dining car on the train to Mallaig, officially named the Jacobite but now much better known as the Hogwarts Express.
Day one began in glorious sunshine with a very gentle (i.e. mostly level walk) along the canal towpath, having stopped for coffee and scones at a café at the top of the engineering marvel that is Neptune’s Staircase – eight canal locks that raise or lower boats by 20 metres in a stretch only 450 long.
Considering it’s exactly 200 years since the Caledonian Canal was opened, it shows what a combination of brain and brawn can achieve without the assistance of modern machinery.
Our first stop was Gairlochy or, more accurately, Spean Bridge, since there is nothing at the former except a phone box and a bridge. Our genial hosts picked us up and drove up to our lodgings. The couple running the place had just spent tens of thousands of pounds doing the B&B up when covid hit, but finally it was starting to pay for itself.
My heart skipped a beat when Simon (the host) mention a spa in the town. A massage for my weary legs, perhaps? Turns out he was talking about a Spar, which is a small supermarket chain.
Showered and shaved, we arrived for our evening meal at the Old Station Reastaurant half an hour early. It was just as well as our waitress began proceedings by telling us what was no longer available from the menu, due to a combination of staff shortages and an unexpected return of large numbers of tourists. The fish and chips were just fine and we had the pleasure of watching the overnight sleeper train to London from Fort William trundle through. No cancellations on that, then.
B&B: Coire Glas Guest House, Roy Bridge Road, Spean Bridge (4/5)
Meals: Old Station Restaurant (3.5/5)
Gairlochy to Invergarry
Deposited back at the swing bridge across the canal, we had to scurry across as it was about to open. I do like a good bridge and swing bridges are a particular delight but you do want to be on the right side of them when they open. That’s when we made our first wrong turn of many along the way, but it was only a brief detour to a cul de sac before we found the right track and headed north again.
Now, it has to be said that K and I like to get from A to B as efficiently as possible; it’s as if there’s a niggling sub-conscious doubt about our ability to make the full distance. So we march on, ignoring ruined castles and fascinating museums along the way. This is no leisurely stroll – and neither was it in our previous treks in Portugal and Japan. Getting there takes priority over being there, so we tend to ignore time-consuming and leg-wearying detours.
The hike to Laggan Locks was undemanding and the late Spring weather was fine. But then there was nothing. No café or pub awaited us, to rest our aching joints and re-caffeinate our depleted systems, before the last stretch to Invergarry. A pub on a permanently moored barge only opened at weekends. And there was worse to come.
Our accommodation for the night was the Invergarry Hotel, another 3km away and the guidebook strongly advised taking the track over the hill rather than round by the road. There is a very good reason for this. The speed limit on normal, winding country roads in the UK is 60mph or nearly 100kph in new money, the speed limit on our urban motorways.
Scottish drivers seem to take the 60 limit as a minimum, rather than a maximum speed, and snake along the twisting roads, like high-speed trains but with the carriages jostling to get to the front. Without a path alongside the road, you’d be taking your life in your hands.
So it was over the hill, which would have been fine if Forestry Scotland hadn’t decided to cover two-thirds of the route with loose shale – sharp-edged random rocks that threatened to twist your ankles then shred them with every step. This is not what you need at the end of a long day’s hiking.
However, when we mentioned to the barman at the lovely old Invergarry Hotel that we wished we’d take the road, he shook his head, “Ye’d never have made it, sir.” Which made us feel slightly better. A group of three young American women we had met briefly in Span Bridge admitted they had hitched a ride on a Forestry truck as soon as they encountered the crippling shale. This was not something we needed to hear.
Dinner in the hotel was great but breakfast was spectacular. I’d decided to sample as much local produce as I could (with reservations, being pescatarian) so the smoked haddock with poached egg was a must for me, and what a splendid choice it turned out to be. I did not miss the bacon, sausages and various other meaty delights for an instant.
B&B: Invergarry Hotel (4.5/5)
Meals: Dinner (4.5/5)
Invergarry to Fort Augustus
After another missed turn and backtrack, we headed north again, this time into the first serious climbs of the hike. At this point I should note that there were some spectacular views along the way and you can see some of our pictures in the attached slideshow. From Ben Nevis at the beginning to Loch Ness at the end, there was no shortage of calendar-worthy views.
The weather had taken a turn for the worse, with horizontal rain on the hilltops and even the final few clicks along the canal proving to be more of a wearying trudge than a blessed relief.
Fort Augustus is even more of a tourist town than Fort William, if only because there’s not much else going on here. Perched at the southern end of Loch Ness, it’s an obvious stopping point for bus tours, which explains the ginormous bus parking area just outside the town centre.
The other sure sign is the abundance of bars, cafes and restaurants, all of which seemed to be over-booked and understaffed. There was, however, one exception – the Station Road restaurant at the Lovat Hotel.
This was one of the finest meals I have had anywhere and quite unexpected in the middle of a Highland trek. At 70 UK pounds for a three-course tasting menu, it might be a bit exxy for a budget traveller, but if you were to push the boat out at only one point on this journey, this would be the place to do it.
The groan-inspiring pun on the B&B’s name would have been more easily forgiven had it not been an extra kilometre up a hill out of town. But it was a pleasant enough place, clean, comfortable and welcoming.
B&B: Thistle Dubh, Fort Augustus. (3.5/5)
Meal: The Station Rd at the Lovat Hotel (5/5)
Fort Augustus to Invermoriston
The next stage was the 13km hike to Invermoriston including a couple of challenging climbs. There was an option to take a lower road closer to the loch and save about 1.5 km but that seemed to be missing the point. However, it was worth every muscle twinge and aching bone. The views over Loch Ness were spectacular and apparently much less so from the lower road.
As luck would have it, our B&B there pulled the booking at the last minute, so it was soup and coffee at the Invermoriston Hotel, then a short bus ride back down the road, then back again the next morning, after a second night in the mini-metropolis that is Fort Augustus.
That night, we ate Chinese food and drank draught beer at the Richmond House Hotel and it was just fine.
B&B: Thistle Dubh, Fort Augustus. (3.5/5)
Meal: Richmond House Hotel (3.5/5)
Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit
Having taken the bus back to Invermoriston, en route to Drumnadrochit, we were confronted by a much stiffer climb and, at 26km, a longer walk than before. Needless to say, we chose the low road this time; equally needless to say, we missed the turning and took the high road anyway. However, once again we were rewarded with great views not to mention a well-earned sense of satisfaction.
We stopped for coffee and a slice of home-made gingerbread at the Grotaig Pottery, where they let us eat the packed lunch we’d bought at a supermarket in Fort Augustus. And that’s where things started to go spectacularly wrong.
There was a gated track as we came out of the pottery marked “Hill Path”, which turned out to be a challenging scramble up a steep hill. Halfway up, when we got a signal on our phones, we realised we were headed in entirely the wrong direction. By the time we’d scrambled back down – no fun for ageing knees – we’d added an hour to the trek and a very strenuous one, at that. And we still had 10 km to go.
Exhausted and disheartened, I stuck my thumb out at a passing car. It stopped. The driver was another hill walker who’d got lost on his own mini-trek and he knew exactly what we were going through. And so we got to Drumnadrochit in time to enjoy the best fish and chips ever from a stall outside the Fiddlers Restaurant and check into the finest B&B in Scotland, possibly the universe.
How good was the Morlea? Electric boot drier/warmer inside the front door. Nespresso coffee machines in the rooms. Two slices of home-made lemon drizzle cake in a tin on the bed – plus a recipe so you could make it yourself when you got home – and a hot water bottle in case it got chilly. The only problem was that I really didn’t want to leave.
B&B: Morlea, The Village Green, Drumnadrochit (5/5)
MEAL: Fiddlers Restaurant, The Village Green, Drumnadrochit. (4.5/5)
Drumnadrochit to Inverness
The last leg was by far the longest and, it turned out, the hardest. The 32 km starts with a couple of steep climbs then makes a series of undulating descents towards sea and loch level at Inverness.
Many hikers split the route, being picked up halfway along, dropped back at their lodgings in Drumnadrochit, or ahead at their billet in Inverness, then deposited where they left off to complete the hike the next day. We did not do this. It was at about the highest point, 383 m and 10km in, that we decided it might have been a good option. Still we soldiered on and stopped at the Abriachan Forest Trust picnic site, where the Great Glen Way crosses a paved road from somewhere to somewhere else, and ate the giant sandwiches we’d bought from the Post Office Café in Drum before we left.
A little further on we stopped in at the Abriachan Eco Café for coffee – orange cake compulsory – which was a bit like wandering into an episode of Ozark or Justified. Least said about the ruggedly rural couple running it, probably best. We were joined unexpectedly by the American girls who had decided to split the hike, giving themselves two nights in Inverness. It was a welcome distraction. The coffee and cake were nice but were they worth 90 bucks for the five of us?
I can’t recall exactly how far from the end of the trek we were when we went wrong on the final section, but we reached a gated and fenced path running alongside a small stand of pine trees. There were no signs – a dark blue thistle in chevrons – to be seen and the last time we’d taken a detour like this, we had spent an hour scrambling up a serious hill in the wrong direction.
We followed the forestry road round through a car park when we should have walked through the gated and fenced (but unmarked) section. As a result, the last 10 km or so was all on unforgiving bitumen, either on steep descents or alongside traffic hurtling along at death-defying speeds. Had we taken the other route, we’d have been walking through woodlands and alongside a golf course for most of the last leg.
I can’t say too much about the B&B in Inverness because there was something we said or did that clearly annoyed the host, although I have no idea what it was. Maybe he thought that I was trying to sound Scottish (my accent had been thickening day by day) or the fact that Kieran got his name wrong (Danny instead of Gary) or that we insisted on taking a cab rather than walking the short distance to the city centre (because by this stage I could barely walk). Whatever it was, we seemed to have rubbed him up the wrong way.
To his credit though, he allowed us a late check-out so we didn’t have to wait too long for the bus to Glasgow. And he has nothing but four and five-star glowing reviews in Tripadvisor so I wouldn’t tell anyone to avoid it. I just wouldn’t be in a rush to return myself. Or with Kieran.
But I would have liked a second night in Inverness. It seemed like a jumping little town when we were waddling back to the B&B from dinner, with live bands cranking up in every other pub and restaurant.
B&B: Fairfield Lodge
Meal: Fig and Thistle, Inverness (4/5)
End of the road
So was it worth it? That would be a definite yes. I wouldn’t do it again, necessarily, as there are other treks in other parts of the world to master before I hand in my walking poles. But I do fancy the cycle and barge option, if I ever have a spare week in Scotland.
We saw a lot of couples along the way, she cruising sedately on an ebike, he sweating profusely a couple of minutes later on a regular mountain bike – and I would certainly recommend it to anyone who wants to see Scotland and appreciates some historic civil engineering.
Actually, I’d go back for the breakfast at the Invergarry Hotel, the dinner at the Lovat in Fort Augustus and the lemon drizzle cake at the Morlea in Drumnadrochit. Sign me up for them right now.