I walked the Great Glen Way (GGW) with my friend Paul in mid October 2021. This trip replaced a previous plan to do a longer route in the south west of England, that was ultimately a victim of fitness levels. The decision to do the GGW instead was a compromise between an easier/shorter route and picking off one of the trails on my to do list.
From the start the intention was to take it easy, and we set ourselves 7 days to do it instead of the more typical 4-6 days that people tend to do. In doing so we were also recognising that the days are getting shorter.
Getting to the Trail
Paul and I adopted different strategies for getting to and from the trail, reflecting both our individual travel preferences and where me live. For Paul it was a flight to Glasgow, while I opted for the “hair shirt” option – the more austere conveyance in the form of the night bus from London.
We then both took the Citylink to Fort William – by which point I was heartily sick of sitting on a bus.
The intention was to have a hotel or B&B at the trailheads and then work things out as we went in between. We also took a B&B in Fort Augustus (night 3), and a hostel in Drumnadrochit (night 5). The remaining nights (1, 2, 4 and 6) we camped – using the designated sites along the Calendonian canal then wild camping on the Loch Ness section.
The Story of the Walk
Rather than go into a lengthy exposition of the trail and what happened, I’m keeping it short, and going to led the pictures and videos do most of the talking…
Part 1: Fort William to Gairlochy
It seemed to take a long time to leave Fort William behind due to the twisting and turning of the path. It wasn’t unpleasant though, in contrast to many long distance paths I’ve experienced – even on the dull bits there were distant hills or lochs to look at.
We picked up facilities keys at Corpach Loch – these keys let you into the canal facilities at the designated camp spots, and into the “Trailblazer” rest sites (think designated wilder camping spot with a composting toilet).
Then it was following the Calendonian Canal to Neptune’s Staircase where we had a lunchtime stop for coffee and cake. The canal with lovely relections and autumn colours was then our companion for the rest of the day’s walk.
Part 2: Gairlochy to Laggan Locks
Day 2 started well – after climbing away from the canal we later dropped down into a lovely wooded section along the shore of Loch Lochy. This was about an hour of some of the finest walking I’ve ever had. It was sublime – ancient forest down to the water’s edge, impressive fungus, autumn colours etc. It was a shame to then hit a road, but even the road had decent views and some interesting wartime artefacts to stop and look at.
We left the road at Clunes and enjoyed more forest – to start with finding a nice spot on the loch shore for lunch and a brew. After that the forest became more mundane forestry track and spirits dipped accordingly. A rest at the Glas-dhoire “Trailblazer” site was quite welcome, and we took a good look at it in case we fancied an early stop. It was quite breezy there and pretty uninspiring after the glories of the morning, but ultimately what got us going again was the knowledge that a stop at Glas-dhoire would leave more than we wanted to do the next day.
Another 5km of mundane walking got us to Laggan Locks – a nicer spot than Gairlochy but sullied by road noise from the A82. To add insult to injury the Eagle barge – a pub on a boat was closed, despite Google and the boat’s own opening times sign saying it should be open.
Part 3: Laggan Locks to Creag-nan Eun Forest
The first part of day 3 was spent walking the old railway tracks past Invergarry station, with fleeting glimpses of Loch Oich. After Bridge of Oich it was towpath all the way to Fort Augustus, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds – a good path with enough canal operations going on to add interest. I quite liked this bit even though we walked this exact same stretch on my last TGO Challenge.
All this meant an early arrival into Fort A, and a chance for tea and cake. Our B&B proved to be excellent – the Loch Ness Guest House. Unfortunately it was technically room only, although they provided a well stocked basket of cereals, muffins etc, and a fridge with real milk in. Considering this cost about the same as our hostel room in Drum a couple of nights later, it was a bargain.
Fortified in Fort A, we hit the high route and finally got some views of Loch Ness. Although a bit of effort was needed, the views made up for it. We dropped down into Invermoriston at lunchtime and settled into the cafe.
A combination of the lengthy cafe stop, lethargy, miserable conditions and general laziness saw us not make it much further – we barely climbed out of Invermoriston and entered the forest, before we found a decent spot by a stream and decided to avail ourselves of the opportunity. We were 2-3km short of our target for the day. A good camp though, but an early stop was needed and also gave us an opportunity to avoid the heavy rain that came later.
Part 4: Creag-nan Eun Forest to Inverness
Day 5 and with no climb to start the day, it was a merry jaunt along the high route to the Viewcatcher sculpture. Then a descent that seemed to take forever to get us to the underwhelming tea room at Grotain.
The road was then our rather dubious friend almost to Drumnadrochit, remembered by me as the “Place that seems to go on Forever” from my first visit in 2017. We eventually made it to our hostel. An excellent dinner in the Scottish restaurant opposite – very expensive but orgasmic steak, and a favourite beer from Orkney Brewery.
Day 6 started with fannying around waiting for the cafe bit of the village shop cum post office to open. Then more high route and a lot more undulation before we finally hit the Abriachan Forest just as the rain intensified. We cowered under the scanty shelter of some composting lavs, ruing the fact there was no water for a brew.
Onwards and we considered stopping at the Eco Cafe. By now not really bothered about the refreshments themselves, Paul’s main interest was in the quality of the 4G signal as West Ham were playing that evening, and we might have camped there. Finding it poor we decided to forge on. At this point our previous research hadn’t really thrown up much in the way of good camp spot ideas, so we were very much in the mode of keep going until we find something. To add insult to injury, water supplies were scarce.
As luck would have it, I picked up a load of water from a pathside stream and another 1kn further on we found some lovely semi-open woodland and a good spot to pitch.
After the best camp of the trip – a night listening to the Rut – we were in decent frame of mind to finish the trail. With about 8 miles to do and a 3pm check-in at our accommodation, we had more than enough time.
The Way led generally downwards through initially nice open woodland, then less inspiring stuff. At some point we could see the water of Beauly Firth glistening through the trees to our left, and the realisation that we were nearly done started to set in. Then we got our first glimpse of Inverness itself, and the end was literally in sight.
A bit of a convoluted route down to Inverness but we found ourselves eventually following the River Ness into the City centre, and climbing up the official end at Inverness Castle.
We celebrated with a pint in town, and an unexpectedly good curry.
Reflections on the Trail
We both enjoyed the trail, and I felt that it was an ideal match for what we wanted and the level of difficulty we were prepared to endure at this point. The plan worked pretty well, with the only deviation being an early stop on day 4.
I felt, and I suspect Paul will agree, that if we’d tried to do the trail in less days, that we wouldn’t have enjoyed it. Our schedule allowed us time to stop when we wanted, and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to dash through day 2 morning or the high route bits.
Ultimately, it was a good decision to do it in autumn – the shorter days provided a ready-made excuse for shorter days, and more of them, and the autumn colours made up for any bits where the trail itself was less exciting.
I’d always seen the GGW as a bit of a dreary follow-on trail to the West Highland Way – largely because accounts Id read of it were invariably by people doing the pair back to back. So I was surprised at the overall quality of the trail, both in terms of scenery and the trail itself. I would go so far as to say I think the GGW is a great trail in its own right, and can’t be compared with the WHW – they are so completely different that there is no valid comparison.
Of the 2 National Trails I’ve done this year, the GGW was definitely my favourite.