Great Glen Way: Day One

27th May 2008 – Fort William to South Laggan – 24 miles

Synopsis: A short walk through the suburbs of Fort William before we pick up the canal just before Netptune’s Staircase. A long canal walk takes us to Gairlochy and the usual end of day one stop-over for walkers. A short section of lovely lochside paths takes us to a short road walk and then a long tedious forestry track all the way back to the canal at South Laggan

The plinth at the start of the Great Glen Way

The plinth at the start of the Great Glen Way

Breakfast wasn’t available until 07:45, so I was able to take things slowly this morning. My legs and feet were feeling fine after the exertions of yesterday, which was something of a relief as I had the longest day’s walk of the trip ahead of me. 23 miles to South Laggan. Fortunately it was mostly flat with a total height gain of only about 1300 feet. I could live with that today.

With such a late start time for breakfast, it was inevitable that every guest in the place would want to be there at 07:45 and such was the case. All 15 or so rooms disgorged their occupants into the sunny dining room within about 15 minutes of the doors being opened. Fortunately I was the first one in and the first one served. The two or three staff had their work cut out ferrying tea and toast and cooked breakfasts back and forwards from the kitchen to the tables. I had bacon and eggs and wasn’t impressed with either of them. The waitress even delivered me brown toast instead of white, but I couldn’t be bothered waiting for her to provide the right stuff, so I ate it, grudgingly.

By 08:00 I was at reception ready to pay my bill. I rang the little bell on the desk and a couple of moments later the rather annoyed looking head of the landlady popped out of what was evidently the kitchen door and told me to read the sign on the cork board behind the counter. The head ducked back into the kitchen and I read the sign that told me anyone wishing to check out before 09:00 should pay their bill the night before. I groaned. The landlady was cooking breakfasts for the hordes and taking money off me was evidently low down on her priority list. She was going to get it when she was good and ready. I waited patiently for ten minutes, standing by the counter, getting increasingly frustrated. The head popped out again, just to check I was still standing there. I wasn’t about to leave this until 09:00, or return to my room and miss her, so I waited. A further ten minutes later and her head popped round the door again. I quickly explained that I’d completed the cheque and all she had to do was accept it. The head disappeared again. I wanted to kick something, preferably soft and landlady shaped. This was my own fault I suppose. I should have read the sign when I arrived, but then I rationalised that perhaps they should have pointed out this ridiculous quirk of their establishment to folk when they check-in. Five more minutes elapsed before the rather annoyed landlady stomped down the corridor with a print-out of my bill, rather officious I thought for a B&B. As I’d predicted, she gave me the full lecture about why they have this rule, while she took my cheque from me. I felt like asking her if she didn’t have some bacon burning somewhere, but I held my tongue and said thanks for breaking her routine.

I was out on the street and walking into town by 08:30. It was another beautifully clear day, bright sunshine and no cloud, but today there was a strong wind blowing from the north. I walked across the station and Morrison’s supermarket car park to a small roundabout leading to an office park and a McDonalds. I wandered about uncertainly, not exactly sure where to find the monolith that I knew was here somewhere, marking the start of the Great Glen Way. I walked into the office park, but there was nothing there and as I walked back to the roundabout I saw it. On the other side of the road, by the low walls that are all that remains of the old Fort William.

Looking south west down Loch Linnhe, from the monolith marking the start of the Great Glen Way

Looking south west down Loch Linnhe, from the monolith marking the start of the Great Glen Way

The problem was of course that I was used to looking out for the WHW marker posts and I now had to retune my brain to recognise the GGW markers instead. These were similar to the WHW posts but were stained pale blue instead of dark brown and in towns they were often to be found attached to lamp posts, well above head height and above eye-level. Following them turned out to be just as easy as the WHW posts, easier if anything, and other than for reference I never needed my maps at all on the whole walk – I was never in any danger of getting lost.

There’s very little left of the old fort, just a few green mounds and several feet of low wall. It’s all pleasantly landscaped and probably packed with picnickers on a warm day like today, but I wasn’t about to hang around and find out, I had 23 miles still to do and I was itching to get on with it. I located a tiny GGW marker on a lamp post outside McDonald’s, pointing down a narrow tarmac lane which soon turned into a pleasant loch side path running behind houses and past a playing field. I had good views back to Ben Nevis for much of the morning and I spent a fair amount of time turning and admiring the scene.

Iron bridge over the tailrace from Alcan factory

Iron bridge over the tailrace from Alcan factory

White water from the tailrace enters the River Lochy

White water from the tailrace enters the River Lochy

Just before Inverlochy Castle I crossed a narrow iron bridge over a pounding water course. The noise was impressive and the guide book (I’d switched to Paddy Dillon’s Cicerone guide now, much inferior in quality to the Trailblazer guide for the WHW) suggests not crossing here, but inclining right and taking another bridge further upstream. The little bridge looked safe enough though and the water wasn’t reaching the footway, so I stepped on and across. I could feel the water pounding the structure, and the bridge shuddering ever so slightly. The water comes hammering out of the Alcan aluminium factory and straight into the River Lochy where I could see a couple of guys fly-fishing by the water’s edge.

Looking back to Ben Nevis from the path through Caol

Looking back to Ben Nevis from the path through Caol

I soon came to, and crossed, the rather rickety Soldier’s Bridge that runs next to the railway bridge over the River Lochy and then joined a road for the short walk into Caol. The Way takes you through this sleepy little suburb of Fort William; past some shops, houses and a couple of playing fields and before you know it you’re at the canal at Corpach Locks. Corpach guards the southern end of the Caledonian Canal; built by Thomas Telford in the early years of the 19th century. No sooner was it built however, than commercial shipping had become too large to use it and it never really became the industrial shipping lane it was designed to be. Nevertheless, it is a splendid achievement, effectively turning the north western parts of Scotland into an island.

The Way now follows the tow path and I soon arrived at Banavie, and the seriously impressive Neptune’s Staircase. You get the best view of this series of lock gates a few hundred yards before you arrive at Banavie bridge and you can see the steps climbing up the hillside away from you.

Neptune's Staircase

Neptune’s Staircase

There was a tall-masted vessel approaching the lock when I arrived but I can imagine that it takes a good while to climb or descend the staircase from one end to the other, so I didn’t wait around to watch its progress through the gates. The weather was beautifully sunny, but the wind was still fiercely in my face, making progress harder than it should have been. I still wasn’t complaining though – I was still 10 days without rain – and in Scotland! This was unheard of.

The next landmark on the canal was Moy Bridge, five miles ahead. If you’ve ever done any canal walking you’ll know its generally easy but tedious walking. The scenery doesn’t change a great deal and although there were occasional breaks in the tree line to my right, which afforded views back to Ben Nevis, these were few and far between. I was passed by a few folk on bikes, one or two towing little carriages laden with camping gear and others obviously just out for a day’s riding. As the bends in the canal offered me views ahead I caught sight of a group of walkers, about 800 yards ahead. With nothing else to occupy my mind, I set my sights on them.

Great views of Ben Nevis over my shoulder

Great views of Ben Nevis over my shoulder

And good views ahead and left along the canal

And good views ahead and left along the canal

My right Inov-8 was still holding up under the repairs I had made the previous evening, the sole was still attached and although I could feel the toe joint as a lateral lump under my foot, it wasn’t causing me any problems. The canal path was perfect terrain for the shoe and I covered the distance in good time. It was nice to see the occupants of pleasure craft wave to you as you passed, I think without exception I got a greeting from every one of them. The occasional fishing vessel was a different matter. The grim looking pilots fixed their stares on the canal and didn’t cast a glance at me.

I caught the group of five walkers at Moy Bridge, but only because they’d stopped to watch the bridge keeper close the span after allowing a vessel to pass through it. This is the only manually operated bridge on the canal and the keeper uses a little inflatable motor boat to scoot back and forward across the waterway to crank the two halves of the bridge apart.

The bridge keeper at Moy Bridge, closes the span after letting a boat pass through

The bridge keeper at Moy Bridge, closes the span after letting a boat pass through

Pleasure boats and working vessels cruise up and down the canal

Pleasure boats and working vessels cruise up and down the canal

Some dreadful 'parking' going on here!

Some dreadful ‘parking’ going on here!

Although I didn’t stop and talk to them at the time, this group of walkers stayed with me pretty much all the way to Inverness. They included Leeds Dad and Lad, their older friend a couple of part-time women who walked when it suited them but got a ride in their support vehicle when it didn’t.

From Moy Bridge it was only about a mile or so to Gairlochy, where the swing-bridge seemed to be causing something of a log-jam on the canal. There were a number of boats moored up and one or two puttering about looking to either get through the lock or find a place to moor. I watched one pleasure craft try repeatedly to moor itself against a wooden jetty before the bridge and it was still trying to come alongside in an acceptable position as I walked out of sight. I could imagine all the other pilots having a good laugh at the obvious novice; like a woman trying to parallel park in a busy shopping street.

Finally I said goodbye to the canal, at least for a while, as I crossed the swing-bridge and followed the road away from Gairlochy. The rest of the day would be spent beside Loch Lochy, about 12 miles, to the locks at South Laggan. The Way runs beside and a little above the road for a short distance, on a lovely tree-shaded path, before dropping down to a lay-by. Here the path should follow the loch shore for a mile and a half, before rejoining the road. I say “should”, because there appeared to be a diversion in operation. A blue Great Glen Way marker post pointed away from the road and down a narrow, stony track to the loch side, but just next to it was an A4 sized card nailed to a stake that just said “Great Glen Way Diversion” and pointed walkers along the road.

Dappled forest path made a nice change from the canal tow path

Dappled forest path made a nice change from the canal tow path

I was already expecting a 2 mile road walk, further along the Way, immediately after this section of loch side path. What I didn’t want then was an additional mile and a half of road-walking to precede it. The sign gave no indication of why there was a diversion, although I suspected it was due to logging and tree-felling operations that had obviously been going on, due to the expanse of recently felled forest nearby. I could hear no chain saws though and there was no evidence of workers’ vehicles or any other activity. I decided to play dumb and pretend I hadn’t noticed the little sign on the stake and I struck out along the loch side path.

From left to right Aonach Mor, Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis, above the pepperpot lighthouse and ruined barge at Gairlochy

From left to right Aonach Mor, Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis, above the pepperpot lighthouse and ruined barge at Gairlochy

What a treat I had. This was one of the single best miles of the Great Glen Way. Needless to say there was no logging going on, no workers busy felling trees, no tractors hauling the logs away, no hazards to walkers… nothing. Nothing that is except the shushing of the waves on the gravel beaches, the cuckoos calling from the woods and the wind in the branches. The path runs through some beautiful old forest, where it’s strewn with pine needles, deadening the sounds around me and creating a blissful oasis of silence. Occasional wooden bridges take the path over streams and it’s flanked by little beaches offering splendid views down the length of the loch.

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The view down Loch Lochy towards Laggan

The view down Loch Lochy towards Laggan

All too soon, the path rejoined the road and here I met Leeds Dad and Lad and their fellow companions. The road walk is obviously a little shorter than the loch shore path, but not as rewarding I bet. They were joined almost immediately by their support vehicle. As the driver was doling out sandwiches and flasks of tea I passed by and said “hello”. Leeds Dad asked me how I knew to ignore the diversion sign and I told him; I’m just bloody-minded like that and hate being diverted for no good reason. With hindsight I was lucky I suppose. I could have got a mile down the track and met someone in authority as bloody-minded as me, who could have sent me back to the road to follow the diversion.

Clan Cameron Museum

Clan Cameron Museum

The Clan Cameron MuseumI pushed on down the road, wanting to get this section over and done with. It was just about noon and I wanted to find somewhere shady and comfortable to eat a bit of lunch and take a few minutes off my feet, which were beginning to feel somewhat punished. I reached the Clan Cameron Museum, which didn’t open for another hour and a bit, so I thought there would be no joy there. As it turned out this would have been a perfect spot for lunch, but I didn’t learn this until the following day. Even though the museum itself is closed, it’s still worth while dropping in here.

I found three likely locations for lunch during the next hour and each time I was driven away almost immediately by the large attentive flies that seemed to plague this section of the path. This was my first run-in with any flying critters; so far I’d not really encountered any of the dreaded midgies that can make any backpacking trip along the western edge of Scotland a complete nightmare. I’d planned the walk to hopefully miss the worst of the midgie season and so far my plan was working. I eventually came to Clunes; the end of the road walking section and a low bridge parapet beneath a shady grove of trees. The flies stayed off long enough for me to eat lunch and check my feet. After 15 miles they were already very sore, but there were no blisters.

The forestry path through Clunes Forest

The forestry path through Clunes Forest

At Clunes the Way turns right and joins a forestry road for the remainder of the distance into South Laggan, about 8 miles. The road is singularly boring; mile after identical mile of road flanked by trees with the occasional view ahead and to the right. At least the trees provided some respite from the strong winds. There are no landmarks in this section, so I spent the majority of the time not knowing where I was on my map and not wanting (or indeed needing) to stop and check the position with the GPS in my pack. I put my phone in my top pocket and turned on the MP3 player. I listened to music to kill the time, pacing myself to the beat of AC/DC, Motorhead or ZZ Top and then winding down with glacial tracks from Pink Floyd.

Once in a while I would meet walkers coming in the other direction; some obviously walking the Way in the opposite direction and some day walkers returning to their cars at Clunes. More unnerving were the mountain bikers, who could get remarkably close before you heard them and then they’d come whooshing past me in a cloud of dust, while I try not to look like they just scared the beejeezus out of me.

A final view of Ben Nevis from the forestry track

A final view of Ben Nevis from the forestry track

The end of the forestry section is marked by an old rusty gate and a cattle grid, the first obstruction for over two hours. Within five minutes I reached Great Glen Lodges at Kilfinnan and five more minutes brought me to a view of the locks at South Laggan. I was almost there. I saw a couple walking towards me and as they approached I recognised the driver of the support vehicle from earlier and one of the ladies from the party. They’d parked back down the road and were walking back up the track to meet their friends.

View ahead

The path passes through a new development of wooden wig-wams; which looked like they were being hooked up to the phone system as there were lots of BT vans and workers doing various jobs about the place. Almost immediately after these I arrived at South Laggan locks. My B&B was another half mile up the busy A82 so I decided to stop in at the Eagle for a drink.

A final view of Ben Nevis from the forestry track

A final view of Ben Nevis from the forestry track

South Laggan is just a lock and a string of houses along the dangerously busy A82. There is no pub or restaurant within easy walking distance, so an evening meal and a drink were going to be a problem. A problem I’d been expecting however. The Eagle does food, but you have to stop in and order your meal in advance and then return later to eat. The Eagle I should add is a barge. It’s moored at the locks and serves drinks during the day and food at night. It’s a very quaint and odd place; not in the way that the Drovers is odd and quaint; this is in a good way. I nodded a passing “Hello” to the family of three sitting at the tables on the deck, my first encounter with the Coincidental Americans.

I squeezed down the steep stairs into the body of the boat, ordered a Diet Coke and went to sit at one of the tables beneath a skylight. There was a huge model ship in a display case, broad swords on the walls, cigarette card collections and all manner of other memorabilia. I spent an enjoyable half hour or so in the cool and the quiet. I checked the menu for the evening meal. There were about 15 items on the menu – not bad for such a small place, however, 14 of them were fish and the single chicken dish was £15. I’m not a fish eater, I refuse to eat anything that eats its own shit! Besides I wasn’t sure I could afford it at the prices the landlord was charging. The chicken dish was the cheapest item on the menu.

On my way out I bought a couple of cans of Diet Coke and two large bags of crisps, these I stuck in my pack for my evening meal later, along with some rations I had in my luggage. The half mile section along the A82 was the most dangerous length of road I have ever walked along. It’s a narrow road with no footpath and no verge. I had to scamper along the road between the cars and then press myself up against the fence when the cars came screaming round the corners. One of them even had the nerve to honk at me, presumably for my temerity at using the road? I told her exactly what she could do!

The A82 from South Laggan locks to the B&B

The A82 from South Laggan locks to the B&B

It was with great relief that I eventually arrived at Forest Lodge and then spent five minutes looking for someone to open the door for me. I could see my bag through the window, so I was at the right place. I eventually found the landlady in a shed out the back having a smoke! She let me in and pointed me to my room, on the ground floor next to the residents’ lounge. I heaved a huge sigh as I took my shoes off and tried to rub some life back into my aching feet. They tingled for a long while that evening. The heel had come loose from the right shoe again, so I glued it back and wedged it under a chair to bond the two pieces together. I showered and changed and headed for the lounge. This is quite a large, comfortable room and it has a fully stocked bar with beers and soft drinks in a fridge and a selection of malts and shorts on optics. You fill in a slip with what you have consumed and this is added to your bill when you leave, which is all very civilised.

As I entered I was greeted with much cheer and many smiles upon being recognised by the four guys from Arbroath – the four that I’d met on Sunday afternoon on the terrace outside the Guisachan Guest House in Fort William. They were chatting to a couple of Swedes who were also walking the GGW, but who were going in the other direction. I told the guys about the journal I was writing, covering the walk and the people I meet and they immediately wanted to know what I was going to call them. I said I’d not thought of a name for them yet, so they all insisted on picking a name themselves. After much deliberation, bickering and good natured banter they decided they would be called the Four Smokies. A Smokie is apparently a smoked Haddock, famous in Arbroath. I’m not sure what the etiquette is for this, but I’m fairly certain characters in my journals are not allowed to pick their own nick-names. Not that I had anything better for them.

We chatted for a while and when they found that I wasn’t eating at Forest Lodge, or the Eagle, they invited me to eat with them at the Water Park, about a mile and half up the road. They were getting a lift there from the landlady. I declined the offer, mainly on the grounds that I didn’t want the lift and I certainly didn’t feel like walking another three miles tonight, but also because it would have made things very difficult for the landlady – who would have had to make two runs to fit us in the car. Giving four people a lift is fine, but giving five a lift causes problems. Besides I had Coke and Crisps for tea!

We agreed to meet up for breakfast though and they invited me to walk with them in the morning, at least as far as I could stand their slow pace and constant blethering. I happily agreed. I thought it would be good to get to know these guys and have someone to chat with for a while.

I was in bed early and even the babble of voices from the lounge failed to keep me awake much beyond 22:00.

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