HIKED ON AUGUST 6, 2022
This trip was long in coming. We had talked about it and planned it in the before-times, then I injured my back. Then the plague put it on hold not once but twice. It was the classic case of 2020 vacation plans deferred. Then, finally, we managed to find a window in our busy schedules to hike the Great Glen Way.
The Great Glen runs straight through the Scottish Highlands. You can see it on a map. It is a large fault line created by the smashing of tectonic plates and is now partly filled with water. Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, and Loch Ness settle into the deep valley. Now they are connected by the Caledonian Canal, an impressive project made obsolete by the railway shortly after completion. The Great Glen Way (actually Great Glen Ways but more on that later) runs along and above this waterway for 79 (or 73 or 80) miles from Fort William to Inverness. If you complete it, you can technically claim to have hiked the width of Scotland...albeit at its narrowest point.
Along the way we experienced numerous and varied highland landscapes. There were castles (ruined and not) and numerous old stories that gave the whole trip a richness that occupied our imaginations over the many long miles. We did this in 5 days--hard mode--mostly because we had so little time. We stayed in B&B's rather than camped which, with an average of around 17 miles per day (including diversions from the trail), was greatly appreciated. We worked with a company that helped us book rooms and transported a bag a piece from the beginning to the end of our daily walk. Hillwalk Tours were a great "guy in the chair" resource, providing detailed notes on our journey.
Finally, thanks go to my parents who contributed financially to this endeavor. Otherwise it would not have happened at all. Also, thanks go to our children, who were on their own adventures this summer and made sure they didn't need us.
Anyway...Day 1. We started out in the morning from Fort William on the west coast of Scotland and proceeded East toward our evening destination of Spean Bridge, 3 miles off the official trail. It was raining off and on and we had about half a mile walk from our B&B to the trailhead. The trail actually began at the remains of the old Fort William and then proceeded over a traffic circle to the back of a McDonald's. Things picked up after that with views of nearby Ben Nevis through the clouds and a short stop to the ruins of Inverlochy Castle, once sacked by Robert the Bruce then rebuilt. The castle entered history once again in 1645 as the backdrop to the Battle of Inverlochy recorded for posterity by the warrior/bard Ian Lom. Now it is under restoration but is definitely worth a visit.
After the castle, things got pretty suburban for a while as we walked through the town of Bannavie toward the Caledonian Canal. This morphed into a lovely walk along a public beach under construction, some sports fields, and an abandoned ship! Finally, we reached the canal, itself. There were a lot of bends and a little bit of climbing up to this point. However the trail was flat for the rest of the day. It turns out canal trails are a lot like rail trails. It was broad, well groomed--a bit hard on the feet--and multi-use with bikers, dog walkers, and joggers outnumbering the hikers by a wide margin. Still it added to the casual atmosphere as we got into our hiking rhythm.
The flatness of the canal portions are what contribute to the Great Glen Way's reputation for being one of the easier multi-day hikes in Scotland. This is part of the reason we picked it. When we had first made the plan I was still recovering. Then the time-constraints required us to maintain a certain mileage. Still, the daily mile count is nothing to sneeze at. In addition, there are a number of alternate paths--we took all of them--with better views that increase both the elevation and the difficulty. This is presumably why they are going for the word "ways" now instead of "way". Everybody is hiking (or sometimes paddling) their own hike and the only key requirement is to get from one place to another under your own power.
In addition to the castle and the ship, other highlights included Neptune's Staircase, the longest "staircase lock" in Britain. A staircase lock is--not surprisingly--a series of canal locks. They are used in areas where just one won't do. This particular engineering marvel was created by Thomas Telford, who is a bit of legend as a builder and designer. His name cropped up not just on this hike but in our explorations of Inverness and Edinburgh. We didn't take very good pictures of the locks (Gairlochy Locks were particularly picturesque) but, again, they gave us something to think about.
Finally, our hike along the road to Spean Bridge put us in the midst of farmland. We encountered a memorial to British Commandos during World War II. The Great Glen was used for their training, which was quite involved. All along the hike there were intermittent interpretive plaques explaining what that training entailed. Needless to say, many veterans of those units maintained an attachment to the area after the war. There was also another memorial over to the side where people had placed their own mementos of lost loved ones. Many of those were much more recent. It was a special spot and it was good to spend a few moments there.
The innkeeper on the first night thought this graveyard might have been for some of the many people killed building the Caledonian Canal. It was located just down the road from Gairlochy Locks. Whether that is who resides here or not, it is worth remembering the toll these large engineering projects took.
The first day was about self-care in a very basic way. We had to listen to our bodies to see where they would give us trouble. For me the pain was in my right shoulder. Stretches and strap adjustments were in order a number of times. These were good practice, not just for the hike but for life. One of the gifts of any physical activity is the chance to delve into how we are feeling and to find ways to shift the load around in ways that make forward movement possible and even enjoyable in spite of the burdens we carry. When we do this we find strengths to lean into as well as weaknesses to be aware of.
Ultimately it was a good day. We got a baseline of history, culture, and the trail itself that served us well going on. It did not compare, really, to what was to come but we were engaged and enjoying ourselves.
That said, we were pretty tired by the time we pulled into Spean Bridge. Once there we discovered that we could not find a place to eat! We had been warned by Hillwalk to make reservations in smaller towns but...we did not heed the warning. Instead we thought our early arrival would protect us. In the end we found a coffee shop that was about to close and grabbed a few things. Then we augmented the small meal with snacks from the convenience store instead. Then we hit the sack--after a call from our Appalachian Trail hiking son--in order to be ready for the next day.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.