Walking the Great Glen Way with Caledonian Discovery: 80 Miles of Adventure and Spectacular Scottish Scenery
Scotland has been big news recently, as the Scottish took to the polls to decide whether or not they would like to become an independent country from the United Kingdom. Last Friday, my Facebook feed showed a lot of disappointment, and a lot of relief- depending on what side of the fence they fell on. The results were in favor of Scotland remaining in the UK.
After my stay in Scotland in August (my second trip to the region) , I can’t help but ride in-between the issue. Living in England I would hate to lose such a beautiful place to border patrols and red tape but I also feel like I am in a different country as soon as I am surrounded by the sounds of Gaelic in the streets, the rugged mountain landscapes in the North and the friendliest people I’ve met outside of Texas. Scotland is a magical place, where whisky can blur socio and economic differences, where fairies and lake monsters are considered indigenous species, and where you can escape to a quieter and simpler life amid lakes of glass and tiny mountain towns where locals treat you as old friends.
Scotland is spectacular and chances are that you have either been and fell in love or dream of visiting its ancient castles and green countryside. When I had the opportunity to take on the Great Glen Way, an 80 mile walk from Fort William in the West to Inverness in the East, straight through the Highlands- I knew it would be an adventure that would stay with me for the rest of my life.
I joined with Caledonian Discovery, a cruise company out of Fort William, for a journey that would turn out to be one of the wettest, most stunning, and most memorable trips I have ever taken.
What is the Great Glen Way?
The Great Glen Way is a 79 mile route (127 kilometers) along Scotland’s Great Glen between the cities of Fort William and Inverness. A ‘glen’ is a valley and the Great Glen is a series of these valleys which creates a natural travelling route through the Scottish Highlands. Along the way the route closely follows the Caledonian Canal which connects the cities and the lochs (lakes) in-between over 60 miles of waterway.
The Caledonian Canal was built in the early 19th century by Thomas Telford, a Scottish civil engineer. 22 miles of canal were dug by hand to connect the four natural lakes- Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Ness and Loch Dochfour.
The Great Glen Way route was officially opened in 2002. It can be walked, cycled and canoed. (Or a bit of each as I chose to go!) Here is a very basic look at the route most people take.
My Adventure on the Great Glen Way
I was nervous about this trip. I am out-of-shape and wasn’t sure how difficult walking such a distance over a week would be. Arriving the first day at Neptune’s Staircase in Fort William, I excitedly boarded the Fingal of Caledonia, my home for the week. After checking into our small, but comfortable en-suite cabin it was already time to start walking. We backtracked a bit to begin the journey at the official Great Glen Way starting point, and casually made our way to the first stop for the night- the Corpach Sea Loch.
After a shower, all of the guests joined together for the evening meal- which became a highlight of every day on the trip. Sitting family style around a large wooden table, our chef Sarah served us with homemade meals using local ingredients, always finishing with dessert, a cheese platter, and good coffee. It was a time to reflect on our day, and find out what we would be doing the next morning.
That first evening I ventured off the barge and counted my lucky stars that I had an opportunity to take in such a beautiful view. This is the pepperpot lighthouse at the Corpach Sea Loch, a tiny little thing that was just perfect set against the dramatic background at dusk.
The next day was one of my favorites as we left the kinda boring tow-roads behind and made our way into the forest where we occasionally were rewarded with views of our first lake- Loch Lochy. There we came upon a place that was one of the coolest, weirdest, and totally worthy of its own post later- The Fairy Forest. Small, homemade fairy houses adorned the ground, strange old toys hung from trees, and totally bizarre figurines hid behind every tree and shrub- the place was so creepy and so awesome. Here is a sneak peak.
On Day 3, I decided to spend half of the day hiking and the other half cycling. This was a mistake. While I never ended up having trouble with the walking or trekking sides of things, the cycling turned out to be a challenge beyond my abilities. In Scotland they kept using this word ‘undulation’, which meant nothing to me. I would ask “Are there steep hills on this route?” And they would respond, “No, just a few undulations.” NOTE: Undulation= mountain! (Admittedly, it was probably just a steep hill.) Although I did manage to successfully finish the route for the day, there were a few ‘undulations’ that were so steep I would literally fall off my bike because I wasn’t going anywhere. If you are an experienced bike rider, by any means what happened here, may not be an issue for you.
The Dutchman, being a Dutchman, kicked my butt and I begged him to leave me behind. But even he had to walk his bike up a hill or two. Did I mention it was pouring rain? That actually was my saving grace as I was covered in mud, drenched to the bone, and honestly despite my crimson colored face- could not stop laughing. It was all worth it, as any challenge always is, and I finished walking through the most gorgeous mist shrouded landscape before boarding the Fingal for the night.
One of the biggest perks of walking the Great Glen Way with Caledonian Discovery is that you always can choose not to walk. The barge carries cycles and canoes on-board, and you always have the option of staying on the boat and relaxing. The crew will also create shorter routes for anyone who doesn’t feel like hiking 15 miles that day- in short they are very, very flexible. I really wanted to get a behind-the-scenes look at what the crew do when all the guests are out on their adventures, so on Day 4 I opted to stay aboard and see what it takes to get an enormous barge through the Caledonian Canal.
The Dutchman took this as his opportunity to catch up on his reading and coffee binging while I walked around attempting to convince the crew to let me help with things. I wasn’t very successful to be honest, they weren’t buying the idea that I wanted to help with dishes or swabbing the deck. (I honestly wanted to!) I did, however, get an opportunity to go behind the wheel and experience first-hand how difficult steering such a mammoth of a boat could be. Our Skipper Peter gave me a few pointers that more or less amounted to this thing won’t stay straight but since you are on a huge lake you really can’t mess anything up.
Rule #1 Always check the Nessie radar to be sure there are no lake monsters headed your way.
That night we stopped at Fort Augustus- this is important because Fort Augustus is on Loch Ness! I have dreamt of visiting Loch Ness since I was a little girl and it was more gorgeous than I ever could have imagined. Fort Augustus also has pubs, and these pubs have wi-fi. It was just what I needed after several days in nature with next to no connection with the outside world. Yes, it is good to unplug- but I like to limit the length of these moments.
The crew told us about a waterfall nearby called Culachy Falls that was worth seeing. Since we had limited time we decided to wake up at 4am and hike over, so we could get back in time before the barge left. Loch Ness was magical before sunrise and everything seemed under a spell along the way. The stones gave a purplish glow as the sun came up over the countryside. We passed forgotten graveyards and sheep and sleeping cattle. Finally, we made it to Culachy Falls around 6am and it was well worth it. Apparently in winter the falls freeze and you can climb up them- would definitely love to return and see (do) that.
The next couple days I spent soaking up the view on Loch Ness, enjoying every second of the experience. We sailed by ancient castles, I took on a canoe anxiously knowing a sea monster could pop out and eat me at any second, and I jumped in the frigid August waters just so I could say I did. Loch Ness was always a dream, and it was one that met every expectation I had. The waters were strangely deserted, it felt like we had the place to ourselves.
Our last night on the Fingal was marked with a Scottish night where we dove into the local specialties of haggis, neeps and tatties. To be honest, I was trying it just because ‘when in Scotland’ but I ended up really liking it. I think it is best to not think about the fact that you are eating hearts and lungs and liver and just enjoy.
Before we toasted our drams of whisky and ate our animal entrails, the crew did a traditional addressing of the haggis where a poem is read by Scotland’s famous poet Robert Burns. It was hilarious, and one of my favorite moments of the trip.
The last day we walked into Inverness, the finish line of the Great Glen Way. Although I ended up cruising, cycling and canoeing part of the distance, I figure I still clocked in an impressive 60 something miles by foot. I was so proud of myself, absolutely beaming as the North Sea sparkled before me.
Thinking About Walking the Great Glen with Caledonian Discovery?
Caledonian Discovery runs several cruises on its two barges- the Fingal of Caledonia and the Ros Crana. I was on the former, and can recommend the company with no reservations. The food is terrific, the alcoholic drinks on-board are reasonably priced and the crew bend over backwards to make sure all guests have what they need at all times. This is not a luxury cruise, but it is well organized, friendly and good value for money.
The only negative, if I had to nick pick, is that there is no wi-fi on-board. I kind of expect internet access when I travel, and though I understand that the logistics of this are probably complex in the region aboard a barge, I feel that it is an amenity that companies can no longer afford to forego.
It rains a lot in The Highlands. While many people opt to stay at bed and breakfasts or camp along the route, if you want a little comfort with your adventure- having a barge with showers and hot drinks after a day in the rain is ideal. You can find out more about the tours offered by Caledonian Discovery at their website, or check out their Facebook page.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Caledonian Discovery. All thoughts, opinions, and content are my own.