After a weekend celebrating the haggis (Highland Haggis Festival …) we returned to our original itinerary and pointed our Mandale Liberté motorhome back south-west towards Fort William. The start of our exploration of The Great Glen and the Caledonian Canal was to be a scenic drive around Loch Linnhe.
Even though it was mid-April and sunny there was a strong and bitterly cold wind creating occasional white caps on the water of the Loch. Indeed, there was snow on the high tops of the Cairngorms and other hills. We had had a snow shower during our drive up two days before. It was a day to enjoy the scenery from the warmth of our motorhome rather than for sitting by the loch side. The trees were still bare so the views of the Loch and across it to the snow-capped hills were magnificent in the bright sunshine; later in the spring the views would be more limited but it would still be a very pleasant drive. We did occasionally wrap up in our winter coats and hats to walk by the lochs but we kept such excursions short before returning for a warming cup of tea or lunch; one of the great joys of the motorhome lifestyle.
We had decided to avoid both Fort William and Inverness to concentrate on the scenic aspects of the trip. We followed the narrow road up Glen Nevis to the car park at the head of the Glen. Once parked, our aim was to have a short walk (signposted to Paddy's Bridge) as the valley provided shelter from the worst of the wind. However, I soon discovered that the tweak I had suffered to my back just before we left home had not resolved itself so walking on an uneven path was very uncomfortable and we had to cut our plans short. During the afternoon we took a diversion to Glenfinnan and Loch Shiel. The weather was still cold and dark clouds had built up. It created a moody atmosphere over Loch Shiel but unfortunately the Glenfinnan Monument was being restored and was surrounded by scaffolding and screens. However we climbed to the high viewpoint to look out across the Loch and back to the Glenfinnan which features in several of the Harry Potter movies. We even saw trains but unfortunately not the Hogwart's Express; just local commuter trains. In better weather a cruise on Loch Shiel would be a pleasant day out with the opportunity for excellent bird watching with possible sightings of Golden Eagles,. The Monument is scheduled to reopen 1 July 2016. So a little disappointed we headed back towards Fort William and the South-western end of the Caledonian Canal.
It was late afternoon when we reached the harbour and first sea lock at Corpach. The tourist season does not start until June so it was very quiet as everything was shutting up for the night. We had hoped to be able to stay the night there, it was quiet and away from dwellings but there were the ubiquitous "no overnight parking" signs, I suspect we would have got away with it but for peace of mind we moved on after a short walk, there was not a lot to see as there was nothing happening. We went off to explore the minor roads and find somewhere to park up for the night; it took us a while.
As suggested in our separate article (Wild camping in Scotland) "wild" or free camping in Scotland is a mixed blessing; in future we will probably use it occasionally when travelling between locations rather than as a base to explore a locality.
The following morning we discovered we were almost back at the Commando Memorial. While it was quiet and sunny we took the opportunity to get some better pictures of both the Memorial and the mountain range, including Ben Nevis. We returned to Gairlochy where we were able to park up in one of the few spaces. It was where, at the end of my first year at Durham University, a group of us had started a trip along the Canal in twelve foot sailing dinghies (Fireflies). We spent some time watching a large traditional sailing boat go through the lock before we unloaded our bicycles and set off on the six mile trip back along the canal tow path, which forms part of the 73 mile long Great Glen Way, to the flight of eight locks, Neptune's Staircase at Banavie. It was a pleasant and easy ride, there is a lot to be said for canal and river tow paths for easy cycling, especially if one of you is an inexperienced cyclist. We overtook the sailing boat and after taking photographs at Banavie we watched it enter the first lock; by the time we had finished our coffee and excellent cake at The Moorings it was still only halfway down the flight.
We headed back and overtook the Lord of the Glen, a cruise boat and the largest boat that uses the Canal regularly. It only just fits in the locks with a foot or two to spare all round. As a cyclist it is not difficult to keep up with boat traffic in the canal sections as they are limited to 6mph (10kph). By the time we got back to Gairlochy I realised that my back was going to be a problem, the cycling had aggravated it and I struggled to lift the bikes back on to the rather high rack. It was to prove a limitation throughout our trip. Fortunately I was reasonably comfortable when driving but I did stiffen up and it made walking and lifting a problem.
Our next stop was Fort Augustus; as we were to discover over the following days all roads in the Great Glen seem to lead to Fort Augustus. Fort Augustus at the southern end of Loch Ness is a pleasant village with enough shops, including a good butcher, to restock and restaurants and cafés if one does not wish to self-cater. There is also the Caledonian Canal Centre which we did not visit until a later return to the village. They were in the process of preparing larger premises so that they could expand beyond the current retail outlet and have a small museum as well. The staff were very helpful and we learned something of the history of the Canal, a major engineering feat in the eighteenth century.
After visiting the viewpoint at Suilde Chumein we spent another night "wild" camping nearby. After a leisurely breakfast we returned to Fort Augustus for a walk followed by more coffee and cake. We spent a pleasant an hour or so talking to the lock keepers and some leisure boaters who working through their way through the locks. It was the people we met who added so much to the trip, they were ready to talk and share their love of the area, they were invariably helpful. Do not believe the stereotype of "dour" Scots, the only such person we met was an expatriate Englishman!
To continue north towards Inverness along the bank of Loch Ness means taking the A82, the main west-east road through the Great Glen. It runs close to the Loch and there are frequent stopping places and viewpoints. We only saw a couple of picnic areas that had height barriers. As with Loch Linnhe the views were barely masked by the bare trees but once they are in leaf the views will be very restricted. We stopped briefly at Castle Urquart but did not visit, the access is chargeable and only through the Visitor Centre and my back was bothering me. However there are some of the classic views of the Castle from some of the viewpoints along the A82. We moved on to Drumnadrochit where we intended to stay the night. First though, there was more coffee and cake and interesting chat with a local lady who suggested the Fiddler's Highland restaurant for a meal, however, we planned to stay at the Benleva Hotel
Drumnadrochit is pleasant but a small village so our evening walk did not take long. The village is home to the Loch Ness Centre, in the former Drumnadrochit Hotel, and there are other "monster" themed attractions but it is not overwhelmed with them. The Loch Ness Centre, and the associated Loch Ness Project, takes a serious approach to the environment, science, history and folklore of the Loch and the surrounding area, it is highly rated by VisitScotland.
Hotel Benleva is a Britstop location so after checking that it was ok we parked up in their car park. As we had been wild camping with the attendant risk of needing to move on I had not been able to have a beer or a glass of wine with my evening meal. In Scotland the drink-drive limit is very tight so it was not worth the risk. We had a pleasant meal in the bar, a couple of drinks and a lot of conversation with the regulars. I managed to catch up with uploading a post to The Winding Way; we had had limited internet access in the wilder places. Although it was a Britstop I suspect that many bars and restaurants would allow the occasional motorhomer to park overnight if they were having a meal or drink. At least it would be worth a friendly request, especially out of season as we were.
The following morning was our final day in the Great Glen and along the Canal. We headed north alongside Loch Ness, on the A82 of course, towards Lochfoot, where my 1970 sailing trip had ended, and the outskirts of Inverness. On this occasion we did not plan to visit Inverness, our motorhoming tends to avoid cities, so we carried on round the top of the Loch and back down the B-road along the south-eastern shore. It was a pleasant drive but it is often not close enough to see the Loch, and when it was it was all but obscured by the trees, even though they were mostly bare. We intended to turn away from Loch Ness to pick up the road south but the link road was closed so we ended up back in Fort Augustus again before we could start to head for home! It should not really be a surprise that routes around the Great Glen are so limited; the roads and villages have to be squeezed in between the hills and the water, there is not a lot of level(ish) ground.
We want to go back to the Highlands, perhaps to catch up with the Haggis Festival again and the people we met there. It will also be a chance to break our trip to stay with friends in Dumfries and on the Firth of Forth as we had on our way to and from the Highlands. Hopefully next time I will be free of back problems and able to get out into the scenery and enjoy it closer up. We would probably aim to go a few weeks later in May or early June, before the season gets really busy in July and August. However, we would probably book sites for most nights so that we do not end up spending so much time looking for somewhere to free camp, especially as there would probably be more pressure on such locations as the season develops.
All in all a very motorhome friendly trip.