Scotland’s Great Glen

by Scott Rawstorne

I am not particularly into genealogy and the ‘Who do you think you are?’ television series hasn’t done a program about me just yet so I am totally in the dark when it comes to my forebears. However the fact that I am a ‘ranga (redhead) called Scott points to there being one or two kilts and Tam O’Shanters in my ancestry. That probably explains why I have always had an irresistible urge to visit Scotland.

I finally made it to my motherland in the middle of 2011, on the first leg of a European adventure that would later see me sea kayak around a couple of Greek islands, paddle through the canals of Venice, and discover the fjords of Norway. At first glance it might appear difficult for the Scottish leg to measure up, but the rugged beauty, colourful dramatic history, and warm hospitality of the Highlands made it an experience I will never forget.

Loch Ness, Scotland

Deciding where to go seemed easy. The likely existence of a giant creature lurking in the cold deep waters of Loch Ness has made it the best known body of water in the country, and the chance of meeting and paddling alongside “Nessie” meant it had to be in the schedule. Also, the tidal races off the west coast of Scotland are the stuff of legend in the sea kayaking community. I was pretty sure I wasn’t up to taking on the famed Corryvreckan, but I was very interested in getting a taste of slightly less intense action alongside an experienced Scottish paddler. And so it came to be that I was to meet Sam Weir from Kayak Scotland for a three day trip around the Islands of Lorn before picking up kayaks from Donald MacPherson at Explore Highland for a two day adventure on Loch Ness. As it turned out, I ended up paddling most of Scotland’s Great Glen instead.

Day 1 – Getting there

A few days before I was due to arrive, a volcano in Iceland rudely erupted, throwing ash into the air and threatening to cancel my flight to Glasgow. Luckily that didn’t eventuate, but despite arriving three hours before my scheduled departure time, the less than customer friendly operation of my carrier saw me running for the plane at the last minute. In the interests of cutting costs, Easyjet had scheduled all their flights to various destinations to leave at exactly the same time and as a result there were thousands of passengers in the queue. One particular bloke who took it upon himself to try and sneak into the line right in front of me was promptly and loudly ejected by yours truly, much to the enjoyment of grinning people nearby who erupted into a spontaneous round of high fives.

I was due to meet our guide Sam and two fellow paddlers in Oban that evening.  A superbly scenic bus trip from Glasgow through lush green Scottish countryside got me there with more than enough time to have a look around. Oban occupies a small bay protected by the Island of Kerrera in the Firth of Lorn on the west coast of Scotland. The town itself originated around a distillery that was built here in 1794 and to my Australian eyes this seemed incredibly historic, but people lived here a long time before that. Dunollie Castle was built on a hill north of town in the 15th century, and evidence has been found that local caves may have been inhabited as far back as 10,000 BC.  These days it is known as the seafood capital of Scotland.

Oban

It has become a Global Paddler tradition to indulge in luxury accommodation either before or after a paddle camping adventure and tonight was no exception. Sam introduced me to delightful English duo Orla and Jinny and then drove us to our very posh accommodation at the Loch Melfort Hotel in Arduaine. Dinner in the hotel’s own Asknish Bay Restaurant was a four course affair that somehow became five, with fine wine and Guinness on tap, and stunning water views. We chatted and laughed until the last light faded from the day at a disorientating 10:30pm.

Day 2 – Change of plan

When I drew back the curtains first thing in the morning, I found that the floor to ceiling windows of my room offered the same spectacular views of the Firth of Lorn as the ones I had been treated to at dinner the night before. However, I also noticed that white caps had started to form on the surface of the open water. This was the first sign of a development that was to change the shape of my adventure.

Sam gave us the weather report as we devoured a Loch Melfort breakfast of porridge, egg, bacon, mushroom, tomato, and toast washed down with orange juice, tea, and coffee. The forecast for today was a manageable 15-20 knots, but 40-45 knots were predicted for the following day and that could be extremely problematic if we were camped on an island. A unanimous decision was made to spend the day kayaking in the more protected environment of Loch Fyne and re-assess the situation the next day with a back-up plan of paddling up the Great Glen from Gairlochy to Fort Augustus instead.

Kayak Scotland’s equipment was excellent. Orla and Jinny used Rainbow Laser sea kayaks, I paddled a Prijon Kodiak, and we all had Werner paddles. We were also given decks, PFDs, and sleeveless wetsuits which were warm and very comfortable.

Two more joined our group today; John and the mysterious MA (who never told us her real name). We launched into Loch Fyne near the tiny fishing village of Ardrishaig. We stayed close to the shore to keep out of the wind and were rewarded with surprisingly smooth conditions.

Loch Fyne

Loch Fyne is famous for its salmon farms and we saw plenty of those, but the true highlights of the day were provided by the wildlife. Pied oystercatchers, eider ducks, gannets, seals, and porpoises all made an appearance, and there were even a couple of deer standing among the abundant pink flowers of the thrift growing onshore.

Sam used all of his charm and quite possibly a little bit of magic to conjure up a cottage overlooking the water for us all to stay in while we contemplated the next few days. It was very cosy and the perfect environment for some team bonding as miscellaneous camp food and cask wine was combined to create a meal that exceeded all expectations.

Day 3 – Somewhere under the rainbow

Something that had escaped my attention when I was planning a visit to Scotland was that the Great Glen Canoe Trail is widely regarded as The UK’s great canoe adventure and Loch Ness is actually part of the Great Glen. Furthermore, Donald MacPherson from Explore Highland, who I had arranged to meet later, wrote the book on the trail. I suspect if I had known all of this in advance I would have made plans to do it from end to end, so I wasn’t completely disappointed when the wind came up significantly during the night and forced us to go in that direction.

Loch Lochy

Donald’s Great Glen Canoe Trail guidebook recommends taking five days to do the entire trail from west coast to east coast. The first of these days is a 10.5 kilometre paddle from Fort William to Gairlochy. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to squeeze that into our agenda, but I was now able to experience the entire remaining 70 kilometres of what is a world famous trip.

Sam dropped us outside historic Telford House at Gairlochy and gave us the responsibility of moving everything to our launch site beyond the locks 200 metres away while he, John, and MA co-ordinated the car shuttle required for a one way paddle to Fort Augustus.

We didn’t see many other people in Gairlochy but that wasn’t really surprising considering the hamlet only has a population of 100 and the bracingly cool Highland breeze blowing down off nearby Ben Nevis was probably keeping all of them firmly planted indoors in front of their log fires. It didn’t take long for us to take the hint and find shelter in the laundry room of a nearby amenities building which we opened using Sam’s sonic screwdriver (master key).

The Great Glen Canoe Trail is an almost straight path with a south west to north east orientation. The plan for today was to paddle north east through the open water of Loch Lochy and adjoining Ceann Loch before setting up camp on a grassy area beside Laggan Locks. The gale force winds that caused us to change our plans earlier in the day were still at play so we had to be careful. Donald’s book warns that “wind can funnel down through the Great Glen from Fort William and create short dumping waves that can easily swamp a canoe or capsize a kayak.” However after a cautious start we soon realised the wind was in our favour and that riding the waves was easy and loads of fun.

Loch Lochy is surrounded by a magnificently mountainous landscape that quite simply took our breath away. Misty clouds cloaking the tallest summits somehow only added to the feeling of grandeur.  It wasn’t raining but there must have been a lot of moisture in the air because each time the sun broke through the clouds, a glistening rainbow would arch from hilltop to hilltop across the loch. There was often more than one rainbow at a time and it sometimes seemed like we were paddling through a technicolour tunnel.

Somewhere under the rainbow

We arrived at Laggan Locks in the late afternoon when the already cool daytime temperature was starting to drop. To say it was chilly would be an understatement. Our medical officer pulled out a goon bag and promptly threw back a few large mouthfuls for “medicinal reasons”. This was fully sanctioned by the doctor and the nurse in the group. I could see no reason to question their undoubted expertise.

After a round of hot showers in the amenities block opened once again by Sam’s invaluable sonic screwdriver we huddled around a picnic table for dinner, all manoeuvring to take advantage of each other’s wind shadows and trying to make ourselves heard over the sound of chattering teeth. It was at this point that Sam casually mentioned that the nurturing warmth of the floating Eagle Barge Inn bar and restaurant was just a few hundred short metres away. Needless to say I was sitting on a comfy lounge with my first pint of Highland Dark Munro (Champion Beer of Scotland 2007) in hand before he even finished talking.

Day 4 – Created by man, decorated by nature

The Great Glen Canoe Trail is also known as the Caledonian Canal. It currently reaches all the way across Scotland through the Great Glen, but this is only because of a series of man-made links between the coasts and the naturally formed Loch Lochy, and Loch Oich. The Caledonian Canal was built between 1803 and 1822 to enable a safer shipping route than the sea voyage around the ominously named Cape Wrath at the northern tip of the country, and to provide employment opportunities for the people of the Highlands.

We started the day with our first taste of one of the manufactured sections of the waterway. The carefully stacked stone walls of the passage between Laggan Locks and Loch Oich have clearly been created by man but they have also been wonderfully decorated by nature. Lush verdant forest blankets the slopes above and extends leafy branches across the water.

Caledonian Canal

After around 2.5 kilometres we paddled under the Laggan Swing Bridge which is part of the main A82 road route between Glasgow and Inverness. It was built in 1932 and historic in its own right, but it was fascinating to learn that it replaced a drawbridge that was in operation in the middle of the 19th century and the pylons of that can still be seen here today.

Our arrival in Loch Oich was greeted by the flapping of hundreds of tiny wings. This was a sure sign that the sand martins were in town. Sand martins are migratory birds in the swallow family that spend summer here in Europe and winter in Africa, Asia, or South America. I was told they are loosely related to fellow songbirds the house martins, but you can take it from me that things can get awkward if you start belting out their 1986 hit Happy Hour at this point.

Loch Oich introduced us to two more man-made structures of historical significance; The Well of the Seven Heads and Invergarry Castle. The well is marked by a stone pillar with the macabre shapes of seven severed heads and a serrated dagger at its peak. The monument was erected in 1812 as a reminder of an internal feud in the Clan MacDonnell which saw the seven murderers of two brothers beheaded in an act of primitive justice. The severed heads were then presented to the chief of the clan at Invergarry Castle but not before this well was used to wash them clean of blood. The impressive ruins of Invergarry Castle watch over the loch from a position high on Creagan an Fhithich (the Rock of the Raven). They date back to the early 17th century and are an unquestionable highlight of this trip.

Jinny and Orla used Loch Oich to put forward a good case for the inclusion of synchronised paddling in the Olympics with a spectacular display of harmonised paddle twirling. I am disappointed to report that my renditions of 1980’s tunes by The Housemartins were once again shunned as appropriate musical accompaniment. Instead they came up with their own Highland version of a Kylie Minogue classic… “I should be so Lochy, Lochy, Lochy, Lochy.”

After reaching the end of Loch Oich, we paddled under the Aberchalder Swing Bridge and followed a man-made canal the rest of the way to Fort Augustus. Portages were required at Cullochy Lock and Kyrta Lock but these provided great opportunities to stretch our legs and look at the rural Scottish scenery from a different perspective. White water paddlers can avoid the portages by following the River Oich from Aberchalder to Fort Augustus but we opted for the more leisurely approach.

While portages can often be hard work, the Great Glen Canoe Trail features thoughtfully positioned trolleys to help you on your way. These can be opened by anyone with a sonic screwdriver and thankfully we had one of those. It is probably worth mentioning at this point that for administrative reasons you need to purchase a ‘canoe licence’ before paddling the Great Glen and your own personal sonic screwdriver (master key) is included in the cost of that.

A lovely tailwind assisted our progress through the canal so we breezed into Fort Augustus well ahead of schedule. Everyone except Jinny and Orla that is. For some reason they had dropped behind. We were just about to send out a search party when we saw them sailing around the corner, and I do mean sailing. They say a picture is worth a thousand words so I will let this one do the talking.

Sailing

Day 5 – Meeting Nessie

Today the sensational six became a dynamic duo. The holidays of Orla, Jinny, John, and MA had sadly come to an end, and Sam said he needed to get on the mull. We were shocked! Surely we hadn’t stressed him out that much? We were relieved to eventually discover he meant the Isle of Mull where Kayak Scotland had been booked to take another group paddling.

Myself and another paddler called Jack linked up with Donald MacPherson from Explore Highland who kindly took us to Tesco to stock up on groceries before dropping as at the southern end of Loch Ness with the gear we were to be using for the next two days. Once again the equipment was excellent. P&H Scorpio sea kayaks and Lendal paddles. Nice.

Loch Ness

There had been reports of seven foot waves on Loch Ness a couple of days earlier but we arrived on a gorgeous sunny day. The only ripples in sight were ones created by two boisterous collies playing in the water nearby. The Celtic gods seemed to be smiling on us as we set off to take on the full 37 kilometre length of the loch, so we confidently elected to follow the more exposed southern shoreline because it promised prettier scenery and an enhanced feeling of remoteness.

If you’ve read a lot of my guides, you’ll know that I am fascinated by islands. I seek them out and I always like to go in for a closer look. Cherry Island is the only island in Loch Ness. It is 150 metres from the northern shore of the loch not far from Fort Augustus. To see it required a short detour but I couldn’t resist. Cherry Island looks like a natural rocky outcrop no more than 50 square metres in size on which a number of trees have managed to take hold. However, it is actually a partially submerged crannog three times as large as that on which a castle was built in the 1400s.

On our way across to the southern shore, we discovered the water was lumpier that it had looked from the start. I would be lying if I said there weren’t one or two wobbly moments as we tried to get a feel for our new kayaks and their unfamiliar skeg systems. The possibility of monsters lurking in the icy cold 230 metre deep waters below wasn’t exactly helping to soothe the nerves and panic nearly set in when Jack felt a bump on the bottom of his boat.

We found calmer conditions on the other side. We hugged the shoreline marvelling at the steep wooded landscape and enjoying the sight of sparkling waterfalls bouncing through smooth channels carved in the countryside. Places to land are few and far between on the southern side of Loch Ness so we were delighted to find a perfect spot just as lunch time approached. It felt like we were the only people in the world as we spread out between the blue bells and birch trees and listened to the peaceful sounds of nature.

We weren’t alone for long. A dragon shaped creature appeared on the rocky shore. Oh my god! Could the stories be true? The Loch Ness Monster?

Nessie

Despite our initial shock and some ongoing communication problems, it soon became apparent Nessie didn’t mean us any harm. In fact, she offered to guide us for the remainder of the trip and she has since joined the Global Paddler team in Australia.

After lunch, we paddled to our campsite at Foyers Trailblazers Rest which has canoe racks, a toilet, a fire pit, and a wind shelter. We set the tent up between the beech trees on a soft pile of fallen leaves and settled in for a relaxing evening. It was a picture book rural setting. A friendly Yorkshire man walked past with his three dogs, a tiny brown mouse paid us a visit, and baby lambs raced along a paddock fence on the hill behind us wearing a track in the grass. Another kayaking group arrived late in the evening but they camped a respectable distance away and seemed to enjoy the serenity as much as we did. We drifted off to sleep dreaming of smooth waters and the opportunity to visit world famous Urquhart Castle on the northern side of Loch Ness the following day.

Day 6 – Blown away

Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse. The wind was much stronger and there was a decent chop on the water. We launched tentatively, trying moderately successfully not to get swamped in the process. The conditions were extremely difficult. It would have been tough if all the waves were going in the same direction, but these were bouncing back into each other off the rocky shores resulting in a chaotic clapotis that magnified into complete mayhem as we paddled past the seawall of the Scottish Hydro-Electric power station. To top it off, gale force gusts were sporadically and unexpectedly whistling down the valley wall seemingly intent on knocking us off our precarious perches.

We decided to pull the plug and call for help at the next available opportunity. This wound up being just one hour later at Inverfarigaig. I felt a little bit sheepish about calling Donald but he said he was relieved to hear from us because there had been word on the radio about a pair of paddlers who had to be rescued and he had feared the worst.

After picking us up, Donald kindly drove us to Dores at the eastern end of Loch Ness so we could see where we would have been going on a good day. Our decision to leave the water was further justified when we found it difficult to push open the car doors let alone stand upright on the beach.

Dores is the location of Steve Feltham’s Nessie Research Centre. Steve has dedicated his life to looking for the Loch Ness Monster. He didn’t appear to be home when we were there, but Nessie opted to stay hidden in the car just in case…

After seeing so much of Scotland’s magnificent Great Glen I am a little disappointed not to have completed the canoe trail from end to end, but it does give me a great reason to go back to my motherland and do it all again. If you want to paddle the trail yourself, I wholeheartedly recommend you read Donald MacPherson’s Great Glen Canoe Trail guidebook before you set off.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.