Cutting a swathe across the Scottish Highlands, from Inverness in the north to Fort William in the south, the Great Glen is a wild and wonderful landscape, with spectacular natural and cultural heritage to discover
Words: Vivien Devlin
Scotland’s Great Glen truly deserves its name. Over 80 miles long, this untamed landscape follows a geological fault line from Inverness on the Moray Firth in the north east to Fort William on Loch Linnhe in the south west, slicing a diagonal path across the Highlands. With Loch Ness, Britain’s deepest freshwater loch, at its centre and the Caledonian Canal, considered to be one of the great waterways of the world, running along its length, this is a popular touring route for those interested in exploring Scotland’s history and the scenic beauty of the lochs and mountains.
If you are feeling energetic, the ideal way to explore this part of the Scottish Highlands is on foot along the 73-mile Great Glen Way, a challenging, long-distance walk between Inverness and Fort William. Taking between five and six days, the route incorporates canal towpaths, woodland tracks and hillside trails, with breathtaking views to take in along the way.
For most visitors, the biggest attraction is a visit to the legendary Loch Ness, which is 24 miles long, one mile wide and over 700 feet deep, with more fresh water than all the lakes of England and Wales combined. The peat-dark, deep waters are flanked on either side by green forests and purple heather-tinted, rugged mountains. If you don’t fancy negotiating its shores under your own steam, the A82 road south west from Inverness to Fort Augustus is a spectacular drive, hugging the shoreline as you witness ever-changing weather, shifting from early morning ethereal mist to clear bright blue skies.
For all of its natural wonders, Loch Ness is most famous for the legendary monster that is said to patrol its depths and the village of Drumnadrochit has become the ‘home of the Loch Ness mystery’. Here, the Loch Ness Centre hosts an exhibition described by Scottish Natural Heritage as a ‘portal to the unique phenomenon that is Loch Ness’. After a stroll around the museum you can take a boat trip to learn more about the loch, marine life, myths and monsters.
Near Drumnadrochit, perched high on a rocky promontory is the ruin of Urquhart Castle, which has seen some of the fiercest battles and feuds in Scottish history. Originally a medieval fortress, it was enlarged over 500 years to become a major stronghold. Following Edward I’s invasion it was taken by the English Crown. In the 14th century it was at the centre of the Wars of Independence under Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, and later attacked by the MacDonald Lords of the Isles. The history of the castle is well documented in a dramatic film shown at the visitor centre, where there’s also a café, shop and exhibition. During a tour you can stroll around the castle ruins, clamber up the steps to the top of towers and battlements for impressive views up and down Loch Ness.
An exciting way to reach Urquhart is by Jacobite Cruise. After sailing down the loch (with good commentary all the way), the boat moors at the jetty below the cliff from where you begin the climb up to the Castle. Boat trips include a coach trip from Inverness, entry ticket to the Castle and Loch Ness visitor centre.
For visitors looking for an extended cruise the Caledonian Canal, which opened in 1822, offers an alternative route across the Great Glen. This magnificent feat of engineering was the most ambitious building schemes undertaken by the government at a cost of £840,000. Designed by Thomas Telford and William Jessop and constructed between 1803 and 1822, it features 29 locks, 10 swing bridges and four aqueducts, built as an essential route to allow naval, cargo and leisure steam ships avoid the treacherous waters of the Pentland Firth and Cape Wrath around the north coast of Scotland. The canal carves its way through the Great Glen for 60 miles, linking four natural lochs – Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Ness and Loch Dochfour – along the way.
While you can walk or cycle along the towpath between the locks, the best, hands-on way to explore the entire route is by luxury barge, the Scottish Highlander. With en suite cabins, wing armchairs, paintings of stags and mountains and whisky bar, it has the comforts of a Scottish Country House for up to eight passengers. It’s fascinating to watch the lock-keepers at work, opening the sluices to raise (or lower) the water level. British Waterways protects this natural habitat for oyster catchers, herons, amphibians and the endangered bumble bee. Patrolling the woodland of Scots Pine, bluebells and yellow broom along the banks are tits, finches, warblers, wagtails, green mallard and goosander ducks. On the open lochs, gulls, buzzards and eagles swoop and soar. This is a relaxing, all-inclusive house party, boating adventure over three to six nights, with daily excursions to Ben Nevis, castles and distilleries, and opportunities for walks and bike rides in between.
Straddling the Caledonian Canal is the charming old village of Fort Augustus, where a long ladder of locks leads down to Loch Ness. This is a lively destination for boating, yachting and barging sailors, motoring visitors, bikers and walkers. While here, you can browse gift shops, art galleries and woollen mills, or take time out in the pubs and cafes.
Before embarking on a journey along the canal at Inverness, it is well worth taking time to explore this so-called ‘capital of the Highlands’ – not least to visit the city’s cathedral and Inverness Castle. Over the centuries a succession of castles have been erected on this same spot overlooking the River Ness, but the latest was built in 1836 by architect William Burn. Today, the castle is home to Inverness Sheriff Court, which provides court services to the local area.
To the west of the city is Cawdor Castle, another spectacular fortress which was built in the 14th century and is said to have provided the magical setting for Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Inside, this fairy-tale Castle is furnished with tapestries, treasures and artwork of the Thanes of Cawdor. Today, the castle is the home of the Dowager Countess Cawdor, although visitors are invited to come and enjoy a tour. While here, you can explore the walled gardens, orchards and maze and visit the restaurant, cashmere, tweed and gift shops; musical and theatrical events in summer.
Nearby is Culloden Moor Battlefield, where the Jacobite army attempted in vain to reclaim the British throne for Charles Stuart in a bloody battle on 16 April 1746. Today, the National Trust of Scotland’s Culloden visitor centre recreates the battlefield as it would have appeared at the time, with an interactive exhibition featuring superb interpretation panels, videos, recorded interviews and armoury. For the brave there is also a commentary-guided walk around the Moor, providing a chilling audio tour of the site of this brutal conflict.
North of Inverness is the Moray Firth, which boasts its own eco-climate with low rainfall and high hours of sunshine, stunning coastline of cliffs and white sand beaches. Offshore there is the opportunity to see amazing wildlife, including bottlenose dolphins, seabirds, otters, ospreys, seals, harbour porpoises, basking sharks and minke whales. The best viewpoints are the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society’s nature reserve at Spey Bay, and Dolphin and Seal centre at North Kessock.
From the ancient fishing port of Cromarty at the tip of the Black Isle, it is possible to take an Ecoventure speedboat trip for close up encounters with the dolphins, while the town itself is rich in character and preserved architecture. After exploring the historic harbour, Georgian merchant houses and Birthplace museum of geologist and writer Hugh Miller, take a walk along South Sutor coastal path, where you can enjoy panoramic views over the Firth and seven counties from the top of plunging sea cliffs.