Great Glen Way - Day 3 - 14.3 miles - 'Nessie'
The driver of the No. 919 Citylink bus from Inverness to Fort William was in a strop.
Traffic had been heavy on his first journey of the day, he told us in clipped tones, knocking back subsequent services.
Some commercial carrier had nabbed his space at the bus stand.
And people were faffing as they disembarked, delaying the 11.05 further.
Then the heavens opened.
The bus driver wasn’t the only one having a frustrating morning.
First the kitten at my AirBnB kept trying to steal my breakfast. Standing up with the toast made no difference – the kitten started making flying jumps from the cooker, then the cooker hob.
Second, after two days of flawless sunshine the weather had finally broken into a good Scottish summer soaking.
Third, I had a two hour commute to Invermoriston before I could even start the day’s walk.
So it was waterproofs on and find a bus stop.
I waited. And I waited. With the repeating Will it? Won't it? rollercoaster of anxious expectation followed by leaden disappointment that is familiar to both bus users and problem gamblers.
Waiting for a bus in an out-of-town housing estate in a city you don’t know is close to an act of faith. With no timetables at the request stands and no locals braving the rain I was basing my expectations on the fact that I was on one of the main roads into the centre. Didn't buses serve these kind of routes at 15 or so minute intervals? Or was that just capital cities?
All the time I was waiting the clock was ticking. If I missed the 11.05 to Fort William I’d lose a day of LeJog.
So I did something the LeJoger really doesn’t want to do: I voluntarily added two miles to my day by walking into the centre of Inverness.
Much of today's walk was similar to yesterday's: more reinstated woodland, more heather hills, another high-road alternative opening views over and above Loch Ness.
But you can walk the same mountain path every day of a lifetime and never see it the same twice.
Today it’s the weather that transforms the landscape. At the leg's 330 metre high point I have lunch in a stone shelter watching as clouds roll down the valley and rainshadows trail north over the Monadhliath mountains across the gulf of the Loch.
Nearer at hand mists rise from below and fold over the hilltops. Within the space of minutes the crags are lost and fingers of cloud enclose the pines.
The mist hangs heavy as the path descends through areas of recent felling, where lone pines form silhouette skeletons.
Then, cresting the hill, the path finds an old oak copse – remnant of a much older forest. It’s silent in here, a preternatural quiet broken by drops of rainwater falling from moss. Here the mist feeds the witch’s hair lichen – Alectoria Sarmentosa – that drapes gnarled, bending boughs.
Then a magic moment. The sun bursts through the clouds above. Sunbeams, fractured by the canopy, cast Cathedral lightbeams in the mist. It is a moment that holds and doesn’t let go until the mist thins and the sun dims.
And another: below Meall Doire Bhrath, a huge pathside ring wrought from Caledonian Pine boughs called The Viewcatcher. It has been erected to frame the view. But it needs no justification The ring – made by an anonymous sculptor – is good enough to be the focus, first looming on the horizon, then up close, then in retrospect. A reminder that in these lonely uplands the hand of creativity and craftsmanship is at work.
The Viewcatcher was one of several features funded by the Forestry Commission’s £1 million addition of high level routes to the Great Glen Way. The others are stone shelters, a fairytale bridge made using ideas from local schoolkids and stone seats scattered along the way.
None of these features need to be there. Money could have been saved and a great path still constructed.
But they make for memories and talking points, pauses on the walk that – even when it feels remote – show that thought, creativity and generosity has shaped the landscape.
They are the results of a generational change in Forestry Commission’s strategy.
The Commission was set up in the aftermath of the First World War when Britain’s lack of woodland – covering just five per cent of Britain's land mass – was recognised as a strategic threat.
On 8 December 1919 the first trees were planted in Devon as part of the newly launched Commission’s role to rebuild the country's strategic timber reserve.
In the early years the blanket-planted pinewoods provided timber for mine pit props.
Nowadays timber production – for both internal and export markets – forms just one strand of the Commission’s work. The FC is also active in tree disease research, developing ecosystems and leisure and recreation, managing woodlands that are enjoyed by the nation's walkers, cyclists and holidaymakers. The Commission woods of today – with their mixed planting and natural landscaping, cycle trails, picnic spots and holiday chalets – would be unrecognisable to early Commissioners.
Forestry now covers about 2.5 million acres – 13 per cent of Britain’s land area – a huge increase since the Commission was formed nearly a century ago. It makes the Commission the largest land owner and manager in Britain.
It has been interesting seeing the change in FC focus laid out on the ground. Not only have I been able to follow paths like the Great Glen high route alternatives which were not available to those walking the Way a decade ago, I've also enjoyed walking through richer woodlands growing among the rotting monoculture stumps of the past. What I thought would be one of the more tiresome legs of my LeJog route north of the border has turned out to be a highlight – pacing through forests of the future.
At Grotaig the trail levels at an upland plateau. It has the feel of frontier country – little crofts with a lot of land. Polytunnels, allotments, beehives and wind turbines point to off-grid self sufficiency. There’s a pottery, chickens wandering in the gorse and the most beautiful tuckshop I’ve come across on LeJog: a lovely piece of woodworking with embroidered Fáilte sign inside. It's made by David and Kerri Ramsaidh and is packed with home-made goodies.
I pay my £1.50 and munch flapjack on the seat alongside.
Then down into Drumnadrochit – a town with a name that sounds like a cross between an expletive and a complex metalworking tool.
If there's a spiritual home to Nessie, it is here. Every other shop has monster branding or a monstrous name.
The logos I particularly love.
You sympathise with the local graphic designer. How many times during their career have they fielded calls from local businesses wanting to “somehow incorporate the Loch Ness Monster” into their logo?
In the '70s you’d have been asked for a colourful sketch of Nessie to go with the Comic Sans typography. In the '80s the brief would have been for something slicker. In the '90s subtle and sleek illustrative monsters would have been paired with no-frills Helvetica or Arial. Now it’s back to the '70s – this time with a modern, ironic twist.
But it clearly works. Tourists throng round the village green, overflowing from the pubs and leaving gift shops with bags full of Nessie memorabilia.
Me? Despite keeping a close eye on the Loch as I've walked for two days above its north bank, I've yet to spot the lurking monster. It's a shame. It had been on my Scottish wildlife wishlist, along with dolphins and a golden eagle.
Still, I have one more day left.
And if I fail to spot Nessie I can always get as cross as the 11.05 bus driver and shout out – at the top of my voice (and in my best Sottish accent, of course) – Drumnadrochit!