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Day 71: Caledonia

Fort William to Laggan Locks. 23 miles. Miles to date: 1069.1.

Around 400 million years ago, at the end of the Caledonian orogeny, the North American Laurentian Craton and Baltic Shield collided to create the Great Glen Fault

– a 300 miles strike-slip fault that marks the boundary between the the Grampian Highlands (southeast) and Northern Highlands (northwest).

Had the North American Laurentian Craton and Baltic Shield not collided, half of the Scottish Highlands (and a lot of Ireland) would have stayed floating around in the North Sea with a few hundred miles of water between it and mainland Britain. Which may have suited some of today's Scots rather well.

The result of this tectonic collision was the Great Glen, a 62 mile rift valley that cuts through the mountains from Inverness to Fort William. Five lochs lie in the fault: Loch Linnhe; Loch Lochy – the Neville Neville or Boaty McBoatface of Scottish waterways; Loch Oich; Loch Dochfour; and monster hangout Loch Ness, which contains more fresh water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined.

Travellers have made use of the Great Glen for thousands of years. It was the route taken by St Columba in the first Century AD as he attempted to convert the Pictish Highlanders. And since 2002, a mix of footpaths, tracks and towpaths have made it possible to walk coast-to-coast on the Great Glen Way – a LeJoggers' gift as it offer a quick and easy means to cross the country and set them up for their final northwards assault on John o'Groats.

So it was that after taking advantage of Fort William's tourist facilities (offloading maps, restocking cash), I made my way to the start of the Great Glen Way to walk my penultimate national trail.

It is a staggeringly lovely day.


Since I entered the Scottish borders three weeks ago I've only had three days of rain, and only one of them was a washout.

If Scotland's world-class beaches, forests, mountains, towns and lochs had the climate of the south of France – and no midges – it would be a no-brainer of a holiday destination. So it's proving as I wander through the buzzy streets of Fort William, along Loch Linnhe to find the start of the Great Glen Way.

Fort William: a one-street town which I didn't get the chance to properly explore.

Fort William waterfront.

Rather sweet Welcome sign, on a retail estate alongside McDonalds, with hanging baskets of plastic flowers.

After a short wander round the houses the Great Glen Way starts its journey on the towpath of the Caledonian Canal – arguably the most beautiful manmade waterway in Britain. The last time I walked a towpath was pretty much my low point of LeJog. But this one's different. It's busier, there's gongoozling interest around every bend, and the surroundings – heather-cloaked mountains, old woods – are captivating and grand.

Besides, everything looks different on this perfect summer's day.

The Canal – designed by Thomas Telford – was built for two reasons. Firstly, to provide safer passage for ships travelling from the east coast of Scotland to the west than the Pentland Firth and fearsome Cape Wrath. Secondly, to provide jobs for and stem the emigration of Scots in the aftermath of the Highland Clearances.

It was to prove a fraught construction project. Not only was the canal delivered over a decade late and massively overbudget, but Telford couldn't rely on the low-skilled local workforce so had to import navvies from Ireland – plus ça change.

Like the Union Canal I walked just a week previously, the canal was to be obsolete almost from the word go, only this time it wasn't railways that proved its commercial undoing but bigger, better boats; in the 19 years since the waterway's inception shipbuilding technology had advanced to such an extent that almost all new merchant and navy craft were too bulky to use the canal. The Caledonian Canal was stillborn as a technically brilliant white elephant.

So it became the plaything of pleasure-seekers.

Today the canal is a popular nautical highway through the Highlands, with sailing boats and yachts in sparkling white cruising alongside me, holidaymakers soaking up the sun and champagne as they made their way east.

It didn't look a bad way to travel.

Busy day in Neptune's Staircase, an eight lock flight that raises the canal by 19 metres over a quarter mile.

Neptune's Staircase.

Wildflowers and heather hills.

As I strolled happily along the towpath I was struck by how few walkers were about. The Great Glen Way was conceived to take advantage of the long distance walking boom that the West Highland Way unleashed, but it clearly has nothing like the pull: over 23 miles I met just a handful of backpackers. It's a shame: there was more charm on parts of this walk than on a lot of the WHW. Maybe the peace and quiet is part of that.

At the Rosearn swing bridge the Great Glen Way splits into three: kayakers continue into the waters of Loch Lochy; cyclists take the high road along forest tracks; while the walker is guided down to the lochshore for a few miles of the loveliest walking of my LeJog trip.

While on the shores of Loch Lomond the footpath is often crowded by trees, here the Way meanders through sparse birch, Scots pine and oak copses, panoramas of the fjord-like Lochy just a few steps away from the many beaches. And whereas on Loch Lomond each bay hosted a camping party or BBQ, here every one is deserted. On one I took off my sweaty boots and lay in the sun alongside a crumbling fishing boat for a half hour, bare feet in the sand, as the waves flopped lazy onto the shore.

On a different day I might have been reluctant to move on. But I could have weaved through the heather and buttercups above Lochy's shimmering waters for days and still not had my fill.

The reassuringly blue waymarker of the Great Glen Way.

It is difficult to convey exactly how nice it is to take off your boots and socks after miles of sweaty walking and feel sand under your toes.

I should be so Lochy.

I went in briefly. Strange place. There was a special exhibit on 'The Big Society', and another detailing episodes from the Clan's past, including a story about a pig's head and one warning about the perils of referenda. Nice way to chillax for a couple of minutes though.

Nessie! Oh no, wrong Loch!

The lochside path was a joy. Every step of the way.

It was almost like a landscape painter had envisioned the perfect Highland landscape.

Shortly before Banurkaig the path joins a loch side road where information boards detail the unlikely role the Loch played in World War II.

Here, in the pristine waters and among the quiet hills, more than 25,000 allied commandos were trained between 1942 and 1946.

From their base at nearby Achnacarry Castle British Commandos, US Army Rangers and commandos from France, the Netherlands, Norway, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Belgium not only underwent rigorous strengthening exercises, but enacted full-scale beach assault landings – under fire of live ammunition – in training for D-Day.

One information board details the commando training marches: seven miles in under 70 minutes and 15 miles in 170. I'm pleased if I'm averaging three miles an hour. I would – clearly – have failed the commando grade.

At Clunes the GGW enters Clunes Forest on a wide forestry track.

After its idyllic wander through the woods anything would be a disappointment, and I'm not a huge fan of plantation walking. But there's shade, tantalising glimpses of rocky fells above (and towering Ben Nevis in retrospect – a fearsome cliff face from this angle), burns tumbling out of the canopy dark and the occasional enchanted side path striking deep into the forest like the start of a fairytale.

Besides, I'd had my money's worth for the day. Twenty miles to walk that stretch of lochside loveliness had given me satisfaction and memories enough to make light work of the final few miles to the tiny canalside hamlet – still basking in the afternoon heat – of Laggan Lochs.

Clunes Forest School. 80 pupils per intake.

Through Clunes Woods. I tried calling his name but no sign of Martin.

Respectable heights of Glengarry Forest above.

Enchanted path through the woods.

Laggan Lochs – stopping point for the day.



Previous: Day 70 – Kinlochleven to Fort William.

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