Apart from some stunning viewpoints over Loch Ness towards the start of the day, the walk from Loch Ness Youth Hostel to Drumnadrochit is pretty forgettable. Luckily those views more than make up for the rest of it; Loch Ness is best appreciated from high up, and up high is exactly where the Great Glen Way goes from Alltsigh.
Thank goodness man-made forests get cut down every now and then, because without the timber wastelands that the chainsaws leave behind, walkers through Forestry Commission land would never see anything. Looking along Loch Ness from 300m above the level of the loch is worth any amount of climbing, and it's especially intriguing when the weather is doing strange things. 'Do you know the forecast for today?' I asked the warden at the Youth Hostel, and she sniffed the air and declared that there would be heavy rain. She was right, but only in part, for marching down the loch was a little, self-contained storm that completely entranced me.
I could see it being blown from the west, right along the wind tunnel that's formed by the Great Glen. From the high vantage point of the Great Glen Way I watched the storm as it approached; the sun shone and wispy cirrus clouds sat immobile above, but there in the distance the loch looked strangely out of focus as a cloud gently blew along the loch, trailing misty tentacles like an ethereal Portuguese man o' war. I only just cottoned on in time, because when it hit the rain kicked in so quickly I was soaked within half a minute; I barely managed to pull on my Gore-Tex when the cloud disappeared, leaving a steaming wake as the sun came out and started beating down again, just as it had been two minutes earlier. It's as if a witch has cast a spell on some poor bugger who's doomed to be followed round the world by his own personal rain cloud, and he chose this morning to drive along the Great Glen.
It only added to the sense of scale. When you're looking along a loch as impressively huge as Loch Ness, then it seems to make sense when complete weather systems just pass you by. No wonder people think there's a monster in there; it's such a big lake that it's a law unto itself.
Beauty and the Beast
It didn't take long to walk into Drumnadrochit; most of this stage of the Way is along enclosed forest tracks and boring minor roads, and it doesn't exactly encourage exploration. Drumnadrochit itself is a pretty village, centred round a village green with the busy A82 slicing through it, but although it proved a pleasant spot for lunch, I'd set my sights on a point two miles from town, back on the loch shore. Perched on the edge of Loch Ness and conveniently close to the thundering main road sits Urquhart Castle, and it has to be one of the most wonderful ruined castles in Scotland.
First, though, you have to get on the right wavelength. From Drumnadrochit the castle is an easy two-mile walk alongside the A-road, but despite the lorries, motorhomes and superbikes throttling along the tarmac, nothing prepares you for the onslaught of Urquhart. It's not the castle that slaps you in the face, but the tourism; Urquhart is one of the most photographed castles in Scotland and it feels like it.
It took me a little while to filter out the screaming kids, the jabbering busloads of tourists and the sheer influx of humanity (a task made slightly harder by my lack of exposure to this kind of thing over the last couple of months). This is the peak tourist season and I've already brushed against it on the West Highland Way, but for the most part I've been walking through the more obscure parts of the country and I've been a world away from the kind of holiday that involves screams of 'Dad, are we there yet?' But Urquhart Castle is a magnet for tourists driving along the Great Glen, and a quick glance at Scotland's road network shows that it's impossible to avoid the A82 if you want to do a round trip of northern Scotland. The result is a tourist magnet that has serious pull.
Luckily it's been designed well. The visitor centre is sensitively sculptured into the sloping loch shore and it copes well with the numbers, but it is a bit of a change from the twee and often fascinating museums you get at smaller Historic Scotland sites. When you walk down the stairs there's a well executed but minimal museum that describes the people who would have lived in the castle, but the rest of the centre is given over to an over-priced café and a shop selling Scottish tourist junk. Oh, and there's a cinema too, showing a film about the castle; obviously the designers figured that visitors would rather blob out in front of a video screen or buy bottles of Scottish whisky than spend time in a museum, and I guess they're right. It's a shame, because I often find the museums fascinating, but then I'm not used to tourist machines like Urquhart.
Happily the castle is well worth the £5.50 entrance fee, even if it's considerably more than the £3.50 fee for the likes of Melrose and Jedburgh Abbeys. The visitor centre might represent the brave new world of consumerism, but the castle is a beautiful reminder of days gone by. It can hardly fail to inspire, with its ruins sitting right on the edge of the loch, reeking of history. Perched on a peninsula that's surrounded on three sides by the deep waters of Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle was built not only as an easily defendable house for the owner, but to make the point that the local lord was a force to be reckoned with. Much of the castle is ruined now, but the atmosphere is still there, not least because the undulating ground on which it is built provides an endlessly varied series of vantage points from which to view the fortifications. Basically Urquhart Castle is worth the hype. It's one of those castles that appear on biscuit tins, and there's a reason for that; it's beautiful.
On top of that it has a history of bloody wars and sieges stretching from the 13th to the 17th century, during which it changed hands a number of times. But to me the history wasn't that interesting, because the real essence of Urquhart is of an impeccably romantic castle in an impeccably romantic setting, and once you manage to screen out the hive of tourist activity bubbling round the ruins, that's the key. Tourists come and tourists go, but Urquhart is stunning, whatever its story.
Back in Drumnadrochit I couldn't believe my luck when I spotted a sign for the Benleva Hotel, which was apparently voted CAMRA's Highland Pub of the Year for 2003. And did I go there for a few pints of the Cairngorm Brewery's Trade Winds and a fantastic meal? Oh, did I ever. Getting over food poisoning has never felt so good, and I'm happy to report that I'm back on fighting form after the sullen reporting of the last week or so.
There is one concern though, and that's the state of my feet. Breaking in my new boots hasn't brought on a huge rash of blisters – I have a couple, but they're nothing compared to the mayonnaise sandwiches of Cornwall – but after three days of plodding along the Way, I'm hobbling when I get into town. The problem is inside both my feet, towards the front; the balls of both feet hurt like hell, and although I'm not concerned about my ability to keep walking, it's like falling on a bruise every time I step.
Hopefully it'll clear and I'll be able to enjoy the last stint to John o'Groats. I hope so; it'd be good to end on a high note, with some enjoyable walking. It's been a long time since I could walk a full day without some kind of pain...