The lochs of the Great Glen are fabulous, which makes it disappointing that for most way the path is stuck in forest with nothing to look at except clouds of midges. Luckily the occasional views are legendary and Inverness is a lovely destination. However, the best is saved for last, and the final stage from Inverness to John o'Groats is a delight, if you can ignore the thundering traffic, the relatively uninteresting final two days and the drabness of John o'Groats itself... which isn't hard considering it's the last stage of the walk of a lifetime. I'll certainly never look at the weather map in the same way again...
After buying a new pair of walking boots and tracking down the only launderette in the Highlands, I set off along the Great Glen Way, along the Caledonian Canal and the shores of Loch Lochy. It's a lovely walk and my spirits start to pick up after the awful West Highland Way. I also have my first experience of freeze-dried trekking rations; actually, they're not too bad.
Unfortunately most of the views along the Great Glen are hidden behind man-made forests, but there are some delights along the way, like Fort Augustus and the south-west tip of Loch Ness. I desperately fight off the urge to go to the pub when I've still got miles to walk, and instead settle for a cup of tea. Very civilised.
A pretty forgettable walk broken only by the odd stunning view over Loch Ness, today is special because I visit Urquhart Castle, one of the most picturesque castles in Scotland. Perched on the shores of Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle is both incredibly overrun with tourists and serenely beautiful. Drumnadrochit also boasts a fantastic pub, which I enjoy immensely.
Oh, how disappointing the end of the Great Glen Way turns out to be. A long 18-mile slog through turgid landscape is nobody's idea of fun, and I spend most of the day in the company of other walkers who think the walk is a total waste of time. I develop serious problems with my feet and wonder about my new boots, but I meet up with Barry in Inverness and hit the town, dancing the night away in a local pub.
After a sleepless night in the Youth Hostel, I head off across the Kessock Bridge towards Dingwall. I meet Barry on the way and we team up, getting lost in the Scottish bush on the way. In Dingwall my B&B hosts are nowhere to be seen and I spend an hour and a half being mistaken for a homeless man before finding a room elsewhere.
Dosed up on painkillers from Barry, I manage to walk normally for the first time in days. Barry and I team up again to tackle the short hop to Alness, following the Cromarty Firth with its pretty views and families of floating oil rigs anchored just offshore.
I realise I'm in danger of enjoying myself again, and Barry and I share a delightful walk to Dornoch. It's pretty uneventful except for a chance meeting with a bunch of crusties in Tain, whose abuse of the English language just has to be documented.
I start to talk about the A9, the road that we increasingly have to stick to in order to get to John o'Groats. Walking along the Dornoch Links (one of the top 20 golf courses in the world) Barry and I stride along the A-road to Golspie, after which we walk along the shore by Dunrobin Castle, the fairy-tale home of the powerful Duke of Sutherland.
Most of the day is spent walking along the A9, and I write about the irritation of having to stick to the side of a busy road. Luckily our destination of Helmsdale is pleasant, and it turns out to be one of the favourite haunts of the late Dame Barbara Cartland. It 's a good place for a rest day, and I'm ready for the final push.
I say goodbye to Barry, as he's not taking a rest day, and I tackle this section over the windswept Ord of Caithness on my own. I visit the old settlement of Badbea, where families scraped together a living on the cliffs and had to tie their children down to prevent them from blowing off the cliffs. As it's my birthday I treat myself to a can of Irn-Bru, Scotland's favourite soft drink, and I explain why the Scottish are in love with the stuff.
Not one of the most interesting walks in the country, the section to Wick is flat, featureless and entirely along the A-road. Luckily Wick has a Wetherspoon pub – the northernmost one – and I discover the heart-warming story of Tim Davis, who spends his free time taking the train to all the Wetherspoon pubs in the country (he's visited 618 so far, but not the one in Wick). Amazing.
I'm still getting blisters, even after 1100 miles, but at this stage I don't care too much. Again the road walking isn't interesting, but I meet plenty of friendly cyclists on the way to John o'Groats, and when I finally get there I find Barry waiting for me. Together we head off to Duncansby Head, the true end of the End-to-End walk, and that's the end of the walk. Cue some interesting facts and some final thoughts, followed by...