Among the heathy hills and ragged woods… – Robert Burns, ‘Lines on the Fall of Fyers near Loch-Ness, written with a pencil on the spot, 1787’
The mental disadvantage to breaking the Great Glen Way half way was that there was still nearly a whole day’s walking along … the Great Glen Way. More pine plantation.
That is perhaps a little unfair to a day’s walk which was far more varied than the day before had been; in any case we resorted to Peter May when the monotony got too much. But oddly enough that wasn’t during the plantation section. There was plenty to catch the eye and marvel over in the forest, including a six-foot high anthill, a towering construction in the soft pine-needle bedding, which on close inspection turned out to be a seething site of collective industry, every inch of surface crawling with ants numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
The spring growth on the conifers themselves, especially those self-seeded next to the forestry track, made them look as though they had been decorated with fairy lights, like Christmas trees.
We were walking down a festive corridor made up of a huge variety of conifers of which I could name only a few: larches, native pines and spruce. The larches were already loaded with this year’s crop of cones, deep red, and with a sticky protective coating of white sap.
In the damper grassy areas at the side of the path under the trees the first of the figwort was in flower, with its square cross-sectioned stem, its tiny red and yellow flowers so attractive to wasps,
and, unbelievably, bluebells were still in flower in places. We have had nine straight weeks of them; they have travelled with us up the country, together with the cuckoos which we heard for the first time on Exmoor.
Drumnadrochit provided a natural break at about lunchtime. It is Nessie Central, with a lone piper playing on the village green to the general delight of the coach parties of visitors, but we stopped at a café a little earlier, as soon as we had descended through oak woodland and farmland looking for all the world like Herefordshire or Shropshire.
Café Eighty 2 was a delightful surprise and we probably stayed too long there,
over-ordering from the supremely healthy menu because we couldn’t decide what to choose. Gigantic Kilner jar mugs of smoothie, bowls of leek and broccoli soup, huge smoked tofu and roast vegetable toasties with home-made bread, and a raw beetroot and mint cake.
It felt as though we were having a month’s fix of fruit and vegetables in one meal.
It was difficult to leave, but when we did the walk seemed more beautiful. The loch views were more aesthetically pleasing,
and the verges were studded with poppies, sun shining through their bright, tissue-thin petals.
And then it was up into plantation again, in a long section which seemed endlessly to ascend around the shoulders of Meall na h-Eilrig, eighty minutes during which we climbed from sea level to 350m. Some of the walking was desperately dull, such as this obscured ‘viewpoint’,
but at other times the land opened out, around a patch of hillside where in the Second World War parties of lumberjacks from Newfoundland had answered the call of the Old World to provide the timbers for anti-aircraft spears on beaches, pit props for mines, and packing cases for munitions. The ‘Newfie’ log cabins of traditional Canadian design are long gone, but traces of the steel hoists and concrete platforms are still there, buried under thick carpets of forest moss.
The sides of the path as it curved around the shoulder of the hill were often bare slabs of igneous intrusion, or blocks of hard sandstone,
at the base of which self-seeded conifers of all sizes took on the aspect of planned gardens.
In the air and light of the open areas foxgloves had colonised, slim, small-scale spires of pink amongst the conifers.
And then finally we were out of the plantation. About time too. Two days on the Great Glen Way felt quite enough. As we walked out onto the high ground towards the road on which Dan would meet us, we listened to his BBC Radio Scotland programme ‘When The Fleet Went Down’ about the party of schoolchildren who were the only civilian witnesses to the scuttling of the German fleet in Scapa Flow, one hundred years ago to the day.
While we were listening I had a close encounter with a handsome long-horned beetle who decided that my filthy trousers were a good place to take a rest break.
We met Dan by a newly-converted farmhouse on a windswept prospect overlooking the Boblainy Forest,
the air so clear that lichen was growing on all the fences, and had obliterated the footpath fingerposts entirely, giving it the air of a wild and forgotten landscape.
It was absolutely joyous to see Dan again – a long-planned meeting. It was so very kind of them to make it happen despite the derailing of our plans, since our visit is giving some extra hours of driving over the next few days.
Once back in Ullapool (driving through some of the most spectacular scenery in this entire island),
we had heavenly hot baths and showers, our machine-washed clothes were drying on the line, we had fabulous glasses of gin in our hands, and Stephen and Dan spent some serious map time planning a couple of days’ reasonable walk: 60km with an overnight wild camp, which would enable us to cram in a section of route remaining before the forecast thunderstorms blew in on Monday.