Fort Augustus to Laggan – Or so it should have been!

At Laggan Lochs I am asked by the cafe manager, “You’re not thinking of walking it there are you?” knowing I’ve just come in from Fort Augustus. Before I answer she continues “Let me tell you it’s a funny old walk, it seems to be longer, some how farther than you think”

Continued from Yep, that’s steep.  I am staying at one of the independent hostels by Loch ness on my way to Laggan on the Great Glen Way.  By the time I awake at MORAGS LODGE LOCH NESS, some people in the six person dormitory have slept,  got up and gone. I didn’t even see them. It’s 9am and I just manage to catch breakfast before bread, cereals and cutlery are cleared. Taking a walk outside I’m surprised how good I feel. The beginning of some small foot blisters but nothing too serious.

Morags Lodge, Fort Augustus to Laggan
Morags Lodge, Fort Augustus to Laggan

According to my map, day three’s terrain is classified as flat. Excuse me if I’m a tad sceptical. My walk is along the Caledonian Canal from Fort Augustus to a destination still to be decided. As soon as I clip on my backpack I know the internal petrol tank is running low. Everything feels heavy. Although the towpath surface is flat I can’t seem to get into a rhythm or comfortable stride pattern. I stop at the first lock and take ten minutes or so to consume what already is much needed food and water. I’ve only just started, this could be a long day.

There are lots of building projects taking place along the route. Along certain sections there are notices which read “You are entering a building site. Please take care”. Paths are being rolled, canal walls fixed, gravel laid and the obligatory tree culling is once again a regular sight. Either my boots don’t like the new gravel which moves under foot, or I’m still in recovery mode from yesterday. There is a constant drizzle, very little nautical traffic and the canal feels mundane, and I feel pedestrian in movement. One mile replicating one after the other. Due to the ongoing works there is a need to cross over the canal which deviates from the printed map. Just past Invergarry I take the opportunity to sit down and get some decent carbohydrates inside me at the canal side cafe.

Caledonian Canel, Fort Augustus to Laggan
Caledonian Canel, Fort Augustus to Laggan

Due to the fact I’m firing on all cylinders I decide to make the  challenge to reach Gairlochy and an overnight would give me chance to explore Gairlochy Lighthouse.  I map check and a  secondary check with the cafe manager confirms, Laggan Locks is another two miles, and Gairlochy another 12 miles. I walk on but the seed is set.

I’m been told by numerous travellers, when you get to Laggan Locks stop at the Eagle Barge Inn which is in fact a floating pub. The Eagle is a large Dutch barge which was built in 1926. Once decommissioned it was bought, refurbished and turned into a floating pub/restaurant, as it is today.  Some people can cycle, walk or even run, stop, have a beer and continue. Drinking alcohol and exercise doesn’t work for my metabolism.  I’m sat down with a early afternoon tea at The Eagle Barge Inn when four of the friendliest boaters you would ever want to meet arrive. Collectively they’ve decided no more sailing today as they they sample the local whiskey(s). I’m invited to swap tea for beer, but decide drinking the afternoon away is probably not a good idea.

I check the time,15.00. “Excuse me” I say, getting the bar manager’s attention, “How many miles to Gairlochy?” A moment’s pause, “Oh I’d say 11 to 13 miles” she’s quickly worked out my question. “You’re not thinking of walking it there are you?” knowing I’ve just come in from Fort Augustus. Before I answer she continues, “Let me tell you it’s a funny old walk, it seems to be longer, some how farther than you think”

Fort Augustus to Laggan, Laggan Lochs
Fort Augustus to Laggan, Laggan Lochs

I’m going…I’m staying…I’m going…I’m staying…By 15.20 I’ve left  made a start for Gairlochy. On route I call central reservations and make a B & B booking as there aren’t any hostels in the village area. All I need to do now, is get there. Although the path edges the canal, there is a lining of trees which obliterates any long distance views. This results in a sense of walking from one specific point to another. The enclosed scenery and paths become a tunnel. She was right it’s a strange walk, well walking on my own it is.  My body is starting to send out distress signals, certain parts are beginning to mutiny. The main militant are feet. Now walking on blisters, with a hard surface to overcome, the ten digit comrades are not happy. I know strike action is planned as they send out recruitment messages to calves and hips via slight twinges of cramp. Shoulders will take some persuading to join in the creeping strike action, but collar bones may be the weak link.

From day one I’ve met many people (including assassins) walking and biking from Fort William to Inverness, but no other bugger seems to be walking Inverness to Fort William at the same time as me. Consequently prolonged chat with other walkers is zero.  In the distance, what’s this? My path is about to end and tarmac begins. Hooray, it can’t be far now. By all means I tell the militants, have a shop stewards’ meeting but defer the strike action: “We shall overcome”.   A sign…here we go…Gairlochy five miles!…Five miles that’s impossible, I’ve been walking for three hours. Something’s not right here. Out comes my phone…open up GPS and maps…location found…type in destination. .. buffer, buffer, buffer… distance five miles!

I can’t walk five miles, my body is hurting, all over. I sit down, take on food and water. Except for the bloody midges I could sleep here in my imaginary tent. I stay sensible, yes I could probably hitch a lift but that really is a poor decision and a cop out.  I give a directive to the body, stating food and water has been administered. We will be walking to Gairlochy, today. Hindsight, wonderful invention, I should have changed my mountain boots for a lighter terrain shoe. I’m paying the price. Hard rubber sole on tarmac, with a 12kg backpack is wrong, wrong, wrong. My feet are angry.  Actually they are are bloody furious!

All along the walk the Great Glen Walk signage has been excellent, no mistakes, no deviation perfect every step of the way. Although, following the signs I’m on a busy evening road with no pavement. I walk, step aside, let cars pass, walk, step aside, let car pass etc.  At last a sign takes me off the road, with one mile remaining. Down the hill, over the canal/lock bridge… I’ve arrived at Gairlochy. I’ve no food, no water, and no energy, I’m done.  Only thing to do is check on B&B location. Unloading myself and backpack onto a bench I ring the central booking line.

Very soon I’m through to a bright and breezy booking agent, Joanne. “Yes sir we have your reservation here, booked this afternoon. Right sir, where are you now?” she asks. “I’m in the village of Gairlochy, how far away is the B&B please?” Click after click on her PC. What she says next isn’t meant for my ears…”That can’t be right”…more PC clicks. Joanne beings with a cough “It looks as if you’re a hundred miles away from the accommodation”.  In times of despair throw humour at the problem. “Joanne, I can’t walk that far tonight” She goes into training mode “No sir and we wouldn’t expect you to at this time of night”.  I’m sure when attending the Customer Relationship training seminar in Milton Keynes the Training Manager would have commended Joanne on her “people skills” for such a reply.   It’s not Joanne’s fault. I’ve had a lovely walk, overall a great day. Here I am in the stillness of Gairlochy overlooking Loch Lochy and the Caledonian Canal. I’m not angry in the slightest in fact I’m holding back a huge bout of laughter at the situation.  Reaching out from a yoga breath I ask “Joanne, do you know what’s gone wrong here?” “Yes” she springs back at me. “Do you think you could tell me” I ask. She’s has a quick reply “Yes”. We have a silence stand off, is she going to tell me or do I need to ask.  “Joanne, are you still there” I ask as a silence breaker. “Yes” she replies. We are back to square one.  The afternoon booking has been allocated to Gairloch out in the Highlands of IV21, not Gairlochy a quiet hamlet, some dozen or so miles from Fort William.

Joanne eventually starts reading from the training script. They don’t have accommodation in the area of Gairlochy, she is very sorry for the error, although this isn’t the first time these towns have been booked in error. I will be given a full refund. We apologize for the error, thank you for your booking and hope you manage to find accommodation tonight.  Customer Relations Manager (Olivia) who was shadowing the call (listening in) provides feedback. “Joanne that was excellent. You provided information, accepted responsibility for the misunderstanding, rather than error I’d suggest, providing empathy to the customer. Yes my Milton Keynes “customer first” modules are really working”. “Olivia, don’t you think we could have tried to help him a bit more. After all he is sat out there with nowhere to stay due to our error, sorry misunderstanding?”.  “We are a professional Customer Relations Centre, not The Samaritans, I’m sure he will be alright. Excellent work again Joanne”

It’s a lovely evening, cool, quite, serene. Yes tranquil. Under different circumstances I could settle here and breath in the stillness until dark. However I need a bed.  I grab my phone, tap in a search for Gairlochy B&Bs, ringing the first number listed. No reply.  Onto the second listed number. A female voice answers. I tell her my tale of woe. Can she provide a bed? Yes is the answer, I tell this kind lady I’m on my way. I pick up my backpack which is now a dead weight. My feet are walking on crushed egg shells. Militancy has been suspended again, the B&B is less than a mile away, one more hill, then a shower, a drink, a bed. Hope I’m not hallucinating.

I don’t need to knock on the door, an elderly petite lady is waiting for me.“Hello my name is Jane, come in”. For the second time on this walk I’m on the verge of kissing a complete stranger.  Boots and backpack off in the hallway she takes me into her lounge, followed by tea and biscuits. Jane remains standing, asking for five minutes just to get the room ready. I’m left alone to peruse family photographs, holiday events, graduations, births, a marriage photograph from long ago, time and tide yellowing it’s edges. On a chair filled with cushions, lies open a  book which I suspect was being read until my call. Although B&Bs as a matter of course react to late evening travellers’ requests for ad hoc accommodation, I feel as if I’ve intruded into this lady’s home.  Jane shows me to my room which has two single beds. a shower, tea, radio, TV. The room is spotlessly clean with a view over fields and cattle, stretching to Loch Lochy. I may never leave.  Within five minutes there’s a knock at the door. Not surprisingly it’s Jane. “I’m going out” she tells me “picking up guests from Spean Bridge. I shouldn’t be more than 30 minutes”.  “Oh…” I mumble. “Is anyone else here, in the house?” “No just yourself. You can look after the house for me whilst I’m away can’t you?” With this she turns “Bye, see you later”.  I hear a door close, a car engine’s ignition switched on, wheels on gravel and she’s gone.

An hour ago, I was looking after a bag on a bench beside a canal. Now I’m alone, a stranger in someone else’s family home waiting for the owner and guests to return. I love backpacking, but oh the responsibilities!.

Right on cue, 30 minutes later a car arrives,with numerous voices filtering from the downstairs area. With my sentry duties complete I shower, put on a change of clothes and check the sorry sight which are my blistered feet.

Another knock at the door. Once again it’s my host “I thought you would like a sandwich. It’s cheese and tomato, is that alright? she asks putting down a plate of sandwiches.  “When you’ve eaten, when you’re ready come downstairs for a chat” she suggests.  It’s around 9.30pm when I leave my room for the requested “chat”. When I arrive in the living room Jane leaves, offering me a seat before doing so. She returns with a pot of tea and more biscuits. Tea poured and biscuits administered, she asks “Right young man, what are your views on Independence for Scotland?”.   At 11.00pm I return to my room having spent a very pleasant and educational bantering of opinions and ideas with Jane. Although into her mid 70’s she is bright, fiery, entertaining and opinionated on a whole range of subjects. This has become a really unusual and rewarding evening. A day I won’t forget for a while.

Continued in Walking in reverse.

And here is a summary of all the Hostels on the Great Glen Way.