Routemaster in-depth: The quieter side of Ness
Away from the hordes of monster-spotting tourists, Paul Miles enjoys unhindered views of Loch Ness’ famous Highland scenery from a new trail that explores its less-visited southern shores
“There’s always a sighting of the monster at the start of the tourism season,” admits a tourism official in Loch Ness, who’d best remain nameless. Nessie’s latest appearance was, fortuitously, in May. In the visitor information office in Fort Augustus there’s a blurry photograph and an account by a Mr William Jobes, who describes a “large, hump-like shape travelling towards the middle of the loch”.
The monster myth dates back to the sixth century and is still very much alive. One man, Steve Feltham, has lived in a camper van on the loch shores for 20 years, doing ‘independent monster research’ and selling knick-knacks to the tourists. Business must be good. When I visited in September, I found his neighbour feeding the cat. Feltham had flown to Cyprus for the winter.
Nessie has brought international fame to this 244m/800ft-deep loch. According to the same tourism official, a 1992 article in the South China Post that listed ‘Ten facts about Britain’ stated as number three: ‘In the north of the country is a lake with a monster.’ (Fact number one was: ‘Britain is ruled by Queen Margaret Thatcher.’)
No wonder, then, that the 37km/ 23-mile-long loch attracts hundreds-of-thousands of visitors each year. Most stay on the north shores, having hurtled along the busy A82. The majority of walkers also head north, following the route of the 117km/73-mile-long Great Glen Way that joins the Atlantic to the North Sea.
Along the south coast of the choppy waters, meanwhile, there are only small roads – often single-track. “The south is still relatively wild and unexplored,” says Graeme Ambrose of Destination Loch Ness. “Hardly anyone goes there, compared to the north, and there’s a real feeling of emptiness.” But now, thanks to an initiative by Graeme’s employers, the south is preparing for more visitors – of the rambling variety.
Boost for less-visited south
A new hiking path, the 45km/28-mile-long South Loch Ness Trail, opened in August after two years of negotiations, fundraising and manual labour. “Much of it connects lengths of existing paths, bridleways and small roads,” says Graeme, who hopes that the £200,000 trail will boost the economy of this lesser-visited area and encourage visitors to stay longer.
“Ultimately, the aim is for the trail to link up with the Great Glen Way to create a footpath all around Loch Ness.” For the moment, though, the blue posts with a squirrel that waymark the trail run between Loch Tarff, four miles north of Fort Augustus, and Torbreck, three miles south of Inverness.
Although walkers can roam almost anywhere in Scotland, landowners may not want to actively encourage hikers across their land with a designated footpath. This means that, as well as stopping short of the towns, there are stretches of the route that follow the ‘main’ B road (though a quick look at an OS map shows more pleasant alternatives on minor tracks). This is a sensitive issue and one that Graeme is reluctant to discuss, fearing that encouraging walkers to go off-trail may jeopardise development of the route.
“We see what we’ve done so far as Phase One,” he says. “Most landowners – the biggest one being the Forestry Commission – have been very cooperative, but we’re still negotiating with some.”
Despite the tarmac stretches, local hikers are happy that the region – known as Stratherrick – is opening up. “It’s a wonderful walk, varying between upland fields, rough pasture and small hills,” says Harry Lakeland of Inverness Ramblers. “There are terrific views, but only one or two steep gradients.” After a comfortable night’s sleep in Fort Augustus, I can’t wait to start.
Hide-and-seek with Ness
I leave my luggage with a local baggage- transfer service and set off in a taxi to the trailhead at Loch Tarff. The wind ripples this small loch, and the sky is grey as I hike up through heather along the newly gravelled path. Other walkers, descending, warn: “The wind will blow your head off at the top!” Before long, I’ve made the easy ascent to the trail’s highest point, at 393m/1,289ft. Clouds scud past a rainbow-arched landscape of hills, forestry plantations, a handful of houses and the small B862 meandering off into the distance. There are lochs in all directions but, surprisingly, none are Loch Ness.
Despite its name, the South Loch Ness Trail is not a water-side route and for much of the time the mile-wide loch is not visible, hidden behind hills or forests. But when you do get to see Ness, it’s truly spectacular. The wonderfully named Fair Haired Lad’s Pass (333m/1,093ft) reveals the vast expanse of water between swathed curtains of purple heather, as you look across to Urquhart Castle and up to Inverness and beyond. It’s not always so dramatic. For much of the trail, the beauty is in the detail: bearded lichens on trees; a garden of mosses on an old stone wall; autumnal grasses waving in the wind. Deer are common, as are red squirrels, apparently (alas, I didn’t see any). There are old stone bridges, built by 18th-century General Wade, and small, isolated crofts.
All these notes build towards various crescendos, of which the Falls of Foyers – a small detour from the trail – is one. The main waterfall gushes with force through a narrow opening to cascade 50m/165ft. As early as the late 19th century, hydro power was being harnessed for aluminium manufacturing here. Foyers was such an important producer that the factory was bombed in World War Two. Although the damage was soon repaired, the industry didn’t last much longer.
The next day, Harry joined me with fellow Rambler Ed Simpson. On our hike up and out of Foyers, we talked of controversial plans for windfarms in the hills around Loch Ness. More than 200 turbines are proposed on four sites: 130 on moorland at Balmacaan, on the west side of the loch, with turbines 135m/443ft high; 23 units at a new farm on nearby Druim Ba; and an expansion of an existing farm in Glenmoriston. The third site is in the Monadhliath Mountains, to the south-east, whose rugged, wild flanks we viewed from rocks among heather and birch. The 31 turbines would be 125m/410ft high and fall just outside the boundary of the Cairngorms National Park.
It’s an ongoing threat to the country’s wild land, which Ramblers Scotland is keen to protect from further encroachment. “We need Scottish MPs to persuade the coalition government to modify the financial incentives around windfarms so the massive developments go off-shore, where there is less impact,” says Dave Morris, the charity’s director. “On land the focus should be on community, farm and croft developments with turbines of under 50 metres. If you carry on putting these huge turbines up around Loch Ness, there will come a point when tourists stop coming.”
It was a full day’s hike to the village of Dores, with only a small section among conifers above Inverfarigaig where more waymarkers would have been helpful. The panorama from Fair Haired Lad’s Pass is the high point, literally, and a perfect picnic spot. Such heavenly scenery contrasted with Harry’s tales of Aleister Crowley, the infamous “practitioner of the dark arts”, who early last century lived in a big house on the lochside below and relished upsetting the God-fearing population with his ‘occultist’ ways. Some locals are still ‘Sabbatarians’, as Harry calls them, and object to people hiking on the Sabbath. Thankfully, none seem to live on the route of the trail.
By the evening I was ready for my feast of haggis, tatties and neeps in the lochside Dores Inn, and a peaceful night’s sleep undisturbed by either evil or monsters. The next day I completed my walk, along quiet roads and pine-fresh forestry tracks with fine loch views. I didn’t spot Nessie. But they do say that you never see the monster on your first visit. I’ll be coming back…
Images by Steve Morgan.
TIME/DISTANCE: The 45km/28-mile South Loch Ness Trail takes around two-and-a-half days to complete at an easy pace, with some 400m/1,312ft of ascent.
MAPS: OS Explorer 416; Landranger 34.
TRAVEL TO: The nearest trains stop at Fort William and Inverness. A Citylink bus connects Fort William with Fort Augustus (& 0871 266 3333, www.citylink.co.uk), but you’ll need to take taxis to/from the trailheads. Loch Ness Travel provides a baggage-transfer service, as well as taxis (✆ 07711 429 616, www.lochnesstravel.com).
GUIDEBOOK: South Loch Ness by the South Loch Ness Heritage Group (£3, plus £1.16 p&p. ✆ 01456 486691 to order). A Country Called Stratherrick by Alan B Lawson (£9.99, South Loch Ness Heritage Group, ISBN 978 0955318801).
FURTHER INFO: www.visitlochness.com/south-loch-ness-trail.