Taking the High Road | Cycling the Great Glen Way

Paul Glendell escapes the daily grind to tackle one of Scotland’s most scenic long-distance routes – although it is hard-earned on the trail’s infamous ‘high road’, riding a heavily-laden bike in blistering summer heat.

3rd February 2024 | Words and Pictures by Paul Glendell

It was hot. Very hot. In fact, it turned out to be the hottest day of the year in Scotland. The sweat was already pouring off me when I noticed the path ahead got even steeper. I was already leaning heavily over my handlebars, with my body angled at about 45 degrees to the ground. I had been pushing my bike up this thickly wooded path for nearly an hour. How much further was it going to go on like this? More to the point, why had I decided to take the high road? Oh yes, I remember – because of the view…

Two days earlier I had arrived in Inverness, having checked – twice – that I could take my bike on the bus to Fort William, where I intended to start my three-day ride along the Great Glen Way. The cheerful voice on the other end of the phone assured me that the bus driver would have a ‘bike bag’ for me to use. Of course, the reality was very different.

“Sorry, pal,” the driver said in a thick Scottish accent. “This isn’t th’ usual bus that does this route, it’s a replacement. Bit tae be honest, th’ bike bags juist git lost, ah dinnae think ony o’ th’ buses even hae thaim anymair. If ye kin cover th’ chain wi’ something, a bin bag even, then ah kin tak’ th’ bike. Ye’v git aboot twenty minutes afore ah lea, ah reckon that shop ower thare shuid hae some.” He really was trying to be helpful.

I couldn’t see which shop he meant, but there was a café right next to the bus stand. I explained the situation to the woman at the cash desk and was handed four bin bags, free of charge. I took the bungee strap off my bike rack and after some inventive wrapping, managed to secure the bags in place. The bus driver was perfectly happy with my work, and we set off to Fort William where I had planned to stay the night.

“Do you have anywhere I can put my bike overnight?” I asked the hotel receptionist.

“No problem”, he replied. “Just bring it in the hotel and I’ll show you”.

I felt a bit uncomfortable leaving tyre tracks on their lovely carpet as I headed to the lift, stood the bike vertically on its back wheel and followed him to what looked like an unused banqueting room on the first floor. Service indeed – it was probably the most comfortable night my bike had ever had.

Great Glen Way

The Great Glen Way is a 79-mile, mostly off-road walking and cycling route which runs from Fort William to Inverness in Scotland. It is, in reality, a continuation of the famous West Highland Way which runs from Glasgow to Fort William.

My first day ‘on the road’ was great, and mostly very easy. The start was only a couple of hundred metres from my hotel and while the sign and information at the trailhead were a bit uninspiring, the tranquil view across Loch Eil was a lovely way to start the day. The sun rose over the calm, almost glass-like water, reflecting a perfect blue sky. The first part of my route took me to Neptune’s Staircase, a series of eight locks on the Caledonian canal. A three-masted sailing ship was descending the 20-metre ‘staircase’ as I arrived and crowds had gathered, though not to see the ship. Instead, they were waiting to watch a steam train pass over the locks on what has become known as ‘the Harry Potter line’.

Great Glen Way

I forced myself not to spend any time at the handily placed café and set off along the canal tow path. Although I had purposely given myself three days to cover the distance, in order to have time to stop, take photos and just enjoy the ride, it really was a bit early for a coffee break.

Great Glen Way

For the next eight miles or so the path follows the canal to the tiny village of Gairlochy. Crossing a rustic swing bridge, it then follows a small undulating road along the side of Loch Lochy. With fluffy cotton-wool clouds in a still bright blue sky, I rode on past sheep-filled fields. This was just what I had hoped for on the trip. Soon, however, the route turned off onto a rough forest track that had been previously torn up by something a lot bigger than a bike. It wasn’t long before I was weaving my way between deep ruts and brash left behind by loggers. This suddenly gave way to clearcut forest and a steep downhill track over rocky ground. With a pair of heavily laden panniers, negotiating the track became a completely different experience. My kit bumped and shook as I braked and slid from one loose rock to the next. Riding a mountain bike with a laden rack is not the same as a day out near home.

Great Glen Way

I never asked his name, even though we talked for some time over coffee whilst sitting outside the Eagle Barge Inn at Laggan Locks. “I’m walking from John o’ Groats to Land’s End,” he said.

“Any particular reason for doing it?” I asked. “I lost my job as an outdoor activity instructor during COVID,” he replied, “and I’m not sure what comes next really. So, I’m taking some time to think about where I want my life to go now”.

The laid-back café-restaurant was a converted Dutch barge, moored on the canal, miles from any village. It was just the sort of place I would expect to get into a discussion with a fellow traveller. He came across as confident but slightly lost. He hadn’t even got a plan for his route south from here.

“I think I’ll put the tent up here for the night,” he said as we parted. I wished him good luck with the rest of his life and set off for Fort Augustus and a comfortable bed.

My phone pinged. “How is it going?”, read a WhatsApp message from my daughter.

“Great – I’m in a café,” I replied.

“At 8.30 in the morning? Even for you, that’s a bit early!” came the cheeky reply.

My Airbnb turned out to only offer the first ‘B’. So, I was pleased to find Cobbs Café in Fort Augustus open. A couple of croissants and a seriously strong coffee whilst sitting by the canal, watching the boats go through the locks, was a lovely way to start my day. Which was good, as it turned out to be a real day to remember.

The next three miles of the route climbed nearly 1,000ft. I could have taken the lower cycle route instead of the footpath, but I like a challenge. Just as well. Pushing up this footpath through the dense forest was really tough. And it went on for ages, or so it seemed. I just managed to do it without having to unload the panniers and ferry my luggage after the bike.

Great Glen Way

A hot cloudless day greeted me as I pushed the heavily laden bike out of the woods and saw the level footpath ahead. A little further and the forest was finally behind me, with the blue waters of Loch Ness seeming to stretch from one horizon to the other. It produced some wonderful drone footage and the inevitable selfie of course. After demolishing a couple of energy bars and swigging plenty of water I continued along the narrow track.

The next few miles were a wonderful ride, a bit technical for me, especially with so much kit, but probably the best I have ever done. Then of course I got to the point where I had to descend again. It was genuinely scary, even in the places where I had to walk, as I was concerned that I might lose my footing and slide down alongside my bike. But I made it ok, with no scratches or bruises.

Great Glen Way

Almost out of water and with nothing to eat I arrived at Invermoriston. I had of course checked the amenities beforehand. According to Google, it had a café and a hotel, so I would be fine, or so I thought. Unfortunately, the café was permanently closed and having passed the hotel, it looked pretty dead. The only place open was a craft shop. “The hotel is always closed on Mondays now – no staff,” the owner told me. This depressingly familiar tale seems to have become a real problem in Scotland.

Luckily, the craft shop owner willingly filled my water bottles. Then I noticed they also sold fudge. With nothing else edible in the shop, I bought a large bag and ate the lot before setting off again in the blistering heat. There was another steep 1-in-4 hill climb to tackle. I managed to ride the road section, albeit pretty slowly.

The off-road path ahead offered two choices. “Forget it,” I said to myself. “I’m taking the low road this time, through the forest”. It was a great track and easy cycling in the shade. But of course, the low road and the high road have to meet again at some point, and it turns out the high road doesn’t come down much. So, for the third time that day I found myself pushing the bike. By this stage, with little food, I was getting seriously tired and hungry. The switchbacks on the track seemed to go on forever. I was thinking about potential ‘escape routes’ back down to the main road, but that wasn’t practical. Eventually the two paths converged, and I set off again along an easy track, finally descending into the wonderfully named village of Drumnadrochit.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” my host asked. Given how my day had gone I wasn’t going to decline, so after unloading my panniers into the room, I found myself sat outside, chatting to a wonderful old lady whose B&B I was staying at. The tea was supplemented with sandwich and cake.

Another bright sunny day greeted me for the last leg of my journey as I rode into the hills, northwest of Inverness. The famous loch gradually faded in the distance behind me. Today’s ride was comprised of narrow woodland tracks and minor roads, along with several cheery waves to fellow cyclists and walkers. Already the world now consisted only of my immediate life: listening to the sound of skylarks, admiring the changing scenery, and navigating the route. I had switched off from the chaos of normal daily life. But it wasn’t to last much longer. An amazing five-mile descent, over easy ground this time, again through woodland, led me into Inverness and the end of a very memorable three days.

The journey had given me a taste for freedom and escape, but all too brief. I already found myself thinking about what I could ride next. The West Highland Way was a tempting prospect, although I understand some parts are not considered ideal for mountain bikes. But as I’ve said already, I like a challenge. And hey – at worst, I could always take the low road.

Paul Glendell has been a professional photographer for more than thirty years. His pictures have appeared in several of the world’s leading publications, including Time and Life magazines. He undertakes commissions for nature charities and BBC News online, as well as work for photo agencies, consumer magazines and corporate clients. His images have been widely exhibited across Europe, with solo exhibitions in the UK, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Visit Paul's website at glendell.co.uk

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