Wednesday, January 2

Loch Ness

Mention Scotland and most people think of Loch Ness. Without a doubt its one of the nation's famous natural landmarks. In 1990 I had the joy of driving its entire length on several occasions. It was Autumn and the roadsides were a flood of gold, red and amber trees. Given such a wonderful introduction I'd expected my return visit to be somewhat disappointing. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

The Ballachulish Hotel where we based ourselves was a wonderful old stone building. Its stunning lochside setting guaranteed us breathtaking views each morning of towering hills and coves bathed in gentle dawn light. The hotel also boasted several cosy log fires, creaking hallways and a restaurant serving delicious gastro pub meals. It was also the cheapest accommodation we booked which made us feel rather smug at the wonderful bargain we'd secured.

We spent a leisurely day driving north through Fort William, tracing the route of the Caledonian Canal and along the southern reaches of Loch Ness itself. The Caledonian Canal disectes Scotland, running almost 100 kms from east to west. It was built between 1803 and 1822 by Thomas Telford, one of Britain's most famous engineers. His legacy can be found all over Scotland, as he was almost responsible for many of the region's picturesque stone arch bridges.

We stopped for a late lunch in the town of Fort Augustus, where the Caledonian Canal enters a series of formidible locks before passing into Loch Ness. We missed watching a boat pass through the locks, but did arrive in time to see the rotating road bridge open. Over lunch we sampled the local fare, including smoked trout and genuine haggi. Both were surprisingly tasty.

Our next stop was the famous lochside landmark, the ruins of Urquhart Castle. When I'd passed this spot in 1990, the castle had been a desolate decaying site in the middle of boggy sheep paddock. Today, a smart new visitor's centre provides access to the site. A short film inside the centre outlined the castle's history, before a series of curtain part, unveiling a memorably framed view of the castle itself.

I was surprised to learn that it was home to the 'king' of the Highlands many clans. During its time, the location had seen off many invaders and ambitious English kings. The castle was intentionally destroyed by its residents in 1692 to prevent it falling into enemy hands. We spent a delighful couple of hours roaming the site, soaking up the afternoon sunshine and enjoying spectacular loch views. Castles were starting to become a highlight of our Northern tour.

As we later drove back toward Fort William and our hotel, we passed the Commando's Memorial. This is a simple statue sitting on a small bluff that overlooks Ben Nevis and the snow-capped highlands. Ben Nevis is the nation's highest mountain. Modest by global standards, it rises a mere 1,344 metres and can be climbed by an average punter in five or so hours. An annual race up the mountain has the winner reaching the summit in only 1.5 hours. Not much of a mountain if you ask me.

The view from the memorial is magic. We arrived on sunset and watched the dying rays of the sun light up the hills in a magnificant golden glow. It seemed a fitting tribute to a day filled with one memorable moment after another.

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