There’s more to Scotland’s biggest loch than searching for aquatic beasties. Nick Boulos strides out on a new walking trail along the lesser-visited south shore
Loch Ness – arguably Scotland’s most iconic destination – is a place of myth and legend, and one that has intrigued and captivated for years. People have long been coming to this peak-cradled slither of fresh water, drawn by the geological drama – and the tales of a mysterious monster lurking beneath...
Over the years, a handful of people claim to have seen Nessie – the last sighting was reported in 2011 by local café-owners Jan and Simon Hargreaves. But even those who don’t spot the loch’s most elusive resident still discover one thing here: exceptional natural beauty.
Measuring 36km long, narrow Loch Ness is the largest body of water in the Great Glen. This 105km geological faultline splits Scotland, with Inverness sitting at its north, Fort William at the south and Highlands all around. With an average depth of 132m, Loch Ness contains more water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined.
In short, it’s big. Huge, in fact. With plenty of places for Nessie to hide... The monster-legend dates back to AD565, when (so the story goes) St Columba banished a water horse into the loch. Nessie fever really hit in the 1930s though, with the recording of a number of high-profile sightings. Since then, amateur detectives, American scientists and even game hunters from Africa have visited in the hope of uncovering the truth. However, though there’s been the odd hoax, no conclusive proof of Nessie’s existence has ever been found.
Whatever your stand on the matter, be careful not to dismiss Nessie as pure fiction – some residents are utterly convinced she’s out there. And even the staunchest nonbelievers can’t resist scanning the surface of this great, gorgeous expanse for suspicious ripples and strange disturbances.
Quite surprisingly, this slice of pristine wilderness is wholly accessible. Located less than 20 minutes from the heart of Inverness, it’s an easy and refreshing destination for a mini-break. And one with added adventure: beyond the loch itself, there is much to fill a few days, from ancient ruined castles to grand canals, Bronze Age forts and wildlife-rich woodland.
Due largely to Urquhart Castle, the north shore of Loch Ness attracts the lion’s share of its visitors (one million per year compared to the 100,000 tourists who visit the sleepier south). But that is set to change, thanks to the newly launched South Loch Ness Trail, a gentle 45km walking route that links the outskirts of Inverness to Loch Tarff, encompassing a mix of waterfalls, red squirrels and fine views. Best of all, the trail showcases the south’s diversity of nature, and a side of Loch Ness that most daytrippers never experience.
There’s plenty of accommodation on the south side. Although home to only 550 people, the southern shore’s sprinkle of small communities offer a range of family-run B&Bs and cosy guesthouses. And, allegedly, the south offers the best odds of spotting Nessie.
Why, I wondered?
“Because,” joked one local, “we have the best pubs!”
Local operator WOW Scotland offers tailormade itineraries around Loch Ness and beyond, led by knowledgeable local guides.
Hit the north shore highlights before lacing up to hike the secret south
You’ll probably travel to Loch Ness via Highlands hub Inverness. More than just the gateway to the region, it’s a pleasant city, characterised by red sandstone gothic architecture. Spend a few hours looking around – visit the Victorian covered market (Academy St) and the Inverness Museum & Art Gallery (Castle Wynd; free) for a primer on Highland heritage.
Then head to the loch – located just a few minutes beyond the city. The north side is popular for a reason so start there.
There’s no finer way to appreciate the scale and beauty of Loch Ness than by taking to the water. One-hour cruises (£12.50; www.jacobite.co.uk) leave from the Clansman Hotel Harbour four times a day between 11am and 3pm. Hopeful Nessie-hunters will enjoy the onboard sonar equipment, designed to monitor underwater movements.
Back on dry land, continue south to Urquhart Castle (£7.50). This scarred medieval ruin dates back to the 13th century. It was conquered and captured countless times, and has witnessed many a bloody battle, but finally fell into disrepair after the last tenants moved out in 1692.
Next, stop at the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition at the Drumnadrochit Hotel (£6.95), a multi-media display focusing on the hoaxes and eyewitness accounts surrounding the Nessie legend.
Today it’s time to explore the lesser-visited south side of Loch Ness. Start in Fort Augustus, on the loch’s southern tip. Before leaving town, visit the famous Caledonian Canal, built by Thomas Telford in 1822 to connect Scotland’s east and west coasts. Watch boats negotiate the impressive swing bridges and locks that control passage to and from the loch.
Loch Tarff, a small loch surrounded by low hills and scatterings of pine trees, sits just outside Fort Augustus, and marks the start (or end) of the South Loch Ness Trail. Join the path here, walking north-east across moorland to hilltop Suidhe Chuimein (Cumin’s Seat), one of the highest points on the entire route. Keep your eyes peeled for red deer and, on a clear day, Ben Nevis looming in the distance.
Keep walking. Near the town of Whitebridge, you’ll pass a fine single-span bridge (part of the military road built by General Wade in 1732 to help control the Highland Clans). Continue on towards Foyers, a small village on the shores of Loch Ness.
A thunderous roar marks your arrival at the Falls of Foyers, a dramatic cascade that tumbles 50m into the river below. Walk down to the water’s edge and you may come across a red squirrel – the area is a haven for these rare creatures.
Foyers is a good spot to overnight – perhaps at Craigdarroch House (which has loch views and a whisky bar). To blow away the fug of the night before, keep walking: from Foyers, pick up the South Loch Ness Trail again, hiking on towards Farigaig Forest.
As you go, look out for Boleskine House (only the roof is visible), once home to Aleister Crowley, an infamous Victorian occultist; the next owner shot himself in the garden. Across the road, overlooking the loch, is a small cemetery. Some graves date back to 1747; one is pocked with bullet holes – the result of soldiers shooting at a man accused of stealing a loaf of bread.
After Inverfarigaig you reach Corkscrew Road, a twisting path through fruit bushes and ferns, strewn with giant moss-covered boulders that locals once believed were placed by giants. Up atop a 235m rocky outcrop stand the remains of Dùn Dearduil, an Iron Age fort built in 700 BC. It’s named after Deirdre of the Sorrows – the Celtic legend of a woman who killed herself after her true love was murdered by a king.
All around, the Monadhliath (Grey) Mountains soar; continue through them, to Dores (pictured). Don’t miss the Dores Inn, for unrivalled Loch Ness views. Stationed nearby is a caravan, home to Steve Feltham, self-proclaimed Nessie Hunter. For 20 years Steve has been trying to uncover the truth of the mystery while scratching a living making Nessie souvenirs. Pop in and say hello.
When to go: Winters can be snowy and cold. Spring/autumn are clement and quieter than summer.
Getting there: easyJet and FlyBe fly to Inverness from UK airports. The Caledonian Sleeper train runs London Euston-Inverness. Seated returns from £70; berths from £125.
Getting around: Taxis are most convenient. The Great Glen Way Baggage Shuttle (07711 429616) offers luggage transfers for walkers.
Where to stay: Pottery House, a charming B&B in Dores; from £36pp. Craigdarroch House, a family-run manor in Foyers; doubles from £125. The Lovat, a three-star in Fort Augustus; doubles from £93. The Waterside, is a welcoming hotel in Inverness; doubles from £130.
Where to eat: The Dores Inn, cosy pub; a favourite of the late Queen Mum. The Boathouse, restaurant by the loch.
Further info: www.visitlochness.com; www.nessie.co.uk.
Cover more ground by renting a bike from Ticket to Ride. There’s terrain to suit all abilities around Loch Ness, from flat and gentle paths to more adventurous off-road trails.