The Great Glen is a fault line that slashes diagonally across Highland Scotland. Glaciers carved the fault into a valley which was flooded by three long lakes (Loch Lochy, Oich and Ness), linked in the 19th century by a coast-to-coast canal. It's always been a natural transport route. Beyond the mainland, the fault stretches undersea north to Shetland and southwest through Donegal.
The Great Glen Way, designated as a way-marked long distance trail in 2002, traverses the glen. That means it is at no great altitude and seldom far from the main road, with bail-out options. A suggested itinerary is to walk it over six days, or by mountain bike in two or three. The recommended direction is from Fort William northeast to Inverness, to have the sun and weather at your back. This gives you firm level going to start with along the canal towpath, with rougher ground and ridges (they're no more than that) encountered about halfway along. But do as you please, it can easily be done as a series of there-and-back Sunday afternoon strolls.
The route can be walked any time of year but is a pleasanter proposition in summer, with milder weather, longer days and less boggy terrain underfoot. That's the peak tourist season so everything's open, but accommodation and transport may fill up. So you need to book your overnight stops, which commits you to travelling a fixed distance each day come wind or weather.
See below for the Highland Council trail guide.
Fort William the usual start point has trains and buses from Glasgow, plus a sleeper train from London Euston. The train is scenic and takes 4 hours from Glasgow, continuing to Glenfinnan and Mallaig. The bus takes a shorter route through Glencoe and does it in 3 hours, continuing to the Isle of Skye.
Inverness has an airport, and trains and buses from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, plus from Thurso (for Orkney) in the north and another portion of the sleeper from London.
Both cities have good all-year road connections but the highways are mostly undivided, traffic builds up behind the slow fellow towing a caravan, and overtaking accidents are a risk.
A bus connects Fort William and Inverness. The railway is long gone, though part of the Great Glen Way uses its track bed.
An online guide to the route is published by Highland Council.
Section 1: Fort William to Gairlochy
1 Fort William old fort is the start point, near the railway station. Fort William is a proper town, with accommodation and other amenities, though only a sea wall remains of the fort. The town is the north terminus of the West Highland Way and the base to climb Ben Nevis, as if you didn't have enough walking ahead of you. The Great Glen Way hugs the coast to Inverlochy (with a more substantial castle ruin) then west to Corpach (railway station). This is the foot of the Caledonian Canal, and you follow the towpath up Neptune's Staircase, an impressive flight of locks. The way continues along the canal until the swing bridge at Gairlochy. This section is 10.5 miles / 17 km and level.
Section 2: Gairlochy to Laggan
2 Gairlochy is a tiny village at the outlet of Loch Lochy, with little accommodation and no shops. Spean Bridge 4 miles east has more facilities and a railway station. While the main road is east, the Great Glen Way cleaves to the west side of Loch Lochy: the "pepper pot lighthouse" marks the entrance to the canal. Follow the minor road to Clunes, by the outflow from Loch Arkaig. This area is Lochaber, homeland of Clan Cameron, and there's a museum and clan graveyard. It is not worth diverting to Loch Arkaig in search of its legendary lost Jacobite treasure and equally improbable monster, so continue on the forest track to Laggan. This section is 13 miles / 21 km and level.
Section 3: Laggan to Fort Augustus
3 Laggan is a straggling place along the canal, with little accommodation. Follow the towpath to Invergarry Bridge the south outlet of Loch Oich - this is the head of the canal, so it descends in both directions.
The next stretch is closed until Jan 2025 because of logging along the east side of Loch Oich. Normally you follow the the old railway track, now a cycleway, and the railway station museum is still open. The alternative path is west side on lanes paralleling A82 to Invergarry, which has the shell of a castle within the grounds of a hotel, and other accommodation. Beyond the north outlet of the loch, the way is along a bootlace of land between the River Oich and the canal, passing two more locks to reach Fort Augustus. This diverted section is 12 miles / 19.5 km.
Section 4: Fort Augustus to Invermoriston
4 Fort Augustus is a small town with accommodation and eating places. The old fort has variously been an abbey, a scandal-hit school and an outdoor activities centre, and is now apartments. The canal descends by a flight of locks into Loch Ness: boat trips putter out in search of the monster, but to date none have been devoured. The Great Glen Way is west of the loch, as is the main road. Choose between the low-level route by the lochside, or climbing through the forest onto the high-level track, which adds a mile. They re-unite at Invermoriston, 9 miles / 15 km by the low-level route, so you might combine it with the next section to Drumnadrochit.
Section 5: Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit
5 Invermoriston has accommodation. Again you have a choice of a low-level route along the lochside, or the more scenic high-level route. A third of the way along, the lower route climbs steeply to re-unite with the higher. Continue on forest tracks past Grotaig, then descend through Clunebeg Wood into Drumnadrochit. This section is 14 miles / 22 km.
Section 6: Drumnadrochit to Inverness
6 Drumnadrochit is a large village that subsists on Nessie tourism, with kitsch souvenirs and a kiddy-theme park. Every coach tour of the Highlands stops here. However Urquhart Castle is impressive, and the Loch Ness Centre relates the genuine story of the loch. Lots of accommodation, and boat trips venture out on the loch. You have to walk a mile out of the village on the busy A82 to pick up the Great Glen Way. This ascends steeply to Abriachan, and you might opt to split this long section here. Follow the forest track to Craig Leach Forest, and the drove road (cattle trail) to the edge of Inverness. Descend steeply to Bught playing fields and follow the River Ness to city centre. This section is 20 miles / 30 km.
The usual precautions for open country apply, but this is not a wilderness and you're seldom far from the main highway. You're likely sleeping in hostels and B&Bs along the way and don't need the supplies and gear necessary for a back-country bivouac, just day provisions. Carry warm and waterproof clothing even in summer, conversely use sun protection even if it's cloudy.
Midges are a nuisance in summer especially in the evening, although not in the hungry clouds encountered further west. Don't camp out if you react badly to bites. No repellent known to science completely deters the West Highland Midge, only a stiff breeze or cold day. Try the Smidge brand of repellent, or an oily moisturiser like Avon Skin so Soft, or wear a head net, or invoke the traditional folk-remedy of cussing continually while flapping a handkerchief round your face; these all work about the same.
If you have accommodation booked but your plans change, please call and cancel. It frees the space for other hikers and if you simply no-show, they might call out the local rescue team fearing you're in a bad way.
- Other long distance paths in Scotland include:
- Speyside Way is an 85 mile walking and cycling route from Buckie on the northeast coast to Newtonmore.
- West Highland Way is a 96 mile walking route from Glasgow to Fort William.
- John Muir Way is a 120 mile walking and cycling route across the central lowlands from Dunbar to Helensburgh.
- Southern Upland Way is a 212 mile walking route from coast to coast in the Scottish Borders.