This leg, the southernmost on the Great Glen Way, takes a winding route out of Fort William, heading past Inverlochy before crossing the RIver Lochy alongside a railway bridge. It then heads towards the loch front at Caol before reaching the Caledonian Canal near to the sea lock.
The rest of the leg follows the Caledonian Canal northeastwards, crossing a railway line near Caol station before reaching the lower end of Neptune's Stairtcase, a number of locks that carry the canal up a hillside. The trail suddenly becomes notably more remote as it heads away from the top lock, with hillsides stretching up on both sides and the River Lochy far below to the right.
The going is easy as the trail follows the canal towpath, passing Moy Bridge and over the Moy Aqueduct before reaching the two locks at Gairlochy, at the southern end of Loch Lochy.
3 hours 52 minutes
Map of the leg
Maps courtesy of Google Maps. Route for indicative purposes only, and may have been plotted after the walk. Please let me have comments on what you think of this new format.
For years there was no marked starting point of the Great Glen Way in Fort William, but recently a little monument was erected as an official starting point (there is a similar monument at the other end of the trail in Inverness, which hopefully you will see in a few days). This monument is at NN105742, on the grass in the old fort and opposite the car park of a Morrisons Store. It is only a short walk away from the railway station.
Follow the road northeastwards for a short distance to a roundabout, passing a little inlet on the left; there is a pavement on the left. Take the second road off this roundabout and follow it heads straight on, passing a McDonalds and a pub on the right and a fire station on the left. The road soon becomes a path that continues northeastwards, soon reaching a raised bank on the right, on the other side of which is a shinty pitch.
At the end of the shinty pitch the path curves to the right and, after passing a house on the left, turns left to reach a road called Camanachd Crescent. Turn right along this for a few yards and then left between houses to reach a bridge over the mouth of the River Nevis. Here there are two alternative routes; a road route for use in wet weather and a much prettier riverside path that can flood in bad weather. (road route)
The path continues straight on for a short distance before jinking to the left and then right to continue northeastwards along Inverlochy Court. When the road ends continue between two bollards to join a path. The path skirts houses on the right; when the main path jinks to the right after a couple of hundred yards continue straight on along an area of grass. It passes three houses on the right and continues eastwards with a stream on the left. After a quarter of a mile it meets a track beside the railway line; turn left and start following the track northeastwards with the railway line to the right. At NN119753 the riverside path is rejoined. (riverside route)
After crossing the bridge over the River Nevis, immediately turn left along a path that leads through trees to the bank of the River Lochy. This path soon curves to the right to parallel the riverbank; when the path forks, take the right-hand fork which soon curves to the left. It crosses the end of a track and continues on through the trees with grand views over the river and loch to the left before reaching a couple of footbridges over streams; the areas around the bridges can flood after heavy rain or at high tides. The path leaves the trees and curves slightly to the right, still keeping the River Lochy roughly to the left. Shortly after leaving the trees go through a clapper gate and continue on to two field gates. Go through a clapper gate beside the gates to join a surfaced track at NN119753; turn left down this track with the railway line on the right. Here the alternative route is rejoined.
The track crosses a bridge over the ugly concrete tailrace from the Fort William aluminium factory before curving to the right to head under the railway line. Do not turn right, and instead climb a ramp to the left that leads onto the narrow Soldier's Bridge footbridge over the River Lochy. Climb the ramp onto the bridge and cross it, with the railway bridge on the right. At the end of the bridge turn left to take a ramp that leads up to the left onto the B8006 road. Turn left and follow the road as it heads in a rough westerly direction beside a tributary of the river; there is a pavement on the right-hand side of the road.
Shortly after the road curves to the right, turn left to head southwestwards down Glenmallie Road. This soon swings to the right, becoming Erracht Terrace. Follow this road northwestwards; when it reaches a small parade of shops on the right it curves to the left and right to continue paralleling the shore. When the road ends continue straight on across a gravel path past playing fields, keeping the shore of the loch to the left.
At the end of the playing fields the path curves to the right, crossing a bridge over an outfall from the canal and heading up a slope to reach the canal's towpath beside a lock. Climb the bank and turn right to follow the gravel towpath southeastwards with the canal on the left; it soon curves to the left to start heading northeastwards. Just after the Lochy pub is passed on the right at NN111767, turn right down a grassy path that slopes down to reach a road. Turn left and follow this road as it curves to the right and then left to reach a level crossing over a railway line. Shortly afterwards the road ends at a T-junction with the A380(T).
Carefully cross the A380(T) to reach a pavement on the northern side of the road, then turn left to follow the pavement back towards the canal. Just before the Banavie Swing Bridge over the canal is reached turn right, squeezing past a metal gate and the building controlling the swing bridge to join the towpath beside a canal lock. This is the first of the flight of eight locks called Neptune's Staircase that lifts the canal up 64 feet. Follow the towpath as it follows the locks uphill on the left to reach the summit level.
At the top go through a metal field gate; from here it is simply a case of following the towpath northeastwards for 6.4 miles, keeping the canal to the left all times. It passes over a couple of aqueducts and the pretty Moy Bridge. Eventually it passes Gairlochy Bottom Lock, passes a canalside building and goes through a gate to reach the B8004 road in Gairlochy at NN176841.
Places of interest
Fort William is a small town that nestled in the knuckle formed by the junction of Loch Linnhe and Loch Eil. It forms an important strategic point as the low ground of the Great Glen meets the sea at the knuckle.
In historic times the main settlement was slightly north of the present town at the 13th Century Inverlochy Castle; there was little settlement at the location of the current town.
In 1654 a timber fort was built just to the south of Inverlochy Castle in to help control the local population; in 1690 this was replaced with a stone fort named 'Fort William' after King William III. The influx of money caused by the fort led to a settlement building up around it, and this soon took the name of the fort. In fact the town has had several names over the years; Maryburgh, Duncansburgh and Gordonsburgh. None of these stuck and the locals continued to call it 'Fort William'. The town's growth started to increase once the railway arrived in 1894.
A large factory complex just to the northeast of the town (and on the western flank of Ben Nevis) is the Rio Tinto aluminium smelter. This was commissioned in 1929 and, like the earlier plant in Kinlochleven, uses hydroelectric power to generate the vast amounts of electricity needed to smelt the metal. Most of the water flows from Loch Trieg and other lochs through a massive 15-mile tunnel that was driven through the surrounding hills. A total of 85MW is generated by the scheme, most of which is used by the Fort William smelter to create 40,000 tonnes of aluminium each year.
Although the plant employs about 174 people, the town's largest employer is undoubtedly tourism. Nestling in the lee of the country's biggest mountain, it is a hillwalking, climbing, mountain biking and (in winter) skiing centre, and many of the town's facilities have grown around that industry.
A statue called 'Sore Feet' in Gordon Square marks the end of the West Highland Way. Another long-distance walk, the Great Glen Way, opened in 2002; this runs from the site of the Old Fort near the railway station.
location UID #254
Very few of the mountain tops in Scotland are well known to the public; some superb hills are virtually unknown outside the massed ranks of hillwalkers who climb them. There is one glaring exception, however: the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis.
The granite bulk of Ben Nevis stands 4,409 feet (1,344 metres) above the sea at Loch Linnhe. Most people climb the mountain using the relatively easy route called the Pony Track (also as the Tourist Track), which was constructed in 1883.
Unfortunately the summit of the mountain can only be called a mess. If you are lucky enough to climb it in good, cloudless weather - itself a rarity - then you get view of Loch Linnhe and Loch Eil far below. The summit itself is a mass of rocks, some of which have been collected into little cairns.
A trig pillar standing proudly atop a cairn marks the very top; this is near to a little collection of stones that form an emergency shelter. This is all that remains of a remarkable Victorian undertaking - an observatory that was kept fully-manned year round from 1883 to 1904; the aforementioned Pony Track was constructed to supply the observatory. Hourly measurements were taken, except when the snow was too deep to allow the men on duty to exit the buildings!
Many walkers on the West Highland Way take an extra day off to climb the mountain after completing the trail. The Pony Track is not a particularly hard route and is invariably popular in good weather during the summer, but care needs to be taken. Some deep gullies on the summit can capture careless walkers in fog, so always carry a compass and know how to use it.
Sadly it is hardly a classic hillwalk; there are far better mountains in the area, yet alone Scotland. If you want a harder - and better - day then climb Ben Nevis via the standard Pony Track and extend the walk by crossing the Carn Mor Dearg Arete to reach its neighbouring summit, Carn Mor Dearg. Some scrambling is necessary on the arete. A hard descent leads from there back down to the Pony Track. Extreme care, good directions and careful compass work is needed on this walk.
location UID #253
Inverlochy Castle is a ruined castle situated about a mile north of Fort William. It was built in the 13th Century by the Comyns and was the scene of two battles.
The 1431 battle was fought between the Clan Donald and the Earls of Caithness and Mar. The Donalds were one of the group of clans who controlled the west coast of the Highlands (called the 'Lords of the Isles'), whilst Mar and Caithness wanted to subsume that powerful Lordship into the Scottish Crown. The Donald's archers made short work of the combined army, although the start of the end for the Lords of the Isles occurred soon afterwards when they lost the Battle of Harlaw.
The second battle occurred during the Civil War in 1645. Royalist forces under the control of the Earl of Montrose defeated Covenanter forces led by the Duke of Argyll. The 1645 battle led to the downfall of the castle; Oliver Cromwell had a fort built nearby and the castle fell out of use. Some impressive stone ruins still remain.
A new castle was built nearby in 1836; this is now a luxury hotel.
location UID #255
Fort William's railways
Fort William was a relatively small settlement before the railway line from Glasgow opened on the 7th August 1894. In 1901 a branch line was opened through spectacular scenery to the fishing village of Mallaig further to the west. The town has a special place in the hearts of railway enthusiasts; not only is it the endpoint for the Caledonian Sleeper service from London Euston, but steam trains regularly run along the line to Mallaig during the summer months (the Jacobite service). Youngsters will know the line as being the route used by the Hogwarts Express.
Most of the stone fort was demolished to make way for the railway and only a few low stone walls remain. However the station was not in its current position when the line opened; instead it was next to a small pier at the southern end of the town. Unfortunately this prime position meant that the railway separated the town from the shore of Loch Linnhe. In 1975 a new station opened in its present location slightly to the north of the town; sadly the new station is ugly grey concrete rather than the old stone and brick building. Instead of the town being separated from the shore by a railway, it is now separated by a dual carriageway.
location UID #256
Lochaber Narrow Gauge Railway
The Lochaber Narrow Gauge Railway was a large network of railway lines built in the 1920s to help construct the tunnel that links Loch Treig with the hydroelectric power station in Fort William. The line was steeply graded to get through the hills, and was kept in service for maintenance of the works until a landslide severed it in the 1970s. A branch of the line headed through Inverlochy to reach the pier on Loch Linnhe in Fort William; rails can still be seen embedded within its surface, and there are other signs of the railway in the area.
Until the 1960s Corpach was very much a satellite village to Fort William, nestled at the northern edge of the corner of Loch Eil and Loch Linnhe. It grew slightly in size in the 1820s when the Caledonian Canal reached Loch Eil. A quick look at many of the houses in the village shows that they are of sixties and seventies vintage, dating from when a massive saw mill and pulping plant opened in 1964, dealing with the vast amounts of wood that gets generated by Scotland's forests.
Sadly the pulping mill closed in 1981
location UID #303
The Caledonian Canal
The Caledonian Canal should have been one of Scotland's great engineering triumphs. Before its opening, any ship wanting to go between Scotland's two great cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh has to undertake a long journey via the south coast of Britain or a shorter but more perilous voyage around the north coast of Scotland. Many ships were being lost on this voyage, and the line of three large lochs that marks the Great Glen seems like an obvious route for a canal.
Unfortunately the lochs are freshwater and are situated at some height above sea level. This means that the work was much more expensive than would otherwise have been the case, and that the engineers tasked to survey the route did not have an easy task. For one thing it was not going to be a normal canal as it would be able to take seagoing ships. James Watt performed the first survey, and this was followed up by Telford and Josias Jessops.
As is often the case with civil engineering, both time and fiscal estimates were wildly optimistic. The canal took nineteen years to build, finally opening in 1822, and at double the cost. Unfortunately it was outdated almost as soon as it had opened; new sailing and (later) steam ships were too big to fit into the locks. Thus the investors in the canal made a massive loss.
However, their loss is our gain, and the canal still offers boats and small ships a short-cut across Scotland.
location UID #304
Neptune's Staircase is a flight of eight locks on the Caledonian Canal near Fort William. It rises sixty feet up, taking the canal from Loch Eil to meet the man-made canal cut that leads to Loch Lochy. It is a magnificent structure, the oversize locks giving it a much more impressive look that a flight of locks on a narrow canal could ever manage.
location UID #305
The Great Glen
The Great Glen is a feature unmistakable on any map of Britain. It follows the Great Glen Fault that incises a harsh diagonal line across the Highlands, from Fort William in the southwest to Inverness in the northeast. Various glaciations periods have eroded the fault and formed three large freshwater lochs - Loch Loch, Loch Oich and the famous Loch Ness.
Much of the Great Glen is surrounded by high ground, meaning that the glen forms one of the best low-level routes in the region; it is used by the busy A82 road between the west and east coasts and also the Caledonian Canal. Part of it was also used by the Invergarry and Fort Augustus railway line, which closed to goods just after the Second World War.
location UID #306
The Mallaig Extension
Few railway lines in Britain can lay claim to being one of the best railway journeys in the world; the Settle and Carlisle railway in Yorkshire is a candidate, but the pre-eminent British railway journey has to be along the Mallaig Extension between Fort William and the fishing port of Mallaig.
Railways first reached Fort William in August 1894, allowing for a boom in building in the town. However the railway companies had their eyes set further west towards Mallaig. The connection would take passengers to the ferry terminal for the Western Isles, and also take trainloads of fish from the port back to the towns and cities further south.
The terrain that faced the railway builders was difficult, to say the least. Loch Eil provided an easy route westwards for the first few miles, but after this the line had to tackle the mountains. This led to the creation of one of the line's most famous structures: the Glenfinnan Viaduct, the first concrete viaduct in the world.
The line first opened in 1901, and it soon gained a reputation for being a superb journey. Steam trains regularly travel down the line in summer, and the line gained further fame as being on the route of the 'Hogwarts Express' in the Harry Potter films; the Glenfinnan Viaduct features prominently in several scenes.
If you are lucky enough to be able to spend a few days in Fort William during the summer, then there are two things you must try to do: if you are fit enough, try to climb Ben Nevis, and if the weather is poor take a trip to Mallaig. Neither option will disappoint.
location UID #307
Tor Castle is a ruined castle situated about three miles to the northeast of Fort William, trapped between the River Lochy to the east and the Caledonian Canal to the west. There have been several castles on the site over the years, the last being built by the Camerons in the 1530s before they moved to Achnacarry.
Loch Lochy is the southwestern of the three lochs that dominate the Great Glen. It is nearly ten miles in length but only a mile wide at its widest, where the River Akraig drains into it. It is notable for its 70 metre depth, which belies its origins as a fault.
The River Lochy flows for nine miles from the southwestern end of the loch into the sea at Loch Eil, near Fort William. The makers of the Caledonian Canal eschewed the shallow and winding river, instead choosing to create a new cut to the north.
location UID #309
Although Fort William is a transport hub of the Highlands, with good rail and coach services, public transport at Gairlochy is more problematic.
Shiel buses run an irregular service 512A between Gairlochy and Fort William; this is far from frequent.
Most people completing this leg will be faced with a 2.5-mile walk along the quiet B8004 to reach the A82(T) near Spean Bridge, from where coach and bus services run back into Fort William.
For this reason most people will connect this with the next leg to Laggan, which is much closer to the A82(T) and has better transport links.