An Adventure on the East Highland WayBy Helen Macnab · September 16 2013
When we decided to add the East Highland Way to our portfolio of long-distance trails in Scotland, I was excited and intrigued. The East Highland Way is a new addition to Scotland’s network of walking routes. Devised by Kevin Langan, it connects a number of existing long-distance trails – the West Highland Way, the Great Glen Way and the Speyside Way.
Although the start and end points – Fort William and Aviemore – are well-known favourites with walkers, Kevin’s route takes you off the beaten path, through hidden glens and forests. Parts of it may be familiar, parts of it feel undiscovered.
When I was given the opportunity to walk the East Highland Way in order to research the route, I was slightly apprehensive about the fact that the walk is not way-marked. For some this may be daunting, but for many, the challenge of finding the route and map-reading will appeal. I can certainly see why – the immense feeling of pride and achievement upon completing an un-way-marked route is quite something. For others, the comforting assurance of a marker post as you go may mean that this route is not for everyone.
Having walked the West Highland Way in March, I was really looking forward to getting back out there and experiencing what the East Highland Way had to offer.
I left Fort William on a drizzly Friday morning, and before long I had left the industrial landscapes behind. The first stage of the East Highland Way is relatively short, to Spean Bridge. The walking is on straightforward paths, and there are no real navigational difficulties. The only issue comes when you pass the ‘public footpath to Distillery’ sign – to detour or not to detour? I took the detour (for research purposes only!) and found that the Ben Nevis Distillery lies just 15 minutes away from the path. We’d highly recommend stopping in for a dram on the way – there’s a fantastic tour and this also means you won’t be arriving in Spean Bridge too early.
When I did arrive in Spean Bridge, I was welcomed warmly by Teresa and Philippe at The Braes, and their drying room proved very useful after this wet first day!
Thankfully the weather was a wee bit better the next day, and I was even treated to some blue sky! I really enjoyed my second day – the path runs alongside the River Spean for much of the stage, and the walking was very pleasant. I took a very short detour from the path to visit Monessie Gorge, which you will pass if you take the train to or from Fort William. It really is a beautiful spot – although the shoogly wooden bridge is not for the fainthearted!
Day two ends at Inverlair, and as there is no accommodation here, East Highland Way walkers are transported back to Spean Bridge for a second night. I took the opportunity to walk to the impressive Commando Memorial, via a short trail that took me past Highbridge – built by General Wade in 1736 – and the remains of the old railway line between Invergarry and Fort Augustus. I would recommend taking this short walk – it’s not strenuous and provides a nice addition to the first two shorter days on the trail.
Now my legs were warmed up, I was ready for the third stage of the East Highland Way – a 21 mile day from Inverlair to Feagour. This is the longest day on the trail, however the walking itself is quite straightforward, involving forestry tracks for the majority of the day. There is some tree felling on this stage, as there is throughout the whole trail, but the reward is open views across the surrounding countryside as you make your way past Loch Moy and onto Loch Laggan.
I really enjoyed the walk alongside Loch Laggan. The weather was interesting on this day, mostly dry although extremely windy. To use a good Scottish expression, it was blowing an absolute hoolie! I quite like this kind of weather though, as I find the fresh air invigorating.
The day officially ends at lower Pattack Falls, however walkers will be collected from the road end of Gallovie Farm. This is to avoid walking alongside the busy A86 road, which is very twisty at this point, and very dangerous to walk by. Kevin is currently working in conjunction with the Ardverikie Estate to create a path between the farm and the falls, so this will be a massive improvement for the route and we’ll keep you updated on the progress before you walk. You’ll get the chance to explore the falls the next morning if not on this third day, as you’ll be dropped off there.
Accommodation on this day is in nearby Laggan, where Simon and Fiona at Rumblie Guest House provide an amazing service and wonderful hospitality.
It was difficult to leave such comfort behind, but I knew I had an exciting fourth day ahead of me. As Simon gave me a lift back to Pattack Falls, we saw an amazing rainbow, and it was a sign of good things to come!
The trail initially makes use of existing forest paths, and I decided to take a detour to the top of Black Craig hill. This was a bit of a short sharp climb so early in the day, but it was well worth it to take in the views from the top of the hill, and to visit the remains of the Dun da-Lamh Pictish fort.
Back downhill, the route passes the Spey Dam, and there is a bit of road walking to be done as you walk alongside the River Spey for the first time. Further on, the trail leaves the road and makes its way to the edge of a forest behind the small settlement of Balgowan, and from there you are heading into the open wilderness of Glen Banchor.
I felt both nervous and excited about the section ahead. I knew I’d have to have my wits about me as I made my way through the glen. I crossed my fingers that the weather would behave, ate some jelly babies, and made my way into the wilderness. I had to keep a close eye on my map here as the paths are not obvious, but landmarks such as the rowan tree were very useful. Eventually I reached an estate track and it was straightforward from there.
As I turned a corner towards Strath an Eilich, I was met by another incredible rainbow – in fact almost a doubler! I couldn’t keep the grin off my face as I walked towards it, hoping I could walk underneath! Sadly this wasn’t to be, nor did I find any pots of gold…but I was in for a surprise around the next corner…
I could see the path stretching out ahead of me, and with only a few sheep for company, this was a peaceful time. I felt a sense of solitude, and an appreciation of the amazing scenery around me. After ambling along the path, I spotted the stalkers bothy at Dalnashallag that I was aiming for. I was a bit apprehensive about the river crossings I was about to face…my thoughts focused solely on that.
All of a sudden, I passed two guys sitting by the side of the path. Having not seen anyone for hours, they took me by surprise. Even more so when I realised I recognised them. Even more so when I realised it was two of my brothers!
They’d walked up from Newtonmore to surprise me – and what a surprise it was! After a few tears and a few photos, we had our lunch and the boys gallantly helped their sister cross the rivers ahead.
The river crossings weren’t too bad, although would certainly be impassable after heavy rain, and there’s an alternative route for these occasions. The trail meanders its way down Glen Banchor towards Newtonmore, and on a glorious evening this was very pleasant walking indeed. The hospitality at Coig na Shee Guest House, and a delicious meal at the Letterbox Restaurant, ended an amazing day on the East Highland Way.
I awoke to blue skies the next day, and was again looking forward to what was ahead. Today I was making my way from Newtonmore to Kincraig, via Loch Gynack, Ruthven Barracks and Insh Marshes. I knew it would be a scenic day, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
I saw my first deer in the woods alongside Kingussie Golf Club, and thoroughly enjoyed the Gynack Mill Trail that took me into the town. As I made my way uphill to Ruthven Barracks, I was passed by a familiar orange car. More Macnabs lurking on the trail – although these ones I knew about! My Mum, Dad, Aunty and dog were on their way up to the Moray Coast, and timed it so perfectly to meet me at the Barracks for a sunny picnic lunch.
My Dad then joined me for the next section, which follows the Badenoch Way to Kincraig. This is another very pleasant section of the trail, especially on a day as nice as this. My feet and hips were sore by the end of the day, and by the time I reached the watersports centre at Loch Insh I was quite exhausted. However watching the sun set over Loch Insh was a fitting end to my penultimate day on the East Highland Way.
I was really looking forward to the final day – I knew this would be a beautiful stage to finish on, walking alongside Loch an Eilein and through the Rothiemurchus Estate to Aviemore. The day also started so well, with a visit to the Frank Bruce Sculpture Park, which is on the route. What an amazing place – it felt almost eerie on my own, but I was so impressed by the sculptures on display. It’s well worth taking the time to explore each one.
From there it was good tracks, bonny blooming heather and ancient Caledonian forests all the way to Aviemore. I stopped and had my packed lunch on the shores of Loch an Eilein, which seemed appropriate as it was voted Britain’s favourite picnic spot recently. From there Aviemore was just a short distance away, and I liked the fact that this last day is 10.5 miles and quite straightforward.
As I walked along the cycle-path into Aviemore, knowing my 82 mile walk was about to come to an end, I reflected on the experiences I’d had along the way. I’d really enjoyed the walk, although it tested me on a number of occasions. I kept a close eye on my map, guidebook and route notes, and also enjoyed the wealth of information they provided. I found the walk to be challenging, but I also found it to be immensely rewarding. I did feel an incredible sense of pride upon completion, and I’m already looking forward to my next walk!
Although there is no official end marker at this point, the Speyside Way start point in Aviemore provides a suitable ending. I was elated at completing this new and exciting long-distance trail, and would be delighted to assist with any questions you may have.