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The Great Glen Canoe Trail

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

Starting out on Loch Lochy

I am well aware that it has been ages since I have written anything and adventure stories are piling up. So to give each adventure its appropriate space I’m going to write a few blogs over the next few days to try to catch up with my comings and goings recently.

This one is all about my experiences on the Great Glen Canoe Trail, which is more commonly known as the Caledonian Canal. A supposedly five-day crossing of Scotland from Fort William, in the west, to Inverness, in the east, in a canoe.

I have been wanting to paddle this journey for quite a few years now and was getting closer and closer to just going on my own when Adam Conroy got in touch and said that he and his wife Emily were planning on undertaking this adventure, and would anyone like to join them? I know Adam and Emily from when they worked at Whithaugh as instructors but hadn’t seen them in years.

So I jumped on the chance to combine this trip with a good ol’ catch up! Hannah (another instructor from Whithaugh) was also able to join making a grand total of four.

The date was set for a week in June and we set about planning.

Quite a few logistical challenges present themselves when you want to undertake a five-day canoe expedition: equipment – both paddling and camping, food, vehicle shuttles, weather, etc. After a couple of phone calls with Adam we had sorted through a lot of these challenges and it was just a matter of waiting for the week to roll around.

We had planned to start on the Monday, but the three days prior to this I was on a Silver DofE expedition and so had to pack for both expeditions in a oner and leave as soon as I returned from the DofE exped. I made good progress up the road and arrived shortly after the Conroys and Hannah.

We had a good few hours sorting out kit on Sunday evening (we definitely over-packed) before bed. Adam and I left at half six to drive to Inverness, park and get the bus back to Fort William so that we could start. It seemed only right to journey from sea to sea and so we launched a canoe, into the sea, for a quick paddle before making our way up the canal.

On the sea! Emily waiting for her turn.

The fantastic four

Catching up with old friends

As we had started at 2 pm, we had a fairly short first day, arriving at our first campsite, Gairlochy, after only a couple of hours paddling. Here we set up tents and got dinner on the go before a few rounds of pass the pigs. Midge nets were essential.

Day two was a good day racking up the miles and journeying on Lochs and canals. We started on Loch Lochy, which Emily suggested was the “Lochy-est Loch of all Lochs!”

We had a little bit of a tail wind as we travelled up the Loch and so we stopped to set up a sail. This took a little time as we tried to figure out the best set-up and then rig it in such a way that it was sturdy and usable. With the help of a piece of driftwood we were up and running.

We made good progress under sail to reach Laggan Locks. We were now getting the hang of portaging and were back on the canal in no time.

Making good progress

Laggan Avenue

Next up was Laggan Avenue, a beautiful wooded section of the canal which was utterly calm and flat. It was so peaceful paddling down this section of the canal and an amazing experience that I would highly recommend. Just as we neared the end of this section of canal and made our approach to Loch Oich, a headwind started to build, making the last hour or so of our journey a bit more strenuous, but still doable.

We pulled into our campsite at Leitirfearn at the start of the evening, found some firewood and got the fire going, before tents and dinner. It had been a long day and we were thankful we didn’t have to go any further that day.

The canoes resting on the shore at Leitirfearn

Overnight, the wind had changed direction and picked up in speed. A group shelter held over two halves of a canoe pole helped us fly down the remainder of Loch Oich and sped us on our way to Fort Augustus. Team Conroy had a purpose made sail which performed excellently and made Hannah and I slightly jealous.

In Fort Augustus, we re-stocked some of our supplies. More milk, bread and most importantly…. dark chocolate digestives!

After we had sorted out the portage and food, we popped into a restaurant for a sit on a real chair and a hot meal of fish ‘n’ chips. It was a most welcome treat.

Before we set off down Loch Ness, we checked the forecast again and the winds were starting to build, in our favour. However, the following day was looking rather menacing with winds forecast to be gusting at up to 50 mph! If this were to be the case it would mean a day being grounded with launching canoes, onto the Loch, a decidedly stupid idea.

We set up the sail and pushed off onto Scotland’s second largest Loch. All of a sudden it was calm and a little bit rainy, not great for our journey, so we set about praying for a change in the conditions. As we paddled down the Loch with our sail set up, the wind started to build to the point where we were cruising along at a good 7 km/h and we even had a pocket of sunshine follow us all the way down!

We stopped at Foyers, about half-way and a suggested camp spot, but decided that seeming as we were making such good progress, we would just press home our advantage and crack out as much of the journey as we could manage.

In the end we travelled the length of Loch Ness in just under six hours!

Loch Ness looking a little foreboding

Adam leaning right out to get the shot

The final Loch which lead into our last campsite is called Loch Dochfour, but Emily was struggling to remember this, so we re-named it Loch Duck-Fart. An instantly more memorable name and it helped to boost morale.

Why did morale need boosting? We had loads of food and were making excellent time, but, Hannah and Emily were both feeling a little seasick from all the sailing – this helped to take their minds off of it, if only for a few seconds!

We rolled into Dochgarroch at about 9:30 pm, having been on the go for over twelve hours, so quickly popped the tents up and crawled into them for some well-earned rest.

The next morning was definitely a windy one, with Storm Hector making his presence known to all. After everything had been packed up, it was just a short journey to the Muirtown locks and our awaiting cars. From here we drove to the sea, to say that we had been from one end to the other… and once we saw the conditions, we were glad to not be still out in our canoes!

A rather lively Beauly Firth

We made it!

Now that we were finished, we had an extra day at our disposal, so we drove to Urquhart Castle for the afternoon, and the next day we went for a couple of walks in the beautiful woodlands.

Urquhart Castle

With this adventure now ticked off my to-do list, it was time to say goodbye to Adam, Emily and Hannah. What a week it had been: so many unknowns, so many laughs, answered prayers, genuine true adventure and a stack load of memories to boot.

Doing it again

This is not the end of the story though, as only a couple of weeks later I was scheduled to be assessing a Gold DofE expedition on the Great Glen Canoe Trail. I was to run the shuttle with the minibus and public transport, and then do as much paddling as I could with Callum whilst observing the group.

Battling up wind on Loch Lochy

Some flat calm canal too though

Callum and I had a blast! It was great to get to canoe with him and chat about this, that and everything else, but it was made better by the weather and my previous experience on the canal.

Everything was smoother, slicker and hotter. Suncream had to be applied three to four times a day. We probably drank around six litres of water a day each, and sought shelter from the sun whenever we could.

At times this may have looked like lounging around under umbrellas, but I can assure you, we were working hard.

Unfortunately, this time around, I didn’t get to sail any of Loch Ness as I had to drive the bus round to Foyers, but I did join Callum on the beach for a night, not under canvas!

We decided that it was such a lovely night that we would ditch the tent and just go with roll mats and sleeping bags. We propped the canoe up on its side as a wind break and cleared a small area, of beach, of stones and set up “camp” for the night.

At around four in the morning Callum woke me with “Oi Nathan, check out the sunrise!”

I’m so glad he mentioned it, as it turned out to be one of the most spectacular views I had seen on either expedition. It grew and developed for a few minutes and then all of a sudden it had gone. We almost missed it.

Beds out and Callum checking the ground for lumps.

The 4 am sunset in all its glory

What more can I say about this journey I have now been a part of, twice?

It is a wild and adventurous journey, full of potential to have a great or a bad time, but always worth the effort.

If you have been planning a trip somewhere, whether canoeing or just driving somewhere to experience it, don’t delay, get out there and do it, it will be worth it!

I can’t wait for the next time I get to go and partake in another crossing of this great country, that I have the privilege to live in, but until then I shall just have to remember the trials and tribulations of the above two trips and regale, anyone willing to listen, with stories from my adventures.

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