The Great Glen has always fascinated me as one of the world’s great geological fault lines, a hulking great cut right through the nation from Fort William on Scotland’s Atlantic Ocean coast to Inverness on the North Sea. What always amazes me is that while it is busy with tourists during the summer few people make the effort to explore in winter when I think it looks at its best, often topped with a dusting of snow.
The Great Glen
The Great Glen’s charms are manifest. All along its length are sweeping Highland glens and towering mountain massifs, while in its centre the Caledonian Canal cuts a swathe with its series of linked lochs and locks, the brilliant brainchild of brilliant engineer Thomas Telford. It is an epic landscape alive with wildlife, history and culture too, and at this time of year cosy pubs with roaring fires where you can hide away from the encroaching night frosts.
If you’ve never been to the Great Glen in Winter I suggest you go. Don’t worry about accommodation being closed as handily the Scottish Youth Hostels in Glen Nevis and Inverness are open year round and they make for the ideal bases for exploring a region that at this time of year is also gloriously midge free!
Boat By Fort William, end of the Great Glen
1. Less Crowds – In summer the Great Glen can become very busy with crowds flocking in search of Nessie and a bite sized Highlands experience. As soon as the clocks go back the crowds ease. Yes, some businesses do close down for the season, but enough remain open to enable you to explore and those brace of youth hostels stay open and remain welcoming. I love this time of year for walking sections of the Great Glen Way, a 73 mile artery that cuts right through the glen. It’s also ideal for cycling too on the Great Glen Cycle Way, though for me the Great Glen Canoe Way is getting a little chilly!
Robin cycling in the Great Glen
2. Wildlife – While there may be less people around there are many more deer in winter. From autumn into winter the mighty red deer – the largest land mammal in the UK – descend from the chilly, spare mountain ridges to seek shelter and food on the lower slopes. This is the time of year when you can hear the hulking stags ‘rutting’. If you’ve never heard it before it’s a striking, murderous sound that echoes around the glens at dusk. Some of the birdlife does migrate for winter, but there are still plenty of swans, herons, buzzards and golden eagles. It is a good time to see pine martens too out looking for food.
3. Nevis Range – In summer the slopes of this mountain range just outside Fort William are alive with mountain bikers and hikers. When the snows come things change completely and the extremely handy mountain gondola fills instead with winter sports enthusiasts. The Nevis Range offers world class skiing and snowboarding. If you have your own gear and the skills there are testing black runs and even off piste sections to challenge yourself on. A further series of chairlifts await on the higher slopes. For the less experienced there is the chance to learn both skiing and snowboarding.
Wintry Hills around Fort William
4. Stargazing – I’ve been stargazing all over the world as a travel writer and genuinely find Scotland offers some of the finest stargazing anywhere. There is very little light pollution in the Great Glen, especially in winter. There are often clear skies on ice cold nights too where the heavens really open up. The last time I was up at Gairlochy I sat for an hour watching a plethora of stars, clearing making out the Milky Way and losing count of the number of shooting stars ripping across the night skies. Then, of course, there is the Aurelia Borealis, or the Northern Lights, with winter the best time to see them.
5. Cosy Pubs – Winter is the perfect time to cosy up in a pub after dark, slip off your heavy jacket and order a warming dram or a pint of your favourite craft beer. There are a flurry of welcoming pubs dotted around the Great Glen that really come into their own in winter. You can of course enjoy a relaxing drink in the Glen Nevis and Inverness Youth Hostels. In Fort Augustus you can chose between the Bothy Bar and The Lock Inn, both of which overlook the series of locks and offer real ales and a range of warming whiskies.
Biography for Robin McKelvie
Robin McKelvie (www.robinmckelvie.com) is a Scottish travel writer, broadcaster and blogger who has been covering his native land since the 1990s. A member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, Robin is the author of a number of guidebooks, including National Geographic’s Scotland guide. He regularly contributes to a variety of newspapers and magazines across five continents, such as the Times and the Scotsman, as well as doing travel slots for BBC radio. Robin can be found on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robinmckelvie.