Take a loch

I'M a great believer in trying to get more involved than your average tourist, which is probably why, on a recent weekend away exploring Loch Ness, our group found ourselves part of a small crowd singing All Things Bright and Beautiful on the village green in Drumnadrochit, surrounded by an assortment of domestic pets. One of us was astride a Norwegian fjord horse.

The husband, two kids and I had arrived the night before, after one of the loveliest drives in the world, taking in Rannoch Moor and Glencoe on a beautiful breezy autumn day. The plan was to base ourselves in the Lovat Arms in Fort Augustus, on the southern tip of Loch Ness, and explore both sides of the famous waterway.

The hotel was warm and comfortable but on the night we arrived, eager to get exploring, we ventured into the town. Perhaps it was a mistake; Fort Augustus that Saturday was the drunkest town in Scotland and although there looked to be a good few child-friendly pubs with nice menus, we left the revellers to it and got an early night.

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It turned out to be an unfair assessment: a shinty win had caused all the merriment and the next morning a walk around the town revealed it to be much more dignified and picturesque than we had first thought. It is dissected by the impressive locks of Thomas Telford's Caledonian Canal and as we sat in the sunshine we watched a boat make its slow progress down the five steps, with the water levels changing at an alarming rate.

We were booked on a boat trip on the loch so we left our spot and set off for the meeting place, 20 minutes' drive away at the Clansman Harbour. Jacobite Cruises offer various combinations of water-based sight seeing; the Freedom cruise is a half-hour ride each way to Urquhart Castle, with your ticket including entry to the ruin and allowing an hour for wandering about.

The best approach to the iconic castle is by water, although our kids were clearly too busy scanning the surface of the loch for Nessie to check out the view. To add to the distraction, inside the cabin of the boat is a sonar screen, which details the depth of the water underneath. This is one of the deepest parts of the loch and as we watched the gauge inch towards the 750-metre mark we looked for any sudden blips that might indicate a large reptilian presence.

An hour is barely enough to explore the castle fully, ruin though it is. You have 1,000 years of national history and clan warfare in miniature, and the film in the visitor centre gallops through it all at a smart pace to give a good understanding of what happened here.

Back on the boat, you get commentary in both directions too – about the history and mystery of the loch. But as some annoying Italians were talking loudly over it, we decided to find out more at one of several visitor centres dotted along the western shore. We deliberately chose one without "monster" in the title, hoping to avoid the Nessie in Jimmy Hat tat that creeps in at gift shops around these parts.

We chose well; the Loch Ness Centre in Drumnadrochit tells the story of the loch, utilising the monster myth to explain the natural habitat and geological formation which may have led to it. One theory is that, due to the extreme depth of the water, the difference in temperatures between the surface and the bottom creates underwater waves, causing submerged logs to rise then fall back vertically on the surface. I could see how one of those could be mistaken for Nessie's head.

The exhibition also charts the progress of monster hunting on the loch; I suspect those who willingly plunged themselves in the dark depths, crouched in tiny round submarines, had a need to know greater than mine but all this is fascinating stuff if you prefer science to superstition. My son, aged seven, protested that the films were trying to make him "not believe in the monster", which he didn't like; so perhaps this isn't the best place for the very young.

On leaving the centre, we saw a poster for the Blessing of the Animals to take place on the very pretty Drumnadrochit village green. It turned out to be an outdoor church service, attended by children and pets, which the enthusiastic congregation roped us into, even though we didn't have any animals with us. After the hymns, the gerbils, cats, dogs and horse were blessed and the only time I felt near to giggling was when the minister blessed our goldfish, Indiana Jones, in absentia.

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Having done as much of the tourist route as we could wish, we set off the next day to explore the less well-trodden path on the southern side of the loch. The old General Wade road leads from the bottom end to Inverness at the top, but we confined our exploration to a glorious three-mile walk from Whitebridge to Foyers, which ends in a spectacular waterfall view, visited by many of the romantic poets. Burns wrote in praise of its magnificence and as you take the woodland walk down to the viewpoint of Foyers Falls, you'll see his lines of verse inscribed on the stones that lead there.

The Lovat Arms was the perfect weekend base. It has recently undergone a refurbishment and now wins awards for its environmental standards as well as its service. Dinner is excellent, with dishes such as pressed game terrine with pear and plum chutney and local wild mushroom tagliatelle typifying the quality of the local produce used.

The breakfasts deserve special mention. Again, local ingredients are used in the finest Scottish repast: smoked haddock with poached eggs, Stornoway black pudding, home-made plum jam.

Visiting both shores of Loch Ness gave us two very different experiences – the tourist trail and the quiet countryside route. This autumn, the area has been particularly spectacular, as a wet summer has given the changing leaves a unique vibrancy. Go soon before they all fall off.



From the south, take the A82, via Loch Rannoch and Glencoe. From the north, take the A82 from Inverness, or General Wade's road, the B862.


The Lovat Arms, Fort Augustus (tel: 0845 450 1100, www.lovatarms-hotel.com). Overlooking both the loch and locks of the Caledonian Canal, prices in November/December start at 85 for a double room with breakfast for two. Three nights' dinner, bed and breakfast starts at 290.


Jacobite Cruises depart from Inverness and Clansman Harbour. The Freedom trip, including entrance to Urquhart Castle, costs 14 for adults (children travel free). Tel: 01463 233999, www.jacobite.co.uk

Loch Ness Centre, Drumnadrochit (tel: 01456 450573).

Cruise Loch Ness aboard the MV Lord of the Glens for four nights, from 299 per person, from March to December 2009. Contact Connoisseur Travel (tel: 0845 130 0789) and quote Scotsman Reader Holidays.

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