An Exploration of Highlands, Scotland – Part 7

17 06 2007

9-17 June 2007

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6 | Part7 | Part8

Fort William

I was informed that Fort William used to have a drinking problem. It used to be a dump and not a great place for tourists. Today the situation has been altered for the better. The town has reinvented itself as the outdoor capital of the UK. Frankly, there is little else at Fort William. Everything there is, is of nature and the great outdoors. The main street leading through town has been pedestrianized. This is part takes the credit for making it more welcoming for tourists. There is a Tourist Information Centre located centrally in town. The officers here offer prompt advice to tourists. There is a desk dedicated to not just finding accommodation but also booking the same for an additional fee of three pounds.

What makes Fort William such an exciting place for outdoor activities? There are in fact many places in Scotland that can offer similar accessibility to the outdoors for a variety of active sports. In Fort William, there is something that can be found nowhere else. It is at the doorstep of Ben Nevis, Britain tallest mountain peak. The mountain on its own is a magnetic presence. All sorts of events are organized all year around and many of these involve Ben Nevis in some way or another. I have been in Fort William for only three days and in that short visit I witnessed or heard about many events. I was told of the Caledonian Challenge 2007 which started on Saturday at Fort William. This is a long-distance race in which participants run to the finish line at Ardlui on the shores of Loch Lomond 54 miles away, resting only for a few hours overnight. As I was leaving Fort William, I chatted with a group of firemen from Dorset. They had come to take part in the Three Peaks Challenge, which was to climb Scafell Pike, Snowdon and Ben Nevis, which are the highest peaks in England, Wales and Scotland, respectively. The peaks were to be climbed in less than 24 hours. It was not a race but rather a challenge they had undertaken on themselves to raise money for a local charity. In September is the famous Ben Nevis race in which contestants run to the summit and back in the hope of beating records set back in 1984. Then there is the Big Triathlon that puts all human strength and stamina to the ultimate test. This involves a swim of 1900 metres, a cycling challenge of 90kms and finally a run of 21kms up and down Ben Nevis. In winter, the rest of Britain may go into long hibernation but not Fort William. Winter is the time to tackle the icescapes leading to the snow-clad summit of Ben Nevis. Ice-climbing at Ben Nevis is reputedly a challenge of world standards.

Leaving Ben Nevis alone, there are plenty of other activities around Fort William. For walkers, it is a fitting end to the famous West Highland Way, a long-distance walking path of great popularity. West Highland Way is the Pennine Way of Scotland. There is also the Great Glen Way which links Fort William to Inverness. The Great Glen Way is also a cycling route. The neighbouring Leanachan Forest is the scene of Relentless 24 which features 24 hours of mountain biking. In September Fort William is scheduled to stage the 2007 Mountain Bike World Championships. Expected attendance for this event is 40,000. Being next to Loch Linhe, a sea loch, there are opportunities for sailing out to sea. By the Caledonian Canal one can take to boating at leisure. Canoeing, kayaking, boating or sailing on Loch Lochy are further possibilities. Places for angling are plenty. Going further afield, the possibilities are endless. For the less adventurous, there is even a steam railway that runs to Mallaig daily in summer. For a small town, Fort William is a busy and happening place all year round.

Because it is such a busy place, finding suitable accommodation is a pain. Even if you are lucky to find something, it is likely to be an expensive double room which would be unaffordable for single occupancy. I finally secured accommodation last night at Inchree, a few miles south from Fort William. It was cheaper to pay for the bus ride to Inchree and stay at a hostel there than pay exorbitant prices at Fort William. At Inchree, is a top-quality hostel rated with four stars. I would recommend this to anyone planning to spend a night in that region. The facilities were splendid. The bed was comfortable and wide. The rooms were heated as proper, unlike at the YHA at Torridon where the heating was never on. The hostel even provided a hearty breakfast this morning. The breakfast had been included in the overall price which was only £13 per night per person. This place was the Inchree Lodge.

At the hostel, I met a couple from Slovakia who currently worked in Bristol. They had been on the road for more than ten days. They had been driving around Highlands. They had covered a lot more ground than I have. They have seen a lot more places than I have. Sometimes they find a hostel for the night but in most cases they spend the night in the car. Clearly cost was a key factor for them, especially when they had to pay high tariffs for taking cars to the islands. They offered to give me a ride to Fort William this morning. They have enjoyed their time in the UK but they have planned to return to their country by the end of the year. I learnt from them a little about Slovakia and they learnt a little from me about India.

Before leaving Fort William I took a short walk of three hours in and around town. I walked by the Great Glen Way to the ruins of Inverlochy Castle where I found my defences weak. I was swiftly attacked by midges. I was forced to leave the castle grounds in a hurry. I returned a little later having applied insect repellent to my face, neck and ears. I walked through Caol which could be considered an extension of Fort William. I walked by the shores of Loch Linhe. I walked by the Caledonian Canal. All these places appeared so different from the perspective I had obtained on Ben Nevis three days ago. On the ground I have to refer to the map and find my way around. From the air, the whole landscape was laid out before me and that by itself had been an adequate map. On the ground the little details are noted and admired. From the air, the grand scale of things is all that matters.

The Loch Ness Monster

At the minimum, a monster should cause damage. It must exhibit violent behaviour. It must be a positive threat to the general safety of people. It is a credit to the beastly character of a monster if it has a ghastly appearance, a face that strikes fear from the very first moment of gaze. If it is of enormous proportions, a giant in comparison to smaller human proportions, the monster deserves its epithet.

None of these can be claimed of the Loch Ness Monster. The monster is as legendary as Kraken of Classical mythology. Worse still, this monster had become somewhat of a comic character. “Nessie” as it is fondly called is a popular character with children. Nessie looks soft and tender. It sports a benign face with a generous smile. It has a glint in its eyes, almost glad to be in the company of humans. It has little notion of loneliness. It has no sexual drive and is little bothered being the one and only of its species.

This is probably one of the biggest yarns, amongst many, capitalized to its fullest extent by the tourism industry. It may also be the case that the creation of the monster is in itself a well-thought of and superbly executed hoax. Who is to say for certain that a grainy photograph showing something resembling a head and a neck is not a deliberate smudge on the lens? Who is to say that a video from the 1960s has captured the monster or something more mundane? How authentic and accurate are the sonar photographs of the 1970s? How can we verify the authenticity of sightings that have been few and far between? Is it possible that a monster suddenly appears to glimpse the world of land and air from time to time and then disappears forever? Why does not a monster living always under water like the fish, not choke when it rears its head above water? If it is like the whale, why does it not bask on land on a good summer’s day? How is it that there is only one of its kind? Then again, no one is really certain if it is just one monster or perhaps a colony of monsters.

There is model of this monster at a tourist spot dedicated to it. One look of this model is enough to convince anyone that it is a figment of imagination. It has a huge body but nothing significant to propel it in water. The tail is long and bulky like those of the dinosaurs. The tail is quite distinct from the body unlike whales, seals and dolphins. Such a tail is not likely to be effective in propelling this monster in water. Perhaps, this is done by the winged fins. This too is highly unlikely. The four fins are tiny, almost like uncertain and unwilling growths. They can at best help the monster to balance itself in water.

I viewed the lake of Loch Ness from the bus as I travelled between Inverness and Fort William. I did not alight in between to visit the tourist entrapments. I am sure I could have learnt a lot more about the monster but somehow I was convinced that I would gain no insights. There are far greater truths that we need to understand than about a monster. There are far greater monsters within each of us that we need to discover and kill.

If the legend of the monster has been a success it is only because every tourist who visits the shores of Loch Ness fancies himself special and lucky. No tourist would return home without scanning the lake’s rippling surface in the hope of spotting the monster. The lake is wide, long and deep. It has an ancient geological history. As part of the Great Glen, it lies along a fault line that forms the boundary of land masses that once collided. This in part explains why the lake is so deep. With this depth come secrets hidden in unexplored underwater caverns where perhaps a monster may live. The popularity of Loch Ness is a reflection of our need to explain our world and to make certain what is uncertain.

Today there are individuals who have dedicated their lives in their quest to explain what remains unexplained. There is an element of craziness in these people who spent their lives sitting by the loch and staring busily at the vacant expanse of water. Every ripple catches their eye. Every wave is studied and explained. Every object that appears as a blob in the distance is accounted for. Steve Feltham is one such person. It would have been an enviable opportunity to meet Steve and get a first-hand account of his experiences. The world should not be crazy but it needs some of these people for the progress of science. Unfortunately, the wonders of nature are many and the terrains are vast. Progress of science at Loch Ness needs patience. “Nessie hunters” are to wait and watch.

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6 | Part7 | Part8

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