In 2015 Sandra Loder and her son Iain (then 13) set off on a riding adventure from Fort William to Inverness (approximately 75 miles), raising £2000 for The Sandpiper Trust in the process.
Sandra shares their experience in this article, first published in Western Horse UK magazine in 2015.
The long Scottish winter is a great time for planning all the things to cram into the following summer. Inspired by a friend who rode solo across Scotland last year, I pondered the idea of doing a shorter route with my 13-year-old son Iain. He was very keen and suggested we do it for charity. So the maps came out and a plan started to hatch.
There are several recognised routes. Some can be done in less than 3 days, but that seemed a bit lightweight. Some take weeks—too long and too much time off. Iain had canoed part of the Great Glen in 2014 as part of a school expedition, so that was his suggestion.
The Great Glen is on a substantial geological fault line that runs from Fort William to Inverness. Along the Glen are three main lochs, including Loch Ness, famous for Loch Oich and Loch Lochy. The lochs are joined by sections of canal built in the 1800s by Thomas Telford and provided a safe passage for wooden sailing ships which would otherwise have to negotiate Cape Wrath and the Pentland Firth.
We planned to use a homebred Quarter Horse mare, Chilli, and a Quarter Horse cross Appaloosa gelding, Lucky, bred by Leaf Sutherland, both trained at home. The horses nor we had ever been on such a long ride, although we had done a trial run near home, riding out 9 miles, camping and then riding back a hill route the following day. This helped us test out the kit and work out how to pack everything as efficiently as possible. As we aimed to complete the ride unaided, we had to carry all the essentials but keep weight to a minimum. The kit included the tent, sleeping bags and mats, cooking equipment, food, first aid kit, spare hoof boots (in case of a lost shoe), maps, electric fence, spare clothing and, not least, waterproofs.
The route we planned to take was about 75 miles and would be way marked for most of the journey. There would be a few minor detours to avoid the A82, a busy road at the best of times but even more so at the height of the tourist season. Heavy rain and snowmelt in early March had washed out a section of weir and banking at Bridge of Oich, which closed the canal for several months and, although the canal was now open, we had been informed that the route along this section wouldn't be open until July Having planned the ride for late June we decided to postpone until early August. Repairs were still not complete when we made some final calls, so with the help of Aberchalder Estate, we found a suitable detour and overnight stop, adding about 5 miles to the route.
Our journey began with a 5-hour drive to get to the starting point on the 5th of August. After unloading and saddling up, we set off up the canal path at Neptune's Staircase, a series of 8 locks in the shadow of Ben Nevis.
Neither horse had seen any type of boat before, so it was interesting to see their reactions—not much actually. Chilli took more exception to the endless wooden benches along the canal path. The fact that huge yachts were cruising past a few feet away was of little concern.
The weather forecast for the first night was heavy rain, thunder and lightning. Well, it's been like that all summer, so nothing new! We were camping at Achnacarry Estate on the edge of Loch Lochy. They had very kindly given us a field, complete with field shelter. The rain had started when we arrived, and the ground was wet, so when we saw the shelter, we decided the horses were staying outside and would sleep on the relatively clean wooden floor. Thankfully the horses did have trees for shelter because it did pour down that night. Achnacarry Castle, which we could see from the field, is home to the Chiefs of the Clan Cameron and was the Commando Training Depot from 1942 to 1945.
By the second morning, it had dried up, and with a light breeze, the midges weren't too bad. After breakfast (porridge, of course), we set off on what would be the longest day, about 20 miles all the way along Loch Lochy and Loch Oich to a mountain bothy on our detour section. Dealing with the road section at Invergarry was not pleasant. With heavy traffic, a 60 speed limit, and only a small pavement, buses passed us a few feet away at speed. Sadly, very few drivers slowed down, but thankfully the horses remained fairly calm. It was a relief to get back onto tracks.
Towards the end of that day, we were all starting to tire, and the bothy we were looking for seemed to be much further than the map suggested. To cap it all, Chilli pulled a shoe off in boggy ground 500 yards from our stop. When we were told about the bothy and permitted to stop there, it was on the understanding that we wouldn't advertise its location. As the saying goes: "If I tell you, I'd have to kill you." It was a real find; wind and watertight, no electricity or beds (wooden floor again) but a hefty bookshelf with 100 plus books and an attic room papered with newspapers from just after World War II. Pictures of Churchill and Hitler alongside livestock from the local agricultural shows—an eclectic mix.
Day 3 saw a really midgey start. With no wind and on the edge of woodland, the horses were relieved to be sprayed with DEET while we wore midge nets over our heads—a great look. Tacked up, we set off about 9 am (more porridge for breakfast) and reached Fort Augustus in good time. Managing to stay clear of the A82, we found the track heading north on the West side of Loch Ness and headed up onto the higher ground. This section was mainly in the forest, but there were some stunning viewpoints before heading down into Invermoriston.
We had instructions to call the head gamekeeper to check where we were camping for the night. The conversation started with, "Are the horses alright with wild boar?" I thought that this might be an interesting night. The horses were corralled in the open country within our portable electric fence as with the night before. There were obvious signs of wild boar around that area, and I had a slight feeling of apprehension about whether the horses would still be there in the morning and, if not, where in Scotland to start looking?? Once the horses were corralled and the tent up, we walked about a mile down into the village and tracked down a café for a real cappuccino. I also noted that all B&B's were full up. No cheating now.
I woke to hear the horses snorting and moving around during the night, but they settled, and I fell asleep. At 4 am, I heard some noises quite close to the tent, so I decided to look. It was still dark, but about 40 metres from the tent, I could just make out the black silhouettes of 5 wild boar. The horses seemed fine, so I nodded off back to sleep. At 6 am, when we got up, the boar had gone, but there were 3 Red Deer hinds with calves. And the horses were still there. Phew!
More porridge and we were all packed up, ready for day 4. We followed the A82 through Invermoriston and then walked the horses up the steep track into the woods. About 4 miles south of Drumnadrochit, we came upon the Loch Ness Clayworks Pottery and Café, so a nice cuppa and cake went down well while the horses grazed their lawn. We followed the single track road to Drumnadrochit, where we camped in a field belonging to Borlum Riding Centre. The same family has run the riding centre since 1963, and they are very helpful to anyone riding through. We walked into Drumndrochit for some food and went to the gift shop, suitably stocked with Scottish gifts and green monsters in varying designs, sizes and levels of fluffiness. We did buy a pack of 'Highland Cow' playing cards, and Iain taught me how to play poker.
For the final day, we had a very early start. We had 2 miles to go on the now-infamous A82, so we decided to leave at 6.30 am before the traffic got going. All went well, and we headed up the steepest section so far, with some stunning views over Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle. Further north, we came out onto heather hill. By 11 am, we reached the Abriachan Eco-Campsite and café; another interesting find amidst birch woodland and only accessible on foot, hoof or bicycle. And another great coffee. We set off from there on the final section, which followed a single track road on open hill and then into woodland, which would take us to our pick up point above Inverness. A small welcoming party met us there with some sandwiches, Prosecco and a good bucket of feed for the horses.
It was certainly an adventure we won't forget. It was a great challenge, the horses did us proud, and it reminded me of the things we really need and those we take for granted. We met some lovely, interesting folk along the way and managed to raise a staggering £2000 for The Sandpiper Trust. This charity provides emergency medical equipment and training for Doctors, Paramedics and First Responders in rural Scotland. A huge thank you to all of you that donated, to the Estates and farms that provided fields and places to camp, Ali for holding the fort back home and my brother for being at the end of the phone, just in case we needed help.