After the incredible experience of Clava Cairns, it was probably just as well that our next destination was not far and would offer no more than beauty to bewitch us. I have camped on its shores and ‘showered’ in its icy waterfalls, but it is many years since I last saw Loch Ness. There is a geological fault in the land here that runs right across the north of Scotland. Aeons ago, glaciers found the weak point and carved the Great Glen out of the earth, almost separating north from south. Loch Ness is the most famous of the interconnected lochs that follow the faultline and, for size alone, the most impressive. It is around twenty-three miles long and 755 feet deep, holding more water than all the lakes in England and Wales together. It also holds a world famous mystery… the Loch Ness monster. Perhaps.
Stories of the monster go back a very long way. The earliest recorded sighting dates back fifteen hundred years to the Life of St. Columba by Adomnán. He records that the saint came upon Picts by the River Ness who were burying the body of a man slain by the monster. Columba sent Luigne moccu Min, one of his followers, to swim in the waters. When the monster emerged and was about to attack, the saint made the sign of the Cross and cried, “Go no further. Do not touch the man. Go back at once.” The beast obliged and the Picts hailed it as a miracle.
Stories, photographs… some spurious, others simply mysterious, have emerged over the years. Opinions are divided about what the monster might, or might not be… or if it exists at all. Scottish waters abound with kelpies, selkies and other magical creatures, after all. But regardless of the authenticity of the stories, ‘Nessie’ is now a major tourist attraction. Sceptical by nature, I am inclined to dismiss a good proportion of the tales, though some remain intriguing… but I defy anyone to stand on the banks of the loch and not scan the waters hopefully for some sign of the monster’s presence.
We looked out over the silky calm of the deserted loch, exploring the rocks, some a beautiful pink that seems to glow when the setting sun touches it, others folded, poured and streaked by the forces of planetary evolution. An incredible number of them seemed to echo the shape of the monster, even on our little patch of shore and it is very easy to see how some of them could be misinterpreted in the half-light. Especially when, out of nowhere, and for no reason at all, a long, high swell arises in the smooth, silken water… as if something very large were swimming just below the surface…
We scanned the loch for any sign of a boat, or anything else that could have created the unexpected swell… but there was nothing to be seen. As we watched, the swell rose again, as if a second ‘something’ had passed by, sending waves to disturb the serenity of the shoreline… There has to be some explanation for it… a perfectly rational one… doesn’t there?
We watched until the water subsided and became once again a silent sheet of silk, looking across the loch and wondering where the notorious Boleskine House might be. Its notoriety comes largely from its association with the occultist and writer Aleister Crowley whose reputation meant that tales of orgiastic rites and sacrifices in the woods were inevitable, whether or not they were entirely deserved. He had bought the house from the Fraser family in 1899 to use as a retreat in which to undertake the Abramelin rituals, which require seclusion and a six month period of fasting, abstinence and celibacy, but which also require their practitioner to call up some dark forces. He never completed the rituals and tales of strange and unpleasant happenings began to emerge. His lodge-keeper there, who lost two of his children, was thought to be one victim of what Crowley later called experiments that had got out of hand.
Boleskine House, though, has had a dark reputation for far longer than the house itself has stood there. A thousand years ago a chapel that stood on the spot is said to have caught fire during one of the services, burning the entire congregation to death. Strange lights have been seen over the churchyard, which is reputedly connected to the House by a tunnel and the severed head of the executed Lord Lovat can be heard rolling around the floors of the rooms of Boleskine. Perhaps it is no surprise that its next owner committed suicide there in 1965. It was then bought by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page as a place to write songs, then sold on to become a hotel and finally a family home. In 2015, while the owner’s partner and daughter were out shopping, the empty house somehow caught fire and burned down, leaving nothing but an empty shell and a memory that will go into legend.
We drove on, stopping for the obligatory shot of Urquhart Castle and lunch in Invermoriston and resisting the temptation to stop once more at Drumnadrochit. We had already seen so much that morning and driven over a hundred miles… and we had another hundred miles to drive before dinner. But I knew the road I wanted to take, a beautiful road with a very special place along the way, if I remembered it rightly… and the view through the windscreen showed us that the distant slopes of the Cairngorms were waiting…