The Great Glen, a major geological fault line cutting diagonally across the Highlands from Fort William to Inverness, is the defining geographic feature of the north of Scotland. A huge rift valley was formed when the northwestern and southeastern sides of the fault slid in opposite directions for more than sixty miles, while the present landscape was shaped by glaciers that retreated only around 8000 BC. The glen is impressive more for its sheer scale than its beauty, but the imposing barrier of loch and mountain means that no one can travel into the northern Highlands without passing through it. With the two major service centres of the Highlands at either end it makes an obvious and rewarding route between the west and east coasts.
Of the Great Glen’s four elongated lochs, the most famous is Loch Ness, home to the mythical monster; lochs Oich, Lochy and Linnhe (the last of these a sea loch) are less renowned, though no less attractive. All four are linked by the Caledonian Canal. The southwestern end of the Great Glen is dominated by Fort William, the second-largest town in the Highland region. Situated at the heart of the Lochaber area, it’s a useful base and an excellent hub for outdoor activities. Dominating the scene to the south is Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak, best approached from scenic Glen Nevis. The most famous glen of all, Glen Coe, lies on the main A82 road half an hour’s drive south of Fort William. Nowadays the whole area is unashamedly given over to tourism, and Fort William is swamped by bus tours throughout the summer, but, as ever in the Highlands, within a thirty-minute drive you can be totally alone.