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The Quiet Side of Loch Ness

In all the years that I've been guiding, I've always taken the A82 down the western side of Loch Ness from Inverness to Fort Augustus. A dangerous road, busy with tourists and subject to landslips, today it's the major route north-south passing through Drumnadrochit and Invermoriston with Urquhart Castle en-route. The greater popularity of the western side hasn't always been the case - when general George Wade built his network of roads and bridges to suppress the Highlands after the Jacobite uprising in 1715, it was the eastern side he chose for his military road.

On Saturday I decided to take the road less traveled and follow the General's route down the eastern shore, passing through places I had pointed out from a coach but had never visited. Branching off from the main A9 at Daviot, it's a beautiful road, single-track for much of its length, passing through villages with unpronounceable names, with gorgeous scenery around every corner.

My first stopping point was Boleskine Church and graveyard. Boleskine is a strip of land above Loch Ness that features regularly in my guiding commentary because of its associations with the occult, witchcraft and religion. The parish of Boleskine dates back to Medieval times, when in the 13th C a Kirk and graveyard were built to serve the people of the area. From the outset there were stories of strange happenings - a devious local wizard who could waken the dead - and a legend that the church eventually burned down with all the congregation trapped inside.

A Manor House was built in the mid-18th C, on the site of the Kirk, by the Frasers - the dominant family in this region. Likely because of its unsavoury associations, Boleskine House was purchased from the Fraser family in 1899 by Aleister Crowley, who became infamous for styling himself as Lord Boleskine and conducting black magic rituals while living there. The purpose of these rituals was to invoke his Guardian Angel but the process involved summoning the 12 Kings and Dukes of Hell and, according to legend, he never banished the demons he had summoned. Described by many as "the wickedest man in the world" he attracted a cult following and can be seen on the cover of the Beatles Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band between the Indian guru Sri Yukteswar and the Hollywood star Mae West.

Tragedy and strange occurrences continued to be associated with Boleskine after Crowley sold it in 1913. Perhaps the most famous of the house's many owners was Jimmy Page, lead guitarist with Led Zeppelin. Page was fascinated by the occult and was a collector of Crowley memorabilia. When the house came on to the market in 1970 it was in a poor state of repair but Page bought it as an atmospheric retreat in which to write songs. Although Page didn't spend a great deal of time there he did undertake repairs and left the house in the care of a friend. Initially a sceptic of the paranormal, the friend quickly became aware of strange occurrences that he and other residents describes as "pure evil". In spite of this he remained and raised a family there.

In more recent times Boleskine was bought by the McGillvray family in 1991 who restored the house and converted it into a hotel, stating that in their time of residence they experienced absolutely no mysterious occurrences - I suppose they would say that if they wanted to attract custom!

They in turn sold the property to an anonymous Dutch couple who converted the property back to a private residence and used it as a holiday home. However in December 2015 fire engulfed the building destroying the interior beyond repair. The property is now owned by the Boleskine Trust Foundation who plan to restore the house and grounds and open it to the public.

But the story doesn't end there. Those of you who have visited the island of Iona are aware of the graveyard next to the Abbey. Resting place of ancient Kings including Macbeth, the burial ground is also the final resting place of Norah Emily Fornario, known as Netta to her friends. Netta was an occultist and is known to have had an association with Crowley through the Order of the Golden Dawn. In the autumn of 1929, Netta came to Iona, telling friends she planned to make contact with the island's ancient spirits. She took up lodging with a woman called Mrs MacRae who became increasingly concerned for her welfare as she roamed the island, often in a trance-like state. One morning, Netta was missing from her room and the villagers were alerted to her disappearance....

"About two and a half miles away from Mrs. MacRae’s cottage, by the side of Loch Staonaig, were the remains of an ancient village in which Netta had expressed interest in visiting.  As dawn approached, two local men were searching the surrounds of the ruins when they made a shocking discovery. There lying sprawled across the top of a small mound, naked except for a large black cloak, was the dead body of Netta Fornario. A blackened silver cross hung about her neck and by her hand lay a small silver dagger.

Underneath her body a large cross shape had been carved into the turf, presumably with the same dagger. Her body was covered in unaccountable scratch marks. The soles of her feet were torn and had bled a great deal while her heels remained unscathed. But perhaps strangest of all was the location of her body.  Netta had been found lying on top of what is often known as a fairy mound. The Fairy mound or fort is thought to be imbued with Druidic magic and is considered to be a gateway between the realms of magic and our own human world.  

The precise cause of her death proved inconclusive, though was later recorded as by death 'exposure to the elements.’ She was 33 years of age."

The Friday after Netta was discovered,the islanders laid her body to rest. They placed on top, a rough tombstone etched with the letters M.E.F, for Marie Emily Fornario.

Knowing all this, it may come as no surprise to you that I went nowhere near Boleskine House, contenting myself instead with a wander around the graveyard of the current church. Amongst the gravestones I found this one to Eunice Lister. Strange to find a Lister in this area as the name Lister is derived from linen-maker and more associated with the lowlands of Scotland than the north - one to follow up in the future!

I didn't linger long but back in the car and off to my second stop - the village of Foyers and in particular, the Falls Of Foyers. From the village you can make your way down a steep, forested slope to two viewing areas that overlook the Falls. Along the path are stones which carry the lines of a poem "written with a pencil on the spot" by Robert Burns when he visited in 1787

Among the heathy hills and ragged woods 

The roaring Fyers pours his mossy floods; 

Till full he dashes on the rocky mounds, 

Where, thro' a shapeless breach, his stream resounds. 

As high in air the bursting torrents flow, 

As deep recoiling surges foam below, 

Prone down the rock the whitening sheet descends, 

And viewles Echo's ear, astonished, rends. 

Dim-seen, through rising mists and ceaseless show'rs, 

The hoary cavern, wide surrounding lours: 

Still thro' the gap the struggling river toils, 

And still, below, the horrid cauldron boils-

Today the flow of water from Loch Mhor over the Falls is impressive but nothing like the scale witnessed by Burns.

In 1985 the British Aluminium Company harnessed the power of the river to build the first hydro-powered smelter in the UK to process aluminium. A thriving industry developed but all materials had to be transported to the site by boat and by 1904 attention turned away from Foyers to Kinlochleven to the west, where easy access to the open sea was available. Foyers continued to operate until 1967, and over the years the power station element of the plant has been redeveloped as a pumped storage hydro-electric power station that now feeds the national grid.

The volume of water may have been reduced but the flow over the 160foot drop is still an impressive sight and I was astonished by the number of visitors - a phenomenon of lockdown Britain.

Back in the car and within a few miles you encounter a fabulous view of Loch Ness before descending to journey's end - Fort August and the Caledonian Canal.

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