Dark Secret of Loch Ness

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Sunday Times (UK)
p 11 (19-08-2007)

By Tom Lappin

The area is lovely, but it’s good to be able to escape the monstrous commercialism that surrounds it, writes Tom Lappin.

The dark depths of Loch Ness have become something of a cultural divide. On the northwest shore we are in the tediously Disneyfied world of the Nessie experience. Here commercial acumen and the relentless credulousness of generations of American, Japanese and European day-trippers has made this a Caledonian El Dorado, a promised land where any enterprising young man with a van full of stuffed monsters and some tartan-bedecked shortbread can make his fortune.

That monster myth had to begin somewhere, though, and in places a sense of portentous mystery still clings to this beautiful stretch of tenebrous water.

The southeastern shore of the loch, skirted by single-track road for much of its length, and hence tricky for the coaches to negotiate, still has that sense of pagan mystique.

Some sense of taste or trepidation means the marketing people of VisitScotland haven’t yet got around to promoting the local connections of the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley, although in truth his story is far more interesting and troubling than supposed sightings of a reticent plesiosaur.

Boleskine House, an 18th-century hunting lodge initially associated with the Fraser family, lurks in the forest between Foyers and Inverfarigaig. Crowley bought it in 1899, recognising its suitability as a private and remote spot from which to conduct his occult experiments.

Cognoscenti of the cult of Thelema, the “religion” founded by Crowley in 1904 (they don’t like it if you call them Satanists) regard Boleskine House as something of a shrine. Jimmy Page, the Led Zeppelin guitarist, was sufficiently fascinated to own it for a spell in the 1970s (it is still privately owned).

Here, Crowley started to perform the Abramelin, a medieval black magic ritual that took six months to conclude. Crowley fell in love and was quickly married halfway through the ritual and never got around to completing it at Boleskine. Perhaps that was for the best.

The tabloid equivalents back then called him the “wickedest man in the world”, although Crowley wasn’t so much bothered with moral niceties as indulgent of a dangerously experimental curiosity, in matters of sex and black magic. There is a sense that Crowley was the most exciting thing that ever happened to the sleepy cluster of cottages at Foyers. There is an unverified rumour that the local butcher cut off his own hand with a cleaver after reading Crowley’s enchanted delivery order. He also had a mischievous sense of humour, once informing the Society for the Suppression of Vice that the douce settlement was infested with prostitutes. He wished.

While we wait (probably in vain) for a “Crowley Trail” to find its way onto the Loch Ness tourist map, Foyers has its falls to divert those drawn to the beauty of the area. The hydroelectric station has dammed the stream, but there is still enough water to maintain an impressive cascade, and a series of paths offers several vantage points from which to admire it. An earlier drug-crazed sensualist, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, went into raptures about the waterfall in 1803.

This is still a serene natural wilderness. A hike through the Farigaig forest along well-marked paths takes you up a crag with spectacular views of Loch Ness.

Continue west past a picnic area at the eerily still Lochan Torr An Tuill, before skirting the environs of Boleskine House, where you might encounter some pilgrim paying homage to the founder of Thelema, or a Led Zeppelin fan scoping Jimmy’s old pad.

The morbidly curious, or curiously morbid, can cross the B852 and snoop around the old Fraser family burial ground, with the remnants of a morthouse (where corpses were guarded until they were no longer likely to attract the attention of grave-robbers).

All of this sombre activity is bound to work up an appetite. Again the south of the loch has the edge on the tourist traps of the northern shore with their Nessie burgers and monster shakes.

The Foyers Bay guest house is probably the best accommodation bargain anywhere nearby, a beautiful old house with spectacular views out over the loch, and a restaurant that serves up unassumingly excellent food in a comfortable conservatory. Even if you only stop for afternoon tea, the shimmering water on the loch is an alluring backdrop.

A couple of miles up the loch towards Inverness, the Dores Inn has a beautiful garden overlooking the loch, hearty pub food in the restaurant, and an approach to customer service that seems to favour the suspicious above the hospitable.

Understandable perhaps. Round these parts you never know whether an outsider has just popped in for the steak pie and mash, or is contemplating summoning up the demons of the underworld.

Details: FirstScotrail (www.firstscotrail.com) has Advance2 return fares to Inverness from Glasgow or Edinburgh from Pounds 20.

D and E Coaches (01463 222 444) runs a bus service from Inverness to Foyers, Pounds 3.60 for a single fare.

The Foyers Bay guest house (01456 486 624, www.foyers bay.co.uk) has doubles from Pounds 30 per person per night bed and breakfast, or Pounds 45 per person per night including dinner. Self-catering lodges are also available. A lodge sleeping six starts from Pounds 225 per week.

For further information see www.visitscotland.com

 

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