West Highland Way. A walk through Scotland’s Mountains and Mists.
The West Highland Way buzzes with a tangible magic along its 96 mile route between Milngavie and Fort William; especially after you cross the high/lowland divide and history, legend and folklore collide.
As you traipse along the high-fern lined and wildflower filled trails that lead onto open moorland dotted with heather, alternated at times with old railroads and military paths, time becomes meaningless. It’s surprising that the hiker coming the other way isn’t Rob Roy himself heading to his shore cave alongside Loch Lomond. Or maybe, as you pause by the lochen of the lost sword, the great sword that once belonged to Robert the Bruce – rumoured to be submerged in its cool depths, may finally reveal itself. The lochs and lochens hold onto their secrets.
The West Highland Way is transformative; walkers become pilgrims, photographers, naturists, historians and adventurers and occasionally, after a cleg-induced meltdown, children. It is a feast for the senses and so much more than a ‘long distance walk’,
Picking your way through the abundant, and verdant forests and woods on route, keeping a sharp eye out for white thistle way markers, is a communion; with those who came before and being whimsical the woodland folk of lore. The deciduous Mugdock Wood outside Milngavie around one mile in (only another 95 to go) is for me the true starting point – forget the fabled arch, as the Milngavie suburbs, car parks and flocks of people are finally left behind.
The path leads to Craigallen Loch and on the northern shore, an important piece of wayside and social history. Here, burned the Craigallen campfire from 1920 until the outbreak of WW2. Offering solace and companionship to those from the cities during a time of high employment, who came here to share tea and stories and find solace.
Present day way walkers, climbers and cyclists owe a huge debt to the fire-sitters; pioneers who opened up Scotland’s open spaces, campaigning for freedom to roam. It is easy to miss the stone memorial, a quiet piece of history, lacking perhaps the flamboyance of better-known history further up the route.
Fittingly, as we strapped our rucksacks back into place, a group of young lads passed, enjoying the route, the sun on their backs and being out of the city. It was unexpectedly and bloody hot. We would leapfrog these boys as we made our way, picking our way through their random clouds of lynx and enjoying their wild whoops and shouts as they swigged warm lager.
A fascination in walking is those who walk with you.
The great ‘way’ forests and woods are encountered after Drymen. Garadhban Forest offers the first introduction to sweeping forest trails as well as the way’s wild campers. They trudge out of the trees to join in the procession on the narrow birch-hedge lined track, like medieval monks of old on their way to matins only wearing rucksacks instead of carrying prayer books as we head to Conic Hill.
The Devil’s Staircase is touted as being the toughest ascent. Looking at the almost vertical path up Conic Hill, a row of walkers ahead of us plodding ant-like upwards, imagining a steeper hill is impossible. And disconcertingly, descending hikers are actually smiling as they come down, some leaning heavily on their poles. Sadism in hill-walking.
Panting up to the top, we joined a lovely Glaswegian couple, who reminded us to look back and took our minds of aching muscles with an entertaining chat about the price of static caravans, how bad the midges were and Nicola Sturgeon. And at the top of Conic Hill as we flopped onto the grassy knell just below the summit. They invited us to recover with them later, in the bar at Rowadennan, and down a pint or two over a meat pie.
And flopping on this natural viewing platform, you take your first peep at the Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond wearing its string of islands like a necklace. The shoreline roads and paths disappear into the woods and forests that line the eastern shore. A path way walkers all must take.
What is hidden from up high is the lochside arduous obstacle course of tree roots, roughly hewn stone steps, and undulating, narrow paths – especially after Inversnaid. The way weaves through enchanted ancient woodland and glades that absorb sound. It feels as if a goblin king or two may leap out cackling at your pathetic efforts from behind a bush, or a fairy or two may be found perched on the colourful toadstools. The towering trees gently peter out onto patchworks of open moorland and occasional dips to the shore. The Cobbler and other loch mountains standing in salute.
Some may scoff; mountaineers, endurance athlete, SAS veterans and locals more used to the terrain, but for mere walkers – forget the Devil’s Staircase, Loch Lomond is the gold standard challenge that turns humble mere walkers into what feels like endurance athletes.
For short people blessed with hobbit-legs, clambering up and over the boulders necessitates stretching legs out almost perpendicular to rocks to get up and going, before almost sliding down the boulder face. Luckily we had the lynx boys we’d met earlier to keep us company, their leader leading them onwards with strange war whoops. Fascinating group to take your mind off the scrambling.
Rob Roy’s cave is around here, standing guard for eternity over the loch and west-bank Mountains. Easy to miss, especially if you are focused on placing feet to avoid unwanted stumbles into the loch. Also missing were the famous feral goats. There wasn’t even a slight whiff of the mouldy feta, which is a clue they are near. Perhaps it was the heat.
The Krypton Factor bit ends with a vertical ladder (Satan’s Steps) to the top of the loch and the blessed relief of a path leading onto grassy open moorland. No more stones digging into feet!
As you look back before trudging along the undulating , tunnel-like fern paths, it is hard to believe you have walked for 9 hours around the loch. Only another 2 miles to Benglais Farm, our scheduled overnight stop.
Most walkers/survivors would agree that the Loch section IS the most difficult of days. The passage of time has softened the pain and looking back through rose-tinted glasses, it now appears as the most fun, in the masochistic way old style secondary school gym lessons were.
Starker landscapes with plenty of farmland, forestry and riverside paths take over now. The way intersected by the busy A82 and plenty of electricity pylons. Forests are more industrial than enchanted with piles of felled logs and widened tracks. The oak, bark, ash and alder trees harvested for timber, their bark used to tan leather. Old and new industries on show around Tyndrum, where there is a disused lead mine just outside the village and where vegetation still does not grow. Scotland’s only goldmine the new. Situated half-way up Ben Lui Mountain, this was always going to present a ‘wee challenge,’ for mining gold but it is happening.
Should you wish, you could hire gold-panning equipment at the ‘Wig-Wam farm (Straithfillan) and check the local streams and burns; most are content with sitting down with an ice-cold lolly and delicious mountain water. The farm is situated after St Fillan’s monastery which has strong Robert the Bruce associations. One wonders what he would make of modern industry and the scars it leaves, physical and otherwise.
Some truly splendid countryside opens up after Tyndrum on the way to Bridge of Orchy, Ranoch Moor and beyond. Sometimes following military routes over moors and valleys the way leading inexorably to Glen Coe and the Devil’s Staircase
According to veteran walkers, this is the ‘worst’ hill of the route. Situated towards the latter stages, its legend worms into your sub-conscious as ‘the challenge’, the one to tackle. Still, anyone who survived Satan’s ladder at the end of Loch Lomond should have no problem with any further ascents…
It is a steep zig-zag up with the obligatory and much missed mountain-goat like jumping over burns and roughly-hewn steps to assist. Simply stunning countryside, the type that takes your breath away.
A few fell runners coming the other way, urging encouragement and all, remarkably, looking as fresh as daisies, remarkably.
It’s essential to stop regularly up the staircase, not only to catch your breath and kill a few Clegg’s – but to look back.
The Glen Coe Mountains are all wearing their misty beauty-queen sashes that slowly burn off as the sun rises, it is sad to bid goodbye to this icon amongst mountains and begin the great descent.
A veritable picture postcard of sheep, patchwork fields and remote cottages that abruptly and without much warning; runs into forest stretching as far as your eye can see. The narrow hillside paths turning into widened forestry tracks.
Kinlochlevan, the next natural stopping point is , as the crow flies, close by. It remains, tantalisingly out of reach. Glimpses through breaks in the tree-line show it shimmering in the hot, hazy sunshine. Rather like the Emerald City beckoning to Dorothy.
It is creepily claustrophobic. Ever since Tyndrum, the half-way point, walker-numbers have diminished considerably. For the first time it feels desolate and lonely and a tiny bit scary. I would not like to tackle this in the rain. Even the birds have vanished, the absence of noise causing my friend to call my name in alarm, believing I’d been gobbled up by the endless forest.
The only sound is your feet crunching as you descend crablike, punctuated by the distant hum of a SUV forestry vehicle. Another steep corner, more trees, more brown-tinged ferns with beautiful pink flowers timidly poking through. Endless. But it does end as Kinlochlevan and civilisation in the form of the first convenience store for miles, loom into view.
The climb out of Kinlochlevan is the final ‘big climb’ of the walk. After a week of walking and climbing, muscles are hardened and lungs expanded. Without the impediment of huge rucksacks weighing you down like the wild campers we enjoyed meeting on route. (Amazing how much you can cram in a bag) it is a gorgeous peach of a climb, plenty of flowers, shrubs and burns to look at.
The long clamber-up ends and you perch far above the cloud, not yet burnt off by the sun. The loch spread out below, looking like a glittering rug and is the visual accompaniment for a few miles. The path eventually opens to military road leading though a valley pass, all the way to Fort William and of course. Ben Nevis. It is sacred. Natures own cathedral. There were few others walking this part indeed at times you feel like the only human left on earth, with sheep and the cursed clegs keeping you company… Clegs the fly that bonds all Way walkers in loathing and itching.
The Cleg the Norse horse-fly with few redeeming features, attacked en masseon Ranoch Moor, creeping from the hills like highlanders of yore.
It may have been hot, sunny and moist, the day we crossed the moor. But a certain bleakness is ever present. The infamous scene from Trainspotting was filmed here and the exposed moor offers little protection against the clouds of clegs that hover and dance in clouds around heads and limbs, taking any chance to pierce and bite. Escaping, involves sprinting at speeds Usain Bolt would be proud of and snapping pictures of sheep, heather and gorse, in the vain hope they will provide a good record of what we walked over.
And up high, on this last day after Loch Levan views pass behind and you continue walking through the valley and the sun rises. The clegs appear again. Perhaps, they come from a higher-being as a final incentive to keep tired legs pushing on, into the arms of Ben Nevis standing guard, as you approach the final few miles, looming over the narrow track with more ferns and wild hot-pink foxgloves and purply orchids adding splashes of colour.
There is another steep sliding forest descent into the town and the finishing line. The felled trees and widened track under a fierce beating July sun gives an intense, pressure cooker feel; at odds with the usual reviving and refreshing experience offered by woodland. Another steep curving loop and then a steep black run of a descent. Thankful, despite the protests of knees and hips that you are going down and not climbing up. But, by now you can almost taste the celebratory beer and chips and are relishing the end and the chance to get your flip-flops on and exchange stories with fellow walkers in the Fort William pubs.
And then its all over, trees becoming the main road into Fort William; there is a slightly anti-climatic feeling, a sense of loss. The highs and the lows are over. The laughter and tears and hissy fits. No more hills, no more valleys, trees, burns, slowworms, toadstools and beauty. No more West Highland Way, It gets under your skin, this Emperor of trails.
And there will always be a cleg-shaped piece of my heart.
With thanks to Rhona McGowan at Macs Adventure. Who organised the itinerary, accommodation and bag transfers.