Walk this way: hiking the West Highland Way
Scotland's first long-distance walking path, the West Highland Way, runs from Milngavie to Fort William. Rick Pearson and friends take a walk along the 96-mile route, wild camping, loch swimming and local ale sampling along the way.
Having spent many a happy weekend walking and running along the North Downs Way, I found myself becoming more and more interested in Britain’s other long-distance paths.
So when my friends, Chris and Lucy, announced their intention to walk the West Highland Way (WHW), a 96-mile route stretching from Milngavie to Fort William, it sounded like an opportunity too good to miss.
Fortunately my wife, Georgie, thought so too. Before long, a date was in the diary and an itinerary written up. We’d head up to Glasgow on the Caledonian Sleeper train, leaving Euston on Friday night and waking up north of the border on Saturday morning. We’d aim to arrive in Fort William the following Friday, averaging about 14 miles of walking a day.
The WHW is popular in May as the weather is beginning to warm but the midges are yet to arrive. Because of this accommodation books up quickly, so it pays to plan ahead. You can, of course, choose to wild camp every night, however given that this was supposed to be a holiday, we decided to split our time between B&Bs, campsites and the occasional wild camp.
Defying received wisdom, we made the first day our longest: an 18-mile yomp from Milngavie (pronounced: Mil-guy) to Balmaha, on the shores of Loch Lomond.
It’s fair to say that the first 10 miles of the route are fairly unremarkable: a flattish path leading through villages, fields and forests. However, when Loch Lomond finally comes into view, it’s more than worth the wait: a panorama of shimmering water and uninhabited islands, framed by verdant peaks.
Keen to reward ourselves with a few well earned ales, we headed to the Oak Tree Inn. Here we were met by a group of hardy Scotsmen who informed us they were walking the whole thing in just five days. “That’s what real men do,” they informed us.
Waking early to see said Scotsmen heading up the road carrying tiny bags and no tents, I resisted the temptation to explain to them that carrying one’s own tent, rather than staying in B&Bs, was actually what real men do, and headed instead to Ben Lomond.
Thrillingly, the sun decided to make an appearance. To celebrate this most rare and unexpected of events, Chris and I vowed to take a dip in Loch Lomond. As a regular visitor to Brockwell lido, an unheated pool south London, I had thought myself something of a cold-water aficionado. After five minutes in the frigid loch, I returned to shore, shivering and chastened, to accept I may have been wrong.
Day three was, in many ways, the most challenging: a 14-mile walk from Ben Lomond to Inverarnan, skirting the eastern shore of Loch Lomond. Carrying tents and large backpacks, scampering over the slippery rocks was a physical and mental struggle. So when Doune Byre bothy both came into view, we were only too happy to pop in for a welcome seat and warming shot of sloe gin.
Rejuvenated, we spent the final few miles of playing a game of ‘Desert Highland Disks’, each taking it in turns to explain to the group the three favourite songs they’d take with them to a desert island to distract from the creeping cold and hunger.
Arriving at our campsite, we quickly erected the tents before heading to the legendary Drovers Inn, an ideal spot for fans of a “wee dram” and taxidermy. Until you’ve drank Scottish whisky underneath the head of a stuffed deer, frankly, you haven’t lived.
Next up: a 12-mile hike from Inverarnan to Tyndrum. There are two great things about arriving in the mountain town of Tyndrum: 1) you’re over halfway 2) the fish & chips in the Real Food Cafe. The first is a psychological boost, the second is to die for.
The fifth day was our most ambitious: a 15-mile trek from Tyndrum to Ba Bridge on the rugged and remote Rannoch Moor, where we planned to pitch up for the night.
We were now in the high country, flanked either side by towering Munros. With the weather closing in fast, we pitched our tents at Ba Bridge. Georgie, battling midges and rain, rustled up a fine vegetarian stew on the trangia and we retired to our tents praying for better weather and fewer hills tomorrow.
One of our wishes came true: the sun shone bright in the morning, creating views of almost otherworldly loveliness. Unfortunately, there were plenty of hills yet to climb, most notably the Devil’s Staircase. A vertiginous climb of about a kilometre, it’s the toughest part of the WHW, made tougher still on weary legs. Thankfully, it’s then largely downhill to Kinlochleven, day six’s destination.
As the final stop for many on the WHW, Kinlochleven has a celebratory air about it. By this point, friendships have been formed with other walkers on similar schedules, and we were perhaps a little too eager to toast each other’s health at the Macdonald Hotel’s Ramblers Bar.
Consequently, day seven’s supposed-to-be-easy walk to Fort William turned out to be quite a slog. The final few miles of the route, along an A-road, is not the spectacular conclusion the route deserves, either, although nothing could diminish the feeling of satisfaction upon reaching the finish.
On the train ride back to London, we found ourselves chatting to a man who’d been been coming to the Highlands for 40 years, climbing its less-heralded peaks and visiting remote bothies. He told us that, in terms of offering true wildernesses, only northern Northway can compare to the Highlands of Scotland.
Listening to him, it made me realise how much there is still yet to discover. The West Highland Way may be complete; the Scottish exploring has only just begun.
Now go there
The West Highland Way starts at Milngavie and finishes in Fort William. To plan your route, visit: www.west-highland-way.co.uk
Catch the Caledonian sleeper train to from London to Scotland. To book: www.sleeper.scot