I am back after walking all 95 miles of the West Highland Way. Mark and I did the route in 6 days and not the 7 days recommended for novice long-distance walkers like ourselves and we both insisted on carrying all our gear with us, so today we are walking around like two very, very old people and taking things extremely easy. And amidst unpacking bags of camping gear, sorting out wet and smelly socks and organising myself for the coming week, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on the stages of this epic adventure.
We started out at Milngavie station with our rucsacs* last Saturday afternoon and took the well-marked path off the High Street of this Glasgow suburb. Shoppers, dog-walkers and locals passed us as we tramped through Mugdock wood jabbering excitedly about the route ahead. Passing through woodland full of Rowan trees, wild raspberries and blaeberries, we came eventually to a road and turned off into the more open landscape surrounding Dumgoyach. Near Dumgoyne, we stopped at the Beech Tree Inn for a celebratory pint to christen the start of our quest and then we headed onwards to Easter Drumquhassle Farm for our first night of camping. Along the last stretch of walking, I gathered dry, dead twigs in order that I could cook that night on my very exciting woodburning camping stove.
After a hearty meal of Beanfeast and couscous and a vigorous discussion comparing the merits of gas vs. wood for cooking, we crashed out early to be awoken early the next morning – as accurately described in the Cool Camping Scotland book – by the enthusiastic alarm calls of a resident cockerel. In spite of this early start, we enjoyed a beautiful walk through Drymen and were amidst the tall pines of Garadhban Forest by Sunday mid-morning. The pines are planted very closely here and are quite mature, so this section of the walk was more shaded and closed-in than other sections, but I liked the dense stands of trees, the silent darkness of so many tall things surrounding me and the luminous domes of mushrooms peeking out from the damp earth.
However this terrain soon opened out, giving spectacular views of Conic Hill and the surrounding moors, pastures and woodland.
The climb up Conic Hill was beautiful, following boulder-strewn paths amidst ferns, streams, grasses and the lovely pink foam of rosebay willowherb and at the top, we caught our first glimpses of Loch Lomond.
We descended in a slightly dizzy, weakened state. Luckily at Balmaha, the Oak Tree Inn provided vital sustenance for weary travellers.
Yes, The West Highland Way has cupcakes.
From Balmaha, we began to walk the length of Loch Lomond, along a wooded path where we marvelled at star-shaped mosses, and admired the beautiful beaches. We saw Tormentil, Sphagnum Moss, Rowan Trees and many little frogs along this stretch of pathway and the sound of the waters of Loch Lomond lapping against the shores was a constant accompaniment to our meanderings.
At Rowardennan we reached a beautiful stretch of forest. A stream runs through and the ground is covered in a very fine, lush grass with clumps of bracken breaking the clearings up naturally into secluded enclaves. In one such space flanked by tall, twisty oak trees and handsome, curling ferns, we put up our tent just as it began to rain. Cooking on the woodburning stove was an endeavour that required much patience and the dark gathered quickly as we clustered under the dripping leaves, hurriedly ate miso soup out of our pots and cursed the evil midges before abandoning the outdoors for the close – but dry – quarters of our tent. Lying in the dark, Mark pointed out that the sound of raindrops hitting the tent is not unlike the sound of fireworks, being a similar sort of percussive, explosive sound, coming in showers and bursts and making little starbursts of noise. We lay in the dark and fell asleep to the sounds, imagining sparks.
In the morning, we packed up the wet tent while the rain continued, ate wet porridge, and began a long, slow ascent up through more forests beside Loch Lomond. The first part of the woodland was mostly plantation forest, very dense and dark and carpeted with beautiful fungi and the rain gave way to sunshine at this point, so that everything glistened and smelled fresh and good.
A long descent took us back down to the shores of Loch Lomond and to the boulder-strewn path that runs directly beside it to Inversnaid. Deciduous trees, small waterfalls, mosses, lichens, streams and wildflowers coverered the terrain to our right, while to our left we were constantly awed by the glittery waters of the Loch and the mountains beyond.
At Inversnaid we met a bird that was quite interested in our chips and I drank Guinness for its legendary fortifying powers (and because they didn’t have any desireable bitters on tap at the Inversnaid Hotel.)
The path between Inversnaid and Beinglas Farm was tremendous. Earth and rock are laid unevenly along this stretch so that it winds like an organic, meandering staircase along the side of the lush woodlands. Views across the Loch in afternoon sunlight were gorgeous, while the fresh smells of the soil and all the things growing in it were a constant source of pleasure. We saw characterful trees, plenty of purposeful beetles, yet more frogs, and lots of birds. We found a few Devil’s Coachman beetles and talked about Mark’s boyhood insect collections. Apparently he kept earwigs in matchboxes, but they invariably escaped so he never got to learn what food they liked. He did try to feed them flies, leaves, and worms, however. I have no idea what Devil’s Coachman beetles like to eat, but this one was very busy.
The wildlife highlight of the whole journey was also spotted along this stretch of the walk; rounding a corner we came face to face with a feral goat. This magnificent creature was grazing up a steep slope, just a few feet from the main path. His coat immediately filled me with knitterly lust and his aroma was amazing, somewhere between the lovely animal warmth of a sheep smell and the fragrance of a ripe, half-molten goat cheese. I loved this wild beast with his unapologetic, goaty scent, his shiny, be-seeded fleece and his proud horns.
At the end of the Loch, we stopped to look back over its vast, glassy surface and to enjoy a few moments at the edge of its long, beachy shores.
The approach to Beinglas Farm was full of grassy Glens and open moorland and I was very excited to find lots of Bog Myrtle and Butterwort. I didn’t try out the Bog Myrtle for its purported fly-repellent properties but I did enjoy rubbing the leaves to get the scent and espying carniverous plants in their natural habitat, thriving.
Beinglas Farm is – like Easter Drumquhassle – also mentioned in the Cool Camping Scotland book, and when we reached it, we got a bit giddy with joy for it truly is the palace of dreams for the weary walker. Showered, with our soaking wet clothes and socks washed and dried, we cooked happily on a pile of rocks, (where a Robin showed great interest in our doings) drank a beer and fell asleep in the quiet valley amidst the burble of other campers, walkers and families. Nice.
The next morning, we struck out in gentle rain across Glen Falloch.
The River Falloch
We then walked up through the dense plantations covering the hills outside of Crianlarich, and down throgh Ewich, following the West Highland Way path markers past St Fillan’s Priory (where we saw a lot of sheep) and on to the unforgettably bizarre Strathfillan Wigwam Village. Another Cool Camping Scotland recommended holiday destination, this Native-American-Indian themed campsite provided us with good hot rolls and coffee, and the opportunity to stock up on exotic meats (Emu burgers or Bison sausages, anyone?) or dreamcatchers, had we wished to add a random, unrelated cultural theme to our trip. However I scoured the shop for some locally made Scottish Tablet, was successful in this scouring and resumed the rest of the day’s walk – to Tyndrum – completely off my face on sugar.***
Tyndrum also involved quite a lot of rain, and many midges. In spite of constructing a henge of midge-repellent coils around our tent and lighting them all, we still sustained many bites at this juncture in the quest, and the putting up and the taking down of the tent were undertaken in a haze of swearing and irritation.
The next morning’s walk to The Bridge of Orchy felt like a special pilgrimage since we were both excited to tramp over known territory, to admire our one and only bagged Munro so far from the ground, and to once again feast inside the hallowed halls of the wondrous Bridge of Orchy Hotel. Having climbed Beinn Dorain in icy conditions at New Year, we were both excited to see it in summer conditions. We first spotted it from the old military road that approaches from Tyndrum, and we then proceeded to walk around its base, enjoying the flora and fauna and comparitively easy walking offered by this route, as opposed to the steep, icy scramble we both recall from January.
Rounding the base of the Munro, we went down the hill to The Bridge of Orchy Hotel where we ate a grand lunch, enjoyed some memories, and read the usefully provided weather information posted on the Hotel’s info board.
The landscape became increasingly more dramatic and wild as we crossed the river Orchy and ascended through planatation forests to the moorlands atop Mam Carraigh. I found a much more eloquent description of the next section of the walk than I can probably compose here, but in my own words, I found the next section of walking – through Inveroran and on to Rannoch Moor – utterly breathtaking. Taking the old drove road from Forest Lodge up to the moors above, we were greeted with a light show as clouds parted, emptied, drifted and opened up above us. Tramping across the boggy moorland, we saw lichens, sundews, Butterworts, bog-cotton, heathers and harebells, and all the time, we were awed by the misty, quiet, solid presence of the surrounding peaks.
Walking up from Ba Bridge, the restless weather conditions around caused a rainbow to arch across the sky.
Mark’s photo of the rainbow, stretching across the slopes of Beinn Chaorach.
From here we walked onwards through the White Corries towards Glencoe and Rannoch Moor – territories we explored at New Year during our last journey to The Highlands. I was very excited to see the unmistakeable shape of The Three Sisters on our approach to Kingshouse.
We stayed on Rannoch Moor behind The Kingshouse Hotel, where a fine evening of drinking and singing ensued. Monkl joined in with the festivities when the main performer distributed musical instruments amongst the crowd in order to encourage participation.
And in the morning we set off for the steep ascent up the Devil’s Staircase, photographing this familiar, bowl-shaped silhouette to compare our Summer view of it with our Winter view.
In the top photo we were looking down at the bowl-shape; in the bottom photo, we were below both mountains, looking up at them. Somehow the bowl remains distinctive. I believe this is the view between Stob a Ghlais Choire and Stob Dearg; but I’m really not too certain. We tried to work it out, but the highly efficient Harvey XT40 map didn’t allow for too much speculation. The Devil’s Staircase is a steep ascent, but we were lucky to make it in clear weather conditions and the views were amazing and well worth the climb.
We made it to Kinlochleven in very good time and decided that we wanted to press onwards to Fort William. Inspired by the beautiful views of the walk the day before and spurred on by the promises of good weather we’d seen in The Bridge of Orchy Hotel, we took the steep pass out of Kinlochleven and up through a valley at the bottom of the Mamores.
We couldn’t really believe how beautiful this part of the walk was. Uninhabited, wild, governed by craggy peaks, shining stones and roaming sheep, this rugged landscape got us talking about the appeal of Munro bagging and mountain climbing and we felt about as far away from our busy suburban lives as it is probably possible to ever feel.
Eventually we turned a corner and passed through lots of felled woodland, and then we began the approach to Fort William and Ben Nevis. By the time we were at Ben Nevis, clouds were covering its peak and our respective blisters, knee-injuries, bad backs etc. had sent us into a kind of delirium where all we wanted was to sleep in an actual bed. The Imperial Hotel was the only place in all of Fort William that appeared to have any free accomodation, so we slept there for many hours and took the train home yesterday.
I have sat here for much of today writing this, surrounded by OS maps and a guide to the vocabulary that applies to describing The Highlands and which relates to the placenames therein. I have read other reviews of the walk, have cross-referenced many of my photos for accuracy, and have tried to evoke in some small way the sheer force of land and weather that we experienced while walking the West Highland Way. It occurs to me that there is a whole way of thinking about landscapes, a way of walking in them and writing about them that I am still discovering… we met many walkers on our journey and several told us that the West Highland Way was the walking adventure that made them fall in love with walking in general. This is certainly true for me; I hope also that I can find a way of writing about the land, since one of the most amazing things about undertaking a long distance walk like this is the way that it somehow imprints itself so deeply in the imagination as well as in the muscles. Travelling at the speed of walking allows time for the details of places to sink in, so that 95 miles embeds an unbelievably rich resevoir of colours, textures, places, vistas, smells, atmospheres and experiences deep in the mind. So I feel I am beginning two adventures, really. One is the walking adventure and the other is the writing about places adventure. Both are rich and exciting adventures, filled with challenges and learning.
In both endeavours I am deeply endebted to Kate, whose encouragement, advice and walking knowledge put me onto the West Highland Way in the first place and whose blog is a constant source of inspiration regarding how we think about place, landscape and imagination.
Butterwort and Sundew plants.
Hurrah for walking, for feet and backs and knees and mountains and flowers and birds and hands and tents and fires and laughter and – most especially – hurrah for the fine company.
* You can see the nozzle of my waterbag poking out of the rucsac; these reservoirs/bladders/hydration systems (call them what you will) were the biggest walking equipment WIN** in the camping-gear reviews that we conducted all along The Way. When Mark asked me last year for a Camelback for Christmas, I thought he was crazed with gimmick-lust and privately felt that stuffing a water-bottle in a rucsac would fulfil the same functions but I was so wrong. The nozzle of watery goodness poking out of the side of that bag was the most comforting and useful thing I took and every ascent I made (there are 4096m of ascent along the West Highland Way in total) was celebrated with joyous sups from its hyperflow bite valve.
** DEET was total FAIL in the same equipment reviews.
*** Scottish Tablet is an excellent restorative when you are wet and cold from the rain; I suspect the almost medicinal properties of this buttery, Scottish fayre are part of why it is called ‘tablet.’