The West Highland Way
A weekend on Britain’s finest long distance trail
A friend dropped me off at Milngavie at dawn. This was key: I wouldn’t make the progress I wanted without an early start.
I was travelling light in boots, shorts, a t-shirt. In my rucksack:
- sandwiches, chocolate, oatmeal,
- a water bottle,
- jacket, maps, money,
- sun cream,
- a change of socks.
That was it. I was walking the 97 miles of the West Highland Way, and intended to get the bus home from Fort William at 6pm the next day.
The early stuff around Milngavie was familiar: I’d done casual labour for the council clearing its verges in previous years. Soon I was in open countryside, passing a tree-clad iron-age hillfort and the worn rhinoceros horn of Dumgoyne, then the first glimpse of Loch Lomond, blue and green on a glorious summer day. The Way detours over the viewpoint of Conic Hill: I wanted to make progress so stuck to the minor road to Rowardennan, a less pleasant but more direct route.
I slowed in the heat on the second half of Loch Lomond, up and down and round and over tree branches. Families messing around on boats on the shimmering water. I wanted to stop at a secluded beach and enjoy the ambience, but kept walking. At the head of the loch a short detour can be made to Cnap Mor, a small hill with a big view back down the water. This part of the trail sees fewer people than any other, but the A82 thrums with traffic less than a mile away on the opposite, inaccessible shore.
By Crianlarich I was hurting, and it wasn’t long till dark. The West Highland Way is a magnificent walk but I had stopped enjoying it. I’d done it before, in company. I faltered in my resolve to carry on, and where the trail crossed the road stuck my thumb out, hitching a lift to the Kingshouse Hotel.
I arrived just in time. I had intended to stay the night with a friend who worked there, but hadn’t told him I was turning up. He had finished his shift and was five minutes away from leaving for a bothy. Yes, I could sleep in his room. Just as well, as I hadn’t brought any camping equipment. I went for a pint in the climbers bar and got speaking to a group of young European hikers.
“Where have you come from?” they asked.
“Milngavie,” I said.
“Yes, of course, we know that. But where today?”
They conferred in German for a bit.
“We do not believe you.”
I shrugged and had another pint.
Dawn over Rannoch Moor. I was dehydrated and stiff and glad to be alive as the great red ball of the sun glowered through morning mists. It rose even more rapidly than I did, burning the mist off well before I had reached the top of the Devil’s Staircase and began the helter-skelter descent to Kinlochleven, sweat and salt and sore feet. Kinlochleven sits at sea level; the 250m climb straight back up to Lairig Mor hurts. As I marched along the trail, and watched a dog herding sheep on the towering flanks of the Mamores, I passed a couple of retired walkers who were deep in conversation with a shepherd. They were learning something, taking their time, engaging with the environment and the people around them. Perhaps my approach was a little rushed, a rich picture reduced to a few brush strokes through haste.
And then, as I approached Lochan Lùnn Dà Bhrà, pain! In my right foot. It felt as if the arch had collapsed. I hobbled onwards to a single track road. Not much further along a van passed, I stuck my thumb out, and got a lift the last few miles into Fort William. I was several hours early for my bus, so stood on one leg at a roundabout at the edge of the town centre and tried my luck hitchhiking. A bell went, and a primary school looking over the roundabout spilled out for its break. I was of prime interest, standing nearby like a stork with its thumb out.
“Hey mister, do you need a taxi?” asked a little girl. “I’ve got a taxi.”
Thinking that perhaps her dad drove a taxi I smiled. “That’s lovely.”
She disappeared and returned a few minutes later, handing me something through the school railings. “Here you go mister.”
It was the empty wrapper of a chocolate bar with the legend ‘Taxi’ on front.
I will do the West Highland Way again: but will take my time and savour it. A nice long four-day weekend should do.