West Highland Way
I had attempted the West Highland Way, a 95 mile hike over some beautiful Scottish scenery,some 6 years ago with my daughter but having sustained several painful blisters early onhad to retire through injury after stumbling on for 3 days and completing 52 miles.
(Day 1) (20miles)
At last I am attempting it all again with my brother, sister in law and Susan my wife as back up, soafter the obligatory photo shoot under the sign for the start of the whw at Milngavie we are on our way and heading for Balmaha our first overnight stop.
We walk and talk feeling very excited and fresh as we pass through the outskirts of the town, thinking that it’s funny seeing people with their shopping and taking their dogs for a walk when we have packs on our backs, walking boots on and maps in our hands.
We cross the road go over the stile and are in the country side, all a little up and down but nothing drastic.We follow the edge of a wood wherewe find a table by the path in the middle of nowhere with cakes/biscuits and flasks of tea/coffee so we stop and have a drink and abite to eat. The cakes were delicious - thank you whoever you are - we leave some money and plod on. We come to the disused Blane Valley Railway track, and see to our right in the distance a large whitewashed building with a pagoda shaped roof, belonging to the Glengoyne Distillery - obviously whisky - but up in front and where we were heading was a pub unfortunately we trudged on past, Malcolm had a mission to get us to Balmaha20 miles away as soon as possible.
Back on the road we head towards Drymenand can hear this young bloke stomping up behind us, he was a Londoner who had caught the coach up the previous day, stayed overnight in Glasgow and waited this morning for Argos to open so he could buy his camping equipment bag, boots, tent, cooker, coat everything he needed. Although he was young and fairly fit he was in a hurryand was stopping every 10 min, we on the other hand were taking our time having a decent continual pace and were soon leaving him behind. Eventually we were on the outskirts of Drymen where Susan our back up was waiting to check on our progress.
We continue along a path by the A811 for about 500 m and turn left through a gate, steadily heading up a hill for Garadhban Forest, a conifer plantation currently undergoing harvesting, the last time I was here there was much more forest, it was nowvery much exposed; though it is a working forest I am sure they will grow more trees later.
As we were about to come to Conic Hill I could feel a twinge of pain under the ball of my left foot, the initial stages of a dreaded blister forming, We first of all cross a stream known as the Burn of Mar and go over a couple of stiles before the ascent.The track was never ending and the end felt as if it wasn’t getting any closer, by now instead of walking together we were between us some distance apart each concentrating on getting up this hill.
We didn’t have to go to the summit of Conic Hill but were close to it as we skirted around the edge with fantastic views of Loch Lomond, Ben Lomond and the Cobbler, just stunning. Looking south west, you can see the line of islands following the Highland Boundary Fault across Loch Lomond. At one time the mountains here were as high as the Himalayans caused by an uplift of rock when two continents collide and having over millennia been erodedto form what we see now.
We start a steep decline over rocks and sometimes boulders through a corrie between two ridges, where a built up stone staircase brings you down through a conifer forest–– even though you think you are there you aren’t its quiet a walk from the bottom of the hill to the car park at Balmaha, especially after having completed 20 miles and then there were the midges, they were out in force I had forgotten about them.
Susan had managed to get us in the Milarrochy Bay campsite and after picking us up at the car park we drove the mile or so to the camp, as we entered we were stopped by an officious warden who told us that wasn’t a 4 person tent as Susan had tried to explain it was a gazebo, oh well with a good telling off we are allowed to stay.
At last a warm drink and something to eat,it’sabout 2145 and surprisingly still light,and then with Malcolm’s supply of beer we were truly satisfied. Before bed we head for the Loch for a quick paddle in the hope the icy water will help my aching feet.
(Day 2) (21miles)
Next morning we awake at about 0700 it’s very bright and so far so good the weather has been on our side the forecast indicates that even better weather is coming and will last until later in the week when rain and winds are forecast but we plan to be finished before then. I have to have a shower and take my time as my muscles have tightened in the night.
We decide to drive back to the car park at Balmaha and walk back to the campsite – we aren’t going to cheat. Walking along the banks of Loch Lomond we appreciate how beautiful it is the still water and small boats going about the place under blue sky with the sun shining it’s just fantastic. We soon get into our stride passing the campsite and move on for Rowardennan just a little further up the Loch where at the end of the road is a pub and where we plan to have breakfast/brunch/lunch.
I had put enough of Malcolm’s zinc tape on my feet to keep up a battleship and so far it seemed to be working.A little further up the Loch turned out to be 3 hours and 7 miles later, we eventually reach the idyllic Rowardennan pub and soon order our food.
We envisaged our next stage will take some 6hrs including a stop at the Inversnaid hotel. Although a little stiff we feel refreshed and set off passing the nearby big O memorial and the hostel. The walking is pleasant through old oak woodlands and along the shore but feel we have been following the Loch for an age it is I believe the longest one of them all, eventually we see and hear the local tourist boat not far in the distance announcing to the passengers that they were about to come alongside the Inversnaid jetty at the Inversnaid hotel. We come through a glade across a wooden footbridge above the Snaid Burn with its attractive waterfalls and are there. We hikers have to go in by the back way we aren’t allowed through the front entrance,here we have a cup of tea and a slice of cake and I take the opportunity to inspect my feet and put on even more zinc oxide tape.
We are behind schedule having done something like 14 miles so far and had another 6 to go we were doing just less than 2 miles an hour over rough terrain. It was about 1600 and thought we had another 3 maybe 4 hours to go. The next section as quoted in the guide book states:
This is by far the roughest section of the Way, where the path makes a tortuous route along the side of Loch Lomond with many ups and downs. A hard walk but the scenery is superb.
We follow downward a set of steep stone steps toward the shoreline through mature woodland. It is hard going in places; just feet above the lochclimbing, scrambling andsometimes on our bumsamong boulders and crags on the shoreline this slows our pace, eventually we see a sign pointing to Rob Roy’s cave a large crag where Rob Roy is reputed to have held hostages.
Rob are you home – in search of Rob at his cave
We pass theRowchoishbothy and continue on through pleasant woodland keeping an eye out for deer, and wild goats with their long horns and black coats. At last we were at the end of the Loch, emerging from the woodland and into an open gravel shore by the bay south of Doune. On we trudged tired and sweaty we could see where we thought the campsite was but as always it was a little bit further on. Through a glade the path descended gently to meet the Beinglass Burn, we cross a wooden bridge and see some wooden cabins at last we find ourselves at the back of Beinglass campsite. We locate Susan and inspired by the midge attacks we put up the gazebo in no time at all and rush inside to have a quick sit down and to decide what our next move was. It was getting late this section had taken longer than we expected, so we quickly sorted out the sleeping arrangements for later and headed to the onsite bar.
It was fairly full but we find some seats and order, the food was good and the staff/service excellent we would certainly recommend it, a few more beers later and we were ready for bed.
(Day 3) (19miles)
Next morning at about 0515 I awaketo a chorus of bird song but amsoon back to sleep and awake with everyone else at about 0715, feeling a bit sprightlier we put down the gazebo and pack the gear into the car in no time then return to the bar for a spot of breakfast, yummy. With good weather bright skies and fuelled up on porridge and full English we head north towards Crainlarichand plan to stop overnight at The Bridge of Orchy. My feet were getting worse and my progress slow as we look forward to another 19 miles ahead.
This path an old military road starts with a steady ascent out of the Loch Lomond Basin and seems longer than I remember, we come to a very small tunnel under the railwayknown as a sheep creep before we rejoin the road and climb uphill through a conifer plantation. A steadily decline leads us to a gate and a T junction, here a finger sign gives clear directions, right sends you down a steep track to Crainlarich – we have reached the half-way point - but left and upwards is our destination. A short climb through the forest becomes a sudden drop down to a burn where we pass under a viaduct. We come to and cross the A82, the track leads us on and past a farm, remember to look back here the views are magnificent. We go past a couple of placards explaining about the remains of the chapel that once stood here called St Fillans, it was raised to a Priory by Robert the Bruce in 1318 and thereafter enjoyed some measure of privilege and protection from the Kings of Scotland. All very interesting, we soon cross the main road again and follow the track by the River Cononish to Tyndrumwhere we planned to meet Susan for a coffee and cake and maybe an ice cream, I carry that thought on as we walk on in to a small wood and follow the path around the old lead mine/quarry.
We came into Tyndrum and ended up by the infamous ‘Green Welly shop’. We have our coffee and cake topped off with a magnum almond ice cream whilst sitting on the outside benches in the sun shine all very wonderful.
Only 7 miles to go and Malcolm started to explain the type of terrain we would be expecting we were now walking in more of a direct line to Fort William, we see the road to our left and the railway to our right and we basically follow the track in-between them.
The track is fairly flat it’s another old military road which seemed to go on forever, it doesn’t help walking across the large stones that makes the paths that much more uneven, stop moaning,just put one foot in front of the other and keep going.
I am having a speed wobble and can’t stop; I soon leave Malcolm and Anne some distance behind me. I have worked out how fast we are going, 23 min a mile so a little over 2 miles an hour – slow isn’t. I go off the track and down a steep slope to the railway station go through a tunnel down a steep road to a T junction and across the road is The Bridge of Orchy Hotel and where Susan is waiting for us. We sit on a bench outside the hotel and wait for Malcolm and Anne to appear.
The wind is picking up and rain clouds darken the sky we decide that Susan and Anne would go in the pub and Malcolm and I would go to the site to pitch the tent. We wanted to pitch the gazebo atInveroran one of those wilderness campsitesabout 2 miles away but it was quiet crowded and although we tried, the wind was to strong. So we abandoned the idea repacked the car and headed back to the hotel, closer to the hotel we found a spot right on the side of the road near a stunted tree, therewere plenty of other walkers doing the same. Although at an angle the gazebo is up and hopes it is there when we return. The hotel bar is thankfully in walking/hobbling distance,Malcolm stops to have a chatwith a fellow walker but I have to go on as once I am in motion I can’t stop, sounds a bit like diarrhea.
The tent that jack built – well actually Malcolm and I did
We find Susan and Anne in the bar and thankfully they managed to save with difficulty some seats and a table, we order our food and must say it was delicious, so after some nourishment and lubrication we proceed back to the tent and are pleased to see it is still erect.
(Day 4) (21 miles)
Next morning again at 0515 the birds are singing but we sleep on till about 0800 others around were packing away and were soon on their way, we weren’t far behind - 2 more days 40 miles to go that’s all easy eh ha-ha he laughs hysterically.
We saunter up a small hill which climbs steadily up through a pine forest coming out the other side and on to moorland that descends in a series of zigzags for about 2 miles into Inveroranwhere we were hoping to camp the previous night, here there was a small hotel in the middle of nowheresotake advantage of the café within for tea and cake. Suitably refreshed we are on our way and heading for Kingshouse 10 miles away where we plan to have a late lunch at about 1400 .The clouds look grey but the rain is keeping off, as we cross over Rannock Moor one of Britain’s largest and wildest moors. Apparently this is one of the most dangerous places to be whilst doing the whw especially in bad weather as its one of the most exposed however when conditions are calm like today its positively fantastic. We continue up hill and down glen and pass a small ruin known as Ba cottage eventually coming to a summit where we can see in the distance Glen Coe ski center. Malcolm had brought his old walking stick – a good companion – for many a year/mile but now it was worn out and broken but felt it needed a dignified ditching, it was near this summit Meall a Bhuridh where he went up to a Col and ceremonially placed it by the pile of stones, walking away in silence his head bowed and a tear in his eye. Moving on in the distance we seeKingshouse hotel and hopefully the bar there is still serving grub.
We cross the main road and follow the track to the hotel –I am informed the houses on the right as we walk into the hotel grounds are famous for appearing on Scottish biscuit tins. Twelve miles done nine to go, but first to the bar and a bite to eat. Again we eat well the food isappetizing, then it’s time to go, upward and onward towardKinlochleven.
What a 9 miles, it started fairly flat as we walked through one of the glens, then we started to climb the infamous Devils Staircase. Malcolm said it wasn’t as bad as the books make out and he was right, as long as you are expecting it and we were. The steep path wound back and forth upwards, head down and just keep going eventually reaching the top we stop for a photo shoot the views were postcard picturesque, which made that extra effort all worthwhile.
We go, down a protracted track and could see these large mountains in front of us and knew just beyond wasKinlochleven, I estimated that we were two hours away, I wasn’t far wrong. The next part of the walk took us down a steep decline on an uneven road with big stones making the walking tuff. This road went on and on as it twisted down the hillside, this was making my feet worse although I didn’t mind walking upwardsdownwards was more painful and the uneven ground didn’t help, just keep going. We follow the large water pipes that bring the water from the Blackwater Reservoir high up in the mountains to the town and eventually can see the Blackwater hostel/campsitein Kinlochleven.
Susan had already booked us in and we quickly get the gazebo up whilst once again under a massive attack of midges. We are now experts in gazebo putting up and once settled decide what to do next.
The pub – always a good idea says Malcolm seconded by Anne, good thinking says Susan how far answers I. We go to the road and see two pubs and head for the nearest we get there in time to witness one of the locals drop one hundred quid on the fruit machine, great drinks all round there was only eight of us in the bar including the bar maid, but soon realized that kinda thing doesna happen up here. The food was ok the beer better and noticed they had a breakfast menu too so planned to be back here next morning. Off to the gazebo and a night cap Susan and Anne go straight to sleep and so does Malcolm oh well I will have one on my own. Trouble is you do need the toilet and although not far away with my feet as they were the call of nature has to be settled in a nearby bush.
(Day 5) (16 miles)
Morning is here we slowly pack away,and make our way back to the pub for breakfast and soon in the sunshine we head off for them there hills. A short flat walk along the B863 heading north of course, we cut in and re find the whw and start initially climbing upwards passing a number of what we thought were geologists examining the rocks and the formations, we stop a few times to get our breath and toappreciate the spectacular views of Loch Leven, did I mention this was the last day the last 16 miles. A slow decline and again we are separated by distance and I again was some distance ahead of Malcolm and Anne I crossed a farm yard going through the gates remembering to close them – very importantthen stopped to read a notice about the whw and to make sure I was taking the right path; it was a bit obvious though. A steep but short incline with more superb views is spoilt when a group of extremely loud woman came up behind me we follow each other for a while until we come to a gate and there on my shoulder is Malcolm with Anne close behind. The path is narrow and we have to wait forsome cycliststo come on up there is nowa bottle neck on the whw could you believe it as more walkers were lining up behind us, after the sixth cyclist went past we get a move on, by now there must have been about thirteen people all of a sudden crammed up together on this narrow track. But soon Malcolm is away and Anne and myself are not far behind as we head for what Malcolm calls the dingily dell. We are heading down a steep decline through some woodland that is absolutely beautiful then I realize what Malcolm is talking about, down some steep wooden steps is a small stream/brook/burn like a dingily dell, all that was missing were the fairy’s all very nice – we had to stop for a photo.
On we trudge the woodland soon became deforestation lots of the trees had been felled or damaged by the weather, there was according to Malcolm a lot more trees the last time he was here, it is a working forest and like before I am sure and hope more trees will be planted. Malcolm has stormed in front stopping from time to time to photograph Anne and I as we with effort put one foot in front of another and keep on going. We are heading for Glen Nevis and at last could see the spectacular Ben Nevis. We reach a road a wide forest road and wined our way down wards, hopefully for the last time. Ending up on the main road to Fort William, we could almost taste the finish line that must be around the next corner no the next ok the next at last we are at the WoolenMill and read the sign that read:
‘Congratulations you are at the original end of the West Highland Way’ ‘come in and collect your certificate’….”by the way the official end has been moved to half a mile into town”.
We knew this but still have our photos taken on the seat by the sign of a giant thistle. We celebrate by having another break for tea and cake and I treat myself to another almond flavouredmagnum.
We collect our certificates from behind the counter here in theWoolenMill shopand Malcolm suggests that we find a Scottish fellow in a kilt and have him present us with them by the thistle sign, but unfortunately the shop assistant declined the task. We get out of the way just in time as a coach loaded with tourists arrive and make our way into town.
Blimey it’s at the other end of town and we have to negotiate the shoppers - get out of the way, Anne is desperate to look in the shops but we have a mission we go straight up through the pedestrian walk way bags on our backs sweat on our foreheads blisters on my feet, and there it is a line in the ground hey hey and Susan is there ready to take the photo of proof as we cross it - the line - we made it yahoo we sit on a nearby bench shaking hands with each other for a job well done.
We made it yahooooo - the line marks the end of the line
What a brilliant week made all the better for having that feeling of self-achievement, just fantastic so what’s next Kilimanjaro or even Everest base campprobablyHadrian’s Wall I am sure my feet will be up to it next time.
Loch Lomond from Conic Hill
Milngavie to Balmaha 20 miles (32 kms) 8 hours
Balmaha to Inverarnan 21 miles (33.6 km) 11 hourswith breaks
Inverarnan to Bridge of Orchy 19 miles (30.4 km) 10 hourswith breaks
Bridge of Orchy to Kinlochleven 21 miles (33.6 km) 10 hourswith breaks
Kinlochleven to Fort William 16 miles (24 km) / 7 hours