One Day on the West Highland Way

by Catherine Sempill

I had come to Scotland looking for someplace wild. England is lovely, with its rolling farmlands and pretty gardens, but the south east doesn’t have much of an edge.

Scotland, I’d heard, is the polar opposite — unforgiving weather, grizzly mountains, exposed moorlands. It sounded like the kind of place I needed to visit, a place that would make me feel small and forget about life’s trivialities for a bit.

The Definition of Wilderness

It was day five of our seven day West Highland Way wander, and the Highlands were just coming into their own. Between Milngavie and Inverarnan the scenery had been stunning, slowly building the drama as we made our way into the Highlands.

Wilderness on the West Highland Way: Down to Inveroran by Jan Augustine

It had, however, lacked the specific kind of wildness I was after. With only Wales and Southern England as reference, I couldn’t picture the wild Scotland people talk about. I thought maybe they had a different standard of wildness than I had.

I had accepted this state of affairs as we climbed our way upwards out of Bridge of Orchy that morning.

Bridge of OrchyStraight out of town, through a parking lot full of camper vans, we began climbing the trail through a pine forest.

The morning was grey but a pleasant temperature overall, except between the trees, where it dropped a few degrees. The air seemed to become thicker, as water dripped down the bark and glistened on the sides of rotting stumps. Amongst the fallen pine needles were small clumps of mushrooms, the kind of mini-scenes that would make the ideal settlement for fairies.

Getting lost in the details of the trail is part of the joy of walking — wild trail or not. I was content either way. Then we emerged to a steeper section of trail and gave it one last push.

We’d only been walking for an hour or so, but it had been straight up hill the whole time. Now, the trail bent around a contour, and looked like it would flatten out for a bit. We were correct. Soon enough we reached the next level of contours and were rewarded with a quite a sight.

The road, now small in the distance, was the only man-made structure for miles. I started to think maybe all these people and I did have the same concept of “wild” after all.

Track in the distance by Iain Young

The Full Force of the Highlands and the Inverarnan Hotel

When we reached the small saddle, we ditched our packs and climbed the last few optional metres to the little peak and the cairn on top.

Just a few metres above the path, the full force of the Highlands hit us. The wind had been blustering on and off as we crept up the hillside, but now on the exposed peak, the chilly gusts turned our cheeks rosy, and had our hands searching for our pockets.

The view looked out across Loch Tulla, some anonymous peaks and the beginning of the infamous Rannoch Moor. Below us sat the Inveroran Hotel.

The path down was chilly and rocky, and we picked our way down carefully. We checked the time as we approached the hotel, and established we had time for a cuppa. I probably would have stopped even if we were behind schedule. I cannot resist a remote pub or coffee shop. Being in the middle of nowhere with unwelcoming weather swirling outside lends places a surreal quality which I love.

I also knew we were “around the corner” from Rannoch Moor. I’d seen it described multiple times as “one of the last great wildernesses of Europe,” and believed it to be one of the wildest sections of the West Highland Way. The moor was Scotland’s chance to show me its truly wild side. I was enjoying the anticipation, and a short tea break would extend that sensation a bit.

Rannoch Moor by Barbara Milne-Redhead

Rannoch Moor

At some point we needed to face the moor, so we took advantage of the loos, heaved on our packs, and set off. The approach to the moor was enclosed by a boggy hill on one side and a pine plantation on the other. The climb alongside the plantation seemed to take an age, but when we reached the top, the plantation ended, and we gained some distance from the hillside. The raw beauty of the moor finally revealed itself.

Rannoch Moor by Catherine Sempill

“THIS!” I thought to myself, as I zipped up my jacket against the cold, and pulled my hood up to stop my hair forming knotty dreadlocks in the wind. “This is what all those people were talking about.”

We had lunch an hour or so later, huddled behind a rock, clamping our chorizo and cheese to our crackers between bites, lest they blow away. It was cold and slightly awkward, but so beautiful, and crucially, not raining! And it only got better.

As we made our way northwards across the moor, we passed small lochs, humps of mountain carved by giant glaciers, endless bog, and as we approached Glen Coe, some serious peaks. The landscape had a raw, unforgiving energy to it, entirely unwelcoming, and somehow this pleased me. This was wild. This was Scotland’s finest. I felt tiny, my mind felt free. I was in seventh heaven.

Peak Near Glen Coe by Catherine Sempill

Celebrating Scottish Style: with Whiskey

The end of the moor tails off at the foot of Glen Coe, where the military road drops down and crosses a modern A-road. Just off the road is the Kingshouse Hotel and Bunkhouse. We ended the day in the hotel bar, sat in our walking clothes admiring the mountains through the floor-to-ceiling windows, complementary olives on the coffee table in front of us.

Sipping my scotch from the comforts of the bar, I couldn’t wait to get back out into Scotland. I was excited to get back out amongst the rocky mountains, the spiky little plants and the ever-changing, frequently ominous Scottish weather.

It’s safe to say that I was sold. Scotland is Wild with a capital W, and I can’t wait to get back there.

Heading out from Kinghouse on the West Highland Way by Jude Holmes

Originally published 25/11/19

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Walk the West Highland Way

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  • Spot the elusive red deer in the open expanses of wild Rannoch Moor.

© Contours Walking Holidays West Highland Way map
Milngavie to Fort William
95 miles (152 km)
23rd March to 19th October

Walk the West Highland Way

Code Tour Duration Difficulty Price per person
WHW1 From Milngavie to Fort William 6 nights, 5 days walking Strenuous £745
WHW2 From Milngavie to Fort William 7 nights, 6 days walking Demanding £865
WHW3 From Milngavie to Fort William 8 nights, 7 days walking Moderate / Demanding £985
WHW4 From Milngavie to Fort William 9 nights, 8 days walking Moderate £1105
WHW5 From Milngavie to Fort William 10 nights, 9 days walking Moderate £1225