Remembering the West Highland Way

by Ben Roughton

It was Summer, 2014.

We had promptly escaped a pub in Glasgow showing the Commonwealth games, currently being held in the city. A lot of the regulars passionately cheered on a Scottish runner on the final stretch, only to be pipped by an English runner who took gold. The pub erupted in boos and shouts. It was a bad day for my father Rob to be wearing his England rugby top.

It was the evening before our West Highland Way walk. We made our escape from the pub and back towards our campsite on the other side of Milngavie, pausing by the reservoirs overlooking the town to eat our takeaway. Me and Rob, our good friend John and his son Craig all tucked into the holy Scottish trinity of deep-fried pizza, Iron Bru, and a pack of Tunnocks Tea Cakes. Essential fuel for tomorrow, we told each other, as we watched the sunset over the city.

John curiously wondered if those on an evening run up here were in fact athletes from the games. With his broad, rumbling Midlands accent he asked away at pretty much everyone passing.

"No, not athletes," one American couple laughed after working through his thick dialect. "But we are here for the West Highland Way!"

"So are we, aren't we lads!" John said.

"That's one accent you have there," they replied. "Whereabouts in Scotland are you all from?"

John paused. "Just up the road."

"Well we'll look forward to bumping into you again! Teach us a few things about your beautiful country along the Way too."

And thus began a week of hiking the West Highland Way, while pretending to actually be from Glasgow instead of Derbyshire.


Day 1
Milngavie to Drymen

It was a wonderful feeling, escaping the suburbs through the town centre, a wooded park and eventually into the wilderness. Posts with yellow thistles painted on them helped us edge closer to the Highlands. The rolling countryside and hills all around felt like a world away from where we'd started.

The trail eventually joined a raised path along an old railway line, but a brief detour was on our minds; a tour of the whisky distillery found just off the path - a must see for anyone who loves the stuff, or anyone pretending to be Scottish.

3. Distillery.JPG"Dad! Stop it!" Me and Craig barked, watching both our dads sip from the drams others in the guided tour had turned their noses up at. Thus prompting a lot of silly questions during the tour such as "What's so special about this one other than the price?" and "Do you get drunk on the fumes?" and "Do you have any more free samples?"

Back on the trail, with a giddy skip in our step, we continued along the raised railway path heading further north towards Drymen. One part of the track had a small drop either side, and with some event runners heading in the other direction we carefully stepped aside to let them pass. But Rob took a step too far, and fell backwards off the track with a four foot drop down. Us and the runner were aghast! Thankfully, a large bush cushioned his fall, but Rob's huge rucksack weighed him down like a turtle on its back.

"I am so sorry!" The runner was in shock.

"Run!" Rob shouted back. "You better get running!" Whilst the runner did what he was told and disappeared into the distance with haste, Rob wasn't yelling in anger... but instead worried the runner might have been on a personal best.

"Maybe he was an athlete from the games!"

Just before Drymen, and the end of today's walk, we reached our campsite. It was a small farm with a field and some wooden "yurts" at the other end.

"It's £5 each for the camping, or £15 for you all sharing a yurt."

After a tough first day, delayed by whisky and fishing Rob out of a bush, we opted for the cheaper option that didn’t require us unpacking our tents. We soon regretted this option. It was more garden shed than cosy yurt, with some large spiders occupying the corners, and just enough space for us and our bags.

"The bush was comfier," Rob yawned.


Day 2
Drymen to Rowardennan

We awoke early and eager to leave, shaking the bugs off our sleeping bags and hitting the road again.

The day started with an excellent trek through woodlands and over the moors, steadily climbing the first proper ascent of the walk; Conic Hill. The views were superb, reaching far back south, then over to Loch Lomond below and the mountains stretching north.

9. Loch Lomond again.JPG"Those clouds don't look happy."

The descent to Balmaha allowed us to spend the £5 we saved on camping on ice creams there. We sat beside the shores of Loch Lomond, one of the largest of the Scottish lochs and easily one of the prettiest. Boats sailed along its calm blue waters, the woodland paths beside were pleasant, and the weather held out... until those clouds caught up to us.

Our waterproofs were thoroughly tested, with the clear skies replaced with thick black clouds carrying a torrent of rain. Watching it move across the loch was mesmerising, but much of the way to our destination was heads down, hoods up.

The storm eventually passed, leaving a damp, musky smell of a wet forest... or maybe it was the smell of damp, sweaty hikers.

A few miles later, we reached Rowardennan; a hotel beside the loch, and further up a beautiful youth hostel where we had a dormitory to ourselves.

That night we relaxed in what we agreed was the best youth hostel we'd all stayed in. Welcoming, very clean, good food and a good selection of drinks! We spent much of it in the lounge, watching the closing ceremony of the commonwealth games on TV, all whilst playing Glasgow edition Monopoly with none other than the couple we met beside the reservoir.

"So where do you all live?" the husband asked, pointing to the board.

We all looked at John, who ummed and erred as he scanned the board for his fake home.

"Here John, how about here," we said, pointing at the Go to Jail space.

"I was thinking Bath Street, lads. I could go for one!"


Day 3
Rowardennan to Inverarnan

Fresh as daisies and sharp as thistles, we embarked on our next leg of the West Highland Way with bellies full of a very generous Full Scottish breakfast, with haggis and square sausage!

Today was to feature more of the wonderful loch-side paths that undulated north through the forests. And whilst the day started with more pleasant paths and tracks underfoot, parts of the trail became quite rocky and uneven as the path meandered between trees and boulders. Some small streams and waterfalls tumbled down from the mountains above, with lovely footbridges spanning over them.

13. Loch Lomond.JPGIt was very tempting to pause every few steps and soak in this magical corner of Scotland. This area is rich with wildlife, with red squirrels, deer and plenty of birds of prey. There were flowers and plants too, but the rarest sight during this day was a cafe!

We stopped for a brief lunch at Inversnaid, a large hotel off the beaten track beside the loch - the only bit of civilisation for many hiking this section.

We continued along the forest path, where we popped off to visit Rob Roy's Cave a short walk away; once used as a hiding place by the legendary outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor. Further along, the dense forest path soon turned into undulating open fields as we approached the northern corner of the loch.

19. Forest path.JPGWaterfalls flowed down the mountains next to us. A huge bird of prey circled overhead. And below us on the other side of the valley was our destination for the night; the Old Drover's Inn.

Inside was a pub you'd expect to find in the Highlands. Deer heads mounted on the walls, a roaring fireplace (in the summer!), a rustic bar, and big portions of food to fill our empty bellies. A folk band played into the night whilst the barman shared stories of how this inn is supposedly haunted, and the names of the ghosts that roamed the halls.

The hours flew by. We drank, sang, laughed, thought we saw shadowy figures hover in the corners... and as the clock struck midnight, we decided it was best to retire to our bedrooms ready for our longest day in the hike.


Day 4
Inverarnan to Bridge of Orchy

There were sadly no bumps in the night. The only haunting sound that kept me awake was Rob's snoring.

We departed the inn with another Full Scottish breakfast in our stomachs (more haggis and square sausage!)

The hike started with a wonderful riverside hike up Glen Falloch, passing the churning Falls of Falloch. A gentle breeze nudged the treetops, and the morning sun warmed our heads. We paused to soak it all in, trying to name the birds of prey overhead and spy an elusive red squirrel.

"Naturalists are a dying breed."

"No they're not," Craig replied. "There's a beach for them in Cornwall."

25. Ladder stile.JPGWe continued under a very low bridge under the Highland railway (attempting some contortionism to fit under whilst wearing rucksacks on our back!) and continued up the glen to reach more beautiful, dense forests. The paths here were obvious through the shaded woodlands, which allowed more time for wildlife spotting. It was cool and dark in the shade, which was a nice shelter from the afternoon sun now shining down through the fissures between the branches.

35. Forest near Crianlarich.JPGThe West Highland Way then left the woods and opened up onto the glen of Strathfillan, heading up to the small village of Tyndrum. After a spot of lunch at the village shop, we were curious as to why you could hire gold panning equipment here...

There was once a mini gold rush here. On leaving Tyndrum, a couple of people in fishing waders sifted through the streams. Tiny specks of glitter gleamed in the waters below us, reflecting the still beaming sunshine.

39. Past Tyndrum.JPGFurther along, the West Highland Way runs parallel to the railway of the same name as we followed the valley. A long viaduct further down meandered around the hillside. A few miles more, and the hotel at Bridge of Orchy marked the end of our day hike... but we weren't staying there.

Across the river, past the hotel, we set up our tents for a night of wild-camping (the first time in three days! We were almost wondering why we'd bought them, but this was the perfect reason why!) The soothing waters of the nearby river were bliss for our warm, tired feet, and as the sun set, we built a fire and watched the stars gradually appear through the orange-purple twilight.

This was easily one of my most rewarding days of hiking, and still is to this very day!


Day 5
Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse

No haggis or square sausage for us this morning, as we had another Scottish staple instead; porridge. Craig boiled water with his mini camping stove, and we even had a cuppa to start the day.

Our hike to Kingshouse crosses one of the more isolated parts of the entire West Highland Way, so we were thankful of the shop at Tyndrum yesterday for provisions.

41. Bridge of Orchy.JPGAfter packing up our tents, me and Craig led the way, climbing over the hills to reach the secluded Inveroran Hotel at Glen Orchy. We followed the path around to join an old military road that stretched far ahead, crossing the bleak Rannoch Moor. We were grateful for the good weather again as we crossed this vast boggy land, but more so to the 18th century folk who built this long road over it.

We waited at the picturesque Ba Bridge for our fathers to catch up. We lay on the grassy hummocks beside the road, staring out across this wonderful, remote land. We pondered about many things, as you do. Like midges, and how we'd not really been bothered by the pesky blighters. We'd heard all about them, and how much grief they’ve given hikers along the West Highland Way, yet we'd been quite lucky.

It took only a couple of minutes for them to hear us, as swarms of them suddenly conjured around me. But not Craig.

"They don’t like my blood," he laughed as I paced about trying to escape them and their appetite.

Rob and John eventually caught up. Their delay? The hotel we'd passed earlier did a takeaway breakfast! Egg and square sausage in a cob! And being the caring fathers they are, they had bought me and Craig some too, wrapped in foil and squished down as they’d fallen down the side of their rucksacks whilst in transit. It made the bug bites worth it!

Around the next hill, we climbed over to reveal a vast, wide glen surrounded by mountains. Glencoe is further up, and in the distance was the old bunkhouse of Kingshouse (which is now a very nice hotel!) We pitched our tents a bit before the hotel, near the Glencoe Ski Centre... a poor choice on our part as a troop of scouts later arrived, singing songs into the night.


Day 6
Kingshouse to Kinlochleven

No sooner than you can say "Dib dib dib, dob dob dob," we packed away our tents and prepared to leave.

Today was one of our shorter days, but also one with the steepest ascent. Porridge and the last of our snacks proved useful fuel for the start of our day, with the morning sun peeking over the mountains again.

51. Leaving Kingshouse.JPGIt is easy to see why this area is one of Scotland's most beautiful and iconic glens, with the epic mountain of Buachaille Etive Mòr towering over us. We followed the glen to a small stream flowing down opposite Buachaille, with a path zigzagging to the top of the other side of the glen.

53. Devil's Staircase.JPGThis was the famous Devil's Staircase, which is far less scary than the name lets on. It’s a tough walk but the path was easy to follow, eventually arriving at a large cairn at the pass. You are treated to magnificent views here, back towards Rannoch Moor and the many towering peaks surrounding it.

55. Top of the Staircase.JPGThe rest of the way was pretty much downhill, with views east towards Blackwater before we dropped down into a dense forest. The industrial history of Kinlochleven became obvious, with huge pipes feeding water from the nearby reservoir running down through the woods to the village.

On arriving at Kinlochleven, we found a lovely little place beside the loch, with a couple of pubs, shops, fish and chips, and a huge old aluminium smelter (now home to ice climbing walls).

We set our tents up at a nearby campsite, where a crowd gathered to watch Craig treat his father's raw, blister-ridden feet. It was like a pantomime of "oooofs" and "aaaahs" from our fellow campers.

Next on tonight's entertainment; singing! We bumped into the American couple again for a final farewell, and a question.

"So how does your national anthem go?"

"What? God save the Queen?"

"No, the Scottish national anthem!"

We looked at John, who in his lovely broad Midland accent started to sing...

"But I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more!"

They were probably glad to see the last of us...


Day 7
Kinlochleven to Fort William

Our last hiking day! And another day of remote hiking up a secluded glen, with more wonderful mountains and forests the see along the way.

59. Loch Leven.JPGJohn, still singing The Proclaimers, hobbled on his tender feet at the rear. We headed away from the loch into some woods, and up onto a rocky track. As we climbed, we were rewarded with views of Kinlochleven below, and also a very quiet valley ahead. Passing ruins of an old farmhouse and towering peaks around us, we continued along the track through a felled part of a forest before entering a dense woodland.

Ben Nevis should be visible, we pondered. It was a misty day with low clouds kissing the treetops, but as we left the woods onto a forestry track, it appeared! The steep slopes of Ben Nevis were visible across the valley as we entered Glen Nevis. A day off to fully appreciate this mountain and the hike to its summit is highly recommended, especially when seeing it from this angle.

68. More Ben Nevis.JPGThe track made a steady descent, zigzagging down with more fantastic views of the surrounding mountains. We entered more lovely dense woodland as we neared the valley floor, and slowly but surely, we found more signs of civilisation and our last destination; the town of Fort William.

This was not our most demanding hike, however we all agreed it was our most rewarding. The new-found appreciation of wildlife, the seclusion, the food and drink, and the ease of navigation made for a memorable hike.

We look forward to our next hike in Scotland. We all promised to have the true Scottish national anthem memorised, and maybe more B&Bs booked... and to bring some insect repellent too. And who knows! Maybe we'll bump into some athletes along the way.

70. Misty Fort William.JPG

Contours Holidays pride ourselves on our expert knowledge of the UK's trails. We regularly set out to check our routes and directions and to make improvements on the holidays we offer. You can find several write-ups of staff expeditions in our Trail Diaries.

Originally published 04/05/20

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