The following is a chronicle of the adventures of five hikers as they trek their way along the West Highland Way in Scotland. Travel with us as they deal with cities, mountains, lochs, injuries, illness, stag parties, and more – all while getting a taste of Scottish culture and eventually coming out the other side only a little worse for wear.
Trail: West Highland Way – Scotland
Route: Milngavie to Fort William – 154 km | Time: 6 Days – April
There’s nowhere on earth quite like Scotland. You can find yourself in a bustling city one second, and then be out in the moors without a soul in sight the next. I have to say, we didn’t quite know what to expect when we decided to set off along one of the most famous walking trails in the country. We had agreed to trade the relative comfort of university residence life for what would be a presumably rain filled 6 days outdoors in the northern reaches of the UK.
The planning stage wasn’t exactly filling us with confidence. What sounded like a relatively benign (albeit long) trek in the wilderness quickly became a military operation thanks to our resident bartender and army veteran – who had kindly helped us make sure we were prepared. With map reading, survival skills, and a healthy dose of pessimism, he imparted the tools we would need to make it through in one piece. It didn’t help that our classmates were openly taking bets on who would come back and who would be lost to the wilds forever.
Still, tons of people hike the West Highland Way every year. So what if it rains and we don’t know how to chart our course using the stars, we’ll just stick to the path, make it to the end, and throw up a giant middle finger to everyone who had doubted us. Easy.
The Beginning of the Beginning
Unfortunately, our school was in Southern England. This meant driving to the nearest airport (London Gatwick in this case) and flying up to Glasgow before we could even set foot on the trail. Now remember, we were taking this trip to celebrate the end of our first year of university. Unfortunately, this meant before we left the school, we had to actually celebrate the end of our first year of university. Despite claims we would all be alert and ready to leave (our ride was at the lovely hour of 3AM), you can probably guess that a bunch of students fresh from completing a year of school didn’t exactly deliver on this front.
After rounding up our group (in various states of coherence and sobriety), we said our goodbyes to our classmates, many of whom would soon be enjoying the beaches of the Mediterranean, and hopped into a cab. Soon we arrived at the airport, with plenty of time to wolf down a breakfast and take stock. I’ll be honest; the signs weren’t good. Half our group was still feeling the effects of the drink while everyone else was enjoying what comes next (read: hangover). To top it all off, everyone seemed to have come down with some variety of illness. Typical. We don’t get sick all year, but as soon as it comes time to leave, everyone seemed like they should be quarantined.
Anyway, we made it through the mercifully short flight and landed in Glasgow. It was a rainy, dreary day in the city, which seemed pretty much in line with how everything had been going so far. After buying a four-person tent (close enough I guess), we divvied up the contents into everyone’s bag and set off towards the train station. We were ready to start!
Well not really. While we only had a short train ride out into the commuter town of Milngavie, we barely missed the first train and the next was mysteriously cancelled. It’s safe to say this wasn’t improving the collective mood. Everyone still sounded and looked like hell and patience was wearing thin. Eventually, we managed to catch a train to the start of the trail. No more stations, planes, or dreariness – we were ready for the Highlands!
Day 1: Milngavie to Drymen – 19 km
The thing about the West Highland Way is that it takes a while to get to the actual Highlands. Yeah it was naïve in hindsight, but we were half expecting to see rocky hills and moors with the Loch Ness monster and Mel Gibson welcoming us as soon as we started walking. But instead you start in the suburbs of Glasgow, trudging along a concrete path that eventually gives way to muddy trails through flat, dreary Scottish farms. By starting outside of the city and slowly making your way into the Highlands, it’s arguably much more rewarding and impressive, but at the time, it only compounded the negative vibe.
This was the shortest portion of the walk, but it sure didn’t feel like it. Five hungover hikers rambling along in an increasingly staggered single file line, waiting for the effects of various medicines to kick in, was not exactly what we had in mind. Things went from bad to worse when one of our number came down with a hugely sore throat. As, unable to carry on, he decided to take a cab to Drymen from our next stop, we were thinking “great, one down, four to go”.
It didn’t help that the weather was constant overcast with some drizzle and the scenery was less than spectacular. While there were some nice forests and hills, a larger portion of the trail than you might expect stayed close to roads. It didn’t really feel like we were channeling the essence of Rob Roy every time a massive lorry drove by. Jokes and conversations were also few and far between as we continued to nurse hangovers and deal with only the small amount of sleep we had gotten on the plane. In all honesty, the highlight of the day was probably some local kids complimenting (or making fun of more likely) one of our member’s tartan pajama pants he had chosen to wear on the trip.
Finally, with the straps of our heavy bags digging further and further into our shoulders, we arrived in Drymen, met up with our friend who was thankfully still alive, and settled down in a B&B – as all great explorers do at the end of a rough day. We checked in with our schools bartender to let him know we were alive, ate a quick dinner at the self proclaimed oldest pub in Scotland, then quickly passed out, hoping that tomorrow would bring renewed vigor and justification for what we were putting ourselves through.
Day 2: Drymen to Rowardennan – 24 km
We woke early the next day, still suffering from various ailments but considerably more awake and alert after our first good sleep in a couple days. While it still threatened to start pouring rain any second, we took solace in the fact that we should finally reach some good views and scenery, without the feeling that we all about to collapse at any moment.
After marching through the woods and fields for a while, we came to a fork in the road. Despite our intense training and meticulous preparation, we didn’t exactly have a great grasp of the geography of the land. One path looked like it stayed relatively direct and would keep us on course, while the other diverted up a hill and met up with the main trail later. With a sense of purpose and misplaced optimism, we opted for what our ragged map described as the ‘scenic route’ up Conic Hill.
While the aptly named hill is only 361 metres tall, it provided quite a test. Since we still hadn’t really gotten used to our heavy bags, the climb took its toll on our knees, back, pride, and water supply. But all of that was forgiven when we reached the top. With a prime location on the east bank of Loch Lomond, we were treated to a breathtaking view of the waters and surrounding land. After some very poor attempts to sing the famous song, we settled down for a quick lunch.
Let’s stop for a minute and talk about our diet. Initially, we had planned on buying a significant amount of military rations and using these for breakfast and lunch, then eating at the various pubs that greeted us on our arrival for dinner. Well it turns out military rations are very expensive, plus they take up quite a lot of room in our packs. Instead, we each bought only one ration and stocked up on A LOT of candy bars. After being told they were good for protein and energy, we decided to buy candy bars every stop we made. I used to love Snickers, but after a solid week of eating mostly Mr. T Extra Nutty Special Edition Snickers, I don’t think any of us have been able to look at a chocolate bar the same way since.
Anyways, lasting damage to our health notwithstanding, we descended Conic Hill and took up the path along the side of the Loch, which would be our route for the foreseeable future. Still, the novelty of being next to Loch Lomond hadn’t worn off yet and we happily walked through the village of Balmaha and all the way to the small community of Rowardennan. While many of these places might not have much in the way of amenities, you can usually count on a public house for food and drink, which is exactly what we wanted.
After eating and letting our school bartender know we hadn’t succumbed to cabin fever quite yet, we got ready to dust off our tent and spend the night in a small camping area nearby. Somehow, we got the massive behemoth of a thing pitched, just as the rain started to fall. It was a weird tent, with a small covered alcove on each side and a drafty middle area open at the bottom (seemed like a waste of space to not make the entire thing insulated but what do I know about tent making?) With one unlucky soul left to rot in the middle, we settled in for the night.
Day 3: Rowardennan to Crianlarich – 32 km
Sunshine! That’s what greeted us as we awoke the next morning. The ground was still wet but there was barely a cloud in the sky. We didn’t know it at the time, but this is the weather we would enjoy for most of the remainder of the walk. At the time however, we didn’t care if it was fleeting or not, we were just happy to ditch the overcast, wet dreary weather.
We packed up, ate our usual chocolate bar breakfast and set off towards Crianlarich. It’s fortunate that we were in a relatively good mood, because this was going to be the longest walk of the trip. 32 km or 20 miles, whatever you called it, it was quite a distance. We passed through the community of Inversnaid along the way, home of the famous Inversnaid Hotel. Built in 1790 as a hunting lodge, the hotel has hosted distinguished guests such as Queen Victoria, and now, us. After swapping stories with an old British veteran, we continued on our way.
While Loch Lomond might have been an exciting destination the previous day, its charm had begun to wear out. The Loch may be only 8 km wide at most but it was 39 km long, meaning walking alongside it will take a while and cover much of the same terrain. Still, with the occasional cave, outlaws hideout, or higher ground to break up the monotony, we persevered, eventually making it to the waters end and the hamlet of Inverarnan.
We had no idea what awaited us now that we were setting off past the Loch. Well, after some plains and rugged hills, the answer was cows. Tons of cows, thousands upon thousands of cows. As far as we could see, the West Highland Way had devolved into a muddy thoroughfare for someone’s animals (there were no farmers or farms in sight). With the mud indistinguishable from… something else, we bravely marched forward along Cow Highway for what seemed like hours (which it probably was). Finally, we caught sight of our destination as the sun began to set. After descending into the valley where the relatively large village of Crianlarich lay, we went to go figure out our lodging for the night. After dividing up into two at a charming B&B and three at a decidedly less charming hostel, we let our school bartender know we hadn’t given up and then met for dinner and drinks. Incidentally, I highly recommend a pint of McEwan’s if you can find it. But I digress. We had made it halfway, and settled down to take stock of supplies and an increasing amount of blisters (which I had somehow avoided).
Crianlarich often refers to itself as the ‘gateway to the Highlands’. As we looked around at the hills and mountains that awaited us on the morrow, we knew we had truly arrived. This is what we had been waiting for.
To Be Continued…
Trail Summary So Far: Milngavie to Crianlarich – 75 km
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