Our West Highland Way Adventure
By Anne-Marie Wilson
As the new kid on the block at Mickledore, I was both surprised and delighted to be asked to go and walk the West Highland Way for my familiarisation trip. As a soft Southerner, who will normally only go on holiday if there is at least a small chance of warm sunshine, the thought of going North for a holiday was something that had never really crossed my mind and quite frankly terrified me, but everyone said I would have an amazing time so I was willing to give it a try and have my opinions of holidays in Scotland changed.
So, I gratefully accepted and set about finding someone to come with me. I couldn’t take my husband as he would need to stay at home looking after my kids and all my friends had to stay at home to look after their husbands and their kids. After asking 10 friends who couldn’t take a week away, I sat down and thought, who do I know who has no husband and no kids …
Now, I have one friend with no husband or kids. A wonderful (and very sensible) friend who I went travelling with 30 years ago, Sarah.
Now, there is a little problem with this plan, as Sarah lives in Uganda, Africa. I messaged Sarah, fully expecting it to be a resounding No, but she said Yes. She would come from Uganda to walk the West Highland Way with me.
Sarah left Entebbe, Uganda on Thursday afternoon, two days before we needed to be in Milngavie. She spent a night on a plane and arrived in Manchester via Brussles before making her way to Keswick.
After persuading Sarah that she would need more than open toed sandals, we sourced some shoes, a waterproof coat and some gloves and packed our bags.
On the journey to Scotland, we looked at the photo albums of our trip in 1993. We had forgotten so much but looking at the photos made it feel like yesterday. How will Scotland match up to Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand? Let’s see!
Day One: Milngavie to Drymen – Whisky, Salmon, Theo and a Drain Drama
Another friend, Steph, joined us for our walk today. We met at the Obelisk in Milngavie in the pouring rain and were a bit despondent thinking that we might have a very wet day ahead of us. In fact, we walked for ten minutes, and the clouds cleared. We stripped off our waterproofs and walked in sunshine for the rest of the day.
Our first target was the distillery at Glengoyne where a lovely man named Billy gave us a dram of 12yr single malt and taught us to only sniff with one nostril as one nostril is stronger than the other! We had a mooch around the shop and bought a few souvenirs then we headed back out onto the Way.
A few meters along the Way we saw a man taking a photo with a very strange device. It was a Kodak disposable camera, very retro. He asked me to take a picture of him and it was very bizarre having to put my eye to the window to see what I was taking. I also then forgot that you must wind the camera on before you take another photo. Anyway, Theo, if you are reading this, you were one of the highlights of our day and you prompted lots of chatter about how we used to take photos before smart phones.
The dram of whisky seemed to perk us up a bit so the subject of conversation turned to why we hadn’t bought a hip flask. Sarah had seen some great hollow ski poles that are used as hip flasks in the alps. We decided that we should each buy a pair of hollow walking poles and fill them with six different spirits. We would then play a game of walking pole roulette where you picked a pole and had a quick ‘nip’ each time you were feeling a bit low. We think this game might catch on!
We had lunch in the sunshine at a lovely café called the Turnip the Beet. The food was delicious and there was a gorgeous little honesty phone box for people who didn’t want to stop on the walk.
In the afternoon we were playing pooh sticks at the bridge in Gartness when some lovely people asked us if we had seen the salmon leaping just downstream. They kindly pointed us in the direction of where to see the salmon partaking in this heroic activity. After swimming hundreds of miles they throw themselves up impossible waterfalls to spawn in their home stream, using their sense of smell to find the exact place where they hatched. We had never seen this before and were totally blown away.
For the last couple of hard miles on a tarmac road I decided to try out the walking poles that my work colleague had kindly lent me. Not more than five minutes later, I got the pole stuck in a drain! Brilliant, great skills from me! On removing the pole, the rubber end bit fell off the pole and lodged itself in the murk out of reach. There then followed a rather comical ten minutes of three ladies trying to retrieve a rubber stopper from a metal drain. It was funnier than it sounds and looks. Thankfully the pole is now back in one piece but I may not be using them again.
We arrived in Drymen and had a very well-deserved pint chatting about the buzzards, orchids and beautiful trees we had seen throughout the day.
Day Two: Drymen to Rowardennan – I packed my bag and in it I put
Our first conversation of the day revolved around food or more precisely how we managed to eat so much food yesterday. After a full Scottish breakfast at the Premier Inn, the lovely bap from Turnip the Beets and an incredible dinner at the oldest licensed premises in Scotland, the Clachan Inn in Drymen, we all agreed that we had eaten far too much and wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
Oh look – Salmon and scrambled egg – Yes please 😊
We set off with our packed lunches in our bag and made good progress. Our first port of call was Conic Hill. Conic Hill is a sharp little summit rising above Balmaha, right on the boundary fault line between the Highlands and the Lowlands. We made our way to the summit and were rewarded with fantastic views over Loch Lomond and its many islands.
On our way up we tried to come up with words that included the word Conic. We could only think of two, Iconic and Conical. Both of which we thought suited this ‘little’ hill perfectly (please take the word hill with a pinch of salt – with 361 meters of elevation this wasn’t a walk in the park)
We descended to the hamlet of Balmaha. There were lots of walkers who had kicked off their walking books and settled onto the terrace at the lovely Oak Tree Inn with rather delicious looking glasses of cold ale. Many people decide to finish their day here and looking back, this is where I wish we had stopped. The next 13kms were long and painful.
The guidebook says that this section from Balmaha to Rowardennan is 11.5kms but it was certainly a little longer than this and our last 5kms really took their toll. To try to lift our spirits we played a game called, ‘I packed my bag for the West Highland Way and in it I put’. It was a game I had played on long car journeys as a child, and it seemed apt for this point in time. The aim of the game is for each player to add to the list of items packed, but they have to remember what has been said before.
This is what we took: Arnica, Blister Packs, Chocolate, Doughnuts, Elastoplast, Flip Flops, Guidebook, Hip Flask, Ibuprofen, Jogging bottoms, Kit Kats, Lip Balm, Money, Nail clippers, OS Map, Pants, Quinine, Roll on deodorant, Socks, Trousers, Underwear, Voltarol, Waterproofs, Xtra stuff, Yummy sweets and a Zippo lighter.
We also had an 80’s disco for a while to pass the time and sang our way along the shores of Loch Lomond to Ah-ha, Toto and Whitney Houston to name but a few.
Eventually we arrived in Rowardennan in the pouring rain, and I have a couple of lessons learnt from today. 1. Always add on a couple of kilometres to the advertised daily distance so that you do not think that you are nearly there when you are not and 2. Never believe the weather forecast, I had removed my fleece, long leggings and buff from my bag as the weather forecast just advertised warm sunshine. I wished I had had all these items at some point during the day.
Day Three: Rowardennan to Inverarnan (Ardlui) – A pot of gold at the end of the Rainbow
We trudged slowly out of Rowardennan with sore feet and sore legs and with the sound of the hotel staff telling us to ‘take the high road’ but the guidebook telling us to ‘take the low road’ as this was the actual official route of the Way. I had read previously that the low road was ‘treacherous’ and local knowledge was telling us the same so it was quite an easy decision to take the high road.
We needn’t have worried that we were missing out as were rewarded with a stunning rainbow and several cascading waterfalls. We were also feeling pretty smug as it took the guys on the low road significantly longer than us to cover the first 11Kms.
We arrived at the wonderfully positioned Inversnaid Hotel at lunch time and I was very impressed with the effort that they had made for walkers. There was a lovely picnic room with views over Loch Lomond, free water and toilets and plugs for charging phones. We chatted to loads of our fellow travellers here and again felt the warm smugness when the low road gang appeared and told us that it had indeed been treacherous and exhausting.
The afternoon was a tricky walk with lots of boulders, ladders, bridges and huge tree roots to scramble over. This was hard going but we found it easier than simply walking as it distracted us from the pain in our feet and legs. The afternoon passed much quicker than yesterday and in no time at all we found ourselves at the Ardluish Jetty.
We were staying on the other side of the Loch and had to get a ferry to the hotel. We had been looking forward to this as we thought it would be nice to get a different perspective of the loch and surrounding hills from the water. Unfortunately, having waited 50 minutes for the ferry we were more concerned about how cold we were and if we would ever be able to walk again having stiffened up completely, all we were concerned about was getting into the warm.
We got into our room, and I was so excited to see a jet bath that I couldn’t run it quick enough. After our long wait on the jetty, it was a very well-deserved treat.
Day Four: Inverarnan to Tyndrum – Love Is All Around
Unfortunately, I have very few words and very few pictures today as it was wet, wet, wet. It rained solidly for 7 hours/22kms of walking. Not even the Arc’teryx waterproof jacket was up to the job.
The paths turned into rivers and the rivers turned into raging torrents which were wonderful to watch. The pure power of the water thundering downstream in the rivers was incredible.
I was hoping to stop at the midpoint of the days walk (11kms) and the midpoint of the West Highland Way (77kms) at Crianlarich for a celebratory glass of prosecco, lunch and a photo but the thought of even a small detour from the route was not at all appealing when we arrived at the crossroads just after midday. Crianlarich is at the junction of two natural routes through the hills, where Glen Falloch rises and meets the gentle pastures of Strathfillian. Our mission today was simply to get from A to B as quickly as possible.
We carried on, hoping to find a dry sheltered place to sit to have our lunch but we did not find any shelter until Auchtertyre Farm, another 6kms along the route.
Unfortunately, the forecast for the next few days is not great but I’m hoping that it is slightly better than today and if it isn’t then I hope that there are some bothys to briefly shelter in from the pounding rain. Today was relentless.
What I learnt today: If Sarah says – Go behind that wall and I’ll shout if anyone is coming. Don’t believe her, she is telling fibs!
Day Five: Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse – Rocky Road (just not the chocolatey type)
The alarm was set for 06.30 this morning as the section from Tyndrum to Kingshouse was 33kms long.
Heather, our lovely host at Tigh-Na-Fraoch was a total hero when Sarah told her that she had lost her glasses the day before. Immediately she disappeared and reappeared with about five pairs of glasses for Sarah to try and she let her take a pair away with her. This really saved the day. We had a wonderful breakfast, a quick tour of the B and B and off we went.
We caught the Caledonian Sleeper at 08.02 from Tyndrum Upper Station and it was very strange to be sitting on a train looking at the Way path below us. We arrived in Bridge of Orchy just after 08.30 and started our walk over Rannoch Moor. Although it was still raining, it wasn’t raining with quite the same ferocity as yesterday.
We stopped in at the Inveroran Hotel about 3kms after the Bridge of Orchy to say hello to another of our wonderful accommodation hosts, Nadia and Ewen. Nadia was out walking the dog, but Ewen was very kind and gave me a quick tour of the property. I could have stayed in his bar sampling the whisky all day, but I had a moor to cross.
The Drovers Path to Glencoe starts a couple of kilometers after Inveroran and takes you over Rannoch Moor. In 1803 Thomas Telford was commissioned by the government to improve the route that crossed the moor. His main aim was to improve the route for the carriages and other wheeled traffic that would use it. He also wanted to make it comfortable for the horses and livestock, so the surface was made with a good depth of gravel to prevent damage to their hooves on their way south to market.
I can tell you that it might have been constructed to be comfortable for the horses but, for me and our fellow walkers the walk over the harsh igneous rocks and uneven surface was excruciating. It was a long 16kms.
We arrived at the Kingshouse Hotel at about 3pm but our taxi was not due to pick us up until 5pm. We obviously made ourselves comfortable in the delightful bar and proceeded to drink more beer than I had drunk all week. We were joined in the bar by a couple that we had made friends with over the week. Graham and Andrea were from Vancouver, they were due in Edinburgh for a conference next week and had a week to spare so decided to walk the WHW. They were experienced walkers having spent time touring in the Rockies and the Alps and they obviously didn’t take the short cut.
Day Six: Kingshouse to Kinlochleven – The Devils Staircase
When the Kingshouse Hotel is not available, we book our clients two nights in Kinlochleven and this is what Sarah and I were doing. We were staying at Allt Na Leven with Wullie and Pauline. Now all of the guest houses and hotels that I have visited on this trip have been good/excellent but Allt-Na-Leven was in a different league. It was absolutely superb. From the moment we stepped in the door we were greated by a smiling Wullie who whisked our boots and all our wet clothes off to the drying room and showed us to our room.
It was like what I imagine a room would be like in a Palace. It was exceptionally clean and beautiful, with delightful furniture, big, sumptuous duvets and pillows, beautiful décor and everything you could possibly think that you might need, including fluffy bath robes, a highland cow hot water bottle (I loved him), a vanity box which had nail scissors, tweezers, nail files, cotton wool buds etc, a sewing kit containing cottons, needles, pins and a tape measure and much, much more.
I fell asleep listening to the sound of the River Leven flowing past our window.
When I woke in the morning, I was a little bit sad that our itinerary for day six was only 14Kms long as I had got used to the 20/25kms of recent days and I wanted to push myself. However, I needn’t have worried, the Devils Staircase soon zapped the extra 6 kms out of my legs and lungs as we climbed to the highest point on the WHW. This ascent of 259 meters is feared by Way walkers but it’s not nearly as hard as the name would suggest.
On the way up the Staircase we encountered sun, rain, mist and rainbows and when the sun did make a rare appearance it was easy to see why people rave about this walk. The scenery around us was stunning, it was just a shame it was so fleeting.
Day Seven: Kinlochleven to Fort William – Dreich, Dour, Drookit and Crabbit
Just when I thought that it was impossible that Pauline and Wullie could exceed my expectations anymore, Wullie arrived at breakfast with a waterproof poncho and a cap for Sarah.
The weather forecast was appalling. 100% chance of heavy rain all day. Amber weather warning. Chance of severe disruption.
They tried to persuade us not to go but having got this far there was nothing that was going to stop us, not even a little bit of rain.
One hour in my watch gave up the ghost and my top half was soaked through, by hour two my bottom half was soaked through and by hour three we had got so fed up of trying to avoid the fast flowing rivers crossing our path that we just waded through them up to our knees.
My watch kept buzzing on my wrist and it made me laugh when I looked at it and it asked me if I wanted to record an outdoor swim.
Needless to say, there was not much chat and even less photos, it was a case of head down and walk to the finish.
Here are some Scottish words to further illustrate our day:
Dreich – Miserable Weather, Dour – Gloomy, Drookit – Soaked, Crabbit – Bad Tempered.
Day Eight: Fort William – Milngavie – Keswick
Here I am sat on a nice warm coach with my feet in a pair of very comfortable trainers, writing my blog and watching the scenery pass by the window as we weave our way back down the West Highland Way from Fort William to Glasgow.
Firstly, I would like to thank Sarah for making the long journey from Uganda and for keeping me company for the week. I hope that you have made some great memories and will go back to Africa with some great tales to tell.
I am also so grateful to my lovely friends at work for lending me lots of kit, for giving me lots of hints and tips (the best one was the baseball cap for keeping the rain off my face) and for sharing their experiences of long-distance walks.
And finally, I would like to thank my Mickledore bosses for sending me on this experience of a lifetime.
The West Highland Way was hard, I won’t pretend that it wasn’t. There were times when I was almost sobbing, and I thought there was no way I would make it to Fort William, but I did. It was character building, fascinating, challenging and fun and I am so proud that I did it.
Next time though, please can I turn right at the M6?
The West Highland Way is of course one of the most iconic trails in the country and something every keen walker should experience. Preferably in drier conditions than Anne-Marie and Sarah. Anyway, for an insight into this spectacular route, take a look at our Top 5 highlights on the West Highland Way. For help on choosing the right itinerary for you, email us [email protected] or call us on 017687 72335 to speak with one of our walking holiday experts.