Scotland’s tourism site had claimed it’s “West Highland Way” to be the most picturesque; with its’ tranquil locks, rushing rivers and ever-changing landscape. Having sampled Ireland’s Wicklow Way and completing its’ Dingle Peninsula, we are extremely excited to now be hiking Scotland’s iconic trail.
Flying out of Toronto’s Pearson airport late at night, our thirteen-hour flight to Glasgow provides us with what feels like one square foot of space in a sardine can; a necessary evil in making this adventure a reality.
Arriving in Glasgow mid-afternoon, we hail a cab to Milngavie (Mul gai), check into our hotel and head out for an early supper. A positive tone is set when I order a plant-based meal at the “Beefeater” restaurant. The irony is not lost on me and I secretly hope this kind of luck will hold true for the entirety of the trip.
The following morning our excitement is palpable and our energy boundless. Our suitcases are forwarded to our bed and breakfast in Drymen which is nineteen kilometers away. As we walk through Milngavie’s charming town square we search out the obelisk that will indicate the beginning of the West Highland Way. Once there, signage directs us toward an asphalt walkway flanked on either side by beautiful greenery reaching high above our heads. This provides full cover canopy that represents every shade of the green color spectrum. We approach a body of water; a bog where the birds are in full song echoing a confidence as if in a sanctuary. The mist rises above the water ever so gently at this early hour. I am struck by the foresight of the towns founding fathers to create this surreal space; setting the tone that will ease us into the phenomenal adventure ahead.
It is a beautiful day and the trail, which is in good shape, is busy with locals walking their dogs in this early morning. As far as the eye can see the landscape is in full bloom speckled with a myriad of trees and wildflowers that are foreign to me. Most prominent are Scotland’s bluebells which display large vibrant purple flowers. These trees provide a constant pallet throughout the entirety of the hike. In the meadows, varying sizes of sheep are scattered against the backdrop of Scotland’s green landscape. They have differing shades of wool tattooed with markings of pink or blue identifying specific ownership. I spot two small black sheep whose wool is considered less valuable because of its’ inability to be dyed. Some Scots feel the wool of these rare black sheep to be the mark of the devil. As I watch I can’t help but recall the saying “he was the black sheep of the family”.
Crossing a babbling brook, we meet a Scottish man who wishes to have a wee chat. We learn he is a runner training for “The Highland Fling,” a 53 mile ultramarathon trail race-along Scotland’s oldest long distance foot path. He is proud of that which lies before us and acts as a fitting ambassador for the Way.
In the distance we see a whisky distillery bearing the Scottish moniker Glengoyne. We are informed by fellow hikers that we can take a tour, however, we are now more interested in lunch at the Beech Tree Inn which is just up ahead. It feels good to settle into this lovely little restaurant where the air is filled with the lilt of Scottish accents and food is very much welcomed after hiking all morning. Having satiated our appetites, we continue our journey. The day has become warm and muggy and we find ourselves executing more costume changes than Cher at one of her iconic concerts. As we get closer to our destination, we begin to see home-made signage advertising a “pop up café” just ahead. We approach and find the air filled with the boundless energy of ten-year old football players who are fund raising with a “bake sale” in the middle of the West Highland Way. I am quickly reminded of my own grandson who has done the same in Nova Scotia for his hockey team. I contemplate how alike things are around the world. The boys are extremely welcoming, full of positivity and a joy to be around. Although we do not consume their offerings, we are happy to provide a donation toward their cause; well worth the positive experience.
We are tired when we reach Drymen no doubt due in part to the left-over jet lag of the previous day. We settle into our bed and breakfast and look forward to the next day when we get to do it all over again.
Our goal for day two is to complete the twenty-kilometer trek to Rowardennan. Heading out in the early morning, a winding stone fence runs the full length of the narrow country road that moves us toward the trail head. I am forever in awe of these old Scottish stone boundaries that clearly must have taken ages and an amazing amount of patience to build. I also notice portions of these stone fences to be bookended by wire. I am told the sheep, attempting to garner freedom, use their noses to knock out the stone. The newer generation of sheep farmers fail to bring in qualified stones men opting instead to utilize the faster and more economic option of wire meshing. However, those who have made these walls ensured they were strong and durable, and I am confident they will continue to be a part of the Scottish landscape.
Arriving at the trail head we are welcomed by a framed masterpiece of immediate 360-degree beauty. There are mountains in the background; green meadows in the foreground; sheep to the right; herds of cattle to the left. It is again a warm day and the trail continues to be busy. We meet hikers from around the world mostly millennials carrying fifty- pound packs and camping along this trail. Some share positive comments about us taking on this challenge at “our age.” It makes me wonder how our generation are viewed in their respective countries. We will see these hikers throughout the eight days we hike this trail and establish a relationship of sorts with them. We begin to refer to each other by the name of the place from which we come. There are two young ladies from Amsterdam, a family from Los Angeles, Germans, French and Scots. The young gentleman from Los Angeles notices the Canadian flag I sport on my hiking hat. With a twinkle in his eye and a sarcastic and mischievous tone of voice he informs me he has a MAGA patch for me if I am interested. I laugh and tell him I have many American friends and we are all just one election away from being in the position his country now find itself.
We approach a junction in our hike that requires a decision to navigate either an easy or difficult option ahead. We choose the latter which results in a reduction of the number of hikers along the trail in a very noticeable way. Conic Hill, often referred to as Chronic Hill, is a twelve hundred foot climb over a five hundred foot distance. Although this represents the first sharp climb with which we are presented, the elevation has been continuous since day one. No breathing issues exist; however, it has been several months since we climbed Arizona’s Sonoran mountains and our legs are feeling fatigued. We begin the ascent and I am in camaraderie with the string of bent over hikers whose sole focus is to put one foot in front of the other. It is quiet and I recall an old movie vision of pilgrims on a pilgrimage to their homeland. As we climb, the expansive views of Loch Lomond and its’ islands begin to unfold. The reward at its’ peak clearly diminishes any aches garnered along the way. The descent is sharp, and we must pull ourselves away momentarily to ensure our footing on the trail. At the foot of Conic hill, we enter a wooded area which acts as a wonderful reprieve from the heat of the climb and which leads us to the small village of Balmaha. It is a bustling area situated on an idyllic bay and marina. There is a visitor center, however, we have for some time been anticipating rest and food at the Oak Tree Inn. I am reminded of how food and drink are so greatly enhanced after such great exertion.
Back on the trail, the climb continues as we maneuver the bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. Walking along a beach we are approached by a Scottish man dressed in the attire of his Country. He asks to take our picture; we comply. He places his feather adorned hat on my head and proceeds to explain in detail the trek to Rowardennan. I get a sense he is reliving days of past youth when doing so. I am also suspect this man did not just “happen along” but is most likely another of Scotland’s self-appointed ambassadors. He appears to be happy in this role as if it gives him purpose. It occurs to me how we could all make a difference by putting ego and self-consciousness aside by doing that which makes us happy. As we continue, the fatigue in my legs is extremely evident; with always just one more climb ahead. It is uneven terrain and at times the hiking is reduced to a snail’s pace. On completion, it has been twenty kilometers and nine hours since we began our trek that morning. My legs are like steel beams and I feel an aching pulse that I am hoping a good night’s sleep will alleviate. We settle in for the night in Rowendennan.
The following day, we are sadly mistaken when we erroneously view the planned eleven-kilometer hike on this third day as a short one. We are blessed with sunny weather as well as the continual beauty of Scotland. This is not enough, however, to lessen the pain in my legs as the ascent/descent roller-coaster that moves us along Loch Lomond is unrelenting. There is residual fatigue in my legs left over from the previous day as we take on the constant elevation that hiking along Loch Lomond presents. The good news is that we arrive in Inversnaid for lunch giving us plenty of opportunity to settle into a good rest prior to taking on day four.
And on day four I do feel refreshed and I know instinctively that my climbing legs are back as we take on our destination to Inverarnan. We understand how blessed we are to not have had rain when we are presented with yet another sunny day and clear blue skies. This guarantees more strongly our appreciation of the beauty that surrounds us. On this day, we quickly complete our last section of Loch Lomond and begin hiking through open fields that are covered with cotton grass as far as the eye can see. There is so much of it that I can’t help but wonder if the Scots have considered using it as a crop of sorts. My research advises the fibers of these cotton tufts as being too short and brittle for any type of commercial use. Interestingly they have been used as a feather substitute in pillows as well as to dress the wounds of soldiers in WW 2.
As we continue to hike, we spot animals in the far distance that we understand to be feral goats. They are a common site in the Scottish Highlands and have become as natural to the habitat as the stone fences and herds of sheep.
According to Google, a bothy is a basic shelter that is left open to all and found in the remote mountainous areas of Scotland. Such was the case when we came across the Doune Bothey that was both warm and welcoming when I entered. Two Scottish lasses were making a cup of tea over a rusty camp stove. They were from Glasgow and had just completed a day hike. My ears perked up when I heard the beautiful strings of a Scottish tune coming from a young man huddled in the corner. Glancing his way, I was reminded of the young hippies of the seventies. His clothing was in dire need of soap and water and his beard was scraggly and unkempt. But his eyes and quiet demeanor told me he was very much at peace and I yearned to know his story. However, I also had a sense that at this moment he chose to be alone. I chatted with the young ladies and felt my experience very much enhanced by this unexpected visit.
Approaching Inverarnan we see fellow hikers in a campground setting up their tents for the night. I say a silent prayer of thanks for the bed and breakfast that would provide us with a hot shower and clean bed. In short order we are pleased to put our packs and poles aside as we settle into Drovers Inn for a lunch of haggis, neeps and tatties. The Inn, with its’ narrow wooden plank floors, is the truest Scottish pub we have come across. The walls are decorated with dust laden accent pieces, old books, lanterns and a myriad of other rustic regalia from days gone by. All served to add deep character to this Scottish pub. The female servers wear kilts; a message on their the back states “voted best Scottish pub in 1819”. A very large dog sits next to the open hearth as its’ owner shares stories and a pint with friends around an old wooden table.
When planning this trip, we were unable to garner accommodations in Inveraran. This necessitated a bus ride to Tyndrum where we would settle for the night as well as a much anticipated day off before continuing our journey. We are disappointed to be forced to cut this 20-kilometer section of the trail, however, we were assured this section represented massive flat terrain and would not have provided us the scenery to which we had become accustomed prior to this point. We take solace in this bit of information.
We arrive in the small village of Tyndrum and settle in the Tyndrum lodge where we order a glass of wine and munchies just because we can. The next day is one of rest; for us this time is akin to a Friday night after working all week. We learn the Gaelic translation of Tyndrum is “house on the ridge” and was built over an ancient battlefield. Our time here is whimsical as we explore the interesting little shops. The most renowned is “The Green Welly Stop.” I am impressed with the high quality of rain gear they sell. Clearly, the wet climate of Scotland has the gear’s manufacturer embrace every element necessary to ward off serious rainfall. Just as I was convincing myself I needed those pants and that jacket; I came to my senses knowing this extremely expensive gear would certainly be overkill for our Canadian climate. While there I eat “Cullen Skink” which is a traditional Scottish soup made with potatoes, smoked haddock and onions. I am once again reminded of my own Scottish roots as the traditional Cape Breton chowder carries the same description.
After a full day rest and filled with vim, vigor and vitality we continue our trek on a cool morning that requires both toques and gloves. We head toward Inveroran. Seventy five percent of this day is on old flat terrain army roads. In the early days these roads were used to herd cattle and sheep across the highlands. Later in history, the rhythmic marching of world war one soldiers would have been heard as they forged ahead. Now, in more peaceful times, we are blessed to utilize these roads to view the breathtaking scenic gifts Scotland offers us along the Way. Stopping for lunch at “Bridge of Orchy” we chat with fellow hikers who are also in great spirits. The beauty of the landscape continues throughout this day, although we witness a more subdued palette along this flat part of the trail. At times, it becomes difficult to maneuver as the beach rock underfoot presents an unstable terrain. Arriving at the Inveroran Hotel the darkened clouds that had accumulated open up the skies. There are many hikers on a different schedule who have stopped at the hotel for a short respite. I felt compassion for them as they continue in the torrential rains as we tuck into our beautiful room and prepare for an evening with a nice dinner and wine.
The next day our goal is to hike sixteen kilometers to Kingshouse. A light rain that lasts about an hour requires only a light nylon jacket. It doesn’t take long to become fully aware this part of trail can arguably be considered the most beautiful section of the Way. At times we witness patches of white snow on the mountains as we walk along the edge of Glencoe. The first part of the hike is a continuation of the flat terrain military road. Ensuring we have a packed lunch for this section, we are unable to eat after several attempts to do so. The midgies are also hungry; we are forced to abort our plans. Once they abate, we truly appreciate the lunch we have prepared. As we continue the flat terrain is stark against the imposing mountains on either side. Pine woods dominate the landscape and the increase in wind moves gently through the woods. The trail, once again, becomes rocky.
Reaching our destination, we arrive at the seventeenth century Kinghouse hotel. It is, by far, the highest end accommodation of the trip. Floor to ceiling windows flank this retreat- like-haven that encourage us to continue to take in the mountain views. We settle into its’ amazing restaurant accompanied by the warmth of a burning fireplace its’ flame reflecting dream-like through my wine glass.
It is difficult to put on our heavy hiking boots the next morning as we prepare to depart this honey-moon cocoon. Ahead is a twenty-four kilometer hike to Kinlochleven that begins with an eight-hundred-fifty foot ascent. The Devil’s Staircase is between Glen Coe and Kinlochlevin and is a sustained climb filled with switchbacks. On the ascent we are pleased to be filled with early morning energy. Its’ meandering landscape reminds me of my climb of the Great Wall with its’ tease like mirage of finish points. There is no leg fatigue and we celebrate our hard-earned strength. By this point our back-packs have become one with our bodies as if an additional appendage. On completion, I ponder the new moniker of Stiairway to Heaven; such was the breathtaking beauty at its’ peak.
The continuing path underfoot is of small beach rock making it difficult to hike with any speed on this already long hiking day. We zig zag on the trail attempting to find more solid footing. We take advantage of any worn paths left by previous hikers and seek reprieve when possible on grassy knolls on the side of the trail. There are two constants that remain during this second last day of our adventure. The first; the tapestry that lie ahead; that of non-ending rolling green highlands and mountains at times mirrored in large-bodies of water. The second; the continuous change of weather from warm, wind, cool and warm again as we make our way along this meandering trail. As we begin our descent into Kinlochlevin the sky is clear allowing us a phenomenal view of Britain’s highest mountain Ben Nevis.
We are astutely aware our final day will present us with a twenty-five-kilometer hike to Fort William which will be a difficult one. Case in point, it begins with an extremely stark climb out of Kinlochlevin. We have a conversation about the fantastic experience of this adventure as we continue to take in the views of Scotland. We have reaped the benefit of our training and have learned to stay in the moment as we continue this now grueling terrain. It is not a difficult task to do so; should our minds stray but for a moment the beauty of these green highlands transports us directly back to this “The West Highland Way.” We make a conscious decision to take a break every two to three hours giving our bodies proper rest and sustenance. We squeeze out every moment; embracing each memory as the day advances. It is humid and before long we are experiencing our first real rain. We tuck into a grove of trees for the first time utilizing our rain pants, heavy gortex jackets, and backpack covers. It feels good to have the equipment and justifies carrying it in our packs for eight days. This day embraces continual climb and we do so in a downpour. In short order though, the rain subsides, and we find a lovely spot for lunch. Unfortunately, the midgies have other plans. So, a half sandwich later we move on. Three kilimeters outside of Fort William the undulating climb continues. We are exhausted as we approach our destination; we dig deep to find the stamina to pass by our hotel. We do so in order to reach the obelisk that will create the proof that we have completed the West Highland Way. Locals, obviously accustomed to this scene, shout out words of congratulations as they pass by.
We obtain the obligatory pictures with the renowned statue “Man With Sore Feet” providing us bragging rights for this adventure. The moment is not unlike that which we felt on the completion of the Grand Canyon. We are thankful to be able to complete the one hundred and fifty-two-kilometer challenge; to once again, have our own Olympic medal moment. To be able to experience it together; we are most thankful.