West Highland Way - A Scottish Rite of Passage
In my self proclaimed ‘year of adventure’ I decided that this was the year I was going to complete the West Highland Way.
A popular, well established 96 mile walk through some of Scotlands most iconic scenery.
Being such an advocate for Scotland, I was always slightly embarrassed when I met tourists and travellers from abroad who had undertaken it, leaving me red faced when I advised I hadn’t quite gotten around to it yet.
With the date booked in the diary and my friend Fiona and her dog Marlow roped in, it was time to visit my sponsor Tiso to collect new kit. All that was left to do was to pack and get organised.
Before I knew it the day had arrived and it was time for the off. We jumped on the train to the start point at Milngavie with our rucksacks laden with changes of clothes, head torches, tents and sleeping kit. To say they were heavy was an understatement. But under the bright blue skies we were full of optimism. Loads of people have done the West Highland Way - how hard can it be? We were soon to find out!
DAY 1 Milngavie to Balmaha (20 miles)
Our goal for day 1 was Milngvie to Balmaha, Descriped as 20 miles along fairly flat track and a good warm up for the rest of the route.
Obligitary starting point pictures taken, we were full of optimism and started our adventure. The path is very clear when you leave Milngavie and ambles alongside a river before going through some farmland. It wasn’t very challenging walking but with heavy rucksacks on our backs it soon began to take its toll.
Safe to say we had massively underestimated the walk and hobbling into Drymen we started to realise the mammoth task ahead.
The Drymen Inn for lunch was a welcome stop, and they were dog friendly too. Soup and sandwiches and lots of water left us feeling a bit better. But our feet were already sore and tired, nothing that some zinc tape and compeed couldn’t resolve.
Boots back on and it was time to get back on route.
The walk from Drymen is along forestry type track and through farmland (with lambing sheep in during spring, so it’s important to keep your dog on a short leash). We got caught out with a few small showers but nothing that we couldn’t handle or weren’t prepared for.
In what seemed like a lifetime we seen Conic Hill looming ahead of us. A walk up over the back and down the front would take us to our first stop for the night - Balmaha.
We took a 5 minute seat at the base of Conic Hill with Marlow sat between us, and laughed about how we had managed to get through the day and how unprepared we might have been had we not been offered some sound advice from staff at Tiso. The sun was starting to set as we reached the top and we decided to skip the short detour to the summit to find our camp spot for the night.
We set our tent up just outside the Camping Management zone and ditched our bags, before the 10 minute walk to the Oak Tree Inn for dinner.
Dinner was delicious and just what we needed after a very tough first day.
But the challenges of the day weren’t over quite yet, on returning to the tent, water had burst from one of the rucksacks and created a small pond in the tent! I just wanted to sleep! Spillage dried it was time to get our heads down. I think I was asleep before my head even hit the pillow.
DAY 2 - Balmaha to Inversnaid (14.5)
No alarms being set and both being tired from our first day meant we set off a little bit later than planned for day 2. Snacking on cereal bars for breakfast we popped in to the visitor centre where we spent time taping up any blisters and hotspots from the day before before ditching some excess kit. This meant we didn't set off until 11am! Not ideal when you are trying to walk 20 miles in a day with only approximately 12 hours of daylight. Over 4 hours of which we had already wasted.
Boots on, cereal bars digested it was time to make progress. The well defined path leads out of Balmaha and follows along the loch side, giving easy walking for most of the way and plenty to look at, including the famous lonely tree at Milarrochy Bay. The path continues on and eventually reached Rowardennan where many people decide to climb Ben Lomond. Given it was already 3pm with the sun due to set about 6.30pm we decided to give it a miss.
We stopped in at the Rowardennan Hotel for another lovely lunch and the chance to take a seat. The food was just what we needed and I think Marlow was secretly glad of the break as well. Now I may be wrong, and I'm hopeful that it wasn't just us, but on this walk, every chance you stop is another chance to take your feet out of your boots and let them breath. So that is exactly what we did. Words cannot describe to you how good it feels to take your feet out of heavy boots after a long walk.
Break over, it was time to hit the road again. Now we had been given some advice at the start of the walk that after Rowardennan "you will see a shiny new sign that points down to the Loch side, ignore it and follow the upper one through the forest". Well I didn't heed this advice. Not that I didn't want to, just it wasn't until we were miles past the sign that I clicked that that may have been the one I was told about.
This section of the walk is hard going, if done as a section on its own then I imagine it is fairly straightforward, but after having already walked several miles it is quite challenging. Lots of ups and down with plenty of tree roots and trip hazards. However it does follow the loch so you have plenty of pretty views to distract you, including the dramatic Cobbler appearing across the water.
The route we had chosen eventually meets back up with the upper forestry track and it was at this point I realised how much time could have been shaved off our day! But we had to plod on. The sun had set and we walked our way along the route, hoping we weren't too far from our finishing point. Unfortunately it was now dark, so we had to don our head torches and carry on. I can't really tell you much about the remaining miles to Inversnaid other than it was a relatively narrow, rocky path which seems to be quite high above the loch shores. We passed a few other walkers who were more sensible than us and had set up camp for the night along the route. In the dark with no sense of your end point, the track seemed to go on forever. Feet sore, tired and ready for bed we were delighted when we finally heard the waterfall at Inversnaid. Thankfully I have been here before so I wasn't too bothered about the lack of photo opportunities, I was just glad to know we were finished for the day!!
DAY 3 - Inversnaid to Tyndrum (18.5 miles)
Well rested and with the sun shining we got up early and were on the road just after 8am. It was one of those crisp/cold mornings and the Arrochar Alps looked amazing with their dusting of snow.
The West Highland Way follows the shore line once more and given the weather it was a perfect morning. We were both full of optimism and energy for the day ahead as we wandered along the straightforward path. Feral goats watched us from the sidelines and Marlow even tried to make friends with them, not one of his cleverest ideas. About half way along, the track became a bit more interesting with steps and bridges to cross, but being first thing in the day and with the sun shining we didn't really notice it to be too challenging.
After almost 3 hours of walking along the loch past Doune Bothy, we reached the head of Loch Lomond. Although it is not a listed milestone on the walk itself, after being alongside Loch Lomond for 2 and a half days meant we had mixed feelings about leaving it. On one hand I was glad to see the back of it, but on the other, it was so familiar now and it was also nice to see it from the other side of the water.
Finally it was a short walk up to a lovey viewpoint looking back over Loch Lomond before descending to Inverarnan. We headed to the Drovers Inn for lunch and had massive portions of good stodgy and very tasty food as well as lots of water and juice to keep us going, plus despite the close proximity of other diners........the boots came off again! Like I said, it truly was the best part of any stop!
Feet re taped up and boots back on we set off for the next part of our day. The plan was Inverarnan to Tyndrum, which given that I drive this road fairly regularly, didn't cause me any concerns and full of our misguided optimism we set off again. The road sets off along the River Falloch. It is a good clear path and wasn't too challenging, It has some ups and downs but nothing in comparison to the sections at the top of Loch Lomond. It was lovely to walk alongside the river with the epic hills to the right. I always find having a nice view distracts you from any aches and pains.
The path eventually crosses to the other side of the road and we walked up to some farm track. There is a lovely section of the West Highland Way here that was repaired a few years ago.
Unfortunately the farmer, in his wisdom, seems to have put his cows in this field and they have trampled the path beyond recognition into a mire of sludge and muck. The cows all seemed to congregate at the gate as well which was our only route past, and given we had Marlow with us and the cows had young calves, we had to climb over a wall and trudge around the outskirts before trying to haul ourselves back over on to the path again. We seen other people struggling with the detour as well, who obviously weren't keen on walking through a herd of calving mothers. This detour took us about 30 minutes, which isn't much in the grand scheme of things, but when we were already pushed for time it was the last thing we needed.
Back on the clearer path we ploughed on to the crossroads, where we met some lovely tourists also doing the West Highland Way. The road forks here and if you head down the hill it's a quarter mile detour to Crianlarich or you can head up into the forest and on to Tyndrum. It was now 6pm and with out misguided optimism still intact we decided to head on to Tyndrum. Given that when you're in the car it seems like no distance at all, then we figured we may as well just get it done. Decision made we set off up the hill.
The track takes you from the beautiful clearing where you can see the surrounding snow topped mountains, into Ewich Forest. Now I have never really been a fan of forests anyways after growing up in fairly treeless Shetland, but after this walk, it was confirmed...........I 100% am not a fan!!
The walk started off fairly well, with the track meandering up and down through the forest, and the sound of cars on the nearby road giving comfort that we wouldn't be on this path for long. How wrong we were! Now I'm not sure if it was because we were tired or because we had already had a long day, or because Fiona was struggling with a knee injury, but the going was slow and the track seemed to go deeper and deeper into the forest. Again we passed a few tents along the route, filled with people more sensible, or maybe just more organised than us. But we ploughed on.
Both of us were hungry, but we promised ourselves a stop once we got clear of the forest. With the cars still whizzing along close by we just kept hoping we couldn't be far away from where the West Highland Way crosses to the other side of the road. It may have seemed like a lifetime we were in the forest, but looking back it was just 90 minutes!! I put it down to a combination of factors, but now thing I am sure of.........I won't be taking a walk back through that forest again any time soon.
We stopped at the viaduct at the end of the forest track before crossing the road, and had a well deserved break. Snacks, water, painkillers and feet taken care of and with the sun already set and the sky getting darker it was time to make our way the final few miless to Tyndrum.
We walked the final section in the pitch black once again, but eventually we seen the bright lights of Tyndrum and we knew we were almost done for the day. We decided to pitch our tent at the first campsite we stumbled across, and it was about 10pm before we were all tucked up for the night. All 3 of us were shattered and Marlow looked like he couldn't wait to sleep for the night either.
Tent pitched, and day 3 done it was time to call it a night.
Day 4 - Tyndrum to Inveroran (9.3 miles)
We woke to the sound of rain on our tent, and despite our best efforts of just lying a little bit longer in the hope that it went off, it didn't happen.
Reluctantly we got up and packed away our limited belongings and tent, which is never as fun in the rain, and donned our wet weather gear before setting off. We decided to head for the nearest hotel for breakfast, a must, given that we had missed dinner the night before. We made our way the short distance to the Tyndrum Hotel, which was serving breakfast and was dog friendly too. Due to the heavy rain we were already soaked through, and our waterproofs were working hard.
Despite only having them on for a short time, breakfast was the perfect excuse to get all of our wet gear off and dry out whilst having a full Scottish fry up. Just what we needed to set us up for the day.
Stomachs full and gear dried off on the various heaters in the hotel, it was time to get wrapped up and head back out. We discussed our options for the day and where we planned to stop for the night. Given the long days we had done since the start and with Fiona's injury becoming a cause for concern, we decided on a more "relaxing day" and agreed to walk the short distance of 7 miles to the Bridge of Orchy Hotel for lunch before we reassessed.
The rain was tipping down when we set off at the back of 11am from the Tyndrum Hotel. We walked up the small hill behind Tyndrum and headed towards the epic hills of Bridge of Orchy. The going was straightforward and despite the miserable weather our spirits were relatively high. Unfortunately going downhill caused major pain to Fionas already sore and taped up knee, and we paused in a sheep creep to discuss if she was able to continue. Thankfully she was and using walking sticks more like crutches we continued down to the glen. The cloud obscured any views of Ben Dorain, which is normally a dominant hill along this part of the trail, but it was shrouded with cloud. However it didn't dampen our spirits and we plodded on along the fairly straightforward path which didn't have many ups and downs and snaked around the sides of the epic hills around us.
Due to the thick cloud and heavy rain, it was difficult to see how far we had came of where the path ended. The track started to follow the the railway line, with the path getting ever closer to it, so we knew we must be near the Bridge of Orchy train station. Thankfully the station came into view and we knew before long we would be sitting in the hotel bar with a hot drink and out of our wet weather gear.
We hobbled down to the hotel and immediately got out of our wet stuff and placed it on every available heater before ordering plenty of water, tea and bowls of soup. We were cold and wet and tired and were glad of the heat and the break. Feeling tired and achy we decided to make it a shorter day and opted to end our day at Inveroran which at only another 2.3 miles away would make this our shortest day to date. We met some fellow West Highland Wayers in the hotel bar and enjoyed our extended break whilst having a laugh over our warm bowls of soup. It was nice to hear that everyone had the same aches and pains and moans as us. It gave us some comfort in how we were feeling.
Stomachs full and spirits lifted with the banter we decided we better make a move and head on to our final stop of the day.
We left the hotel after 6pm and made our way over the bridge. After a short distance we were back on the track which takes you up through a small forest before opening up to a viewpoint which gives amazing views over the Loch Tulla and the surrounding hills and shows the lonely Inverornan Hotel nestled solitarily in the glen. Given the challenges the previous days had held, we were glad to see the end in sight, and in daylight as well. A first for us on this trip!!
We wandered down to the hotel belting out power ballads as had become customary on our walk. It lifted our spirits and distracted us from any pain we were in. Despite it only being 2 hours since we left the Bridge of Orchy and not really being hungry we headed in for another bowl of soup and ended up having more chat with fellow walkers. Before long our hopes of an early night were long gone and we yet again ended up pitching our tent in the dark.
Relaxed and feeling positive we set our alarms early and got our heads down for the night.
Day 5 - Inveroran to Kinlochleven (19 miles)
Realising we had to get up earlier if we wanted to avoid walking in the dark, we were up and having an early breakfast of porridge pots and cereal bars before setting off just after 8am. It was one of those beautiful crisp/cold days with soft skies and we were excited to be heading towards Glencoe. Despite never having walked this route before, we were both looking forward to being somewhere so familiar to us and also meant we were a day closer to finishing.
We walked past a few tents en route, but none we recognised as anyone we had seen on the walk. Given the time of year, the West Highland Way wasn't quite full of people as it is in the summer months, and due to this we had struck up friendships with the handful of people who were walking it at this time of year. We would pass them, then they would pass us, but inevitably we always ending up at the same starting and finishing point. It was good camaraderie and was always nice to bump into everyone at the end of the day and share stories of our mishaps.
Not long after setting off we reached the Drove Road to Glencoe, initially heading through the forest, it eventually opened up to the beautiful Rannoch Moor which was made even more incredible given the snow capped hills surrounding it. The track is fairly straightforward from here and leads along parallel to the A82 road which runs the length of Glen Coe.
After about 3 hours of walking, Buachaille Etvie Mor began to appear on the horizon. It was a welcome sight as we knew we weren't far from our self designated 'half way point'. The path leads you further down towards the ski centre and a short detour here would take you to the Mountain Cafe for a well deserved break. In our wisdom we decided to crack on, thinking Kinlochleven was just a short, hop, skip and a jump over the infamous Devils Staircase. A few pictures taken at Black Rock Cottage we spotted a storm heading our way down the glen, so we took the opportunity to quickly get kitted up and put on some extra layers and waterproofs. We couldn't have timed it better.......as soon as we were sorted the heavens opened. Not just with rain, an actual blizzard. We ploughed on to the Kingshouse Hotel, or what was left of it. Due to some regeneration, it was all but a building site. Such a shame as it would have been a welcome stop given the weather.
The weather eased for about 2 minutes and then it was back with full force again. It was a total whiteout with the snow coming in sideways. This meant it was time to get our heads down and stride it out and time for Marlow to go into his rucksack to keep him warm. The weather continued for what seemed like a lifetime, but thankfully before we reached the foot of the Buachaille it had stopped completely and the sun was shining once more.
We paused on the bench in the car park and had some food and water before we took on the Devils Staircase. Now in almost every walk report for the West Highland Way, the Devils Staircase makes an appearance as some torturous hill to be endured and one of the toughest parts of the walk. So we were slightly apprehensive as we set off.
Now I am not sure if it is because I'm used to climbing munros or because it has been built up to something epic in everything I had read, but I found it to be relatively straightforward. The path zig zags up, which eased the gradient, and the views behind to Buachaille Etvie Mor were enough to keep us distracted. Before we knew it we were at the top, and at 550 metres it was also the highest point of the walk. It had only taken us 45 minutes, so we were excited at the prospect of yet again being finished early. We just had the short walk to Kinlochleven to go, so should be done in no time!
This was another moment of misguided and misinformed optimism. Now I'm not sure why every guide talks about the Devils Staircase and seem to omit the next part of the journey, but the descent to Kinlochleven is the real hell they should be telling you about. So let me enlighten you.........the descent is a good track which leads down into the Glen, after only a short time you can even see Kinlochleven nestled in between the hills. It looks so close and it falsely gives you hope that you will reach it in no time! You won't!! The walk down goes on and on and on and on and on and on. You get the idea. It makes you want to go uphill again, just to ease the pressure off your legs and knees. Given Fiona was suffering a knee injury as well, it just seemed to make it worse, but she was a trouper and carried on with her crutch style waking sticks. Our feet were sore and our backs achy and we were tired and hungry. We decided not to stop for a break, as Kinlochleven seemed, "just around the corner" every time and we just wanted it done!!
After what seemed like a lifetime of seeing Kinlochleven and umpteen twists and turns in the road we eventually hobbled into the village just after 6pm. It had taken us the best part of 3 hours and we had felt EVERY. SINGLE. MINUTE! I managed to capture a snap shot of our faces when we arrived and it couldn't have summed it up better.
We were planning on pitching our tent in the first campsite we stumbled across but being cold, wet and tired and our waterproofs still being soaked from the snow earlier, we opted for a camping pod in order that we could try and dry out some of our kit. It was such a relief to not have to pitch a tent and unpack bags. We quickly changed into our flip flops (a must for this walk) and set off for some dinner.
We headed into the only chippie in the village and had the best food of the trip, possibly even the best chippie of my life. I ordered a pizza crunch supper with curry sauce and Fiona had the fish and chips, all washed down with cans of Irn Bru. Absolute perfection. Now I'm not sure if the women serving felt sorry for us, but the portions were huge. We sat and enjoyed our diner before heading back to our pod for a well earned sleep with heating. Only 1 more day to go!!!
Day 6 - Kinlochleven to Fort William (15 miles)
We woke to a beautiful morning in Kinlochleven. The sun was shining. We were warm and we had slept well. Our feet were swollen and sore and and taping them up and putting on our boots had almost become a welcome relief from the pain.
We set off after 9am and headed along the road to the hill climb out of the village. Again this is steep but given what we had endured yesterday it was a welcome change and yet again the views at the top made it worth it.
The path soon levels out and you are on the Lairigmor road. The path is excellent walking and meanders through the glen with big hulks of hills on either side. It really is a fantastic part of the walk. After about an hour you walk past the infamous ruin of Lairigmor and you can only imagine what life must have been like living here through cold, harsh winters. Stob Ban rises impressively behind the ruin as you pass.
After another hour of walking and with the sun still shining we took a short break for some snacks and to just take it all in. Our feet were holding up well and we were beginning to feel almost comfortable in our boots.
Before we knew it we were staring at the massive hulk of Ben Nevis on the horizon. The feeling of happiness that the end was in sight was amazing!! But we still had a good way to go, well 5 miles to be exact. The path continues fairly easily along some forest tracks with a few ups and downs but nothing that proved difficult or challenging. We even seen some eagles hovering above. Its the little things that keep you entertained!
Finally we reached the main track into Glen Nevis and it was all down hill from here. Ben Nevis looms overhead and I applaud people who go on to tackle it on their last day. This time it wasn't for us!
It didn't take us long to reach Glen Nevis and then we just had the short section of footpath to cover before we reached the centre of Fort William.
Now I'm not sure if its because we now no longer had any pretty views to distract us or that it was a busy bit of road, but this definitely was my least favourite part of the walk. I felt every single footstep on that path, and every single step hurt!! But we were near the end, so it was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.
Eventually we reached the original finish to the West Highland Way and knew we were just a short walk through the town centre to the finish. Finally the Sore Feet monument was in front of us and at 4.30pm on Thursday 29th March 2018, me, Fiona and Marlow completed the West Highland Way.
What followed was hugs and high fives and plenty of pictures at the finish line!! It had been a tough few days but full of laughs, power ballads and camaraderie that words can't really do justice.
I highly recommend doing the West Highland Way, but I also recommend you do some training, plan well and be prepared. Three things we didn't do, but we enjoyed, almost, every second nonetheless.