West Highland Way (Scotland)
Milngavie; the village north of Glasgow would be quite unknown, if it didn’t mark the start of the West Highland Way, Scotland’s oldest and best-known long-distance route. Every year, 50,000 hikers begin their march to Fort William from here, for which they plan to travel between 5 and 9 days. Past Loch Lomond, the largest lake in Scotland; Past Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain. Between history and legends: The cave of Rob Roy; The lost sword of Robert de Bruce; and the massacre of the Campbells.
West Highland Way
Whiskey and bagpipes – Scottish Lowland life
The start is easy to find: in the center of Milngavie, there are benches, signs, and a pillar – all with the inscription “West Highland Way” and the symbol of the path, looking like a white thistle. At first, the even path leads through the Mugdock Forest, passing yellow gorse and brown reed. A front yard with a fountain appears, and a sign “The Shire” emphasizes the atmosphere. The music of bagpipes reaches my ear – Scotland, wonderful!
The Glengoyne distillery is a must, whiskey has been produced here for over 200 years. Hikers are welcome for a tasting: 10 years, 12 years, 15 years. Joyful, I leave the whiskey factory and meet a group of hikers who want to finish the journey in 4 days. A challenge? I’ll join in!
25-year-old Hamish from New Zealand seems sporty and experienced. He is just ahead, as the route divides: on the left flat through the Lowlands, on the right steeper ground over the Conic Hill. We opt for the second option. No rain, possibly a good view – we do not want to miss that chance.
From here, I get my first impressions of the Highlands: Wide, and empty. From the hill on the other side, which has more browns than greens, a creek flows down into the valley. Some low shrubs grow. At the highest point, we get a picture of Loch Lomond, the lake in front of us. The clouds are low, but a single ray of sun fights its way through and paints a small, bright circle upon the blue.
A two kilometer walk through a birch forest at sunset and we reach the campground Sallochy Bay. Lucas, the Canadian with the stature of a rugby player, looks tired – his backpack did not sit properly, made the hiking strenuous.
Rob Roy: Cattle thief or Robin Hood?
Three days to go; which means 38 kilometers per day; which means getting up at 6:30. After a coffee we set out and walk through a forest area. The mossy remains of a house bears witness to past times. On the ground lies a carpet of red spruce needles, the fresh scent of trees wafts in the air.
Breakfast at the lake. It starts to rain. I have a chocolate flapjack; the group has prepared porridge with dried berries. 30 minutes later, we get back to the road – and the rain stops.
We are slower than on the previous day. Yolanda fights with blisters, a side effect of borrowed shoes. Each break is used by the sporty Canadian to cool her feet in streams or in the lake. Shortly afterwards, we reach a supply point for West Highland Way hikers: for a donation of 1 British pound, there are homemade biscuits, Scottish Tablet (consisting of sugar, butter and milk) and bananas.
Apparently, we are now on the most difficult passage of the trail – hands are used to climb over rocks. The cave of Rob Roy, an outlawed cattle dealer and the Scottish Robin Hood, is off the beaten path. It takes another climb, until I see the word CAVE painted with chalk on a stone: I would not have found his hiding place without the marking.
After this, the stony path turns into a walking trail which takes us away from the lake. Passing some goats, who are watching us suspiciously, we arrive at the Beinglas Farm Campsite – from here a visit of the famous Drover’s Inn would be possible. However, we decided to camp wild, the cheaper and more comfortable option.
Robert de Bruce: A king without a sword
We struggle past ankle-deep mud, before we reach the signpost to Crianlarich, the middle of the West Highland Way. After that, the trail becomes easier: Between trees, moss and green, a beautiful result of the ever-changing weather, which we have experienced as well in the last few days. We cross the expressway and are awaited by the ruins of St. Fillans Abbey. In its cemetery, oblique gravestones covered with moss are greeting us, evanescent, not forgotten.
Dalrigh. Small village, great events: 700 years ago, Robert de Bruce and his troops were attacked by the McDougall’s clan. The later king of Scotland was unprepared and had to flee quickly, so he sank his heavy sword into the pond – where it still lies, guarded by the Lady of the Lake.
In Tyndrum, we take a break, using the few sunbeams after a rain shower. A short snack, then we follow the old military road and meet the first highland cows. They are standing contented in the middle of the path blocking our way. Dan, also from Canada, pushes the hindquarters of the long-haired animals aside and we can pass.
We reach Bridge of Orchy. The hotel there advertises its open fireplace, as well as a selection of craft beers and malt whiskeys – a pleasant idea, but our goal today is not yet reached. We drag on, Lucas, Dan, Yolanda, Hamish and I. Painful knees and feet, broken shoes … But all this is forgotten when we reach the highest point of this section: on the one side, a small bright square appears in the dense gray clouds. On the other side, the sky is almost clear, a lake looks lonely in the sparse vegetation of the highland hills.
The evening comes with beer, food and a card game in the restaurant … Happy!
Easter in the highlands: chocolate bunnies and devil stairs
We wake up in the rain. Fortunately, it only takes 30 minutes, then we struggle through a snowstorm. An hour later, however, we make a short break under a dry sky. Yolanda appears grinning on a hill – it is Easter Sunday, she has hidden 4 chocolate bunnies for us. After the sweet surprise, the West Highland Way continues through one of Britain’s largest and wildest moors.
At noon, we warm ourselves on a coffee at Kings House. The 400-year-old building served as an accommodation for cattle drovers and British soldiers. In front of us lies Devil’s Staircase – an ascent whose name is worse than the path itself. It is a steep climb, nonetheless we reach the highest point only half an hour later.
Along the mountain Stob Mhic Mhartuin. We can enjoy a view of the Blackwater Reservoir, peacefully nestled between majestic mountain and hill panorama – ideal for a short break and one or two spirited memories of the Glengoyne distillery.
Some single sunrays present a rainbow, which leads us to Kinlochleven. Past the power plant and along five huge pipes through which the water of the lake is chased down. With this rushing energy aluminum is won in Fort William.
A suitable tent site is quickly found with friendly support from locals. Shortly after the village there is a forest, which offers many possibilities.
The Battle of Inverlochy – choose your site
The last 24 kilometers! We overcome the first ascent and follow a flat path. To appreciate the panorama of the highlands for the last time, we make a short rest, at the ruins of a house.
After this, a collection of stones attracts my interest: a memory of earlier times, an ambush of the Clan MacDonald on the clan of the Campbells. They fled and were pursued ruthlessly, to the place where the pile now lies. Travelers should add another rock if they are on the MacDonalds’ side, sympathizers of the Campbells should remove one. I take a stone, throw it far away – I do not like ambushes – and join up to my group.
A strong scent of wood and spruce needles is in the air, on both sides are trees. On the horizon, I can see Ben Nevis, at 1,345 meters the highest peak in Scotland. The peaceful atmosphere is overshadowed by the sound of heavy machines that rust the large areas of the forest for the wood industry. We continue, a little sad, until we can look down on Fort William an hour later.
The finish line to the “new end” of the West Highland Way leads through the tourist mile of the small town, the old one is before the first souvenir shops. Together we cross the finish line and a man of stone greets us, sitting still and thoughtfully on his bench. Yolanda conjures a bottle of champagne from somewhere. Happy and satisfied, the sore feet and knees are looking forward to some recovery.
The West Highland Way is very popular – and for a good reason. At first it is somewhat monotonous, but the surrounding gets more exciting every day. If you want to experience the fascinating emptiness of the highlands, you will love the way. You don’t like hiking alone? Do not worry, friends and companions are quickly found on the West Highland Way. If the backpack is too heavy, you can also arrange a luggage transfer on this route, which takes the heavy pieces from one accommodation to another.