The West Highland Way – Part 1

The guide book had sat in a draw in my study for nearly 12 years, it was out of date and I was 12 years nearer to my grave. What had I been waiting for? I had better get a wriggle on and go and hike that darn West Highland Way before it was too late!

Buachaille Etive Mòr

The West Highland Way is a linear long-distance route in Scotland. It is 96 miles or 154 km long, running from Milngavie north of Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. My wife and I decided we were finally going to tackle it as a traditional through hike.

A through hike that is with the added luxury of staying in inns, pubs, lodges and hotels along the way and with your heavy luggage being transported onward for you each day to the next destination. Still it was a big undertaking which would span across 8 days incorporating an elevation gain/loss of 3,155 metres (10,351 ft) and included tackling the infamous Devil’s Staircase in Glencoe.

But we were looking forward to immersing ourselves in the spectacular landscape of the Highlands, from tranquil lochs and lush glens to the towering mountains and rushing rivers. From walking along the “bonnie banks” of Loch Lomond, to completing the trail in the shadow of Ben Nevis, the trail would be a true bucket-list experience! 

Having flown up to Glasgow we caught a train to Milngavie. Torrential rain greeted us as we arrived on the platform at Milngavie Station. A portent of things to come? We hoped not!

That evening in Glasgow while eating our dinner the news flashed up that The Queen had passed away. The world around us was about to turn into an historical news story for the next ten days or so but for us we were about to be cocooned in our own little bubble on the trail almost oblivious to what was happening anywhere else in the world.

The Start in Milngavie of The West Highland Way

The West Highland Way – Stage 1: MIlngavie to Drymen – 12 miles/19.3km

Day 1 and the morning greeted us with light drizzle as we set off laiden with way too much equipment and supplies for the first twelve miles of the trail. Five minutes up the road we were stripping off with much cursing at how much gear we were carrying.

A wet start to the trail in Lennox

Milngavie to Drymen though is an easy introduction to the trail with the route running through the ancient earldom of Lennox between the Campsie Fells and Blane Water. The paths were good and we passed through some beautiful rural scenery. A must see detour took us slightly off route for a brief stop to enjoy the delights of The Glengoyne Distillery. After discovering that a wee dram was far too expensive for my uneducated palate we carried on back along the trail before briefly stopping at Gartness Bridge for a snack and a drink from one of the many ‘Honesty Boxes’ on the route.

Glengoyne Distillery

Whiskey barrels at the Glengoyne Distillery

After something around five hours we finally arrived at Drymen a bit dishevelled and tired where we found a pub and had a well earnt drink. That night we stayed at The Buchanan Arms Hotel, a grand old place that had seen better days but the welcome was warm and the bed soft and comfortable for weary and tired limbs. That evening we ate and drank at the atmospheric Clachan Inn, reputedly the oldest inn in Scotland dating from around 1734.

The West Highland Way – Stage 2: Drymen to Rowardennan – 14.5 miles/23.4km

Day 2 dawned and a whopping fourteen and a half miles lay ahead of us. We were to hike all the way from Drymen to Rowardennan along the banks of bonnie Loch Lomond.

On the way to Conic Hill

We left Drymen and walked through a forest plantation before tackling the feared ascent of Conic Hill which sits astride the Great Divide separating the highlands and lowlands of Scotland.

Conic Hill

The climb was steep but upon reaching the summit the views over Loch Lomond were sublime and worth the hard fought battle to get there. Loch Lomond interestingly is Britain’s largest body of freshwater and covers 27 square miles, it looked vast from my vantage point. After a brief respite we descended the steep and treacherous path back down towards Balmaha. A small group of West Highland cattle greeted us as we crept down, straddling the path they were not at all bothered by the masses of walkers and hikers forced to navigate precariously around them.

Loch Lomond from the top of Conic Hill

Balmaha sat tantalisingly close at the bottom of the slope nestling in a protected bay on the shores of the vast Loch. 

We stopped quickly for a wash and brush up in the village then left for the path along the shores of the loch conscious of the many miles still to cover. This part of the route is notoriously hard and many a word has been written about it over the years, none of them very inspiring.

The lochside paths

The path alternates between the loch shore, natural forest and headlands with numerous short steep climbs that decimate the knees. But the scenery was always outstanding and we were blessed with glorious weather. The loch glistened, the birds sang in the woods and all was good with the world.

Loch Lomond shore

But the distance combined with the torturously twisting path eventually took its toll and soon we we cursing every step we were forced to make, desperate to just make it to the end of the day. The lovely sunshine from earlier in the day had now also become our enemy as it beat down mercilessly upon us.

Loch Lomond

Loch Lomond from Rowardennan

After what seemed like an eternity we finally limped into Rowardennan after fifteen miles of knee busting torture. The Rowardennan Hotel was a welcome sight for a cold pint of cider sat overlooking the loch. Unfortunately it was short lived relief as we had to get a taxi back to Balmaha as there was no room at the inn (literally).

So a disheartening seven mile taxi ride retracing our steps was required to get us back to The Oak Tree Inn which we had passed only 4 hours earlier in Balmaha but which would be our eventual lodge for the night. We hoped and prayed that tomorrow would be an easier day.

Read more about our trip to ‘Bonnie Scotland’ in Part 2 of The West Highland coming soon ………

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