In the Scottish Highlands, a hiking dream come true
The West Highland Way passes through the ruins of a stone house, Tigh-na-sleubhaich, between Kinlochleven and Fort William. (Kathryn Streeter / The Washington Post)
Years ago when our kids were in preschool, my husband and I had what seemed like a wild pipe dream: Once a year we would go on a multi-day hike as a couple. It turns out that was a crazy pipe dream. At least at the time. But last year, as empty nests, we decided to finally make it happen, despite the additional challenges posed by the pandemic.
Several months ago, however, we felt an openness when booking flights to the UK, where our young adult children live. We got to know the island country, a relationship that began a long time ago when we lived there as a family. While aware of the many trails across the country offering cozy inns and warm beds along the way, we never had the chance to hike it.
This time, however, my husband and I plotted to disappear for four days to make that old dream of hiking come true. We chose the legendary West Highland Way, which stretches from Milngavie to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands, and pledged to travel the northern half of the approximately 100 mile trail known for its spectacular scenery.
This would be our first hike, stopping each night and continuing in the same direction the next morning. We are also committed to carrying whatever we need on our backs rather than using a baggage transfer service. Having the right gear was essential, and REI helped me adjust my backpack so I wasn’t overloaded. In planning our dates and possible route, we relied heavily on the recommended route to lock in accommodation for the nearly 45 miles of hike.
So, on a beautiful day in mid-September, with a little nervous energy, we started, arriving in Tyndrum by train. We had read that after Tyndrum you couldn’t buy 45km groceries, and my husband bought dozens of energy bars from a nearby convenience store to add to my stash of apricots and almonds.
Without any fanfare, we started the iconic trail marked with its iconic thistle-like symbol, Scotland’s national flower, walking seven miles along the relatively flat path to Orchy Bridge. The countryside was hilly and we occasionally passed herds of grazing sheep which, alarmed, raised their eyes and stared at us suspiciously. A brief encounter with a group of Highland cattle was the only time we stopped. At the foot of a bridge, a farmer waving his arms vigorously shouted something about moving his cows and told us to take a step back, explaining, “They are finicky! tapping us with our thumbs to move away towards a stone wall. The herd roared on the narrow bridge we had crossed a few moments earlier.
The West Highland Way is well identified with its signature symbol. (Kathryn Streeter / The Washington Post)
Highland cattle grazing and rolling green hills are a familiar scene along the West Highland Way, a 96 mile hiking route in Scotland. (Kathryn Streeter / The Washington Post)
Our hotel glistened in the sun along a sleepy stretch of the A82, a welcome sight with picnic tables strewn out front and people having drinks and soaking up what was left of an exceptionally enjoyable day. The Inveroran hotel is where the official itinerary suggests stopping, but since it was full, we ended up at the Bridge of Orchy hotel. The hikers bustled about, stretching their hamstrings and doing quick kicks to relax, while others sat serenely and sipped beers. We were distracted by swarms of midges, or were they the notorious midges of the region? With sufficient satisfaction, I pulled out the repellant we had brought as part of our prep plan.
The author and her husband stayed at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, 7 miles on foot from Tyndrum. (Kathryn Streeter / The Washington Post)
At the insistence of the hotel, we had made reservations for dinner and breakfast which our other accommodations also recommended. Because there are few places to stay along the trail, hotels should plan and space out dinners. Feeling festive, we shared a bottle of wine at dinner to toast on our successful first day. When I asked our server, Ramona from Austria, if we had been visited by midges on the patio a few hours before, she hesitated, saying it was the end of the season and they would have left in a few days because of the cool temperatures. The identity of the bugs would remain unclear, but Ramona’s insight may explain why we never had a reason to use the spray again.
Stuffed with a full Scottish breakfast of bacon, sausage, eggs, black pudding, potato scone, mushrooms and roasted tomatoes, we left at 9am with our lunches in pre-ordered bag, another aspect of life on the trail that we quickly internalized. The 13 miles or so of the Kingshouse Hotel, an isolated group of structures about 12 miles east of Glencoe, traversed old military roads and “roads” – roads once used by the Highlanders to drive cattle and cattle. sheep at the market – in the vast marshy desert of Rannoch Moor, as seen in the series “Outlander”. We chatted with a solo walking Oxford woman who was exuberant over the stunning scenery. She said we should strive to be the slowest hikers, not the fastest, to appreciate the rugged beauty. And we did, stopping often to take photos and revel in the unspoiled and haunting expanse.
Wispy clouds hovered over giant boulders and random little hills that punctuated the eerie landscape, so desolate and wild. An intermittent drizzle added to the mystical setting, and we stopped to put on another layer and attach rain covers to our backpacks. Despite our obstructed visibility, the path was easy to follow and luckily there was no need to use the compass we brought.
We spotted Glencoe Ski Resort in the distance as we approached the Kingshouse Hotel. Floor to ceiling windows in the living room offered a view of one of Scotland’s famous Munros, which my husband joked about looking like a giant Hershey’s kiss. The towering Buachaille Etive Mor, translated as “the great shepherd of Etive”, anchors Glen Etive to one side with the lonely single lane road made famous in the James Bond film “Skyfall”. On the other side is Glencoe, site of the 1692 MacDonald Clan Massacre, in which neighboring Clan Campbell, acting under the orders of the crown, brutally slaughtered 38 fellow Highlanders.
It was once a small secluded outpost for hikers, but today the luxury hotel spoils you, though it also offers a shabby-chic dormitory and facilities for those camping nearby. In the hotel’s main bathroom, I ran into a woman wiping her face and heading to the camp for the night. (In Scotland you are allowed to camp almost anywhere, even on hotel grounds; this is called “wild camping.”)
We moved forward as a loose community of backpackers, and a comfortable pace ensued. During the morning rush, we met up for breakfast with other hikers who were starting out bit by bit, ending up dotting the trail. When things got steep this is where we all ended up crammed in, as we did the next day on our way up the Devil’s Staircase on our nine mile hike to Kinlochleven. The climb slowed everyone down, many stopping to catch their breath. At the top, we were surrounded by dozens of hikers. I smelled coffee and noticed a group of happy guys gathered around a small pull-out stove making some.
The author’s husband stands on a rocky ridge above Kinlochleven overlooking Loch Leven on the way to Fort William. (Kathryn Streeter / The Washington Post)
Brief, friendly exchanges between hikers were the norm as we would inevitably pass each other. For example, we passed a fast-firing German speaking father-son duo taking a break, only to be caught when we came to a stop. These exchanges boiled down to remarks about the track or the conditions of the day or, in many cases, a nod, a growl or a quick “cheerio” or “hiya”.
After the dam above Kinlochleven we descended through the trees into the town of Loch Leven. We had time for a happy hour drink at Bothy Bar on the lake while waiting to check in to our guest room. Stephen, who runs the Immaculate Bank House with his wife, Jayne, greeted us. The guesthouse occupies the town’s original bank and is one of the few brick buildings in town.
We got up early for our last and longest day. The forecast promised constant drizzle and we revised our 15 mile route using the Strava and Komoot apps. Stephen walked around serving breakfast in his apron with the inscription “A balanced diet is a glass of wine in each hand” and assured us that after the first climb it would be easy. to live. He was right, but so were the forecasts; it was the sloppiest day we have experienced. At midday, we huddled hilariously against a mossy embankment for lunch. A passing hiker pointed towards Scotland’s highest peak, Ben Nevis, surrounded by clouds: “Who am I thinking? This time, we had not seen the great mountain, except for its base. Fields of rosebay willow grass, sculptural and misty pink, add a touch of color to the otherwise gray day.
When we entered Fort William the trail signage disappeared. Using maps on our phones, we found our way to where the trail officially ends at the “Man with Sore Feet” statue. In a good mood but completely soaked, we faintly recognized a few other scruffy hikers. We agreed to take obligatory photos of each other near the statue before we part ways and seek shelter.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO:
What to do:
West Highland Trail
Carrochan, Carrochan Road, Balloch
This 96 mile trail officially begins in Milngavie and ends in Fort William, although it can be walked in either direction. No registration required. It is strongly recommended that you book overnight accommodation well in advance, as options are limited. West Highland Way offers passports which can be stamped at participating businesses. To free.