The West Highland Way

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The Trek and Run Team backpacked around Scotland for three weeks in the summer of 2014. We were supported on our journey by the following companies, who provided the resources we needed to make the best of our time there.

To begin our Scottish adventure we travelled from London to Glasgow using the Scotrail Sleeper (find out more about this service here) and then onto Milarrochy Bay on the shores of Loch Lomond by local train and boat (Sweeney’s Cruises, find our more here). Once at Milarrochy Bay we began to walk the West Highland Way (not all of it, we missed out the first day’s walk from just north of Glasgow and started from Milarrochy Bay).

Before we left for the walk I tried to discover more about the essentials – where I’d find water, food and places to wild camp. The info I gathered wasn’t always sound, now I’ve done the walk I can see that. So here’s what I found out that might help you, based on my own experience.

Wild camping is easy. There are so many places that you can pick from. It’s totally legal and during the course of this 2-part article I’ll list where I camped. Don’t worry about this aspect of your walk, you will find wild camp spots easily. We also stayed in the following serviced campsites, click on the links to find our reviews to the sites;

As for fresh water, it’s everywhere (carry a 2 litre bottle and a water purifier and you’ll be fine)…

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…and food can be had at the shops in Balmaha, Tyndrum and Kinlochleven. The only one offering a good choice though is the Co-Op at Kinlochleven (turn left as the way hits the town and turns right, its 10 minutes away on the left) so my advice is to take a stove and meals that can be rehydrated.

Ok, now to the account of our own walk.

We left Milarrochy Bay Campsite after a relaxing 3 night stay and after a gentle couple of miles along the shore of Loch Lomond…

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…began what was to be a tough stretch to Inversnaid, 13 miles along a very up and down rocky path. Most of the way it was a single track cut into the hillside about 200 metres above the loch. It was much tougher than I’d been led to believe – this section along the shore of Loch Lomond is the toughest part of the entire walk, I’m 100% certain of that - and it was made worse by Lamia’s regular crying and whimpering.

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She’d been saying to me for months, even years, that she loved Harry Potter and how it would be a dream for her to see the scenery that the films had represented. So I’d arranged this three week Scottish trip for us, planning to be hiking much of the way so as to really get among the mountains. That’s what I do, you see. If somebody close to me – somebody like Lamia, my wife – expresses a wish to do something that I feel I can help make a reality then I’ll try my best to make it happen in the most complete way possible. Not the easiest possible way, but the best that my knowledge and my finances can allow.

We could of course have seen Scotland from a car but then we wouldn’t have felt it on our skin. It would just be an inferior sort of experience and feeling, the kind that regular holiday makers talk about to their regular friends over regular coffee. What would be the point of that when we had strong legs to carry us, I asked myself at the planning stage of the trip? Do I disrespect my wife’s wishes so deeply, do I want to do Scotland such an injustice so much, that’d I’d conjure up a completely substandard experience when an authentic, superior one was well within our capabilities?

Lamia wasn’t thinking the same way.

“Of course,” she said as she trudged along head down, “I said that thing about Harry Potter and seeing Scotland, but I says lots of things. It’s your job as a husband to separate what I say into things that are worth taking notice of and things which are worth ignoring.” Apparently I should have ignored the bit about seeing the scenery from Harry Potter. Unless my plan had involved a comfy car seat…

“It’s so boring,” she wailed. I chose this statement as one of the type of things I should ignore, or at least not respond to.

Lamia’s talk was typical of the young city dweller who’s been conned into believing that constant, varying but nearly always vacuous mental stimulation is necessary in order to experience a fulfilling life. It wasn’t fun listening to her cries, especially as the scenery and walking was so amazing, so I fell behind, far enough not to hear her, close enough to help if she got into trouble. I knew I couldn’t do anything to help Lamia so I reckoned I might as well just enjoy our walk as best I could. I was already carrying as much of our kit as I could manage – my pack simply had no space to fit anything more in – and we had seven more days to go; this was something she’d have to work out by herself.

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We broke camp by the lake in a well-used wild camp spot just past the Inversnaid Hotel. As I cooked dinner I glanced back into the tent and saw Lamia staring into space. Her eyes were vacant. In any other situation I’d have thought that maybe I should get her to hospital – this could be a sign of an oncoming fit or descent into serious illness – but I recognised only too well what was going on with her. This was a person making the transformation from the pampered, western, unsustainable, embarrassing lifestyle that most of us lead at one time of our lives to the sort of real life that we each need to experience in order to uncover the best of ourselves and to give the rest of the world a fighting chance of surviving our existence. It’s tough to change, I knew that, and there were no short cuts. All I could do was cook her a decent dinner, make a hot chocolate and ensure the tent was pegged firmly and flat, so as to aid a good night’s sleep.

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The midges were terrible and they were still there when I emerged at 7am although by 8.30, as we set off, they’d turned from biting annoyances to faeries flitting among backlit ferns. The campsite had been a good one, well located, huge (space for between 10 and 15 tents I reckon) and with magnificent views…

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…and it would have been great to have longer there, to enjoy the swimming and scenery. The 14 mile days that are mentioned on many West Highland Way blogs and websites are too long really when you take the severe terrain into account, unless you’re in a real rush to get back to work. The scenery around Loch Lomond is stunning and you should really take this section slowly, perhaps break it down to 7 mile days and aim to finish walking early each day and enjoy the wild camp spots fully.

The 7 miles onwards from Inversnaid to Inverarnan took us over 5 hours to complete as it was so up and down and always on a rocky path. Carrying a full pack, as most hikers would do, makes this section a real challenge.

Finding the route, however, was easy, as it and always was on the Way. We didn’t have a map and really didn’t need one either. In the photo below you can see the post to the right of Lamia with a yellow marker and arrow on it. You’ll find these all along the route of the West Highland Way and whenever there is any possible confusion about the way forward, there’ll be a marker there telling you the way. It might not always be as easily visible as the one in the photo below, but it will be there.

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Rob Roys cave is so noticeable that it has ‘CAVE’ written in huge white letters on it to pick it out from the other recesses thereabouts. As I considered whether it was worth the scramble there with my pack on (it wasn’t) a lake cruiser pulled in and I could hear it’s loudspeaker announcing to the tourists on board…

“…and on your right is Rob Roy’s Cave…walkers often shelter there in bad weather.” I couldn’t see that, to be honest, the cave was nothing special, I certainly wouldn’t risk scrambling over wet rocks to get to it for the little it could offer me. I’d rather get wet and keep my ankles intact. Here’s me on the main track; if you want to see the cave you have to go downhill and start clambering over rocks.

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The way forward was as beautiful as the weather was fine – there were 2 excellent beach wild camp spots en route – and after 7 miles the route became easier, so much so that the next 7 miles took just over 3 hours. Lamia only cried twice during this 14 miles and I saw this as a sign that either she was still in the state of shock from the exertion that I’d seen her in the previous evening or that her hiking abilities were improving and she was getting physically and mentally stronger.

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There was no wild campspot to be found after the 14 mile stretch as some online blogs had suggested, just a paid for campsite, so we pushed on the final 6 miles to Crianlarich. Lamia perked up as we passed cows and sheep, and when we spoke of how much good this walking was doing for her figure, and how she’d see the benefits when she was walking around Rome later in the year in her American Apparel clothes.

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Lamia did well to complete the distance and I let her know so. To walk 20 miles carrying a pack would test most people who didn’t hike regularly; I appreciated and admired her efforts. I was pretty tired myself towards the end of the hike.

And then we were at Crianlarich, or rather, above it, and had the choice of going down into the village and finding hostel accomodation or bearing left on the Way and hoping for a wild campspot to soon reveal itself. Which it did at the top of the first hill, where there was an almost flat path of ground, enough for a couple of tents, complete with picnic bench and wide view over mountain and valley.

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It was here whilst cooking dinner that I took time to consider the West Highland Way that was behind us. It had been pretty but was never going to be anybody’s favourite walk, unless they hadn’t done much else. Too much of it runs near to, or within earshot of, the A82, for it to be a classic. Photos can show a pristine mountain or a clear stream but they don’t record the constant hum and sometimes roar of cars and trains that make up the reality of this walk. Was it worth the while? Yes, just. For me. For Lamia the answer was no. She was travelling through the scenery she’d seen in her favorite films but she wasn’t really noticing it, she was in too much discomfort.

The next day we set off in rain and once again were rarely out of earshot of the A82. The route was flanked by nice enough conifer forests but there was nothing to see that most people in the UK couldn’t find within an hour or two of their own homes. The big difference was that Scotland has very advanced wild camping laws which the rest of the UK doesn’t, and for me that alone makes walking this route a different, and special, prospect for those who really love the outdoors. Which, it became clear, Lamia doesn’t, at least not when she’s walking through it with a big pack on.

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We reached Tyndrum quickly and walked onto the A82 for a few hundred metres. We passed a bus stop.

“Do you mind if I take the bus and meet you at Bridge of Orchy?” she said, in that voice that means I’m going to take the bus, whether you like it or not.

“Sure, no problem,” I replied, feeling depressed, betrayed and momentarily as if I could see a divorce very clearly in the near future. The bus was there, Lamia got on and I think she waved as it drove off although I wasn’t sure as I was just so full of a mixture of feelings; angry that she was going, sad too, but also glad to see the back of her so I could be free of her sadness for a while. I waved and smiled as I felt I should do and as soon as the bus was out of sight I swore at her in my head.

“What a bitch!” I thought. “When the going gets even slightly tough, she leaves me! What’s going to happen when we have real problems in life? Money problems, job problems, or when we’re just working too hard to notice each other for a while! What’s going to happen when she gets flattered by some guy at Uni or work who’s got time to kill and she find she’s in a dilemma, the same dilemma that most of us face as some point, of scooting off to where the grass is greener or of returning to battle it out at home because what you have is worth something? I know the walk is tough at times but the rewards on offer are surely easy to see, and to leave me here, on my own, when the main reason I’m here is to help fullfil her dreams, I just don’t get it. I love all this walking and I want to experience it with somebody but if I’ve got to see it on my own I’m not going to pretend it’s ok. This pretending that we’re together as much as I want us to be is such a stupid facade…”

The bad feeling was to hang over us for months afterwards. I just couldn’t shake it. I did this for you, Lamia, I’d say, and you left me alone when you got a bit uncomfortable. Of course, I could have quit as you did but I don’t do that, you know me well enough to understand that I don’t quit. I run races that are too tough for my ability all the time but I have never had a ‘Did Not Finish’ against my name and never will, even if I have to crawl to the finish line with two broken legs. Tell me how I’ll I be able to trust you when life actually gets tough?

To be fair though, although I never quit at physical tasks I frequently do at mental ones. Whilst with Lamia I’ve learned now that it’s the other way round. So if we’d have been engaged in an 8-day crossword puzzle escapade I’m sure she would have shone and I’d have appeared hopeless.

The post office at Tynburn sold a few stale rolls and relatively high priced goods, you’d do well to carry all your food needs if you’re hiking this way. I pushed on past a small house that had amazing wood sculptures carved into treestumps.

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The rain fell. The route would have been magnificent in different circumstances but I was under the weather in more ways than one.

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I just had one thing on my mind, of getting to the wild camp spot that every blog had said was at Bridge of Orchy –  just 400 metres beyond the Inveroran Hotel – where I’d meet Lamia and close the door on this sorry day.

But there was no wild camp spot at Bridge of Orchy. Never has been. Why on earth people say there is beats me. The actual campspot, and the Inveroran Hotel, is 3 miles by road, or an hour over the hill on the Way, from Bridge of Orchy. This doesn’t sound much but if you’ve just hiked 13 miles and believe that you’re finished then find out you have to do 3 more, in the rain, it’s quite a big deal.  And that last hill, hiking it’s boggy path in the rain, well, it probably wasn’t the mist and rain that made it all seem pointless so much as the fact I was still angry and had thought for the past few hours that I’d be finished by the time I’d got to the Bridge of Orchy.

This is why I have always tried to be 100% honest with my travel writing and never, ever write about something unless I’ve actually done it myself, be it a hike or a marathon. It’s so important for me to get quality, honest information, it can be a life saver in more dangerous situations, so I naturally assume that it’s important for everybody and that I should give it to them. You might think this is obvious, that if you’re going to write about a walk then you should do it yourself first, but judging by the amount of writers who said the wild campspot is at the Bridge of Orchy, or who made so many other factual errors about the route that had nothing to do with time of year or weather conditions and everything to do with having no experience of what they’re talking about, this is clearly not the case. It makes it so tough for you, the hiker and reader; who do you trust? There’s so few real travel writers left nowadays who aren’t just researching everything from their office in the spare bedroom, but how do you distinguish those from the real ones? Sadly, apart from delving into their personal history further than you have time to do, there’s no easy answer to that.

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The Inveroran Hotel is famous for its remote location and its live music and dance. But so many pubs in Kent – where I come from – are also famous for live get-together’s so I wasn’t looking to experience that; I just filled up our water containers outside (the pubs on the Way always have taps outside for hikers usage) popped my head in and beckoned for Lamia to come out. I didn’t want to spend any time there pretending that we were the happy couple, I just wanted to pitch camp and cook dinner.

The wild camp spot was busy with people camping out of their car. A young local guy said something utterly unintelligible to me as we arrived, I asked him to repeat but he still didn’t make any sense so I said,

“Sorry mate, really I am, but I’ve just walked 16 miles, it’s pissing down and I’m pitching my tent right over there, I hope that’s ok?” He didn’t say anything so I just went ahead and did it.

It was actually a lovely spot by a bend in the river and there was space for at least 20 tents. Given the right weather (and a happier atmosphere in the tent) it would have been idyllic. But you could say that for all of Scotland really, it really is a beautiful place with an authentic, friendly feeling running all the way through it.

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The next day Lamia retraced her steps to the Bridge of Orchy to catch the bus onwards. I went forward alone to take on Rannoch Moor.

I’d read that Rannoch Moor was a dangerous place, that you should take care in bad weather, that the way forward wasn’t always clear and if you strayed off the path onto the moor itself, well, don’t even think about it, people have died there. Far better to turn back, many online writers said, than consider going forward across the moor in bad weather.

Honestly, I have no idea what these bloggers and guide writers are on about at times. This was another case of somebody writing about a place having never been there. The way forward over Rannoch Moor was easy. Incredibly easy. The path was over a metre wide, it was an old drovers road…

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…and all of it was hard stone and of a very different feel underfoot than the spongy moor and long grass that surrounded it. Even in a complete white-out you’d have to be a moron to step off of it. It is one of the clearest paths forward I have ever trodden, anywhere in the world.

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Not that if there was a complete white-out you’d want to walk this route, as if you did then you’d miss out on all the beauty. There were fine, far reaching views to be enjoyed in every direction even though the clouds were grey, a strong wind blew and rain refreshed me (the BBC weather forecast had been for no rain although it has to be said, not once during our 3 weeks in Scotland was the BBC forecast correct, you just have to expect all weather when you’re hiking there). Lakes, rivers and an immense sense of space, it was all there and I loved this section of the West Highland Way perhaps more than any other. It was such a shame that Lamia wasn’t there to enjoy it with me. There was no unnatural noise, the going was easy and my advice to any walkers is to take your time over this section if you value a wilderness experience.

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You can see perfectly well in the photo below how distinct the path is from the surrounding landscape. If by chance you were walking the route in very, very heavy weather then if the path is hard, good, but if it becomes soft stop, retrace your steps and reset your course.

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There were 2 or 3 wild camp spots right beside the path, the first before you get onto the moor properly and the other’s clearly visible mid-way across. To camp here and soak up the silence – and the views that are reminiscent of those you’d find around Burnmoor Tarn and Sca Fell in the Lakes – that would be something very great indeed. Here’s the first wild camp spot you come to.

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The wind got up as I came down the hill to Kingshouse. Here the path isn’t quite as clear – you could drive a 4×4 over the rest of the path but here you’d have to walk it – although you’d still be hard pushed to miss it…

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The wind was so strong that it whipped off my rucksack’s rain cover. The sky looked threatening so I called Lamia out of the Kingshouse pub to help me set up camp straight away. It was a great spot, sheltered from the strongest winds by the pub and on flat ground by the river where ducks waddled and red deer wandered.

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We enjoyed an afternoon relaxing (the Rannock Moor 10 mile section had been so easy I’d covered it in 3 hours, and that was including several lengthy photo stops), watching the deer drinking and nibbling at the grass, eating our dinner, loving the feeling of doing nothing. Lamia was happy now she was seeing Scotland whilst being sheltered by bus and pub windows and I too was glad for once to put my feet up. The online guides warned that the next day I had to take on ‘The Devil’s Staircase’, apparently the toughest part of the West Highland Way, so although I’d learnt on Rannoch Moor that most of the online guides must have been written by inexperienced people I thought it was wise to store up some energy. I didn’t know then, but I was going to need it sooner than I thought. The wind grew as night closed, the tail end of a North American hurricane was coming for us and our little Robens tent, and it was going to make sure that we got no sleep at all.

Part 2 to follow…

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