Doing Things the West Highland Way

This summer’s big adventure, the equivalent of last year’s two-month-long hike, was a one week hiking/camping expedition along the West Highland Way in Scotland. The distance was significantly down on last year’s 1100km, but the addition of camping/cooking gear and time constraints meant that pace and pack weight was up, producing its own set of twists and challenges. This is less a story of the experience, although there is some of that, but more a review of the trail.

The trail departs from Milngavie, a sleepy suburban village on the outskirts of Glasgow. The first thing to know, is that it’s not actually called Milngavie. Not up here in Scotland. You may be in an English-speaking country, but the place names here are taken from a language that predates Shakespeare, and words are not pronounced as they sound. More than that, tell the bus driver that you want to go to Milngavie, and in a way more typically associated with the French, he’ll refuse to understand, pretending that he’s never heard a tourist mispronounce the name in such a way. It’s actually pronounced Miln-guy.

Miln-guy is a nondescript place, notable for one reason and one reason alone, and that is as the West Highland Way [WHW] starting point. The local council knows this, and so the middle of the central square of the town is taken up by an obelisk with the words “West Highland Way” engraved on it. For the particularly hard-of-understanding, the same words are also wrought in cast-iron over a gate which leads, rather unpromisingly, to a pub car-park. This does nothing to dispel national Scottish stereotypes, although I’m not sure the Scottish would want them dispelled, so that’s ok.

I should point out at this point that our guide to the route was a print-out of the step-by-step description from the official WHW website. Divided into stages, with distances, directions and landmarks to navigate by along the way highlighted, on the face of it this seems to be an easy enough way to conquer the route, and in parts, it is. In other parts however, all too often, it feels like the undoubtedly stunning views were being made to work extra hard to compensate for poor trail planning. The problem begins with the fact that some of the distances listed are incorrect. The section from Rowardennan to Inversnaid, for example, was actually five kilometres longer than was written in the guide (as measured by GPS app). At the end of a planned 35km day, those extra five km make a whole lot of difference. Equally, the stage split is bizarre, with one fairly strenuous 16km stage across the windswept and midge-packed Rannoch Moor preceded by a 3km stroll, which is not one day’s worth of walking in anyone’s book. The permission to wild camp reduces the impact of this somewhat, because stages can be split in half, but it still feels like bad planning to reach such a situation where they have to be. Signage is also sparse in places, although if you follow the general rule of “if there’s no sign saying otherwise, walk straight ahead”, you should be alright. Again though, for what a wooden post with an arrow carved on it costs, it would save a lot of confusion.

The main trap on the way that is to be avoided, and which I can only believe has been done deliberately for local businesses, is the inclusion of Crianlarich on the print-out. The section guide makes it sound like Crianlarich is a short five-minute jaunt off the trail, for a decent place to find a camp-ground for the night. In reality, it’s more than a mile away, down a steep wooded section which you’ll have to climb again first thing next morning to rejoin the trail. Worse than that, arriving in Crianlarich, you quickly find that there is no campsite, but only a youth hostel. By this point, having walked all that way downhill, constantly convinced that the village must be around the next corner, you’ll cave in and spend the night at the hostel, for more than twice what the campsite would have cost you. To rejoin the trail the next day, as mentioned, you have to either climb back up, or walk along the busy A-road for 4km until the trail crosses it. The hostel will tell you that it’s impossible and suicidal to walk along the road, but there’s actually a path for large parts of it, and a wide grassy verge for the rest, so it’s not a problem.

Those are the main complaints about the WHW, and alongside those, I should point out that there is a lot to recommend the trail, not least the ever-stunning Highlands scenery and the decent quantity of organised campsites and wild camping spots along the way. There are some beautiful scenic spots over Loch Lomond, with Doune Bay down at the lakeside, and a hill at the far side of the Loch (after Ardlui) particularly noteworthy. Further along the trail, the aforementioned 3km section also has a small peak with a stunning 360 degree panorama to the hills around before the path descends to the hotel at the end of the stage. The trail itself is also a good blend of challenging and easygoing, and there were people of varying ages and fitness levels on it, which is always a good sign. On the whole, it’s a good trail, with average (at best) planning letting it down.

Afternote: For those with the time, the trail ends at Fort William, by Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain at 1,344m. On a nice day, the walk itself is a simple one, with a clear trail leading the whole way up. Beware bad weather though, because when it gets bad, it gets very bad. When we climbed it there was zero visibility from about half an hour up, with driving wind and rain, and temperatures at the summit flirting around the freezing point. We basically climbed it just so that we could say that we had, then raced back down to the warmth of the hostel.

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-The Wandering Jew-


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