First-time walkers find exhilaration amid soggy Scottish paths
By LYNN DOMBEK | Associated Press | Published: July 27, 2017
Scotland has more than two dozen official long-distance trails through moors, peat bogs and forests. We chose one of the most popular, the West Highland Way.
As first-time walkers in Scotland, my companion and I used a travel company to plan our route, book accommodations and arrange baggage transfers. But we met others who used baggage services and booked their own lodging, along with folks who camped out.
Like the wildly variable Scottish landscape, there’s no end of ways to enjoy the walks.
Walkers we met were a disparate bunch: young Swiss backpackers; mountaineers from Virginia; a Swedish woman with teenage daughters; a Scottish couple out to see more of their own country; an extended family from England ages 16 to 50; and a Louisiana couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. We were mid-50s professionals out for adventure.
We took lots of walks at home to get ready. Knowing June could be rainy and cold, we tested gear beforehand. Our essentials were good boots, breathable rain jackets, rain pants or shorts, and wool or suitable base layers (no cotton!).
A runner recently set a record walking the West Highland way in under 14 hours. We did the standard itinerary: 95 miles in seven days. Here was our itinerary:
Day One: Milngavie to Drymen
12 miles. Our first, lovely day transitioned from Milngavie, a small town north of Glasgow, into a pastoral landscape dotted with sheep and cows, mossy stone walls and livestock gates. The peaceful walking is on mostly well-worn trails and roads. We stopped into Glengoyne distillery for a dram, then went on to Drymen. We ate that night at the Clachan Inn, licensed in 1734, seated next to a couple who reappeared on Day Three to save us in an uncertain moment. We were soundly asleep by 8 p.m.
Day Two: Drymen to Rowardennan
14 miles. It was pouring rain through moors and forests, then up and steeply down Conic Hill on the boundary fault separating lowland Scotland from the highlands. In good weather it has glorious views of Loch Lomond(loch means lake). We lunched in Balmaha, a popular resort town, and continued on the rocky lakeshore path toward the Rowardennan Hotel, a rustic lodge. The pub, with its corner fireplace, serves as both restaurant and meeting place for walkers. We exchanged stories and stumbled off to bed.
Day Three: Rowardennan to Inverarnan
14 miles. It was overcast but there was no rain. We were firmly in Rob Roy country (he’s an 18th-century highlands folk hero). We were still on the loch’s shore where the path is a challenging mix of roots and boulders. Guidebooks describe it as “tortuous” despite extraordinary ferns, waterfalls and forests. Six hours in, we convinced ourselves we missed a turn and wearily headed back. Then the Day One couple appeared. The man pulled out his GPS to show we were on track. I sheepishly pocketed my map and we were on our way. We shared dinner with our new Scottish friends, Stephen and Jane McNaughton, at the Drovers Inn, established in 1705.
Day Four: Inverarnan to Tyndrum
13.25 miles. We hit old military trails as the rigors of the day before were forgotten. The rain was back, as were the sheep. We moved from farmlands to a thickly wooded conifer plantation, and happily ate lunch on a hillside, the mountaintops shrouded in mist. Nearing Tyndrum we walked through heather, bog myrtle and pinewoods. It was a peaceful end to the day, despite having trekked in earshot of busy route A82.
Day Five: Tyndrum to Kings House
18.75 miles. Our longest, favorite day. The path started on the glen floor, zigzagged up through woods and descended through spectacular moorland toward Loch Tulla. A few more miles and we were out on Rannoch Moor, a landscape of peat bogs and small lakes and sky, surrounded by heather and mountains. We were smitten. The wind was fierce but rain held off. For most of the day we saw no one else, save our Scottish friends. Guidebooks say this point is as far from civilization as any place on the Way. It feels like it.
Day Six: Kings House to Kinlochleven
9 miles. We started in sunshine near Glencoe, feeling like tiny blips on the massive glen floor surrounded by towering peaks. Soon we were cloaked in heavy mist on the Devil’s Staircase, a zigzag ascent to the Way’s highest point at 1,800 feet. We again missed views of high peaks as clouds dipped lower, but there was a soggy beauty. We sensed the enormous presence of the surrounding mountains.
Day Seven: Kinlochleven to Fort William
15 miles. Our last day brought excitement, along with torrential rain and wind. By the time we crossed the gorgeous but unforgiving expanse of the valley Lairig Mor, we were soaked. Walkers in ponchos and rain gear fluttered in the distance as we splashed through mud. The peak of Ben Nevis, the United Kingdom’s tallest mountain, was obscured by clouds as we made our final descent into Fort William. We felt elated nonetheless, and lucky to have experienced a week of such awesome beauty.