Outdoor Pursuits magazine
Simon Whaley takes a wander along one of Scotland’s popular walking routes and steps back in time to explore how it came into existence.
The best way to escape from Glasgow is not by plane, train or car, but by foot. From the Glaswegian suburb of Milngavie (pronounced Mulguy) a footpath stretches ever northwards for 95 miles until it reaches the beautiful Highland town of Fort William.
Officially opened in 1980, the West Highland Way took me effortlessly, at first, out of the luscious green lowlands of the south, and then lured me northwards, where the fells became mountains, the waterfalls fierce, and the weather considerably wetter!
But that is the beauty of this path. The West Highland Way is not a path to Hell, where one day’s walking has to cover at least 32 miles. My shortest day was 7 miles, my longest, twice that at 14. I found that the path could be what you make of it. I met walkers who were using it as a means of gently easing themselves back into physical fitness, whilst others were treating it as a thread from which to hang a whole two week break, and visiting the many tourist attractions to be found on or near the route.
Origins of the path can be traced back to the Glaswegian rambling groups of the 1930’s and 1940’s. But it wasn’t until the more famous Pennine Way had been established in England in 1965, that a more concerted effort was made to create the West Highland Way.
Within minutes of leaving Milngavie Railway Station there were small burns trickling by my feet, pheasants strutting along field edges and small lochs shimmering in the sunlight. As each foot took me step by step to Fort William, it was easy to forget about the infrastructure in place. The shopping list for the footpath came to £35,840 in 1973 and included 65 signposts, 12 small footbridges, 12 mapboards and 50 stiles. Hundreds of individuals were involved in its construction from organisations such as the Forestry Commission, the Territorial Army and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers.
My first piece of hard work was Conic Hill. Although 1,000 feet higher than the path beforehand, it is only a hill. At the summit an immense vista opens out. Loch Lomond, Scotland’s largest loch covering more than 27 square miles, stretches out for more than 23 miles. To my left I could just make out the tower blocks of Glasgow in the distance. To my right the scenery changes drastically. The rugged, luring mountains rising from Lomond’s waters produce Ben Lomond, the most southerly mountain in Scotland higher than 3,000 feet.
At the northern tip of the loch, the valleys become tighter and the mountains higher. Most of these imposing mounds of rock scale heights of 2500 to 3500 feet. Luckily, the West Highland Way negotiates these by meandering through the valleys, sharing them with the A82 and the West Highland Railway Line. One other natural form kept me company along this section – the River Falloch. This small river collects all the rainwater as it throws itself off the mountainsides, before the river itself cascades over the Falls of Falloch.
Not only is the scenery stunning, but so is the history. One such remnant is St Fillan’s Chapel and Graveyard. A small plaque on the wall narrates how St Fillan, an Irish Monk, had worked in the area, spreading his religious work, during the 8th century. Looking around I think few would object to making this their final resting place, no matter what their religion.
Rannoch Moor is desolate, barren and stretches for 13 miles. It’s deceptive because the path uses well-trodden drovers roads once used by cattle drovers as they moved their stock from farm to farm, or farm to market. The problem is the weather. Forecasting is impossible and pointless. This expanse of wilderness has a climate of its own and threw at me diverse conditions including sunshine, hailstones, high winds, rain and clear blue skies, all within a days walking.
The Kingshouse Hotel, based where Rannoch Moor meets Glencoe, is a magical place, with a roaringly fierce log fire to banish any draughts as I entered from outside. The following morning, walking to the dining room for the Full Scottish Breakfast, the fire was still burning, but the magic had intensified. Outside, I discovered a light dusting of snow covering everything.
After five days walking, my body was beginning to feel better for it. At this point the path now becomes a high level route climbing the mountains through a section called the Devil’s Staircase. This is the highest point of the whole path. The views along Glen Coe are spectacular and it was good to get short of breath so many times, so that I could stop and admire the view!
Having crossed the ridge, the path dropped down steeply into the community of Kinlochleven, with its important claim to fame. This small town of 2000 inhabitants has the first Fish and Chip shop on the path since Glasgow. And it is gratefully received after having tackled the route from Kingshouse.
The final stage to Fort William uses old military roads, built in the 18th Century to cross the Mamore range of mountains, towards Ben Nevis. Approaching Glen Nevis, excitement spurred me on into the Forestry Commission plantation that engulfs this whole area. The path plummets down the hillside until I literally stumbled out onto a Tarmacked road at the foot of Ben Nevis. From here it’s only two miles to Fort William and the end of the walk. They were the quickest two miles of the whole walk! The sense of achievement is overwhelming. I wanted to round the trip off by climbing Ben Nevis, but low cloud and high winds, made it too dangerous to tackle.
The West Highland Way is an expedition of tranquility, history, isolation and varied scenery. It departs from Scotland’s largest city, passes Scotland’s largest loch and terminates at the foot of Britain’s tallest mountain. It truly is a great path. An average 50,000 people tackle it every year. Walking this route took me seven days. The return bus journey takes just 3 hours. Not quite as much fun though!
© Simon Whaley