From the 13th to the 15th of May, 2022, I walked the southern fifty miles of the West Highland Way path in Scotland. A fulfilling, ‘re-discovering oneself’ walk after a difficult couple of years. Especially pleased with how well my knees coped, having had suspicions of cartilage trouble – I am 57 – but they did fine.
Simple tireness and sore feet brought the walk to an end. I’d had a nominal plan to do another couple of twenty-mile days, then wild camp above Fort William to drop down to the railway station there, but didn’t feel the need.
The walk cheered me up. I started off in low mood, but after a while trying to identify what was bothering me, whittled it down to just three things. One, concern about the slightly dodgy locality where I’d left my car before catching the train. This was trivia, I decided. There were no valuables in it and I am thinking of selling the thing anyway. If a window got smashed, so be it. Two, my tight personal finances. Well, just got to be really disiciplined. Save, save, save! Live on Jack Monroe recipes and keep everything turned off at home. Worry number three, I realised, was really just an ephemeral, unsettled feeling due to recent changes in personal circumstances, a ‘nameless fears’ thing. Once I’d recognised where the feelings were coming from, they pretty much disappeared.
Now the Victor Meldrew bit … I’m lucky to have walked the Way many years ago when it was new and soft underfoot. I don’t personally think it’s so good any more, at least not the southern half. The track by Lomond is ridiculously undulating and degraded in places, and there are so many annoying walkers!
There are individuals or groups rather full of themselves, often dressed in brand new, smartly-pressed hiking gear, stomping along too-rapidly for their own good and giving chipper ‘mornings’ and ‘hiyas’. There were campers hogging some of the best spots with tents the size of bungalows, decked inside with items of household furniture, their owners’ SUVs parked nearby.
A bothy I’d intended to use had been commandered by a single group of fifteen youths. The ‘head’ invited me stay, speaking as if he owned the place, but said they might ‘party’, whatever that meant. I smelled cannabis.
Heading up to Crianlarich, three thirty-something males with stubbly beards, wrap-around dark glasses and all wearing the same streamlined helmets and black T-shirts, came thundering down the narrow path at high speed on huge bicycles – the kind that look like motorbikes, just without engines – with zero consideration for anyone else. I chose not to jump aside for them, and the lead biker began some comment directed at me through bared teeth and curled lips, but he was past and distant before I had the opportunity to benefit from his wisdom, which, in any case, was drowned out by the rattle of his own barely-controlled machine.
The runners were different. They tend to have a positive and more understanding take on other path users. I’ve done a little running myself and happily step aside so they don’t have to break their rhythym, usually geting a smile and thanks. One used it as an excuse to stop and we chatted for some time. He was training for the West Highland Way Untramarathon later this year.
I’d like to say there were plenty of chatty, cheerful walkers, but they do seem in a minority these days, but I’ll remember with pleasure Kate and Pat, two elderly ladies bravely taking on the Lomond section, and a 20-year-old Japanese girl walking on her own, who asked how I was doing. She had skied, bungeed and hiked in her own country, but admitted that she’d under-estimated the walk and was also thinking of stopping at the fifty-mile mark.
At the end of the walk, not really wanting to be bothered with bivying one last time, I decided to hang around on Crianlarich railway station platform. There’s a lovely little heated waiting room there, and, lounging on a bench, I unexpectedly found myself sleeping solidly for five-and-a-half hours, my mobile alarm waking me at 06:00.
A good trip, and being a fan of train travel, rather enjoyed the eight hour journey back to Leamington Spa, where my car was exactly as I had left it, untouched. Looking forward to doing the rest of the West Highland Way.
Advice for anyone contemplating the walk (Milngavie to Crianlarich):
- This stretch is hard going in places, especially by Loch Lomond, very uppy-and-downy. It catches a lot of people out, forcing them to end their walk prematurely. Unless your’re super fit, break it up in to a couple of sections. I have walked the first fifty miles in one go twice in the past few years as excercises in deliberate extreme walking, and can confirm it to be a more than ordinarily exhausting section.
- Camp, or, if you’re wealthy enough, pre-book accomodation at suitable intervals. It’s a busy trail and bothys may be full to caspacity. I camped Drymen and two-thirds of the way up the lake side (and would have spent the third night on the hill above Crianlarich, were it not for my waiting room sojourn).
- Midges … I used Avon ‘Skin So Soft’, after seeing it recommended on a YouTube video. Seemed to keep them at bay and smells nice too. One 150ml bottle of the Avon stuff should last a week. Pat (one of the older lady walkers) approved of it, “or just wear lots of perfume”. She said a friend of her’s had used some expensive DEET-based spray, but the midges seemed to like it and swarmed all over her even more.
- There are shops at reasonably regular intervals on this southern part of the walk, but it is still possible to get caught out with food. Keep the pack topped up with a couple of days of rations. I eat cold, not wanting the extra weight of cooking equipment.
- Scotland’s climate means water is never far away, and it’s safe to drink direct from the waterfalls and fast-flowing streams where they’re coming direct from the mountainsides. I carry a 750ml bottle with incorporated water-filter (various brands, I use ‘Water-to-Go’) from which I can keep a plain 750ml plastic bottle filled up. I try to remember to keep a spare bottle top in the backpack. It’s so annoying when you stop for a drink, drop the top and can’t find it again.
- I walk with a single Leki pole. The extra point of stability is so useful when clumbering about of the rougher bits of path. Many walk with two poles, but I prefer to have one hand completely free. I have a rubber stopper on the end of my pole (and a spare in the backpack) to be kinder to the path surface.