West Highland Way: Kinlochleven to Fort William
It was a joy to wake up to sunshine on day 6 of the West Highland Way (WHW), but having seen the forecast the night before I knew it was to be short-lived. I’d hiked mainly under a grey sky the whole walk so far so I was determined to get up and get going before the predicted rain moved in. Unlike the previous 5 days, there would be no civilisation between Kinlochleven and the end of the WHW 16 miles (25.5km) onwards, so with a grocery store in town, I made sure I had enough supplies to keep me happy for the day. I clearly wasn’t the only WHW hiker with the same idea, as there were several others setting off as I left my little cabin behind.
Although the sky was blue above, there was some low cloud over the mountain tops as I passed through the main street of Kinlochleven. Just as the buildings are coming close to ending at the head of the loch, the path heads into the trees near the school, and a short distance later begins to zig-zag up the hillside. The attained height is similar to the Devil’s Staircase on day 5, but yet strangely isn’t talked about by hikers in quite the same way. The view as it picked its way up the hillside was stunning, as Loch Leven came more into sight, and the buildings of Kinlochleven grew smaller and smaller. I regularly caught up with and overtook the same hikers time and time again on this section as we all stopped regularly to admire the view.
This route is known as the Lairig, and once the upper reach is attained, the view west showed the distinctive Pap of Glencoe as well as a sky full of clouds that were an omen for the coming change in weather. As the gradient flattened out, the other hikers and myself started to spread out across the landscape, and I ended up leaving them all behind. I knew the rain was coming, and wanted as much of the hike out the way as I could before the inevitable drenching. It was a beautiful section to hike, surrounded by green mountains and the loch sparkling below. As the loch disappears out of view, the track continued into a broad valley, and so it continued for a few miles. It was far from monotonous though on such a sunny day, and there were a couple of old ruined farming cottages to spike some interest. The first was relatively intact minus its roof, and there were the rusty remains of farming equipment scattered around in the nearby field. The second was rather worse for wear, with the walls crumbled into stony heaps. A little stream bubbled past nearby, and another walking route headed off up the nearby mountains.
After crossing a few streams, it became clear that the valley took a sharp turn and it was a near 90 degree shift in direction from heading west to heading north. The blue sky was behind me now, and I was back to the familiar grey skies that had been my company for the previous 5 days. At least it was still dry, but there was still a lot of ground to cover. The stubby remains of woods were visible and beyond that a sign denoted where the victorious MacDonalds chased the defeated Campbells of Argyll following the battle of Inverlochy. A stone cairn lay next to the sign, and the instructions were to either add a stone or to remove one depending on your allegiance. Through my mother’s side of the family, I am of the clan Campbell of Argyll so I dutifully removed a stone and tossed it away.
From this point onwards, the theme of the day was woodlands, whether felled or still standing. But the path by now was broad, and there was not another person in sight. After a while though, the track came to a junction where the broad track dipped down to become an actual road leading to Lochan Lunn Da-Bhra to the west and Glen Nevis to the north. The lochan is visible from here as the WHW turns off the broad track and starts to climb once more. There were a lot of bees here and despite seeing the looming clouds getting nearer and nearer, the view was still very open, and before I knew it Ben Nevis, Scotland’s (and the UK’s) highest mountain came into view. It had been a few weeks since I had summited the munro in the cloud, and I could see a little more of the mountain on this day than I had on the day that I hiked it. Still though, the summit was shrouded again.
As I approached the main section of woodland, I was overtaken by a runner, and once in the woods, I crossed a large stream, and then was surrounded by tall conifers. This would be my last chance to spot red squirrels and I looked upwards ever hopeful only to be disappointed. The track was rough and undulating under foot, and I could feel the temperature dropping. In a brief gap in the trees I saw that Ben Nevis was disappearing under a veil of clouds, and as I continued to march through the woodland, the rain started to fall and as it grew heavier, I was forced to kit up in my waterproofs. I was glad that there was plenty of trees to offer some light coverage, as the morning’s section of the hike had been so exposed. I was overtaken by another hiker in the middle of the woods, and as the path took a bend I was struck by an immense feeling of deja vu. I discovered later that I’d never been there before so I don’t know where the feeling came from but a small section of walk that dipped and curved round a hillock had felt so strongly familiar as to be almost unsettling.
A fence denoted the boundary of the Nevis forest which covers the hillside of Glen Nevis. Here a track lead up a hill to an old iron age fort. Dated between 500 BC and 100 AD, I had argued in my head whether I wanted to make the detour or not. By now my legs were getting very sick of walking, and the thought of going uphill again was really putting me off, but in the end it was the ongoing rainfall that sealed the decision for me. A group of cyclists had come up the hill from Glen Nevis to visit the fort and I left them to it, deciding to skip it on this occasion. I eagerly stuck to the WHW which finally began the long and slow descent into Fort William. In the rain, I hated this section. Whilst I love forest walking in New Zealand, I’ve always hated forest walking in Scotland, where the diversity is much more limited and the fauna less apparent also. It felt like this track would never end, and my legs were working on auto-pilot as I dreamed about the hot coffee that would greet me in Fort William.
I knew that there would be a path to the Glen Nevis youth hostel before I would cut down to the road, and even this felt like it would never appear. When it did, I did a silent cry of jubilation and got a second wind to speed up a little. Finally the WHW cut off the forest track and picked its way down to the road that leads from Glen Nevis to Fort William. For 2 miles (3km) the WHW becomes the pavement next to the road and the rain continued to fall as I trudged alongside passing traffic, counting down until finally the first houses appeared. At the Nevis Bridge roundabout, a large thistle sign denotes that this was the original end of the WHW. The nearby Ben Nevis Woollen Mill (effectively a tourist shop) provides free certificates to hikers so I popped inside for a respite out the rain to collect mine.
Now, the WHW ends in the main street of Fort William, another mile away. It is still signposted, although they appear more subtle amongst the road signs and buildings, but the way continues along Belford Road before cutting across the green space of the Parade and heading down Fort William’s semi-pedestrianised main street. I’ve visited Fort William many times before, and it felt so familiar to be here with the same old shops lining the high street. There was barely a soul outside when I reached Gordon Square with the statue and sign marking the end of my 96 mile (154.5km) hike, and after sitting in the rain briefly to acknowledge my achievement, I had to dawdle for a while to grab a passing stranger to take my photo. It seemed fitting to end it geared up in waterproofs, just as I had started it in Milngavie, but once the photos were taken, I was quick to head to the nearby Costa Coffee for a well deserved and much needed hot drink.
I had a few hours to kill before my train back to Glasgow, and I took my time perusing my favourite local stores, and doing a bit of shopping. The rain never let up for the rest of the day, and eventually it was time to make my way to the train station. The train was packed and I felt sorry for the two girls who had to sit opposite me, as I was pretty confident that I had acquired a delightful post-hiking aroma. I was initially confused when the train headed north but as it turned out it took a sweeping arc north then east before curling south, and this in fact took in some of the most stunning portion of the Rannoch Moor. I had been a little disappointed with my passage through the moor on day 5, having felt that the moor from the roadside was more stunning. Now though, the moor took on a wilder and more expansive sweep as the train hurtled through, and having seen none on the hike, we passed multiple red deer. The low cloud and mist added to the romance of the place and I fell in love with Rannoch Moor once more.
Eventually though, around 9.30pm, the train crawled into Glasgow’s Queen Street station and my adventure was over. My partner had arrived from New Zealand and he met me in the city ahead of the last few days of much needed family time before my long transit back home to Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island. I was ecstatic to have completed the hike, having desired to do it for many years. Although I am a seasoned hiker, the WHW is perfectly achievable for people of average fitness, but due to the locality to many settlements, it can easily be divided up and walked in isolated sections. With the exception of the section within Loch Lomond’s boundaries, camping is allowed anywhere along the route, meaning those who want to sleep under the stars have the luxury of walking the route in as little or as long as they like. Otherwise, there is plenty of accommodation to choose from along the route, and in the summer months, you can pay for luggage to be transported between your night’s accommodations. In other words, the WHW is truly a walk for everyone.