For 96 meandering miles (154.5km), the West Highland Way (WHW) traverses a range of landscapes leaving the suburbs of Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow behind for open pastures, rolling hills, lochs, and then mountains before reaching Fort William in the north. Repeatedly lauded as Britain’s best long distance walk, and certainly Scotland’s most well known, and most popular, it was a walk that had eluded me for quite some time. The usual recommendation is to walk it in 7 days, but depending on drive and fitness, it can be walked in as long or as little time as you like. My brother had even completed the mammoth task of walking it in less than 48hrs for charity, but for me, with a slightly tight schedule at the end of my 6-wk long trip, I had 6 days to complete it. I was beyond excited, having waited many years to reach this point.
I had had immensely good luck with the weather for the initial few weeks of my trip round Scotland, and then the rain and cloud appeared before I hopped over to Iceland for 10 days. On my return, just the next day, I was packed and ready to head off, but outside the clouds were crying over Glasgow. It was a little disheartening to have to start the walk in full waterproofs but I was grateful to my brother for driving me to Milngavie, a northern suburb of the city, where the WHW officially begins. After grabbing a hot snack from the nearby Greggs, and posing for some obligatory photos at the obelisk in the town centre, I could not wait out the rain much longer and with my brother in tow, I set off in the early afternoon of day 1.
Underneath a signed archway, the track immediately leaves the city life behind, to follow the river, Allander Water, as it snakes its way through the emerging countryside. It doesn’t take long to reach Mugdock Woods, an area known to me from many a school visit here when I was younger, but a place that I had not been to for a very long time. Here, there were a myriad of local walks, and it was one of these that my brother left me for before heading home, whilst I continued to follow the distinctive sign of the WHW: a thistle. Thankfully the showers were already clearing and it wasn’t long before the layers could start to come off. I shared this section of the walk with a lot of locals out walking their dogs or out for a stroll, and it wasn’t until reaching the far end of Mugdock Woods after 2 miles (3.2km) did I start to feel like I was getting away from it all.
My destination for the night was Drymen, which the sign at the end of the woods told me was 10 miles (16km) away. With the sun now shining, it quickly became a very beautiful walk through grassland surrounded by trees, and then along the bank of Craigallian Loch. This was the first time I came across fellow WHW hikers in the form of two friends who appeared laden down with camping gear. Due to chronic back issues, I had long ago made the decision that I would stay in accommodation during the hike, meaning I only needed to carry about 6-8kg weight as opposed to the weight of a tent and camping gear. The weight difference meant it only took the length of the loch to catch up with them and then overtake them.
The whole walk follows a mixture of old drovers roads, military roads or coaching roads, but especially on this first day, there was a regular need to cross or follow modern day roads. For the most part these are not main roads so traffic was light, and after a brief foray along a section of tarmac, I was soon back in pastureland, walking amongst cattle and heading towards the distinctive hump of Dumgoyach. Following the farm track, I was surprised to come over a ridge and be accosted by a man looking for money. Purported to be raising money for the local mountain rescue service, I was in two minds how to approach his request. With the walk itself being free, he was particularly targeting hikers on the WHW, and I wasn’t convinced he was genuine. But being as he was in the middle of nowhere, he had at least made some effort to be there, so even if he was scamming, I decided to give him some money anyway to justify his effort.
Soon though, I was back on my own, at least for a while before I was joined by some sheep as I skirted Dumgoyach. Then having by now walked 5.5 miles (nearly 9km), the WHW turned to join an old railway line which it followed for a good while, passing a turn-off to the Glengoyne Distillery. I was tempted to pop in for a wee dram, but with the afternoon wearing on, and the sky once again becoming overcast, I opted to push on. When eventually a break in the old railway line was reached, a welcoming sign for the Beech Tree, a local business, greeted me on my brief return to habitation.
Crossing the road, the path again denoted the old railway track but this time was narrow, and as it meandered northwards, I met the odd person out walking their dog from the nearby villages. With houses peeking out of the trees at regular intervals it felt like a long time before I was leaving civilisation behind again, and even then it was only a brief respite before the path met head on with the A81 road. I could hear it before seeing it, and this was the first of a few main road crossings on the walk. Once safely across, it was only a short meander till the path petered out, and I found myself at a quiet tarmac road.
Following this road left, it crossed a weir at the hamlet of Gartness, and then it was a long tarmac trudge as a drizzle began. This quiet road links a few farms and small-holdings with Drymen to the north-west. In case I was feeling homesick for New Zealand, there were some random signs referencing Hobbits and the Shire which I found quietly amusing. Then, just as my feet were getting sick of the tarmac, Loch Lomond, the largest inland body of water in the country, popped into view for the first time. This spurred me on a little as I hate walking on roads, and only when Drymen is vaguely in sight, does the route finally veer off the tarmac.
In a small but muddy field, a worn path led through a herd of cattle. One of the cows was using a WHW sign to scratch an itch and I watched it, smiling as I passed by. Soon after, I found myself at the A811 road where I left the WHW behind to follow the pavement into Drymen. I was staying at Kip in the Kirk, an old church on Stirling Road that had been converted into a bunkhouse and B&B. I was welcomed with a mug of tea and a freshly baked scone which was a lovely touch, and I was very happy to get my hiking boots off my feet.
After a brief respite, and on the recommendation of one of my hosts, it wasn’t far to reach the Winnock in Drymen’s square, where I parked myself up for the night. The UEFA EURO 2016 football tournament was still in full swing so with this on the television in the bar and being a Friday night, there was a decent crowd there. I got a table easily though and it was warm and cosy. I requested a dram of the most local whisky (which turned out to be Glengoyne, the distillery I had passed on the hike), and happily tore in to a steak pie. As the evening wore on, and the other drinkers grew merry, I found myself talking to a very drunk local who used to live in Glasgow. His banter brought back so many memories of nights out in the city of my birth, and he was good company whilst the match played on in the background. But tired from the fresh air, and with another day of hiking ahead of me, my bed was soon calling me, so shortly after the full-time whistle was blown, I retreated to the bunkhouse for an immensely comfortable night’s sleep.