Slow Autumnal journey: A Gentle Exploration of West Highland Way's Ever-changing Beauty Through the Scottish Mountains
We set off on a 6 day journey, following the route of the West Highland Way for the first time in the allowed gap during covid restrictions (which unbeknownst to us, with lack of phone use, we were abruptly informed that we were going back to lockdown the same day we planned to be back). What a fine week it turned out to be, graced with the sun most days, which is a scarce rarity most of the time in the unpredictable Scottish weather.
I have dreamed of doing the Spanish Camino Trail and realised that there is one a bit closer to home. With the help of the luggage crew we were ready to go at 7am from Milngavie, equipped with a coffee and cake, with one backpack and a suitcase (that slowly kept losing its arms and became a box on wheels by the end of it).
But was I joyful to be off. The fresh crisp air and golden sunshine in the turning leaves spurred us on through the wooded way. I won’t share every detail of the West Highland Way Trip but a couple of observations that stuck out to me.
Every 10 miles felt like a different place entirely and that was exhilarating. The first day took us from Milngavie to the gently sloping hills of Drymen and as soon as day two we roamed through Conic Hill and past Loch Lomond’s mountains. The loch side forest with the sun and the time of year painted a romantic picture akin to the French Riviera. So lush were the trees and the sparkle of the deep blue water...
There is no road on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, it stops right at Ben Lomond, I was curious to see exactly what lurks on the other side of the loch. The only thing that we didn’t consider, was that the third day was much longer and trickier than we expected … The lovely road soon turned into a bouldering, treacherous rock face, that descended right to the water’s edge with exposed tree roots uplifting the earth. Now, I do not exaggerate these rocks, it was straight out of the Lord of the Rings steps to Mordor, some as tall if not taller than a grown man. While taking in all this beauty with copious amounts of picture taking opportunities, we thought we were making good progress, but boy were we wrong… we were about halfway, and it was already getting dark! In the panic our final 3 hours went by in a blur, with energy that spurred us out of fear (of the dark?). We basically ran the last 4 miles in pitch darkness; with waterfalls running down the wooded mountain slopes, which obscured the path, through marsh land (my absolute fear) to a rising sense of panic and intrusive thoughts that the Inverarnan campsite might not exist at all, or we have taken a wrong turn. Going through all the possible scenarios how we might survive without water through a frosty night with no provisions, the twinkling lights finally came into sight. Blue in the face after almost 12 hours of walking we made it safe and stuffed our faces at the inn, of what I remember was fish and chips.
After that things settled down and we finally began to ease into it at the halfway mark and found a comfortable rhythm to complete daily objectives; make breakfast, pack up the tent, and start walking to our next camp. Having ‘walking’ to be the focal point of each day was incredibly humbling and peaceful. You experience what it is like to truly be alive, in its simplest primitive form, without the gadgets and the noise. You learned to read the time by looking where the sun is on the horizon. Despite the bruised feet we hit our stride and marched on with new vigour.
What struck at me most is how quickly the land can change in just a few miles, you really get to experience one season in 50 shades by travelling slowly. As we continued to Crianlarich the vistas opened up with winding paths through a glen, slowly taking on a rugged quality with increasing evidence of winter about to set in, but as soon as we got comfortable and passed several hills we ended up in the most vibrant green farming fields, claiming to be the wettest place in Scotland. Tyndrum begins to show its miraculous conical peaks, gracing the morning with frost the higher up north we got where it opened to the desolate and barren Rannoch Moors.
The Moors really felt like you were abandoned in the past and you were the only two humans to walk this earth. Here, every layer of clothing worn did not help me sleep any better at night due to the plunging temperatures. Next morning we passed the iconic Etive Mor, fed some deer at Kingshouse Hotel and began to scale The Devil’s Staircase, of which the descent was rather crumbly and uncomfortable.
Kinlochleven, a cute little town settled in the glen of Loch Leven offering an incredible early morning walk up the mountain painted in gold and blue. The remaining path was ancient hillsides of long forgotten pastures and abandoned stone settlements towards Ben Nevis. A particularly enjoyable walk as it was mostly level with no huge inclines. Before the end we encountered a historical site of an old Pictish settlement atop a steep incline, which had been burned down hundreds of years ago. This provided some respite before the last push. From this steep platform Ben Nevis loomed over us like a brooding spirit, its head covered in foreboding clouds.
We finally descended to Fort William, a little weathered but our hearts full after experiencing my first slow journey through the scottish mountains. It goes to show, that 6 days of walking will leave you both satisfied and hungry for more.
Some years later, we ventured along the famous North Coast 500, to my surprise the landscape has blown me away yet again in its diversity … maybe a story for another time.
If you are curious, you can find the route here with helpful places to plan and break up the route to suit you.
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