With our bags packed for a winter trek in Scotland, me and Chris left for Milngavie train station just North of Glasgow, ready to start our journey.
As a photographer I wanted to capture what, in my head, was the true essence of Scotland – the cold, the wet, and the snow-capped mountains of the highlands in their prime. The benefit of starting the walk in early April was that we’d avoided the swarms of midges by a month or so, which from personal experience climbing Ben Nevis two summers previously often cause more havoc and annoyance than most people care to deal with.
Milngavie to Drymen – Day 1
Arriving at Milngavie early afternoon, we took our first steps towards Drymen from the granite obelisk marker in the town square bearing the Thistle symbol of the West Highland Way. Not long after, we approached the first of two small lochs, Craigallian & Carbeth. The wind had already picked up and dark clouds were rolling in ahead and it was clear we was in for our first taste of the well-known Scottish weather we’d planned for. We spent the next hour or so plodding on through grim hail and strong winds until we decided we were done for the day. With plenty of time to complete the trip we were in no rush to push on through to Drymen (roughly 6 miles ahead) and with a tent and sleeping bags strapped to out bags it was a no-brainer to duck under the eaves of a small pine forest to our left close by Dumgoyach and the crossing of Blane Water to hide from the weather and get an early nights camp prepared.
I prepared our first meal, spicy sausage & pasta using a Jetboil and Wayfarer ‘boil in the bag’ food packs (which are all delicious by the way!) whilst my brother lit up the first fire and began to hang up our damp clothes.
It’s pretty common for the weather in Scotland to change rapidly… Soon after 6:30pm we were blessed to see the clouds part above us leaving behind clear skies and our first view of snowy mountains in the distance, looking north beyond the tree-line, giving us hope that the following day we’d awake to see some sun. And so after supping a little whiskey from our hip-flasks we turned in for the night.
We awoke to the following morning to see a hare skirting away through the undergrowth (Chris also claimed to have seen a deer before I’d got out of the tent, though I’m still not convinced of this) and cooked up breakfast before leaving camp to once again head north towards Drymen.
Fighting the temptations to stop by the Glengoyne Distillery to top up our hip flasks we continued onwards past the T-junction of Drymen.
Drymen to Rowardennan – Day 2
After a good few hours walk and a few snacks to keep us going we found ourselves finally gaining some altitude under a sunny sky passing through farm lands and Garadhban Forest towards Conic Hill where we stumbled across a stunning little tarn, still surrounded in snow, with what we guessed to be either golden eagles or buzzards too high up to identify soaring above us.
We approached Conic Hill with apprehension and I think the silence between us spoke for itself. My hips and shoulders were particularly tender from my pack and Chris was obviously feeling the same as our breaks became more and more frequent, so the decision was made to skip the extra 200m climb to the summit, which was clearly still enveloped with deep snow, and head down a long stoned pathway marked ‘alternative route’ west towards the village of Balmaha on the south east coast of Loch Lomond.
We began our first steps along the Loch, in awe of its beauty yet unaware just how sick we’d get of it… We decided it was time to pick up a few beers for the that night’s camp which we assumed would be made somewhere soon on the beach of the loch. Unfortunately the new legislation concerning Loch Lomond had different plans for us. We’d not realised but new bylaws don’t allow any wild camping around the shores of the lower regions of the loch between March 1st – September 30th (for more info on wild camping areas and the camping management zones around the loch check out www.lochlomond-trossachs.org). So with that in mind after stumbling across a sign which stated a £1000 fine for anyone caught camping we pushed on through with heavy bags full of beer and water for another two miles until we decided to pitch up at Milarrochy Bay Campsite. We spent the first hour of arrival sprawled out on our ground sheet eating and drinking whatever was in arms distance and feeling rather sorry for ourselves; yet pretty thankful that we now had a hot shower and toilet facilities to look forward to for whenever we could muster up enough energy to make the move. We even treated ourselves to one of the two desserts we’d brought with us!
That evening we decided that due to a bad forecast we’d have a day of rest, take a lie in and potentially utilise one of the bag transportation services for Chris’s pack, allowing him some time for this leg to heal up which he’d strained pretty badly earlier that day, and for me to dump some of my heavier gear and just take a day pack for the two of us with my camera equipment. The next morning however we awoke surprised by the weather and it looked to be a pretty reasonable day. No heavy rain or moody clouds to be seen. We took our morning showers which were an absolute blessing for our aching legs and cooked up a nice breakfast around 11:30am whilst attempting to reformulate a plan of attack for the day. We’d already missed the bag collection service and so made plans for an easy day, 6 miles up towards Ardess with both backpacks.
Rowardennan to Inverarnan – Days 3, 4
As planned we took it easy strolling through lovely little birch forests along the upper parts of the shoreline… Until as predicted the clouds flooded in! Within ten minutes we were soaked and struggling to find somewhere to rest out of the downpour to plan our next move. A quick pint and a bowl of chips in The Clansman led us to finding out about the Rowardennan Lodge Youth Hostel situated on the banks of Loch Lomond only 20 minutes up the road, so after a little wait for the rain to settle I took off to the SYHA walking on ahead to check for camping availability with Chris in a fair bit of agony trailing behind.
Luckily they had a small camping area by the rear of the building situated directly next to the loch. After a good hour or so with soaking wet tinder we was able to sit by a fire fed up but warm and ready for bed.
The next morning after a pretty naff shower in the lodge and a quick breakfast Chris left his bag for collection with the company Travel-lite www.travel-lite-uk.com/ and we set off back along the loch with my camera in hand ready for the most challenging stretch of the walk.
The pathway up towards Inverarnan is notoriously awkward, it’s full of small sharp drops and climbs with obstructive roots and rocks everywhere, and we found that pretty much everyone we spoke with knew it to be the most difficult section of the walk. Don’t let the lack of elevation fool you, it’s this section where you’ll realise just how big Loch Lomond is! Thankfully there’s plenty to see here and you’ll stumble across some beautiful little waterfalls and wildlife. Due to the season we saw many mountain goats with kids nestling between their mothers, who in between duelling with each other grazed on wild garlic leaves unafraid of the hikers passing by.
We reached Inversnaid waterfall by noon and stopped for lunch whilst the crowds of tourist queued to take the ferry. I was destroyed from carrying my pack along the winding paths so far and had to strip down to just my pants and shoes to allow my body to breathe enough to keep up with Chris as we finally began to approach the end of the loch with a light drizzle in the air (at last!).
That evening we arrived at Beinglas Farm Campsite, picked up Chris’ bag and treated ourselves to our first proper meal since the start of the trip; two huge 12oz cheese burgers with onion rings, thick chips and salad. It almost beat us! We were ready for bed but the warm lady behind the bar insisted we stayed to listen to the live musician who arrived shortly after. The music didn’t disappoint but after a few pints and a few too many rum & ginger beers we were both ready for bed. I stumbled out of the bar to find a very excitable Chris who’d been waving me out frantically after hearing live bagpipes for the first time somewhere across the campsite in the dark. That night was probably one of my better sleeps, apart from Chris waking me up a few hours in by projectile vomiting just outside the tent door and nudging me awake for toilet paper… I guess the burger was too much for him in the end!
Inverarnan to Tyndrum – Day 5
At least good came of it! The following morning on day five of our journey we awoke to a stunning misty sunrise with lovely little chaffinches and sparrows hopping around us cheerfully eating up Chris’s burger remains, it certainly perked me up. Once again I was the designated cook and whipped us up some quick breakfast whilst we prepared our packs.
Having immersed ourselves in the surrounds of Loch Lomond, we now entered a very different landscape. Soaring mountains and gentle glen walking with some stunning scenery emerging northwards, it was finally beginning to look like what I’d expected from the West Highland Way. The pathway leads upwards through farmlands where we came across another of the many honesty boxes that can be found along the way, this one was stuffed with everything from energy drinks to ice creams and pretty much every type of chocolate bar you could want. We threw about £8 and a thank-you note into the money tin and plodded on.
Soon after we found our pace slowed due to an extremely muddy section of the Way, where Chris gave up attempting to avoid the muddy puddles and pools littered with noisy frogs and frogs-spawn and climbed up cautiously to walk along the top of a dry-stone wall for a good fifty meters.
The rest of the road to Tyndrum took us through glorious pine forests led by a pathway of vibrant orange pine leaves. The contrast was incredible, and I could barely put my camera down. In between the trees great landscapes unveiled themselves and I think by this point we’d both completely forgotten about the weight of our packs and could focus on thoroughly enjoying the scenery around us.
After emerging from the forests more stunning vistas unfolded especially around Auchtertyre Farm where along with stunning views of the surrounding mountains you also pass St Fillian’s priory which dates back from the 13th century and an even older graveyard to the right which apparently dates back as far as the 8th century.
Before reaching By The Way Campsite in Tyndrum (a common camping spot for wanderers of The Way) we spent a good hour or so attempting to find a decent wild camp spot, though eventually we had to give up due to un-even ground and lack of good tree coverage being unsure whether it was likely to rain that night. Instead we got our first glimpse of wild deer, a female and her fawn peering at us warily from across a clearing, unfortunately too far away to photograph!
That night we headed into the pub to grab nice bite to eat and found ourselves greeted cheerfully by a mob of fellow walkers of The Way. We both recognised the majority of them having let on to them or shared a quick greeting at some point during the previous few days, but it seemed that somehow we’d all ended up in Tyndrum at the same time and in the same pub… Not that there’s many pubs to choose from in Tyndrum (just the one, The Tyndrum Inn). We all got on fabulously and shared stories of our journeys and our struggles, each nursing some kind of injury, and each with our own outlook on the trip so far and what our plans for tomorrow held. After some curry and drinks we headed back with Lieke and Charlotte (two lovely Belgian girls from Ghent) to the campsite to exchange some Belgian chocolate for Scottish whiskey and played some very questionable card games (none of which we actually knew the rules for) for a good few hours before calling it a night.
Tyndrum to Inveroran – Day 6
Before leaving Tyndrum it is worth taking note that this is the last chance to stock up on any necessities as there are no more shops until Kinlochleven, 28 miles further up the Way…
The views between Tyndrum and Inveroran were definitely some of my favourite! Dark clouds above made for some really dramatic lighting and the weather held off all day as we walked on towards Bridge Of Orchy with the girls catching us up just before lunch.
So when preparing for the walk and choosing the ‘appropriate footwear’ I think most people would opt for hiking shoes/boots, which before meeting Charlotte was exactly what I would recommend… However her choice was a little different!
Compared with my Salomon X-Alp Gore-Tex (which I am now completely in love with) you’d think she’d have struggled, but to be honest there was never any complaint the whole way to the finish-line. I think more than choosing something crazy expensive and technical; the main thing is that you are comfortable.
The journey upwards towards Inveroran holds some pretty rewarding views if you catch it on the right day. After crossing the bridge we reached the top of short but reasonably steep stretch of path to find a beautiful viewpoint looking out towards Loch Tulla and the Black Mount. As with most mountain viewpoints previous walkers had laid a stone pile to commemorate the spot, and not to be impolite we threw our own (excessively large) contribution onto the top!
On arrival at Inveroran we were completely thrown to see that not only was the ‘village’ Inveroran just a single building located on a deserted looking road, but also that there was over ten wild deer waiting for us at the back doorstep! In shock we all ran outside to take a look and was even more awed to discover that they’d practically eat out of your hand… Chris actually had his fingers gnawed off a little whilst feeding the male peanuts! Apparently the previous owners of the lodge had tamed a number of them through feeding them and it seems they still come back throughout the year to visit the tourist.
Having picked up our bags met back up with a few members of our newly formed group we decided over a pint to walk on around the corner to the ‘wild campsite’ – a local patch of grass located next to the bridge along the river around 100 meters up the street, and set up our tents and campfire for the evening.
Inveroran to Kingshouse (Glencoe Mountain Resort) – Day 7
The following morning we took a stroll back over to the lodge to grab a sausage & bacon roll and set off on another day of absolutely stunning scenery, and easy-going walking with a lot of laughs along the way.
This was the day the ‘Point System’ game came into play… I’ll lay down some ground rules:
2 points for a trip
5 points for a fall
7 points for an injury
Double points if your injury causes you to cry
On arrival at Fort William the loser with the most points buys the first round!
…The rules are negotiable between groups but added extras for us gave whoever talked about pizza 40 points, and golden star for whoever lost a tooth (luckily nobody ever succeeded in this because we had no idea how many points a golden star related to!)
Heading North towards Kingshouse takes you along a generally straight dirt and stone pathway which cuts through Rannoch Moor. This is probably the most wild and remote section of the WHW and arguably one of the last great wildernesses of Europe. We were lucky with the weather and I was blessed to capture some incredible moody vistas looking north, and south back towards Inveroran. On a good day this area offers relatively straightforward hiking, but if the weather isn’t looking so good I’d ensure you are wrapped up from the elements as this stretch is really exposed with no tree cover and no significant areas to hide from strong winds.
Counting down the bridges as we ascended the old military road towards Kingstown the time flew by, and before we knew it we were traversing around the last corner after a 9 mile trek into Glencoe Mountain Ski Resort.
Due to renovation Kingshouse is currently closed so ensure to plan accordingly. We had arranged to meet the rest of the group at the ski resort where there is free camping alongside the car park with free toilet facilities and a shower which is available to pay for.
We spent one of my favourite nights of the trip that night sharing stories with the full group – me, Chris, the two Belgian girls, the super couple; Ferdinand and Fiona from Germany, Welsh Jim, and of course Terry whom had generously paid for a huge wooden pod (the hobbit hole) and invited us in for drinks, snacks and music that evening.
Kingshouse to Kinlochleven – Day 8
Some of our company planned to get an early start and so we said our goodbyes and wondered up to take some breakfast and food for the day from the restaurant in the resort. With bacon and cheese rolls packed in our bag we took off for Kinlochleven 10 miles North West, spending the first hour or so debating whether the ‘Devils Staircase’ named in our trail books would be quite as sinister as it sounded.
After a steady walk out through Kingshouse the pathway begins to rise following a gentle stone path. On a clear day you can be blessed with glorious views of Scotland’s most famous Munros; Buachaille Etive Mor. Unfortunately for us we could only view the foothills of the mountain with its head cloaked in dark morning fog and hear the sound of roaring cars passing by on the A82 which runs alongside the footpath.
Thankfully Devils Staircase isn’t half as bad as it sounds and upon reaching the top hot and sweaty we was blessed with a cool breeze and snow underfoot.
The rest of the walk steadily heads downwards around the mountain after some lovely little stepping stones where I was lucky enough to stumble across a tiny salamander… I’m not too sure what he was doing there, he must have ben freezing! Not too long after we found ourselves approaching the reservoir at the bottom of the hill and followed a winding path which led us into Kinlochleven over the river.
Kinlochleven to Fort William – Day 9
The road to Fort William begins with a steep yet rewarding climb up from the town with stunning views over Loch Leven if you’re willing to dash away from the path thirty or so meters to the left, though generally after this climb the Way is easy going with gradual rises and falls of around 80 metres.
Soon we found ourselves walking along Lairigmor (the great pass) under beautiful clear blue skies. The Great Pass provides very easy walking between steep and grand snow-capped mountains and the winding pathway made for some great shots, using zoom lens or binoculars and looking out into the distance I was able to spot numerous hikers. It really puts into perspective just how many people walk the Way each day… But don’t go thinking it’s only people you’ll find along these paths!
With the sun shining bright overhead I found myself constantly falling behind unable to keep my camera in its bag, instead I scuttled around the shallow rivers gazing up at snow-hooded peaks and luscious green and yellow vegetation before having to run a good two hundred meters in the heat to catch up with the group for some lunch.
Full up from our last lunch break we made good pace heading towards Fort William well aware that our bus back home left in a few hours time. As we pushed through forestry plantations where Britain’s highest mountain Ben Nevis comes into view we noticed these unusual lenticular clouds forming behind us and soon after I was rewarded with a final trophy from the walk – A golden eagle soared across the sky right above us as we approached Fort William!
After what felt like an eternity of putting one foot in front of the other, carrying our sweaty packs and water bottles through the Scottish highlands, we arrived into town exhausted and ready to take our seat at the finish line with the bronze statue of a fellow walker at Gordon Square in the town centre where our arrival was celebrated with the rest of the group awaiting our arrival with drinks in hand.