Pull on a pair of hiking boots and get some northern exposure, exploring Scotland on foot. Boutique hotels, hearty home cooking and a wee dram each night make it all the easier
It’s all too easy to travel to a destination and see it at breakneck speed, frantically ticking off your list of ‘must sees’ and ‘must dos’, buying the T-shirt, postcards and matching coaster collection. But there is a different way to travel. You can go at your own pace whilst taking in the sights that are changing every step of the way. You don’t need a guide and there’s no coach to find at the end of the day. Walking could be your way forwards.
High and low
Stretching for 152 km (95 miles) from the soft pastoral lowlands to the majestic mountains of the north, the West Highland Way is Scotland’s first long distance walking route. For a walk that really takes you into the heart of a landscape, without actually having to scale its mountains, it's ideal. It weaves a path from the outskirts of Scotland’s biggest city, along the shores of its largest freshwater loch, across one of its wildest moors before plonking you at the foot of its highest mountain, Ben Nevis.
It’s certainly proving a popular way to see the country, with over 50,000 walkers embarking on this journey every year and stepping into the heart of the Highlands. Officially opened in 1980, it is based on a number of much older routes like the 18th-century military roads of English officer General Wade and the long-established drovers' roads used to herd livestock to the richer markets of the lowlands, as well as the more modern development of railway tracks, which now lie abandoned.
The first challenge for walkers starting their route in the south is being able to pronounce the name of the departure town. Ten minutes by train from Glasgow is Milngavie, actually pronounced “Mullguy”, where a granite obelisk marks the start of the route. From here the path roughly follows the meandering Allander Water to the edge of Mugdock Wood and on past Craigallian Loch, backed by the distinctive mound-shaped hill of Dumgoyach. Very quickly the urban landscape fades away.
Into the wild
After a short section on a grassy track you gain a glimpse of things to come. The terraced Campsie Fells, the rough escarpment of the Strathblane Hills and the knobbly mass of Dumgoyne rear ahead. As though on an invisible threshold, you can sense you are about to enter wilder terrain.
These differences continue to show their face the following day as you walk across wide, gorge-fringed moorland and begin the steady climb up Conic Hill (361m). From up here Loch Lomond stretches out below and lofty mountaintops, including Ben Vorlich, Ben Vane and the Luss Hills, reach skywards. Mountain and water meet and merge. This is the Highlands.
There a very visible dividing line here. Leading from the summit down to the water is a distinctive string of islands. The Highland Boundary Fault, which runs 260km from Arran in the west to Stonehaven on the east coast, marks a clear separation between Highland and Lowland. The route from here onwards enters into the heart of the Highlands, where granite mountains are rarely far away.
Along the loch
Below, the West Highland Way largely follows the banks of Loch Lomond, winding through re-established native woodland, across rocky coves and beaches dotted with gnarled trees. Just before arriving in Rowardennan, the summit of Ben Lomond, the most southerly of Scotland’s Munros (peaks over 3000 feet or 924 metres), comes into view.
A deep sense of history pervades throughout the route. Continuing along the densely wooded loch side, Rob Roy’s cave can be reached, a supposed hideaway of the highland hero. The son of a clan chieftain and a cattle dealer, he became an outlaw when he borrowed money from the Duke of Montrose. For failing to pay him back, Montrose put a price on his head and Rob Roy’s infamous life on the run began.
The route leads to Inverarnan, where close by you will find the Way’s oldest pub, the Drover’s Inn. For three centuries it has been serving travellers. Robert Burns, the nation’s bard, Robert Louis Stevenson, Boswell and Rob Roy all passed by and are believed to have stopped in. The leather-bound books on the shelf, claymore sword strung on the wall, smoke-blackened walls and flickering candlelight all add to the atmosphere, as though still part of this era gone by.
Whilst the landscape now offers the walker tranquillity, it was once a region rife with conflict. Violent raids rustled livestock, clans jostled for territory and later the English armies came building roads to bring the Highlands under their control.
The sturdy, high arched Bridge of Orchy leads onwards to the unsuppressed wildness of Loch Tulla and Rannoch Moor. This is the most remote section of the walk, dominated by lonely lochans and dark peat bog. It descends to the head of the dramatic and infamous Glen Coe where the bloody massacre of the Macdonald clan by the Campbells took place in 1690. The grand pyramidal mass of Buachaille Etive peak appears positioned like a sentry guarding the entrance.
The Way climbs out of the glen via the Devil’s Staircase, named by the soldiers who had to carve this zigzagging route. The name is far worse than the actual walk, which gradually weaves to a pass at 548m (1,797 ft). A descent through rugged mountainside leads to the village of Kinlochleven.
The final section climbs above the village through birch woods, giving way to views over Loch Leven. Remnants of the past remain in the shape of abandoned farms such as Tigh-na-steubhaich, a rambling ruin in the lonely pass of Lairigmòr. The route now dips and turns through conifer plantations until a final descent into Glen Nevis and the journey's end in Fort William town.
Weather depending, this final section may just tease you with lofty mountain views of Ben Nevis. If there is strength in the legs you may well be tempted by one final crowning summit and some more northern exposure.