Travelling light: the West Highland Way

by naomi

From rolling lowlands to majestic peaks and quiet lochs, the West Highland Way takes in the best Scotland has to offer – and hikers don't even carry their own rucksacks. Baggage handlers do that…

Negotiating the tortuous ups and downs of the Loch Lomond shoreline, laden with an enormous rucksack and resembling an upright tortoise, may be some people’s idea of fun – but it’s not mine. The last thing I wanted, when walking the West Highland Way, was to be so burdened I could barely lift my head to take in the untrammelled gorgeousness of loch-side Scotland.

Fortunately, it is possible to tackle the Way’s 95-mile route as unencumbered as one of the feral goats or fluffy-bottomed roe deer you are likely to encounter on your path. Baggage carriers are reasonably priced and will drop your luggage at or near your overnight accommodation. So, unless you really want to do that tortoise thing, there is no need to carry anything bigger than a daybag containing essentials.

And boy, is it worth it – since untrammelled gorgeousness is indeed what you can expect on this walk that follows old drove paths, military roads and disused railway lines from the outskirts of Scotland’s largest city to the foot of its highest peak. You really do want to be free to lift your head and take it all in.

From gentle to rugged

The Way starts in unpromising fashion, at a granite obelisk in the shopping precinct of Milngavie (pronounced Mull-guy), a 20-minute suburban train journey from the centre of Glasgow. Within half an hour’s gentle saunter, however, you are in a lush land of bunnies and birdsong in Mugdock Country Park.

There follows a gradually unfolding journey from the gentle to the rugged, taking you from lowland farms and hills, through the woodland of Loch Lomond into grander, more open country. Having crossed the bleak and eerie Rannoch Moor, struck though Glen Coe and climbed the Devil’s Staircase, the full magnificence of the Highlands is set before you. The walk comes to its conclusion in Fort William, beneath the hulk of Ben Nevis.

Always beautiful, the West Highland Way is at times also breathtaking. One of the most beautiful stretches is the 16 or so miles along Loch Lomond. Shortly after Rowardennan – little more than a pier and a pub nestled beneath Ben Lomond – walkers are presented with the choice of an upper or lower path.

An uplifting experience

Short but steep rocky inclines – plus the need to clamber over large, mossy boulders and fallen trees – make the low road by far the harder going. However, the pretty shingle bays you skirt, the shades of steel-grey cast over the loch by the surrounding peaks that envelop you, and the greens of the mature oak and beech woodland through which you walk make it by far the more uplifting experience. Any time after spring, the leaf canopy means those on the upper path miss out on the fantastic views.

Besides, thanks to the baggage carriers – try Travel-lite (www.travel-lite-uk.com), AMS (www.amsscotland.co.uk) or West Highland Way Transport (www.west-highland-way-transport.co.uk/baggage-transfers.html) – anybody of moderate fitness should be able to scramble their way along the lower path without too much effort. This section of the Way is as hard as it gets, too,since the route takes you through, rather than over, the Highlands.

Characterful hotels

Accommodation along the Way ranges from campsites and basic hostels to b&b rooms and characterful hotels. The latter include the fabulously located Kings House Hotel, an 18th-century former barracks that stands at the heads of Glen Etive and Glen Coe with the sheer rock bulk of Buachaille Etive Mór rearing in front of it.

The Inversnaid Hotel, on the banks of Loch Lomond, and the Bridge of Orchy Hotel are both also conveniently located for Way walkers, the latter bringing with it a welcome touch of luxury. For a more eccentric overnight stay, you could try The Drovers Inn at Inverarnan. Here, you fight for space in the bar alongside countless stuffed creatures, suits of armour and other ephemera, including the ashes of former locals.

Easy does it…

Experienced walkers attempt the West Highland Way in five days, and the record for its completion is an incredible 15 hours and 44 minutes. For most people, however, seven, eight or even nine days is more realistic. More used to Sunday strolls in the South, I cautiously allowed nine days to complete my first long-distance path. I may not have broken any records, but the sense of achievement as the distinctive hunch of Ben Nevis loomed was, nevertheless, hard to beat.