Anis Ibrahim attempts Scotland’s most beloved walking trail, taking in its stunning scenery and experiencing some kindness along the way
THE first few drops of rain take me by surprise even when they shouldn’t. It was as though I never saw them coming and yet I had seen the darkening sky and the clouds long before the first drops hit. And in a place like Scotland in the autumn, some rain is bound to fall.
The good news is that my rain jacket is within easy reach in the front pocket of my daypack. The bad news is that the rain is pelting down, hard and angry, like pebbles hurled from above, and there is no shelter.
I am too far ahead to turn back and since there is nowhere for me to hide from the rain, on I trudge. The path soon turns into a muddy riverbed and my boots, no longer as waterproof as they used to be, squelch in a most revolting manner. There is nothing to do but walk until I find a place to stop. One hour later, I am still searching.
I am about halfway through the West Highland Way, Scotland’s most beloved walking trail. It’s no surprise that an estimated 30,000 people walk the route every year.
The Way, as it’s often called, is famous for its stunning scenery.
From its starting point in a suburb called Milngavie on the outskirts of Glasgow, it takes walkers through forests, across streams and right beside mountains until the trail arrives in Fort William in the Scottish Highlands, 154.5km later.
Most walkers take seven to nine days to finish the West Highland Way, although some have completed the walk in five days. With the exception of the section along Loch Lomond, the first half of the Way from Milngavie to Tyndrum is generally regarded as less challenging, while the walk from Tyndrum to Fort William has the best scenery.
Getting to Milngavie isn’t difficult as it’s only 24 minutes by train from Glasgow Central station. The walk begins in the pedestrian centre near an obelisk with the words “West Highland Way” on it.
When I arrived at the square three days ago, even though I couldn’t be completely sure, I appeared to be the only Asian around.
Milngavie-Drymen: 22 km
The walk from Milngavie (pronounced “mull-guy”) is straightforward and gives walkers a slow and easy introduction to the West Highland Way. After leaving the centre, the trail takes you into a forest, beside a pretty lake called Craigallian Loch, and about an hour later, into a valley with lovely views of the hills.
The Way enters farmland and more leafy woods after this and later in the afternoon on the approach to Drymen (“drimmen”), my stop for the night, the trail goes on for a few kilometres on tarmac. I’m not a fan of road walking but this is the only way to my bed and breakfast and a hot dinner.
ALONG THE SHORES OF LOCH LOMOND
Drymen-Rowardennan: 24.6 km
The next few days turn out to be rather eventful. I start out far too late on Day Two at 9.30am, which leads Frances, the owner of my B&B, to suggest what she believes will be an easy walk to my next stop at Rowardennan. “The walk through the woods winds about a wee bit in the beginning so this is a short cut. This way, you won’t have to go through the woods until later,” she says.
But I like woods and forests, my heart tells me, but my head knows that the shorter route will serve me better due to my late start. Frances’ route, however, goes along a tarred country lane, painful on the feet, but thankfully the path is attractive enough to keep me happy.
About an hour in, three Germans tackling another long distance walk called the Rob Roy Way catch up with me. We exchange friendly words as walkers often do, then they stride off, their walking poles click-clacking on the road.
I catch sight of them 15 minutes later when our routes branch off- the Rob Roy Way to the right, and the West Highland Way to a forest on the left. They pause in their tracks and turn around to face me. I’m about 200m away. One of them points to me then to the left, indicating that that is where I should be headed. I nod and wave to them. They wave back, turn right and disappear.
After a clearing high above the woods, the trail brings me to one of the loveliest views on the Way.
This time I’m above Loch Lomond, and the views are glorious. Carved out by a glacier 10,000 years ago, Loch Lomond is Britain’s largest body of water, 37km long and 8km at its widest point. (If you’re a fan of the Tintin comics, you might may recognise Loch Lomond as Captain Haddock’s preferred Scottish whisky).
I look for a nice spot for a quick snack and meet two Swiss girls who are just finishing their sandwiches.
“Are you walking alone?” one of them asks, and I say yes.
“Oh, how nice!” the same girl says, a little too enthusiastically. I see her friend smile weakly. That probably isn’t the right thing to say when your travel companion is around.
I stop in a village called Balmaha for lunch at the One Tree Inn. This ends up being the worse decision I would make on this walk, as I lose track of the time and realise to my horror 1 1/2 hours later that I should have settled for a sandwich instead of a sit-down meal.
By the time I leave the cafe, it’s close to 3pm, far too late to be setting off, especially if I still have 11km to go before I reach Rowardennan.
After Balmaha, much of the West Highland Way hugs the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, alternating between running along the loch’s sandy beach and entering the birch woodlands close to the water. This is a beautiful section of the trail, so although I am disappointed in myself for wasting time at the cafe, the views provide some consolation for me.
Two hours after leaving Balmaha, the trail begins to head deeper into the woods. At around 5pm, I decide to abandon the official trail and continue on the road, believing it to be a better option than going around in the woods in the late evening. My feet are aching, so I convince myself that walking on the road to Rowardennan would be safer for me.
If I faint and collapse from exhaustion on the road, at least the drivers will see me and have pity on me. If I collapse in the woods I could be stuck there, only to be discovered weeks later, a frozen corpse buried under leaves, my lifeless fingers clutching my walking poles.
I was quite serious then and didn’t see the humour at the time. “Travel is only glamorous in retrospect”, as Paul Theroux once said. I arrive in Rowardennan at 6.30 in the evening, just as the sun is setting.
Rowardennan-Inverarnan: 5 km
I wake up on Day Three with a swollen right foot. My flat feet are in a bad state after the 9.5km of road walking I did the day before, all because I started late after breakfast and lunch. I have blisters on both feet but my right foot is a work of art: there is a large gash on the fleshy bit under the large toe, and my blister is bleeding.
I stick some plasters on my feet and decide there and then to take a break for the day. After a hurried breakfast, I change into my sandals and take a boat to a village called Luss on the western shore. This ends up being a very pleasant day, providing me with an opportunity to travel across Loch Lomond and rest my feet. From Luss, I take a bus to my next stop at Inverarnan.
Inverarnan-Crianlarich: 15.6 km
After just one day away from the trail, I realise how much I miss walking. Having learnt my lesson, I check out from my guesthouse at 8.15am. As it leaves Inverarnan, the West Highland Way climbs and edges closer towards the Scottish Highlands. The walk isn’t particularly challenging at this stage, but the trail is mostly unpaved and cannot stand up to the heavy rain of the day before.
It rains again in the afternoon and before long, the path turns into a sloshy, stinking riverbed and I can feel my toes getting damp from the mud that has seeped through my boots. Unable to find shelter, I continue walking for several hours until I reach a crossroads in the trail — one fork towards Tyndrum and the other to Crianlarich. I find a tree stump to sit on and take my boots off. My toes are shrivelled and the blister, which has begun weeping again, doesn’t smell too good.
“Are you all right, love?” an older Scottish lady sitting nearby asks. The insides of my boots are wet, I tell her. She rummages in her daypack, finds something and comes over. In her hand are a couple of plastic bags.
“Oh dear, that doesn’t look too pretty,” she says, motioning towards my feet. She hands me the plastic bags. “Put your feet in these for the time being. Maybe you should get some waterproof socks tomorrow,” she says. I’m struck by her kindness, and thank her.
Time to pay it forward to someone else on the trail.
Next week: The writer goes into the Scottish Highlands to arrive at The End.
The West Highland Way is 154.4km long, and links Milngavie with Fort William.
How to get there
Trains run from both Glasgow Central and Glasgow Queen Street stations to Milngavie every 30 minutes. If you can’t take an early train on the morning of your walk, spend the night before in Milngavie. At the other end of the WHW, Fort William is connected to both Glasgow and Edinburgh by train.
When to go
The walking season in Scotland is from mid April-mid October. The WHW is busiest in July and August. I went in September – the weather was cool, the skies were clear when it wasn’t raining and the trail wasn’t crowded.
What to bring