Walk the West Highland Way with a Cicerone Guidebook
The West Highland Way
by Terry Marsh
A handy pocket sized guidebook for anyone planning to walk the West Highland Way National Trail. The popular 95-mile long-distance route from Glasgow to Fort William typically takes less than a week to walk, passing through the stunning scenery that Scotland has to offer. A description of the Way is also provided for walkers from north to south. More...
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The West Highland Way
Now over 30 years old, the West Highland Way was the first officially designated long-distance route in Scotland, established under the Countryside (Scotland) Act, 1967. It runs, officially, for 152km (95 miles) from the outskirts of Glasgow to Fort William, and in the process contrives to experience an enormously wide variety of landscapes and walking conditions. It is neither easy nor outrageously demanding, although inclement weather can certainly raise the stakes a few notches, but neither is it the ideal route on which to embark on your first experience of long-distance walking. The Way is usually walked from south to north, probably because that is the way it was conceived. This guide also contains a route description from north to south – for those who like to go against the flow.
There is a great association between much of the Way and the historical past of Scotland. It crosses three major areas of great significance in Scottish history – from the lands of Lennox, through Breadalbane and on to Lochaber. Much of the route pursues ancient drove roads or old military roads built to help in the control of Jacobite clansmen, and the study of these aspects alone is a fascinating and worthwhile preoccupation.
The idea for the Way is not as recent as might be supposed. It originates as long ago as the 1930s and 1940s, but it was in the aftermath of the Pennine Way success story that embryonic notions began to develop to maturity. Approval for the Way to be officially developed was given in September 1974, and the route was opened on 6 Oct 1980 by Lord Mansfield, Minister of State at the Scottish Office.
Because it does make use of those old drove roads and military roads, which in turn have been fairly faithfully followed by 20th-century roads and railway links, the resulting route is never far from help, although it can seem it on a bad day. Only as you cross Rannoch Moor and pass through the Lairig Mor beyond Kinlochleven do you acquire any real sense of isolation. Yet the Way’s proximity to such modern trappings of civilisation rarely impinges on the pleasure you gain from the walk. Yes, there are moments when you can hear the traffic and come perilously close to it; and yes, there are times when the traffic seems always in view, somewhere. But that must be set against a walk of great quality and distinction that passes through a landscape second to none. Often all it takes to shun these ‘problems’ is a convenient boulder or sheltered hollow, and you could be a million miles from anywhere.
The great pleasure of the Way derives from the many changes in its character as it moves through different geological zones – from lowland Scotland to the highlands, and from the pastoral introduction as you move northwards from Milngavie to the loveliness that is Loch Lomond. Beyond that you enter the realms of Glen Falloch and Strath Fillan, glens flanked by great mountains that were once cloaked by the mantle of an ancient Caledonian pine forest.
North of Tyndrum the Way sets about tackling Rannoch Moor, largely on routes formerly used by drovers. As a result, it is well trodden and never in doubt. But it is along this section that you find yourself more remote from outside help than at any other time along the walk. On a good day the walking is a delight, but, in spite of the comparative ease of the conditions underfoot, poor weather can soon turn delight to disaster. Anyone not bound for the oasis that is the King’s House Hotel should think twice, if the weather is especially changeable, before leaving the security of the Bridge of Orchy or Inveroran.
Touching only briefly on Glen Coe, the Way presses on from Kingshouse, heading for Kinlochleven, the Lairig Mor and Fort William. The author found the short stretch between Kingshouse and Altnafeadh, alongside the heavy and speeding traffic on the A82, to be the least appealing section of the whole walk. As Wayfarers approach Altnafeadh they stride along within feet of the traffic for a short distance, and in wet conditions are sure to get a good drenching from spray.
Between Altnafeadh and the end of the Way at Fort William the quality of the walking remains high. Forestry plantations cloak the hills on the south side of Glen Nevis, but they have been extensively cleared in recent years, and the continued felling means that occasionally the West Highland Way has to be diverted for a time. Before that, the long, winding approach to Kinlochleven and the ensuing flight across the southern flanks of the Mamores through Lairig Mor, where most of the clearance has so far occurred, is excellent walking, and a fitting final stage for an outstanding walk.
Weather and when to go
Over the many years that I have been backpacking in Scotland I have, at various times, encountered weather that has grilled my ears to an acute degree of tenderness and, at others, drenched me so thoroughly that it would have been simpler, but infinitely more embarrassing, to walk with nothing on at all! Both extremes should be expected and catered for by anyone contemplating the West Highland Way. Only those who don’t think in terms of such weather conditions are likely to find themselves facing uncomfortable and (at the extreme) potentially dangerous conditions.
In Scotland, weather statistics are meaningless, made even more pointless by the fact that many walkers on the West Highland Way simply cannot sit at home until the weather looks like settling for a week or so and then zoom to Glasgow to begin the walk. The reality is that you get whatever weather is on offer, and Wayfarers must be capable of coping with it. There is a saying that there is no such thing as bad weather, just inadequate clothing, and there is a lot of truth in this – so if you expect cold, wet and windy weather, and prepare for it, then anything else is a bonus. If you approach the West Highland Way in this frame of mind – expecting the worst – then when you find beautiful days of perfect walking weather you’ll come to understand that the sun really does shine on the righteous – and, as I do, start looking round for him or her.
May and June, and September and October, are most likely to offer the best and most settled weather.
One of the least expected consequences of bad weather is the effect it can have on even the tiniest burns, turning them into raging torrents that can prove very difficult to cross. To a large extent this has been anticipated by the managing authorities for the Way, and footbridges have been installed wherever this is likely to occur, but there is always at least one exception that seems set on proving the rule. Unless time is genuinely of the essence, the wisest way of dealing with these extreme conditions is to retreat and sit them out in safety and comfort for a while. They seldom last long and, with the possible exception of misty conditions, usually clear up in a brief period of time.
Many people, perhaps because of family or work commitments, may have little freedom over when they choose to tackle a long walk. But if possible there are certain times to be avoided, sometimes for less obvious reasons than the congestion you can expect during the main tourist months of July and August, although this is nothing like the problem you might imagine. It’s a good idea, too, to avoid starting at weekends: if you can start mid-week, do so – it avoids congestion along the route.
While working on this book (first edition) the author walked the Way in October and late May, and on both occasions weather conditions were ideal. May and June have always tended to be good months in Scotland (although they can be foul, too); likewise, late September and October. But there are two periods to avoid during these months if possible. The first week of May sees motorcycle trials being held on sections of the Way between Bridge of Orchy and Fort William, while later in the year there is the minor inconvenience of deer stalking (see ‘Deer stalking and lambing’, below).
The following section on pests may also persuade you that there are other times to be avoided for altogether different reasons.
One of the purgatorial experiences of walking in Scotland is the ubiquitous midge, a tiny stinging insect that seems to regard humans as little more than an al fresco menu on legs. Like wolves, they hunt in packs, but in greater numbers, and to be surrounded by a cloud of these vicious beasties all clamouring for a taste of your fleshier parts is not a pleasant event. They seem to be at the worst from the end of May onwards, and have allies in the form of horse flies, known as clegs, and sheep ticks.
There are a few proprietary creams, lotions and sprays that have some deterrent effect, and in recent times creams have been based on bog myrtle (Myrica gale), a traditional highland remedy for midges in particular. Oil of lavender also seems to have a beneficial effect for a while, but needs to be constantly reapplied, leaving you smelling rather pungent by the end of the day. One proprietary solution, allegedly used by our stalwart marines, is Avon’s ‘Skin so Soft’, which works very effectively.
Thankfully, midges cannot take to the air in even light breezes, making this little gem of knowledge important to anyone faced with pitching a tent; better the flapping sides of a tent to contend with than furiously flapping arms inside it as you do battle with the insects all night.