The West Highland Way takes a relatively easy 154.5km (96 mile) route from Milngavie, a little to the north of Glasgow, to Fort William in the highlands, where it meets the western end of the Great Glen Way. Driving north on the western shore of Loch Lomond recently, en route for Fort William, I found I was recalling the day when we chose to deviate from the main WHW route and take in a climb up Ben Lomond, a suggestion made in Ronald Turnbull's Not the West Highland Way. It had been a great hill day, but one with a less than satisfactory twist.
Early October is one of the best times of year for walking the West Highland Way. The midgies have departed, the hillsides are vibrant with autumn colour and the weather is often settled.
Milngavie, a short suburban train ride from central Glasgow, is a pleasant little town, with a good selection of independent shops and a stylish granite monument announcing the start of the West Highland Way. ‘We’ were once again walking with our great friends Clive and Lucy. The route is well waymarked, as the path makes its way through lightly wooded parkland before gradually emerging into more open countryside. Passing alongside the pretty Craigallian loch we gained our first views across to the Campsie Fells. Stretching out in front of us was the line of the Highland Boundary Fault, abruptly announcing the end of the Central Lowlands.
Halfway into the day’s walk, and shortly before the Glengoyne Distillery at Dumgoyne, we were delighted to see welcoming signs for tea and refreshments. The Beach Tree Inn is clearly a popular stop for both walkers and motorists alike, and our tea, scones and cake went down well. The afternoon provided mainly level walking and we eventually arrived in Drymen, with distant and enticing views of Loch Lomond, Ben Lomond and Conic Hill, which would be our first highpoint for the following day.
Escaping Drymen, fuelled by a good Scottish breakfast, we headed uphill in damp, claggy conditions through plantations, with a rising wind providing ever-improving views of Loch Lomond. After crossing a stream the summit of Conic Hill was next, blasting us with a strong westerly wind to reveal clearer skies and longer views across to the Cobbler and mountains beyond. A steep descent down stone steps took us through a beautiful wood, with shafts of sunlight penetrating the tall trees and illuminating the mossy forest floor below. On reaching the shore of Loch Lomond our afternoon was spent following a convoluted route on road and shoreline path, with some surprisingly steep undulations. All very pretty, but also pretty tedious, before we arrived finally in Rowardennan.
Rowardennan nestles to the south of the great bulk of Ben Lomond, and on this particular night we were treated to an Aurora display. Had we been slightly further north our view might have been better, but the thrill for the flickering greenish northern light was enough to keep us out in the garden of the hotel for nearly an hour.
Low cloud enveloped us in the early morning, but with a good forecast we climbed Ben Lomond in good time. Although the summit was in thick cloud, further down we were rewarded by some stunning views in an amazing light. The final 100m of the climb to the summit is slightly craggy, and Jonathan did well both up and down this section, something that we had wanted to test. Six months previously he had completely ruptured his right quadriceps tendon, and the months of careful exercising and physio following surgery seemed to have paid off. I, however, was fairing less well: bending my right knee to any degree walking downhill was suddenly met with excruciating pain, which later turned out to have been a torn ligament – I'm still puzzled as to how and why.
Coming down the north-western side of the Ben took us along the line of a deer fence through bog, heather, grassy tussocks, bog grasses and yes, more bog. Deer were barking on the neighbouring hillside, and eventually we reached a good track that took us down to the loch shore. Here, more convoluted slow-going paths led all the way to Inversnaid, where we finished what had been a long day by climbing east away from the Loch to reach a fantastic bunkhouse and bistro sited in a converted church, with wonderful views from our rooms which were just up the road at Garrison Farm. We were deeply in the middle of nowhere: it felt fantastic!
By late morning the following day we had negotiated the final section of awkward shoreline path to the head of Loch Lomond, then a short climb up over a ridge revealed the long glen through which the River Falloch carves its way between Crianlarich and Loch Lomond. The walking was now easy, and striding out we found ourselves negotiating minor new route diversions to avoid pipeline and road excavations. Crossing both the A82 and the railway line which share the glen, we continued mainly on track through the afternoon, passing through a wooded area as we descended down to Crianlarich.
Checking into our lodgings for the evening, Jonathan was conscious that his right leg wasn't feeling comfortable. On inspection it was swollen and an angry, blotched red colour from ankle to knee. An insect bite, or possibly a tick from the previous day’s floundering around in the bog, had clearly caused the skin and blood vessels to become infected. It needed urgent medical attention. The nearest hospitals were either Stirling, or Oban – both around 30 or 40 miles away. It was 6pm. We summoned the local taxi man who took us to Oban, where Jonathan received fantastic and prompt attention.
After an overnight stay in Oban we returned home on the train in the morning, our disappointment mellowed as we enjoyed the wonderful scenic route back through the mountain landscape we had been walking through.
It was a disappointment to have to curtail our walk but, on a positive note, we now have the perfect excuse to return to complete the route between Crianlarich and Fort William this autumn, through what is probably the best scenery of the entire route. Who knows, we may just carry on walking to Inverness up the Great Glen Way!