By Kim Fuller Published in the Denver Post
By Kim Fuller, Special to The Denver Post
FORT WILLIAM, SCOTLAND — The pastime of hill walking, as it’s called in Scotland, was something I knew I had to do as soon as I learned about it. I grew up hiking in the Rocky Mountains, and hill walking, it seemed, had the open-air refreshment and meditative cadence of a hike, but without the high-altitude ascents. There were more rolling, lush landscapes, with quaint towns to explore along the way. And whisky tastings.
I traveled to Scotland from Colorado in 2010. I had just graduated from college, and for a year I lived in the country and explored Europe as an aspiring freelance writer. I was based in Dundee, in the coastal area of Fife, and I did more city wandering and paved-path running than hill walking while I was there.
Upon my arrival in his country back then, my then-new friend Jack McKeown gave me an image-rich book on the West Highland Way. The pages detailed a 96-mile, south-to-north route through mountains and lochs, forests and farm land that connects Milngavie, near Glasgow, to Fort William, on the western side of the country. Jack had completed it over a decade earlier, and I think I asked him right then and there if he would do it again, with me.
Four years after I left Scotland, I returned, this time with my boyfriend, Bobby. It was early September, and we had set plans to walk the Way: Jack would join us, and several friends would to meet us along the route, hopping on the trail for a leg of it here and there.
Crunched for time, we decided to set up our itinerary at six days instead of the more common seven. This preserved a vacation day for Jack, who was taking time off work to come along on the walk. It also substantially increased the mileage we needed to complete each day.
You can carry your gear the whole distance, backpacking style, and camp or book a room, but we decided to lighten our loads by using a bag transfer service called Ginger Routes, which drops your bag off wherever you plan to stay each night. Ginger Routes charges a flat rate of 40 pounds ($52 at current exchange rates) per bag for the service for the duration of your trip.
We started on a Monday — 12 miles from Milngavie to Drymen. It was our shortest day, and a great introduction to the trail. We began in a woodland area, and then the trail opened up into miles of gentle and scenic terrain. Far ahead we spotted Ben Lomond, our first look at the Highland Line, where the mountains begin to rise out of the Scottish Lowlands. Our fresh legs walked us north, away from our usual obligations and toward feelings of freedom and adventure.
Our first beer stop of the trip was on that first day, a little over halfway to Drymen, at the Beech Tree Inn. We sat and soaked in the afternoon sunshine before continuing on toward our planned stop for the night at the stately Buchanan Arms Hotel & Spa in Drymen.
The sun was out for nearly every day of our trip. This isn’t particularly common in Scotland, but September is as good a month as any to try your luck on catching an extended stint of temperate weather. I’ve met people who have done the Way in day after day of rain, and though we were prepared for that, we only had to wear our waterproof jackets and pants once.
Day two was Drymen to Rowardennan — 14 miles through the forest and moorland, and then up and over Conic Hill, our gateway to the Scottish Highlands. Covered in vast blankets of purple heather, this rewarding summit offers views of Loch Lomond, the largest inland stretch of water in Great Britain (by surface area).
You traverse along Loch Lomond’s entirety on the Way, and this day’s walk eventually took us down to the shoreline, on a rocky and root-broken singletrack before we gradually made it to the impressive waterfront property of the Rowardennan Youth Hostel. A beer was in order, but rather than more walking to a nearby pub, we ordered three Scottish brews from the reception desk, stretched in the room and nodded off quickly.
Our third day, Rowardennan to Crianlarich, was already one of the biggest pushes, at 20.5 miles to the Riverside Guest House. It wasn’t a good day to veer off track. The mistake happened early in the day, while our trio was still feeling talkative — and evidently distracted. We walked about five miles out of our way on a road before catching a car ride back to the hard left turn where we had diverged.
It crushed our spirits. We had so much still to come. But as with the other (many) moments of fatigue that can come on a journey like this, you just keep walking — even when you wish a pub would magically appear on a hillside nearby.
After a long 15 miles, we finally stopped at The Drovers Inn, Inverarnan, a time capsule of Highland history that spans back to hosting the area’s cattle drovers in the 1700s. (If only I could have ridden a cow to Crianlarich.) It took a strong dram of whisky at The Drovers for me to get going again for our final six miles of the day.
I was ready to sleep as soon as we arrived in the evening to the lovely B&B, but Jack and Bobby wanted to head to a pub in town for a late bite to eat, so we hobbled over to the Crianlarich Hotel for pizza and pints of cold beer. I’m glad I joined; a traditional Scottish duo was playing live music. We sank into worn leather and ordered spirits for our nightly tasting: Each evening, we took turns picking three whiskys to share and taste. This time, our selection included Lagavulin 16, and the peat-smoke seemed to rock me to bed before we had even left the bar.
On the morning of day four, our friends Liz and Angus surprised us at breakfast, all set to walk with us for the day, 14 miles to Bridge of Orchy. (Locals sometimes walk the Way in segmented days like this.) After full bellies of sausage, baked beans, black pudding and tattie scones, we headed onward, over the bridge at Kirkton that crosses the River Fillan — and through a wood-fence whisky stop, and a stone wall gin and tonic station of pre-mixed cans, all provided by the picnic-savvy Liz and Angus, who also pulled out a whole sleeve of Green & Black’s mini chocolates to share. Jack’s parents, Dave and Sheila, and their golden retriever, Bracken, met us on the trail as we came upon Bridge of Orchy.
Dinner was a big party that night, with the whole Scottish crew and a pair of Americans, and once again, after a round of Caol Ila single malt, I was away and dreaming before my head even hit my pillow.
Bridge of Orchy to Kinlochleven was another hefty stretch at 20.5 miles, but day five meant we were well over half way, and the final leg was near. Much of the morning was on the Rannoch Moor, an expanse of about 50 square miles of beautifully wild, starkly desolate moorland, followed by a much-needed lunch stop at Kingshouse, then back on, to steep switchbacks that took us up and over the daunting climb of the Devil’s Staircase. It’s the highest point of the Way, with views of the Glencoe mountains we knew we had fully earned.
By the time we descended mile after mile into Kinlochleven, everything was sore. But a cozy night in the cabins behind Macdonald Hotel set us on the right track for our last day on the Way.
We woke up to rain on our final day, a 15-mile trek to Fort William. At one point we huddled for a snack in stone ruins near the high point of Lairig Mor. Even in the drizzle, all seemed bright on this last part of our journey. Jack’s girlfriend, Eilidh, joined us for this grand finale, and though so many of those miles were memorable, I don’t think any of us will forget the rainbow that greeted the last mile of our walk.
Kim Fuller is a freelance writer based in Vail. She is owner and editor-in-chief of CO YOGA + Life Magazine. Read more at kimfullerink.com.