Milngavie to Fort William

The West Highland Way

September/October 2007

I met Rosalind at Birmingham on the train to Glasgow. We nearly missed the connection to Milngavie because we couldn’t find platform 15. At the last minute we located it and careered down the escalator, jumping on the train just before the doors shut.

At the obelisk marking the start of the West Highland Way we had a horrible cup of tea from Costa Coffee. It served us right for wanting tea from a specialist coffee shop.

Rosalind put on a brave face for the obligatory photo then we completed the first couple of miles before branching off to our B&B. Our room was very cosy, but the coffee was awful. When will we get it right?

We walked back into the village for a meal at a Chinese restaurant which was good value for money. Returning to our digs we had an early night. It had been a long train journey.

The sun was shining when we woke up. After a good breakfast we re-joined the West Highland Way where we had left it yesterday in the park, emerging onto more open ground between reservoirs. The Campsie Fells were away to our right. Two young Germans with very large packs passed us, then we stopped to talk to a man whose dog was carrying his own red pack. ‘I carry his food and he carries my beer’.

After soup with bread at a pub we followed an old railway line for some distance which was rather boring. At Gartmore we joined a minor road which was even more boring. Eating some emergency food distracted us from the boredom and kept us going.

About a mile before reaching the village of Drymen we stopped outside some solid iron gates leading to a large estate, trying to ascertain the best way to reach our digs. The post code I’d obtained from Multimap suggested it was in the village centre. Looking up from the map we saw the prominent B&B sign pointing through the impressive gates. We were there already. Post codes can cover large areas in the countryside.

Our accommodation was in a cottage in the grounds of the estate. It was very cold and having got chilled with all the hanging about I went straight to bed to warm up. When I’d recovered we went down to the village for a good meal in a pleasant but very crowded pub. The heating had been put on when we returned to the cottage which made it feel much more like home and we had a good night’s sleep.

A very fat King Charles spaniel investigated our waste bin next morning, which obviously had become a habit. While we were enjoying some excellent porridge, our landlady told us about the dog’s predecessor who had eaten the serial number off a £50 note. She had kept the note which was now worthless, showing it to us as proof! The question of age came up in the conversation. A friend had told her she wasn’t old, just ‘an antique wee lass’. She must have been the lady of the manor when her husband was alive. The photos of the family, the paintings hanging on the walls along with other collectables all spoke of lineage.

It was a dull day but not raining. There were two choices of route and we decided to take the one via Conic Hill across open moorland, meeting several other couples en route.

Reaching the foot of the hill we dumped our rucksacks and climbed to the top where there were extensive views over Loch Lomond. This well-known freshwater loch is twenty-four miles long and we would soon be tramping along its banks.

The descent from the top of Conic Hill was tricky, very steep with lots of badly laid steps. A highland cow was relaxing, almost on the path. Well, Loch Lomond is said to be the gateway to the Highlands.

At a pub in Balmaha we had Cullen skink for lunch. This satisfying Scottish soup is made from smoked haddock, onions and potatoes and is a filling meal.

Full up, we followed the wooded path along the loch side. It was very pretty but had a lot of ups and downs. We’d had enough by the time we reached our accommodation soon after 5 pm.

To our utter consternation we were informed that they didn’t do bed & breakfast! The lady I’d booked with had retained her phone number but moved back to Drymen. It was a Friday night and most accommodation was full but luckily Rowardennan Youth Hostel had a few places left. The bad news was that it was another three and a half miles further on.

There were other laggards along the way, two Irish lads who had abandoned their tents and two young German girls. We kept passing and re-passing each other with words of encouragement. It was dark when we arrived at the hostel at about 7 pm. The lads had dropped off at the hotel a mile back for their evening meal. We made a banquet out of a tin of minestrone soup, oatcake and cheese, an apple and a Twix bar, very pleased we’d had a substantial lunch.

As there was mobile phone reception I managed to get through to Dave. My ninety-eight-year old father was in hospital having had a hip replacement after a fall. He was making good progress despite picking up an infection.

Next morning the youth hostel provided us with an adequate continental breakfast plus porridge which went down very well. Reluctantly, the two Irish lads were giving up the big walk but would try again next year. The two German girls had left early as they had another long stint ahead.

Ben Lomond, the most southerly of the Scottish mountains over 3,000ft, was to our right and overshadowed us as we set out along the track. This soon petered out and became a rough path, weaving its way between the trees along the loch side. We passed above the crag containing the ‘prison’ where allegedly Rob Roy kept his hostage victims before making a detour to the Rowchoish bothy, an old stone building restored to provide basic shelter for walkers. With the log fire burning brightly and a raging storm outside it would have been home from home. According to the message book there was a resident mouse, but we didn’t see it. We left a message to say that ‘two ancient wee lassies’ had paid a visit, before continuing along the shore to Inversnaid.

Here we had a shock. The sign for the bunkhouse where we’d hoped to stay had a ‘closed’ notice stuck across it. Had I messed up yet again? The only other accommodation was the imposing hotel by the loch side which at least provided refreshment for tired and hungry walkers in the back lobby. The riff raff must not mingle with the guests. We sipped our tea and ate our sandwiches. The bunkhouse was indeed closing, but we were assured that it would be open that night.

As we were tramping up the hill a car pulled up, a local leaned out of the window and again told us that the bunkhouse was closed. What should we believe? It transpired that this would be the last night the bunkhouse was open. Because it was fully booked the ‘closed’ notices had already been posted. The other guests were two very stiff young lassies who were yomping miles each day and a rugby team, the members of which had cycled the twenty-six miles from Callander for a stag night.

The bunkhouse was a lovely place, beautifully appointed and the lads were great fun. We watched Scotland beat Italy 18-16 in an exciting rugby world cup then Rosalind and I retired for the night while the ‘boys’ went down to the hotel to continue the celebrations.

In the morning we enjoyed an excellent breakfast and helped ourselves to goodies for lunch. The hard lassies had already departed on their next yomp but there wasn’t much activity from the lads. We said goodbye to the friendly landlady and trundled down the hill, passing a 4x4 in the ditch on the wrong side of the road. Obviously not all the young men had cycled from Callander.

The first three miles of the path alongside the loch were very rough. making it slow going. We looked out for Rob Roy’s cave, a craggy area with CAVE painted in large white letters on a rock for the benefit of the passengers in the cruise boats coming from the other side of the loch.

The midges were out in force when we stopped for a break. I put my glasses down to apply Avon’s ‘Oh so Soft’ which is an extremely good deterrent, stood up and trampled on my glasses! It took some time to find the pieces among the fallen leaves. At least my sunglasses were prescription ones. They would have to do.

Reaching the end of the loch we left the ‘bonnie, bonnie banks’ and climbed out of the valley on a tree-lined path. A little further on a young lad who had spent the previous night in the bothy was brewing up on his stove. He informed us that the bothy did have a resident mouse. It had eaten his bread.

The stags were rutting on the hillside and the strong-smelling droppings of the feral goats gave away their presence long before we saw them on the slopes above us. Their coats were many different colours.

When we reached Beinglas Farm we were allocated a wigwam in which to spend the night in hired sleeping bags. There was a raised area for our bedding with just enough room to store two rucksacks. The only mod cons were a feeble light and a meagre heater to keep the chill off. It was adequate though, and before retiring early we had a filling meal in convivial company in the café/bar.

Next morning it was icy cold and misty when we woke up, but it became a glorious day. We left the campsite as the sun was beginning to break through. The distant mountains, which had been shrouded, began to appear, shaking off their cotton-wool blankets. Water droplets were glistening on the telegraph wires transforming them into things of beauty.

There were several other groups doing this section of the walk and we kept passing and re-passing each other as breaks were taken at different times. Initially the path wound its way through woodland which was beginning to assume its autumnal tints, the sun glinting through the trees. It was picture perfect all the way and as we approached Auchtertyre there were mountains all around us. We really did feel we were in the Highlands.

This is very much Munro country. In 1891 Sir Hugh Munro listed all the mountains in Scotland over 3,000ft. The list came to be known as the ‘Munro Tables’ Subsequently there have been arguments about the exact number but current consensus is that there are 282 Munros and another 227 subsidiary tops. A popular pastime amongst hill walkers is ‘Munro bagging’ and over the years a surprising number of people have climbed all the peaks. The conditions can be treacherous though, especially in winter, and every year there are tragedies.

We crossed the River Fallin and soon reached Auchtertyre. The wigwams here were superior to the ones at Beinglas Farm. There was a better heater and somewhere to sit. Outside there was a picnic table and a place for a campfire. The farm shop provided everything we might need in the way of food. A washing machine and dryer were available for use in the pleasant kitchen cum dining room.

Before preparing a simple meal, we sat in the sun drinking tea and watching the resident geese, rabbits and guinea pigs going about their business against a backdrop of mountain ranges, glowing orange in the evening sunshine.

Afterwards we wandered back to the wigwam. The stars were shining brightly in a clear sky. Although it was cold, we were very snug in our sleeping bags.

When we awoke in the morning it was misty again. Porridge oats and soya milk were available in the kitchen for breakfast and the farm shop provided us with bacon rolls for our lunch.

Cobwebs in the grass were glistening with morning dew. The mist gradually cleared and although there was more cloud about it became another lovely day. The walk beside the River Cononish and through community woodland was very pretty, except for an area laid waste by lead mining near Tyndrum.

Beinn Chuirn, at 2,887ft not as imposing as its more famous neighbour, Ben Lui, was mined for its lead from 1739 to 1923. In 1984 a gold vein was discovered underneath the mountain but not much was done about it. When the price of gold rose, there was renewed interest. It was estimated that the value of the precious metals up for grabs could be in the order of £170 million. Looking forward to 2014, when Scotland voted against Independence, the Crown Estate would grant permission for commercial gold production to proceed.

This was all in the future as we continued our way to the Bridge of Orchy, crossing and re-crossing the railway line to Fort William which weaves its way in and out of the mountains. The massive forms of Beinn Odhar, 2,948ft high, and Beinn Dorain, 3524ft, were ever-present on our right for several miles.

When we reached the Bridge of Orchy Hotel three Germans who had overtaken us were sitting outside having a drink. As we were chatting to them a bus drew up and three weary travellers got off, hobbling badly and looking very sheepish having had to resort to public transport. We couldn’t help laughing which was rather unkind. They had walked twenty miles on each of the first two days carrying heavy kit and had knackered themselves. From now on they were having their kit carried.

The bunkhouse attached to the hotel was comfortable and warm with fresh linen and towels provided. In the hotel we swapped experiences with the other walkers over a satisfying meal before retiring for a good night’s sleep.

As there was mobile phone reception at Bridge of Ochy I tried to contact Dave but there was no reply. The breakfast was excellent and we both smuggled out a piece of toast and some bacon for our lunch.

Leaving the bunkhouse, we saw a majestic eagle disappear into the cloud. The weather was overcast but every so often a bright light shone through and the golden deer grass and bronze heather against the dark mountains and brooding clouds were spectacular. The old drove road wound its way across lonely Rannoch Moor, one of the last wildernesses in Europe, an area of boggy moorland, lochs and mountain streams.

A lone doe crossed the track, which had been saved from disappearing into the mire by Thomas Telford, the civil engineer. His work on roads and related bridges had earned him the title of ‘the Colossus of Roads’ in the early nineteenth century.

The three ‘dropouts’ and the three Germans were going at much the same speed as us. Several of them were hobbling but we were still in one piece. Our motto of ‘better slow than sorry’ has served us well over the years.

The rain held off until we were in sight of the lonely Kings House Hotel, and we scurried the last half mile to shelter. Our en suite accommodation boasted a bath which was sheer luxury.

We were having a drink in the bar after our evening meal when a message came through on the land line for me to phone home. There was no mobile phone reception but luckily, we had a phone in our room. I caught Dave just before he left for the hospital. My father had picked up another infection and was unconscious. I tried to phone Dave again when he returned from hospital, but I couldn’t get through. I felt an insect crawl up my arm then get entangled in my hair. I flicked it away, a squat black thing with lots of legs. Rosalind informed me that it was a tick. I was sitting on the bed to make the phone call and it had probably crawled from her trousers hanging on the bedstead. We had sat in some grass at lunchtime and the little beast must have hitched a ride. Luckily it hadn’t had time to bury itself into my head.

I spent a hot, sticky night worrying and wondering whether I would have to go home.

Next morning, I managed to get through to Dave first thing. My father had regained consciousness and was getting better. Dave didn’t think there was any reason for me to return. I felt a little more relaxed.

There was a thick mist when we left, and Glencoe was in deep gloom. Most groups had overtaken us by the time we reached the Devil’s Staircase, supposedly a major obstacle on the route. In the event it was a doddle and we were soon at the top, where the Germans were dining on Bavarian sausage, pate and local wine. They offered us a swig of the wine which was very good.

Rosalind and I made a short detour to the top of 2,000ft high Beinn Bheag from where we could see the Blackwater Reservoir with the sun reflected on the water. The Germans were still eating and drinking when we regained the path. The riddle as to why they were carrying such large packs when their main luggage was being transported was now solved.

Rosalind decided to tell them the story of the massacre of Glencoe. In the winter of 1692 the Macdonald clan had been tricked and murdered by the government troops. The men had been killed and the women and children had died of exposure after their houses had been burned down. One of the Germans quipped ‘And now Macdonalds are killing us’. Not bad in a foreign language.

The Germans went off to explore Beinn Bheag and we slowly descended into the next valley as the clouds lifted. We wasted a lot of time trying to get a good photo of Ben Nevis as the mountain emerged from the cloud before we realised we were targeting the wrong mountain. Ben Nevis was still a little way ahead.

The scenery was spectacular as we came down to Kinlochleven. Again, we could hear the stags rutting in the surrounding hills. Our B&B was old fashioned but had everything we needed. All the rooms had large ceiling fans and we wondered why.

We went to the nearest pub for our evening meal. All the others were there. They had wondered where we were the previous evening. On enquiring about our ages one of the invalids stated that his father was a similar age and had trouble moving from one chair to another, let alone tackling the West Highland Way. Their admiration made us feel quite pleased with ourselves. It’s good to be accepted by fit, younger men as ‘one of us’.

I phoned Dave in the morning who said that my father was making good progress and asking for his Bailey’s. I could look forward to seeing him well on his way to recovery when I got home. Dave’s reassurance was a big relief.

Over breakfast the presence of the ceiling fans was explained. Midges were a horrendous problem in the summer months and even killing them and disposing of the bodies was difficult. They wouldn’t rot down!

The first section of the next leg of the walk climbed steeply out of the valley to join one of General Wades’ many military roads, constructed in the 1700s. It meandered its lonely way over Lairig Mor. with high mountains all around.

We could see the jagged outline of the famous Aonach Eagach Ridge on the skyline. According to Wikipedia it is ‘the most difficult horizontal ‘scrambling’ route in mainland Scotland’. Also ‘The slopes to each side are extremely dangerous, with steep grass and scree slopes hiding even steeper slopes which end in cliffs on both north and south sides of the ridge’. When I climbed along that ridge in my far-distant youth it was a good thing it was misty, and I couldn’t see the drop!

After passing the ruins of an ancient croft house we came to an area where trees were being felled, leaving a scene of utter desolation. Ben Nevis, seldom seen without a mantle of cloud obscuring its summit, was revealed in all its ugliness. However, as the massive loomed up in front of us, we entered forest yet to be despoiled. Once again, we could hear the stags rutting quite close by.

The last mile or two was markedly hilly, taking longer than expected, but we reached the youth hostel at about 5 pm. After sorting ourselves out we searched for the Ben Nevis Inn, which turned out to be a mile up the road, across the river, along the bank the other side then part way up the Ben Nevis tourist track. It was worth the effort when we got there, a converted barn with spectacular views up the glen, lots of atmosphere and sustaining food. Afterwards we had a mini adventure finding our way back to the hostel over the rough ground by torchlight.

Next morning, we were up early and left at 8.30 am after an uninspiring breakfast, in contrast to the feast of the night before. Regaining the forest track we followed it to the road to Fort William, soon finding a path up over the hill parallel to it, so avoiding the road. Although the day was dull, overcast with occasional drizzle, it made a pleasant ending to our trek.

After taking the required photograph at the end of the West Highland Way (which unfortunately came out blurred), we looked for the start of the Great Glen Way and took a picture of the marker, as in teeming rain we had failed to do so when we had walked the Great Glen last year. It obligingly started to rain for an authentic look.

The midday train to Glasgow was crowded with children going to Crianlarich to ride on the ‘Hogwarts Express’. This steam train which took the aspiring witches and wizards to school in the Harry Potter novels runs between Crianlarich and Mallaig.

Many of the West Highland Way walkers who had overtaken us the day before were on the train, having either taken an extra day to climb Ben Nevis (been there, done that) or spent the night in Fort William. They were very solicitous, putting our rucksacks on the luggage rack then ensuring that we both had seats, before settling down and nodding off.

The train crossed Rannoch Moor to Bridge of Orchy, tracing our walking route to Crianlarich and passing close to the wigwams at Auchtertyre. Rosalind managed to take a photo of the ‘Hogwarts Express’ as the excited children swapped trains.

Travelling on a Saturday meant we couldn’t get all the way home in one day by train, so after a tedious journey from Glasgow to Carlisle we swapped trains for Lancaster where Alec, my brother in law, picked us up at the station. Rhonda produced a tasty meal over which we caught up with family news. Next day we completed our journey home in a leisurely fashion.

My father picked up another infection in hospital and by this time his body was too weak to keep fighting. He died at home early in the New Year.

The next section: Fort William to Inverness.