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154km of thoughts – Scotland’s West Highland Way

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Author: Jocelyne Sze

My first ever long-distance hike – completed (17 to 21 March 2015)! Unlike the failed Pennine Way attempt last summer. The West Highland Way is Scotland’s first officially designated long distance footpath, opened in 1980. According to Wikipedia, “the path uses many ancient roads, including drovers’ roads, military roads and old coaching roads, and is traditionally walked from south to north. As well as increasing the sense of adventure, taking the route in this direction keeps the sun from one’s eyes.”

It was not without regrets though – while most people walk the way in seven/eight days, we read online that a father-and-son(10 years old!) pair did it in five days, and as we didn’t have much time to spare, we were like, ya so can we! Turns out if you do that without much preparation, and with new boots that weren’t properly broken into, it makes for a rather painful journey. My Achilles tendon got inflamed sometime around the 3rd day, and the week after we completed the hike, my ankles were still swollen, even now, they act up. Nonetheless, the weather was wonderful (only rained a bit on one day), the scenery was amazing and I really needed some respite from Cambridge and studying.

Day 0 Cambridge to Milngavie

Took the train from Cambridge to Milngavie (pronounced mull-guy). Passed through Edinburgh Waverly station, where they had an exhibition of quotes by their famous literary personalities.

Quotes by Sir Walter Scott, a Scottish historical novelist, playwright, and poet who died in 1832, were on exhibition in Edinburgh Waverly train station

We stayed at Best Foot Forward for £32.50 (had free cookies in our room!), and Morag is really nice, for breakfast the next day, she had our country flags displayed!

Nice personal touch 😀 Breakfast was great too

Day 1 Milngavie to Balmaha (~32 km)

The way starts from the middle of Milngavie high street, where an obelisk marks the start.

Official start of the West Highland Way (all fresh-faced and happy)

It was a nice, easy start, passing by Glengoyne whiskey distillery, and had a really nice hour or so walking on my own through the woods (singing The Hills Are Alive). There was a segment right before Conic Hill which was supposed to be full of nice tall pine trees (production forest), but to our dismay there were none.

Glengoyne distillery. Didn’t have time to stop for a tour, but did get a bottle to share.

Deforested landscapes make people sad 🙁 Even if the trees were planted for harvesting.

Conic Hill (361m) was a super windy climb, and it was rather bleak weather too. But we arrived in Balmaha at ~4.30pm with plenty time to spare. There was a small shop in the village where we got some eggs to supplement our pasta dinner. The kitchen at Balmaha Bunkhouse was well-equipped and included a cold breakfast for £20.

Day 2 Balmaha to Inverarnan (~34km)

Really misty morning, and the footpath essentially brought us the entire way along the East bank of Loch Lomond. I quite enjoyed this day, though the rest were somewhat flagging (getting tired) by the very end.

Misty morning along a quiet Loch Lomond

Along the way, I attempted to explain the value of conservation and that made me think really hard about it. The appeal of hiking and going outdoors (to me at least) is the freedom from external influences and the opportunity to clear my mind. Conservation, I realised, is and has always been for people’s enjoyment, and people don’t need to know the names of the trees/plants/birds/insects etc. around them to enjoy their beauty. In fact, people’s well-being appears to be correlated with the amount of biodiversity they perceive to be present, rather than actual diversity, and most people can’t identify common species anyway (Dallimer et al 2012). Though the lack of identification skills is sad and contributes to the increasing disconnect between urban populations and nature (and is apparently why Oxford junior dictionary has dropped words like acorn and adders). It seems to me that the increasing shift towards quantifying the usefulness of nature in terms of ecosystem services is more for the sake of small, uncharismatic critters.

Walks in misty forests are good for reflection

I also wondered about what our future would be like. I doubt we’ll lose all species. I think we’ll be able to protect just enough to maintain vital life supports for the planet, we’ll lose specialists but keep the generalists. That most people will be living in cities (which are energy-efficient, powered by renewables, fairly urban-wildlife-friendly, and produce little waste. Less of a throwaway, materialistic culture.), but like in the UK where some 3 in 4 adults in England regularly go outdoors, there won’t be a total disconnect. We’ll be able to have large sites of fairly uninhabited ‘wilderness’, where more sensitive or large-ranging species could hopefully thrive. The economy will hopefully be less dependent on extraction of natural resources (and we’ll all live Happily Ever After. The End.) and everyone will know, understand, and live accordingly to the facts that resources on this planet is finite and we are dependent on the Earth for everything.

And the temperate coniferous forests that remind one of Brave. Only there aren’t wisps.

And on a somewhat tangential note, I wondered if the differences between the marine and the terrestrial environment are due to the former being mostly dominated by ectothermic creatures that tend to be slow-growing and long-lived and which contribute to habitat complexity, while the latter features more endothermic creatures or otherwise have fast(er)-regeneration times and so are more resilient to destruction.

And we finally got to the northern end of Loch Lomond by sunset

The night was spent at Drover’s Inn for £17.50, established in 1705 and which also had a gallery of taxidermised animals. We had yet another dinner of pasta, cooked on my handy camping stove, but breakfast was another awesome full Scottish breakfast.

I wonder if the bear was caught in Scotland. Probably not, since bears are thought to have been exterminated in prehistoric times.

Day 3 Inverarnan to Inveroran (~36km)

Our longest day. At the end of it, just one word. Pain. The first half of the day was glorious, winding through moss-covered ground pine forests. Spirits still fairly upbeat at the halfway marker of the WHW. But as time ticked on, and my ankles got sore, and our destination was still distressingly far, it got more and more mentally and physically challenging.

Cute shaggy highland cattle (and calves) adding some animal life to the hike

The other appealing thing about hikes is the way time is measured. Unlike in normal life, when external demands are constantly being made on your time (lecture at 10am, appointment at 2pm, meeting at 3pm, supervision at 5pm…), when you’re outdoors, time becomes fairly meaningless. Sunrise and sunset are the most important measures, and everything in between is measured in distance and snack breaks.

Scottish munroes in the distance.

By midday, grit and determination were all that kept me going through the pain to Tyndrum for lunch. And the section right after, to Bridge of Orchy was just grim. The final, final section for the day, to Inveroran, was better, though by this time it was raining on us. We made friends with a mountain guide on his holiday, who was intending to do the WHW in 4 days (it wasn’t his first time), which was super inspiring cos he was like, double our age. Though he too was not in the best shape and by that point was not intending to complete it.

We collapsed at Inveroran Hotel (cost £40), and gave up camp-cooking. Dinner was wonderful, and breakfast the next day was really good too. The coffee was the best. They also had no wifi, but you’re out there to get away from it all, right.

Day 4 Inveroran to Kinlochlevan (~30km)

After the night of rest, feet were feeling better but still in pain. And by this point of the hike, there was No More Thinking. We started off crossing Rannoch Moor, hoping we could see the eclipse.

Rannoch Moor. A 50-square-mile (130km2) expanse of uninhabited boggy moorland touted as the last wilderness in the UK.

All we could see of the eclipse. Which seemed to be similar to what everyone else in the UK saw – a huge cloud. Though there was the lens refraction thing.

We stopped by Kings House Hotel for lunch, cos the birds outside were annoying us. After lunch, I was just attempting to recite vertebrate phylogeny and recall the names I need to know. I spared a bit of brain power to considering the prevalence of convergent evolution, but could barely recall the names for ray-finned fish, lobe-finned fish and the clade leading to mammals (actinopterygians, sarcopterygians and synapsids). Then came a stretch called the Devil’s Staircase (550m), and that put paid to all thinking. It was the Lenten period, so I got myself through by reminding myself of Jesus carrying his cross on the way to Calvary and playing ‘Via Dolorosa’ on loop in my head, and reflecting on God’s love for us.

A much-needed rainbow appeared halfway up Devil’s Staircase 🙂

After that, we were just chilling for the last section to Kinlochlevan, not really forging ahead despite the pain. And we arrived at the town/village in time to see it bathed with a golden hue as the sun set. Our last night of the hike was spent at Blackwater Hostel, in one of their megalodges for £17.50 (inc. £5 for bedding), which was really cute and quaint but needed work on its thermoregulation. Way too hot as we tried to settle down to sleep. There were lots of other people there though, mostly hoping to climb Ben Nevis (the highest mountain in the UK at 1344m).

Day 5 Kinlochlevan to Fort William (~24km)

We had a lazy start and a fairly lazy day, after the past four days. We passed through some nice forests but I was mostly preoccupied with pain. I did spare more thought to the future of our planet. The need for access to countrysides to maintain our connection with the natural world (buffer zones), but also refuges/reserves where all access is banned. There really isn’t a thing as the wilderness anymore, but people still desire the ‘wild’ landscape, usually devoid of wildlife. And that’s why perhaps outdoor enthusiasts aren’t always advocates for biodiversity conservation, cos one wouldn’t be as free to roam the lands as if there were wolves running wild as well, I guess.

Sunlight softly streaming through the trees, ground covered in moss, no thorns ripped out your flesh, vines tripping you up, or venomous creatures trying to kill you. No wonder ‘forests’ evoke such different emotions and imagery in this part of the world. (Of course, these forests also don’t teem with awesome life the way tropical ones do)

How Scots motivate themselves on hikes

^^

We finally, finally arrived at Fort William at 4.30pm, with an hour to spare before our train departed at 5.37pm for Edinburgh.

Overwhelming relief, satisfaction and pride at having made it 🙂

Sunset in the Highlands, as our train took us back through what took us 5 days to walk.

Caminante son tus huellas ….. The road you march, lonely wanderer
El camino, y nada mas ….. It’s just your tracks, nothing much.
Caminante no hay camino ….. There is no road, lonely wanderer
Se hace camino al andar ….. The road is made as you march.
Al andar se hace camino ….. As you move on paths appear
Y al volver la vista atras …. And upon glancing behind,
Se ve la senda que nunca ….. You contemplate lanes and byways
Se ha de volver a pisar ….. Where you shall never go back.
Caminante, no hay camino ….. There is no road, lonely wanderer
Solo estelas en la mar ….. Just wakes at sea, only that.

– from “Proverbios y cantares” in Campos de Castilla, 1912 by Antonio Machado

I saw the phrase “Caminante no hay camino se hace camino al andar” on a t-shirt in a gift shop at Fort William, and googled it (cos my Spanish was only enough to decipher that it had something to do with hiking).

All in all, despite the pain (and likely long-lasting trauma it caused to my poor ankles), the West Highland Way was really awesome, and Scotland so amazing that I would really really recommend it to anyone and everyone. Just perhaps, not in five days. Rushing it in five days also meant we couldn’t carry heavy loads and so couldn’t camp, which added to the cost of this trip. But doing it in mid-March meant we missed the masses (cos hiking season opens end March, and more accommodation options open) as well as the midges (in the Summer months from May to Sept apparently) and it all worked out really well.

Thanks to Andrew, Jeng Yang and Chris for being hiking buddies on this trip! Photo taken at the halfway point before the pain really got to us.

Tagged: Conservation, Hiking, Scotland

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