Trying to avoid ghosts in a (possibly) haunted 1705 stone inn. Singing ‘The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond’ as the 153km-long loch first came into view. Gazing upon majestic Munros (Scottish mountains over 914.4 metres) near a fireplace in the recently reimagined Kingshouse Hotel, a place of refuge since the 1750s. Escaping an imminent downpour with a whisky tasting and tour at Glengoyne Distillery, a short stroll off the trail. Ambling for hours each day beside lochs, bens (hills), and Munros, through glens and wild moorlands, beneath rainbows, and past the UK’s highest mountain, 1345-metre Ben Nevis. And, in the evening, rewarding efforts with a steamy bowl of Cullen skink and a wee dram.
These are some highlights of the 154km West Highland Way, Scotland’s most famous long-distance walk, which I completed over eight days this past October (towards the end of the typical walking season and a lovely time to go).
The route – which opened in October 1980 and uses former drove roads, military roads built to help control the Jacobite clans, old coaching roads, and disused railway lines – begins in Milngavie (a 25-minutes train journey from Glasgow) and ventures northwest from the Lowlands into the Highlands. From Fort William, where the Way ends, a scenic, three-hour train ride delivers you back to Glasgow.
I’d been yearning to set out on this adventure for 25 years, ever since a friend and I had a wee taste of it. From Edinburgh (which we were visiting for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival), we joined a day tour to Glencoe. But instead of returning to Edinburgh that afternoon, we asked the tour operator to drop us off along the West Highland Way so we could hike a bit, overnight somewhere along the route, and then make our way back to Edinburgh via public transport. I can’t remember exactly where the operator left us in Glencoe, how far we walked, or where exactly we stayed (though I do recall a barn-like hostel and a cosy nearby pub with live music). I do remember, though, that the views of Glencoe and these limited footsteps made me dream of returning one day to walk the West Highland Way in its entirety.
All these years later, the stars (including musical ones) aligned, and I took the opportunity to realise that dream. (And in a comfortable fashion, with AMS Scotland transferring my luggage between each night's accommodation.) I'm certain that having dreamed of walking this trail for so long made the experience all the sweeter.
The following video gives an account of my journey, including where we paused each evening (Drymen, Rowardennan, Inverarnan/Drovers Inn, Tyndrum, Inveroran Hotel, Kingshouse Hotel, Kinlochleven, Fort William). I also believe it captures some of the beauty and joyfulness of the experience. (I also wrote a commissioned story for News Corp’s Escape, and will link to it here when it’s published.)
Unfortunately, we're not as free to wander right now as we once were. At the time of writing this post, a notice on the West Highland Way Management Group’s website advises readers to ‘follow the latest national guidance on social distancing and essential travel guidelines and DO NOT walk the West Highland Way at this time’. This is due to COVID-19 and Scotland’s current lockdown restrictions, which require people to stay local and not get in a car to exercise.
So, for now, this walk must remain a dream for anyone who doesn’t live within walking distance of it. I completely agree with these restrictions and any actions we can take to slow the spread of this terrible virus. Being reminded of the state of our world, though – that this virus exists at all, that it's hurting so many people physically, financially, mentally, and emotionally, and is keeping us from pursuits as joyous and beautiful as this walk – saddens me. (Though I know this won't last forever.)
Given this, when I went to write a song about the walk this week, the lyrics and melody ended up having a sense of melancholy to them. I can easily recall the beautiful aspects of the experience and would love to return one day to do it again, but I have no idea when that will be safe or possible, particularly when coming all the way from Australia.
Anyway, here's the song ('Should we ever: a song for the West Highland Way'), with some photos I captured on my travels. If you’ve never embarked on this walk, I hope the song and video help inspire you to do so when restrictions are lifted and it’s safe to do so. And if you have done it, I hope they help bring back positive memories of your experience ... maybe, even, a desire to do it again.
The chorus includes the Scottish Gaelic phrase 'Madainn mhath', which means ‘Good morning’.
Hold onto your dreams. As always, thank you for reading, watching, and listening.