Looking northwest, Loch Lomond continues as far as I can see, decorated with islands and surrounded in part by national park forest, hills – for example, 361m Conic Hill, on which I’m standing – and a few Munros (Scottish mountains over 914.4m) such as 974m Ben Lomond.
Today, though, this vision is but a memory, and the real body of water before me is a bay near Brisbane, on Australia’s east coast. (Plus, due to Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in Scotland, all Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park visitor facilities remain closed and residents are supposed to remain in their local area, within roughly five miles of home, for outdoor recreation.)
But I’m revisiting the loch and one of its most famous trails anyway ... using my imagination and leg muscles and doing it from home.
I recently decided I needed a physical challenge – something beyond my regular bayside strolls and short jogs/runs. I have little interest at the moment in training for longer runs … but I love walking holidays.
So my husband and I decided to revisit Scotland’s 154km (96-mile) West Highland Way (which we completed over eight days last October) … but near our home, walking its distances in (or just beyond) our suburb. We may not have lochs, but we’re close to beautiful Moreton Bay. We don’t have Munros, but our neighbourhood is equipped with steep hills (which we usually try to avoid). Our beloved, elderly dog, who was chilling out with a sitter while we were overseas, could come along for some short, flatter stretches. And, perhaps, this challenge would help transport our minds and spirits back to Scotland's dramatic landscapes, to a time when our lives (at least in a travelling sense) felt more carefree.
A rainbow ends near the West Highland Way and 427m Dumgoyne, on the first day of the walk.
Our rules were simple: achieve the same distance and elevation gain as we did each day of the real West Highland Way. On our first day, for example, we walked 19km from Milngavie (a 25-minute train ride from Glasgow) to Drymen, which included an overall ascent of 210 metres. My FitBit’s altimeter sensor registers a floor each time I climb 10 feet (or three metres), so 70 floors and 19km was our elevation goal for the first day of our suburb challenge.
We began the morning the idea sprang forth. However, as some distances were too demanding to complete on a busy work day, we decided to finish in 10 days, rather than eight. This gave my husband two days to complete Day 4 and pushed the final two, hill-abundant walking days back to a weekend. With less restrictions on my time (and wanting a daily challenge), I walked our original Days 4 and 7 twice.
Initially, our West Highland Way challenge invigorated me. The Proclaimers’ song ‘I’m gonna be (500 miles)’ and a Scottish-themed playlist provided the soundtrack to that first day, and I felt nearly as excited as I was when we began the real walk.
A photo op in Milngavie, at the start of the real West Highland Way.
Early the following morning, dolphins and black swans appeared as we strolled along the bay. Later, while tackling hills, it occurred to me that the joy I experienced on that stroll probably equalled what I felt when climbing Conic Hill on Day 2 (Drymen to Rowardennan, 24km, 430m) of the real West Highland Way – a good reminder for seeking beauty and happiness wherever you are in the moment.
A black swan (and several pelicans), Moreton Bay, Queensland.
After two hours of climbing, though, we still had 13km to cover, which we divided into two sessions. But as I was already exhausted, the fact that there were other things I’d rather be doing than walking around our neighbourhood became stuck in my mind.
My attitude plunged further on Day 3 (Rowardennan to Inverarnan, 22.5km/475m). I realised the challenge had ceased bringing me joy, and I contemplated why. Maybe it was seeing the same houses and scenery repeatedly on our local hill walks? Maybe because we weren’t listening to music? Perhaps my substandard hill fitness was making me tired and cranky? Or maybe I was remembering that this day of the real Way, with its tough stretch along Loch Lomond’s north-eastern side, was my least favourite?
Whatever the reason, I felt my spirits could benefit from poetry. Back at home for a rest break, I searched online for West Highland Way poems. The search returned references to ‘Inversnaid’, which poet/priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in 1881, either during or after a visit to Inversnaid, on the east bank of Loch Lomond. The poem celebrates a rushing highland stream (a burn), which empties into the loch. I was immediately drawn in to the natural world it describes, particularly the sentiments of its last stanza:
'Where would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.'
-Gerard Manley Hopkins
In addition to making me long for wilderness, Hopkins' poem brought me back to the lovely waterfall we’d passed on Day 3, just before the Inversnaid Hotel, where we’d paused for lunch.
It also inspired me to write a poem of my own, based on memories of the loch and my current sense of fatigue. (I've included it at the end of this post.)
Renewed, we drove to a nearby suburb and walked the rest of the day’s necessary hills there. Having new vantages and streets to explore made the experience much more enjoyable – and the spiritual lift from the poetry didn’t hurt either.
With three days complete, we were committed to seeing the challenge through. Before heading out for Day 4 (Inverarnan to Tyndrum, 19km/490m), we listened to Scottish musician Dougie MacLean’s 30th online lockdown performance . His final song was one he wrote for his great-great-grandfather (who worked as a lead miner in Clifton, near Tyndrum). In it, his great-great-grandfather sings to his daughter (MacLean’s great-grandmother). Introducing the song, MacLean mentioned places we’d passed in Tyndrum, and. somehow, hearing his beautiful song and references to this village made heading there that day (in spirit) feel even more right.
Two days later, the sky was moody, just as it had been when we walked along the edges of Rannoch Moor from Inveroran Hotel to Kingshouse back in October.
Back then, we reached the Kingshouse Hotel moments before a downpour. This time, though, we ended up covering the day’s final six hilly kilometres in pouring rain – a situation that made us giggle rather than grumble.
And on our do-over Day 7 (Kingshouse to Kinlochleven, 14.5km/430m), we spent our first hour on the phone with the same dear friend who was with me – somewhere along the Glencoe part of this section – when I was introduced to the West Highland Way 25 years ago.
While the challenge’s final day (Kinlochleven to Fort William) had a beautiful start (a sunrise stroll with our dog) and an ok middle (a lengthy hill session in another suburb), the end didn’t turn out as we’d hoped. We envisioned a family finish, with our sweet dog joining us for the final two, flat kilometres. But when we returned home to him after the hills, he was unwell and required a trip to the vet. Afterwards, we took turns staying with and comforting him, each of us finishing the walk alone.
Overall, my feelings about completing this challenge are mixed. It certainly provided a focus. It spurred me to walk further each day than I would have typically, and I’m sure my hill fitness has improved. (It would probably be a wonderful way to train for a walking holiday.) It inspired me to recall moments from our time in Scotland – a late, fireside brekkie in Balmaha, moving through an emerald forest along Loch Lomond, the thrill of walking within view of Ben Nevis on the final day – and to make pub-worthy meals (homemade mac and cheese, fish and chips, etc.) a few evenings.
But, while I’m proud of us for finishing, given events of the final afternoon, I felt no sense of elation. I definitely wouldn’t say I returned to a more carefree way of thinking. The highs in the beginning were real, but they didn’t continue in the way you’d expect when discovering new vistas on a far-flung walking adventure. And continuing to walk and climb the same local hills when it wasn’t my heart’s desire in that moment felt, at times, like unnecessary punishment.
That said, I’m still not at the point of planning real multi-day walking adventures. So when I remembered the 118.5km Great Glen Way (which I've only had a wee taste of) begins in Fort William, near the end of the West Highland Way, and stretches northeast to Inverness, I began it as well. But, while I’m intent on covering its overall distance and elevation gain in seven days, I’m breaking it up in a manner that suits me. And as I walk along the length of Loch Ness (in my mind, and in my suburb), I find I’m dreaming of, and looking forward to, doing the real walk someday …which feels like a positive thing.
Overlooking Loch Ness from the Great Glen Way
Wind tickles the water,
and slender mountains rise,
then tilt back towards their source,
disappearing into stillness.
I stand upon the loch’s soft bank, resting
as golden leaves shudder and fall.
My sore, unsmiling feet sink into the earth,
and I realise becoming unstuck feels almost as difficult
as returning leaves to a tree.
And so I summon a song.
My spirit, suddenly awake, sails into the trees,
wandering into the world cascading from their branches.
My feet can’t help but follow.
- Kara Murphy, May 2020