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The West Highland Way

A 100-Mile Walk Through Scotland’s Bonniest Country

By Robert E. Buckley

The West Highland Way, Scotland’s first long-distance walking path, runs from the outskirts of Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, to the foot of Britain’s highest mountain. It was my third long-distance walk in the British Isles--and the best by far.

Glasgow is always a great place to visit. Although it does not attract many tourists, it has much to recommend it, including a Victorian grandeur that comparable English cities lack. And the Glaswegians are among the most friendly people on earth. Like the neighboring Irish, they literally stop strangers on the street with questions like "How do you like Scotland?" and "Where are you planning to visit?" and "Could I recommend a place to stay?" It was wonderful to feel so welcome.

Although the West Highland Way officially starts in the nearby village of Milngavie (pronounced Mull-guy), I decided to take advantage of a string of urban trails that lead there from the banks of the famous river Clyde in downtown Glasgow.

From Milngavie the route passes along the entire "bonny" east bank of Loch Lomond, Scotland’s largest freshwater lake, and across Rannoch Moor, its grandest wilderness, and through some of the finest lowland and highland, mountain and loch, woodland and moorland that Scotland has to offer.

Whereas it’s possible to complete the walk in a week by averaging around 14 miles a day, I added one day to walk from Glasgow to Milngavie, plus one more for extra measure. After all, I was on vacation.

The West Highland Way follows old coaching routes--ancient roads on which highlanders drove their cattle and sheep to market in the lowlands--and military roads built by English troops to help control the Jacobite clans. The southern end of the Way is suitable for inexperienced walkers and family groups. Farther north, however, the route crosses open country with little shelter and rough and dangerously steep paths.

The weather can be very iffy at best. For eight of the nine days I walked, the glorious sun was present every day. But when it finally decided to cut loose, it rained and blew with a vengeance.

I stayed in a combination of old inns, B and Bs, and youth hostels. Even without advance reservations, I had no trouble finding comfortable and reasonable accommodations in the tiny villages along the way.

Enormous Scottish breakfasts plus small afternoon snacks were sufficient to keep me going most of the day, but I was always ready for a full meal in the evening: smoked haddock or salmon with poached eggs for breakfast, venison stews and grilled grouse or pheasant in the evenings. If you happen to enjoy a wee dram now and then, the selection of venerable old single malt Scotch whiskies is overwhelming.

I spent a wonderful evening in The Clachan, an early 18th century pub where Rob Roy MacGregor’s grandmother lived when it was still a home. It was typical of the lovely pubs and inns I found all along the way--all filled with good food and drink, lively highland music, and warm-hearted people eager to talk about my hike and how I was enjoying Scotland.

The oldest of the ancient inns I stayed in was Kings House, built in the 17th century and listed as a "mountain rescue post" on many maps. One of the most remote inns in Europe, it is framed by a noble setting of mountains and moors. The building got its name after being used as a barracks for the troops of King George III when they were out hunting the elusive Bonny Prince Charlie. The evening I was there, eating in front of a warm fire, a herd of majestic red deer appeared out of the mist to cautiously munch grass on the front lawn.

I left King’s House in driving rain and gale winds on the trail over the Devil’s Staircase, a military trail built 250 years ago. This is the highest point in the route--climbing from 600 feet at King’s House to over 2,000 feet up and across a barren cliff face before descending into the next village of Kinlochleven. Even in the bleak weather the scenery is spectacular--waterfalls at almost every turn and sloping hills of purple heather leading up the mountains. I expected to see the mystical village of Brigadoon appear out of the mist as I headed through the mountain passes.

From Kinlochleven it’s 14 miles up another mountain and down through a dense, primeval forest to Fort William, a market town nestled at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles.

Breaking out of the forest, the incredible mass of the humpbacked mountain dominates an already stunning landscape.

As I turned and slowly descended to the streets of Fort William, I was convinced I’d seen Scotland’s best--and under the best of conditions. And a bonny place it was.

Preparing to Walk

Be sure to go equipped with compass, proper maps, and waterproof jacket, pants, and boots, and a pack weighing less than 30 pounds.

Like any long-distance walk, proper conditioning will make it more enjoyable. Attain a fitness level that enables you to comfortably hike (with full gear) 10 miles of hilly terrain or 20 miles of flat terrain in a day.

For those who would rather walk without a pack, a service will carry it for you from Milngavie to Fort William for $45. Find them at the beginning of the trail in Milngavie from 8-10 a.m. every day or contact: Travel-Lite, 5 Mugdock Road, Milngavie, Glasgow G62 8PD; (011) 44-141-956-7890.

An Official Guidebook, including maps, is available from the Adventurous Traveler Book Store. A free Accommodation Guide Booklet can be obtained by writing: Loch Lomond Park Ranger Service, West Highland Way Ranger, Balloch Castle, Balloch, Dunbartonshire G53 8LX Scotland.

ROBERT E. BUCKLEY is a retired advertising agency executive who lives in Marion, IA. His article "On Foot Across England" appeared in the September/October 1997 issue of Transitions Abroad.