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West Highland Way

On & around the northern part of the Scottish classics

Story by Northern Adventures May 30th, 2016

Introduction

(Fri Apr 8th - Tue Apr 12TH, 2016)

The West Highland Way is a linear long distance footpath in Scotland, with the official status of Long Distance Route. It is 154.5 km long, running from Milngavie north of Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands, with an element of hill walking in the route.

The trail was approved for development in 1974 and was completed and opened on 6 October 1980 by Lord Mansfield so becoming the first officially designated long distance footpath in Scotland.

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. About 80,000 people use the path every year, of whom over 15,000 walk the entire route.

I walked the northern part of the West Highland Way in April with the aim to beat the crowds, get some solitude on the trail, avoid midges and have some snow in the hilly parts.

Also, I opted for wandering *around* the trail in some areas to avoid boring roadside walking and to get some nice views of the area from the nearby hills.

It took me five days and 125 kilometres on foot to get from the outpost of Ardlui to Fort William. And as it often happens in Scottish Highlands in the springtime, weather made the journey both interesting (snow) and really enjoyable (lot of sunshine). A splendid hike it was!

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Day 1: From Ardlui to Ben Lui

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Starting at the magic dark-blue waters of the iconic Loch Lomond

Having spent a lovely evening at The State Bar in Glasgow (wonderful selection of cask ales!), I took a morning train to the north, towards the Scottish Highlands. It took me almost two hours to reach the small settlement of Ardlui, where I was the only passenger to get off from the train.

After that, I crossed Loch Lomond using a small ferry, and set out on the trail on the western bank of the lake, using the well-trodden West Highland Way path.

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I got a few moments of brief sunshine, however cloudy weather ruled most of the time. At least it wasn’t raining, which was something I was afraid the most, being aware of the notoriously and famously changing Scottish weather.

At Inverarnan, having visited the beautiful Beinglas Farm for a pint of Guinness and a warm lunch, I turned to the east and left the West Highland Way behind.

The aim I had in my mind was to wander on local tracks and off the beaten path towards Ben Lui hill - the Not the West Highland Way guidebook by Ronald Turnbull was of a great help here.

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Soon, I was hiking alone among beautiful hills of the Highlands: no people around, just the early-spring silent landscape full of brown colour tones.

Hiking on the local gravel track was easy, however leaving the track for free wandering on the wet grassy moorland unavoidably meant getting wet. Also, it started to drizzle, and after that, to rain.

Here I got some bad luck, too: being too fast, I realized I have Ben Lui hill on my right, not on my left as it was supposed to be. Nevertheless, I crossed the pass below the mountain, and in upcoming evening and constant rain descended further to the north to a dense woods area.

Here, I pitched my tent below branches of small spruce trees to (at least partially) protect myself and my tent from the constant downpour. Everything was wet and soon I realized that my newly acquired ultralight Nordisk Telemark tent is really ultralight… however water resistance is something that it doesn’t provide fully.
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Day 2: Snowy morning and wandering to Inveroran

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Sometimes I feel that none of my hikes would be complete without enjoying some snow. This time, my wandering became “complete” during the very first morning in the wild. So much snow around!

I was laughing, although the idea of having everything wet was not that appealing. But this is what Scotland may offer during April: all kinds of weather, all the time. And I was not regretting my decision, not at all - after rain or snow, sun will always come, sooner or later.

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I descended to the north towards the Dalmally - Tyndrum road. It was a wet snowy and slippery descent, however soon the sun started to break through the clouds, illuminating the spring landscape by its soft morning sunlight.

Here I crossed the railway track and tried to avoid crossing the river by following the southern river bank, following a slowly disappearing footpath. Finally, I crossed the river using a bridge leading to the railtrack, and continued in a rather dull hiking way on the main paved road.

Then, around lunchtime, I reached Tyndrum, finally - and a well-deserved lunch and a pair of beers quickly followed. Here, I met “luggage transport” service of the WHW for the first time: convenient service surely… however there are some of us who need it proper, right? :-)

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It was a beautiful hike on the WHW north of Tyndrum towards Bridge of Orchy, though its first part was way too close to the main road - not much silence and solitude here, honestly speaking.

There it was where I found out that this may be the main drawback of this otherwise excellent trail: the close distance to main roads makes hiking quite unpleasant, no matter how much appealing the surrounding landscape may be.

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In Bridge of Orchy, I hesitated a while and thought about camping in the beautiful local riverside camp - however finally I opted for another hour of walking, crossing the small ridge to the north towards the small settlement of Inveroran.

Here, the landscape became stunning - and I was silently walking into the isolated parts of Scottish Highlands around Rannoch Moor, enjoying the panoramic views all around.
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I got some nice sunlight during the evening when I pitched my tent in a beautiful setting at the Allt Tolaghan river.

I was camping here alone, as a lonely hiker, and my visit of the Inveroran hotel was a delight: delicious meal with a few pints of a local (cask) ale - what to ask more.

Interestingly enough, well before start of the season, the hotel seemed to be almost full - such is the popularity of the WHW, and I felt privileged and lucky to be here at the beginning of spring, with big crowds yet to arrive…

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Day 3: FROM INVERORAN Across Meall a’ Bhùiridh to Kingshouse

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It was cold in the night at the river, and the temperature dropped below 0°C - there was some morning frost around before sunrise when I got up. Yet it was beautiful, so beautiful! - cloudless clear skies, and the rising sun warming me up, promising a fully enjoyable day on the trail.
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I started hiking early, not later than an hour after sunrise - and it took me less than two hours to enter Rannoch Moor, following the WHW direction of an old military cobbled track.

Here I had some thinking about what to do: I desperately wanted to do a detour, however the suggested NWHW Munros topping alternative seemed to be a dangerous one with the mountain tops still covered by snow.

So I did another one, looking into the map: climbing the marvellous Meall a‘ Bhùiridh mountain which is dotted by ski lifts on its northern side, however pristine when approached from the south.
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At first, I followed a quad bike track I found along the main river in the valley, however soon I started to hike in the unspoiled moss- and grass-covered terrain towards the southern steep slopes of Meall a‘ Bhùiridh.

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It was neither easy nor extremely challenging to climb the mountain; it just took some time and effort.

The early spring (or late winter) snow was still covering the mountain massive, and I even met a small group of day hikers who where climbing the mountain from the other side, continuing to the west on the ridge.

The views here were awesome: so much to see around, in all the directions! Yet again was I lucky with the weather: sunlight and superb views wherever I look.

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Having spent some time at the Meall a‘ Bhùiridh top, I carefully started to descend to the north, at the left side of the ski piste.

Here, it was a truly bizarre encounter: a lonely hiker with a backpack, and a herd of downhill skiers on a poor and short snow piste, using a vintage ski lift.

It remained me of my skiing in Oukaïmeden, Morocco, a few years ago, where it was just a little bit more unusual and bizarre experience…

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Having descended from the hill, it was just a short walk to Kingshouse, a small hotel located in the Glencoe valley.

Yet again here on the trip, I was blessed by a sunny peaceful evening, and pitched my tent in a beautiful location at a river, not far from the Kingshouse hotel.

Of course, a few pints of cask ales followed together with (Angus) beef prepared medium; this opulent evenings formed another highlight experienced on this Scottish trail.

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Day 4: From Kingshouse to Luibelt ruin

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What to say here. Another stunning sunrise moments, another sunny morning, another beautiful start of a hiking day.

I followed the WHW track (unfortunately along the main road in Glencoe valley for some time), and put some effort into the climb of the (famous) Devil‘s Staircase, a mountain pass on the way to Kinlochleven.

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From the Devil‘s Staircase, the well-trodden path took me in the north-west direction to the settlement of Kinlochleven.

Here, I had a lunch (a bit dull, compared to my previous evening dining experiences) and a pint of Guinness.

After that I set out on the trail again, leaving the WHW trail and turning to a local track in a north direction towards the ruined settlement (or better said, a lonely house) of Luibelt.

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The journey from Kinlochleven to Luibelt started with a decent ascent that after an hour offered beautiful views of the Kinlochleven valley.

Here, I got a few rain showers, however nothing really serious; the track then continued without any major descents or ascents along two lakes of Loch Eilde Mor and Loch Eilde Beag. It was a bit of a boring long hiking, however I kept my pace aiming to reach the Luibelt ruin before twilight.

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Quite surprisingly, I saw (not met) two lonely hikers here: one pitching his tent directly at the Luibelt ruin, and another one occupying a beautifully located nearby bothie (freely accessible hut), which I also thought of staying in for a night.

Finally, I opted for camping, and pitched it in a (yet again) beautiful river setting. Then the sunset and twilight came: what a colour performance in the sky it was! Just spectacular…

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Day 5: From Luibelt Down to Fort William

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The yr.no weather forecast (the Norwegians do it best, trust me!) was signalizing some rain showers for my last hiking day, however having booked a hotel in Fort William, I wasn’t really afraid.

Also, the terrain was about to be either flat or descending… but also wet. A lot. It was still spring, and I was hiking off the beaten paths in the remote valleys of Scottish Highlands.
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After a few hours, I came to a close distance of Ben Nevis, Scottish (and Great Britain’s) highest mountain (at 1346m).

Having climbed the peak a few years ago, I wasn’t tempted to do it again - however the views from the valley to the south base of the mountain were very beautiful.

Hiking here was of a wet and slow kind; in the upper parts of the valley, there was more or less no path, however further to the west, the path slowly began to appear.
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Although being forecast, the rain never really came; instead of that, I enjoyed continuous game of light with sun breaking through thick clouds and illuminating the landscape for brief enjoyable moments.

The Steall waterfall down in the valley was lovely, though the light was not favourable for a decent photography of it.

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The last miles on the trail were quite nice before reaching Fort William, and a bit boring in the city and to the booked hotel (I hiked some 5 kilometres from Fort William to it).

Those last miles on the trail… when one reaches the end, the tiredness is swiftly replaced by happiness, and all those pains and wounds encountered are forgotten in a moment.

I spent the evening in Fort Williams (cask ales, beef, you know), and took a morning train back to Glasgow. Another evening and night in The State Bar followed, and a morning flight back to Prague on the next day. That was it.

A few days on… and around the West Highland Way.
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The HIGHLAND RAILWAYS

The Scottish Railways are often crossing one of the most pristine landscapes in the world, and its trains stop in hardly accessible stations.

There is a (long) road to the very isolated outpost of Rannoch Moor, however there is even not a (asphalt) road to the small station of Corrour, maybe the most isolated train stop in the world.

Some of the pictures below were taken during my first trip to Scotland a few years ago; in June that time, everything was green. Interestingly, the ScotRail signs and directions were completely renovated since that time.

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... and THE HIGHLAND (CASK) ALES & BEEF :-)

I do like beer. And beef. And I’m not afraid to admit it :-). Being a proper Czech, lagers used to be my world, and I got only recently introduced and used to ALEs and IPAs (of so called “craft breweries” of a small scale).

In England (or Scotland), one should opt for (cask) ales, though: local specialities shouldn’t be missed. I truly enjoyed beers I drank in Scotland, and those were not just a few. The beef was nice, too; although don't mind dried trekking food, proper evening meal is always a better choice for a hungry lonely hiker.

So this was Scotland, West Highland Way. It was nice, special, and rewarding. I know I will come back, someday - for the Cape Wrath trail; the ultimate epic Scottish journey on foot.

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Footnote: All images are exclusive property and may not be copied, downloaded, reproduced, transmitted, manipulated or used in any way without permission of the photographer (tomas.zrna@gmail.com).
West Highland Way, Bridge of Orchy, Scotland, United Kingdom