Sunday, May 30, 2004

West Highland Way: Part Two

“Don’t forget…we’re doing this for fun!” – Sympathetic Man after seeing our pained faces on Day 2

I’m hoping I didn’t paint an unduly negative picture of the trip thus far. While there was a bit of pain involved, the absolute majesty of the surroundings more than made up for it. Right, so where were we?

Day Three: Ardlui to Tyndrum (15 miles)

It was pretty tough to get going that morning as each of our joints were protesting very loudly about having to do any work. What helped was the fact that it was yet another lovely sunny morning. So much for the BBC weather forecast predicting a week of downpour!

The ferry ride from Ardlui back to the WHW was much more enjoyable in the morning and under sunny skies. The landscape at the start of the day was especially gorgeous, walking through forests at the foot of mountains with their snow-capped peaks. The run-off from the snow created many little waterfalls that would rejoin the River Falloch (the river which begins where Loch Lomond ends, just north of Ardlui) which the path followed for most of the morning. Within an hour we were climbing and able to overlook the gorgeous Glen Falloch below. The valley was filled with forests, streams, and hundreds of sheep with all their newly born lambs bleating up a wee storm. The sheep would be skittish at our approach, but the lambs were curious and would stare and sometimes even tentatively approach before mother would gently nudge them away. Very cute. A slight drizzle had started at this point so when we came across Beinglas Farm (with a pub, wigwams and wild camping facilities) we went in for a quick coffee. By the time we finished, the sun had returned.

The path then crossed the river over to the west bank, and then left the river altogether shortly thereafter. A tunnel was necessary to get us under the railway (we had to duck to get through) and then the path joined an old military road. We came across a herd of cattle (not heilan) where two calves who were having a wee rest stared at us the entire time as we walked by – the baby animals must love us! The old military road was tough going as it was very muddy and the footing was very rocky, but the views down to the farm and the river were stunning. By about midday we came across another path which diverted off to the town of Crianlarich. This point marks the unofficial halfway point, so as it was a nice day we decided to avoid the town and instead picnic on a ridge which overlooked the town and nearby valley and provided stunning views to a snow-capped Ben More. The view (and sun) was incredibly comforting so it was tough to get up and going again. And of course, with any stop came the stiff legs and back. But as these things are always relative, we felt much better this day dealing with the pain since the previous day had been so tough.

The path from here then entered a forest, and the path itself was soft and downy (due to the pine needles) which made for much nicer walking than the craggy stone of the previous stretch. While not obvious at first, the path gradually climbed a good 300 metres before dropping down into a lovely farming valley. We crossed over the River Fillan and into the valley which contained several small farmhouses and hundreds of sheep. Looking back towards Ben More, we saw that the cloud cover had dropped quickly. It made for a dramatic view as we could literally see the black clouds swarming towards us. Once the temperature starting dropping we knew that our streak of good weather was about to come to an end.

We did make it to the eerily beautiful remains of St. Fillan’s Priory (founded by an Irish priest hundreds of years ago) before the rain came on in earnest. Fortunately our rain gear was holding up nicely, and again before long we came across another spot where we could stop for tea, Auchtertyre Farm. It didn’t look like the sun was coming back out that day, but the rain had tapered off to a drizzle by the time we were ready to head out.

The path now crossed the A82 motorway before rejoining another old military road which travels by Lochan nan Arm, a lochan thought to contain Robert the Bruce’s sword that he apparently had to throw away while fleeing enemies. Within an hour we had reached our destination for the day, the town of Tyndrum. We were staying at a place called By The Way (very clever, that) in a private cabin. We both got a kick out of this as it was a nice change from guesthouses. We had our own kitchen facilities, so we headed into town to buy a few supplies. We had a lovely dinner of pasta and veg and shared a nice bottle of white wine to celebrate the first 3 of our 6 days on the road.

Day Four: Tyndrum to Inveroran Hotel (10 miles)

Before we had begun this trip, I had been slightly annoyed at the prospect of only doing 10 miles on Day Four. However, three days into this I was looking forward to an easier day. Even now I’m not quite sure how it had happened, but my right foot was really hurting, almost like I had fractured a bone. Once I got going (and the painkillers we had bought had kicked in) it was okay, but for the first hour that day every step was agony.

We awoke to a bit of drizzle, but nothing too serious. Tyndrum was the last major urban centre for the next few days, so we made sure to stock up on water and food before heading out. Today the path would run parallel to the motorway on an old military road, but luckily the motorway was far enough away so that it didn’t affect the appreciation of the surroundings. The drizzle became sporadic rather than constant, but the low cloud cover gave the sense that a full downpour could start at any moment. The walk itself was very flat, with more stunning views of the nearby mountains (especially Beinn Dorain) and down to the forested valleys. To my delight we came across another path a few hours into the day which I immediately recognised as the one I had walked on a few months earlier (that of the infamous downpour, flooding rivers and near-hypothermia incident). We continued on near the base of Beinn Dorain, listening to the sounds of the trickling waterfalls created by snow runoff, and marvelling at the moss that was acting like a sponge and was bloated with water. We passed a field full of grazing heilan coos (finally!) where one cheeky coo left the field to walk into the swiftly moving river to grab a drink. His coo friends were staring at him with what I could only imagine was incredulity. By lunchtime we had reached the small town of Bridge of Orchy where we grabbed a few very tasty pints of Deuchars IPA. Normally I wouldn’t have drunk more than a pint mid-walk, but we were only a few miles away from our destination, so why not live dangerously?

We crossed the old stone bridge over the River Orchy which was built in 1750 (and also provided the name for the town). The path ascended quickly through a forest and then onto mountainous terrain overlooking the beautiful Loch Tulla as well as the atmospheric and barren Rannoch Moor which would be our destination on Day Five. After reaching the cairn which marked the peak of 300 metres, we could see the clouds which had threatened all day finally come in for the kill. It wasn’t long before the skies opened up and we got a proper soaking. Luckily (again with the luck!) it was only about a 20-minute walk before we reached our destination for the day, the Inveroran Hotel. The hotel, built in 1708, is very secluded with literally nothing around for miles. Despite the fact we had arrived early (only about 3 o’clock), we were both quite happy to call it a day. It wasn’t long before we were in the hotel pub where we found several other groups of walkers that we had seen at various points on the trail. It ended up being a brilliant night with the beer flowing freely, good chat with fellow walkers, and a delicious home-cooked meal of pork and applesauce. The rain was relentless that evening, and would be all that night. A few of the campers that we drank with looked less than enthusiastic about going back out in the night to deal with a wet tent and a terrible sleep. They all shot back a few whisky’s before heading out in order to “hopefully knock [them]selves out”. We saw them the next morning – it clearly hadn’t worked. Was I ever thankful that we had chosen not to camp!

Thursday, May 27, 2004


Since the story of this wee walk of ours is taking some time to get told, I thought I’d cover off a few other things in the meantime.

I’ve taken a real shine to Cottiers, a bar/theatre in Glasgow’s West End. Cottiers is housed in a converted church, and has one of the nicest beer gardens (that is a patio in Canadian-speak) in the city. The theatre portion is housed in the former nave of the church. I recently managed to catch the thoroughly fun band Salsa Celtica (their music is a mix of – surprise – Salsa and Celtic) and the observational/storytelling humour of comedian Daniel Kitson. Watching a comedian liberally sprinkle his material with profanity while drinking a pint in a former church, complete with pulpit and stained glass windows? Sacri-licious!

I went to my first official whisky tasting the other day at a pub in Edinburgh. This particular one was held by Glenmorangie. By the fifth full glass, I wasn’t really picking up on much of what they were saying, but the whisky sure tasted good. Best new terminology learned that night: “unleashing the serpent”. This is what happens when you add a dash of water to the whisky to release the flavour and in turn create an almost oily effect in your glass. I look forward to unleashing the serpent again soon.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is in fact as good as you’ve heard. Clever, visually stunning, and heart-warming all at the same time.

I am drowning in wonderful music at the moment. Keane’s “Hopes and Fears” is even better than what I had hoped for. Ash’s “Meltdown” is power pop the way it is supposed to be done. And Morrissey’s “You Are The Quarry” is a brilliant return from an artist who hasn’t released new material in far too long. You have to respect a man who releases a single with the chorus “I’ve been dreaming of a time when/the English are sick to death of Labour and Tories/and spit upon the name Oliver Cromwell/and denounce this royal line that still salute him”.

With the weather having been particularly beautiful recently, and it not getting dark until past 10pm, it’s certainly a good time to be in Scotland!

Saturday, May 22, 2004

West Highland Way: Part One

“If there is a hill, this path goes up it!” – Sympathetic Old Man in Rowardennan Forest after a particularly tough climb

Day One: Milngavie to Balmaha (20 miles)

Despite the ominous weather forecasts predicting grey skies and rain, we awoke on Day One to a beautiful and warm sunny day. Fiona’s parents drove us the short distance from Glasgow to Milngavie, the town that marks the beginning of the WHW. Fi’s father looked to be extremely proud of his daughter before he left us, and rightfully so!

We proceeded to the obelisk which marks the beginning of the WHW to find a good number of people milling about and making their final adjustments to their rucksacks before heading out. We couldn’t help but notice that most people had much smaller rucksacks than we did, which confirmed my initial suspicions that we had overpacked. But we were committed, heavy burden and all! After taking our snapshots by the obelisk, we were off.

After a short time we were in the wilderness, entering Mugdock Wood (very Harry Potter-esque sounding I thought) and then past Craigallian Loch. The path followed the banks of the loch, and then climbed slightly to a point where you could look back at the mile we had just walked. When looking back, you would be forgiven for thinking you were gazing upon Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street because of the sheer amount of people making their way down the path. It was a great feeling though - already we felt part of a group, chatting with people as we walked by. Many of the groups we saw at this point would be seen many times again throughout the following five days.

The path then joined what was once the commuter railway line from the Highlands to Glasgow. We made our first stop near the town of Gartness, sitting in the grass overlooking a valley where you could clearly hear the bleating of newborn lambs. At this point we had walked 10 miles and were feeling quite good. It wasn’t until we stood up that we discovered a curious sensation that would occur again and again. Any period of prolonged relaxation would numb our joints to the point that the act of getting up and starting to walk again would be incredibly painful. It was also at this point I could feel the bruises on my shoulders from the weight of the rucksack. It was a sensation that became all too familiar from then on.

About 15 miles in we were quite exhausted, but from an unexpected source. The walk to that point had been quite reasonable – it was the relentless sun which, while very pleasant at first, was now beginning to sap our strength away. The cool shade of a Garadhban Forest was most welcome. Normally after the forest, one would climb Conic Hill before descending into the town of Balmaha, but as we were in the heart of lambing season, it was necessary to take a detour that unfortunately meant our final half-mile for that day was alongside the motorway. This part of the path did however cross the Highland Boundary Fault, meaning we had officially left the lowlands behind. The day was still gorgeous when we shuffled into the pretty town of Balmaha at about 5pm, and the first order of business was to grab two pints at the first pub we came across, which happened to be the lovely Oak Tree Inn. Never has the taste of cider been so lovely!

After checking into our room in the Balmaha Bunkhouse Lodge (a room that contained a bunkbed and precious little else including space), we spent the remainder of the evening sucking back pints at the pub. We hadn’t eaten much that day, so the pub grub tasted especially good that night. One of the great bonuses of walking holidays is that you can so totally justify that extra pint and daily pub grub.

Day Two: Balmaha to Ardlui (22 miles)

We knew that this was going to be our toughest day. Not only would we be walking 22 miles, but the final 5 miles of that day was going to be over what our guide book called “one of the most difficult parts of the route”. We also knew that we couldn’t base our pace of walking on our first day as that had covered mostly flat terrain. And a good thing we had realised this too. We were up at 8:30 and we wouldn’t arrive at our destination until 7pm, feeling very rough indeed.

We awoke to an overcast but dry day, and being up and away that early meant that we saw not a single person on the path for hours. After a short walk out of Balmaha, we were walking along the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond, where the path would remain for the duration of the day.

A few miles into the walk, the sky cleared and we once again had a lovely sunny day, though luckily without the same relentless heat of before. The path for the first several miles would traverse beaches, then climb hills through forests before descending back down to lochside trails.

About 7 miles in, we ended up in Rowardennan which is essentially just a large hotel but strategically located at the base of another path which climbs to the peak of Ben Lomond. Mike and I had grabbed a pint here after our climb up the Ben almost one year ago (where did THAT time go???). This time, Fi and I enjoyed a nice pint of soda water and lime before heading out, once again partially regretting the time we took to sit as our legs once again had gone stiff and sore.

Being so close to Ben Lomond, the terrain past Rowardennan became very hilly, and while the views of both the Ben and the Loch were stunning, the terrain made for very tough going, especially with the rucksacks on our back. When we trundled into Inversnaid, (again, really just one big hotel) we were very sore indeed. The original plan was to stop in Inversnaid for the night, but the hotel was fully booked by the time we (well, not we, it was actually entirely Fiona for which I’m eternally grateful) began booking accommodation. As such it was necessary to continue on for another 5 miles before we came across a place we could stop for the night. But not any 5 miles, this was the infamous patch that would involve scrambling and very difficult descents. This was the only time in the entire trip where I saw Fiona look truly miserable as her calves and feet were absolutely killing her, and she had already walked 17 miles that day.

The sky had become overcast, and the going was as tough as our guidebook had indicated. We were quite fortunate to run into a small herd of feral goats on a ridge just above the path. The goats were once kept by Highlanders centuries ago and over the subsequent decades had become wild. It is now thought that there are only a few hundred left.

With about two miles left to go, a bit of drizzle started to fall and I was beginning to wonder if my legs were simply going to buckle under the strain. I looked back to see poor Fi doing her best but she was really struggling. I thought it would be funny to take a picture of her (after all, wouldn’t she one day look back at it and laugh?) but the look she flashed me quickly changed my mind. I took her rucksack and attached it to my front to do my best to relieve the burden on her. The views during this stretch were gorgeous, but I confess at this point neither of us cared anymore as we were really hurting.

You could not imagine our joy when we finally came across a solitary pole near a tiny dock on the bank of the loch. Say what? Well, as there was no accommodation on the east side of the Loch for several more miles, Fiona had booked a hotel in the town of Ardlui which was on the west side of the loch. On this pole was a large orange ball which we needed to hoist to call a ferry. It was quite late at this point and there was simply nobody around, so for a few miserable moments we worried that no boat was going to come, but these fears were quickly allayed when we saw a wee boat make its way towards us. After a quick and wet (the rain was fully falling now) ride across the loch, we were in Ardlui.

After a delicious meal of haggis pizza (yes, they do put haggis on everything over here) at the hotel we retired to our room to evaluate the damage. The ugly bruises on my shoulders and hips (from the rucksack straps) were nothing compared to the blisters on poor Fi’s feet. That girl is a trooper, and I was very proud of her for making it through that day. The funny thing about the night was, despite being as tired as could be, neither of us slept well because our muscles decided to keep doing their thing while we lay in bed. This would be the case for each of the four nights to follow.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

West Highland Way

The West Highland Way is a 95-mile (152 km) long path that starts in the town of Milngavie (just north of Glasgow) and ends at the foot of the largest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis. The path covers just about every conceivable type of terrain that is found in Scotland, from desolate moors to lush forests to ancient hills to pasture land, passing by lochs and rivers and small Highland towns. And since the Way takes about a week to cover, the walker tends to experience just about every conceivable type of weather that is found in Scotland too. Much of the path itself consists of ancient drove roads (used by Highlanders to herd their coos and sheep down south - think Rob Roy), disused railway lines and old military roads.

It was decided that for our first big holiday of the year, Fiona and I would take up the challenge of the West Highland Way, and complete it in 6 days. Some guys take their girlfriends to an exotic country with warm beaches and cocktails; I take mine drudging through the rough terrain of the Scottish Highlands. And they say romance is dead, eh?

I confess that when I first prepared for this walk, I expected that it would be a lovely walk but nothing along the lines of a physical challenge. As I type this now, just returned to Glasgow with my swollen right foot and bruised shoulders, I can safely say that this little walk of ours ended up being one of the more physically demanding things I have ever done. But it was so much more than a “lovely walk” – the sheer beauty of the landscape and exhilaration of being outside in so many different conditions surpassed both of our expectations. It was, in a word, brilliant.

I’m going to attempt the full day-by-day breakdown of the trip over the next few posts. But first I thought I’d give a few definitions of some Scottish outdoor terminology so that everyone will know what I’m on about:

Ben – a mountain. You’ll never hear the word “mountain” used though – it's always simply a ben or a hill, regardless of size.
Cairn – a pile of stones to mark a path, or to indicate a peak of a hill.
Glen – a valley. For example, the valley beneath Ben Nevis is known as Glen Nevis.
Kissing Gate – a swinging gate that is designed to let people, but not animals, through. Traditionally amongst couples, whoever gets through the gate first can demand a kiss before the other can get through. As a fast walker, I took full advantage.
Loch – a lake (just in case you hadn’t figured that one out yet).
Midge – small, biting, annoying insect that is the scourge of the Highlands, though they don’t typically appear until mid-May. The main reason we did this walk in early May.
Munro – hill over 3000 feet high.
Scramble – using hands to enable movement up steep terrain. Not easy with a heavy rucksack.