Perhaps my biggest fear going into the West Highland Way was that it might be too easy.
Of course, I had other, often conflicting concerns, too. What if my relatively inexpensive shoes weren’t up to the task? What if I sprained an ankle or broke a leg miles from anywhere? What if I came away from it all without at least one usable profile picture?
But for the most part I was most worried that it wouldn’t feel like much of an achievement. After all, that’s why I was doing it in the first place: I had graduated university and interned at BestforFilm.com in 2010, and had spent two months teaching English in Russia in 2012, but I hadn’t done an awful lot to feel proud of in the years since.
Debuted in 1980 and running from Milngavie (a short train journey from nearby Glasgow, and pronounced ‘Mill-guy’) to Fort William, ninety-six miles away in the Scottish Highlands, the West Highland Way follows abandoned railway lines, drover roads and military channels through some of the most scenic parts of the country. It is completed annually by approximately 30,000 people — many of whom camp, while others run the entire length as part of an Ultramarathon (the record currently stands at an astonishing fifteen hours, seven minutes).
I on the other hand would be walking the Way over six days with two friends. Paul, Nathanael and I met at Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2012, as press covering the event for three different outlets. We would not be camping, having chosen to spend our nights at various B&Bs and bunkhouses across the way. Nor would we be carrying our belongings, opting instead to use the baggage service provided by Travel-lite for the bulk of our luggage. It was intended to be as much a holiday as it was a challenge, but I still hoped for a sense of accomplishment should we make it all the way to Fort William.
When I awoke just before 7am on the 1st of April it was raining. Not a heavy downpour, but a light drizzle all but obfuscated by a thicker fog. I had stayed the night in Renfrew with Paul and Nathanael, and we were looking to start out from Milngavie in three hours time, once we had dropped our bags off at the Travel-lite offices and had the obligatory photo taken with the official obelisk in the town centre. This was Scotland, I resigned; the weather could really go either way.
We arrived in Milngavie just after nine, but thanks to a queue in Costa weren’t truly on our way until 9:30am. Today we would be walking to Balmaha, a distance of twenty miles that we didn’t expect to complete until dinner time. We had walked as far as Drymen (pronounced ‘Drimmen’) before, and couldn’t foresee any difficulty in the day ahead. On that earlier visit we had indulged in the Master Blender tour at Glengoyne distillery, and took nips from our own individual blends as we set off on day one of six. I had named mine Night Fury, after Toothless in How To Train Your Dragon.
There were therefore few surprises as we followed Allander Water into Mugdock Country Park. It was much as it had been before, only muddier and — it being a rainy Tuesday morning — rather more quiet. Still, it never failed to impress me just how quickly you seemed to leave Greater Glasgow behind, with a tree-lined corridor muffling the rush hour commotion of city life and leaving you to enjoy a certain sense of adventure right from the get-go. We passed a scattering of dedicated dog-walkers and joggers at first, but were on our own by the time we reached Craigallien Loch.
Once again we passed Carbeth Loch and its longstanding community of hutters, crossed the B821 into Tinkers Loan and made our way through a field of cows to look out over the Cempsie Fells. Dumgoyne dominated the scene, though as always it was Dumgoyach that drew our attention, remarkable for its uncannily rounded shape and incongruous cover of trees. We made our way down into the floodplain, discussing television programmes and Disney movies, before arriving at The Beech Tree Inn, which, to our amazement, wasn’t scheduled to open for another twenty minutes. Its range of souvenir t-shirts implied that it was geared towards walkers, yet here it was, closed to us.
Not wishing to delay, we sheltered under the pub’s pagoda, where we filled up on snacks, had another nip of whisky, and then set off for Drymen along a disbanded and dismantled railway. This section of the Way had been muddy and tiresome on our previous attempt, when the weather had been kinder, and so I expected it to be pretty treacherous today. Happily, however, it didn’t prove difficult at all, and before long we were leaving the old trackbed behind, with the Way switching to small country roads at the village of Gartness.
For the hell of it, I stopped at Gartness to make a purchase at the local honesty box, the only one we would encounter on the West Highland Way. A pound could buy you a Mars bar, a Snickers or a small bottle of water, and though an obvious rip-off I bought some chocolate just to say I had. Paul took a water while Nat watched on in disbelief, then we left Gartness behind, pitching plots for horror movies ingeniously titled Honesty Box as we went. To be fair, it pretty much wrote itself.
While navigating these country lanes we came across our first fellow walker of the trip. We asked him where he was from, and, after many assurances that — as British citizens with school-level qualifications in Geography — we knew where Dover was, he revealed that he lived a short drive from the port town. He was walking the Way on his own, was carrying his own bags, and would today be walking several more miles than us to Cashel — about midway between Balmaha and Rowadennan. Feeling somewhat pedestrian by comparison, we marched on, leaving him behind.
None of us had ever actually been to Drymen before. When Paul and I had walked there before, we had caught a bus back to Glasgow before we had had a chance to look around. It seemed small and sleepy, but had a Co-op and a selection of restaurants which was really all we were looking for. We went to The Drymen Inn, where we took a seat in ‘the light’ next to a couple of women who recommended the chips. We smiled, then ordered three Scottish breakfasts. The Drymen Inn is clearly multitalented, for Paul soon declared their toast to be the best he had ever tasted. After a late brunch we set off for Balmaha, leaving our compliments with the toaster.
With the exception of Dumgoyne (and Dumgoyach), the Way until now hadn’t been particularly exciting. We had walked approximately twelve miles, but there was still the sense that we hadn’t really come that far. After rejoining the route on the outskirts of town, however, we entered Garadhban Forest, and the feeling of anticipation grew as we neared our destination. After three miles or so we arrived at a large clearing, and over the stumps of felled conifers caught our first glimpse of Loch Lomond — by surface area the largest inland body of water in the whole of Britain.
The village of Balmaha sits on the loch’s east coast, but in order to get to it walkers must first tackle Conic Hill. In case we were in any doubt of which way to proceed (there is a shortcut that skips the mound; the low road, if you will), a friendly local was on hand at the intersection to persuade us that Conic Hill really wasn’t much of an obstacle at all. We pushed on, almost immediately realising that he was either much, much fitter than we were or a big, fat liar. Conic Hill is an absolute monster, and no way to end a twenty mile day. We made it to the top about an hour later, red faced and short of breath.
The path itself doesn’t take you to the summit, but there is an obvious detour that does. From the moment we reached the peak we were immediately glad that we had made the effort; Loch Lomond spread out before us, and although misty it was still possible to see for miles. We had reached the highlands — had literally crossed the Highland Boundary Fault — and looked North-West to the ground we would be covering over the next few days. The adventure was about to begin in earnest.
For today, however, we were done. We worked our way slowly down the hill, the descent proving even more difficult than the climb (“I have something in my shoe”, I complained, after opting for a slightly safer route than Paul and Nat, “It’s either a stone or my kneecap”), and entered Balmaha via the village’s abandoned car park. We had a room for three booked at Bay Cottage, and arrived moments later to find our bags waiting for us at the front door. Ms Bates (not that one) showed us to our chalet, explained the hot tub controls and invited us into the main house for tea and scones.
We spent a very pleasant evening across the road at The Oak Tree Inn, eating haggis pakoras and self-medicating our aches and pains with West Highland Way ale, before returning to Bay Cottage for a long soak in the Jacuzzi. I had a blister on each foot and sore shoulders from carrying my rucksack, but was otherwise unscathed. Back in the room itself, within a cosy cabin with an A-frame roof, we found and quickly devoured a couple of issues of Angler’s Mail (no doubt soon to be featured as the guest publication on Have I Got News For You) only to be in bed and asleep for ten. Needless to say, I liked Balmaha very much indeed.
Not too easy then. But easy enough.