In a momentary panic before departure I had invested in a First Aid Kit for our week of walking in the Scottish highlands. Nothing too fancy, just a few strips of gauze, assorted plasters and a handful of water purification tablets. I had also bought a torch and an emergency whistle, just in case.
I was using the plasters from day one, having arrived in Balmaha with a blister on each big toe, but would thankfully not need the gauze or water purifiers. So far it was Paul who had suffered the most; by now he was half man, half Compede, and once he had applied another coating we made our way up to the Inversnaid Bunkhouse’s dining room for bacon sandwiches.
As before, we left our cases where we had found them, and were back on the trail for 8:30, ready to tackle the nineteen or twenty miles to Tyndrum (pronounced ‘Tine-drum’). Any energy that we had recuperated overnight was soon spent, however, as the path once again disappeared into the shoreline and we were forced to scrambling over another few miles of bedrock. For a time it was exciting and novel, but unable to build momentum or establish any semblance of rhythm we were soon overexerted and exhausted.
Charlie Loram’s guide to the West Highland Way foretold six miles of this, and though we had been told that work was being done to improve certain sections of the route we never saw any sign of it here. Bridges would carry you over streams, only to deposit you in the mud whole metres from the next sign of track. Hours seemed to pass and we were still clawing our way over rocks and easing ourselves under trees. I guess that’s why they call it the Way, and not the West Highland Path.
The track resumed at a small and scenic estuary where a tiny tributary entered the loch. We paused here for a drink of water and a snack, before making a brief departure from the water in order to follow a line of stepping stones and wooden beams through marshland and out onto mountain-lined meadow. Here we rejoined the loch for the last time, climbing a small hill and following River Falloch up past the smaller Geal Loch.
We had seen feral goats the day before, but it was still a thrill to see the animals in the wild. We encountered another group of three after crossing a small bridge, and watched as they reacted to our presence. It was uncanny the way that they seemed to use the track, trotting along in front of us at a safe distance as though they too were bound for Tyndrum. Eventually they returned to the grassland to the side of the trail, and we were able to leave them to their lunch.
For us, however, it was still technically too early for food, so when we arrived at Inverarnan’s Beinglass Farm we simply bought supplies before pushing on. Many campers, however, choose to stop at the farm overnight, and in addition to tents we also passed a number of wooden wigwams (by name only) available to rent. We asked for directions in the shop, and were relieved to hear it was relatively smooth sailing from here.
From Beinglas Farm we followed a gravel road for a mile or so, eventually turning right onto a dirt track just before it joined the A82 to Crianlarich. For the next few miles we shared Glen Falloch with the river, main road and railway, initially keeping to the right of all three as we passed the lively Falls of Falloch before stopping for a quick lunch beside a smaller cascade. Paul wasn’t feeling well at this point, and was considering catching a train to Tyndrum from the nearest station.
The problem, however, was that there were very few trains to Tyndrum from Crianlarich, and in order to make the next one we would have to increase our pace. Our first setback wasn’t necessarily an unpleasant one, as we were approached by two of the cutest lambs imaginable, and took the opportunity to photograph our unusually willing subjects. After passing beneath the railway line we hit another, far less agreeable obstacle. There were cows on the path — many, many cows — and we had no option but to navigate our way between them, wading through a viscous swamp of mud and muck in the process.
At the crossroads Paul decided to push on with us to Tyndrum. We forked left, leaving the paddocks and pastures behind and entering a rather fresher-smelling pine plantation. Our footfalls muffled by a carpet of browning pine needles and verdant mosses, we followed the trail as it wound its way through the forest, undulating gently as we made a gradual descent back into the glen. We crossed and then re-crossed the A85, passing the ruins of St Fillan’s priory and stopping for coffee at the Strathfillan Wigwam’s (again by name only) Trading Post.
As usual, it was the last mile or so that proved the real killer. Though relatively easy-going, the path into Tyndrum seemed in no hurry to actually get there — unlike us. We wound our way past The Loch of the Legend of the Lost Sword (which Google informs me is where Robert the Bruce is reported to have ordered his men to discard their weapons following a defeat at Dalrigh), over River Coninish (with its glistening green water and strikingly white rocks) and through a seemingly never-ending community woodland into Tyndrum itself.
That night we were staying with Heather at Tigh Na Fraoch (which Nat informed us was Gaelic for House of Heather), a short distance from Tyndrum Lower Railway Station. The town is remarkable for being the smallest in Britain to have two train stations, a quirk of history that pre-dates privatisation of the rail network, a throwback to when the two lines were owned by different companies. Nowadays, the lower station feeds Oban while the upper station serves Fort William — we would presumably pass the latter on our way back to Glasgow.
We were served coffee and pancakes and introduced to her two other guests: a pair of Scottish women, one of whom (who we affectionately nicknamed Mags due to her resemblance to the character in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) had walked the West Highland Way before. We exchanged pleasantries, traded anecdotes, and then went to our rooms. After a quick shower each we set out for The Tyndrum Inn, where I ordered the lamb shank special and finished the meal off with a Sticky Toffee Pudding.
By this point Paul could manage no more than a hobble, and he confessed that if by morning he didn’t feel better he doubted he would be able to make it to Kingshouse on foot. The next day was to be our longest yet, with the track set to cross Rannoch Moor, one of the wildest and least populated regions in the UK. At twenty miles it was not a distance to be taken lightly, and we didn’t protest when he later booked a bus to the King’s House Hotel — I may have had a First Aid Kit, but really I had no idea how to use it.
For now, however, we treated ourselves to an hour of television before bed. First up was the week’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine on E4, followed by a programme about weird and wonderful natural phenomenon, featuring Wolverine Frogs and Tumbleweed Storms. We set our alarms for seven-thirty (Nathanael and I still had twenty miles to walk) and were once again asleep for 11.
Little did we know then, but Friday was to be our most sociable day yet.