As seems to be the case with many of the people I have spoken to over the years, the book that first planted the seed of attempting a Long Distance Footpath was A Walk In The Woods: Bill Bryson’s account of hiking the Appalachian Trail.
What I found most memorable about the book — even more than its dry discussions of bears and overpriced camping equipment — were the characters that Bryson met along the way. There was of course Stephen Katz, his hapless but loyal travel companion, but just as memorable were the bit-parts played by Mary Ellen and Chicken John.
At this point on the West Highland Way (the Scottish constituent of an official International Appalachian Trail, as it happens) we had yet to meet anyone of any real consequence. There was the English camper who grossly underestimated our understanding of UK geography, the loved-up staff at Inversnaid Bunkhouse and the Dutch couple visiting their daughter in Drymen, but so far our travel narrative was distinctly lacking in recurring characters.
On Friday we awoke to another misty morning in the Scottish highlands. We breakfasted on cereal and sausages, and just as we were about to move onto the scones we were once again joined by our two fellow house guests, Mags and Mags’ friend (who — unimaginably — had opted for grapefruit over muesli or porridge). They too were bound for King’s House Hotel, and we promised to say hello if we saw them there in the evening.
Paul of course was sitting this leg out, having been forced to book a bus to Kingshouse when his blisters failed to clear up overnight. We left him sitting in the room with our suitcases (to be picked up by Travel-lite later that morning) and set out into the rain, which was far heavier than it had seemed from the breakfast table. With twenty miles ahead of us — a distance that would take us through some of the most isolated parts of Scotland — we weren’t expecting much from the day ahead.
We were hardly surprised then to find the track half submerged and slippery underfoot, as if it had given up the will to be. There was a small stream on the outskirts of Tyndrum that either lacked a crossing altogether or had recently risen to consume all avenues across it. My shoes weren’t as heavy-duty as Nat’s, and I hesitated as I tried to navigate the safest way across, allowing for a pair of young women to overtake us as I picked my way to the other side.
Reluctant to become stuck behind them and have to slow our pace accordingly (at such close proximity it would have become awkward eventually), Nat and I quickly re-took the lead and continued on at speed. I thought they were Australian while Nat guessed English, though we were soon distracted from our reckonings by a strange little cemetery to our left which boasted only two graves, one of them commemorating the graveyard’s opening in 2005, suggesting that only one person in Tyndrum had died since.
With the rain only getting heavier, the track itself was often acting as a makeshift riverbed. My shoes held their own — just — but it didn’t exactly make for the most comfortable walking conditions. The path was at least wide enough for us to walk side-by-side (we had been mostly travelling single-file since Balmaha), and we spoke in raised voices so as to hear each other through the lining of our hoods and over the sound of falling rain.
Nathanael had been using the Way as an opportunity to relate the Bible to Paul and myself. We had all seen Darren Aranofsky’s Noah before setting off on Tuesday, and our individual reviews of the film had lead to a discussion of Christianity in general — on the subject of which Nat was the resident expert. We had finished the Old Testament the day before, and while taking a break in Paul’s absence we got onto the topic of philosophy and ethics — for me substantially firmer ground, having studied both at A Level and in the early years of university.
The rain had stopped by the time we reached Bridge of Orchy (which I at first mistook for Tyndrum’s second train station, my heart sinking for a moment at the thought that we had travelled such a small distance), and we paused for a drink and a snack ahead of our only notable ascent of the day. Bridge of Orchy had no shop, but we had heard that there was a Post Office that opened one morning a week, though sadly not today.
We were in for a surprise when we crossed the bridge itself. At first I didn’t recognise him, but I saw a glimmer of recognition on his and Nat’s faces and soon realised I was looking at the camper from day one; the man from Dover. He confessed that his leg was in a bad way, and that he would be ending his journey there, just over half way to Fort William. His parents were on their way to collect him, though he would keep trying to ease his cramp until they arrived.
It was a shame to see someone forced to give up like that, though we made a mental note to tell Paul in the hope of cheering him up should he feel too bad about missing a section of the Way. We had always thought he was being ambitious pushing on to Cashel on the first day, and couldn’t imagine how he’d managed to navigate the tangle of trees and stones either side of Inversnaid with a tent strapped to his back. It must have been hell.
He pointed us in the right direction and we pressed on up the hill, through a scrap of conifers and over Mam Carraigh, stepping out onto the remote moorlands surrounding Inveroran — our half-way mark for the day. Before we knew it we were looking down at the settlement itself: barely a handful of buildings to the west of glassy Loch Tulla. We descended into the village, and entered Inveroran Hotel for a spot of lunch.
While ordering a haggis and cheese panini at the bar, I asked the waitress whether there was any chance of seeing a deer or two between Inveroran and Kingshouse. Paul had previously promised that we would be fighting them off with sticks in this part of the country (stags presumably photo-bombing every picture we took), but I wanted to double-check with a local. She seemed optimistic, which gave me hope that our day would not be completely without incident.
Inveroran Hotel was something of a hidden gem, and I was sorry that we wouldn’t be spending more time there. The walls bore pictorial representations of the various stops along the way, from the logo of The Green Welly Stop (a retail centre in Tyndrum I was suddenly sad to have missed) to a hand-drawn Satan and some flaming steps (representing The Devil’s Staircase, which we would face in the morning). There was also a map of Scotland, and we were quietly impressed by how far we’d walked so far.
I’d finished my panini and was just replastering my foot when another member of staff appeared, asking if we were the chaps who had been asking about the deer. I said we were, and he invited us outside (“You won’t even need your shoes”, he said, looking at my naked feet). There, standing just outside the front door, was a female deer. He introduced us to Daisy, an exceptionally large red doe who lived in the surrounding woods, and furnished us with lettuce leaves with which to feed her. We thanked him profusely.
By this point the Australians (it turned out I had been right all along) had caught up, and we left them to fawn over Daisy for themselves while we departed for Kingshouse, where it turned out they would also be spending the night. We were making good progress, having walked ten miles in just over three hours, and we set off with a newfound spring in our step. The rain had stopped! We’d seen a deer! And we were walking through some of the most dramatic scenery we had seen so far!
Leaving Inveroran we passed a German man fretting over a frankly enormous backpack. He seemed to be unpacking a camping stove, and not wishing to interrupt his lunch we simply said hello on our way past. Rannoch Moor was indeed dank and desolate (there was for the first time no sign of cows or sheep, rail or road), but the scale of it is undeniably spectacular. Geographically, Scotland is tiny, nigh insignificant, but from the West Highland Way it looked enormous, epic, endless.
We had been walking on an old drover’s road until Inveroran, but now switched to slightly rockier terrain as we continued beneath the mighty peaks of Black Mount. We passed Beinn Toaig, Strob a’ Choire Odhair and Meall a’Bhuiridh, and though their summits may have been shrouded in mist we were still impressed by their size. Unexpectedly, Rannoch Moor seemed strikingly active and alive; the opalescent sky seemed shapeless and ever-shifting, while the sound of running water dominated the soundscape. It was a bleak landscape, all exposed rock, glistening grey water and muted heather, but beautiful, too.
We paused for a quick rest at Ba Bridge over the River Ba, a lively channel from which thick layers of sedimentary bedrock protruded at a peculiar angle. We had covered pages of Charles Loram’s guide in no time at all, and suspected that we would easily be in Kingshouse for half past three — making it our longest day, and also our shortest. We pushed on past the ruins of Ba Cottage, took a short detour to a distinctive cairn to gain a better vantage point and soon caught our first glimpse of King’s House Hotel in the distance, on the other side of the A82.
To our left, visible on the north-eastern slope of Meall a’Bhuiridh, was a chairlift connecting Glencoe Mountain Resort with the mountain’s snowy peaks. Somewhat surprisingly, it seemed to be operational, and though we couldn’t quite tell if it was being used by anyone we watched as chairs were carried back and forth between ski centre and summit. The views from the top must have been quite something indeed.
We arrived at Kingshouse a short time later, at first thinking that the large stag standing out front was a statue or carving — until it moved. Astounded, we retrieved our cameras from our bags and started snapping pictures of it, along with a small harem of deer and a fussy pheasant that patrolled the car park. It didn’t seem to mind at all, and I could have quite happily spent the rest of the afternoon watching it from one of the picnic tables out front.
Nat, however, had caught sight of Paul in one of the first story windows, and he seemed to be gesturing for us to go inside and pick up a key of our own. In reality, he had been pointing at the room number printed on his keyring, apparently not realising that it wasn’t written quite large enough for us to read. We unpacked, showered and then headed down to the bar. Well, they did, I went back outside to take a few hundred more photos.
I felt a little funny about ordering venison when there were deer right outside, but that didn’t stop me from choosing the burger. As we ate other walkers started to appear, including Mags and her friend from Tigh Na Fraoch, the Australian girls from Tyndrum and the German we had seen just before Bridge of Orchy. We played a few games of pool, then asked the others if they wanted a game of cards. We got chatting, though ultimately the pack went unopened.
The Australians were visiting on a two year visa, and had already spent a month or so travelling around Ireland. They had been in Scotland for about a fortnight now, and following some time in Edinburgh and Glasgow had decided on something of a whim to walk the West Highland Way. One shared Paul’s love of toast, giving new life to what had by now become an old joke, while the other explained that a Pome was a Prisoner of Mother England, while introducing us to words like woop woop (meaning the middle of nowhere) and endearing us with the pleasingly polite phrase “shut the front door”.
After a few beers and half-drunken discussions on the subject of everything from Native Australian welfare rights, the introduction or reintroduction of species into ecosystems (from cane toads to wolves) and which had been the most difficult section of the Way so far, we each went our separate ways. I had brought Under The Skin with me to read on the journey (set in Scotland, it seemed like a fitting choice) and read a few pages before turning out the lights and going to sleep.
At least, I tried to sleep. Paul was feeling better after his day of rest, but I seemed to be bruising now more than ever. A belt borrowed from Nathanael had irritated my waist, I had a mystifying tender spot under my right arm, and I had to resort to wearing plasters over my nipples after having taken off my jumper for the last stretch to Kingshouse. It had been a long day, and was to be an even longer night.
Luckily, we had only nine miles to walk in the morning. By far our shortest distance yet.