In each life story there are will always be some chapters that are more important to the overall narrative than others, shaping and occasionally unmaking that person’s sense of self.
For me, walking the West Highland Way in 2014 was a transformative experience. Prior to departing from Milngavie in April of last year, Paul, Nathanael and I were friendly film critics who rarely saw one another outside of a cinema; I would no sooner have thought about walking a long-distance footpath than running a marathon; and I honestly considered a holiday spent at home in Scotland a holiday wasted.
By the time we reached Fort William, however, we were mountain men, inextricably bound by our shared experiences and suddenly au fait with the lay of the land. We now saw distances not in drive-time but in days’ hiking, connected with strangers over obscure little villages that most people have never heard of, and considered anything below fifteen miles a short stroll. I also felt Scottish — more Scottish than I had ever felt before, having spent much of my childhood abroad and my high school years in England. Odd, considering how few Scots we had actually met along the Way.
It is because of how much completing the West Highland Way meant and continues to mean to me that I agreed to walk the Tyndrum to Kingshouse section again with Paul, who, if you read my original blog series at the time, you will know had to miss a day due to illness. He was eager to finally feel the same sense of accomplishment, and to achieve a sense of closure before we all set off on our next adventure — the Great Glen Way — in October. As amazing as the West Highland Way had been I was reluctant to revisit it, preferring instead to try new routes and leave first impressions intact, but on this occasion I was more than happy to make an exception. We just needed to find a day when the three of us were free.
With less than three weeks to go before we departed Fort William for Inverness through the Great Glen we booked a hobbit house at Tyndrum By The Way and arranged to travel by bus to Kingshouse so that we might then walk back to the car — a distance of 20 miles that would this time take us out of the highlands rather than into them. This way Paul would be able to complete the Way while Nat and I wouldn’t have to repeat the exact same journey as before, instead walking it in the opposite direction and at a different time of year. Keen to avoid press screenings and other commitments we settled for a Thursday hike, though this meant being in Tyndrum by 8pm on the Wednesday so that we wouldn’t miss Pastry Week of The Great British Bake Off. Luckily, or rather essentially, the hobbit hut had its own TV.
We had walked the West Highland Way B&B to B&B, with Travel-lite ferrying our larger luggage from one overnight venue to the next, and so it was nice and novel to spend a night in an actual campsite — albeit without actually camping. We were glamping, I suppose, with our fridge and our heater and our WiFi, but we had to go outside to pee which had to count for something. Post Bake Off we headed out to the Tyndrum Inn, where we ate for the second time in as many visits, before retiring to our sleeping bags for an evening film and an early, if largely sleepless night. Hobbit huts are a real heat-trap; no wonder Bilbo was never burned by Smaug, magic ring or no magic ring by the age of eleventy-one he must have been heat resistant. But it was cheap and available, which was the main thing.
Morning came and we settled the bill with the owners, who had left prior to our arrival the previous evening — presumably so that they too might watch GBBO. This left us with approximately ten minutes to make it to the bus, ruling out a leisurely breakfast at The Green Welly Stop and instead forcing us to down brioche on the coach and hope it could sustain us through to Inveroran, ten miles into our journey. We met a pair of Canadians at the bus stop and took the opportunity to impart some worldly wisdom about the West Highland Way (on the subject of which, having walked it once, we were obviously experts), only instead to be put to shame by their own feats of endurance (including one long-distance trail that required them to carry their canoe between lakes). They were sitting out the Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy section, though, so we nevertheless dismissed them as amateurs.
Our starting point for the day had been a contentious issue the evening before, with Nat reluctant to walk from the bus stop at Glencoe Ski Centre to our previous end point at King’s House Hotel, only to double back on our way to Tyndrum. I, meanwhile, was eager to see the hotel’s resident deer herd before we set off. The disagreement was settled by Paul, who asked the driver to drop us off at the hotel itself despite there not being an official stop. After all, Paul was the reason that we were there, and given that he wanted to walk the section that he had missed there was no option but to start at Kingshouse. Anything else would have been counter productive and rendered the whole endeouvour pointless. Or so I consoled myself, upon discovering that the deer were nowhere to be seen. Apparently they only congregate on the grounds in the evening, by which time we would be twenty miles away.
With no deer to stalk with my camera we left Kingshouse shortly after nine — much to the relief of my companions, who were by now used to losing hours due to my reluctance to leave anything at all undocumented. Not that King’s House Hotel is unphotogenic on its own, of course — with Buachaille Etive Mhor looming up before it, Aonach Eagach Ridge to its back and Glencoe just around the corner it is not only one of the most stunning sites on the West Highland Way but in the whole of Scotland. It was a natural destination, and it seemed more than a little disrespectful and disingeunuous to put it in the proverbial rear-view mirror and set out in the opposite direction, back out of the highlands. Instead we were bound for Rannoch Moor, the largest uninhabited area in the UK and one of the most desolate landscapes you could possibly imagine. We’d be lucky if we passed another person all day.
At least, that was how Nat and I remembered it. It had still been beautiful, in a boggy sort of way, but when we last walked Rannoch Moor it had been a cold and empty place, almost completely devoid of life and colour. This time, however, it was all bright greens and purples, with fellow hikers passing at almost every turn. We encountered more walkers in an hour that day than we had in the whole week it had taken us to walk the West Highland Way, which was surprising as September seemed about as post-season as April had pre-. Of course, this was partly down to the fact that we were walking in the opposite direction, but even taking this into consideration there was rarely an occasion when there wasn’t someone visible on the horizon. Walking in this direction afforded us sensational views of the moor from the base of Meall a Bhuiridh, but also meant that we had to look over our shoulders to appreciate the grandeur of the highlands.
We skipped the Peter Fleming cairn for time, Nat and I joking that we wanted at least a small part of the Way to ourselves, instead pushing on to Ba Bridge where we had a Snickers and a short rest. The River Ba had changed too, now resembling more of a babbling brook than a raging rapids. The bridge was already occupied when we arrived, but after asking for a photo of the three of us the couple quickly departed for Kingshouse, leaving us with a seat and a pretty terrible picture. We tried again with a pair of Liverpudlians, and this time happy with the results resumed the first part of our journey to Inveroran. At first it was nice to have so much company for a change, greeting everyone who passed and stopping to take pictures or converse with other walkers on the Way — particularly an older couple from Seattle who were walking the West Highland Way with a large party of friends. After a while, though, we began to tire of the endless trading of pleasantries. That said, we still stopped to pay our respects to an abandoned head net — its inadequately kitted owner apparently devoured by midges.
Nat had underestimated the distance to Inverornan, and having heralded our imminent arrival at a plantation of Scots pines had to concede that he’d been a bit premature. Not that it mattered; with the car parked at Tyndrum we weren’t in any rush, and if anything it was a relief that Rannoch Moor wasn’t yet over and done with. Eventually, however, we came to a second plantation, and soon began our wooded descent into Inveroran. Like Kingshouse, Inveroran was less a town than a hotel, and ready for lunch we stopped at the hiker’s bar of the only establishment around for a soft drink and a haggis and cheese panini. It had been from here, the last time, that a member of staff had ushered us outside to meet Daisy, but on this occasion the deer was sadly nowhere to be seen. By this point, however, I had accepted that I wasn’t going to see much more than a ptarmigan today; the trail was simply too busy with through-hikers and dog-walkers for an spontaneous wildlife encounter. Having discovered an hitherto unseen “food” setting on my DSLR I instead spent the break photographing my lunch.
We had told Paul that there were no notable climbs on today’s walk, and the Charlie Loram guide book seemed to back us up. That, of course, only held true for a northerly trajectory, and as we would be walking it backwards all of those rapid descents enjoyed a year ago instead became gruelling inclines to be suffered at present and at length. We encountered the first leaving Inveroran, at which point the route zigzagged up a hill towards a distinctive tree that seemed far farther away than either Nat or I remembered. We’d already passed everyone who had begun at Inveroran earlier in the day, and had crossed paths with the Canadians from the bus stop between the two plantations, so now we found ourselves greeting the Tyndrum crowd. There was a steady stream of people meandering down the hill towards us, who we joined briefly in quiet admiration of glassy Loch Tulla — with its finger-like floodplains reaching across the glen. At least, that is, until everyone within earshot was distracted by the roar of a Hercules transport as it thundered overhead.
Having teased Nat for misjudging the distance between Kingshouse and Inveroran I soon found myself eating my words as my assurances that Bridge of Orchy was about half way to Tyndrum proved woefully off the mark. We seemed to be there within minutes, crossing the bridge where Nat and I had previously encountered our first and only drop-out of the trip: an industrious, if slightly ignorant camper from Dover who had injured his leg three days into his hike and had had to call his parents to come and collect him and his tent. I couldn’t help but wonder if he had ever gone back and finished it, like Paul was doing today, or if he’d made peace with his misfortune and moved on to other things. Either way he wasn’t there now, no doubt long gone, and in his place stood a camper-van and an old man enjoying some sunshine down by the river. “Amazing”, Paul remarked, standing three feet away from the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, “It looks so close it’s hard to imagine that it’s in fact five miles away.” I swallowed my pride and pushed on in silence, ignoring their taunts.
It wasn’t long until Paul said something equally misguided, comparing a mountain to Lord Voldemort for no apparent reason, at which point my own stupidity was quickly forgotten in favour of his. From Bridge of Orchy the trail took us under the railway and up into the foothills of Beinn Dorain following an old military road. Not only did we share this pass with the train tracks and the river, but also with the A82. The path descended, over styles, the railways and eventually the river until we were practically right next to it, before veering off just outside Tyndrum to accommodate the cemetery. Amazingly, after eighteen months, it still contained only two tombstones, suggesting that the key to eternal life lies in Tyndrum — the smallest town in the UK to boast two train stations, don’t you know — and quite possibly the Green Welly Stop itself, which we passed at half passed four. Just as our starting point was dictated by our original pit-stops on the West Highland Way, however, so was our finishing line, and in order to complete the Way Paul needed to follow the trail to Tyndrum By The Way, opposite Heather’s, where we had stayed previously. Seven minutes later, we were done.
I can only hope that the Tyndrum to Kingshouse (or Kingshouse to Tyndrum) section of the West Highland Way lived up to Paul’s expectations, that we hadn’t over-hyped it in the months since, and that his sense of achievement at walking the full 96 miles from Milngavie to Fort William was the same as our own a year before. After all, this is something that hundreds of people — not least the Canadians and Americans we met that day, and the Germans and Australians we had met eighteen months before — have travelled great distances to be a part of. The West Highland Way unites us all, and just as it is now a part of us we are inexorably part of it, too — or at least the midges that patrol it. Now the only question is: will the Great Glen Way make quite the same impression? I suppose it’s about time we found out.