The West Highland Way is 96 miles (145km) long, running from Milngavie north of Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. I decided to give it a go as it looked beautiful and I have a bit of a soft spot for Scotland, having been at university in Edinburgh. I also felt bad about quite how little of the countryside I saw in that time, having been too busy straightening my hair or drinking Glen’s vodka and coke. This would be my chance to make up for all that!
My backpack and I travelled from Euston to Glasgow, leaving behind a sunny London and arriving in an ominously cloudy Scotland. I checked into the Milngavie Premier Inn (classy!) and headed to the a pub.
I hate to start on a negative note, but day one really sucked. OK, there was a really nice moment or two at the start where some very lovely people wished me luck in the town centre. But other than that it was pissing it (and I mean PISSING it) down with rain for the entire day and the scenery was basically non-existent.
Things improved dramatically once I arrived at a lovely BnB in Drymen called Kip in the Kirk. I had a shower, got my boots on the radiator and headed to the communal cream tea that they serve up for hikers every day. There I met three great girls; Desiree (Switzerland), Marta (Spain), and Noelle (Germany), who became my eating and drinking companions for the rest of the trip. We set the tone that evening with our first taste of haggis and whiskey at a local pub.
Day two started off soggy, but it was really exciting to get my first ever view of Loch Lomond. I was accosted along the way by a born again Christian shouting ‘God will show you the way!’ I’m alright thanks love; I have a map and GPS. Who tries to convert people in the middle of a national park?
I arrived at Sallochey Campsite at about 3pm. The facilities are minimal and much more akin to what I found in California; composting toilet, a tap for water and washing plates and no artificial light. There is no one managing the site overnight either, just a lovely ranger and dog who were there til about 8pm. I admit this un-nerved me a little at first, but once I settled in I was really happy.
And the sun came out!
The ranger recommended a short walk up to a small peak which overlooked the Loch. I wondered up there and sat on a rock gazing at one of most beautiful views I’ve seen in my life.
You could hire a fire pit and wood for £10 (cash only), which I’d really recommend. I sat reading next to mine until I was too tired to stay awake. It was really peaceful and beautiful – possibly the highlight of my trip.
I woke up to a misty and rather spooky view of the Loch.
I enjoyed my porridge and set off for what would be a full day of walking alongside the Loch. It was a really gorgeous day and I loved walking next to the water. It got a little busy at a couple of points, particularly around Inversnaid, but overall it was fairly quiet and I stopped a few times to rest on the small white beaches.
It was also blue bell season which made for some incredible vistas.
Along the way I had a really nice chat with two sisters, one of whom had lost her husband a couple of years previously, and was making her first return trip to Scotland without him. I was really touched by her openness and the thought of the lovely memories that they must have shared in that same place.
It was a pretty long day mileage wise, so I arrived at Beinglas Campsite at about 4 or 5pm. I had many a good intention to eat my cous cous, but the girls found me and invited me to come along for food at the nearby Drovers Inn.
Obviously I said yes.
I slept pretty soundly at the campsite. It was really well equipped (although the showers were rubbish) and there was a good amount of space for everybody.
This was a really pretty day with lots of mountains in the distance and plenty of pine trees. It had quite an alpine feel in parts.
I stayed at a super flash place called Pine Trees which provides space for campers, caravans and has little hiking huts. The facilities are good (although the camping area is very small) and I decided to treat myself and take one of the little huts. It was really cute, clean and comfortable and I enjoyed eating my cous cous on the step in the sunshine.
Not wishing to break too far with tradition I then went and met the girls for a drink (and piece of cake) at the brilliant Green Welly Stop and another at a pub whose name I now forget.
Day five was tough. There were moments of beauty, but it was on the whole a very long and flat day. I did enjoy some of the vistas across to my right and there were some lovely parts especially coming up to Glencoe. But 18 miles is a long way and towards the end I began to flag.
I was glad to get to Glencoe Mountain Resort and had dinner and a beer or two with a lovely couple. I really wouldn’t recommend it as a place to stay, however. It’s pretty unattractive (about 80% car-park) and the campsite is the size of a postage stamp. The hiker huts aren’t too great either – really small and run down.
Next time, I would stay or camp at the Kings House hotel – about a mile further down. They had a bar open throughout the evening and a large camping area.
This was my shortest day, but it had some of the most dramatic scenery. You wind in and around the mountains for a few miles, which is quite stunningly beautiful and one of the few times where I felt far from civilisation.
I arrived at the Blackwater Hostel just in time to put my tent up before it really started to bucket it down. I waited for a gap in the rain and then hot footed it to the pub!
This wasn’t my favourite campsite. The staff were really nice, but it was quite crowded and there was a floodlight that made it so bright. What is the point of sleeping outside, if it feels like you’re in a supermarket?
I set off without breakfast to escape the midges. It was a beautiful day, remote in feel and less crowded as I’d set off so early. I was happy to bump into Desiree and we shared the last few miles together, both pretty awed by the view of Ben Nevis that you get towards the end.
Walking in to Fort William was quite an amusing anti-climax, as of course no one is there to congratulate you and it’s a pretty busy town used to seeing crazy hikers. They do have a really sweet bench though that marks the end, where you can take the obligatory photo.
That evening I stayed at a lovely BnB called Achitee farm hostel. I was really happy to be in a proper bed and it was so peaceful and quiet.
Desiree and I had an amazing meal (more haggis) and toasted the end of the walk at the Ben Nevis Inn – I can’t recommend a visit more highly. We also skyped with the other two who were now sadly a day behind us as they were on an 8 day itinerary.
Day eight – Ben Nevis & home
It’s not part of the route itself, but I thought that whilst I was there, it’d be rude not to attempt Ben Nevis – the highest peak in the U.K. Plus my BnB was right on the ‘tourist route’, meaning I could walk out the door and head straight up.
I left at about 7.30 as despite the lovely blue skies I didn’t really trust the weather.The scenery was stunning from the get go and I kept pausing to take it all in.
There was still a fair bit of snow in the last section, a bit of a scramble and a fair few sheer drops.
I really couldn’t believe my luck at the top as it stayed pretty clear and I had incredible views for miles. It felt quite refreshing to be so high up having mostly looked at and circumnavigated peaks on the majority of the trail. I loved it.
The weather held until I got about halfway down, at which point it started to bucket. I didn’t mind too much though as I knew a whiskey was waiting for me at the Inn.
That evening I caught the overnight train back from Fort William all the way to London. I had a second class cabin ticket which meant that I was allowed in the viewing car, where I sat with a whiskey and cup of tea and watched the amazing scenery unfold. Suitably merry I then returned to my cabin, drifted off to sleep and woke up at Euston.
So, should you do it?
Overall, I would really recommend the West Highland Way, especially to people looking for their first multi-day hiking trip or going solo. It’s very sociable, easy to plan and travel to, and there is some really beautiful scenery. There are also some really great eating and drinking opportunities – my cous cous barely got a look in!
On the other hand, the things that make it so great can lead to drawbacks.
The trail is really busy, so if you do want peace and solitude, this isn’t the one for you. I think the popularity of the trail also contributes somewhat to the rather poor quality campsites and accommodation in some places – if people still come why bother making it any better?
The ease with which you can travel to the trail also means that you rarely feel that far away from civilisation. There is minimal road walking, but you can see (or hear) roads in the distance for much of the trail, which detracted from the experience for me.
What would I do differently?
If I were to do it again, I’d consider trying a couple of things:
This would admittedly make for quite a different trip (less haggis perhaps) but I think it would give me a better opportunity to appreciate the nature with fewer crowds. The night that I spent at Sallochey Bay was the most wonderful of the trip and I wouldn’t mind a few more of those.
You can wild camp anywhere in Scotland, although you do need a permit for some areas near Loch Lomond. Find out more here.
Or… go lux
Given the opportunities that there are for fine Scottish food and whiskey I’d be tempted to go all in, book five star hotel accommodation and treat it as a ritzy holiday.
The trail is based on an old communication and commerce route, meaning that it’s necessarily quite flat. As someone pretty keen up a bit of uphill this left me feeling a little unsatisfied and gazing wistfully at peaks in the distance.
If I was to do it again, I’d give myself an extra day or two and plan in a couple of extra summits along the way. For example, I could have stayed two nights at Sallochey Bay and climbed Ben Lomond on my third day.