My most recent trip brought along many firsts: first time hiking with a tent, first time hiking with an ultralight pack, first time hiking with trail runners, first time hiking with my own stove and food supply. Despite the many new things I was trying out all at once and despite the rather wet Scottish weather, it was an amazing trip all in all.
With the various “firsts” I wanted to try out on this trip, I didn’t feel too comfortable doing the whole trip all alone. Hiking solo had worked great in Italy, but felt like an unnecessary risk in an area a little further away from “civilization”. So I searched on the internet a little and finally posted my rough travel plans on the German site joinmytrip.de as well as on trekkingpartners.com – hoping to find a hiking partner a little more experienced in hiking with a tent and food supplies than I was. After writing messages back and forth with various people, I finally found a guy from Hamburg who was willing to travel with me. After a long phone call and several mails, we quickly settled for Scotland, with the plan of hiking the West Highland Way as well as the Skye Trail.
Days 0 & 1: Arrival in Glasgow & Milngavie – Drymen Campsite
On Friday night, I arrived in Glasgow, where I met my hiking partner at a hotel we had booked beforehand. He seemed nice from the very beginning and we talked until late at night, excited to start our hike the next day. The next morning, we bought some more food supplies as well as some gas for the stove. We then boarded the train from Glasgow Queen Street Station to Milngavie, the official starting point of the West Highland Way. Surprisingly, the little town of Milngavie was much better equipped with hiking supplies than the large stores in Glasgow had been. While our search for denatured alcohol (or methylated spirits, as the Scots call it) for my own stove and some „SkinSoSoft“ spray against the notorious midges had been in vain in Glasgow, we found them almost right away in a little store in Milngavie.
After our supplies were complete and we had topped off our water bottles at a public restroom, it was finally time to start hiking. After a rather uneventful hike along forest paths, that still seemed quite “urban”, we finally emerged to an area of hilly grassland. Right in the middle of the area, we saw a shabby-looking trailer and some people and animals standing around it. As we approached, it turned out to be our official welcoming party to the WHW. A man offered us free drinks, but asked for a voluntary donation as well. He explained to us how to behave on the trail (no camping at Loch Lomond, no open fire, etc.) and told us our donations would be used to finance other stands with free drinks and snacks along the entire way. Somehow put off by his rather aggressive manner of speaking, we said goodbye to him and his friends, his bobcat, dogs and eagle, and soon were on our way again. In the end, it turned out this was the only place on the entire trail where you could actually get free stuff – although there were various places offering food based on the an „honor system“.
The rest of the day’s hike was rather uneventful. Only the sheer mass of other hikers surprised us. But this was the first day and it was the weekend, so there were probably many day hikers in addition to the long-distance WHW hikers. We arrived at our first campsite quite early – at around half past two. We had finished our preparations and shopping in the morning quickly and had started much early than initially anticipated. But as the next campsite would have meant another 12 km of hiking, we decided on staying here anyway. After we set up the tents, we did a little walk to the village of Drymen – and got absolutely drenched from heavy rain on the way back. Thankfully, we found shelter in a shabby shack at the campsite, where we prepared our first trail dinner.
Day 2: Drymen Campsite – Sallochy Campsite
With our clothes still wet from the rain the next morning, we started on the next leg of our journey. Thankfully, the sun was shining and our clothes were soon dry again. Today we had to decide if we wanted to climb the Conic Hill or take the alternative route around it. The hill is known for a very slippery and muddy descent in rainy conditions, but the weather seemed to be staying nice, so we decided to try the ascent. The path was winding through heath and grass and we caught our first glimpses of beautiful Loch Lomond. The views became better and better as we climbed the hill – and even the many day hikers couldn’t spoil our good mood and amazement at the beautiful views. The descent was steep, but surprisingly easy in (almost) dry conditions.
After a short break in the village of Balmaha, we continued on the truly “bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond”. The trail was easy and we enjoyed walking along the pebble beaches and watching the sun glimmer on the lake’s surface. In the afternoon, we reached our next campsite, where we had reserved a spot beforehand. Loch Lomond is one of the few spots in Scotland where wild camping is forbidden, so we wanted to be sure of a spot. Our “loch-side pitch” was absolutely beautiful. We used the welcome opportunity to dry our gear and tents and then watched the sun set while having dinner on our own little pebble beach.
Day 3: Sallochy Campsite – Beinglass Camping
We woke to rain and for the first time, I decided that a cold breakfast would do this morning. Reluctant to hike in the pouring rain, we took our time packing up and were on the trail rather late. Today, we would be hiking along the shores of Loch Lomond for almost the entire day. While the trail started out easy, with some ups and downs but always close to the water, the terrain soon became more challenging and we were climbing across rocks for kilometers on end. The constant drizzle and swarms of midges reduced any breaks to a minimum.
At some point in the afternoon, we realized we had miscalculated today’s route, as the difficult terrain resulted in a much slower pace than anticipated. When we finally came upon a sign reading “Beinglass Camping 4 miles”, dusk was already starting to fall. But the prospect of a warm shower and a hot meal in the pub made us hike on anyway. In the end, we arrived at the campsite around 8 o’clock, quickly set up our tents in a dense swarm of midges and then headed to the pub for a well-deserved dinner of fish’n chips.
Day 4: Beinglass Camping – Tyndrum / Pine Tree Leisure Park
After a warm shower and a relaxed breakfast indoors, we headed out once again. The morning included much jumping from stone to stone for me to keep my feet from getting wet. In the afternoon, various signs along the way taught us about Scottish history and the legend of Robert the Bruce’s lost sword. A little while later, another sign informed us that we had reached the halfway point of the West Highland Way – already! Our home for the night was at Pine Tree Leisure Park, where we used the luxurious washrooms and took the opportunity to do some laundry, which we dried in a little hut next to our tents.
Day 5: Tyndrum / Pine Tree Leisure Park – River Ba
The morning welcomed us (as always) with rain. After a short walk through the village of Tyndrum, we passed the last shop before Kinlochleven, 44 km away. But we still had plenty of supplies, so we hiked right on into the wildest part of the WHW. Finally, we walked into what felt like the actual “highlands”: grassy hills in all shades of yellow, brown, green and red as far as the eye could see – this was exactly what I had come here for.
When dusk was setting in, we set up camp at a nice spot with a view, close to the river Ba. I was excited about my first night of actual wild camping, but the swarms of midges soon set an end to my motivation to explore the surroundings. We settled on spending the evening in our tents and enjoyed the view through the mesh of our fly nets.
Day 6: River Ba – Blackwater Camping
The midges were gone in the morning and had given way to a strong wind and some drizzling rain. We packed up quickly and postponed breakfast to whenever we would find a more sheltered spot. I’m no good without food in the morning, so a flapjack on the road improved my mood significantly. Around lunchtime, we reached the Kingshouse Hotel, where we had a very welcome warm lunch in their “Climbers’ Bar”.
In the afternoon, it was time for the probably most challenging part of the WHW: Devil’s Staircase. It was windy and raining heavily the entire time, but the ascent was still fun – this was exactly the kind of Scottish weather I had expected, so I embraced it with open arms. On the way back down though, we soon discovered the rain had turned the trails to rivers and the rivers to raging torrents. Getting down with dry feet was impossible – especially for me with my trail runners. So at some point I just kept on running down, afraid of hypothermia and just not caring about anything anymore – even leaving my hiking partner behind.
At the campsite, I reserved spots for the both of us and set up camp as quickly as possible so I could get warm again inside my sleeping bag. Luckily, there was a drying room at the campsite, which possibly saved my life: All my clothes were warm and dry the next morning. Dinner was a hot curry at a pub in nearby Kinlochleven.
Day 7: Blackwater Camping – Glen Nevis Camping
Our last day on the WHW mostly consisted of a long, straight hike through a valley, which was beautiful despite the constant rain. Still, we reduced our breaks to a minimum – on our last day, the rain had finally made us weary. On the last few kilometers, not far from Glen Nevis, my right knee decided it had had enough. Walking was difficult, as I could hardly bend my leg. But the goal was so close, so we made more breaks and hiked more slowly, until Ben Nevis was finally visible in the distance.
The weather had cleared up and during our descent into the Glen Nevis, we were rewarded with beautiful views of Great Britain’s highest mountain. With my knee still not feeling too good, we tried to organize a room or hut, but had to settle for another night in the tents in the end. The warm dinner and hot chocolate with marshmallows made up for a lot, though.
Arrival in Fort William & Summary
After a very stormy night, the next morning was warm and sunny and we could finally dry our tents. We did a last short hike to Fort William and the official end of the West Highland Way. We managed to book one of the (literally) last rooms available in the entire city of Fort William and then took our time for some sightseeing.
Although we had planned on hiking the Skye Trail as well, we decided to scrap that plan due to the weather (forecasts kept getting worse by the day) and my hurt knee, amongst other reasons. In the end, we spent a very nice second week in and near Edinburgh with some light hiking in the Pentland Hills. All in all, it was a beautiful vacation and I will definitely return to Scotland soon!