A walk across the Scottish Highlands

March 12, 2011

The stone obelisk and huge banner that marked the start of the trail would have been obvious on their own, but the dozens of backpackers surrounding them made them impossible to miss. I’d been told that the West Highland Way was the world’s most popular hiking trail. And suddenly, I believed it.

I’d set out to walk the 169 miles from the suburbs of Glasgow to the city of Inverness, across the West Highlands of Scotland. With two of the biggest lakes and some of the wildest country in Europe, it was a hike that seemed right for someone with two or three weeks to spend on the trail.

My route might have been long, but it was clearly marked and well documented. Starting in suburban Milngavie, I would walk the West Highland Way 96 miles to the town of Fort William. There, I’d pick up the Great Glen Way for the final 73 miles to Inverness. I planned to cover 10 to 12 miles a day.

The first mile was a paved path with streetlights; you could follow it night or day, fair weather or foul. Soon, though, the streetlights stopped, the pavement became gravel, and then the gravel became dirt. It was the same for trail markers; the first was that stone obelisk. But a few miles farther on, the markers became fewer, and as the afternoon rolled by, they pretty much faded to small, stylized arrows on wooden posts. It wasn’t a problem, though. All I really needed to do was to follow the bootprints. There were seemingly hundreds of them.

Though the West Highland Way is a footpath, it’s not always a wilderness trail. In fact, my first stop was the Glencoe Distillery. Entering the crowded tasting room with my backpack, I was given a free shot of whisky. And later in the day — after miles of walking through pastures filled with grazing livestock — I had a slice of chocolate cake at a trail-side tea shop.

On stretches like these, you don’t just barge across fields and through herds of animals; instead, you have to open and shut gates and follow the marked and well-trod way across whatever landscape it leads you through.

This British walking is as addictive as crack cocaine: the cool, soothing air; stops at rural pubs and tea shops; hostels filled with backpack-bearing hikers; B&B rooms with a candy bar left as a gift for you; and footpaths that bring you in close touch with mountains, lakes, fields and villages. Walking in Great Britain always has an upside; a rainy day on a Scottish trail is better than a sunny day at your desk. You don’t have to camp (although many people do), so you don’t have to lug around any camping gear. And if you’re still lugging too much, popular trails like these have bag-carrying services that will move your pack from place to place for you.

For the first night, I’d reserved a room at a bed-and-breakfast inn near the town of Drymen. It was classically British: clean, with a hot shower and, on top of the dresser, my own private kettle with tea bags, instant hot chocolate and milk. Breakfast the next morning was the “full Scottish,” with eggs, black pudding, potato scone, cooked tomato and toast. It was so huge that it nearly put me right back to sleep.

After another day of agriculture, pastures full of sheep, managed tree farms and fields of heather, the trail reached Loch Lomond, hugging the lake’s shore for more than 20 miles. Scrambling over rocks and roots, spending one night in a hostel bunk and another in a luxury hotel (with a plastic tray in my room for muddy boots), I made my way past Britain’s largest lake and was soon climbing into the mountains and wishing that the trail would make up its mind about how challenging it was going to be.

Sometimes, it would be level and well graded for a mile or two, then shoot almost straight up. Or maybe it would run through fields of grazing animals, then suddenly enter a forest. A mile of gravel could easily become mud, and there were those moments when you’d think that somebody had artfully surfaced the footway with manure.

I was never alone on the trail. Hikers from every corner of the world were on it with me, and by the end of the first week, I’d come to know quite a few of them. Margret, an Australian doctor, was impeccably fit and had hiked all over the world, while two Dutch sailors with cheap gear and no preparation managed to keep up, offering explanations such as, “We don’t need water bottles, we take all our hydration in the form of beer in the evenings.” This, of course, horrified the doctor.

Sometimes, I’d see somebody once and never again. And then there were the people who wound up in the same pubs, shops and even hostel bunkrooms as I did, day after day. We were an ad hoc caravan making our way across the countryside.

There was always a fairly wide assortment of accommodations available. Backpackers’ hostels are cheap, cramped and cheerful. Official Scottish Youth Hostel Association hostels are a bit more spacious (but still reasonably priced), bed-and-breakfast inns are the most common, and luxury hotels are an occasional treat.

Few small-town overnights were as interesting as the one I spent at Bridge of Orchy. The village is well-named; it has a pub, a train station, an informal campground — and the bridge. Those seeking a bed have the choice of a hostel in the train station, lodging at the pub or a historic hotel. I chose the train station; meals were served in the ticket office, and the coed bunkroom was done up like an old European sleeping car, with a built-in reading light and curtains for each bed. As is typical at hiker hostels around the world, we thought we were staying up late talking gear and comparing blisters, but actually everybody was asleep before 10.

The trail is at its wildest north of Bridge of Orchy. First it takes an ancient cobblestone path across the largest roadless area in Britain, Rannoch Moor, and then goes through several more wild and mountainous stretches before reaching Fort William.

The town of Fort William is the biggest along the route and more than half of the way to Inverness. Walking the main street, I wondered how it could have existed before the trails came: Every second or third shop sold outdoor gear, and the chain pharmacy seemed to have the largest selection of foot-care products in the British Isles.

When I left town early in the morning, the smell of frying bacon was in the air. Every B&B, hotel and hostel was full, and people were fueling up for their hikes. I picked up my second trail, the Great Glen Way, and continued north. While the West Highland Way goes through the mountains and along wilderness lakeshores, the Great Glen Way follows the Caledonian Canal, forest trails and abandoned railroads for much of its distance. This makes for easier walking.

Past Fort William, everything was on a smaller scale; there were fewer hikers and fewer tourists. Stops were more likely to be lone tea shops or pubs, if there were any at all. It was sublimely peaceful — until I reached Fort Augustus and Loch Ness.

Looking out from the edge of Fort Augustus, one can see Loch Ness between the trees. The town, of course, is acutely aware of this; it boasts a Loch Ness Monster statue and entire shops filled with monster stuff: toys, books, postcards, even collectibles.

I laughed at the stuffed toys and the silly postcards. Yet the instant I saw the panorama of the loch before me, all I could do was look for the monster. I had the fever. Every ripple in the water, every tiny boat on the horizon and every log sticking up was Nessie.

The Great Glen Way hardly ever touches the shore of Loch Ness; it travels the hills above it instead. The big lake is visible from every viewpoint and rarely out of sight. Even in deep forest, you can see it through the trees, and of course, I believed that every disturbance was the monster.

When the trail drops down to the town of Drumnadrochit on the shore of the loch, Nessie fever reaches its peak. The town is home to two museums devoted to the monster, and there were busloads of tourists everywhere. Most amazing, though, was the way we hikers would ignore the hubbub, walk up the trail for a few moments and suddenly realize that we had left the tourists behind.

The last 20 miles into Inverness were a microcosm of the whole journey: panoramic views of the lake, lush evergreen forests, fields of grazing sheep and a rural outdoor coffee shop with free-ranging chickens that tried to steal your food. Then came a steep downhill, a city in the distance, some condos, and finally Inverness itself.

My hike ended along the River Ness in an urban park. The last marker was on the grounds of Inverness Castle, a building that looked more like a blockhouse than a royal dwelling. I got myself a room in a B&B and finished what was left of the food in my pack. I was done, though too tired to celebrate.

I woke the next morning to the sound of pouring rain. The big storm that had held off for the 18 days of my hike had finally hit. I went back to bed and almost slept through breakfast.

Yarvin is a food and travel writer based in New Jersey.

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