Walking the West Highland Way in Scotland A Complete Guide
Walking the West Highland Way in Scotland – A Complete Guide
The word itself conjures romanticized images of kilts, bagpipes, haggis, porridge, whiskey and tartan…
The only problem is, none of those things are originally Scottish. Kilts were invented by the Irish (but the word ‘kilt’ is Danish – meaning ‘tuck up’); bagpipes come from central Asia; haggis is a Greek sausage; oats porridge has been found in Neolithic bog bodies in Europe and Scandinavia; and whiskey and tartan have origins in ancient China – and had arrived in Ireland before being found in Scotland.
The less romantic, albeit more realistic thoughts of Scotland should be of bicycle pedals, hypodermic syringes, the fountain pen, the raincoat, tarmac and (believe it, it is true) – chicken tikka masala.
But don’t let me ruin it for you. Go back to the ‘men in kilts’ scenario. I do.
I love Scotland. It is my spiritual home. I would give almost anything in the world for the opportunity to live and work there, and the more time I can be there, the happier I am. There is something about the people, the accent, the history and the landscape that just sits well in my soul.
But I digress.
This is about my trip walking the West Highland Way and how to prepare for yours.
Walking the West Highland Way in Scotland – A Complete Guide Post Contents:
The West Highland Way stretches over 96 miles winding through some of the most picturesque Scottish landscapes. It can be comfortably walked in 7-8 days although more experienced hikers will not have trouble conquering it in 5 days.
Traditionally, hikers walk the way from South to North which keeps the sun out of your eyes leading them from less to more challenging terrains towards the end. The path starts off in a small town of Milngavie walking you through pastoral landscapes beneath the Campsie hills, pass the mysterious charm of Loch Lomond into increasingly rougher and wilder Scottish Highlands. Then the route crosses the astonishing Rannoch Moor, boggy moorland, Loch Leven, and finally, via the beautiful valley of Glen Nevis, reaches the famous Fort William.
While it’s more common to walk towards the north, you can make your way in the opposite direction, if you prefer.
The West Highland Way trail at a glance:
Length: 96 miles
Duration: 5-9 days
Location: Milngavie to Fort William, Scotland.
Trail Type: Point-to-Point.
Scenery: Cow prairies, pine forests, strolling along glens (valleys) and along lochs (lakes) with breathtaking views around every corner.
Terrain: Easy to moderate. 14,760 feet of total elevation gain and loss, with the highest point being Devil’s Staircase at 1,650 feet. Mostly gravel footpaths with some boardwalks, field crossings, and tarmac sections with a couple of steep and rocky climbs.
Navigation: Navigation is easy using the Official WHW Guidebook The trail is very well-marked by lanterns carved into posts and because the route follows a series of public footpaths, there are also many signs in addition to the trail markings that indicate the correct direction. GPS devices, while handy, are not necessary to stay on track.
To know before you go…
Go in summer (April through October)
It WILL rain sometime. The weather is fickle so please heed any warnings.
Try and learn a few Gaelic words and do some research before you go – it gives the trip a deeper meaning if you have an idea of what you are seeing as you walk through history.
Do some history research too – history shapes the landscape.
The WHW is clearly indicated the whole way. You will see signposts marking the way and a clearly walked on track.
Mobile phone reception is available throughout most of the Way (there are small sections of the route where it drops out – but I am talking about meters without reception, not days)
There is a variety of accommodation available, pending on price and location.
Prepare yourself for midges. They didn’t like me this time, but when they arrive, they bring friends!
When in Scotland, you should try…
Deep Fried Mars Bars. Its like the equivalent of Fosters Beer in Australia – the rest of the world love it, the Aussies don’t actually drink it. Deep fried Mars Bars sound disgusting, but taste delicious. Probably the most decadently touristy food in the world.
Cloutie Dumplings – A Scottish dessert reminiscent of Christmas pudding. (Well, the one I had was)
Haggis – Minced up offal of sheep, mixed with oats and cooked in a sheep’s stomach. Sounds disgusting, but it is absolutely delicious. A few places may offer a haggis burger – which is a normal burger patty with haggis on top (maybe a cheese sauce) – don’t be scared!
Scottish shortbread – because you can
IRN BRU – the most Scottish of all soft drinks, IRN BRU is a bright orange, sugar rich drink that will put hairs on your chest. The perfect hangover cure
Whiskey. Don’t drink anything else! Have it neat with just a teaspoon of water in it to open the flavours – you wont be sorry you did! Figure out what works for you – my personal favourite is Balvenie (Speyside). It is sweet and delicious and as smooth as silk going down your throat with hints of honey. Delicious!
If you’re carrying all your luggage, you’ll want to travel as light as possible.
If you’re having your bags carried for you, you don’t have to be as strict. But you ‘ll still want to keep the weight of your day pack to a minimum. It’s worth noting that you should carry electronic equipment like laptops, cameras, etc. with you at all times. Don’t place them in your carried luggage. The luggage carrier company is not responsible if they go missing or are damaged.
As Scotland can be rainy, put any electronics in a Waterproof Dry Bag to make sure they stay dry.
Good, proper hiking boots
3-4 pairs of socks
2 pairs of zip off trousers (one on you, one spare)
3 t-shirts (one on, two spare)
1 long sleeve top
Warm fleece top
Underwear and something to sleep in
A dry bag for anything that really shouldn’t get wet (great to pack underwear into)
A peak cap/ relevant head covering
Midges net prevention hat
Sleeping bag (pending on your accommodation)
Alternate shoe source – flip flops for showers, trainers for when you get your boots off
Camera (with all charging equipment and extra memory)
Mobile phone (with sim card)
International adaptor (unless everything you need is in UK plugs)
Money and passport
Camping towel and facecloth
Toiletries (travel shampoo, razor, toothbrush and toothpaste – whatever you need)
Basic first aid kit
Map and (maybe) compass
… oh, and a backpack.
Travel Insurance for the West Highland Way
All it takes is one bad experience while on a trip without travel insurance to make you never make that mistake again. Seeing how I’ve had my experience I see no reason for you to make the same mistake. Since then I always get travel insurance before a trip and It’s especially important when doing something adventurous – like. a 9 day hike through Scotland.
It’s not unheard of when hiking the West Highland Way to slip and end up with a broken ankle. Often the nearest hospital is miles away, so even a taxi ride is costly.
Lastly, you should make sure to have an Outdoor First Aid Kit for any minor scrapes and bruises. Bonus tip: make sure to have a pack or two of Compeed with you to help with any blisters.
Let me start at the beginning…
I was visiting my brother in England and was contemplating what I should do during my next UK holiday visit. I wanted to head back to Scotland, and I wanted to do something different and a little out of my comfort zone. While browsing the internet (thank you, YouTube) I found a video of people walking the West Highland Way in Scotland and thought to myself ‘that looks awesome!’
Honestly, it didn’t look too bad – it had a path and a bunch of elderly people walking – I could do that….
Now, before going any further dear reader, please understand a few things about me.
I am NOT a fitness/sporty/let’s-go-hiking type of person. Up until doing this hike, I had never hiked before in my life (barring the odd ‘let’s have a picnic in a forest’ type thing with the Girl Guides). I had gone camping a few times, but admittedly I am a lover of clean flushing toilets and hot showers. The great outdoors is great – but it normally stays outdoors, and I try to stay in. I am also no spring chicken. Not quite decrepit yet, but there is more grey hair on my head than there used to be.
Nonetheless, my imagination was sparked, enthusiasm hit full throttle and I was interested enough to keep on researching.
Thank God for the internet. I had a good look online and found a few ‘walking tours’ places that were able to help me. I wanted to do the hike alone and I didn’t want to have to lug a tent around. I had no idea where I was going, and how to go about it or how far I could walk in a day.
I happened upon a tour agent that booked and organised accommodation at various stops on your behalf for the cost of the accommodation and a fee. The overall charge seemed reasonable (especially after sifting through some ridiculous pricing), so I booked my hike – dates, times, accommodation – the lot.
Included in this cost (and my main reason for booking through an agent) was a ‘we will come and find you if you don’t check into your accommodation’ clause, which was an added bonus, especially for a solo first time hiker like myself.
I made my booking six months in advance – giving me plenty of time to prepare myself. I would go to the gym and get fit – and wait for summer, of course. I work on cruise ships, so the timing was going to fit perfectly into my work schedule – it was perfect! I was SO excited!
The next morning, the bloom was definitely off the rose. What on earth had possessed me to book an eight-day overland hike in bloody Scotland of all places! By myself?!? And (gasp) – non-refundable?!?
Fortunately, there is a stubborn streak that runs in my family, and in order to quell any doubts I had, I did what any woman would do. I went shopping.
I had NOTHING outdoorsy in my wardrobe – unless you count a pair of jeans and trainers as proper ‘walking gear’, and – like every first time hiker – I got pulled into the tempting displays of the shop windows and bought everything you DON’T need. As you do. Fortunately, I made a few good purchases too. My most expensive item I bought that day was a pair of hiking boots.
To the uninitiated hiker, take this piece of advice from me – if you are going to spend your time going hiking, do yourself a favour and spend your money on your boots. You’re walking, you need good shoes. Make sure they fit, make sure they are comfy, and make sure they have some level of waterproofness. And make sure they are proper, proper hiking boots. Another great purchase was two pairs of those nifty zip off trousers that convert from long trousers to shorts. And a rain jacket. It IS Scotland, after all.
I went walking around town to ‘break’ my boots in for a few days after purchase. My boots were pretty heavy too, so it was good to get a feel for them.
I also bought a map and compass – not that I knew exactly how to read a map or a compass (I had a basic idea), but it made me feel like a bona fide hiker.
My brother and his family have infinite patience with me and my ongoing shopping spree’s, and are always kind enough to keep my stuff for me when my luggage is overweight – and the hiking boots weighed a ton.
I headed back home to South Africa, and the back to work on my ship. I had taken my map and compass back home with me, determined to figure it out properly. Onboard, I asked my good friend (who was also conveniently the Navigational officer) if he could give me a few tips and show me how it worked. Bless his heart, he tried, and we spent a few nights pouring over my map in the crew bar – but it turned out I was more into the whiskey than the map reading, and most of what he said went straight over my head. One four-month contract later (and no trips to the gym, surprise, surprise) and I was flying back to the UK for my Scottish expedition.
I spent two weeks at my brother’s house first. It was two days before I left for Scotland that I realised that I was not as prepared as I should have been and that I may need a sleeping bag. Oh, and a backpack.
Hopelessly unprepared, I took a train from London to Glasgow. I had decided to spend two days in the city before heading out. I had been to Edinburgh before but not Glasgow and was (as with the whole trip) completely unprepared for how much I enjoyed this bustling city.
Glasgow has been around since the 6th century – not that you’d find too much of the old city around anymore (the place is mostly Victorian style buildings – legacies of wealth and trade of the industrial revolution) – but what you will find is everything your heart desires – from the trendiest clothing stores, to thrift shops, street food to fancy restaurants and everything in between.
Like every other town in Scotland, tartan tack is easy to come by, but keep your eyes open in the antique jewellery shops and op shops if you really want to find some treasured historical pieces. The city itself is easy to navigate, with (like everywhere in the UK) self-explanatory bus routes, train rides, taxis – and of course, walking areas. Or if you like, take the hop-on/hop-off bus around the city to orientate yourself. Most places have free entry, so two days really isn’t enough to enjoy Glasgow properly.
I stayed cheap – the Travel Lodge in Queen Street. I had to constantly remind myself to NOT SHOP as I was going to have to carry everything on my back for 8 days. I could have posted all purchases back to London, but to be honest I was pretty content to spend my time wandering around browsing, saving my money until evening where I could enjoy a more solitary taste of the highlands within a whiskey glass. (If you must know, Balvenie is my dram of choice – a lovely Speyside Single Malt – sweet and delicious)
And then the big day arrived…
West Highland Way in Scotland
an 8 Day Itinerary
Day 1 –
Walking the West Highland Way in Scotland
From: Milngavie to Drymen Distance: 12 miles or 19km
Lodging: ‘Kip in the Kirk Bunkhouse’
–Bed space with linen.
-Residents lounge, free wifi, drying facilities, free tea and coffee
I was up and out of the Travel Lodge by 8am (the accommodation was clean, neat and tidy – no frills, but I didn’t need any), and I went to the nearby Argyll train station with my previously purchased train ticket to Milngavie (pronounced Mull-guy – don’t say it like I said it. I felt like such a fool!) and the start of the West Highland Way. It is thought that Milngavie’s name was originally the Gaelic muileann-gaoithe’ – meaning ‘a windmill’.
I felt pretty cool – I had my backpack on, my boots on and my go-pro ready for action. I also had a packed lunch (sandwiches, an apple, chocolate and some other small nibbles), a full water bottle and an empty bladder.
Of course, it was raining. (If you don’t like rain, don’t go to Scotland)
The train ride was all of 15 minutes, and there were at least three other people with back packs and hiking sticks in hand, and we all looked at each other with the all-knowing “I know what you’re doing and where you’re going, oh ye kindred soul ….” kind of look.
I hopped off the train, feeling a little overwhelmed and decided that the best course of action would be to follow the other hikers – those with boots that had obviously been worn in places far wilder than the streets of London…
I shouldn’t have bothered. The West Highland Way was clearly indicated at the exit of the station, and there were LOADS of road signs pointing me in the right direction. This boosted my confidence a bit.
There is a huge arch that shows the official start of the West Highland Way. Conveniently there is a coffee shop right next to the start of the Way, were those who need one can grab a quick cappuccino and take shelter from the rain.
I wanted to get going – so I did.
The West Highland Way leads you from the main street of Milngavie and quickly deposits you into beautiful countryside – right towards Allander Park. It was around here that I ran into a group of elderly gentlemen who looked like they were having an absolute blast – drinking beer at 10am, laughing, chatting. I overtook them and they yelled after me, asking me if I wanted a beer. I politely declined their offer, but they did make me smile as they were obviously enjoying their time together and seemed completely harmless.
Not long after, it stopped raining, and it got warm and muggy. I stopped to take my jacket off (which meant taking off the backpack too) and I stopped for a little break – and who came along, but the drinking old guys. They stopped and chatted, and it turned out that they had done the route eleven times and were all ex British forces who met up once a year to walk together.
I ended up walking with them for the rest of the day, which was wonderful. They knew the Way, gave me hints and tips for walking, and they knew the history of the area. They told me that the land we were walking through was once belonged to the ancient clan of Lennox. The Earldom of Lennox was created by King Malcolm IV in 1153, and by the late 14th century, Lennox lands extended all the way up to the north end of Loch Lomond.
We stopped at a pub called the Beech Tree Inn and had a wee dram (the first of many wee drams I’d be having over the next few days, might I add!) before heading back.
We kept meandering though hills and forests, along rivers and over old rickety bridges, and finished our first day in the mid-afternoon in a little town called Drymen (pronounce Drim-min, meaning ‘little ridge’ in Gaelic). We had to leave the West Highland Way here, as it does not run through Drymen, but is a good stopping point as there are a few shops, cafes and hotels there, a bus route back to Glasgow – and most importantly, the last bank until Kinlochleven.
My gentlemen consorts and I decided to meet at the local pub for dinner as we were staying at different places for the night. I stayed in a little guest house that was a converted church called ‘Kip in the Kirk’ – a wonderful, very hospitable owner greeted me on my arrival and plied me with hot tea and scones with strawberry jam and cream (my favourite!).
I left my backpack in the room and headed out to the pub for dinner and to say goodbye to my friendly retirees. I was planning on heading out early the next morning, and we were stopping at different places the next night, so I didn’t think I would see them again.
Email addresses and phone numbers were exchanged (they promised to come and find me if I got lost – bless their hearts) and we got stuck into a delicious dinner. I had an enormous steak pie with mashed potato, two or three gins with the boys and, of course a whiskey or five. By this time the rain clouds had moved in and it started pouring down and I needed my bed
Fortunately, my guest house wasn’t far away from the pub, and I raced back during a very short dry spell, wondering what the next day might bring.
Day 2 –
Walking the West Highland Way in Scotland
From– Drymen To Balmaha Distance – 8 Miles/ 13km
Lodging: Oaktree Inn -Single room with ensuite (breakfast included).
-Tea and coffee making facilities in room, options for packed lunches available
It wasn’t raining! In fact, it didn’t rain at all that day. Bliss.
It looked like the walk from Drymen to Balmaha would be a doddle. Thirteen kilometres really isn’t that far, and the day would end up on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond (it’s a song, if you don’t know it)
I got up early and left the Kip in the Kirk after a breakfast (and a jug of coffee) and walked through some farmlands and forested areas. The West Highland Way is clearly marked by signposts the whole way – you just follow the arrow and off you go. The only thing is, that sometimes you miss a signpost, because you get used to looking up for them instead of looking down at markers that are sometimes on the road itself.
I thought I had got lost at one point while strolling through the Garadhblan Forest. The signs and the path were normally pretty clear cut, and there were generally a lot of walkers on the Way, but I had gone for a bit and not seen anyone. (Side note here, when I say there are a lot of walkers, I mean that you see people in the distance ahead of you, and you see people in the distance behind you.
Barring people stopping for lunch or a rest, you don’t actually get disturbed or feel rushed, but it is nice to know that someone will be along in about half an hour or so if you do get stuck.) I was convinced I had made the right turn though, as I had SOME basic map reading abilities. I thought that I’d keep going for another few minutes and get to the top of the hill (the path was upping and downing at this point) – and I would turn back if necessary.
Result! My map reading capabilities were successful (surprisingly) and I could see the southern edge of Loch Lomond beckoning me across the landscape – just like the map said it would be. Elated, I kept walking with the loch side to my left, and not long after found another WHW marker. Calm down Bear Grylls, I got this….
Leaving the forest, I climbed over a stile (another thing you’ll be doing a lot of!) and crossed into open moor land, heading toward Conic Hill.
Conic Hill is considered as being the gateway into the true highlands. And damn, it was a hike to get up! I don’t know which sadist decided to call the bloody hill a ‘hill’, because it certainly felt like a mountain to me! My backpack was heavy and I was feeling every single one of those 13km! 700ft (213m) I plodded up that hill – but I was rewarded with one of the most beautiful views I had ever seen.
Loch Lomond (the largest sheet of inland water in Britain) glittered below me and I sat gazing down on it for about an hour and a half, taking in the views. The loch itself is about 37 km long and has a depth of 183meters, covering over 20 square miles (around 52 square kilometres). It is truly magnificent.
I hate to say it, coming down was worse than going up. The path is steep and rocky, and I was glad to have my hiking sticks with me as I almost fell over a few times. There is a car park at the bottom of Conic Hill, (the hill being roughly conical in shape, and probably comes from the Gaelic A’Coinneach’, meaning moss or bog – so it is ‘the hill above the bog’) which means that every tourist bus in creation stops there, and there are many holiday makers hiking to the top on the hill to see the views. There were dogs, children, and all other arrays of humanity swarming up the side of the cliff. With my legs already feeling like jelly from the climb up, I wobbled my way down slowly and cautiously towards the tiny village of Balmaha.
I was to spend the night at a little place called The Oak Tree Inn. It is an absolutely gorgeous guest house/pub that looks almost like a tiny, one level castle. The best thing about it? I had my own room for the night with an en-suite – pure heaven. And to put the cherry on top, my boys from the day before were at the pub.
They were going further that afternoon, but they had stopped for a pint along the way, and of course I joined them. Davy was the one with whom I spent most of my time chatting to, and he told me that I should organise to have my backpack sent ahead every day to the next stop. I had this option available to me (one of the perks of booking through an agent) but I really wanted to walk the Way properly.
Davy warned me that, according to my route, the day after next was going to be tough – it had steep ledges around the loch that I would potentially be scrambling over in some places – and were particularly treacherous if it rained. I told him I’d think about it, and again, he (and the rest of the guys) assured me that if I needed anything, I could just call them and they would come to find me.
I bought them a round of drinks, and sadly said goodbye to them, as they would be finishing their hike (which they did only carrying beer – they had a friend who couldn’t walk far anymore drive their kit and meet up with them at night) a day before me. I would miss their company and I would be forever grateful for their hints and tips, and of course their kindness that they had shown me. (And yes, we are still in touch!)
That night I had dinner in the pub alone – Loch Lomond twinkling at me in the evening light made the perfect date.
Day 3 –
Walking the West Highland Way in Scotland
From– Balmaha to Rowardennan
Distance- (7.2 Miles/ 11.6km)
Lodging: Rowardennan Youth Hostel (SYHA)
–Bed space with bed linen.
-Hostel with magnificent views from shared lounge.
It was raining. But it was Scotland, and – as I said before – if you don’t like rain, don’t go to Scotland.
I didn’t have a far way to walk, so I took a nice leisurely breakfast at the Oak Tree pub and thought I would wait out the rain – after an hour I decided to just get on with things and I proceeded to squelch my way on to my next stop – Rowardennan. The day’s walk took me all along the banks of Loch Lomond – with a few scenic detours here and there.
The rivers were in full stream and some were a little more tricky than others to cross, so I made a small detour over a farmer’s field (much to the surprise of his goats and cows), jumping a fence (not easily done with a full backpack) and joining the main road that ran along the Loch – then re-joining the WHW not long thereafter. I did have to change my socks as they got completely soaked at one point (some steppingstones have more balance than others) but I soldiered on, ever grateful for my rain jacket.
I took my time. There was no rush (other than being wet) and even in the rain, the scenery was beautiful, the path meandering through forests and along the banks , making its way to Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, then climbing steeply into Ross Woods.
I made it to my accommodation by early afternoon – early enough to enjoy a pub lunch at the Clansman – where I sat outside (it stopped raining and the blue skies showed themselves again) while waiting for check in at the Rowardennan Youth Hostel.
The hostel was lovely – I shared a 6 bunk room with three other people, but the showers and bathrooms were clean, and the communal room to relax in had big glass windows overlooking Loch Lomond, and the most comfy squishy couches were you could fold yourself into and read a book.
It was blissful, quiet and rather serene. I had a lovely stay there, and the staff were very friendly and helpful.
I did, however, realise that the road was going to get tougher and rockier over the next few days, and as much as I wanted to hike with my backpack, I thought it would be prudent to make use of the baggage carrying service offered to me by my booking agent and recommended by Davy and the boys. You do, after all, have to realise your limitations sometimes….
I had a small pouch with me that I could tie around my waist (we call it a moon bag – you may call it a bum bag or a fanny pack) that could carry my water bottle, passport, money, a basic first aid kit and my camera – so I got this ready for the morning and repacked my backpack.
Day 4 –
Walking the West Highland Way in Scotland
From–Rowardennan to Beinglass Farm – just north of Inverarnan
Distance- (14 Miles/ 22km)
Lodging: Beinglas Farm B&B
–Bed space with linen (hobbit house). -Laundry facilities available
Everyone in the bunkhouse was up early, so I dragged myself out of bed too, re-rolled my sleeping bag, had some breakfast and hit the trail after handing in my backpack. It was, what they call in Scotland, mizzling. For those of you who have not been to Scotland before, the portmanteaux word of mizzle means that the weather is somewhere between mist and drizzle. (Mizzle is one of my favourite of the Scottish terms – along with sgriob – which indicates the tingle of anticipation that you get on your lip preceding a feast, a kiss from a favourite or a good whiskey)
The West Highland Way went through a beautiful forest, before meandering back to the banks of Loch Lomond – and then it turned nasty. Squelching mud made the going really tough – if you’ve ever tried walking up a hill in slime, you know what I mean. I battled my way up and over boulders, scrambling in some places. At one point, the way narrows down along the Loch to nothing more than a rockface and a narrow path – with a dead drop down into the dark waters below.
I was pleased I had handed in my backpack. There was no way I would have made that section with it on, as I had to cling to the wall like a limpet in order to get around it. This part of the Way is known for being horrendous in wet weather, and it lived fully up to expectation. The mud was pretty intense, and it came up over my shoes and sucked me down with every step. It was exhausting, as was the climbing over slippery tree roots rocks. Fortunately, I didn’t fall over completely at any point during the day and learned that hiking sticks are handy for judging depths of mud, as well as something to lean on.
But I was walking through history here. This section of the route takes you past Rob Roy’s Prison and later, after Inversnaid, to Rob Roy’s Cave. Now, ordinarily I would go into a gushing history of the famous Rob Roy, but I am sure that if you had any interest at all in Scotland, Robert McGregor would be one of three legendary Scottish hero’s that you would have heard of – along with Robert the Bruce and William Wallace.
All three have had movies made about them, over-romanticising their stories, (and in William Wallace’s case getting the entire history wrong – even the movie title ‘Braveheart’ wasn’t what the Scots called Wallace – that title belonged to the Bruce… ) but for the facts, I would suggest you read a variety of accounts of their lives where available, and not necessarily fall for Liam Neeson in a kilt.
Eventually I made it to Inversnaid and was treated to a view of a beautiful waterfall and a hotel that was happy to let me use their facilities (and have a drink!). Unfortunately, the trail got even worse for a little while, and I spent my afternoon climbing over farm stiles, clinging to rocks and wading through mud in the rain. After an hour or so of battling, the Way eased up and started to smooth out. The walk got less challenging, and I was even treated to a herd of wild goats crossing my path, bleating at me.
Eventually I got to Inverarnan and only then realised that my accommodation was outside the town itself and I had even further to go. For a moment I got a little panicky, thinking that I had gone too far and had missed my overnight stop – but I was wrong and pushed on. I had been on the Way for the whole day and was pretty tired, so I was delighted when I finally found myself at Beinglass Farm.
I made my way into the reception area (which was also the pub!), bought myself a whiskey and checked in. I was spending the night in what was called ‘The Hobbit Houses’ – a series of small structures, (like Wendy Houses) with nothing in them except a flat mattress and a light switch. You have to duck down to get into them and even I (at a measly 5’7) couldn’t stand upright in them – but after the muddy day I had the ability to sit down somewhere sheltered and relatively warm was a godsend.
Beinglass Farm has a lovely pub, camping areas and the hobbit houses. The showers and toilets are communal, but there are also communal washing machines and tumble dryers (I could do laundry!!) and I was very happy with the set up. I had a few more whiskeys, some dinner and crawled into my hut and passed out long before the sun set.
Day 5 –
Walking the West Highland Way in Scotland
From- Inverarnan to Tyndrum Distance- 12 Miles/ 20km
Lodging: By the Way Bunkhouse
–Bed space with linen.
-Drying room with laundry facilities and a small shop
I got up early and had a good, hearty breakfast in the pub. Today would mark the halfway point on the West Highland Way and I was keen to get going. It rained on and off during the night, so I was expecting there to be mud en route – and boy oh boy, was I right!
This stretch of the route is very hilly – upping and downing through beautiful scenery, via an area called Glen Falloch. This area is mostly farmland, so keep your eyes out for cows. Lots of cows – which also means cowpats. The cow pats are everywhere…and when they are mixed in mud, they are a little harder to see…
The Falls of Falloch are beautiful. I have done extensive travelling, and I have seen many waterfalls in my life – including the majestic Niagara Falls in Canada – but there is something magical about coming across water cascading down a mountainside when you least expect it. To be fair, if I had checked the map, I would have expected it, but then again, I am nothing if not romantic.
It was then on to Derryaroch (meaning ‘oak grove’) – which is a bit of a sad name as the forests around this area have a lot less oak trees than they would have when the area was named. It is near here that you come to what is called a ‘Cattle Creep’ – a tunnel under a train line for sheep to cross under safely.
You’ll have to take your backpack off (if you are still carrying one) and walk through. The path then goes up an old military road built in the early 1750’s following the second Jacobite uprising as part of England’s plan to quell the rebellious Highlanders (read the history about the Jacobite uprisings – and if you are planning on going on from Fort William and doing the Great Glen Way to Inverness, I suggest that you read about the horrific battle of Cullodean too)
I made it to Crianlarich – officially the halfway point of the West Highland Way. I stopped for rest and relaxed a bit just to enjoy the scenery. After recharging my batteries, I pushed on, through private farmlands, over streams and through more mud – but I was absolutely delighted to come across the ruined remains of St Fillan’s Chapel which sits tucked away amongst the trees.
Originally established in the 12th Century, Fillan himself came from Ireland and was said to have been the son of St Kentigern, who died on Inchcailloch island on Loch Lomond in 734. These ruins were once raised to the status of priory by Robert the Bruce, who (it is said) received a sign or a message of support from St Fillan on the eve of the battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
Finally, I made my way to Tyndrum (meaning ‘the houses on the ridge’) and stayed at a little place called ‘By the Way’ Youth Hostel. I had a 4 bed bunk room to myself and was able to luxuriate in a long, hot shower. I went out in search of dinner, made a wrong turn and happily found myself in a little shop selling paperback novels, snacks and supplies, which I bought for the next day.
I eventually found the place I was looking for, had some dinner and made my way back to the bunkhouse where I curled up in bed with a hot chocolate and read my new book. The next day was to be my longest, so an early night was on the cards.
Day 6 –
Walking the West Highland Way in Scotland
From – Tyndrum to Kings House
Distance – 20 Miles/ 32km
Lodging: Kings House Hotel (Bunkhouse)
–Bed space with linen.
-Fully licensed café with serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Drying room available
32 kilometres! THIRTY-TWO! This was my longest day yet in terms of walking and I was very excited (and marginally terrified that I wouldn’t make it before sunset). Also, this section was going to take me to the beginning point one of the most hauntingly beautiful (in my opinion) parts of Scotland – Glencoe
I was on the trail by 6.45am (just as well too, as my step count for the day was 50739) and spent the morning walking through farmlands. Scotland has this wonderful ‘right to roam’ thing going on (which should be adopted EVERYWHERE) – basically it means that, as long as you aren’t ruining anything (like some idiots tend to do) or throwing your litter about, or harming the environment, you can pretty much walk over any open land that doesn’t have a fence and a ‘keep out’ sign around it.
This means that the West Highland Way often takes you onto someone’s farm, past the farmhouse and then through their fields etc, over a wall and into the neighbouring farm. For me personally, I found the concept it both strange and wonderful at the same time (I am South African – I am not used to the concept of people freely roaming around willy nilly), and I had many a farmer giving me a wave and a friendly ‘good morning’ or a ‘you’re almost there’ – and the inevitable ‘stay dry’! I had a fairly easy walk in between the munro’s on an undulating path to the quaint town of Bridge or Orchy.
I hesitate to call it a town. I think the word ‘village’ is more appropriate as it looks like it has about four buildings (and a hotel and a bunkhouse) in total – and of course – the bridge which dates to 1751. It is a very quaint place though, and well worth a nosey about if you have time on your hands.
I did not and I was anxious to get moving again – although the day had started out looking clear, the clouds were once more rolling in and I had a way to go yet!
It was up and over hills for me, climbing what seemed to be forever. Fortunately this section of the way was pretty dry and rocky, so it made for a good, solid walk. The views from the top of the hills was worth every step, and I could see Rannoch Moor stretching out, waiting for me.
I stopped at the inn at Inveroran (which has been there for 200 years and was visited by William Wordsworth apparently) for a few minutes, and then made my way along an old drover’s path. It was an absolute change underfoot from what I was used to – this section of the path had been pressed down by cattle and traffic over centuries and was almost like walking on a cobblestone road. Eventually the cobble effect petered out and I was back on regular hiking track.
Rannoch Moor (Mointeach Raineach) is a large boggy moorland and is a special conservation site. There is fauna and flora unique to this area and because it is a peat bog, I would suggest you do not stray from the track. This section of the Way can be pretty dangerous – the weather changes quickly here (as it did for me) and when the mist settles in, you can lose the path pretty quickly.
Well, not only did the mist settle for me, but the rain settled in too. It started bucketing down – and, if you know anything about boggy marshlands you’ll know there are no trees to take cover under.
I was soaked. And I was sad to realise that I couldn’t see my beloved Glencoe – it was all shrouded in mist. It would have to wait until the morning.
There are two white buildings in the area. One was apparently unoccupied, and the other was my accommodation for the evening – the Kings House.
The Kings House was once just that – a change house set up by the Crown for travellers. Today it does exactly that too. I walked into the pub looking like a drowned rat and ordered two whiskeys – one after the other – to try and defrost myself.
Once I got a little fire burning in my belly, I located my backpack and headed straight for the showers in order warm up completely and change into dry clothing. The only part of me that wasn’t completely drenched was my feet, as they were still snug and warm in my hiking boots. Did I mention that you need good boots?
Kings House has a large drying room where you can hang your wet stuff up. It has hot fans blowing constantly to get it dry. The room itself has the whiff of Roquefort cheese and sweat, but when you are so wet that you can wring your clothes out, the odorous cheese smell is bearable
Again, I was sharing a room with strangers, but I didn’t care. I went back to the pub, had a few more whiskeys and a large, delicious dinner – I was ravenous! I met a bunch of interesting people in the pub, and we all sat together drinking, laughing and chatting into the evening, where I eventually bid my adieus and went to bed.
The next day’s walk would not be as far – but I had to navigate a thing called ‘The Devil’s staircase’ which sounded rather ominous….
Day 7 –
Walking the West Highland Way in Scotland
From- Kings House to Kinlochleven
Distance- 8 miles/13km
Lodging: MacDonald Hotel
–Camping cabin with bed linen.
-Great location, drying room available
Glencoe. I don’t know if you know what happened there, and if you do, skip this bit. I’m going to indulge myself here for a moment and give you a very brief history lesson…
Gleann Comhnn is hauntingly beautiful. Even more so when the mist lifts and you see the ‘Three Sisters’ rising into full view. It was here that one of Scotland’s bloodiest massacres took place.
It was the 13 February 1692, following the first wave of Jacobite uprisings (there were to be a few). People of the Clan MacDonald of Glencoe were killed by government forces billeted with them on the grounds that they hadn’t been quick enough to pledge allegiance to the new British monarchy.
Supposedly the MacDonald Clan Chief had reluctantly agreed to take the oath but had gone to the wrong place in order to do it (he went to Inverlochy in Fort William instead of Inveraray near Oban). Realising his mistake, he headed to the right place, but had missed the deadline for the oath taking.
He thought that all would be okay as he had still made his oath to the Crown, and that his people would be safe – but unbeknownst to him, a force (lead by a Captain Robert Campbell of Glen Lyon – a man with a grudge against the MacDonald clan) was gathered in Inveraray and given orders to exterminate the whole clan – men, women and children.
And so, the Campbells did. The thing was, most of the Campbells were actually on friendly terms with the MacDonald’s and were billeted with them in their houses for ten days prior to the massacre at the time. So basically, they got up at 5am one morning and killed everyone.
Those who escaped being executed in their beds made their way out onto the Moor where they died from starvation and exposure (this was February in the Highlands – its frozen over), farmhouses were burned and livestock were taken.
Let it be said here that not every Campbell was in agreement with the orders. There were around 120 Campbell led soldiers in the area – and only around 30/40 MacDonald men were ambushed. Unfortunately, the total death toll ranges from around 40 – 300. Some historians suggest that some soldiers broke their swords rather than murder people.
Although not solely responsible and only carrying out orders from above (that’s another day’s history lesson) Robert Campbell was found guilty of ‘slaughter under trust’ but never actually stood trial for it. He died of alcoholism.
The MacDonalds (those who survived) returned to their glen, rebuilt their houses and their lives.
That’s the long and short of it, and of course there is plenty more to tell – but I’ll leave you to do that yourself. It is worth it to note here – the Scots have long memories.
But back to my walk…
I got up early, had a big breakfast at the pub and set out long before anyone else did. The view here was spectacular, and I knew that I would take my time on this stretch of the route. I wanted to savour every minute of the walk.
The mist lifted and the sun winked at me through the clouds as I made my way towards the Devil’s Staircase. The scenery is stunning, and I constantly stopped and turned slowly in order to take it all in. Once again, the Way sloped up hill, easing out of Glencoe.
To be honest, the Devil’s Staircase wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. I think I built it up in my head too much. Having said that, it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.
Built in 1750 as part of a road building programme, the Devils Staircase zig zags up the hill and – at the summit of the pass (and the whole walk at 1800ft/549m) – there is a cairn.
I kept looking back over my shoulder – the Three Sisters were resplendent, along with all the surrounding hills. I hung out around the cairn for a few minutes, enjoying the scenery (and getting by breath back). Once again, clouds and mist were rolling in, which made the going a little tough as the road became slippery.
I moved on, eventually descending in towards my next overnight stop, and the sun came out and shined brilliantly. I had a few slips, but no falls down the mountainside – the road was wet from earlier rain, but not unbearable. I walked along the feeder pipes for the Blackwater Reservoir and into Kinlochleven itself which is another quaint little town, and a welcome stop along the Way.
I stayed at MacDonald’s Hotel and Campsite, where I had a little chalet all to myself – just a wood Wendy house with four bunks, but it was all mine – bliss!
It was here that I first realised that I hadn’t been attacked by the infamous Scottish midges. All the campers around me were walking around with head nets on and midges swarming all over them. They didn’t come near me – even when I stopped to say hi to some people I had met on the Way – they seemed to stay away.
I knew I didn’t smell THAT bad (I had just stopped for a shower and even had time to do my laundry). Not going to lie to you, I was pretty pleased that they didn’t like me. They look annoying.
Day 8 –
Walking the West Highland Way in Scotland
From- Kinlochleven to Fort William Distance- 15miles/ 23km
Lodging: Bank Street Lodge Bunkhouse
-Bed space with linen.
Downtown Fort William, so all within walking distance.
This was it – the last day….
I got up early that morning. My boots were dry, my clothes were clean and fresh and after breakfast, I was ready to make my way to Fort William.
The walk started with a steep hill that evened out again shortly thereafter. The view was incredible. The mist was rising, and the sun warmed me up completely. I made my way through hills and dales, eventually catching my first full uninterrupted view of Ben Nevis with Fort William waiting for me at the foot of it.
Fort William was established in the 17th century and was named after King William III. Its Gaelic name is An Gearasdan means ‘garrison’.
Walking down a fairly easy section heading downhill into town, I found myself thinking about my experiences over the last few days.
There is something magical about Scotland. The land, the history, the people. There is a symbiosis here – everything and everyone is connected. I find it telling that other countries in the world declare their monarchy as kings and queens of their respective land. We refer to Elizabeth, Queen of England – but Mary, Queen of Scots. Edward, King of England – Robert Bruce, king of Scots.
It has always been about the people for Scotland. In Gaelic, clann means children. It is a unity, a family. They are a proud, strong nation, and their land – barren in some areas, heavily forested in others, rich ground, ragged mountains and icy lakes – is completely beautiful throughout.
Doing this walk gave me time and space to think about my own life and what I wanted out of it. I felt at peace here, almost like I could truly breathe for the first time. I didn’t care that I wasn’t wearing make up or that I was a slow walker – I had done this by myself and for myself, proving that I could do anything I put my mind to. Walking the West Highland Way in Scotland is an insignificant milestone for many people – but for me it was a validation of who I was.
Coming into Fort William itself I found that I was a bit overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the town. It is hardly a busy place, but I had just had eight days of peace and solitude, walking accompanied only by my thoughts and the sounds of my footsteps and my surrounds, and the noise of everyday life was a little overwhelming at first.
I found my accommodation for the night, had a shower and went exploring the town. I had booked two nights here so that I could have a full day to explore town and maybe climb Ben Nevis (sadly closed due to inclement weather) before travelling back to London on the Caledonian Sleeper train.
I sat on a grassy area in town, watching fellow hikers, tourists and the like wandering around town. Here again were the tourist trap shops selling their mass-produced tartans and tins of shortbread. Having just scratched the surface myself, I wondered how many tourists had a true understanding of where they were – the culture, the politics, the history, the land – these things that make each country and each culture unique.
Because, that is the point of travelling, is it not? It is not just about ticking another place off a list. It is by the exploration and in the immersion of oneself into a different culture where you truly learn to understand the world – and each other.
There you have the OW&Ws complete guide to walking the West Highland Way in Scotland.
The beauty, majesty, and convenience of walking the West Highland Way in Scotland cannot be overstated. It is one of the most manageable, well-serviced, and charming trails in the world. Walking West Highland Way offers all hikers a direct connection to the serenity and history of the Scottish Highlands. For an unforgettable experience without requiring you to quit your job (looking at you Camino de Santiago and Pacific Crest Trail) look no further than the West Highland Way in Scotland. It truly is a once in a lifetime bucket list type of experience.
About Lauren Meyer
Lauren enjoys travelling, photography, single malt whiskey, history, deep sarcasm and dark humour. Her idea of a perfect vacation is hiking through the Scottish Highlands – but staying overnight somewhere with a flush toilet and a shower. Never one to shy away from her opinion, Lauren will keep you entertained with stories of life, love and travel. You’ve been warned…
Want more travel tips and hiking stories?
No time like the present to join the cool kids club. Sign up to have our latest tips and stories sent straight to your inbox.