Milngavie to Fort William
Wed 13th to Saturday 16th June 2012 - 4days
95 miles (152 kms)
Most people have heard of the West Highland Way (“WHW”) and wish to give it a go. It was the same for me and in issuing invitations to a few walkers I knew, Paul Hodges and Neil Maxwell accepted the challenge and for both of them it was their first long distance route. It was left to me to make the necessary arrangements and come up with a walking plan and my original 3 day walk was extended to 4 days and this was a good decision as the route in parts was much harder than I thought it would be.
A good friend, now living in Cardrona, Big Brown, had done the route with two friends in May 2006 and he kindly copied me in on his recommendations which proved to be ever so helpful.
It is essential you have the right kit and that you are geared up for adverse weather conditions and the ubiquitous midge. On the whole we were very lucky with the weather and midges only bothered us on the last day from Kinlochleven to Fort William and in some forestry sections these cruel small devils just swarmed around us.
This proved to be a walk of great quality and distinction that we all felt passes through a landscape second to none. There are many changes of character along the way as the path moves through different geological zones, from somewhat flat lowland Scotland to the heights and lonely places of the Scottish Highlands. Paul wishes to re-visit and rather than walk, perhaps run the length – I wish him the very best.
Planning the walk
We gained a number of quotes from different holiday companies to arrange accommodation and carry our kit bags on a daily basis to our accommodation. We chose Easyways and their service as experienced by Big Brown was just excellent. Pleasant and knowledgeable staff gave us a good deal and excellent service. All our accommodation proved first class. The daily carrying services by Travel Light was spot on.
We wished to walk from Milngavie to Fort William and then get the train back from Fort William on such a scenic route back to Milngavie where we would leave our car. We had agreed on four days to do the route so now it was to see what accommodation Easyways came up with to tie into our daily intended walking distances.
Decisions were soon taken and we confirmed bookings:
· Leave Wales and Chester on Tuesday 12th June and travel up to Milngavie to stay o/night in the Premier Inn where we arranged to leave our car for the few days.
· Day One – Milngavie to Rowardennan – staying o/night in the Rowardennan Hotel
· Day Two – Rowardennan to Tyndrum – staying at By The Way Bunk House
· Day Three – Tyndrum to Kinlochleven – staying at the Highland Getaway
· Day Four – Kinlochleven to Fort William – staying at Fassfern Guest House.
· Leave Fort William on Sunday 17th June and travel to Milngavie by train, picking up our car, and then travelling home.
We were armed with a Harvey WHW map XT40 which was ever so useful as it covered the whole route rather than having numerous OS maps to carry. The disadvantage of such a map is that you are unable to identify prominent land marks further afield and the fine cameos of distant hills peering above the trees. The route is also well way marked.
Day One - Milngavie to Rowardennan – 26 miles ( 41.5kms)
A lovely flat introduction to the walk at 7.50am and soon you are enjoying the fertile, pastoral landscapes through which the Way threads a route. We see the knobbly upthrust of Dumgoyne, the furthest west point of the Campsie Hills. On the very far horizon some glimpses of the blue Crianlarich Hills and we were looking forward to our first sighting of Loch Lomand and Ben Lomand, the most southerly of the Munros. We saw roe deer ahead of us on the path.
Once out of the forests your immediate focus is on the hogsback of Conic Hill. Conic Hill lies along the Highland Boundary Fault (runs for 260km (160 miles)), a great geological divide between lowland Scotland and the Highlands. Neil had been on top a couple of years before so getting to the top was our target and as the path rises Ben Lomand 974m (3,195ft) and more distant mountains come into view. Tomorrow we will be passing some of these sprang into the thought process. We reached the top at 2.15pm. At the small village of Balmaha, on the shores of Loch Lomand, we stopped for carry out drinks and rather than rest we were pushing on as we had still some way to go (12km) to get to our overnight accommodation. Here we are entering the Buchanan and Garadhban Forests with their mature conifers and the going gets more demanding with many ups and downs, many of which are very steep. Here we came across a young couple from Germany carrying 19kgs each on their backs and ever so tired. I would recommend that walkers should hire a carrying company for excess kit etc and not carry all their belongings on their backs. Very difficult territory lies ahead as you wind your way on the shores of Loch Lomand as we were soon to find out!
We were fascinated by the Loch Islands (23 named islands) and there is evidence that man inhabitated these islands as long ago as 5,000BC. Food for imaginative thought! Loch Lomand, formerly known as Loch Leven, is 30kms long (18.5miles).
At 6.30pm we arrive at our hotel somewhat knackered after a long and demanding day. It is down to the bar for a well earned couple of pints and a meal before hitting the sack.
Day Two - Rowardennan to Tyndrum – 27.25 miles (43.75kms)
From reading guide books on the WHW we knew this was a difficult section of the walk but it is a lot harder than described. It was like tackling an assault course – how bikers can think of taking their bikes along the shores of the loch, I do not know? We were up for breakfast at 7am and at 8am we were on our way high above the loch on the first hour or so and then dropping down to the tree lined shore line.
Early in the morning we were caught up by a cyclist carrying all his own gear on a very sophisticated mountain bike and wearing clip in bike shoes. By the time we got to Inversnaid Hotel we could see he was struggling – how he got that far was a marvel to us! He was advised by the hotel staff that the next section of the loch was far worse than what he had tackled – they were totally correct. We never saw the cyclist again and our guess was that he took the ferry from the hotel to the other side of the loch and back to good roads.
We took a female red deer by surprise and being on a downward slope she cleared a high fence and vanished so quickly amongst the trees. We also marvelled at the number of dragon flies we had seen and their various colours. Wild goats were also seen and at a bridge we came across two male goats a few feet higher than us on a steep slope lying down and having a rest. It was an ideal time to take a photo.
We were so glad to arrive at Beinglas Farm Campsite and have a break and a drink and we enjoyed a chat with the lady owner and her helpful staff. Beinglas Farm offers a whole range of facilities - B&B, camping, 4 wigwams, bar, restaurant and shop. This would have been an ideal place for us to stop in reflection but we were going to Tyndrum – yet a long way away!! The Drovers Inn which has been offering hospitality for over 300 years is a short walk away.
Our break refreshed us and on we went on a good track and at 7.15pm we at last pulled in at “By The Way” hostel and campsite. Neil’s first introduction to a bunkhouse and we had the luxury of our own room (four bunks)! We shopped at “The Green Welly Stop” and Paul cooked a wonderful pasta meal. We enjoyed the good facilities of the place and the courteous and helpful attention of the proprietors.
We could of course have stopped off and stayed somewhere in Crainlarich but this is some two miles off the WHW and you would have had to walk the same distance again in the morning. This was the hardest day and most difficult of the walk.
Day Three – Tyndrum to Kinlochleven – 27.75 miles (44.25kms)
After leaving our kit bags for our carrier we had an early breakfast at the Green Wellie and at 8am we were on our way once again on a cloudy and cold morning after having had two good previous walking days. As we headed for Bridge of Orchy we had to put on our waterproofs as there were showers of heavy rain but by 11am these ended and we enjoyed our walking over a long section of military road. These roads were built to help in the control of Jacobite clansman.
At the edge of a forest plantation at noon we had a brief stop for lunch. There were many more walkers now, some going in our direction but others going the opposite way. It was nice to acknowledge people and find out where they hailed from and how they were finding their challenge. All were of the same opinion that this was a unique walk. Rannoch Moor was all around us and slipped away into endless blue oblivion and low cloud prevented the tops of high mountains being seen. On the eastern horizon we saw lochs and many lochans. What a tremendous and invigorating sense of openness and freedom. Redcoats marching could be heard if you thought about it. A good part of the WHW follows ancient droving routes which took livestock from the north to the southern markets.
We had an enjoyable coffee stop at the oasis that is the King’s House Hotel at 2.30pm. We took the old route following the banks of the River Coupall, looking up to the great “sentinel of Glencoe”, Buchaille Etive Mor, black in colour and ever so intimidating and shrouded in cloud. Again the sound of running water accompanied us as it did so often along the route. Freedom. Here we came across a fox feeding on a dead deer and he/she was reluctant to leave its quarry but did as we got ever nearer. Alas we did not record the occasion on camera!
Next we were tackling the Devil’s Staircase rising in long loops above us. The path here is good and you just have to get on with the climb which is not at all difficult. It took us 38 minutes to get to the top. At the top we met cyclists who were somewhat tired coming up from Kinlochleven and they were on their way to Tyndrum – we did not have the heart to tell them that we did not think they would make it!! Looking ahead we could see the long Blackwater Reservoir, Carn Mor Dearg, Ben Nevis and other mountains in the Mamores but the cloud made it difficult to recognise individual mountains. For us it was a long and steep decent into Kinlochleven and our accommodation was some 300yards away from the WHW. Highland Gateway (Guesthouse and Restaurant) was excellent. Good accommodation, beer, food and friendly staff despite one of us locking himself out of his room and roaming the corridors with only a towel round him looking for someone to rescue the situation. The owner had the necessary key to get into the locked room and alas he could not be found. The whole place was in stitches laughing at the predicament! Again a hard day and we all slept well.
Day Four – Kinlochleven to Fort William – 14 miles (22.5kms)
Alas another wet morning as we were enjoying breakfast but after three days of solid walking today was to be much shorter with only a distance of 14 miles to undertake. We knew the route was to be challenging with stunning mountain scenery around us. What we had not planned for was meeting some 900+ walkers and runners undertaking the annual Caledonian Challenge which would of course slow us down. Intermittent light rain continued to midday, when it did dry up and it was the first day we were attacked by the dreaded midge, especially in wooded areas which accounted for a good part of the way.
Midges have much worse allies in the form of flies who continually buzz around your head when out in the hills. Horse flies, also known as clegs, are the worst experience as their sting is ever so sore and often a few can bite at the same time. They usually come out on hot sunny days when you have a t-shirt and shorts on!! Insect repellent and a midge head net are essential kit.
The path steadily rose and twisted into Lairig Mor, a fascinating glen with high mountains on both sides. Once the military road was reached the walking became much easier and this proved the busiest day with many walkers ahead of us and coming behind us. The bulk of Ben Nevis ahead to our right dominates as we enter Nevis Forest and a long and controlled decent into Fort William. At 3pm we reached the end of the WHW with hand shakes all around and our final photo opportunity. Our challenge had been achieved. It was now away for a few pints at The Grog and Gruel, Alehouse and Restaurant before checking into our guesthouse accommodation at “Fassfern”. We spent a very enjoyable evening/night in the town celebrating our success.
Sunday 17th June 2012
We were booked on the train from Fort William to Queen Street, Glasgow and then a train from Central Glasgow to Milngavie, pick up our car and head south. This four hour train trip was a wonderful end to our adventure. This was “icing on the cake” – what grandeur all around us as we made our way by Rannoch, Tyndrum, Arrochy, Dalmuir and into Glasgow Queen Street. It was then a short taxi ride to Central Station and onto Milngavie to pick up our car and head home.
Our adventure was over but such special memories will never be forgotten.
Keys to the success of the trip;
· Careful planning and getting your daily distance capability to match where you want to stay. Having had the experience of doing the WHW, I dare say we would change some things.
· The pack carrying services of Travel Light –seamless.
· Massive thank you to Douglas and his team at Easyways. I would recommend their excellent services without hesitation.
· Other Advice:
o Give careful consideration to the kit you take – weather changes quickly on any day.
o Have a good route map – Harveys WHW XT40.
o Read a good guide book – Cicerone The WHW
o Use a booking agent and kit carrier and enjoy this very special long distance way. You just do not want 15/20kg on your back. If you do then take a few days longer to complete the walk.
o Consider very carefully how far you are to walk each day. For less experienced walkers do it over 6days rather than 4days. If you are to carry all your kit and camp then you will need to take more days.
WHW – 2days travelling, four days walking and one night “out on the town” in Fort William
What do we need to take?
- Kit bag for clothes etc (20kilos) with light rucksack for walking
- Sterling plus credit cards.
- Travel file and accommodation addresses.
- Mobile + charger
(what you take and the number of each item is personal)
- T-shirts (wicking)
- Sun hat
- Shoes and/or trainers
- Razor & Foam
- Tooth brush & paste
- Hair gel
- Sun cream & after sun
- Insect repellant
- Nail file
- Personal Medical items as needed
- Tissues/wet wipes
- Walk details
- Pen and paper etc.
- Addresses to send post cards
- Alarm Clock
- Air freshener
- Reading Glasses
- Camera (Charged + memory cards)
- Midge Net
- Silk liner
- Boots or Trail Shoes with good grip
- Socks + liners
- Waterproof jacket & trousers
- Base Layer tops/bottoms -wicking
- Face towels.
- Walking Poles
- Rucksack/cover or internal waterproof bag
- Water Bottle
- First Aid Kit
- Head torch
- Warm Hat
- Blister Compeeds
- Other Medical Items as needed
- Zero tablets
- Energy tablets
- Route - bring details (books/detailed route map)
- Supplies for first couple of days walking (Nuts, sardines, chocolate, dried fruit)
- What is the forecast? Know this to make sure you have the right kit with you.