Paraffin Pathfinder, 26th April 2013
So you have prepared for the miles, but are you ready for the eons?
(click on the blue bordered images for the full picture)
Navigating the path is straight forward yet the route isn’t littered with directional graffiti. Whenever you need a clue at a junction or a turning, there will be the faithful symbol of the thistle, leading onward.
No thistle? Just stick to the obvious path. So all you need to get to Fort William is a sharp eye… but it is recommended to carry a map. Footprint Maps
There is little sense of history as the Wayfarers gather at the official start – Milngavie, a suburb of Glasgow. However there is a buzz of anticipation as poses are struck for the photographic record. What sets this walk apart from many a lonely pilgrimage is the companionship of strangers. Walking the West Highland Way is a meeting of like minded individuals assembled for a common purpose, just as it was in the days of the cattle Drovers of King James VI of Scotland.
We’re all different. Some like to travel light and meet their baggage at a pre-booked B&B, but then you will be locked into some sort of schedule. Others like the freedom of being able to choose their time scale from day to day yet that entails carrying some of the comforts of home.
Gaggles of Wayfarers and the hubbub of voices fall behind as you stride through urban parks. The first loch, Craigallian, nestles close to the city yet already it seems miles from the concrete jungle and its loch side monument is a reminder that the hard times endured by the Drovers reach deep into modern history. The Fire Sitters , the down and outs, the unemployed and the dreamers of the 1930’s depression, gravitated here, swapping stories and drawing comfort from fellow travellers at the fire side.
Passing through Strath Blane, the imagination catches a whiff of gastronomic excellence as the Glengoyne distillery , established in 1833, proclaims the slowest distillation process in Scotland. After the assault of the full Scottish Breakfast, the digestion is re-awakened and the appearance of the cosy public house at Dumgoyne promises welcome respite. Then Drymen, a popular first night stop, offers warm beds and good food. Already acquaintances have been made and encouragement is exchanged in the hostelries.
Conic Hill is one the ancients of the Drovers’ route, created in a collision of continents some 4-500 million years ago. It is the first real climb of the trail and presents the flavour of the scenery to come with panache. From the summit, the string of islands across Loch Lomond clearly indicate the fault line that stretches from Arran to Stonehaven, the geological demarkation between the Highlands and Central Scotland.
The shore side of mainland Great Britain’s largest lake holds fresh delights for the walker. Balmaha hugs the waterline, offering refreshment and scenic lake views, often lively with day trippers from the adjacent conurbation of Glasgow. The trail dives into woodland, leading north and passing remote hotels at Rowardennan and Inversnaid. Here the motor car is a scarcely tolerated newcomer and the water bus can only make infrequent stops: the best means of transport is the walker’s own two feet.
Robert MacGregor, better known as Rob Roy, prowled these slopes beneath Ben Lomond. A one time Jacobite soldier and respected cattleman, Red MacGregor was betrayed and fell into debt. This folk hero waged an unequal feud with his principal creditor, the Duke of Montrose, being branded an outlaw and evicted from his home in Inversnaid. After surrender and imprisonment, he was pardoned in 1727 by King George. Today the feral goats relive the man’s spirit; tough, independent and feisty.
At the head of the loch, Inverarnan signals the end of the roots and rocks that make this section the toughest of the trail. The renown Drovers Inn stands on the far bank of the River Falloch and is home to deliberately dated decor, good food and live music. This bastion of Scottish hospitality since 1705 does not suffer indifference. Like Marmite, love it or hate it, it’s unforgettable. Trekking past the Falls of Falloch, the walker is aware that the road and river share this glen in an uneasy truce: close to the tarmac and the noise of man’s impudent civilisation dominates yet, with the river in full spate, the roaring of water restores the rhythm of the ages.
Further on, Strathfillan, the burial place of the 8th century saint, is more at peace with itself and folklore recounts that St Fillan’s relics were taken to Bannockburn and assisted King Robert the Bruce to a resounding victory over King Edward in 1314. The grateful victor erected the priory in honour of the saint.
A clash of arms, some eight years before his triumph against the English, resulted in defeat at the hands of Clan MacDougall and the fleeing Bruce ordered his men to abandon their heavy weapons in the water to facilitate their escape.
Tyndrum, once a lead mining town but now the home of Scotland’s only gold mine, caters well for the overnight hiker. Food, accommodation and transport links provide options for any unable to continue but for the determined Auch Gleann awaits, opening into majestic views of Beinn Dorain, a Munro of 3524 ft, and a section of the West Highland Railway built by Sir Robert “Concrete Bob” McAlpine and completed in 1894. The station takes its name from the bridge built over the River Orchy in 1751, part of the infrastructure set in place to quell the Jacobite Uprisings.
The Wayfarer crosses this bridge en route to Inveroran and its eponymous hotel which, especially in good weather, occupies a sublime location at the head of Loch Tulla. Shortly after Victoria Bridge the path joins the military road commenced by General Wade, completed by Major Caulfield and later upgraded by engineer Thomas Telford. It’s hard to believe but this hard packed, stone track was the main highway until 1933.
Be sure to savour the silence at Ba Bridge. Look to your left at Coire Ba, the largest natural amphitheatre in Scotland. To your right the River Ba drains into the Loch of the same name and the occasional flash of sunlight betrays the presences of traffic on the A82. On a day like this one, this is a beautiful, easy walk. However, if the weather turns, the conditions can become brutally exposed and the walker must be prepared.
The Kingshouse Hotel was originally built as a barracks in the 1750’s and was owned by Lord Breadalbane of Clan Campbell. Twenty years later, one Donald McInnes was encouraged to take it on after a long career in King George’s army but he found it hard to make a living without resorting to illegal trade in salt and whisky. He received little support from Breadalbane to improve the facilities and complained that the Drovers could put up with conditions that the travelling gentry would not. The Hotel has proved to be the linchpin of many a walking plan, not only for the West Highland Wayfarer, and the modern trekker can enjoy its isolation without having to sleep in the open, wrapped in a coarse plaid and eating gruel made of mashed oats and bull’s blood.
Buachaille Etive Mor, “The Great Herdsman of Etive”, and its smaller twin, Buachaille Etive Beag, “The Little Herdsman”, stand guard at a famous entrance. Although inaccurately said to mean “Glen of Weeping”, history does record a foul mass murder taking place here in 1692. Political motive and internecine rivalry conspired to eliminate the MacDonalds of Glen Coe and a company of soldiers, commanded by a Campbell, turned upon their hosts in their sleep. Thirty eight men were put to the sword and another forty clan members died of exposure as their houses were razed to the ground.
Looking back towards Kingshouse from the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase.
The Staircase is the steep, zig zag path that crosses the ridge between Kingshouse and Kinlochleven and climbs to 1797 feet above sea level, the highest point of the trail. The name was coined by the troops who carried the road material up the path constructed by the Inspector of Roads, Major Caulfield, in the 1750’s. However the name took on new meaning during the building of the Blackwater Dam in the early 1900’s as Kinlochleven Navvies, with pay packets in pockets, would stray to Kingshouse to imbibe a few drams. The return journey up the Staircase in the snow sometimes had fatal consequences and it would be said that the Devil had claimed his own.
Huge pipes lead downhill into Kinlochleven, feeding the head water to power the avaricious aluminium smelter at the bottom. After less than a century of production, a changing market and fierce competition forced the operation’s closure.
Today the turbines still turn, feeding electricity into the grid and the smelter facility now houses the biggest indoor ice climbing wall in the world.
Tramping up the wooded slopes out of Kinlochleven leaves the Wayfarer with mixed emotions. Some are elated at a goal within their grasp, some simply suffer to achieve an end. However the West Highland Way still has more. The high valley above Loch Leven opens out into Lairigmor, the U shaped funnel through the Mamores Range in which are found no less than ten Munros. The old military road snakes through the “Great Pass” and a dark, mirror image from the Weeping Glen springs to mind. Only forty seven years before the Glen Coe Massacre, fresh in the memory of the Clans, the Marquis of Montrose had led his Royalist army against the Covenanters in the Battle of Inverlochy. The larger rebel force was routed and the MacDonalds, this time on the attacking side, had relentlessly pursued its defeated rival, Clan Campbell, back to Glen Coe.
The wayfarer is teased with glimpses of the skyline. The cloud can be playful, revealing the mountains in a celestial burlesque until at last, standing in Glen Nevis itself, there can be no doubt as to the identity of the broad slopes ahead, even in overcast conditions. Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Great Britain, one of the 400 million year old ancients and a fitting welcome to the journeys end. The tarmac pavement to Fort William seems like drudgery after so many superlatives but the memory of this trek will last for a life time. Truly a walk through time.
Thanks, Macs Adventure. Happy Walking Wayfarers!