After the West Highland Way, I head out for my second week in Scotland for the Outer Hebrides, an archipelago of about ten islands in the West of Scotland. The Hebridean Way, a two-week wilder hiking trail, is waiting for me.
My first Scottish hike: A week through the countryside and the Highlands from Glasgow to Ben Nevis. A tiring but rewarding experience.
After a first week in Italy at the beginning of June and a cancelled trip, I decided to go to Scotland. It’s been quite a while that I wanted to go there and the opportunity to go there now filled me with joy. Although having only a few days to prepare everything, I decided to leave for five weeks of hiking across the country. But the vast majority of big hikes in Scotland are not well marked and therefore difficult to follow without knowing how to use a map and a compass. Not wanting to start immediately in a too difficult experience and rather looking for a return to simplicity, I opt for the few marked hikes (but inevitably more crowded): the West Highland Way in the Highlands, the Hebridean Way in the Western Isles, a few days on Skye and the Great Glen Way to reach Inverness. Here is the plan.
The West Highland Way is the best known of all, the busiest and also the most marked. I decide to start with this one for my first big hike of several days. I have already done three-four day treks but this is the first long-distance hike I do alone. Not to mention the changing weather conditions. Let’s start with something reasonable. About 154km to connect Milngavie, a small suburb of Glasgow to Fort Williams in the heart of the Highlands. A week to cross some of the most beautiful landscapes of Scotland. Sold.
So here I am Friday, June 14 on a plane to Edinburgh and a bus to Glasgow where I spend a quiet night in a Bed & Breakfast (but not doing breakfast strangely) before embarking on the adventure. Five weeks in Scotland where I hope to find some peace of mind, strengthen myself physically and discover beautiful landscapes.
Day 1: Through the Scottish countryside
First day on The West Highland Way. Gray and rainy morning. Departure from Milngavie whose pronunciation has nothing to do with writing. There are already quite a few people on the way. Must say we are Saturday. I meet a person every five minutes.
Around 2pm, the clouds disperse after a last shower and the sun appears illuminating the landscape. The weather is nice all afternoon, alternating sun and clouds. I cross the Scottish countryside, a mixture of meadows and small forests.
The bag is heavy. Really heavy. The morning goes relatively well until the skin of my hips decides that it’s enough. The belt of the bag a little rigid, squeezes me a bit too much and ruins my skin causing me big irritations, bruises and inflammations. The pain is severe and prevents me from walking normally making the afternoon much more difficult.
I arrive at the tiny campsite near Drymen with relief where about twenty tents are already installed. It is a beautiful weather but that does not last since clouds come back around 6pm making the evening gray and cold.
I try to have a more simple rhythm and not think too much about the weather or my physical pains but it is difficult. I wonder if I will succeed in this trek and especially if I will succeed in spending my five weeks in Scotland. Is it worth it to brave cold, rain, physical pain? But if I do not do that, what am I doing then?
Day 2: Conic Hill and Loch Lomond
Cloudy departure but changing quickly into clouds and sun. The variations of brightness make the landscape superb. I have a hard time walking. The pains of the previous day are still there. Every step seems to be an acceptance of pain. It’s learning to accept it, to try not to let my consciousness focus on it. I manage to do it, more or less. It’s still really hard.
I dropped 450g at Drymen Post. Posted to my parents. But the extra 2kg come from my computer and various chargers. Should I get rid of it? Everyone is passing me. The majority have small bags. They must sleep in a hotel or use the luggage transfer service. Should I do the same? Does the misplaced pride of wanting to carry all my gear must prevail on just enjoying the hike? Is the difficulty part of the experience? From my choice of experience? Still, even people loaded with big bags do not seem to have as a hard time as me. I must not be as fit as I thought. I don’t want to accept it. Me who thought I was an accomplished hiker. Well, apparently not really. I tell myself that this hike is like life: always difficult at first. And that our success in life lies in knowing how to accept this difficulty and to overcome it.
The rise of Conic Hill is not too difficult. This is the point of interest of the day. 300 meters uphill to appreciate the view of Loch Lomond. At the top, the big lake appears, scattered with small islands. With the sunshine it’s very beautiful. But the area is touristy. The descent made of stairs will be more difficult. Back down to Balmaha, I have the impression of landing for a moment in a tourist resort on a paradise island. But no, I’m in Scotland, right in the heart of Scotland. The last part of the hike is along the lake. It is very beautiful and peaceful. I push for six more kilometers and it is very tired that I finally reach the very simple campsite of Sallochy bay right on the lake. It’s filled with midges but at least my hip pains start to slowly decrease.
Day 3: Along Loch Lomond in the rain
Departure in the rain. Today I am supposed to do 27km. It seems impossible to me. First let’s go to Inversnaid Hotel, about 15km from here and then I’ll see. Carrying the bag seems a little less difficult, the pains slowly decreasing.
It’s ugly weather all morning. I go along the lake whose color varies from light gray to dark gray depending on the clouds. After 6km I reach Rowardennan. Almost two hours of walking already. I discuss a little with a French guy who camped there. Curiously the discussion cheers me up.
I continue on the path that quickly turns into a steep path along the edge of the lake with pebbles and roots and only going up and down. God it’s difficult. The difficult part of the trek is supposed to be the following (like that but worse) from Inversnaid to Inverarnan. If I already have trouble there I do not imagine after. The rain is falling more and more and I go faster. Curiously, in the rain, the portage of the bag seems less painful, the mind being concentrated on something else.
At noon, I still have five good kilometers to join Inversnaid. I decide to change my plans, it’s impossible for me to do the 27km. So I decide to take the ferry from Invesnaid to Tarbet on the other side of the lake (a little behind) and then a bus to Inverarnan. That’s the way it is. I do not want to kill myself. I prefer to try to appreciate the walk. With a bag of 15kg, I can apparently do only fifteen kilometers a day. Well, it’s like that.
I arrive at 14:05 at Inversnaid, 10min before the ferry. I did 16.5km almost without stopping. The ferry takes us to Tarbet in a torrential rain and I collapse in the only small cafe in the area. A deliverance. It is 3pm I still have not eaten. I buy homemade soup, a bacon-brie panini, a hot soya-bean chocolate with marshmallow and a piece of chocolate cake. I do not know what happened to e, but I wanted all of that. I speak with a couple of young English people who camped at the same campsite as me last night. They too decided to take the ferry and the bus.
The bus arrives, almost full and I let the purr of the engine plunge me into a soft torpor as we go along the lake. Inverarnan appears and I arrive at the campsite under a bright sun. The lake has given way to the Highland Hills and it is very beautiful. But again filled with midges.
Day 4: Through the gray hills
I get up under a stormy sky but not yet rainy. But as I come back from the toilet the rain starts and does not stop. A good lesson to remember: always pack up the tent when it does not rain, as soon as possible, the rest (body cleaning, breakfast) can wait. The tent is wet. I pack up quickly and try to dry my stuff in the “kitchen” of the campsite but it doesn’t really work.
Apparently it will rain all day and even at night. I got cold when I arrived in Scotland and with bad weather it does not seems to go better. I lost my voice. I decide to book a small hut at the next campsite but there are only big ones left at 45£.. It’s expensive but it’s the price to be dry.
Despite the rain, the hike is beautiful and quiet. The weight of the bag is bearable and the rain does not wet too much. Around me, the green hills of the Highlands begin to appear.
The same questions that a few days ago are back in my mind. Why do I walk? Why do I impose this physical and mental pain? Is the answer that there is no answer and you have to accept it? Things happen because they arrive without necessarily having meaning.
With the rain nature seems really inhospitable. And very alive at the same time. This is the kingdom of grass and ferns. Unless you have fur, humans do not survive long in the wild with all that water. I go to Crianlarich for lunch then continue in the rain to finally reach Tyndrum and my little hut. I dry all my things and go to the little restaurant in the area for a well-deserved meal.
Day 5: A wonderful day
I wake up under a gray, wet sky. It’s starting to be redundant. At least I slept well and my things are dry. I leave Tyndrum in the rain sinking into the valleys. The green mountains with extraordinary shapes surround me. Despite the traffic noise of the A82, which is never far away, I feel like I’m starting to plunge into the wilds of Highlands. The clouds are fraying on the top of Beinn Dorain. Its pointed shape fascinates me. Some clearings bring a wonderful dimension to the landscape. Followed by a deep downpour, which will shorten my lunch. I trace the road, skirting the sides of the mountain. Nothing but green grass. The water is dripping on my face. As usual, alarmist thoughts (I’m going to be wet, camping in the rain is horrible, what to do if the tent is wet, etc.) quickly come to mind. I try to calm them down by realizing that I feel good anyway. I’m not cold, I do not wet too much. Everything is fine. As a last resort I can always take a room in a hotel.
quite happyLooking at landscapes whose colors are mainly centered on green and gray, I tell myself that it is a pity that it is bad weather. That because it is bad, I do not take pleasure or I do not fully appreciate the landscapes. That I would like to have good weather and that bad weather spoils the experience. But the reality is that reality does not care about all that. It’s raining, it’s raining. Point. Reality does not care if I’m underneath doing the West Highland Way. So I guess the good lesson to remember is that you have to accept reality as it comes…
At Bridge of Orchy, the clearings come back. I continue, quite happy. How beautiful is this sky with variations of gray, these clouds clinging to the mountains and these rays of sun giving contrast to the landscape. I climb on the top of the small hill overlooking Loch Tulla. A small plateau and mountain ranges appear. That’s wonderful. The slightly wilder part of the trail begins. Threatening clouds scroll and I observe the constantly changing landscape.
The descent to Inveroran Hotel is shorter than expected and I arrived at a small space to camp next to a river and a small stone bridge. Nothing except the mountains, some cows and the inn a few meters before. And a dozen hikers who will camp at the same place. “Wild” without being reall wild..
It rains more or less all the evening and I take advantage of a break to appreciate the landscape. It’s quiet and despite the rain making the adventure complicated and less serene, I’m happy to be there. I even attend my first “sunset” with some pink clouds. This rainy day was really beautiful.
PS: the weight of the bag no longer seems like a sinecure. My physical pain has decreased and apart from the fact that I’m a little sick because of a stuffy nose and a blister on the little finger of the right foot, the rest seems to hold up.
Day 6: Facing the rain crossing the moor
Nothing is predictable. The Scottish climate changes constantly with a furious fixation on rainy. Playing with my limits. I wake up at 6am. The tent almost not wet. Lesson learned, I pack everything. Big black clouds are looming on the horizon. I barely have time to eat a cold breakfast that it rains again.
7:45am, so I start walking. It is the crossing of the mountain moor. It’s raining and the wind whistles in my ears. The designers of the road once had the good idea to make a path full of pebbles. Walking is painful and my blister does not help. Barely an hour’s walk and I’m flat. I do not know if it’s tiredness, the wind, the rain or the stony path climbing slowly but surely but I can not take it anymore. The weight of the bag hurts my shoulders again.
I cross the moor (Scottish plain), desert, green, mountain, beautiful. But also very inhospitable. It is raining. A lot. And I walk like a robot drawing in my last strengths. It’s been four days now that it’s raining almost constantly.
I cross with one goal. Reach the other side. The Glencoe Mountain Resort. My body advances alone. My mind has entrenched… He plots a call to the sun, a lament, for hours under my head. But the sun that pierces well sometimes is not a match for the mass of clouds full of water that has appear on the region for days. It is apparently one of the areas of Scotland where it rains the most. I do believe that.
A torrential rain finally collapsed during my last hour of walking. I am in a somewhat second state, divided between a state of despair accentuated by a throbbing pain in my skull and my back and a desire to go on and see the bright side.
I finally arrive at Glencoe Mountain Resort. I have trouble telling myself that I will again pay 60£ for a small hut (for 4 people, all alone, I always get higher prices) but I refuse to stay out. Money goes away fast, but I tell myself that we must also know how to deal with the unexpected and accept the decisions we make. I am happily sheltering in a sort of little hobbit hole covered with false grass and fall into sleep, my body a little sick.
Waking up later I realize that many people decided to camp despite the rain in the small campsite next to the huts and I say to myself that I certainly could have too. I have a hard time accepting it, but I do not feel strong enough mentally and physically to do it. In any case not today. I am a little bit sick. And I’m alone. So with no moral support and comfort. I would like to harden myself a bit to enjoy a little more and less worry, even when the weather is bad.
Day 7: Cross the Glencoe Valley and regain happiness
The sheltered night has been good for me, although I still feel tired. The rain seems to be slowly moving away. The clearings are more present and I watch rainbows scroll on the mountains from my little hole. I’m waiting for mid-day, a more lenient weather forecast, to leave. The clearings indeed arrive but the valley of Glencoe where the path goes still remains rather obscure.
I leave in the rain around 11am. Surrounded by threatening clouds, Glencoe seems to deserve its name of Death Valley (in reference to the bad weather whose valley seems to be a magnet but also to the many battles between clans that took place here before).
On the way, the clouds are finally pushed by a rather violent wind and the sun appears slowly. I walk in the desolate moor surrounded by impressive mountains. The place is magnetic, beautiful but quite difficult to frame in pictures. Difficult to capture the desolate beauty of the place and the strange shape of the valley between each mountains. One of the valley seems to form a perfect curve between two mountains.
Unlike yesterday, I feel good. Or at least, better. The weight of the bag does not feel too heavy. And it may be the appearance of the sun although still weak that cheers me up. After almost four days of rain, I needed it.
The path zigzags quietly across the moor and apart from a strange part at the edge of the road, it’s a pleasure. The trail eventually turns and I begin the climb of the Devil Staircase, not as hard as its name might suggest, and apart from the fact that I get a shower, I easily reach the highest pass of the WHW at 550 meters in height. On one side the Glencoe Valley, on the other side the Mamores mountain range.
I take advantage of the sun to eat a bit a little below, the mind at peace. This is my penultimate day of walking. And it’s one of those I prefer. I have been walking for 7 days. This is the first time I walk so long. I can not believe a week has passed. One sentence comes back to my mind: “after all, this is a walking holiday”. Yes I am here to enjoy. Not to have a hard time. Yes, the idea is to confront myself physically and mentally. But while having fun!
The descent to Kinlochleven on the other side is a bit long, almost 600m down. The sun is there, it’s hot and wet. The last km is along a large pipeline that feeds a small power station in the center of the village. Nothing special in Kinlochleven except the houses all the same. Former labor village, Kinlochleven today lives only with tourism.. The weather is nice, I set up my tent in a very expensive mini camp but on the edge of the lake. A real holiday feeling seems to take hold of me. I do not know if it’s the evening in the sun or the fact that tomorrow is the last day of the hike but I feel good.
The sun disappears too quickly for my taste behind the mountains leaving room for clouds of midges. In the small campsite dozens of birds begin a concert to greet the end of the day. I wonder why I’m walking. What drives me to put one foot in front of the other despite the difficulty. And why did I choose to go hiking for my holidays? In any case I can not imagine doing anything else. I crush the many midges who had the audacity or the bad luck to enter my tent. They hurt these little bastards but they are not fast. So easy to kill with just one thumb. The problem is that it is dirtying the walls of the tent. There are corpses of midges everywhere now. But that’s it or being eaten to death. So I do not hesitate.
Day 8: Last kilometers
Last day of the hike. Beautiful weather waking up but it does not last. A large cloud mass quickly covers Kinlochleven. I leave with a kind of joy in the heart. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been walking for seven days and today is the end. Without realizing it, time has passed quickly.
A good climb to start the morning leads me to 300 meters in the wild valley above Kinlochleven. A few drops escape from a cloud a little too full and come crashing down on me letting me think that I will be wet again. But the wind helping, the clouds pass slowly and the sun reappears.
The crossing of the valley is very pleasant. The path winds through the plateau surrounded by green and desolate mountains. The area is very wild if you don’t look at the line of hikers walking the WHW. A group pass me / or I pass a group almost every five minutes. Around 2pm I am passed by the first runners of the WHW marathon happening this weekend! I will learn it later but the first runner who passed me is the one who won with a time of about 13h. 13h to make the path. It took me 8 days!
I travel the valleys bringing me closer to Fort William. Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK, appears in the distance. The summit is in the clouds. I can see the climbing trail. I was thinking of going up tomorrow but I’m a little tired, the round trip takes 7-8 hours of hiking and it may be covered weather. I’ll see tomorrow.
The verdant landscape changes into a pine forest, whose much of which has been cut! Remnants of trunks whose cut is more or less recent garnish the landscape making the place sad and desolate. Despite the fact that the Ben Nevis region is a tourist monument in the UK and the WHW passes right in the middle of the forest, a private logging operation has seen fit to destroy the landscape. This is not the only place in Scotland. Many of the pine forests are in fact logging area leaving many devastated landscapes. The end of the road to reach Glen Nevis where my campsite is located happen in a sad landscape making the end of the day a little morose.
I arrive at the campsite under beautiful weather and almost too hot. Some cows of the Highland breed graze in a meadow. The first ones I see by the way. They all have a very long bang covering their eyes and I wonder how they do to see. The end of the trip is at Fort William, about 4 km away, but I decided to sleep at the Glen Nevis campground, the only one in the area.
At the campsite I find many hikers that I met throughout the week. Everyone seems to be happy to have arrived. The camping is a real city compared to those I’ve been around during the week. A lot of people. The atmosphere is a little weird or it is me who doesn’t feel like belonging there. I decide to treat myself and opt for a hot dog & onion with chips for dinner which will prove to be a bad idea. The sausage is inedible. Better stick with the basic fish & chips or avoid the street food shop. The evening will be short, the call of sleep being felt quickly.
Day 9 and 10: Well-deserved rest
I leave the campsite to join Ben Nevis Bunkouse, just 10 minutes walk from the campsite, where I booked two nights. Which means two days of rest. I drop my bag and go for a walk around. Having dropped the idea of climbing Ben Nevis I opt for Cow Hill Summit at only 260 meters in height. On the way to reach the start of the hike I meet Alfa, a Canadian with whom I spoke a little yesterday, also finishing the WHW. He accompanies me a few minutes, the end of the WHW and my hiking trail being common for 1km. We discuss our respective feelings on the trek, evoking the heavy weight of our bags. We separate and I climb my little hill to have a nice view of Fort William and Loch Linnhe below. It’s hot and humid and I have a little trouble getting on even though I’m not loaded. The view from above is pretty but I find that the somewhat industrial aspect of the city spoils the landscape a little.
I go down and go back to the bunkhouse for a quiet evening. The bunkhouse is a very rustic dormitory that once housed visiting soldiers. Bunk beds, two toilets, two showers and a small kitchen, and that’s it. Very simple. I talk to a group of Scots who did the WHW marathon and retire for the night.
The next day, the rain is back and I take the opportunity to rest, prepare the rest of the trip and working on my articles. Not many people, the day is calm. I decid to go tomorrow on the Outer Hebrides, the islands in the West of Scotland where is the Hebridean Way, another hiking trail of about fifteen days across the archipelago. Despite the difficulty of carrying the bag and the changing weather, I have decided to continue exploring the landscapes of Scotland.
Despite a relatively rainy weather, hiking on the West Highland Way was a great experience. It was not what I expected, without being a disappointment on the contrary. The wild and inhospitable aspect of certain regions accentuated by the bad weather left me an impression of greyness balanced by moments of sun making the landscape marvelous. The bad weather made the hike less serene than I had hoped but the weather being unchangeable, we must accept what we are facing. This is a lesson that I am well aware of but still have a hard time accepting it entirely.
Despite the popularity of the trek, I did not find the presence of other hikers too boring except the fact of meeting people every five minutes. The eight days of hiking have passed relatively quickly and I have not found the duration too long. This is not a wild hike since we are never far from the road and accommodations, restaurant, shops, buses and trains are easily accessible. The difficulty of the trail is not very high but with a bag of 15kg, I did not wanted to climb 1000m every day but the diversity of landscapes crossed make it a good introduction to the Scottish landscape. For my first week in Scotland I am happy to have started with the West Highland Way.
But I must admit, it was harder than I imagined. Wearing a 15kg bag on my back for a week has challenged me to my physical and mental limits and I realise that I’m not as fit as I thought. Hardening physically and mentally is a necessity if I want to continue hiking long distances across the Nordic countries with changing climatic conditions and challenging terrain. During this week, many questions about my relationship to walking, to effort, to my expectations and goals have looped in my mind. Pushing your body and mind to face challenges may seem attractive on paper, but in reality it is not a pleasure. Many questions remain unanswered and I hope to find some in my next weeks in Scotland.
After the West Highland Way, I head out for my second week in Scotland for the Outer Hebrides, an archipelago of about ten islands in the West of Scotland. The Hebridean Way, a two-week wilder hiking trail, is waiting for me.
Peregrinus Mundi having changed since April 2019, I wish to work on a goal that is close to my heart: the publication of research articles on ecological and humanitarian themes.
Back in Provence to prepare what’s next. Why the Alps after three years of wandering abroad. Where comes the fact that hiking interests me more and more and what it reveals of my personality.
Focus about the Chamonix experience and what it allowed me to understand. Why I give up hospitality jobs (or not), my idea for the next five months and what I’m planning for the future.
From mi-December to mid-March, I faced depression. Work, rhythm of life and unconscious ignorance of my needs have let me to the black hole. But in suffering lies the answers. I thought about it and started to find some.
The snow finally started to fall on Chamonix and the Mont-Blanc valley. Since about two weeks we are surrounded by white. The ski resorts around opened a few days ago and tourists carrying ski/snowboard gear are more and more present in the streets of the village.