A Northward Meandering – Walking the West Highland Way – Part One.
For several years I’ve been planning to walk the West Highland Way, one of Scotland’s best known long distance walks that runs for 96 miles from Milgavie just north of Glasgow all the way to Fort William in the North West Highlands. I have just returned from finally managing to complete this incredible and iconic route, a little bruised a little worn but a lot richer for the experience. During my travels I kept a journal of each day, here along with some of the photos taken along the route is my account of ‘walking the way’.
Prologue: Getting to the starting line.
For most people the start of the West Highland Way starts with a train journey. for me it was boarding a train from Edinburgh to Milngavie. For what should be a short hop from east to west central Scotland this is one of those surprisingly long journeys on a train that stops at places even I’m not familiar with despite spending most of my life in the central belt. As the train trundled through Scotland’s former industrial centres I sat with my outrageously large holdall and rucksack and wondered how this week was going to go. Finally as we got into the late afternoon the train came to a halt at the and of the line – Milngavie.
Milngavie (pronounced ‘Mull Guy’) was a once small village that grew rapidly in the industrial revolution, being close to a good water supply this allowed the development of paper mills etc, now it has more or less been swallowed up by the expansion of Greater Glasgow and these days serves as a commuter town. Since the first day was going to be a long one I had decided to get through the day before and stay overnight giving me a chance for an early start the next day. Having hauled my huge bag and myself off the train I afforded myself the luxury of a taxi to the hotel.
My home for the night was a local branch of a budget hotel chain, the size of the hotel in such a small town is testament to just how popular this walk is. In fact its hard to go anywhere in Milngavie without being reminded of it, certainly a boost for the local economy. A small industry has indeed grown up around servicing the 85,000 people who use this route every year (though just a little over 1 in 3 walk the whole way). One of the most welcome of these is the baggage transfer companies who for a modest fee will take your bags to the end of each stage and pick them up the next day allowing you to walk with just what you need for the journey. One of these called ‘ Travel Lite would be custodian if my very large holdall for the week (lucky them).
Unfortunately my last night of luxury was not the best, my excitement about the day ahead leaving me a bit like a kid at Christmas, unable to sleep properly. I found myself up and about at a fairly crazy hour (for me) so ventured down for an early breakfast. once filled with the standard Scots fair of cholesterol I did my final packing, dropped my bag at reception and began the walk to the town centre and beyond…
Day One: Milngavie to Drymen
A modest stone obelisk in the town centre marks the start of the way, this is conveniently beside an arch which walkers pass through, leading down to the path by the river and some convenient signs. It was a beautiful spring morning with puffy clouds and little but the sound of birdsong and the hoof beats of joggers out for an early sunday morning workout. The early stages of the way are surprisingly pleasant as it meanders along the Allander water, very quickly you feel that you are leaving the town behind and the adventure is beginning.
After a short stroll up river I came to a large ‘diversion’ sign, accompanied with other signs, maps etc explaining that a large section of the way was temporarily closed for work on power lines and a diversion was in place. This diversion sign pointed up what looked like a rather steep hill. Fortunately it was still early and this didn’t feel like too much of an inconvenience. A few minutes later I was beginning to question this decision as I puffed up a relentless incline through the forest. My efforts were rewarded though since this diversion came out right next to Mugdock Castle.
This small but impressive Castle was a Graham stronghold from the mid 13th Century. Mugdock is possibly the birthplace of the most famous of the Grahams – the Marquis of Montrose. The castle has had mixed fortunes (partly down the association with Montrose and partly down to the clans eventual abandonment for the larger Buchanan Old House. The ruin has since been stabilised and now makes a very attractive landmark.
From Mugdock the diversion took me rather appropriately along a fairly well rutted bridle path and an early test for the footwear. This muddy track finally found its way downhill at a place called Carbeth with views across to the famous Carbeth Huts. It would be easy to wander past this little area of painted wooden lodges without giving them a second thought but the Carbeth Huts (and the Hutters who own them) are part of local lore. This area near to the Campsie fells has often been a popular spot for people looking to escape the pollution of the big city (in this case Glasgow) Scout groups, climbers and walkers would all use this area to camp. After the First World War the landowner allowed ex servicemen to build small wooden huts on the land and a community grew up around them. The huts were used as shelters during the great depression and also from the bombs during the Clydebank Blitz. Still the existence of the huts were dependant on the whim of the landowner but in 2010 an agreement was reached and the hutters bought the land in a community buy out.
Onwards and more or less northwards I went, the small path crossed a minor road and up a little hill. Cresting the hill is quite a surprise as its your first glimpse of what really lies ahead. far in the distance the mountains around loch Lomond form a backdrop to rolling moorland with the Campsie fells flanking to the East. This is the first of many changes of landscape you experience on the way. From here a disused railway line is your guide for a large part of your remaining day. The railway though disused for carrying passengers does have another cargo however; water. Beside the line and partially buried a massive pipe carries the water supply from Loch Lomond all the way to the homes of the people of Glasgow.
The monotony of this stage was broken by the view of the Glengoyne Distillery. This pretty distillery sits directly on the ‘highland Line’ and so is unique in that the whisky there is officially distilled in the highlands but matured in sheds on the other side of the road which are classified as being in the lowlands. Glengoyne may look small but produces a million litres of spirit a year, an impressive figure. Tempting though a visit to the distillery was the sight of the Beech Tree Inn right next to the road a few yards further on drew me in. This lovely little pub with an impressive beer garden was the first chance to take the pack off and sit down with a soft drink (it was still Sunday morning after all) and chat to other walkers who had started the journey that day. This is the great thing about the West Highland Way, the camaraderie that builds up as the week progresses, the same familiar faces that pop up as you complete each stage or take a break can sometimes lead to great friendships. Much of the early chat of course is all about how far are you going and what stops you are doing, there is an air of excitement and expectation.
From here it was just a few miles to the end of the road for day one. The small town of Drymen and for me the campsite of Easter Drumquassle Farm a mile or so to the south of the town. It was at this point I discovered a phenomena of long distance walking; the attack of the ‘Nearly Theres’. this is a peculiar malaise that effects the feet and leg joints and sometimes the entire body which appears to have made up its mind that the journey is over despite the fact that there are miles to go. the last hour or so then became a slow trudge along country lanes till eventually the campsite came into view.
This farm is a popular first stage for those wishing to camp on the route. Having poured over any research available beforehand I was somewhat concerned as the online reports for this place were not great. Reports of badly sloping pitches and temperamental owners were playing on my mind but all seem to be unfounded. The site was damp but understandable considering the rain we had previously, however the spot I found up by the fence was quite level and the young owner who bounced over to me as I was picking up my bag from the shed acting as a drop off point for the baggage service was charming. Having hauled my pack up to my chosen spot I then began to erect my tent. The tent we have was one Amanda bought for her trip to St Kilda a few years ago, its quite large for hiking and at first is rather complicated to put up. Fortunately despite my slow pace I was the first to arrive so could get on with it in peace. To my surprise the tent went up with very little stress to me or the aluminium poles and was soon sorting out my little home for the night. Fortunate timing too as the rain came thundering down moments later so I amused myself listening to the pounding of the rain and peering from the small flap I’d allowed to stay open with a view over to the Horses in the next paddock. Eventually the rain eased off and boredom set in so despite the miles undertaken I decided to take a walk into the town of Drymen.
Drymen is a quaint little village, the name comes from the Gaelic word Druiminn which also happens to be where the family name Drummond comes from. Not only the West Highland Way but the Rob Roy Way passes through here and the village pub the Clachan (which claims to be the oldest in Scotland) was reputed to have connections with the family of the famous outlaw. I decided to pay a visit to the famous Clachan pub, purely for research you understand. and after a short rest stop hobbled back to camp for the night. Tomorrow was going to be a long day with Rowardrennan by Loch Lomondside as my destination…