The West Highland Way is a marked walking trail that extends 154 kilometres (96 miles) from Glasgow to Fort William in Scotland.
The Way was established in 1980 and sees 15,000 walkers completing it annually. The well-marked path makes use of old footpaths, military roads, abandoned railway lines and trade routes through the highlands and, as a result, is graded in most sections with the possible except of the route along the banks of Loch Lomond. Walking from Glasgow to Fort William is most typical with the Way rising day over day and becoming more and more wild as it approaches Fort William.
Notable hills include Conic Hill just before Balmaha, the Devil’s Staircase in Glencoe, the seemingly endless descent into Kinlochleven and the final mountain road descent into Fort William. Along the route are many historical ruins as well as mountain bothies for use by climbers and walkers.
The Way breaks down well into sections. Typically the choice is between 5 and 8 days. I chose to complete it over 6 days.
My stopping points with daily distances (kilometres/miles) were:
Day 1: Milngavie to Balmaha (Oak Tree Inn) – 32/20
A relatively simple start on footpaths, lanes and an old railway sees you to Drymen, your first town for resupply. Rising past Drymen the Way enters the Garadhban forest before eventually going over Conic Hill with fabulous views of Loch Lomond and Balmaha. I was fortunate to walk this entire section in brilliant sunshine and receive the rarest of things, a sunburn in Scotland!
Day 2: Balmaha to Inversnaid (Inversnaid Bunkhouse) – 22/14
This section closely follows the shore of Loch Lomond, the largest body of inland water in Britain. The roughest section of the way, this part climbs and descends numerous streams flowing down into the Loch and, on many occasions, employs bridges and ladders to traverse the rocky shoreline. This portion is within the no-camping zone on the Loch (other than designated campgrounds), a requirement caused by past overuse in the area. I had a strenuous rainy day ending in Inversnaid at the Inversnaid Hotel where I was picked up for the ride uphill to the Bunkhouse located in a converted church.
Day 3: Inversnaid to Crianlarich (Scottish Youth Hostel) – 21/13
Up and out in the rain again to walk the remaining portion of Loch Lomond over the same rough terrain as the previous day. The Way leaves the Loch at Inverarnan and climbs up the stunning Glen Falloch River with its many waterfalls and rapids then over a low pass to Crianlarich. The section is marked by many sheep and cattle farms and the classic and ever present highland stone walls which, in some instances stretch for many kilometers beside the way. The Scottish Youth Hostel in Crianlarich is downhill from the Way on a near four kilometre spur route. A well-equipped grocery store provided dinner to be cooked at the hostel as well as a few beverages pre-dinner.
Day 4: Crianlarich to Bridge of Orchy (Bridge of Orchy Hotel) – 21/13
In contrast to the previous two days, this portion was both rain free and generally easy going. The Way here winds over good paths and tracks through the valley running west from Crianlarich with a few ascents and descents and a welcome lunch break in Tyndrum at the Green Wellie Stop. Along the Way I explored the ruins of St. Fillan’s Chapel which was funded as a priory by Robert the Bruce in 1318 (after St. Fillan’s relics assisted him in his win over King Edward at Bannockburn in 1314) and which represented an important religious centre at the time. Past Tyndrum Robert the Bruce’s presence is felt again as the Battle of Dalrigh and the Legend of the Lost Sword are commemorated along the Way. I arrived at the Bridge of Orchy late afternoon and enjoyed their pub and then a gourmet meal in their restaurant. Camping is also available just over the Bridge near the river.
Day 5: Bridge of Orchy to Kinlochleven (Blackwater Hostel) – 34/21 + 5K!
I was up early for the long day over Rannoch Moor to Kinlochleven. As is common in most accommodation, packed lunches are available if ordered the night before. This section, and also the next ending in Fort William, lacks any amenities other than Kingshouse in Glencoe and so I opted for the two sandwich lunch and packed extra food. Using old military roads built in 1752 and little changed since then the Way rises up then dips down to Inveroran and a small snug Hotel right on the Way at a location it has held for over two centuries before rising again to the western edge of Rannoch Moor on the edge of Loch Tulla. With an early start and pursued by midges across the vast exposed reach of the Moor over 10 kilometres I reached Kingshouse under the watchful eye of the instantly recognizable mountain at the head of Glencoe, Buachaille Etive Mor (the Great Herdsmen). A steak and ale pie and a pint were my reward for a 19 km morning which put me within easy striking distance (or so I thought) of Kinlochleven.
From Kingshouse the Way works down the Glencoe Valley then bears west up and over the Devil’s Staircase, at 550 meters, the highest point on the Way. Approaching Kinlochleven you pass the Blackwater Hydroelectric Dam which powered the aluminum smelter in Kinlochleven vital to the British WW2 war effort. A seemingly endless downhill road walk from the dam into town (with Kinlochleven visible far away) became longer when the Way left the road but I didn’t. Several kilometres downhill I was forced to retrace my route back to where the trail diverted, adding 5 extra kilometres to an already 34 kilometre day. Thankfully I had booked at the Blackwater Hostel right on the Way and had secured one of their Micro lodges which were two bed barrel shaped accommodations complete with refrigerator, microwave, TV and kettle! I picked up dinner and cooked at the hostel and went to bed early after a long day.
Day 6: Kinlochleven to Fort William (West End Hotel) – 24/16
My final day saw more rain and a steady climb out of Kinlochleven over the Lairigmor and then another up and over Glen Nevis. The views of Ben Nevis were partially obscured by the increasing cloud accompanied by high winds. After another extremely steep dirt road descent and the approach to Fort William on public roads to the former end of the Way just before the town and then into town for the official end point, I posed for the classic end photo and then retreated to the West End Hotel to dry out and celebrate.
When estimating my day’s walk I found that my average speed broke down to slightly better than 4 kilometres per hour with most days walking ranging around 9-10 hours with breaks. The latitude of Scotland caused long summer days with the sun setting very late, permitting long trail days without worry of being caught out in the dark.
Getting to and from the Way
Glasgow is the usual arrival point by air with local trains running several times per hour from Glasgow’s Central and Queen Street train stations to Milngavie which is about 30 minutes away. If you arrive by air you can purchase a combined shuttle ticket to the train station and the Glasgow – Milngavie ticket at a discount from the machines in the airport. If you plan to travel in Scotland after your walk you can leave luggage at the airport or, for a more reasonable rate, at the Central train station. Milngavie is a full service town with accommodation and stores to purchase supplies including camping supplies such as cooking fuel. The West Highland Line has train stations near or on the Way up to the Bridge of Orchy (where it swings away and goes on to Fort William) which could be used for an abbreviated trip or in the event of an emergency enroute.
Accommodation and Baggage services
Users can choose to either camp along the Way or make use of a full range of accommodations. My original plan was to backpack and camp the route however, as a result of an accident shortly before the trip, I opted to carry only what was necessary to permit me to overnight in accommodations which ranged from hostels to hotels.
There are numerous baggage carrying services that will pick up your kit daily and drop it off for you at the end of the day, permitting you to travel light with only your lunch and waterproofs. I didn’t opt for this service and chose to carry my end of day clothing, a week worth of snack food and other essentials in a 25 litre day pack.
An official pocket companion is published each year which details all services along the Way from food and resupply, travel providers, baggage transfer, banking and accommodation.
Footwear: the Way is quite well groomed and, with resupply easily available enroute to lighten your load, heavy boots are not necessary in my opinion. It is likely that you will end up with wet feet due to the weather and the many wet spots and so foot wear that can dry more easily at the end of the day is preferable. I wore lightweight synthetic boots and, with judicious taping at the beginning of each day (Leukotape), I had no issues.
Trekking poles: in some parts, most notably on the shore of Loch Lomond and on the rocky up and downhill portions, trekking poles were invaluable. If you fly, be sure to put your poles in your checked luggage as there have been reported instances of poles not being permitted as carry on. I typically collapse them and wrap the sharp tips in duct tape for flights.
Waterproofs: it is the Highlands. It will rain at least once each day and, on one occasion, several times alternating with sunshine in a single hour. Combined in many instances with a bit of wind it pays to have a waterproof jacket in an outside pocket along with a brimmed hat (more on that when we get to midges!). I opted not to take waterproof pants as the temperature was warm enough to wear synthetic pants (in my case zip offs) which got wet then dried quickly. Between the midges and the cooler rainy days I only wore them as shorts on one of the six days. Be sure to have a pack cover also. All of the hotels and hostels I stayed in had drying rooms for gear which permitted at least a dry start to each day.
When originally planning my camping walk I looked at resupply options and decided to pack breakfasts and two dinners for 6 days and go heavy on the snack food. When I was forced to switch to roofed accommodation at night I dropped my cooking plan and went exclusively with purchased food other than a large bag of mixed energy bars and trail mix.
I found that there are sufficient places to purchase food along or just off the Way in all but the last portion from Kinlochleven to Fort William that, with a bit of planning, my original 2 dinner plan would have been sufficient. Using accommodation I was able to buy a big breakfast (a full Scottish breakfast is very substantial), in some cases buy a boxed lunch from the place I stayed and then eat my snack food as I went with dinner at my new accommodation at the end of the day.
I cooked twice in the kitchens at the hostels in Crianlarich and Kinlochleven by buying food at the local grocery store and in the other three hotels/bunkhouses I bought my dinner (and a beer or two at the pub!). The hotels and bunkhouses had full dinners to buy (Scottish smoked salmon starter along with haggis, neeps and tatties at the Oak Tree Inn in Balmaha is highly recommended!).
My schedule allowed me to eat a full lunch on two memorable occasions in Tyndrum at the Green Wellie Stop where I had a great bowl of Cullen Skink (smoked haddock soup)
and at Kingshouse in Glencoe where a pint and a steak and ale pie made a 35 km day much more enjoyable. Finally, carry cash as cash machines are infrequent and not all places accept credit cards especially for small purchases such as the stellar bacon butty and tea I had unexpectedly one morning at a small campsite canteen.
The Highland Midge (Culicoides impunctatus). Wikipedia notes that “They are generally regarded as pests”. I can attest to that. Single midges are nearly invisible at 1 millimeter which is this size → ● A swarm can inflict 3000 itchy bites in an hour from 40,000 landings. They are most vicious at dawn and dusk and on any low light intensity day that is overcast following a light rain – in effect, all of the time in the Highlands. The worst months are June – August. I used a combination of a bug net, brimmed hat, long sleeves and long pants and a few insect repellent wipes. Those I encountered who did not have protection seemed frantic and kept running away mid-sentence as the swarm descends when you stand still. My day crossing Rannoch Moor was the worst but the protection I had seemed to work. Smidgeup.com (Smidge is a local Scottish repellent) maintains an updated midge forecast website for those who favour a technical heads up.