What possessed us to embark on a 100 mile hike through the Scottish Highlands? I would say that I didn’t know, but the truth is, I know exactly why. Last September, Jeff and I took a weekend trip to Edinburgh. On one of those days, we boarded a tour bus that took us through the Highlands, and what we learned was you cannot appreciate the majesty of the glens and lochs in just 12 snooze-inducing hours in a non-stop bus.
Right then, we decided we had to come back and see the Highlands properly, and what better way than the West Highland Way?
But we are novices when it comes to hiking and long-distance walks, so we made the decision to stay in bed and breakfasts and hotels along the way. Camping may come in the future, but not for our maiden voyage. Not camping does mean it is imperative to book accommodations way in advance. The West Highland Way is a very popular route between May and September, so many places will be booked up months in advance.
For our trip the first week of May, we started booking hotels in mid-February, but I would recommend starting a bit earlier since we had difficulty in a couple of the towns. But before I get into that, I’m going to lay out briefly what we did so you can follow along in the coming posts.
- Day 1: Milngavie to Drymen 13.51 miles (419m elevation; 307m descent)
- Day 2: Drymen to Rowardennan 15.28 miles (665m elevation; 815m descent)
- Day 3: Rowardennan to Crianlarich 21.75 miles (1305m elevation; 844m descent)
- Day 4: Crianlarich to Tyndrum 7.62 miles (431m elevation; 571m descent)
- Day 5: Tyndrum to Kingshouse 18.85 miles (511m elevation; 434m descent)
- Day 6: Kingshouse to Kinlochleven 8.70 miles (423m elevation; 659m descent)
- Day 7: Kinlochleven to Fort William 15.76 miles (735m elevation; 737m descent)
We chose to cover the ground in 7 days (instead of the more ambitious 5) because we wanted to make sure and enjoy our trip and not hate every second on the hills. We met a lot of people doing the walk in 7 days, but 5, 6 and 8 day routes were also popular in our research.
Day 1: Milngavie ( mul-guye) to Drymen ( drih-men)
We stayed the night in Glasgow because we had a late flight from London, but in retrospect, I would recommend finding a hotel or B&B in Milngavie so you can start immediately. Glasgow is only about 15 miles from the WHW start, but without the hassle of trains, buses, or cars, it makes for a smoother beginning.
Ever impatient, instead of waiting for a train or bus to take us to Milngavie from Glasgow, we booked an Uber, which wound up costing £16, but saved us the stress of public transport.
As we got out of the car, rain started to fall as we found the stone pillar in the center of the sleepy town marking the beginning of our journey. After adjusting our walking poles and bags, we knew it was now or never. We officially started at 8:42am and had 13.5 miles to go.
Note: our times and distances are based on our hotels and B&Bs. We did not use our watches only on the trail but for every footstep, so your distances may differ slightly depending on camping/hotel arrangements.
The trail began behind some industrial warehouses, but with the rain gently falling through the surrounding trees and a lovely brook flowing along the path, it was still beautiful and relaxing. As we looked around us, we noticed there were very few other walkers on the path. We wondered if we were starting late, early, or even on the right trail. With all signs pointing in the WHW direction, we shrugged and just continued on in our coveted solitude.
We only learned later that evening that most walkers had started the day before. Our walk began on a Sunday, so unbeknownst to us, the majority of the traffic was a day ahead of us. We did not plan it that way intentionally, but after hearing of traffic jams at the fences and gates, I am relieved we did that.
About halfway to Drymen is the Glengoyne Distillery. Only in Scotland do you stumble upon a whisky distillery during a nature walk. So to get out of the rain and kill an hour, we took the Whisky and Chocolate tour (we needed the calories!). It was a very simple tour, but our tour guide, Gavin, was a joy to listen to. He walked us through the gorgeous grounds with a pond and waterfall walk, and through the barrel rooms detailing the whisky-making process.
Opened originally in 1833, the Glengoyne Distillery is incredibly unique in its location. It technically produces “Highland” scotch, but it is matured in the “Lowlands.” How is this possible? Easy; the highway that passes through the distillery is the official Highland Line or fault line. Glengoyne’s stills are in the “Highlands” or right side of the road while the maturing casks are just across the street in the “Lowlands.” Therefore, they are taxed differently on their business, which I found amusing.
We did learn a couple of things about whisky making that we hadn’t heard before. The massive barrels that generate the wort (the sweet infusion of malt or barley made for fermentation) have no knots or holes because they use Oregon Pine trees which evidently do not have branches for the bottom 5 meters of the tree. It never dawned on us that branches form knots in wood which would eventually create a leak.
The other claim to Glengoyne’s fame is they have the slowest distilling process (by only a minute). I’m not exactly sure what that means in terms of the quality or taste of their whisky, but it must be good since it is the official whisky for the House of Lords. Also, thankfully for us, Glengoyne does not use peat leaving a lovely light and crisp taste to their products.
After going through the grounds, we had our artisan milk and dark chocolate paired with a 12, 15 (our favorite) and 21 year old bottle before starting the walk again. It took the edge off our anxiety for the morning, and we were certainly warmed a bit against the cold outside air. The rain stopped, and we made our way just about one mile down the path to the Beech Tree Inn Restaurant. We felt so lucky to have such perfect stops along our first day’s journey, but knew these establishments and pit-stops would be few and far between as our journey continued.
Something that I will talk about in a later post is how gluten-free friendly Scotland is. At this picnic-style restaurant and petting zoo of sorts, there was a full array of options for the stomach-challenged. It certainly made the entire week a lot easier. But we had a walk to complete and rain to race, so we tucked in and finished day one in Drymen where torrential rain swept through nonstop from about 10pm until 9am the next morning.
We arrived at Lander B&B in the heart of the city at 4pm. Frances was a wonderful hostess with a gorgeous garden, fun personality, and a perfect breakfast, but the room we stayed in had a tin roof. It was a perfect guest room, but with sheets of rain and brutal winds sweeping through the town, we barely got a wink of sleep.
A quick note about Drymen: there are three restaurants in town and all of them were slammed. Yes, it was a three-day weekend and the dinner hour on a Sunday night when we strolled in, but exhausted from the hike and dirty from the rain and humidity, we were in no condition to wait an hour for a table. If making the same journey, try to have the forethought of reservations or do like we did and grab a small dinner and snacks from the Spar convenience store.
Our journey continues to Rowardennan where we climbed Conic Hill in hail, started our tour of Loch Lomond, and ended in a youth hostel. Stay tuned.
Helpful Links for the West Highland Way:
- The Official Site for the West Highland Way
- Glengoyne Distillery
- The Beech Tree Inn Restaurant
- Lander B&B in Drymen
- The Drymen Inn Restaurant (with gluten-free options)
- Travel-Lite Baggage Service for WHW