Address: Milngavie to Fort William

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West Highland Way History

The West Highland Way is a long-distance footpath running from north Glasgow (Milngavie) to Fort William. It’s 96 miles long and runs through some of the most stunning Scottish scenery, with Loch Lomond and Glencoe giving some of the finest views.

The path was the idea of Tom Hunter, and after approval in 1974, the path opened in 1980. The path connects a number of existing routes which are military roads, old coach roads, paths and tracks.

Around 15,000 people a year complete the route, of which almost all do it south to north. This allows the more gentle gradients to be done early in the walk.

There’s a WHW running race that takes place each year and the fastest time recorded for the 96 miles is under 15 hours. The race starts at 1.00am from Milngavie town centre and starts on the Saturday that is nearest to the summer solstice. This minimises the time run in the dark.

 

West Highland Way Visit

These are details of a trip along the Path.

I prepared in May by having a couple of weekend mountain climbs and then at the beginning of June, started to check the weather to look for a good weekend. Conveniently, the time around June 21st had two good weather days and at this time of the year daylight could be maximised. I did a degree of homework which included getting a good one sheet route map. 

Leaving work on Thursday, it was a five hour drive to Milngavie, the start of the walk, and it was great to find that the railway station offers free parking with a large, well lit, CCTV covered car park. I parked there and booked into a local hotel. It’s important to note that if, as I did, you talk to people about Milne-gaa-vee or Milne-gay-vee, people will look blankly at you. The town is pronounced by locals as Mull guy.

My game plan, as I had done in previous long walks was to walk a full day on Friday, camp Friday night, another long walk on Saturday, then get public transport back to the start and drive home Saturday night or Sunday morning ready for work on Monday. The route is 96 miles long from Milngavie to Fort William and I reckoned to be able to do 60 miles in the two days, coming back another time to do the last 36 miles. I had a few reasons for doing it this way. The pure way of doing the walk is obviously in one go, but I had no compelling urge to do it this way, I just wanted to do it. Secondly, I wanted to photograph it, so again no need, in fact a second visit would increase the chance of good weather in latter stages. Thirdly, and probably the main reason, was that I knew that the last third would take me past Glencoe and, from driving through, I know what an incredible sight it is and I’d hate to be oblivious to it because my focus was on aching feet or back.

In planning the return journey, I’d checked the train times from Bridge of Orchy (60 mile mark) back to Glasgow on Saturday and after the 13.03pm train, the next and last one of the day was 18.58pm. This was then the target.

So on the Friday morning I got to Milngavie town centre to the starting point by 5.30am. From previous walks I believed that the quickest way of doing the route was to carry a tent and to pitch it at the furthest point down the route that I could get to that night. So off I set with a backpack.

With a pack, previous walks had seen me average just over two miles an hour, including food stops, so I’d planned the same, not knowing the terrain and climbs of the route. The excitement etc of the start always tends to produce quicker times at the beginning and I found myself covering the first 12 miles by 9.30am, getting to the main road by Drymen. This was the first time I’d checked my watch and I’d averaged three miles an hour. My mind now went into overdrive as it blew away the previously planned two miles an hour. It was a pace I felt comfortable with and could carry on all day. I started to do the sums. 5.30am start, 10.30pm finish, 17 hours, less one hour for food/breaks, 16 hours, 3 miles an hour, 48 miles. Now the route is ‘only’ 96 miles, so, in theory, it was within my radar in two days. And even if not, I’d only leave myself less than 10 miles to the finish on Sunday – this I could do in around 3 hours and with a 5.00am start, could be at Fort William railway station by 8.30am on Sunday. Simple!

Coming down into Balmaha at the 18 mile mark at 12.30pm, I’d just covered the previous 6 miles in 3 hours… back to 2 miles an hour and the Fort William in two days suddenly became fantasyland. At Balmaha you come down to the shore of Loch Lomond where there’s a pub with a great outside area and, most importantly, a small supermarket attached that sells pretty much everything you need – even blister plasters. I stayed for about half an hour. The section before Balmaha is quite spectacular. You close in on Loch Lomond, then take a sudden right turn away from it and circumnavigate the mountain of Conic Hill, with the loop around on the far side being not far from the summit (a five minute climb from the Path). It’s well worth taking the extra climb as it gives a great 360-degree view and a fantastic view of the lake from way up. The path down to Balmaha is very steep and takes you through a forest.

Moving on from Balmaha the next food/drink stop seemed to be at Rowardennan at around the 25 mile mark. After a 15 minute inland detour to try to find the place (through not paying close attention to the map) I got to the Rowardennan Hotel at 3.50pm. After food/drink and a decent break, I stayed until about 5.00pm. In carrying the pack, I’d obviously planned to camp, but along the Loch Lomond path there were signs saying ‘no camping’. I wasn’t sure of the alternative so hoped to be past the end of the loch by nightfall.

The path carries on by the side of the loch and gradually gains height as it enters a forest section with a well defined road/track and you can see the lake down below on your left through the trees. This forest track goes on and on, and gets boring to a degree. It’s good when it finishes as it comes to the lakeside before carrying on for a couple of miles to Inversnaid which is the site of a nice hotel. I think the major road is on the far side of the lake with a hotel boat service over, but there’s also a minor road by the hotel and there were cars and coaches in the car park. There’s a side door that says ‘walkers entrance’ and you can understand that they don’t want muddy walkers entering through the front door. Food and drink’s available and, mindful that it was around 8.00pm and I wasn’t sure where my next food and drink was coming from, I loaded up with various snacks and drinks. I started out 30 minutes later and knew if I was to reach Bridge of Orchy in time the next day, the next couple of hours were crucial as an extra mile or two into the evening could take the pressure off the next day. Along this stretch I noticed a sign saying the end of camping restrictions, so that was good as I could camp that night. I have to say at this time, my feet weren’t too bad but my shoulders were seriously sore.

The two mile an hour rule is fine – a bit more if flat and no stops, maybe less if hard uphill, but I’ve never encountered the type of path that was to come! The path continues alongside the loch, but there are many, many stretches where it’s a scramble over rocks and ‘path’ is the last thing you’d call it. It’s seriously slow also and when you’re trying to gobble up the miles, it sets you back. Around 10.00pm I started to think about camping at some point, but it was impossible. There were a few yards of sandy shore in places on the left, 45% slope on the right and continual up and over rocks ahead. Once this was over I could camp, but it went on and on! 10.15, 10.25, 10.35 still the same with no sign of changing, with this continual shoreline terrain seeming to have gone on for a couple of hours. At 10.40 I reached a bit of flat ground, but when trying to camp was surrounded by midges. I moved on for about five minutes more and things weren’t too bad so camped for the night. I was now around the 36 mile mark, which left 24 miles to Bridge of Orchy. This at two miles an hour would take 12 hours which, leaving at 5.30am, would get me in with an hour and a half to spare. Any thoughts of Fort William on this trip were out of the window as I’d need pretty much a full day on Sunday to get there, then need to get a train back to Milngavie, then home.

Up at 5.00am the next morning, I knew that the next place for food/drink was in Crianlarich which was 10 miles ahead. It was then a matter of stretching out supplies until then. 

In leaving Milnegavie the previous morning, I came across an early morning runner and this is the sort of thing you’re obviously not surprised at on trails. So after an hour or so on the second day I wasn’t shocked when a guy ran past me. I said as a joke “are you going the whole way” to which he replied “yes, it’s a race, there’s 200 of us, we left Milnegavie at 1.00am”. He was apparently the leader and a few minutes later a second guy passed me. It was good viewing watching these runners and I knew it would be interesting watching dozens more pass by. I was somewhere around the 38 mile mark so these guys had already run a marathon and a half and still had over two more to do! I then came into the Beinglas Farm campsite at Inverarnan and this was a race checkpoint and was also serious midge country with race marshals having midge masks on. There was a shop there, but it wasn’t open so I moved on. You go up the long road out of the site and carry on up over the hillside. Two guys running together passed me and then I heard a radio coming up behind. Another runner duly arrived and had the radio for company, which seemed a good idea as he had another 12 hours of running to do.

You eventually cross a road and go under a railway track and soon after that you see ahead of you a huge expanse of hillside with the path being sidehill but a reasonably level walk. You can probably see something like mile 44 to mile 46 in front of you with the main A82 road down on your right. Seeing the trail so clearly is quite comforting as you’re not trying to look for signs and arrows. You pass a farm down on your right at another mile point and the point that I could see in the distance (mile 46) was the point at which I could go to the shops.

I duly came to mile 46 and hoped there’d be a refreshments stall on the path (not sure of race rules), but there wasn’t. I was told it was about a 15 minute trip to the shops, which was a bit of a blow as 5 minutes would have been better. The second blow was that it was severely downhill and I knew that it was going to be hard going getting back up, certainly with the pack. It seemed to take a long time going down and I was aware of this cost in time/energy due to lack of preparation. But I had no choice as Tyndrum was the next stop and was six miles on. I got down to the village and bought drinks and food and sat down for about 10 minutes before going back up through the forest to the WHW path. The whole detour probably cost me 40 minutes, but was unavoidable.

I’d left the path at about 10.00am and now it was somewhere around 10.40am. I’d got 14 miles left to get to the railway station and just over 8 hours to do it in. The schedule was good. A comfortable two miles an hour including any stops, a contingency hour in hand at the end and another 20 minutes on top. I did have a Plan B though. The 18.58 train would leave Bridge of Orchy and go down to Glasgow via Tyndrum station, so at possibly around 19.20 I could have got the same train from Tyndrum. The implication of this would be that my dream one day trek from Bridge of Orchy to Fort William in shorts, tee shirt, suncream and no backpack would be thrown into disarray. So I pressed on.

When writing, it’s easy to gloss over the hardness of the task. It’s easy to say it was 6 miles to here, another 10 miles on from there, then after another 5 miles etc, but the reality was that each mile was a seriously hard chore, certainly with a pack.

Half way to Tyndrum another race checkpoint is at Auchtertyre and this is also a chalet/campsite. There’s a shop and toilets there so I took advantage before moving on again. On leaving the farm I had a chat with a race marshal and she asked me where I was going and what time I’d started etc. I told her and also mentioned that the heavy pack didn’t help. “We’ve got couriers to take those, why don’t you use them?” It was the first time that someone had questioned my tactics and they were spot on. My philosophy was that I didn’t want to be sitting in a hotel at 5.00pm when there was another five and a half hours of daylight that could push me another 12 miles down the route. But I’ve done enough walks to know my speed quite accurately, and thus book the right hotels, and the big factor would be that if I took off the pack, this would speed things up considerably and I could book a hotel much further down the line and have a shower, bed, clean clothes and food waiting. It’s a no brainer! my thanks to the lady marshal for pointing out the obvious!

Tyndrum comes a few miles later (at 52 miles) and you cross the main A82 road and go straight past a shop/supermarket and up a steep road. The shop is almost touching distance from the Path, which is ideal.  A  short detour down the main road at Tyndrum takes you to the ‘Green Welly’ which is a famous cafe/shop etc and is a well known stopping point for motorists.

By Tyndrum I had one bottle of drink left and 8 miles to Bridge of Orchy so I didn’t bother stopping. The latter part of the journey has a straight path in front of you for miles and you can see the main A82 road and the rail track running parallel below you on your left often about half a mile away. When walking along this stretch it must have been around 1.30pm and with about five or six miles to go, I was well in time for the 18.58 train. By now it was about 55 miles down the Path and the runners were obviously still coming past me, but they were more of the ‘normal’ runners, not the elite that passed me early in the morning. They were of all shapes, sizes and ages and it was great to watch the spectacle.

A few miles before Bridge of Orchy you come over a hill and can see Ben Nevis in the distance. It’s a great sight but you can see that it’s a long way away, nearly 40 miles.

For me, it was good to be finishing. My feet were quite sore and the pack was heavy. Earlier in the day I’d experimented by, in the centre of my chest, tying the two shoulder straps tightly together with my belt. This had the effect of taking much of the weight off my shoulders, but now, whatever I did, it still hurt. I dropped down to Bridge of Orchy, past the railway station and down the hill. That was it for me and as there was a nice hotel on the main road, it seemed a great place to wait for the train. It was now 3.30pm.

I had a couple of drinks and went to reception to check that the next (and last) Glasgow train did indeed go through at 18.58. Yes, they said, but you could get a bus – the next one is at 4.04pm – ideal! After a journey of a couple of hours, the bus driver dropped me off at the Anniesland stop which is in Glasgow, pointed out a railway sign 300 yards ahead. A short journey later the train terminated at Milngavie about 50 yards from my car. It was now about 18.30. This was useful as I could eat in the town and the five hour drive home would be at a sensible time, not at night time when it would be more tiring. 

It was a great two day trip, all I wanted, I’d made it to Orchy and left myself with the one day trek I’d planned…

…………

Resuming a couple of weeks later, I drove back up to Bridge of Orchy, this late on a Wednesday night. I stayed at the hotel and had the next day planned. I’d leave early, complete the walk to Fort William then get the train back to my car which was in the hotel car park, this not far from the station.

This final stretch needed a 35 mile walk and as the last trains from Fort William back to Bridge of Orchy left at 17.37 and 19.50, I knew I had to finish the walk by one of these times. I’d planned a swift walk with no backpack, but when reality kicked in and I realised what I needed to take with me, it seemed best to take one. When looking closely at the route, you realise that it’s a long way with very few refreshment points so there’s an obvious requirement to carry all you need and maybe a bit more. And if the weather’s poor, you need to be careful, plan well and take what’s needed.

Provision-wise, a couple of miles down the path from Bridge of Orchy there’s the Inveroran Hotel, but you then need to make it to the Glencoe ski resort for the next food/drink outlet which is 9 miles ahead.

In my pack was a hoodie, spare tee-shirt, spare hat, camera batteries, food, drinks, socks, plasters and a few other things. – basically essentials, but even with a small backpack it was a decent bit of weight, not the weightless journey I’d planned. The one good thing was that as the drinks were consumed, the weight went down.

I started the walk at 5.45am and had hoped for good weather, and in one respect I hit the jackpot. It was in the middle of a heatwave, but this added an extra challenge. From Bridge of Orchy, there’s a gradual climb which gains elevation and after passing the Inveroran Hotel I walked across the fairly level Rannoch Moor for about eight miles. The only people I saw were a couple of campers about 30 minutes from the ski resort as well as a number of tents earlier. In the heatwave it was ideal camping weather and the early morning was warm, but not too hot – there was even a pleasant breeze at one point.

I was acutely aware of my schedule. I had to make the train back to my car and had to do the trip in 12 hours for the earlier train or 14 hours for the later train. Could I do either?, I didn’t know, but knew I’d many times averaged just over 2 miles an hour walking all day with stops and a heavy pack, so if I cut stops down and with the lighter pack all should be fine.

I dropped down from the moor towards the ski resort. The irony here is that to get to the resort, you need to walk about half a mile off the route (and half a mile back again), whereas if you stay on the downhill path for a mile and a half more, you’re at the Kingshouse Hotel. This seems an extremely popular place for WHW walkers with many milling around as I arrived – both campers and hotel stayers. For reference, it was 9.40am when I arrived and 12 miles down the 35 mile route.

I’d averaged 3 miles an hour and I stopped to put plasters on as my feet were feeling a bit sore, but it was more of a precaution. Through doing previous walks I’d come across foot problems and this seems almost universal amongst walkers. Whilst many embrace the challenge of long walks, the inexperienced amongst them seem to find that they can cope with the endurance side of things, but their feet can suffer and this can be a shock. This, if they can carry on, can reduce the pace to a slow shuffle and the irony is that it lengthens the walk time which makes things even worse. It would be easy for fit people to sign up for long walks and be shocked at how their feet suffered. Blister plasters are a good fix.

Carrying on out of Kingshouse and you’re in classic Glencoe country. It’s bizarre, this place has given me goosebumps when I’ve seen the mist and gloom over the mountains in the past – is it the thought of the Glencoe Massacre centuries ago? I’m not sure, but this, for me, was to be the highlight of the whole WHW trip. As it turned out, whilst obviously scenic, during a heatwave it just became sun, grass and mountains and I passed through like I did along any other part of the route. I think a factor may be that, when driving up the A82 from the south east, you see miles of flat Rannoch Moor before these incredible mountains suddenly come into view as you turn a corner, thus giving a huge wow factor.

Three and a half miles past Kingshouse (the path being not far from the main A82 road) you veer off up ‘Devil’s Staircase’. This doesn’t look too bad on the map, but is very hard and, for me, comfortably the hardest part of the whole WHW route. When starting up, it was along a stretch of path wide enough for a single person. As I had a slow party of about twenty people in front, I took the opportunity to accelerate past them when given half a chance, almost running at times. This was moderately uphill over about 50 yards and, not realising it, emptied the tank. It was then brutally uphill and hurt from then on as I ground to a halt a couple of times. The great thing about getting to the top is that it’s mainly downhill over the next 5 miles to Kinlochleven, so not hard walking – you certainly gain the benefit of the steep climb here.

On the WHW route, Kinlochleven is a key place as it seems to be the last watering hole before the final 15 mile stretch. For my schedule, I’d listed the time I’d need to reach Kinlochleven to make the 17.37 train and the same for the 19.50 train. With both I’d put the contingency of an hour’s stop at Kinlochleven. For the first train I needed to get there by 12.15 and leave at 13.15 and as it was 13.03 when I arrived, and I realised that I was not far from an hour behind schedule of arrival, the earlier train became an impossible target and all focused on the second one.

Stopping at the supermarket I bought six drinks, an ice cream and a banana. I wasn’t hungry at all and still had untouched food in the bag. I had a stop of 25-30 minutes and changed socks and tee shirt. It was brutally hot. I saved four drinks and the banana for later and carried on. You have to be careful here. As mentioned, it’s the last watering hole and you have to take what you think you’ll need and in a heatwave you’re not sure how much. Two guys I passed soon after leaving Kinlochleven took water from a stream, so there is a contingency and you can probably find refuge sideways off the route if in trouble and have done your homework.

Coming out of Kinlochleven, there’s a short road section, then quite a testing hill climb, but the path then mercifully follows the valley and it’s great walking as you circumnavigate Ben Nevis, which is way up to your right. The trouble with the route map over these vast expanses is that there aren’t too many landmarks so it’s easy to be unsure of where you are and how far you have to go. Luckily there are path-side ruins with 11 miles to go and then the same with 10 miles to go, and these give a bearing. With ten to go the time was 15.15. Two and a half miles an hour would see me there with 35 minutes to spare, but I’d been pushing fairly hard in the heat and it wasn’t easy and wasn’t a certainty that I’d make it. You try to make out landmarks from the map coming in and these are often forest lines, but due to mass tree felling I couldn’t rely on them. My few stops were of a couple of minutes max and the last one was halfway up a hill with four to go. I didn’t realise it was the last hill and lay down as I was really feeling it. It was blisteringly hot and I don’t think sunstroke was a million miles away.

Moving on, I knew that I’d kept up a decent pace and was well in time. You get to the top of the aforementioned hill and join the forest road with three and a half to go and from this point it’s pretty much downhill all the way. This is merciful, but still isn’t easy as it’s still a fair way to go. After a certain time downhill, I asked a guy coming up how long to the Glen Nevis visitor centre, hoping he’d say 5 minutes, but he said 30 minutes. It was hot, I was tired and you try to initiate the conversation (and answer you want to hear) to raise spirits – but this tactic backfires when you hear the wrong answer! Eventually down to the road outside the Glen Nevis centre and I asked a couple of foreign lads to confirm it was the direction to Fort William. ‘Yes, straight ahead, but it’s a long way’… you don’t want to hear the second bit as you just want it to be over.

After a couple of roundabouts, I passed the Lochaber Sports Centre at 18.40 and, even though I was probably less than half a mile from the finish, I called in, got a drink and sat down in air conditioning. About 15 minutes later I cracked on, now up the High Street as I looked for Gordon Square. There are four squares on the High Street, they’re only small squares, almost recesses in the shop line, but Gordon Square was down the far end. It was 19.05 when I got there and I had 45 minutes until the train left. I walked back down the High Street and went into the Tesco supermarket near the station hoping to buy something to perk me up but bizarrely walked out with nothing. I think the only thing I wanted was ice. I lay down on the grass for 20 minutes, made my way to the station and got on a warm train, but I was out of the sun.

The train journey back was a slow 100 minutes, but this was a blessing as it allowed me to cool down and thus feel a bit better. Over the last few miles of the walk, I hadn’t craved a drink of any sort, be it fruity, plain water or a milky drink and certainly didn’t feel like food – I just swilled my mouth out with water and poured water over my head. Back at Bridge of Orchy, I had a couple of drinks at the bar, which I couldn’t have faced an hour or so previously. I felt OK, but the bizarre thing is that I didn’t want food. All I’d had since 5.30am was an ice cream and even the next morning I wasn’t particularly hungry. The scientific reasons behind not wanting food must be amazing and certainly go against all logical thinking.

What lessons did I learn? How would I have changed things?…doing it again from Bridge of Orchy, whilst knowing I could do it in a day, I wouldn’t aim to do it in longer. I think I’d carry the same pack, but put in three hours of stops, finishing at 10.00pm and staying the night in Fort William. The cooler last hours would be easier too. But whilst complaining of heat, it can’t be much fun in the cold weather or even worse, in wet weather. Plus, you’d have to carry more baggage, and it would be slower, muddy and could be more dangerous, so my conditions probably weren’t too bad.

Mileagewise, I did the whole route in mileage days of 36, 24, 36. I think a way I might consider if doing it again would be to Rowardennan (mile 24) on the first day, Tyndrum (mile 52) on the second day, Kingshouse Hotel (mile 72) on the third day and Fort William (mile 96) on the fourth day and take advantage of the luggage courier service. You stretch things out to suit, as long as you can find accommodation at the right points.

The above is sensible, but what I’d probably try to do is Inversnaid (mile 33), Inveroran Hotel (mile 62), then Fort William – three days which would be a challenge. This is all in theory for me though, as I’ve never done the trip in one go. A guy I passed with 10 miles to go was on his eighth day, but as it was in one go, he surpassed my efforts. Many others on the route ambled along, took their time and enjoyed it. A bonus of shorter walking days is that foot problems won’t be such a factor.

All in all, it’s a great route, easy to follow, stunning scenery and a chance to see the real Scotland. It’s also a great chance to meet others on the route and in hotels etc. I was told midges would be a problem, and camping, yes, they can be but when walking I don’t think I saw any midges apart from around Inverarnan, a place just past the north end of Loch Lomond. I took midge repellant, but I hardly used it.

The walk’s a different challenge for different people. Some may have the whole summer, as university students often do, and can take weeks if needed, others may need to take advantage of limited free time. Some may need to do it cheaply and camp, others may stay in hotels. Some may want to see and dwell at sights along the way, others may want to finish it quickly. Some do it in groups, others alone. My advice if travelling in a group is to ascertain the speed of the group and where you’d be in terms of fitness within the group. It can’t be much fun to continually have to wait or continually be told to speed up. You also need to look at obvious things like equipment needed/light available/weather forecast etc. It would be useful to talk to someone who has done it and it would be ideal to have back up support transport which, if travelling along the A82, would never be far from you.