From the start of planning for our Gap Year, we asked friends for suggestions and gave a lot of thought about which places we would visit. With the list of potential places quickly growing far longer than we could possibly visit in one year, we decided to focus on places that would meet our key goal for the year – i.e. “doing physical adventures while we still can” (and yes, for those who know me – that comes right before my line about “lucky to have 20 good years left!”).
With that goal in mind, and thanks to the suggestion of several friends (thank you Poppy & Jill!), we focused our Scotland travels on doing a week-long walk of the West Highland Way. The walk travels along a 96-mile path through a range of remote and rugged landscapes in southwest Scotland, walking north from the small town of Milngavie, just outside of Glasgow, to Fort William. While we appreciate the wide range of attractions in Scottish cities, towns, islands, museums, etc, we were drawn by the simple appeal of walking and immersing ourselves in the countryside in a way we couldn’t otherwise experience (and we figure we can always do that car/bus tour when we’re too old to walk!).
The West Highland Way (WHW) is one of several long-distance walks in Scotland (another country of “walkers”!), and while relatively new, being formally opened in 1980, it was built on several old paths, including those of cattle “drovers” who brought their cattle from the north to sell in Glasgow at better prices, as well as several old military roads. As with many of our other adventures to date this year, we set out hoping to see the countryside “up close”, learn more about the local culture, and meet people along the way – and we weren’t disappointed.
In exchange for some admittedly sore feet along the way, we were rewarded with weather that was uncharacteristically rain-free (and even included several sunny days – a rarity in the Scottish highlands!), beautiful and daily changing scenery, great food, and extraordinarily friendly people -both locals and fellow hikers. References say that somewhere between 15 -30,000 people hike the WHW each year, and while October may have been a lighter month than some (May apparently is the most popular month), the path was far from crowded and we were delighted to quickly start to recognize a set of 10-20 fellow hikers that we variable met, walked with, “leapfrogged” along the trail, and/or otherwise got to know during the walk, including Scots, Australians, Brits, Germans, and even a few Americans.
Since this was the longest continuous walking trip that Lee & I had ever attempted, we weren’t shy about signing up for a luggage service to transport our bags each night (best £40 we ever spent!), and arranged to stay at small inns along the way (we might have 20 good years left, but already feel too old for that camping stuff). With those details in place, we laced up our hiking books, strapped on our day packs, and started out from the small town of Milngavie for the first 12 miles of the walk. Luckily, the first day was an easy walk, wandering through the outskirts of Milngavie, and into the opening Scottish countryside…
…including the occasional “Honesty Box” where we hungry walkers could buy water & locally made snacks, and even some unique characters in traditional Scottish hiking garb!
The day’s hike was rewarded with a wonderful lunch (and dinner) at the Clachan Inn, Scotland’s oldest pub, in the charming town of Drymen before settling in at our first B&B for the night.
Along the way, we were struck by occasional signs (quite literally) reflecting the British command of the language and/or their classic dry sense of humor (and just in case you were wondering, “subsidence” apparently means ground that is settling).
Days 2 & 3 brought us up Conic Hill, the first sizable climb of the walk, and our first views of Loch Lomond, stretching long into the distance.
After a stay in a beautiful and surprisingly comfortable youth hostel in Rowardennan, perched on the shore of Loch Lomond,
… we continued through the Trossachs National Park to the lakefront town of Balmaha (with requisite mid-day stop for coffee and cake!)…
… and continued by maneuvering over the rocky lakeside path (including the cave of Scottish outlaw legend Rob Roy), through conifer forests and past one of the famed “bothys” (rough stone cottages available for shelter)…
… to the tiny town of Inverarnan and the classic Drovers Inn.
From Inverarnan, the countryside continued to open as we headed through rolling hills, over streams, and past ancient stone walls.
… reaching the small town of Tyndrum.
Day 5 brought our longest day of hiking (18 miles!). Miraculously, the weather continued to hold out, giving us beautiful views crossing streams, heather-filled meadows, and crossing the Bridge of Orchy…
… leading into Rannoch Moor, with wide open views of the highlands rising up in Glencoe…
… including a set of paragliders taking advantage of the unusually good weather to ride the thermals.
With limited options for accommodations in this remote area, we were lucky to secure a spot at the Glencoe Mtn Resort (OK, the “resort” part might be pushing it a bit), spending the night and resting our sore feet in a cozy “microlodge” there.
D6 dawned again with sunshine, and included another good climb up Devil’s Staircase, leading us up and over the countryside into the tiny town of Kinlochleven (on the banks of Loch Leven, of course!), including a stunning sunset.
As with many of our walks, we were pleased to catch sight of the local fauna (including a few wild long-horned goats!)…
and fauna, including heather, foxglove, and the classic thistle flowers that mark the WHW signs along the way.
Our final day brought even more sunshine (we may officially have broken a Scottish record on this one!) with views of Ben Nevis…
… leading back out of the highlands…
…and, finally, the walk down into the town of Fort William, to the famed “Sore Feet” statue that marks the end of the West Highland Way (and of course more ice cream) .
After a week of steady walking in this extraordinary place, we celebrated over dinner with six of our fellow hikers, an inspiring Australian couple (Chris and Pete) who have done walking adventures all over the world, as well as the Shindells, an amazing American family of four who have decided to there is no better way to learn about the world than to travel it (see their incredible story at https://shindellsfourtogo.com/).
The dinner conversation was so interesting that I unfortunately forgot to capture a photo that night, but once again, we were left with overwhelming gratitude for the opportunity to have had this adventure, and competing memories of wonderful people and places – not soon to be forgotten!
But for now… it’s time to trade in our hiking poles for bicycles – off to Ireland for a week of biking!