The trail from Bridge of Orchy to the Pass of Clen Coe is one day’s journey on the Scottish West Highland Way – the 96-mile trail starting in Milngavie and ending in Fort William.
It is – by far – one the most magnificent parts of the journey (don’t judge! It includes a moor and the mountains, what else would one ever need?!) and gives you just a glimpse of one of the last wildernesses in Europe.
When K and I walked the West Highland Way in October 2015 (check the archives for stories from that time), the Rannoch Moor part of the journey turned out to be a rare stretch without full sunshine.
I’ve read descriptions of people getting lost in the rain or crossing the moor in scorching heat, so getting an opportunity to cross it in another season and specially in March, was a chance not to be missed.
Why is it wonderful to cross the Rannoch Moor in March?
1. It is is quiet.
At first, you can guess the traffic sounds in the background, but as you get further into the moor you’ll start finding pockets of silence where only a littil bird of a flowing river is adding their notes to the ambiance.
Silence, just like the feeling of real fear, has become rare in 2016. (Disclaimer: I wrote this text before the EU referendum.) But only one of them is a luxury we should stretch after. And nature, even moor nature, is definitely quieter in March than later on in the year.
2. You can get very lucky with the weather.
Locals have said that the Highlands tend to get a fair weather spell around Easter. Whether it was due to the early Easter this year or just a lucky chance, the day became fit for a T-shirt.
(The same weather stretch magic applies to early October – I’ve heard it from the locals and tested it myself.)
3.You can have the moor to yourself.
The usual West Highland Way crowds start appearing from April onwards. In March, you can still feel like walking in remote parts of Alaska in here, literally meeting no one the entire way.
4. A chance to taste all the seasons.
If you can’t return to Rannoch in every couple of months, March will be a wonderful time to see snow either on the ground or on the mountain tops.
Yes. It is wonderful to try to escape the moor when being annoyed to oblivion by midges in summer and to see it cloud-covered in autumn, but if you don’t have proper winter clothes to wear, March can still give you a little taste of the winter season as well.
5. No. Midges.
Just like during the first days of Paradise.
6. Flexibility with hotels.
The hotels at the start and end of your journey are less likely to be fully booked. And if your destination is set around Glen Coe, you can start off from the Bridge of Orchy Hotel (meaning that you can fuel yourself by one of their glorious breakfasts). Mmm.
7. You can hear that bird!
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, relish in your luck. (Ok, I’ve also heard that bird in October. Sue me and leave me alone next to a solitary birch tree!)
Walking down from the moor (location pictured below) to be greeted by a sudden, invisible mock-laughter is just one of those reasons to go and wander around in this wilderness that Europe still holds.
I will not look that bird up. Something that sounds freeing and demonic at the same time should remain a mystery.
And this is just a short list of reasons to return to Scotland as often as possible. ❤
DAY 7, from Kinlochleven to Fort William, 28,2 km.
When shopping for lunch snacks in the morning we noticed the food shop selling… cherry pie. (Check the last sentence from the post titled West Highland Way: 3/4.) It was time to get moving, fast.
The feeling of aberrantly romantic forlornness left me only after I had looked up at a tree and seen animal skulls and bicycle cogs formed into an art piece. You know, to send walkers out on the last day of their journey.
Both the atmosphere and the landscape of the first part of Day 7 were shaped by fir trees. For a long time, we walked between hills and mountains covered in ash white tree stumps, giving the sizeable bit of our journey the feel of crossing an ancient cemetery. Looking ahead, you could see a carpet of skulls covering the mountain sides in both directions. Only an hour or two later did this type of scenery get replaced by living fir trees: first with very fat, then with very tall ones, both of them bringing about changes in the air temperature around them. And then – we caught our first glimpse of Ben Nevis.
For the rest of the way, I was walking with an idiot’s grin on my face. (There was still quite a way to go, mind.) Ben was there and tomorrow’s forecast was close to an ideal. Apparently, the top of Ben Nevis is cloud-free in one day out of six and today turned out to be the day. (With only some hours, though, not in full length.) When getting closer to the highest mountain in the United Kingdom and the British Isles, our path converged with the old military road again. These roads are the greatest (oh, they really are!) – they always meander under the most magnificent of trees.
After having crossed the last river of our walk and having climbed up a tiny hill, I saw him! A troll warrior with wild ginger hair throwing logs into his van!
I did check with K later and she confirmed my mythological sighting: there had indeed been a sturdy (almost gnarly) man with more than a foot long red beard lifting heavy logs. Oh, I forgot to mention: all his beard hair was magnificently braided. This is when I knew for sure.
I had seen much more than I ever planned for this journey.
Fort William came into our sight very suddenly. I was hoping for it to be some other settlement, although I already knew. The heavy feel of truth was settling in in my belly.
Soon we were next to a bigger road, then already walking across Cow Hill and directing our steps to that old bit of town which now holds the new end to the West Highland Way. There was no obelisk. There was a sign, though. We took a picture of it and a moment later, found ourselves in a pub with a huge wolf-like white dog embellishing the cosy décor with its best canine looks.
We had done it. And although the ending had indeed come very suddenly, it was a little bit welcomed as well. Not much, but a little.
The biggest thing I learned? Seven days is a ridiculously short time for a long-distance walk. You actually get into the walking mode during your fifth day or so, so what you really really get, is three days of walking.
Walking these 156 km/96 miles taught me that I could set my sights on much longer and harder walks if I wanted to. And for that, I need to brush up on my navigation skills. Because I do want to.
DAY 8, taking the Mountain Track up Ben Nevis (16.5 km)
Tongues of mists were hopping and slithering around the fir tree tops around our bunkhouse when I woke up. Noticing them caused my second outburst of joy that morning. The first one was brought on by the realization of being able to wear a clean bra after 8 days. (You thought it was going to be mountain related, weren’t you?)
I thought about the fogs and the clouds and the mists on my way up the mountain. All of them are part of nature’s philosophy books. Just like philosophy, they make you realise there are many other people out there who feel, think and live like you. But they (the fog, the clouds, the mists) bring that realisation to fore when stepping away from you. It’s the other way around with philosophy. But now we are only talking about directions.
The Mountain Track was a satisfying and easy way up Ben Nevis. Mind you, the weather was adorable. Being able to quench my thirst straight from a cold mountain stream also stopped me blaming myself for not having taken any cold water with me. (I only had hot black tea.) For five seconds, a tiny rainbow also formed on the mountain side I was walking on. And as a proper Finno-Ugric wanderer, I counted that to be an outstandingly good omen.
The entire way up was a pleasant walk with a couple of calf-caressing stops. During one of these I noticed a man straight out of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting sitting on a steep mountain side and drawing something (a dream, a vision?) into his sketchbook. Scotland truly is full of legendary creatures.
On the very top, I met our German for the very last time (with me screaming into the cloud at the top of my lungs: “I knew it! I knew it would happen!”), and looked into a crevice that still held some of last year’s snow. That sight reminded me of a location from a Soviet children’s film. Go figure.
Once or twice, the sun came out very briefly. Well, the sun did not come out, the wind tore a hole into the cloud. Suddenly I was able to see many people again. People and contours. And get a sense of the elevation.
I started on my way back quite soon and descended the first 100 meters or so with a little help from the cairns. Even with my nose getting redder with the lower temperatures near the top, it was still quite romantic.
I was also very glad of my clouds. OK, I meant to write “gloves”. I was very glad of both. (And of the fact that I could drink from the mountain stream once more on my way down.)
As on my way up, I kept wishing people “good morning” also on my way down – until one of the men brought my attention to the fact that it was not morning any more. I thanked him. He saved me from a lot of possible embarrassment.
It took me 6 hours and 15 min to walk up and down Ben Nevis.
The mountain was still shaped like a sleeping dragon. You could see that when approaching it, but you could almost feel it when walking on it. Most people call it a mountain down in the south, still.
Every time when I go for a walk, I wake up as a dog on that day.
I usually open my eyes a little after 6 am and a friendly voice starts the disco mantra of “Can we go now, can we go now?!” in my head. Until we finally do.
We took a bus from our hotel to Kingshouse. Our plan had worked! So far, we had been walking every inch of the way. Oh! And the local transport routes in here are nearly as ridiculous as the Snowdonian ones. I know that driving a bus is never a hassle-free job, but these routes must be amongst some of the most relaxing ones in the world. (In good weather, I point out.)
Day 6 was all about walking the Devil’s Staircase and getting ourselves to Kinlochleven as a result. (The internet was right. People had described Kinlochleven as a town that does not get closer when you approach it. As exact a description as there ever was.) You can see Kinlochleven for more times than you can count, but it will always remain there, silently signalling your arrival, almost as if it’s not caring. You just walk and foolishly put on and peel off your rainproofs many times in one go without even seeing proper rain. And yes, during all that time, Kinlochleven is still waiting.
Devil’s Staircase, the path across the Aonach Eagach ridge, is special. It is the childhood playground of clouds. I’m guessing this is the place whence they go into the world to bring awe and new ways to look at things to all people. The clouds are alive on the Aonach Eagach ridge. Their games are innocent, whimsical and intolerably pretty. And up here, I finally (and I *mean* finally) understood why I have never been drawn to the Alps. (I’ve been drawn to all other mountains as long as I can remember, but never once to the Alps. I do find that suspicious, by the way.) I’m not claiming that it is the legally acceptable answer, but for me, the Alps are not alive with any sort of mythological life. I look at them and I see beautiful mountains, there to be admired and climbed by all levels of outdoor lovers, enthusiasts and all types of locals. But you are not coming home with an invisible friend from them, no.
With the beginning of our descent, the sun came out again in its absolute splendour. (Of course, by that time we both knew Scotland consisted of nothing else but the sun, shh!) I was taking many pictures and was often so entranced by my surroundings that I found myself standing in various creeks. It is dangerous not look at your feet when walking down a mountain and walking into creeks is the most innocent lesson you can learn.
It did happen, eventually. We did reach Kinlochleven. It was a small mountain town (a village, technically) with the sound of gushing water prevalent in the darkness (the village is home to one of UK’s largest hydro-electric power stations). Kinlochleven held all the crucial shops and all the necessary places to eat. There were at least two pubs and also a brightly lit fish and chips shop that held an outline of one dark silhouette in its neon midst.
There was aluminium industry in here too, once, but now Kinlocheleven lives more of a quiet life. (Except for the gushing water, of course.) After arriving, we soon headed to the pub for some dinner of soup and ale. The streets where empty but you could feel life surrounding you behind every wall in the darkness; maybe smiling, maybe just keeping an eye on you.
Never in my life had I been in a place that felt more like Twin Peaks.
DAY 5, from Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy + from Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse, 30 km
Our original plan was to make Day 5 a short and Day 6 a long one (around 36 km). The frantic weather forecasts made us lose interest in the horizontal scenery and focus more on the skies instead.
We got to Bridge of Orchy around noon. Yet it hardly felt like having left the bed at all. Doing a 12 km walk and trying to call it a day actually makes you rather anxious. Your body gets confused and tells you to keep moving or something strange and unexpected shall follow. And so you become more restless with each person passing. We saw the German guy (with whom our road had crossed a couple of times already) reaching Bridge of Orchy and taking off with his ankle having gained a bit of support from our day-saving ibuprofen gel. We saw people coming from our morning direction, crossing the road and heading towards Kingshouse, straight up the tiny hill behind our hotel. K was drinking coffee at the hotel bar and we were both feeling horrible at having to stay put. We had known it was going to be a short day, but not this short, not really. Also, there was no sign of the promised downpour. The weather report was actually changing now. Now it merely promised rain and wind.
And this got us thinking. Should we try to get a room at Kinghouse tomorrow and postpone everything in our itinerary by one day? We did have an extra day counted in at the end. (That clever, eh?) Or, should we take half of the journey by bus tomorrow and… come back some other time and finish the unwalked bit? I can’t fully remember the reason behind our reasonings but there must have been a very bad weather report, that’s all I’m saying. Also, K’s toe(s) were getting quite aggressively painful by that time, so we were a bit concerned about the 36 km day ahead. I then called the Kinghouse hotel and learnt that they did have the last vacant room left, but only that one and only for today. That would have meant an extra £170.- for our trip, since Kingshouse is not a budget hotel and our room at Bridge of Orchy could not be cancelled without paying the entire fee.
We sat in the the small bar and looked out of the window only to see more backpackers pass. We thought. I was crunching numbers in my head. Technically, it would be doable. But would it be reasonable? Promising to myself that yes, there will be a thing I’ll do differently on my next long distance trek – I’ll make sure I’ll have proper emergency reserves for changing my mind and itineraries on the go without having to take a thinking break. Yes, extra reserves and a razor, the two things I’ll take along when stepping out of the door again.
Then, she fucking did it! K figured out how we could walk the entire way without giving our budget a spastic fit → we could start walking right now, crossing the Rannoch moor today, still reach Kingshouse in daylight and then take a bus back to our hotel. All we needed to do tomorrow, would be to take a bus from our hotel to Kinghouse and then continue our journey from there, thus making tomorrow’s distance half shorter as well.
All the happy bells were ringing in my head!
I ran to the reception to ask for local bus times. The bus schedules fit in with our plans with near-eerie perfection. We jumped up from our table, counting the blessings from the couple sitting next to us and looking a bit worried. They asked whether we had enough lunch on us to run off to the moor. With the crazy haze in our eyes, we shouted “Yes, of course!”, to which I ran to the hotel bar to buy some carrot cake and then, having luckily gotten the key to our room hours earlier, dashed upstairs to re-pack. Now, we could only take the rainproofs and some food items we would need for a half a day.
This is the moment when you have a look at you and your friend and think who are these people who, upon hearing that gales have been downgraded to wind and rain, throw candies into their backpacks and rush out to the moor. Suddenly we had become children going out into the forest for the first time – lunching on cake, candy, cookies and chocolate.
The magnificent Rannoch moor was a moor surrounded by mountains. Being a flat-land creature in my days of youth, these things still come as a surprise. A moor between mountains! A moor where you step over heather roots and look at the clouds play with the hill tops around you – a very different sight from the marshlands where the marsh pines are the tallest beings surrounding you. (I come from the North, I’m allowed to call trees “beings”, ok?)
We walked the second half our day very quickly, reaching Kingshouse already around five in the afternoon. Upon nearing our destination, the craggy Buachaille Etive Mòr came into sight. While it was mostly covered by cloud in the rapidly falling daylight, it had everything I had expected to see without having known of it existing. This is how you recognise a dream having come true.
Slowly, my whispers turned into a mantra of “I’m coming back here, I’m coming back for you, I’m coming back to you”. I am walking the West Highland Way for the joy of walking and not for gathering locations for secret parties in the future, but I’m definitely taking my lover here next spring, oh god, yes. Because today was the day when I fell in love with a new mountain.
At the end of the day, we did not even have to take a bus back. We got a lift from a Dutch extreme survival instructor who was just returning from his four-day trip to the forest without having taken any food with him. He had survived on mussels and fish. He looked very untroubled.
We are living the times where all places and moments are beautiful.
There were times when the parents of my friends forbade them to play with me when I was five. The same happened when I turned seven. And when I was basking in my official teenage years. All these parents shared a common fear – the fear of me taking their children to the forest. That fear was not based on a random flight of imagination, however. I did take everyone to the forest with me. I made them spend nights there. And build houses and rafts with me. Sometimes, we all fell into the bog water together or forgot which bridges were fake and slipped into the peaty rivers. There was no reason for those mothers to be worried. We were always having fun.
So, I was very glad when one of my best friends, K., nodded along to my plan to walk the 96-mile long West Highland Way early this October. (Even when her parents had known me for a long time already.)
We decided not to carry a tent (I don’t own a lightweight one, yet) and to sleep in hostels, hotels, bunk houses and camping pods. My 35L backpack got a tear next to one of its zippers already on a train to Glasgow. Otherwise, nothing else broke or needed mending during our journey. Except for K’s toe. It also did not break but did cause noticeable foot-related harm after having been introduced to a rock through an intense encounter.
My backpack held the following:
– a sleeping bag
– 3 pairs of socks + underwear
– 3 tops
– light trousers for sleeping
– an extra fleece
– blister plasters + a tiny first aid kit + a tiny personal hygiene kit
– a travel towel
– a thermos and a bit of instant coffee
– a map, a compass
– a walking diary, a pen and a mascara (yes)
DAY 1, Milngavie to Drymen: 22.5 km
Day 1 started brilliantly: in the foggy Glasgow where we missed our planned train to Milngavie. All good, though, since those trains are very regular. Milngavie also welcomed us shrouded in the fog and gave me enough time to go and buy some gaffer tape from Poundstrecher. We were ready to get going.
Most of the day took us on a very straightforward course. Both emotionally and path-wise. This was a cute part of the way that has also been the quickest to slip from my memory. (No disrespect to the road.) We walked on wide paths with houses or bigger roads nearly always in sight. However, this did turn out to be the only day when we actually deviated from our path. For a little while, we trotted along the John Muir way instead and ended up walking on a high and narrow bridge across a wide river as an award. One should never underestimate the Way of the Civilized. The Way of the Civilized can make you lose focus.
Searching for the hotel in the falling daylight without an access to the map – not exactly knowing where you sleep for the night – is the feeling I can’t get enough of. This is how I remember Drymen – a place with all the options open. (The sign of true freedom, ha-ha!) We had been promised a bed in a hotel lobby, that was all we knew. Yet, at the end of the evening, the lovely Frances from the Kip in the Kirk actually put us in a real room. What more could one ask for?! Well, home-made scones, perhaps. But she had those covered as well. All we had to do then, was to enjoy our warm showers and admire our sun-burnt shoulders from the day. (Yes.)
Day 1 of the way was a sweet day. It also came with a honesty box for ice cream on the road, an edible metaphor for the hungry.
DAY 2, Drymen to Rowardennan: 22.5 km
One of my favourite things about travelling is starting walking in the morning when having received directions from someone else. This is how our morning started, and as a firm believer in travelling omens, I took it to be a good day at that very second. I also know that I wouldn’t actually mind just walking, walking, walking towards the hedge at the end of the world (I mean, the road), only to figure out whether that direction had been correct a little later. The freedom to step into the morning fog is indeed even sweeter than the fudge bars left for the sugar-deprived travellers.
Day 2 turned into another day of scorching sun. (I guess no one would believe that we had travelled to Scotland if there weren’t for the pictures.) After having walked through all our morning mists we set our course towards Conic Hill, under which we met an English French horn player now working in Germany. He was the first official walker we met on the road. We never learnt his name, as was the case with literally all the people we met and talked to. We only learnt where they had walked from and what were their plans for the coming day. (Sometimes, life is just poetic.) He was one of those people, though. You know, the munro baggers. He didn’t even have to mention it, he had that glint in his eyes. One can tell. (He was meeting his daughter somewhere down the road, so he was going to the meeting point across the munros. Of course.)
Just for the record, I’d like to point out that sitting on top of the Conic Hill in October has been the least windy hill top experience of my entire life. And also one of the sunniest. This has left me with a conspiracy suspicion about Scotland actually being a sunny place and the local councils spreading stories of the opposite to keep the eager masses out. You know, those people who are only willing to walk in the sunshine. People very different from us, of course.
The second half of the day was spent walking parallel to the shore of Loch Lomond. And we did it while walking in the sun, making friends with the birds, gasping at the lake. K did take off her boots and tested the water. She had her swimming clothes on her and she was not afraid to use them! But since our next stopping point (=accommodation) was quite a while away, she decided against walking into the fresh waters of the Great Britain’s largest inland water body.
I don’t have any memories of the dinner we ate in Rowardennan. Maybe we survived on the mist.
DAY 3, Rowardennan to Inverarnan: 22 km
I remember the morning as a state of awe at the completely placid Loch Lomond. The scenery looked like something out of mythological Japan, with the old pier posts standing sentinel in the water and the mists consolingly crawling around the crooked pines. I also remember this day as the first one of the West Highland Way when I really started tapping into the joy of our walk. A lot of this day’s path was bordered with walking pole piercings and mountain bike lines in the mud, remnants of the all travellers who already had passed by. All those patterns were definitely filled with joy as well. The path was also getting slightly steeper and more interesting as it sloped between large oak trees and slightly smaller boulders. As I’m saying – all the reason to feel more joyful.
Today also brought me face to face with Truth: long-distance walking is the most sensible way to spend one’s time. I’ll be taking this to the Academy of Sciences one day. Here’s just the shortest explanation as to why:
– you are surrounded by some of the best scenery in the world
– you are in the fresh air
– you are in the best of company (either just you or your well-chosen companions from the same or different species)
– you have to eat at least 3500 kcal a day
– all the people you meet are deeply happy, as you chance upon them when they are doing the thing they love the most (you can recognise the faces who do not want to be in theatres and cinemas, oh yes, you can)
– your mind is forced to rest while your body is applauding you at every step
It is a mystery why everyone has not already abandoned everything. I shall enquire into this as well before turning to the Academy.
And after having moved pass the magnificent oak trees bending their branches into lake water, and having passed Rob Roy’s cave (meeting your teenage heroes in real life is always a strange moment out of some forgotten cross-media narrative), we walked on a lentil soup coloured road until reaching our chambers for the night at Beinglas Farm. And if that doesn’t win a bad description award, I don’t know what will. (Just for the record, we slept in a camping pod.)
Notes taken: you know you are trekking when:
– the moment when you take out a clean pair of socks for the next day makes you squeal
– you don’t want the 5p change because you would have to carry it
DAY 4, Inverarnan to Tyndrum: 19.5 km
The first half of our fourth day’s walk had me transfixed on the milky fog hiding and disclosing a large group of fir tree tops on the horizon. What we saw was a form of dancing glue, magically moving through that very air we were about to step into. On day 4, we finally came to some mountains that reminded me of their relatives in Snowdonia. I had not known I had walked with that wish in my mind, but apparently so. (It is a worrisome thing, discovering that you had secrets from yourself.) The much-blessed sun actually shone on top of one of the mountains in that very exact manner it had dome on top of another mountain in Wales. That made me realise that 14.02.2015 has been one of the happiest days of my life so far. And that I’m still living in this year.
Keeping to the tradition, it did not rain. We walked a lot on the old military road that meandered through and under ancient-looking fir trees. During these kilometres, we finally understood that we were getting away from the civilization.
It was Sunday. K’s toe was not feeling very well but the ibuprofen gel did help. We thought about the 30 km day ahead of us in the coming week (Tuesday!) and got slightly worried about the possibility of rain (I said rain, right? I actually meant what the forecast said: severe downpours and a hail storm). In the evening, we managed to control ourselves in the biggest (and almost only) shop in Tyndum and not buy a magazine (I’m talking about me), and met the French horn player again, and then spent most of our time looking at people trying on their rainproofs. We had rainproofs as well, new ones, even. And we also wanted to see how they kept out the elements. What we didn’t have were rainproof boots. But we had sprayed ours with all the possible sprays. So, we had given our best.
On our way to the camping cabins we took a path that was fringed by the yellowest birch trees on this side of the Scottish border. Every step on the path felt like walking in the first dream of my childhood. This is how our fourth day slowly turned itself into a friendly beast from story books: it brought the first mountains into our sight and showed us paths into many parallel narratives within our time.
At some point at the very end of our road, we saw movement through the trees to our left. And there they were, a group of people, most of them old gentlefolk, sitting in the low river, panning for cold.
Places are like magic. In all the places you go to, you don’t find anything more than just the things you have taken there yourself.
Today has been exciting and satisfying in one very specific manner: I’ve finally had the time to go through all the photos I took on the West Highland Way and published a selection on the gallery page as well.
A full account of our West Highland journey will follow within a couple of days. These things are strange to write. You start on a new journey, always discovering new things about the place when putting your steps down in writing. As if writing itself was a form of walking and vice versa.