With a somehow lost look on our faces and carrying a heavy backpack on our shoulders, we leave the train station of Milngavie. ‘Can I help you?’, a woman passing by asked us. Did we already look like lost sheep or were the rumours that al Scottish women dig a kilt true? We don’t know, but after having arrived for not more than five minutes, we already were treated to a tour by a local showing us the best places to resupply, buy our smidge spray and the start of the West Highland Way.
Stage 1: Milngavie – Drymen (May 6th 2015)
The West Highland Way is the first long distance trail in Scotland. The route starts in Milngavie, just north of Glasgow and ends, after having hiked 152 kilometer through the most amazing Highlands scenery, in Fort William, at the base of the Ben Nevis, UK’s highest mountain. Not only does one hike from lowland Scotland towards the heart of the famous Scottish Highlands, but most of the time you follow the footsteps of the historic past of Scotland. A past of military actions, cattle theft, clan feuds and even massacres. The many cattle trails and old military roads have created along with the parched streams and rivers the West Highland Way.
Wearing a kilt had been Linsay’s idea. And before we were able to leave Milngavie, we already ran into a second couple starting a conversation with us. ‘We really like your kilts.’ We told them our plans to hike to Fort William in our green-black and red-black kilts. Even our fear for the midges was mentioned, since our bare legs would arouse their appetite. ‘Don’t you be cruel to our midges!’, the old man said with a smile on his face, barely hiding he already had some bad experiences with them. ‘No, they are really nast creatures.’, he continued. ‘It wouldn’t be the first time they spoil someone’s holiday.’ I guessed their nickname Terror of the Scottish Highlands was no exaggeration.
Not only the midges we were afraid of, but Scottish weather as well. For that reason we had invested in some rainproofs. Rain trousers (not much use if you choose to wear a kilt instead), windproof jacket and a raincover for my backpack and sleeping bag. When checking our gear, it was quite obvious we expected bad weather. And yes, yesterday we already had a first short drizzle of rain to be dealt with. But that’s how we had expected Scottish weather to be. Small rain drizzles, not taking long enough to be soaked. It would be something we could live with. Afterall, what would a hike in Scotland be without some rain?
Stage 2: Drymen – Rowardennan (May 7th 2015)
With a singing cuckoo well-hidden high up in a tree, we are awake at seven in the morning. It’s a day we had been looking forward to for a long time, since today we enter the Highlands. Conic Hill, a hill we need to cross that marks the border between lowland Scotland and the Highlands. Once on top of Conic Hill, we had a first panoramic view on the Highlands with Loch Lomond, Scotland’s biggest loch, on the front. The hike would continue along the eastern shore of the loch. The descent of the hill that came first had some fixed habits. Everyone gets out their camera when the first Munro’s, the highest peaks of the Highlands appear for the first time with the big loch in front of it. It’s a view you otherwise only get to see on a posting card. So who can blame us taking some pictures from this spot?
Stage 3: Rowardennan – Crianlarich (May 8th 2015)
It costed us more time than usual to put our stuff back in the backpack and prepare us for the rest of our hike. It all had to do with the incredible location we had found to spend the night. At the shores of Loch Lomond with the Highlands as a perfect setting. We followed a hiking itinerary to complete the West Highland Way in seven days. It meant that today would be a tough hike of 32 kilometers and lots of elevation changes. We continued along the eastern shoreline of Loch Lomond towards Crianlarich. We got used to our usual gear – our kilt -, at least for walking. How Scotsmen manage to go to number one with a kilt is beyond me. Especially when it’s quite windy (Weather! Not me!).
The weather gods are in our favor, eventhough Scottish people aren’t used to that. That’s quite clear since we see smiles on the faces of everyone we encounter. ‘The weather is just great today. I think summer is coming.’ A female hiker with poles and backpack tells us. So far, weather was much better than expected, that ’s for sure. If we forget about the small drizzle on day one, we hadn’t need our rainproofs yet. Eventhough it makes camping at night much more fun, I would feel somehow disappointed if we complete the full hike without a day of rain. No rain in Scotland would be like going on a skiing holiday without having snow, I thought.
Stage 4: Crianlarich – Inveroran (May 9th 2015)
The hike to Tyndrum runs higher on the slopes of the glen. Our path, surrounded by forests, was accompanied by the Fillan river. It was the only company we had all morning. Most of the hikers we had encountered the first few days had chosen to divide stage three. But as we already mentioned, you are never in the middle of nowhere during the West Highland Way. Shortly after we ran into an elderly couple hiking the route from north to south. ‘Can I have a picture of you two?’, his wife asks excited when we tell her about our mission to hike the Way in a kilt. We have become used that our kilts have become a topic starter. Strangely enough, most of the people we run into are Scottish. Isn’t everyone in Scotland wearing a kilt we started wondering. It feels like the opposite world that Scottish people taking pictures of us, two tourists in a kilt.
Stage 5: Inveroran – Kinlochleven (May 10th 2015)
“Are we wearing our kilt today or not?”, I ask Linsay, considering if it wouldn’t be foolish to hike in a kilt. For the first time since day one, it was raining. ‘I don’t know… What do you think?’, she asks continuing her daily routine of packing her sleepbag and pad. On the one side it would have been great to complete the whole West Highland Way in a kilt. On the other hand, a soaked kilt was anything but comfortable. Hoping weather would improve quickly, we opted for the Scottish dresscode.
With Kingshouse as our destination, we find ourselves soon on an old military road. With little views and the monotonous long road during our first kilometers, the route wasn’t as interesting as the first few days. Since it hadn’t stopped raining, it didn’t help either. ‘The Black Mount summits should be there somewhere.’, I point, interpreting the map. A fog hides the black hills we should see. But not the lack of views would be the disappointment of the day. That we could only hope when weather started to deteriorate. Even though Kingshouse wasn’t that far anymore, we were soaked to the bone and all efforts to stay dry were in vain. With a kilt sticking to our but cheeks, we reach our destination by noon. Close by we find a hotel named King’s House with a bar in the back where we order a hot meal. Still, the food was only second priority at that time. The prospect of spending a night in the rain, with soaking clothes made us think.
One by one, solo hiking youngsters entered the Climbers Bar. Raindrops dripping from their jackets on the wooden floor, before they had the chance to put them near the heating. ‘So what’s the plan?’, Linsay asks, observing the small pools of rain on the ground. ‘If you ask me, I rather walk further than sitting in our tent listening to the rain.’, she proposes.
Our shoes seem hardly any drier when we put them back on to continue our hike to Kinlochleven. ‘Bah, nothing is worse than a pair of soaked hiking boots.’, Linsay complains with an expression enforcing her statement.
We leave the valley via the Devil’s Staircase, a short climb, but never as strenuous as the name would suggest. We are not the only ones starting the ascent while facing the terrible weather. With our backpacks we’re puffing our way through the streams running downhill over the flanks, with another Scottish couple just a few steps behind us. When they catch up on top of the Staircase, we start another conversation. Not for too long, since with this heavy shower of rain we want to reach Kinlochleven and the campsite as soon as possible.
Stage 6: Kinlochleven – Fort William (May 11th 2015)
A campsite with a dryroom and a hot shower had made our day yesterday. That changed quickly when we woke up and noticed it was still raining. ‘What did that woman at Loch Lomond say again?’ Summer is coming? Yeah right!’, Linsay sweared. Our gear may have been dry after having spent a night in the dryroom, it wasn’t much of use if we had to hike through the heavy rain again. With a half creased but dry kilt, we faced the Scottish weather once again. When we emerged from the forests half an hour later, we continued our way on a military road. With plain view on the following kilometers, we see some groups of hikers in the distance. Despite raining incessantly, I tried to enjoy the Munros surrounding the valley. Linsay fails at that attempt since some heavy wind is blowing in our faces. Shortly following my steps,her look aims at the trail right in front of her. Allbeit just to avoid the muddy pools. ‘Rain trousers would have been more comfortable.’, flashes my mind. Still, the kilts drew many hikers attention. Many of them thinking it was quite brave to face this rain storm with a kilt. Brave was a term we no longer agreed on. Our choice to hike all the way to Fort William today had more to do with the lack of motivation to spend another night in the rain than anything else.
In the distance we see a pack of clouds stacking up and before we can say anything, a thundering sound of thunder echoes the valley. ‘We pretty much had all aspects of the worst weather conditions the last few days.’, Linsay sighed. ‘You would start to think it will snow in a few minutes. ‘Or hailing.’, I add. ‘However…’, I retract my words. ‘Uhm Linsay? This is going to hurt our legs I think.’, and I point to a white fog in the distance heading our way fast. Hailstones the size of marbles break their fall on our uncovered hands and calves. Ignoring the painful impacts, we pick up the pace, hoping the hailstorm would soon be over. Unfortunately it would take longer than fifteen minutes before the last small ice cube would crash into our calves.
‘I think there will be many hikers having us in mind.’, I joke, convinced that our situation couldn’t get any worse. I would be right, we later found out as we ran into the couple we met on the Devil’s Staircase, when having a meal in Fort William the day after. Them as well had suffered from the storm and more than once they heard hikers tell to each other about a couple wearing kilts. It was this way they had learned we would arrive in Fort William the same day as well.
We felt that Fort William was getting close by now. The longing to a hot shower and bed was huge, so we were hoping not to be doing too much of wishful thinking. Our guts were right when we came out of the forests and saw a huge massive emerging on the other side of the valley. Ben Nevis. The highest mountain of the UK was a lot more impressive than we had imagined.
With the end being near, we started our descent towards Fort William. Linsay had called me crazy a few times before when I mentioned a few days ago that I was hoping to one rainy day at least. Something I had complained about when we arrived in Kinlochleven yesterday. Still, hiking the West Highland Way in a kilt and with two days of really bad weather gave our experience in the Scottish Highlands an extra touch. Something that made us swear many times during, when you’re in a hail storm, but we really enjoyed sharing with others after having a hot meal, a hot shower and a good night of sleep. Our arrival pictures at the end of the West Highland Way was the perfect reflection of one of those moment where we enjoyed to the fullest. Enjoyng another great experience in which we had the privilige of wildcamping, cooking on a camping stove and meeting some really interesting people. An experience in one of the most beautiful sceneries in the world. The Scottish Highlands.
Do you want to hike in the beautiful Scottish Highlands? Check out our West Highland Way adventure e-guide and plan your next adventure!