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The Great Walk

August 22, 2005

Great shepherd of the Glen

Man, what a trip. We have been scoured clean, purified by the road, opened up, forged into new, stronger yet more innocent creatures, eyes alive, glorying at the world and its marvels again. We are renewed, refreshed, believers once again in the inscrutable perfection of the Great Walk….

We’d been living in Edinburgh for more than three months, and had nothing to show for it: no money, no decent job, nowhere to stay. We were burned out and directionless, wanting to get out, go away, try anything else, but above all wanting Edinburgh to work out, because we love this beautiful city.

So we decided to walk the West Highland Way. It’s a 95 mile footpath that starts just outside Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, goes along the banks of Loch Lomond and then into the highlands to end in Fort William. It follows various historical paths, such as drovers’ tracks and old military roads.

The walk is a lot of things to a lot of people, and we met every sort on the road, from the earnest middle class couple keeping fit to the aging Amercian outlaws, the righteous Czech brother who turned us on, the Glasgow pensioner who took us touring, the Scots engineer who helped us out with a ride and then gave us his flat, to the troop of Flemish Scouts who gave us their left over food.

Some say the West Highland Way is no real adventure, because you are never more than a few miles from a hotel, pub, B&B or village. Try doing it with no money, though, camping wild and living on oatcakes – it becomes a different matter, and retreating into the cosy warmth of a welcoming inn simply isn’t an option. Also, we are not experienced hikers, and don’t have all the groovy gear, the lightweight, waterproof clothes, the little cookers and mess kits, decent shoes and balanced backpacks. We just slung some stuff in our bags and hit the road.

To us, it was a pilgrimage, a vision quest, an epic trek into the heart of this beautiful nation that we still had not had the money to explore. We had no idea if we would complete the walk, or just end up campng somewhere for a few days – but once we started, it became imperative to finish – the road developed it’s own momentum.

I wrote a little in the last post about the walk as far as Rowardennan, where we were fortunate enough to be able to sleep in a youth hostel. Well, the next morning we set off, and walked along the shores of Loch Lomond until, in the evening, we came to Doune bothy on the North East shore. A bothy is a rudimentary shelter that is always open, free, to anyone who needs it. It has a fire place and sleeping platforms. We cooked lentil broth on the fire, shared the space with a few other walkers and slept soundly until at dawn we were awoken by the curses of a drenched Glaswegian, wired on Buckfast tonic wine, stumblinging in, claiming to have walked all night in the rain before passing out .

We set off soon after, and walked to the town of Inverarnan, a few miles away. It had rained, and there were signs up saying the path may have been washed out, so we decided to walk this stretch along the highway. It was really horrible, all zooming noisy traffic, and by the time we made it to Crianlarich, we were soaked and miserable. There wasn’t even anywhere to stay in the town, and we seriously considered giving up. We’d reached the half way mark, and were almost out of money, and just wanted to get on a bus and go back – though we had nothing really to go to. In the end we soldiered on, and walked another 5 miles through the beautiful valley of Strathfillan, until, just after the ruined 11th century priory of St Fillan, we came to a lovely camp site and set up camp. We immediately felt much better, and the next day strolled the few miles to Tyndrum, the next village, where we spent the day, not having the energy to walk much further.

We decided we were going to finish the walk, so we stocked up on oatcakes and set off, reaching Ba bridge on the middle of Rannoch moor that evening. The moor is 90 square miles of wet, boggy emptiness, and is the largest moor in Britain. It is framed by misty mountains and is breathtakingly beautiful. We had one of our best nights ever, as the spoggan mossy floor of the moor is incredibly comfortable.

Only one caveat – midges. Never on God’s wondrous earth have I encountered creatures as vile. They look like what we call ‘miggies’ in South Africa, like little fruit flies, but they are far worse that mosquitoes, tsetse flies or any other nasty biting creature that blights creation. They swarm all over you like a black cloud, getting in your eyes, ears, nose and into your clothes, and they bite, and soon you are covered in welts that itch and burn and sap your energy. Nothing helps. The moor was the worst spot for midges, though they plagued us for most of the trip.

The next day was the most beautiful of all, as we left the moor, and followed the Glen Coe road for a while, marvelling at the beauiful mountain guarding the valley, called in Gaelic Great Shepherd of the Glen.

A few miles from Glen Coe we headed over the mountain towards Loch Leven, and the misty, verdant settlement of Kinlochleven, where we camped. We woke in the morning exhausted, depleted from lack of sleep and food and the every-present midges. We had only one more day of walking to do, 15 miles to go, but we didn’t feel up to it. But we did it anyway, climbing though the Lairigmor pass to Fort William. It was raining when we woke up, raining as we rolled up our tent, raining every step of the 15 miles. We were pursued by midges, and due to wet and biting hell, we didn’t rest, just marched like troopers towards Fort William.

It was an endless walk, our wet feet cramping, backs set in an agonised rictus from the sodden weight of our backpacks, minds wondering as we walked like zombies through the drenched forest. We past right by Ben Nevis, highest mountain in Britain, and didn’t know it, because it was obscured by mist. It was about this time I had the vision I had been searching for: through the mist and driving rain, a wise old Indian appeared to me, looked me up and down and said “get a raincoat”. Simple as that.

Eventually, miraculously, we did make it to Fort William, only to find there was no room at the inn. There was no affordable accomodation to be had, everywhere was booked out, we were soaked to the skin, tired, cold, and our backpacks and all their contents were soaked too. Eventually, the youth hostel let us shower and have a cup of tea, and while we did, they were able to find us accomodation due to late cancellations. Thanks Totie.

At the hostel we met a 68 year old Glaswegian who offered us a lift to Thurso – Thor’s River – on the north coast. We had no reason to go, but no reason not to, so the next day we hopped in his car and drove across Scotland, along the great glen, through Inverness, across the Black Isle, and into the barren plains of Caithness. We stopped at John O’Groats for a photo, and then went onto the steely grey port of Thurso, where we met – of all things – surfers. They reckon the winter surfing is brilliant – the only problem is walking over the ice and snow on the beach to get to the sea.

Since we had no money, we decided to head off again the next morning, by hitching. By this stage, the road had blown us wide open, and we were prepared to open ourselves to anything. We needed money, so we figured if we got a lift to Inverness we’d look for live in work there, if we ended up somewhere else, we try that. As it happened, after only five minutes we got one of those glorious rides from hitcher heaven, fast but safe, with a friendly driver, a Scottish engineer working on the decommisioning of a nuclear plant. Righteous work indeed. He had us back in Edinburgh in a matter of hours, and once we got there, he offered us his flat for the next six weeks, while he is working up north. So I am writing this seated at a desk in a beautiful Leith warehouse conversion, marvelling that we had to go across the country to find ourselves so cossetted in Edinburgh, and wondering what strange and marvellous adventures lie just beyond the corners of the night.

A wondrous, wyrd and delightful journey, like all life, with a strange cohesion and numenous intelligence at its core.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Ian permalink
    August 22, 2005 6:50 pm

    Fantastic! And those perfect moments are the ones most of us spend our lives trying to get away from, working harder at that numbing job rather than following our dream and risk having no money, putting it off because the hot shower and golden handcuffs are just so easy and convenient.My time in Peru I almost remember day by day, while the intervening years raced by in a numbing blur I’d happily never have done. I’m sure you’ll remember these moments vividly too, because they’re more real than so much else

  2. Alan permalink
    August 22, 2005 8:01 pm

    Pretty mythical walton. but i think you cribbed the whole thing from the first book in the lord of the rings, no?

  3. Walton permalink
    August 30, 2005 1:50 pm


  4. Shell (otherworldsmag) permalink
    August 31, 2005 12:37 pm

    Amazing story, Walton. It really is worth it just taking to the road, even when you’ve got no idea what’s going to hapen, innit? I am still wondering which new path my life will take and was supposed to be doing an article on blogging when I got side-tracked. I can’t help myself taking detours even when I set out to go a particular way. But then I find out that the way I end up going was really the way I MEANT to go, all along. We went to Calke Abbey outside Derby yeaterday. That and a few trips to London has been my total UK travel experience this time round. Right now, I’m thinking of au pair work, since it’s free accomodation and food. Couples can au pair too, if you guys do get stuck – it’s a cosy option. Depending on how you deal with rugrats…

  5. Anique permalink
    August 31, 2005 5:52 pm

    WOW, Thanks for that … makes me wanna hit that road again :)


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