A RENEWED APPETITE
As a few locals of Milngavie milled around the small town centre like any other day of the week, we were on our way to start something that would leave us with a week of unforgettable memories; walking and camping along the West Highland Way.
I planned to walk the West Highland Way with my friend Peter before I even became interested in hillwalking. Unfortunately, work got in the way of those plans and it became a forgotten memory that we never discussed again. Six years on, I’ve now walked and cycled on large sections of the way but never actually walked the whole trail fully. Last year though, my friend Jack and I completed the Skye Trail, wild camping along the way. After completing this incredible adventure over the course of seven days, I had a renewed appetite for long distance walking. So it was finally time to do the one that brings thousands of people to Scotland every year; the West Highland Way.
Jack was sidelined this time though, it was Dyan and I going on our first long distance walk together instead. She was planning to do it herself but we thought it would be better to walk it together. Either that or I was jealous she was doing it without me so decided to tag along with her! Having just bought her camping gear, we made sure to get out on a few practice camping trips beforehand. Once on the summit of Beinn Trilleachan in Glen Etive and the other at the Red Squirrel campsite in Glencoe after traversing the treacherous Aonach Eagach ridge.
BEGINNING THE WEST HIGHLAND WAY
I hadn’t put as much planning or preparation into this trip as I normally would for a walk of this scale. The idea of just winging it and seeing how it turned out seemed much more appealing this time due to the simplicity of the walk. This meant not seeing lots of photos of the different stages beforehand, so every step we took would be all the more interesting. With the day to start looming ahead of us, the weather was looking terrible. Luckily we had a few days to spare with holidays from work so managed to delay the start for when the forecast was looking better. The day finally came to start and Dyan’s dad Murdo was kind enough to drive us to the start point. After taking the obligatory photo of us at the starting obelisk and going on his way, we were left with 96 miles of walking ahead of us and no real idea what it would be like.
For 8 o’clock in the morning in late May, it was a surprisingly warm start to our trip. It somehow ended up being the only time I wasn’t wearing shorts for the whole week. As we had planned to walk the West Highland Way in five days, we needed to cover 19 miles each day to meet our target. We started off much too fast though and within half an hour we were already roasting hot. The thick cover of trees around us wasn’t helping as it prevented any wind from cooling us down so we were shedding layers in no time.
The early forest sections around Mugdock Country Park were a beautiful way to start the walk and not at all what I expected. The time of year meant the forests were already thick and lush with fantastic colours all around. A sea of bluebells either side of the path kept us company for much of the day too. This provided more than enough photo opportunities and chances to take a break to appreciate a different kind of environment than we were used to when out walking.
With 19 miles as the desired average target for each day, our early plan was to make the first day a shorter one. This would help ease our legs and bodies into it so we didn’t suffer later in the walk. It was probably more for my benefit though as Dyan can walk endlessly without issue. This would mean we had more miles to catch up in the later days but it seemed a sensible way to start rather than going all out from the get-go. The further we went on I was liking the idea of a shorter day more and more. My feet were already beginning to hurt and show signs of early blisters. I couldn’t believe it as I walked the whole Skye Trail with no issues at all. The only answer was to switch to my trainers instead to see if that helped. The path was very smooth and flat so boots weren’t entirely necessary at this stage anyway as we passed many small villages and towns on our way to Drymen.
With no need to stop in Drymen, we pushed on past it, with Conic Hill and Loch Lomond soon coming into view. The sun had never really been out all day but it was beginning to look a lot gloomier now. Shortly after passing Drymen, the path begins to twist through Garadbhan Forest. The far edge of the forest is roughly 16 miles from Milngavie. We thought that was the perfect distance to stop for a wild camp on our first night. Unfortunately, there is now a wild camping ban on many areas around Loch Lomond. You can find more information on the camping ban on the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park website. Luckily for us though, I spotted a wild camp site without facilities on the map at the very edge of the forest. Essentially, this is a designated area that you are allowed to camp in but without toilets, showers etc.
So with 16 miles behind us, we walked through Garadbhan Forest on the look out for the wild campsite. As we neared the edge of the forest, we spotted a few worn patches on the grass by the path that looked like tents had previously lain there. Other than that there was nothing else to indicate that we were in the right place. To make matters worse, the skies finally opened and the rain that had been threatening for hours finally poured down on us. We didn’t know what to do. The thought of camping in a undesignated place, for a park ranger to then rudely awaken us didn’t really appeal. It was then we realised it was only around 4pm, so with time on our side we pushed on into the cloud and mist covering Conic Hill.
REACHING CONIC HILL
With our waterproof jackets now protecting us from the rain, we made our way up Conic Hill. We were now getting close to walking 20 miles and my legs were feeling the pain. As we stopped for a breather, the rain suddenly gave way and the clouds began to part. The sun was finally coming out! It never truly burst through the thick grey clouds but the sky did get a lot brighter. Just in time for us reaching the top of the path that crosses Conic Hill, with views of Loch Lomond opening up before us.
The end of the day was now in sight. We could see down to Balmaha Bay and further up the east side of Loch Lomond to Milarrochy Campsite. Having been up Conic Hill from Balmaha before, we knew this part of the walk already. I was particularly looking forward to walking through Balmaha Plantation; a small section of forest with gigantic trees towering high above. Before that, we had the many stone steps down the side of Conic Hill to negotiate first. Passing countless people out for short day walks without huge backpacks like ours on was quite a struggle mentally. We were on the final stretch though so adrenaline and excitement would see us through to the end.
TAKING A BREATHER AT BALMAHA BAY
As we reached the car park at Balmaha, I could think of nothing better than a cold can of Irn Bru to celebrate coming so far. Along with a bag of salt and vinegar McCoys, we took a seat next to the Tom Weir statue at Balmaha Bay. It was a fitting place to stop next to the statue of the popular outdoorsman as we were nearing the end of our first day on the West Highland Way. It was also great to look across the water to the small island of Inchcailloch, which is Gaelic for “Isle of the old woman”. Much to my amazement, the last time I visited Inchcailloch by kayak, I spotted the odd wild deer roaming through the forests. For such a small and remote island, there is an abundance of flora and fauna. Not to forget the ancient burial grounds and remains of a 13th Century church too. It is definitely worth a visit, whether by kayak or one of the on demand ferries from Balmaha Boatyard.
THE FINAL STRETCH
I could have sat there all day but we had a campsite to reach. With barely more than a mile to go, we jumped back on our feet for the final stretch. We followed the edge of Loch Lomond north, towards Milarrochy Campsite, passing through forests of bluebells again. Coming to a small beach just short of the campsite, we thought it would be a great place to spend the night. The lure of a cool shower and once again the dreaded camping ban put that idea to bed though.
Before we knew it, we had reached the campsite anyway and our first day on the West Highland Way was over. My legs felt like jelly. We were shown around the campsite by a very pleasant and entertaining man called Shaun, who even offered us some sweets on arrival. A much needed sugar boost! We asked for a place by the shore to look out over the loch and were given a perfect spot with no-one around. It was a very serene place, the waves slowly lapping on the shore in front of our tents as we cooked our dinners. After 11 hours of walking 22 miles with full camping gear on our backs, we were shattered and could barely stay awake. I think I was sleeping before my head even hit the pillow. That’s right, I take a pillow with me camping! It small, lumpy and lightweight but it makes all the difference after a day like we had.
DAY 1 THOUGHTS
On a whole, the first day was a perfect introduction to the West Highland Way. We loved walking through Mugdock Country Park to start, with its winding paths through deep forests filled with bluebells. To then experience the stark contrast of the wide expanse of Loch Lomond around us from the top of Conic Hill. This gave us a taste of what lay ahead for the next day. Walking much further than we had planned to on day one ended up being a great idea. It meant we reached Milarrochy Campsite which was a fantastic place with great facilities. Staying somewhere like that is really energising, to get a good sleep in a clean and quiet place with a shower to start the next day. Exactly what we needed after the distance we’d just walked. We had passed the lowland initiation of the West Highland Way and were looking forward to the more arduous task of walking the length of Loch Lomond on day two.