The Long and Winding Road: Walking Scotland’s West Highland Way

Written By: Lissa Poirot

I KNOW THE VIEW of Loch Lomond was beautiful. I had just seen it from high above standing on the peaks of the Arrochar Alps. But walking across the rocky terrain found me finding places to safely place my foot and searching for things I could grab ahold of and I couldn’t really look up to see it up close. This was the hardest: Day three of walking Scotland’s West Highland Way.

Prior to spring 2019, I had never heard of the West Highland Way. My idea of visiting Europe was to stay in posh hotels and tour castles, cathedrals and museums while sipping on local wines and sampling dishes. Spending nine days walking over the Highlands of Scotland had never been on my radar. Until a friend mentioned having an extra space on a group summer adventure.

I had just finished chemotherapy for breast cancer and he felt the walk would give me a sense of purpose and a reason to get back into shape. So, I said “yes.”

It turned out to be one of the most amazing trips I have yet to take, even after years exploring the world as a travel writer. I know, I know: You’re thinking “Walk across Scotland?!” But bear with me as I describe why the West Highland Way should be on your radar, too.

THE SUITE LIFE

First thing’s first. I was not about to backpack or camp. Instead, our group of—shall I call us “seasoned”—individuals wanted to end days hiking in charming hotels and B&Bs. We wanted good

food and even better drinks. We wanted deep bathtubs for soaking. We wanted it all, set in the dramatic backdrop of the remote mountains and lakes of Scotland. And we got them.

Working with a tour company called MACS Adventures, our luggage would be transferred between hotels, allowing us to carry only what we felt we needed during the day: layers of cloths, snacks, water. The company allowed us to select the style of accommodations they would book for us, as well. There were budget options but we, the spoiled, selected the highest level of accommodations we could get.

Our first night, in Drymen, found us at the Buchanan Arms Hotel, which featured an indoor swimming pool and hot tub. Our second night rewarded our day’s walk with a lakefront property with a beer garden we could enjoy well into the late summer sunset. Following the hardscrabble walk around Loch Lomond, we were awarded with a beautiful night at Ardlui Hotel, overlooking the lake and requiring a ferry ride. A modern property near a winter ski slope was the brand-new Kingshouse Hotel, where we had breakfast delivered to us in bed. All but one property provided us with our own bathrooms, comfortable accommodations, accommodating staff, and a chance to get to know other trekkers each evening in the property’s pubs.

And the food? We were always surprised by the quality of dishes we enjoyed. We expected meals of Shepherd’s pie, haggis and fish and chips and instead discovered delicious steaks, sauce-infused pastas and hearty soups. We were never left wanting and looked forward to arriving at our hotels not only because we finished another long day of walking and needed to rest but because the food was going to be amazing.

THE LONG WALK

food and even better drinks. We wanted deep bathtubs for soaking. We wanted it all, set in the dramatic backdrop of the remote mountains and lakes of Scotland. And we got them.

Working with a tour company called MACS Adventures, our luggage would be transferred between hotels, allowing us to carry only what we felt we needed during the day: layers of cloths, snacks, water. The company allowed us to select the style of accommodations they would book for us, as well. There were budget options but we, the spoiled, selected the highest level of accommodations we could get.

Our first night, in Drymen, found us at the Buchanan Arms Hotel, which featured an indoor swimming pool and hot tub. Our second night rewarded our day’s walk with a lakefront property with a beer garden we could enjoy well into the late summer sunset. Following the hardscrabble walk around Loch Lomond, we were awarded with a beautiful night at Ardlui Hotel, overlooking the lake and requiring a ferry ride. A modern property near a winter ski slope was the brand-new Kingshouse Hotel, where we had breakfast delivered to us in bed. All but one property provided us with our own bathrooms, comfortable accommodations, accommodating staff, and a chance to get to know other trekkers each evening in the property’s pubs.

Ninety-six miles. That is the length of the West Highland Way. Ninety-six miles. I’m not going to lie: Some days were difficult. However, other days were not. As we walked an average of 12 miles a day—the longer days were easier days—we were able to see Scotland come to life. In these remote areas of hills and lakes, the only other forms of life were sheep and birds. The vastness of the land is simply stunning. Photographs cannot capture the unbelievable landscape surrounding you at every turn. These are the Highlands. Movies like “Braveheart” and television shows like “Outlander” attempt to give you a glimpse of what it is like to set foot here, yet it cannot prepare you for actually setting foot in them.

Some days, the walks were in heavily forested lands with ferns standing as high as our waist. Other days, we were climbing steep mountains (Bens) that never seemed to stop climbing. There were days we walked along stone walls that marked the boundary of farms. There were times we walked past the ruins of old farmhouses, also of stone, wondering what life was like for someone to live in the remote land. Some days were crowded and we walked in areas near highways where day-trippers would be on trails for a hike. And, one of my favorite days was one where two of us, blisters making it hard to climb, fell so far back that we were entirely alone for hours with nothing but awe-inspiring views.

When you are walking up to 19 miles in one day, you find yourself with hours upon hours of putting one foot in front of the other. Rather than spending hours wasted on social media, scrolling through Facebook, or constantly being connected to our phones, I found my head completely clear. Despite the fact that I was walking and sometimes struggling, the relaxation that came with simply walking and not doing anything else gave me a sense of serenity that I’ve only heard spoken of in articles trying to convince me to meditate and try yoga. I never expected nine days of walking was going to be so freeing.

CITY LIFE

Not all of the time on the journey is spent in isolation. There were stops along the walk, particularly small taverns where one could take a break for lunch, and, in our case grab a tall pint of cider. Waterfalls provided good breaks, as did the Glengoyne Distillery, where one of the brave in our group bought a large (heavy) bottle of whisky to carry the rest of the journey. And, of course, the finale, in Fort William, is a former military port town of celebration. Here, walkers of all ages and from around the world can be found in revelry enjoying boutique shops and restaurants along cobblestone streets at the water’s edge.

Before the trip began, our group flew into Glasgow and spent the night in the city, taking in some of the historic sites and visiting the massive Craigton Cemetery and the University of Glasgow, the fourtholdest university in the English-speaking world. Once our journey was complete, we enjoyed a scenic train ride back through the Highlands to Edinburgh, where we explored the Royal Mile, Old Town and Edinburgh Castle. Flanking the walk with a visit to Scotland’s two largest cities provided an all-around visit to the country—a fuller experience than when I’ve flown into a European city and stayed for a week.

Exploring Scotland’s cities were nice, but the memory of walking along the West Highland Way is still fresh and reminds me of how good it felt. I never thought I’d want to hike across a country, or parts of one, yet here I am, seeking out the next country to provide a similar journey.

THE WEST HIGHLAND WAY

Interested in walking the West Highland Way? Visit MACS Adventure, which will organize every aspect of your trip: Just show up in good hiking shoes and go! Visit their website for this and other outdoor tours at macsadventure.com.

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