Thoughts on the West Highland Way Part 3: Tweaks and Other Ideas21st September 2007
This should be the last post in this series with Part 1 dealing a detailed appraisal of the route and Part 2 describing the way that I walked the West Highland Way. You might have gathered from my witterings that I think that some parts are too close to the A82 and that others are a bit tamer than I might have expected. Also, as you can gauge from its appearance at number 23 in Country Walking's listing of Top 50 treks in its current issue, this is a popular trail and it's not easy to relax when you're leap frogging other hikers a lot of the time.
The above sets the scene for my starting point with these musings. From here, the directions fork somewhat. In the initial version of my appraisal, I was suggesting all sorts of improvements that the powers that be could make to the route. I have mellowed since then and now suggest deviations from the official WHW that may add to the enjoyment of the trail. Following on from this, I have also got the idea that the way could form the backbone for a series of walks that extend into wilder country than that frequented by the main trail. Then, I'll finish with some thoughts that fall under the heading "Where next?" or "What are the alternatives?".
Adding a Spot More Wildness…
From the first part of the series, you may have gathered that I might not consider the WHW to be a true wild country trail in the mould of the Pennine Way, the Southern Upland Way or the Cape Wrath Trail. It seems, rather, to be a journey towards wild country, which is why the climax starts north of Bridge of Orchy. So here are a few deviations from the official route that might just enhance the wild country aspect of the trail.
Personally, I have my doubts about the wisdom of starting at Milngavie and I have had some thoughts about how make the start of the WHW feel better. Here a few ideas:
- Start at Drymen: it may not be as accessible as Milngavie from the public transport point of view, but you get to see less pylons and reduce the amount of tarmac to be encountered. You also avoid the disused railway and you still get some views of the Campsie Fells.
- Another idea is to replace the stretch along Strath Blane with a hike through the Campsie Fells. You may need to change your starting point to do this or make your way from Milngavie towards the town of Strathblane; there seems to be a useful track through the woods that nicely keeps down the amount of road walking. A spot of cross-country travel may be needed but, by all accounts, the Campsie Fells look to be worth the effort. Starting from Kilsyth is another idea even if some road travel is needed to pick up the WHW near Drymen. Using minor roads as much as possible may make this more bearable.
The piece between Inverarnan and Bridge of Orchy is another place where the feeling of wildness is sadly absent at times. While some parts of the route are worthwhile, the episodes of loud road noise remain in my memory: funnelling road, railway and hill track through a narrow steep sided glen does rather amplify the racket and you might as well be in an underground tunnel with the lot. Following a hill track towards Dalmally does sound an appealing alternative even if you have an electricity line with its attendant pylons for company most of the way; that said, they have a use in this case when it comes to navigation. There is an element of trackless country crossing in this but you are away from noisy roads and photo opportunities may be grasped with careful composition. From Dalmally, my plan would be to follow hill tracks shadowing the hopefully less busy B8074 along Glen Orchy to Bridge of Orchy. Your legs will be exercised by ascent and descent here but the peace offered should be a definite boon. A more adventurous option would be to head from Dalmally to Glen Strae and head over Lairig Dhoireann into Glen Kinglass before heading along that glen towards Inveroran to meet the WHW there.
There is one last deviation from the route that I am suggesting because I find it hard to understand why the WHW drops onto the road in Glen Nevis when there are perfectly usable paths and tracks that will carry you around Cow Hill and into Fort William; it does to be said that the Glen Nevis road is never too busy. Admittedly, my route means that you do get dropped onto tarmac at the back of a leisure centre but the trot to the centre of the town is then a short one. Maybe that's what the powers that be want to do when they describe plans for extending the trail into the town. I can't see the emporium near the current end on the A82 being very happy about my suggested change, though.
The WHW follows old rights of way for a lot of its route and that fact neatly brings to my next set of ideas: using the WHW as an access point for walks into wilder country. Here, I am limiting myself to old rights of way described in ScotWays' excellent volume, Scottish Hill Tracks. You can roll your own routes simply by studying maps, thanks to Scotland's enlightened access legislation, but I'll stick with the old tracks for now. Here some possibilities and they get more challenging as you go further north:
- Drymen to Rowardennan via Aberfoyle: there could be a lot of tarmac to be covered on this one (that certainly applies up to Aberfoyle. The more daring could avoid Aberfoyle altogether for a bigger day out. I measured the distance on Anquet and it's around 20 miles with a climb to above 400 metres as it goes over the shoulder of Ben Lomond. My experience has been that the countryside is quiet and forestry tracks are the mainstay; it seems an interesting proposition.
- Ascent of Ben Lomond: this is Scotland's second most popular hill and the ascent from Rowardennan is bigger on height than on distance.
- Inverarnan to Crianlarich via Inverlochlarig: a testing 16 mile diversion that gets you away from the noisy Glen Falloch and travels on sometimes pathless terrain to Rob Roy's house before heading over a bealach to reach the A85 and Crianlarich.
- Crianlarich to Bridge of Orchy via Loch Lyon: this seems a challenging two day affair and so will follow my having got in some camping practice. Boggy pathless terrain abounds at times and that will no doubt slow progress too, especially where steeper ascents are involved.
- Bridge of Orchy to Glen Coe by Loch Etive and/or Glen Etive: there are a variety of routes and your choice depends on your fitness, your experience and the weather. A simpler excursion would be to head along Glen Kinglass and follow the shores of Loch Etive to its head whereupon a long road walk would take you to the head of Glen Coe.
- Kinlochleven to Glen Nevis: there are a goodly number of diversions here and the usual caveats apply.
For those who want greater altitude, there is the Highland High Way. There seems to be no website dedicated to the trail but I have seen a book on it published by Mainstream Publishing, which may or may not still be available. As it happens, my preference is for hill tracks frequenting wilder spots than increasing my Munro count. Despite all my visits to Scotland, that steadfastly remains at zero.
When you are done with one long distance trail, your mind does tend to return to others. Even so, any long distance trail only allows you a passing glimpse of the country surrounding it. For that reason, the WHW may not be an end but rather the start of other excursions among the hills that it passes. Speaking of beginnings, the route of the WHW does make a good option for those who are frequent walkers and want to get into the trail bagging game. That leads me onto my thoughts for future options. The Pennine Way is and will continue to be a project for me but the Southern Upland Way also appeals. Both may be more serious propositions than the WHW and that is down to their remaining in wild country that is mercifully bereft of busy roads. And I ever walk all of those, there will more and more to be walked. This game is one that never finishes until you are…