Established in 1980, the West Highland Way is still the most popular of Scotland’s long distance trails and, for many, the most spectacular.
WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY: Keith Fergus
Every year it is thought that around 20,000 walkers complete the entire 95 mile (151km) route that links Milngavie, on the outskirts of Glasgow, with Fort William, which sits beneath Ben Nevis, and is, at 1344m (4409 feet), Britain’s highest mountain. In between, the West Highland Way passes through a dazzling array of scenery, from the Lowland’s gentle topography to the monumental landscape of the Southern and Central Highlands. The Highland Boundary Fault line is crossed when traversing Conic Hill, a major fault zone that runs from Arran in the west to Stonehaven near Aberdeen.
Loch Lomond, Rannoch Moor, the Devil’s Staircase and Glen Nevis are just a few of the highlights, while a wonderful selection of flora and fauna and the camaraderie of other walkers help make the West Highland Way one of Scotland’s finest walks. Most people take between five and seven days to walk the entire route.
Sections of the West Highland Way follow General Caulfield’s old military road, which was constructed between 1751-52 and ran between Tyndrum and Fort William. If feeling fit you can continue from Fort William for another 117 kilometres along the Great Glen Way to Inverness.
Other scenic highlights along the West Highland Way include the dramatic waterfalls at Inversnaid, which translates from Gaelic as the Mouth of the Needle Stream. The Arklet Water flows into Loch Lomond at Inversnaid and cascades down a couple of striking waterfalls. The setting was celebrated in Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem Inversnaid, written in 1881.
There are plenty of stopping-off points when walking the West Highland Way. One of the most historic watering holes is the Inveroran Hotel, near Bridge of Orchy, which first opened in 1707. Famous guests include Samuel Coleridge, Dorothy Wordsworth and Charles Dickens.
Over the course of the West Highland Way there are more than 10,000 feet of ascent. The highest point of the walk is the Devil’s Staircase, which overlooks Glencoe and rises to 550m (1804 feet) above sea level. It presents an incredible outlook across the Mamores, Buachaille Etive Mor and Blackwater Reservoir. It is thought that this tough pull was given its name by soldiers transporting building materials as part of General Wade’s road network. The Devil’s Staircase was also used by many of the workers who built Blackwater Reservoir (1904-09) to reach the Kingshouse Hotel, where they spent their wages.
Beyond the Devil’s Staircase the route drops steeply into Kinlochleven. When here it is worth a short detour to visit the Grey Mare’s Tail, which is some 50 metres in height. Kinlochleven developed in the early 20th century around its aluminium smelter. This was part of the hydroelectric scheme, which at its height employed 800 people. The smelter closed in 2000. It is now home to the Ice Factor National Centre for Ice Climbing.
The final fifteen miles or so lead through a magnificent, mountainous landscape, which is breathtaking in its sense of scale, particularly the views of Ben Nevis. Perhaps the finest vantage point to gaze onto this huge mountain is from Dun Deardail, which holds visible remains of a fort that was built around 2000 years ago and then rebuilt as a Celtic fort and Pictish citadel.
The final couple of miles head through the bucolic surroundings of Glen Nevis to reach Fort William, a wonderful place to refuel, relax and look back on one of the world’s finest walks.
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