Saturday, 1 May 2010

Walking in Scotland 1: The West Highland Way

The West Highland Way (WHW) is an old military route running between Milngavie - in the outskirts of Glasgow, and Fort Williams - a small town set deep in the heart of the Scottish Highlands.

The last Jacobite rebellion against the sovereigns of the House of Hanover in 1745 started the last war to to be fought on British soil. The last stand of followers of the House of Stuart came to an abrupt end in a moor near Inverness called Blàr Chùil Lodair. The battle of Culloden, 16th of April of 1746, not only put an end to any realistic possibility of a Stuart Restitution but also marked the beginning of the end for the traditional Highlander way of life. The construction of the WHW was built to maintain the peace" at this corner of Britain allowing the army to reach remote areas quicker hence discouraging future uprisings.

The fierce repression that followed the defeat of those who remained loyal to Bonnie Prince Charles along with the infamous clearances (the forceful removal of crofters and tenants from large areas of the Highlands to make way for sheep grazing) soon rendered this military infrastructure useless since there was hardly anybody left in this part of the world to challenge the authority of the most powerful army on Earth.

Over the years, a more peaceful use was found for the route. Like a rolling scar left on the barren landscape by long forgotten wars, the WHW reminds us that there was a time, not long ago, when reaching large areas of north-western Scotland was a long and difficult journey. The magic sense of remoteness of the Scottish outdoors, that invigorating feeling of solitude so unique to the Highlands can be very much enjoyed along this rocky path, despite walking fairly close to the busy A9 in some sections.

Depending on the pace chosen, the way can be made in 5, 9 or even 13 days. There are lots of websites offering advice on places to stay, equipment required and other useful tips, the best probably being this

We (me, the wife and various friends) chose to split our way in two weekends staying overnight in Youth Hostels and Campings. The first weekend started at the Drovers Inn in Inverarnan. To Tyndrum and its scattered and geriatric remains of the once mighty Caledonian forest, followed the rather unfortunate choice of Bridge of Orchy's only Hotel. The bad accommodation experience was all but forgotten after trekking through the majestic and scaleless landscape of Rannoch Moor, before arriving to Kingshouse. Our second attempt, a couple of weeks later, took us from Kingshouse through Kinlochleven and the Devil's Staircase and around the summit of the highest peak of the British Isles Ben Navis, to Fort Williams.

There were some magic moments along the way, moments when everything seemed to be just right, when the sky above us and the next step along the path is all we wanted and needed to think about.

A deep breath of freedom and the puzzle of life is suddenly complete.