A Northward Meandering – Walking the West Highland Way – Part Four.
In the last instalment of this blog I had reached the campsite at Inveroran, the final three stages of my walk would take me across the infamous Rannoch Moor to Glencoe, then on to Kinlochleven and through the Lairig Mhor to Fort William.
Day 6 Inveroran to Glencoe
Today was one of the days that I’d always considered the highlight of the walk, the route that takes you over the barren Rannoch Moor and finishes at the spectacular head of Glencoe. Earlier in the year I had walked this stage in reverse with friends but the weather was poor and winter was still clinging on to this part of the highlands. This hopefully would be a day to be on the moor in better conditions, I wasn’t disappointed!
The day started with a long walk up a well made path alongside a patch of forestry, well fenced off to protect it from the unwanted attention of deer who nibble away at young saplings and prevent regeneration. Many people complain when they see deer fences in the highlands thinking that these fences are keeping them in, the reality is quite different as in general the deer have the freedom to roam the larger glens and the fences are keeping them away from areas where new forest growth is being encouraged. Left unchecked the deer would strip away the tasty young trees and this leads to the loss of habitat for other woodland creatures. Its evidence of the careful balance that has to be achieved in order to maintain biodiversity.
The road I was walking on used to be the main route into the highlands until the 1930s and was built by the famous Scots engineer Thomas Telford. It replaced the earlier military road, the line of which still exists at a higher level. Probably no one person in the history of these Isles had been more responsible for the creation of the transport infrastructure we take for granted: Bridges, aqueducts, canals and of course roads. A poet friend of Telford’s called him ‘The Colossus of Roads’ a monicker which sat well with this giant of the industrial revolution.
Tipping my imaginary hat to the good quality of Telford’s road I continued on and eventually cleared the trees, the sight as you emerge onto the moor is truly one of the most spectacular in Scotland, not your classic, mountain + loch + trees = postcard image but still a photographer’s dream, a landscape that has drama in any weather with a huge open plain stretching far off into the distance with the dark bulk of bare mountains marking the outer boundary. The scene feels like the “blasted heath” of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Upon this blasted heath you stop our way”. One can imagine meeting sinister figures along this lonely track.
The road appears to sit like a ribbon over a landscape that is more bog than solid ground, straying from the safety of this road would lead you to a nasty and watery end and one cant help but think about what it must have been like in the days long before proper roads came to this area and how people would pick their way across this wild place. Soon a small clump of trees drew near and this indicated that the half way point had been reached, the River Ba, one of the larger rivers draining off the wide corrie on your left to a loch far down to your right is crossed by a stone bridge. Its a lovely spot on a good day and a natural place for walkers to stop for a spot of lunch. I found quiet spot beside the bridge down in the trees away from the path and savoured the peace and quiet.
After this the path begins to climb gently again as it climbs over the shoulder of Meall a’Bhuiridh and like some waking giant the shape of Buchaille Etive Mhor the mountain that stands guard at the head of Glencoe begins to rise over the horizon. This is Scotland in all its drama, ‘the Buchaille’ as its more popularly known, the full name translated as the Great Herdsman of Etive is one of the countries most popular climbing spots, even though from this angle it looks terrifyingly difficult there is what is described as the ‘tourist route’ that takes a winding route on the mountain’s south eastern flank to a high pass. Magically the path takes you right past Black Rock cottage a small house at the base of the mountain giving you the opportunity to take what is probably one of the best known views in Scotland.
from here a long descent eventually brought me down to Kings House hotel, an old drover’s inn that now does a roaring trade catering for tourists to the area. Naturally the place was also fully booked so I took advantage of a small camping area that lies just behind the hotel. After a quick refreshment my bags arrived and I got down to setting up the tent, within an hour of doing so the blue sky had turned an ominous dark grey and rain clouds came rolling up the glen. the view I had photographed earlier was lost in mist and rain and there was little to do but spend the rest of the day sheltering in the ‘climbers bar’ at the back of the hotel.
Day 7: Glencoe to Kinlochleven
I’ve often said that Glencoe looks spectacular in any weather, well it does when you can see it!
I woke up to find that the perfect camping spot i’d picked out the previous night was more or less a small pond. My breakfast routine was accompanied by a pair of cheeky chaffinches who perched on a rock beside my tent and waited or me to pass them scraps. I’d been aware of them all morning and the pair of them appeared to be taking turns ducking under the outer shell of the tent for a good root around or else running up and over the pole ridges.
After packing up I set off along the long walk alongside the road down to a small stand of trees at Altnafeadh. This is the spot where most climbers doing the Buchaille start from and it wasn’t surprising to just see a couple of cars parked there. My route would take me the opposite way though and directly up the hill on the northers side of the glen, climbing steeply into the mist until I was alone with the rough path and a few metres of hillside to either side. The path then zigzags up a steep incline called the Devils Staircase. This name came about in the days when the Black Water reservoir dam was being built a few miles to the north. Workers on the construction of the dam would come over this way to reach the Kings House hotel, the only place in walking distance that they could spend their wages and have a drink, sadly for some the price of a drink was high indeed as many never made it back to safety, especially in winter and perished on the way. It was an eerie place to walk and I had an uncomfortable feeling as is often the case walking in thick fog, Its not uncommon for walkers to suffer from what is known as ‘mountain panic’ in these conditions and even experienced climbers can suffer from it, a sort of creeping dread and a feeling of being watched.
I wasn’t quite at that stage yet though and pressed on until the path levelled off and headed over the high pass at the top. from here the views are supposed to be some of the best on the whole way, unfortunately I wasn’t getting that opportunity in this weather. After a series of short up and down sections I rounded the hillside and slowly began to descend, far below the clouds seemed to be rising up out of the valley and the small town of Kinlochleven appeared now and again through the occasional break. From this distance it looked like some quaint alpine resort but Kinlochleven is a town that grew up quickly in the early 1900s when an aluminium smelter and later a hydro electric power station was built.
The town is like many you come across in the highlands that briefly rode the bow wave of industry in some form but then was left beached when that industry pulled away. At its height the aluminium smelter employed around 700 people but larger plants in the USA that could produce cheaper product drove it to closure in 1996. Now the town mostly relies on the tourist trade which has become harder since a bridge over Loch Leven bypasses the place entirely. I’m not sure what it is about Kinlochleven that I find attractive; it is in a beautiful spot with great walks nearby but maybe its a sort of kinship I feel with the it having grown up in two places that once had thriving industries only to have them closed down, I’ve experienced life in a town thats had its heart ripped out, its a sad thing but also uplifting to see how communities cope with this and new businesses spring up.
One such success story is ‘The Ice Factor’, housed in one of the former high roofed industrial buildings this small complex offers climbing walls, including a real ice climbing wall along with cafe a bar and shops. Having hobbled down the track that seemed to take forever to descend the cafe here was my first port of call for coffee and cake!
The weather was still pretty wet and the thought of pitching up for the last day on a boggy campsite wasn’t exactly getting me excited, on pure speculation I dropped into one of the small hotels in the town and enquired about rooms. To my joy they had one but was advised it was a twin room not a single and would be expensive. “how much?” “£55” came the reply – SOLD! To the wet bloke with the rucksack!
So I came to spend a Saturday afternoon drying out in what turned out to be a suite of rooms in Kinlochleven lying on my comfortable bed watching the cup final on TV! bliss!
Day 8: Kinlochleven to Fort William.
After a fantastic nights rest in a proper bed I was up and about early and raring to go, I had to hobble off first to take my bag back to the place where it was supposed to be left that day and then after a proper cooked breakfast set off. My feelings were a little mixed as I walked to the start of the path up through the first stage of birch forest. It wasn’t ideal weather, still wet and cloudy but glad to be out and moving, excited about finishing but sad that the adventure would soon be over.
This last stage is a long one, around 15 miles with a very steep climb to start with up through the forest. It was pleasant enough though, I’d walked the start of this way with my young son last year and as we had trod up the path he had pointed out large stones, the colours of which reminded him of planets, I spent the first half hour looking for the ‘Mars stone, Jupiter stone and Saturn stone’, I’m pretty sure I found two of them. This was a pleasant start to the day made even nicer with the smells of the damp forest and scent of honeysuckle on the way. Pretty soon the path emerged over the tree line and onto a wide vehicle track and into the pass. This is called the Lairig Mhor which means, appropriately ‘The Big Pass’. This glen feels like a lost world, climbing up over the bealach in the Mamore range a long wide open valley stretches before you, virtually untouched apart from a small telegraph poles and the path ahead.
Unfortunately the heavy rain over the last few days were having a cumulative effect on this path along the valley floor. All along the hillside large waterfalls were visible cascading down and gathering into larger streams, more engorged than usual the streams were finding their way over and in some cases along the path making the going very wet. It wasn’t long before my walking shoes began to let in making the walking uncomfortable and rather cold.
There is no shelter along this section for a good 7 miles with just a couple of ruined farmhouses on the way, one seemed in fairly good shape and it seemed a pity that for want of a solid roof this might have made a great mountain bothy. Eventually the track hit the edge of a large forest plantation and the way diverted onto a smaller and muddier path. The open moorland gave way to pine plantations and began its mostly downward descent. The sight of people coming the other way gave me and indication that I was probably well past the halfway point and since there didn’t seem to be anywhere dry to shelter I pressed on. The forest section here was dense and a large fast flowing river seemed to always be nearby, the sound rumbling through the trees. After a while the path descended down steep stone steps and crossed over. A short section over an area of recently cleared ground toyed with a wide industrial logging road before joining it and entering another section of forest. Just as I was entering the forest a brief gap in the clouds revealed a patch of black rock and snow much higher up than expected, the looming shape of Ben Nevis! My first sign that journeys end was near!
The logging road crested a hill moments later and over the other side far below I could see the scattering of houses on the outskirts of Fort William, just then my mobile sprang back into life and I was able to call my family who were en route to meet me. After a day of hardly seeing a soul it was a relief to be speaking to someone again! From here the road should have been a simple but long downhill run but the West Highland Way had one last surprise for me. A diversion due to forest operations took me down a perilously steep muddy slope through the trees to a lower track. Somehow the efforts of clambering down this way drained most of the energy from me and when I set off again it seemed to be at half speed.
On and on the track twisted and turned until it veered off and onto the minor road that again after what felt like hours to the outskirts of town, the bustle of cars and people going about their day was quite shocking after all this time, almost making me dizzy. As I chalked off the last mile and turned down onto the High street of Fort William I thought back to the amazing week that i’d just experienced. I was a little lost in thought when I spotted two tiny figures tearing up the road towards me and had a lump in my throat like a tennis ball when our two kids flung themselves at me.
cheered on by them I bounced over the last few paces and took my rightful perch on the bench that marks the end of the way.
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Over the last week I had a lot of time to spend with just myself for company, not something I have a problem with and I was surprised how clarifying the whole exercise had been, instead of walking along carrying all my day to day troubles and thinking about work or the countless other niggles of modern life the week had been about utter simplicity; get up, eat, walk, eat, walk, stop walking, eat sleep – that was all there was to it. When I had started at Milgavie my thoughts had been about what it would feel like reaching the end but as the week progressed I became less preoccupied with this and more focused on the moment. It struck me after a time that this was a great analogy for life: We are so obsessed about where we are trying to get to in life, we forget to appreciate the process of getting there. Our trials are lessons we need to learn and become stronger from. Walking a long path is no different to how we should learn to live our life. Its not about the destination its about the journey, its always about the journey.
Rodger Moffet 2014