On Saturday 1st August 2020 at around 1 PM we set off on our West Highland Way adventure – we were to hike 96 miles from Milngavie in North Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. Seven challenging and emotional and sublime days later we reached the finish line in Fort William town centre, finally throwing off our heavy packs and resting our burning legs and throbbing feet. As people around us sipped their coffee and went about their Saturday shopping we sat still, our hearts full of pride at our achievement and what it took to get here.
In the coming blogs, I will be writing about our trials and tribulations. The wholesome meaty adventure of each day of our week-long hike. It will be difficult to squeeze this trip into words. Being our first multi-day hiking trip ever, each day was more physically and mentally demanding than any other trip in my life so far. I am proud that Jillianne and I were able to rise to the challenge with such humour and spirit and support each other throughout our lowest low’s and our highest high’s.
The morning of our hike
It was a Saturday morning and we had a million last-minute things to do, including sending a few ‘see you in a week’ e-mails, a trip to the post office and a pop-in to the chemist. By the time we were ready it was already past the time we wanted to leave, so we decided to drive to Milngavie to save time. About five minutes away from Milngavie we realised that we had forgotten our hiking boots – yes, our actual hiking boots! I usually travel in mine as they are trail runners, and Jillianne changes into hers, and because we already had shoes on from venturing out to the shops that morning we didn’t notice this before.
This is a remarkable set of circumstances even for us but it happened and we laughed and laughed. We drove all the way back home again (25 minutes in Glasgow traffic, painful), grabbed our hiking shoes and we eventually arrived in Milngavie about 12:45pm. We left our car at Milngavie railway station car park after reading online that parking was free and made our way to the start of the West Highland Way. Walking through the start gate honestly felt like a dream – I had seen the start point in so many pictures and YouTube videos for the last two months it felt surreal to finally be there, at long last, making our first steps into this iconic trail.
Section 1 – Milngavie to Garadhban Forest
The terrain through Mugdock Wood was flat and smooth. We passed a lot of dog walkers, each who gave us a nod or a knowing smile – our packs and giddy energy gave us away. As we passed one group, we heard a guy murmur to his family, “Look – there’s people walking it now, they’ve got a long way to go.” Having done less than one mile at that point, we thought this was funny. The guy was not wrong.
There were one or two instances where we checked signposts and our Harvey map to make sure we were going the right way; we knew that people had often got lost in this section and ended up in Mugdock Country Park. Close attention meant this didn’t happen to us, and we sped through the first 7-8 miles with a hop in our step, bouncing on pure excitement alone.
The terrain on this section was mostly green fields, which were hilly in parts but relatively flat. The concrete road up to Drymen is steep in parts and feels like it goes on and on, in the way the last mile or two of a hiking day always does. This day is one of the easiest sections of the hike, but take it steady to help your feet get used to the week ahead.
Other memorable moments
- We loved the wooden holiday huts at Carbeth – we thought they were v cute.
- We took a quick break in a field overlooking the Glengoyne distillery in Killearn, about 7 miles in. Sadly, the distillery was shut for tours, but we vowed to return one day soon for whisky tastings, even if we have to lie through our teeth that we like the taste.
- We spied our first Honesty Boxes in this section (there were at least 4 of them). The Honesty boxes offer food (baked goods, chocolate, ice cream) and drink (fizzy drinks, bottled water, sometimes tea and coffee) which you can take for loose change, the recommended payment is usually £1. They are a welcome sight for tired West Highland Way walkers and such a kind gesture from the local folks who run them. We stopped at the Duncan family farm honesty box which was at the top of a hill near Gartness, about two miles from Drymen. It had a wooden shed and picnic tables outside. Jillianne got an irn bru and I got a diet coke, and as we rested and nattered and laughed at our red faces we were so grateful for the treat. It was here that we got chatting to a cyclist who had just cycled from Partick and was taking a quick stop before riding back again. He assured us he had lights.
- As we arrived in Drymen at about 7 PM, a man waiting to cross the road was quick to tell me I looked goosed and was dismayed to find this was only after 12 miles. Based on that meeting I don’t think he held much hope that we would finish the WHW, but we knew ourselves better. I found people often underestimate the willpower of two female hikers. Throughout our hike people were constantly surprised that we were carrying our packs and wild camping.
- Anyway. We stopped at the Drymen Inn for dinner. Jillianne got her beloved mac and cheese with a Birra Moretti. I had a banging margherita pizza with a Tennants. The barman was kind.
- Thoroughly filled, we set off into the evening for another 4 miles, walking along the road and turning left up into the High Wood, which eventually turned into Garadhban Forest. This was our camping spot for the night, as we knew wild camping was tolerated here. It felt like we walked for hours in that forest (passing several tents and campfires and calling several ‘hiya’s’ at each, because ‘hiya’ is all you need to say to other walkers when you are tired). It was about 10:40 PM by the time we finally found a suitable enough spot to pitch our tent, with Loch Lomond peeking into view.
- I obviously don’t recommend pitching your tent this late. Its always best to pitch your tent before it is dark, so you have time to get settled, cook dinner (thankfully we ate already) and watch the night draw in. However, we were so late in leaving that morning that we expected a late-pitching, especially since we had walked 16 miles. A popular first night stop for West Highland Way walkers is Drymen, but we wanted to walk further on day one because:
- A) We were wild camping, and
- B) We wanted to get as close as possible to Conic Hill, so we could tackle it on fresh legs the following morning. We had climbed Conic Hill before and it is not the sort of ascent you want to do at the end of a day’s hike.
- We heard a dog sniffing our tent around midnight, which was a bit weird. Dog walkers are a bit nocturnal, eh? We slept like the dead after that and woke up at around 6 AM to pack up our tent and start a whole new day.
Next up is day 2, Garadhban Forest to Rowardennan. If you have any questions about the hike for day one or about the WHW as a whole, please reach out to me 🙂
Until next time,