Dispatch from the Highlands: Part One

In June 2017, Tom decided to hike the West Highland Way. The result, other than copious blisters and a bad back, is this series of articles. The names of all involved have been changed.

I agreed to walk the West Highland Way, a 96-mile hike from Milngavie, a small town just outside Glasgow, to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands, after watching the film adaptation of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. It chronicles Bryson’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail, a hike that stretches over 2000 miles along the east coast of the United States, all the way from Maine to Georgia. Watching a film is a stupid reason to agree to a hike.

Now, 96 miles across the Scottish Highlands cannot really be compared to 2000 miles up the east coast of the States, the Appalachian Trail is much more dangerous. It has dense forests, more extreme weather, the odd bear or two, and perhaps most notably, Americans. It also (obviously) takes a lot longer to walk 2000 miles than it does 96. People walk for six months straight to make the journey up the east coast.

I didn’t have six months to spare. More importantly, I did not want to spend six months of my life walking a trail I had only just heard of. I didn’t quite know why I wanted to spend any of my time hiking, I just know that when A Walk in the Woods ended, I knew that I was going walking. The West Highland Way can be walked in seven days, and an old flatmate Dean and I decided that this was something we could easily accomplish. We were fools.

*

Seven days of walking, my appalling fitness notwithstanding, didn’t worry me quite as much as the prospect of camping did. I was more than happy to sleep in hostels and bunkhouses, but Dean, who at the outset of the whole endeavour was definitely the more enthusiastic party, was set on camping for at least part of the journey.

So, I found myself standing over a half-constructed tent in my local park, swearing at one of the tent poles, as it steadfastly refused to bend in the way I wished it to. I was beginning to draw stares from those in the park, who had clearly started to wonder whether I was planning on staying the night. Dean, whose tent had been constructed irritably quickly, came over to assess the situation.

Infuriatingly, he had no trouble erecting my stricken tent, and after gently scalding me for my impatience (I may have thrown a tent pole or two into the ground), turned to me:

“Maybe we should just carry one tent between us,” he said. “There’s room for both of us in one, and we can take it in turns carrying it.”

“I think that’s a really fucking good idea.”

We packed the tents away, which was somehow more difficult, and filled me with more hatred, than putting them up.

*

Milngavie isn’t pronounced how you would think. If you have never found yourself in its vicinity, and the first time you had even heard of it is reading this, your brain has probably been pronouncing it like it’s spelt. The n in the middle looks tricky, but other than that, it looks pretty simple. Mil-n-gavie. If your brain has been doing that, it’s wrong. I discovered while walking the West Highland Way that Scottish place names will inevitably not be pronounced the way any non-Scottish person would think. Milngavie is actually pronounced Mull-guy. I have no idea why.

Milngavie’s point of note other than its pronunciation is that it is the start of the Way. We arrived on the Sunday evening, and woke early on the Monday morning. Having checked out of the hotel, and left what we expected to be our last comfy bed for the week, we walked to the obelisk in the centre of Milngavie marking the beginning of the trail. We took the customary start-of-walk photographs, and set off.

The first day of the trail is relatively easy, and despite our rucksacks carrying tents and camping gear, we found ourselves passing groups of hikers walking the Way with day packs. They had given their main luggage to carrier services that operate throughout the Way. For a small fee, they will take your bag to your final stop for the day. I was a little smug as we passed these walkers, even if some had clearly collected a fair chunk of their pension. I was carrying all of my luggage from the beginning to the end, and I wore the needlessly heavy bag with honour that first day. I would hate myself for my stubbornness and pride by the end of the walk, when my shoulders were in bits.

Faster than us and the pensioners with day bags, however, were two Dutchmen. We would soon learn their names were Rik and Seb, but for all of the first day on the trail, they were known, uncreatively, as the flying Dutchmen. They passed us after about an hour of walking, and although we stayed with them for all of ten strides, they were soon in the distance. Every time they stopped for a drink, we would begin to see them in the distance, but they would soon set off again, becoming silhouettes in the distance.

We finally caught up with them properly at the lunch stop for the day, the only pub on this part of the route. The walking hadn’t been too hard that morning, and we were confident that the rest of the day would be easy enough, so we skipped a big lunch, and instead just had a drink. I bought two pints, and on the way out of the pub noticed a sign above the door that said ‘Thank you for choosing to stop here’, or words to that effect. I took the drinks outside, and for a moment surveyed the surroundings. There was nothing but fields, and off to the right, the West Highland Way, which was at that point a narrow gentle path where an old train line used to run. We were at the first and only pub on the route until the final stop for the day: Drymen. Where else would I choose?

*

We walked the last six miles of the first day that afternoon. We spent a brief period of time ahead of the flying Dutchmen (because we left the pub before them), but otherwise spent the couple of hours it took to get to Drymen blissfully alone. The trail was easy going, bar a brief hill up to the campsite, which it turned out was a mile outside of Drymen, and we arrived in buoyant spirits. It had barely passed three in the afternoon when we dropped our bags at the camp and said hello to the Dutchmen. Although the first day was one of the shorter legs, at only twelve or thirteen miles, we thought we could have walked it faster, and debated making our second day longer. The original route we had planned was from Drymen to Rowardennan, where we would camp at a youth hostel, but we had found day one so easy-going we considered pushing on from Rowardennan to Inversnaid. But we left the thought for tomorrow, and kept our booking with the hostel in Rowardennan. Cancelling it and pushing ourselves would have ended up being one of the more stupid decisions of my life. Day two was not to be fucked with.

*

We pitched the tent, and I decided to walk from the campsite to Drymen, the first overnight stop on the Way. The campsite had advertised itself as being, well, Drymen, but that was clearly not the case. It took me twenty minutes to walk the last mile or so into the village. On the way I met a young German couple named Alex and Sara. We chatted,  and they told me they were staying in a B&B in the village, as they had booked far in advance. Dean and I had only sat down to look at where we were staying while walking two days before we set off from Milngavie. Alex and Sara’s pre-planning would aide them later, when they take a more central role in this story.

But for now, I left them in the centre of the village, and walked into a quaint looking village shop. A woman greeted me from behind the counter.

“Say, that campsite really isn’t in Drymen, is it?” I joked.

“Drimmun,” she replied sharply.

“I’m sorry?”

“It’s pronounced Drimmun, not ‘dry-men.’”

“Oh, sorry. Well, that campsite really isn’t in Drimmun, is it?”

“I’m sure you’re used to walking by now!” she shot back. I had clearly deeply wounded her by mispronouncing her village’s name. Drymen was only a day into the Way, so I clearly was not used to it, but her bluntness had disarmed me.

“I suppose,” I whispered.

I looked around for a notebook, which I quickly found, but I couldn’t find a pen. Not wanting to engage the shopkeeper, who was now eyeing me suspiciously, in more conversation, I desperately searched the shop, but ended up in the food section. This was a mistake, as it prompted more conversation.

“What sort of thing are you looking for?” she asked.

“Oh just some snacks, cereal bars, that sort of thing.”

“Well we have flapjack, we have nutri-grain, we have every sort of porridge you could possibly want. We’ve got nuts, we’ve got chocolate.”

“Oh, I think the friend I’m walking with is going to make porridge in the morning, he has oats.”

“Oats he’d have to heat up in a pan?”

“I suppose he would, yes.”

She shook her head. Dean’s choice of porridge clearly troubled her.

“He’ll have to wash the pan out, which will waste his water. You want some of the porridge I sell, you can heat it in the container it comes in, then just throw that away. Much better.”

I thanked her for the insight, and hoped she would stop talking when I politely picked a bar of flapjack off the shelf.

“You want some eggs?” she persisted. “Fresh this morning. You can just scramble ‘em in a pan and eat ‘em straight out of that.”

“No, thank you.” I gave up looking and asked. “Do you have a pen?”

“Blue or black?”

“Either.”

She fumbled behind the counter, and for a second I thought she was looking for a gun, so she could shoot me for my pronunciation and for Dean’s porridge choice, but she eventually plucked out a pen and tested it on a sheet of paper, before selling it to me along with the notebook and flapjack. I would normally think it odd that a shop kept pens behind the counter, rather than with the notebooks, but it was not a stretch to imagine other customers had hurled them at her. I debated throwing my pen at her, but instead I walked back to the campsite in pursuit of Dean and food.

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