Somewhere near the end of the Summer of 2018, I found myself in Scotland and on the West Highland Way. This was easily the most popular – if you measure popularity by what the first result is when you type “Scotland Hiking” on Google – trail in Scotland. From what I was reading, it was one of the most beautiful trails in the world, and one of the most challenging, and one of the most everything. Marketing, hmph.
The trail covers 154 km from close to Glasgow to the start of the Scottish “highlands”. The elevation gain is about 4500 m. Spread across five days, this number kind of challenges the whole “once in a lifetime” vibes that the marketing feeds you.
You don’t go high, you don’t go far. The views are quite good, but an average day in the Alps probably has better views than your best day along the WHW. A bad day in the Himalayas is probably better than both. There is hardly any wildlife to speak of, and there are fifty thousand other hikers and tourists. There are bars and pubs everywhere.
So, why would you still walk this touristic trail?
You don’t go high, and you don’t go far. So you can walk at your own pace. I walked the 154 km in five and a half days, which included one day of being lost for a few hours. It didn’t need to be a challenge, but it became one for me because I willed it into being. You can go slow if you want, and you can go fast if you like.
An average day in the Alps probably has better views than your best day along the WHW. This is true, but you know, Scotland’s weather does have its own charm. A gentle rain throughout the day, the sun peeking out once in a while from behind the clouds, the green glistening grass, the sheep, the gentle inclines, and the vast but illusory emptiness. All of these make for a very contemplative experience if that’s what you want. At the very least, you’ll realize it’s not all about the views all of the time. The effort itself is pleasure.
There is hardly any wildlife to speak of, and there are fifty thousand other hikers and tourists. The lack of wildlife is quite sad. Ye olde Scottish hunters probably killed all the birds and animals that used to roam these lands. As for the people, a large number of hikers means there is no dearth of interesting characters. From impassioned conversations about Donald Trump with a young couple from Florida to discussing blisters on your feet with a seventy year-old Indian uncle on his millionth hike, there was never a dull moment when I was walking with someone on the trail. On the fifth and sixth day, I hiked with a Spanish guy who showed me all the “carnivorous plants” along the way, and told me more about the mating habits of toads than I ever wanted to know. With his friend from Barcelona, I spent hours talking about Yoga, Buddhism, and the parallels between Catalonia and Kashmir.
There are bars and pubs everywhere. Haggis, whisky, beer, pies, and eggs in various forms were probably all consumed on any given day. Haggis was quite interesting, though I never really understood what it was. Blood sausage, maybe? Scottish pies were nice, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to make of the boiled peas. Is this what passes for vegetables in the UK? I’m no expert, but Scottish whiskey tastes great. Wash it down with a beer, and feel satisfied.
It’s not just just bars and pubs that are numerous along the trail. There are campsites everywhere. I feel bad now for not paying attention to the fact that wild camping is legal everywhere in Scotland! I used my tent every night, but only on official campsites, where there’s always food and drink nearby.
The weather in Scotland is the weather in Scotland. You don’t predict…you just deal. If you get more than three sunny days out of five, consider yourself lucky. If you’re going to do the trail, be prepared for rain, cold, and those pesky midges.
I actually went into the trail assuming midges were flies, silly me. One night, I was camping close to the Bridge of Orchy (a famous, but unspectacular bridge on the trail), and I left my tent open by mistake when I went to get dinner. When I came back after unhealthy portions of whisky, beer, and pie, my tent was covered with these tiny assholes. They get everywhere! In your eyes, in your underwear, in your armpits, inside your nose,… I’ve never had a problem with mosquitoes, but fuck midges.
I finished the hike quite quickly; maybe too quickly. Did I need to? No. Did it hurt? Yes. Do I regret it? No. I could have climbed Ben Nevis – Scotland’s highest hill – on the last day, but I did not because it didn’t seem like enough of a challenge to spend another day walking in the rain. Plus, I was really enjoying the company of the two Spanish people. I took a train back to Glasgow, and smiled as we passed the lake I had just walked along tired and campsite-hunting just a few days ago. Five-and-a-half days of walking one way, and two hours in a train the other.
On one of the days, it was raining pleasantly, and I was walking confidently. There was an old Norwegian couple, who I kept meeting throughout the day. We talked about the deer we saw occasionally, but mostly we smiled a lot. Later in the day, I left them behind and was completely alone. It was still raining, and the trail was flanked by open space as far as I could see. The sky was completely grey, and my face was completely wet. I was part of the landscape then. No boundaries here, only a full life.