West Highland Way

Life force: (noun) ‘the spirit which animates living creatures; the soul.’

It’s a powerful thing this life-force; a term we’ve adopted to compensate for that bridge between the rational-scientific and the spiritual, because there is undeniably something other than mere existence that drives us forward. That beyond the biological mechanics, chemistry and physics that make up our ‘being’, there’s something intangible and inexplicable that gives us purpose; that despite the efforts of our magnificent human brain to tell us it’s all futile in the end, we say quietly to the void, ‘fuck you’; it’s our party and we’ll try if we want to.

For me, against the backdrop of a year in which I succumbed to Covid, the numerous false dawns of recovery, the constant fatigue, the discovery that my immune system has gone into overdrive with the attendant worry that something nasty may develop from that, but then again may never come, I admit to have plumbed some pretty dark depths. I might have, at some key point in 2020, been officially and deeply depressed.

It takes time. But, bit-by-bit you restore. Not just by yourself, but through the actions of others and the unfolding of events, dear boy. Events. The birth of your first grandson, that roll of the dice in Knoydart where you took that first (small) hill-walk and saw otters and wild deer; and stood overlooking the wilderness gawping at rainbows in the midst of a savage hailstorm and laughed because of the mad beauty of it all. It gave impetus to more incremental pushing at unnaturally constricted physical boundaries; each time putting my arse on the canvas, but as certain as each wave brings the tide closer, you start to feel you might be coming back to life after all.

And then a good friend tells you that they’re thinking of doing the West Highland Way.

Serendipity: (another noun); ‘the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way’.

Maybe it’s just timing. Maybe there’s never a right time at all. Maybe you’ve just got to say ‘fuck it’ and whether the moment seems propitious or not, take whatever comes on the chin and embark on something whether you’re confident of finishing it or not. Maybe there’s not as much road before you as there used to be, but wouldn’t it be good to walk as much of it as you can, under your own steam?

The Way is many things. A walk, obviously. An unfolding diorama of Scotland’s varied landscapes from the douce suburbia of Milngavie and the gentle, bucolic upswell to Killearn and Balmaha, to the first tangible sense of Highland Scotland that comes with crossing the fault line at Conic Hill; the gruelling, physical and emotional battle to break free of the lowlands that’s the torture of Balmaha to Inverarnan; the rising of the land through Glen Falloch and onwards and upwards, deeper into the wilderness, away from modern life and all its pressures.

Loch Lomond from Conic Hill

But it’s more than that. It’s a metaphysical kinda thing. A leap of faith. Scotland’s own secular Camino perhaps. It’s McAppian Way maybe. Something like that, for it often felt like a pilgrimage, each laboured step across the uneven earth, the ruckle and click of the stones under your boots, the eternal wind flowing round you, day-dream and memory carried off in ephemeral swirls and eddies of consciousness, a sloughing of regret and grief, self-criticism and doubt. A self-made slipstream in which time, made fluid, passes through and you reach a state of contemplation and reflection, hypnotised by your own laboured efforts till you reach an epiphany somewhere in the Black Mount and the tears well up from nowhere and you smile at the magnificent desolate beauty around you knowing then that you’d been carrying a burden for too long but that it feels much lighter now.

River Falloch in Glen Falloch
The top of Glen Falloch near Crianlarich
Cruach Adrain from Tyndrum

Of course it helps that you’ve got good company. Someone who has their own challenges to overcome both physical and emotional. And in the wide open spaces, free from the social constrictions of urbania, the breaking of occasional silences are filled with stories of those who’ve had the greatest impact on your lives. Parents and friends, lovers and enemies. Of opportunities missed and unexpected triumphs. Of life’s great events, of politics and culture, art and literature, history and geology. Life and Death. Singing daft songs to lift your spirits and throwing one liners over a shoulder as you reach the next fucker of a hill. And what is shared on The Way, stays on The Way…

Glen Orchy
Crossing Rannoch Moor to Inveroran
Black Mount, Rannoch Moor
Glencoe and the Buchaillie Etive Mor

Catharsis: (noun) ‘the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.’

The realisation I’d been swallowed up came on the long gradual ascent to the Lairig Ghru, the desolate wilderness accentuated by the ruined cottages there, the bare slabbed peak of Stob Ban above us, the skies at last beginning to clear, the land, still, beneath my feet. It struck me then, that after five days on the trail I didn’t want it to end. Fantastic as that sounds, I could’ve walked it forever, never to return. Completely disconnected. By then I knew we’d both complete the walk, something which the night before seemed unlikely and the walk down Glen Nevis was consumed by a strange mix of euphoria and a sense of loss that is quite impossible to describe. A feeling accentuated by the re-immersion into urban life that The Way forces upon you in those last few miles.

Glencoe from the Devil’s Staircase
The ascent to the Lairig Ghru

And yes, I had a wee ‘greet’. I had no idea the events of the past year had weighed so heavily, as indeed the events in my life of a few years before. I threw myself at it and despite the ensuing deep fatigue, found positive traits long abandoned that were very much still in evidence. Five days is a tall order, especially as you get older, but I’m glad we set ourselves such a stiff challenge for it made the achievement all the sweeter. I met fantastic people, walked through some of the most stunning scenery in the world, rode the ups and the downs and came out the other end more or less in one piece, with memories to last the rest of my life and the satisfaction of being a West Highland Way finisher. I got my ‘life-force’ back and though a double hernia and a suspect knee might preclude a marathon in the near future, the walk has proven I’m not the physical wreck I began to think I was.

Ben Nevis and the first tangible evidence the walk is nearly over.
The end in sight. The outskirts of Fort William.

The West Highland Way is a significant challenge. Especially the famous section along the east shore of Loch Lomond. But you don’t have to do the whole route in five days. You can walk it in as many as you can spare. There’re lovely places to stay and friendly people everywhere. The scenery is absolutely beautiful; the view from Conic Hill, the Black Mount and Rannoch Moor, Glencoe and the Lairg Ghru, and that first glimpse of Ben Nevis. Grab some friends and go if you can. Take that leap. Maybe you’ll find something along the way.

The finish of the West Highland Way in the town centre. A welcome sight!

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