There's really no better way to get to know a place then to go à pied. I can not think of anything I'd rather do more then to take a walk outside. The zen of moving your feet forward, slowly and deliberately, for days on end is probably the best way I know to quiet the mind and clear the head of cobwebs. Try worrying about petty bullshite at the end of a 20 mile day. It's impossible!
We had toyed with the idea of doing a big Scotland trip but soon were overwhelmed by the choices, which we were spoiled by. Scotland has serious mountains- a freak of geology means the gentle rolling hills of England and lowlands are all but a distant memory.
I did do a more expansive Scotland trip about 10 years ago, via motorized means, with stops on the stunningly beautiful Isle of Skye, across the highlands to Inverness to hike in the lonely Caringorms, then down through Speyside to drink all the Scotch. That was fun; I felt like I had seen quite a lot and covered ground, and had a pretty good time to boot. I wanted to see more though, and Scotland is a place I will always be happy to return to. That Victorian ideal of the romantic and wild highlands rings true even today.
We had heard whispering of the West Highland Way trail all summer as we walked and bumped into other hikers. It's by far the most popular distance walk in Scotland- it requires no camping or gear (unless you want to) and the trail covered a great deal of terrain over close to 100 miles. We bumped into a mother-daughter team while we were doing Hadrian's Wall who told us two things: it's fantastic, except for the fact that you shadow and A road for a great deal of it, and not to finish early in the day because you'll have nothing to do. The highway was the most bothersome of worries, having nothing to do I scoffed at. I am a slow-ass walker, and finishing early is never a concern. Finishing in the dark usually is. Plus, I'm a knitter. I always have something to do.
Like all or our adventures, this one was booked hastily and nearly impulsively- I found a guide book and map and I booked the rooms about a week in advance. If it was high summer, this would have been impossible, but September is the best time to travel.
Plus, we were going to be in Scotland for the referendum vote. How exciting would that be?
After a long train ride north to Glasgow, we stopped in for one last dram at my new favorite bar, The Pot Still. They had a wall of hundreds of bottles of Scotch, most of which I had never heard of. After a slightly glazed stare at the impossible dream wall in I was faced with, the friendly barman who happened to look like someone out of Magic Mike, ie someone who causes much blushing by just saying hello- took notice and started a chat. He inquired about my likes and dislikes. "Nothing peaty or too smokey" I said. He clambered up a ladder and pulled a few bottles before pouring me a lovey dram of Glenfarclas.
I couldn't find a room or a bunk at the trailhead in Millingavie, so we spent the night in the Glasgow train station and made the quick trip to Millingavie first thing in the morning, and soon found ourselves at the trailhead, ready for a very reasonable 12 mile hike.
It was a Saturday, and there were quite a few other hikers milling around, ready to start. It's hard not to be giddy before a big walk, and maybe a little nervous as well. This was especially true since I had smartly signed on to have our bags ported from place to place. After the aches and pains of the Coast to Coast and seeing absolutely no one on the trail with big packs, I gave Travelite a call. You fill out a form where you plan on staying each night and like magic, your bag will be there waiting for you. They have a van waiting at the trailhead, and I was free to walk about with just water and food and a couple spare sets of socks and a rain jacket in my pack. Talk about freedom!
At 94 miles, this would be my biggest, longest hike to date. We decided to put ourselves on target for a very reasonable 7 days of walking, with just one official 20-mile day as our longest slog.
So it begins.
Leaving Glasgow through a delightfully fog-laden forest made for a peaceful start. We had discussed taking the train up the road a bit to skip the first day, which was a relatively elevation-gain free day of 12 miles. However, it was foretold there would be a very important place to stop en-route, so we buckled down and suffered through the boring bits.
The fog soon started to burn off, leaving us to contemplate a peaceful forest.
We soon took our first off-trail miles to check out the ruins of 14th century Mugdock Castle.
In the time we had taken to walk a couple of miles off-trail, the rest of the world had caught up with us.
Sigh. This was not a lonely trail.
We did encounter a rather eccentric fellow sitting trailside and wanting to engage passer-bys with a chat about the USMC. When he found out we were from the states, he was overjoyed and started peppering us with all sorts of military questions with an accent so thick we questioned if he was speaking English for a second before we picked up on the delightful cadence of the thick Glaswegian he was spouting.
My one regret: we didn't go up and over the Campsies, the ridge of steep hills in the distance. It would have made for a much longer, much more exhausting first day. The weather was beautiful though and it's just something I should have taken initiative on.
From the trail, you could see the tops of a stone circle left here by the ancients:
Soon, we found the turnoff for the entire reason for not skipping the first day:
Glengoyne! One of my favorite Scotches, and in a most pastoral setting. We took an hour off for a tour and a few drams, a sit by the waterfall for lunch before continuing at a much lazier pace.
It's a lovely place, with all sorts of good sweet smells being emitted from the vats and barrels. We purchased a small bottle to fuel our post-walk appetite and kill a bit of pain. It was a lovely way to spend a couple hours. We had gotten there early in the day, but as we were leaving, we noticed the car park full of buses and vans, and vast amount of stag parties on their way to a riotous start. After all, we were just mere miles outside of Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland. How easy it is to forget!
However, with my courage up, instead of rejoining the trail after lunch, I went rogue and started the long, steep climb up Dumgoyne.
Gah. That was much, much steeper than I thought it would be. But hey, what fun it is to go off trail, escape the crowds and take in views the rest of the through hikers won't get.
After that little adventure, the rest of the day was quite boring. We walked with the A81 within earshot through farm fields for the next five miles until we hit Drymen, our first overnight.
Aside from the Campsies climb and Glengoyne, I could understand how this section would be considered skipable. Pressed for time? Easily bored? Start further up the trail. Hardcore? Begin at the beginning.
Despite the warm sunny day, the geese knew what was up:
The end of the first day found as at an adorable victorian b&b just inside the Trossachs National Park. A mile down the road was Drymen, where there were pubs and a grocery...this was obviously a place where a great deal of people exploring the Trossachs use as a base camp, and this is where the Rob Roy Way trail begins.
We had dinner at the Calachan, a tiny 18th c pub where we started our "haggis crawl". Seriously, it's not that bad, tasting much like anything I've had in France when served organ meat. When spiced correctly, it's similar to pate. Apparently, it can not be imported to the States as "sheep lungs are unfit for human consumption". Really? Somehow abominations such as Twinkies and Cheese-wiz are? Unless said sheep was a heavy smoker of Lucky Strikes, I'm pretty sure haggis could be considered heath food if you went paleo.
There were oodles of other exhausted-looking walkers crowded in the little low-ceilinged pub, and drinking the requisite post-trail beer.
We were exhausted (especially after all of our off-trail escapades and hill climb) but blissfully happy to have chosen this as our trail for the week.