The West Highland Way: Pt. II

The story of our 96mi walk across the Scottish Highlands, part two.

The West Highland Way: Pt. II

Note: This post originally appeared on our Patreon.

This week's post finishes the story of our walk across the Scottish Highlands, so if you haven't yet read Pt. I, you'll want to start there.

Day 5: Tyndrum to Kingshouse (18mi)

Fifth day, the long day. Eighteen miles, though we'd expected twenty. We were glad of the extra we'd walked the previous day.

We'd gone by the map's suggested distances each day, and this one, the longest, loomed always ahead. And then it was here: that cold awakening before sunrise and the first steps, with all of it still ahead.

Only a few miles in, a sudden searing pain at my heel, and out with the bandages. Not a blister, though: an angry tendon. It's over, I thought, unable to take a step. But I loosened my boots, stepped gingerly for a bit, and it gradually subsided back to soreness. Phew. We walked on.

This day wasn't difficult in the way others had been. Fewer hills, no rocky scrambles, no rain to slow us down. Mostly wide, gentle miles along an old cobblestone road and through the otherwordly quiet of the moors. I found myself weary, though: weary in a way I hadn't been on other days.

When we finally arrived at Kingshouse, I could barely stand. Thought I was tired from the walk, later realized I was sick.

We pitched our tent, and I gathered my things to shower at the inn. Threw open the flap to find a red deer inches from my face. We both jumped. Two does and two fawns, nibbling the food someone had scattered for them.

That night, feeling sick and propped on an elbow in my sleeping bag, I managed a few mouthfuls of dinner and fell asleep. It had been a tough day.

Day 6: Kingshouse to Kinlochleven (8mi)

Woke to a heavy, wet fog on day six. By the map, this day's walk would be the shortest—out of kindness and not difficulty, we hoped.

But first: a full Scottish breakfast at the inn, after days of instant oatmeal. I should've been ravenous that morning, but like the evening before, I could barely eat. Still, it felt good to sit at a table, warm and almost civilized.

Resuming the walk this time was tough. I felt shaky, and both sore heels had stiffened overnight. We walked against a light rain for the first few miles, then up and up the endless Devil's Staircase.

At the top, we stood between worlds: sunlight and rainbows ahead, and behind breathless mountains swept up into cloud. This place. Every form of it so wild and lovely you ache.

We trailed down through the rainbows, down from the hills, back into trees at last. Stopped in a village pub for coffee, and not a bad cappuccino at that.

A few miles on, we wild-camped for the final night: deep in the trees, overlooking the trail. Tiny roe deer crept out to peer at the strange hobbling creatures who'd come to share their woods for the night. We briefly lay awake listening to strange animal cries, different than any we knew, and tried to forget that tomorrow we’d be leaving all of this.

Day 7: Kinlochleven to Fort William (15mi)

Dawn of the final day. We'd been walking for six days now, and this, the seventh, would take us to mile 96: Fort William, and the end of the West Highland Way.

Writing this now, it's hard to call up the level of eagerness we felt so close to the end. There was some wistfulness, certainly, regret for the end of a beautiful thing. But in truth, we were excited to finish, excited to drop the backpacks, excited to eat real food.

We set out in perfect weather, flanked by mist-wrapped hills under sunshine, views of the village and woods behind. David added stones to the cairns we passed. I was beginning to recover from whatever ailment I'd picked up, even felt my stomach growl again ("DAVID! I'm hungry!").

The trouble with walking toward mist is that you eventually walk into it. The map promised a large forest ahead, though, so we pressed on, hoping for a drier lunch under trees.

There was no forest. There had been once, but it was now "managed," which meant countless miles of stumps and ruin. It was hard to imagine it had ever held the cool, deep green of the other woods we'd walked. I took no photos.

Finally, we crested a ridge to see gigantic Ben Nevis reaching into cloud before us, the UK's highest peak. Our way led down and around it, and we began to feel the friction of approaching city.

The last few miles seemed hardest of all. The tendons in my heels had been worsening, and they chose this moment to escalate. Step, knife, step, knife, knife. They'd stiffen if I stopped to rest, so head down, march on. Into the city, sidewalks, jarringly unsmiling people.

And at last: the end? The end. It seemed small, somehow, that moment. Maybe it was the unassuming signage, maybe that we'd finished alone. But in the next moment, a better ending, we were joined by fellow walkers, photos were taken, and we limped off to the bed-and-breakfast and a glorious dinner.

We'd seen other parts of Scotland before the walk and would see more after: Glasgow, Inverness, Edinburgh. But the Scotland we loved was there in the wild and the rain, carried home in the tread of our boots.