Honors history and classical studies student Joshua Windsor is spending the 2012-2013 year studying abroad as a Libby Finch scholar at Cambridge University, in Cambridge, England.
‘Oh yes, there’s trout in there, and perch and pike, and rainbow and brown trout’ said the elderly Scotsman, responding to my question about his intended quarry. After a few pleasantries he went back to his preparations. But as I turned to go he looked up from his fly-rod, his thin figure drowning in the vastness of his own waterproofs, and he gave me a wink and a knowing grin. ‘Happy walking!’ he said.
I was just then beside a small lake a few miles north of Milngavie (unaccountably pronounced ‘Mill-guy’), which town is the starting-point of the West Highland Way. One of Britain’s more famous trails, the WHW extends 96 miles through some of Scotland’s most diverse and dramatic scenery – past Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, through Rannoch Moor and Glen Coe – before ending in Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest of the peaks. Walking – a national pastime, it seems – has its passionate adherents, and walking the WHW in particular is itself a sort of tradition. People nod in recognition when its name is mentioned and wax lyrical about hiking it as a ‘young thing’.
After spending the weekend with a friend and his family in Edinburgh (that most beautiful of cities!), my feet began to itch, and I headed west to walk the Way – or at least to see how far I could go in three days. The first two days were warm and sunny and made for exceptional walking – I was unusually fortunate. (To the astonishment of some of my English friends, I managed a sunburn in Scotland). The miles seemed to pass in bunches as I marched through tiny hamlets like Drymen, Balmaha, and Radwardennan, and into the snow-covered crags of the Highlands proper. On the third morning, however, as I walked the old drovers’ road along the western edge of Rannoch Moor, the wind came up from the east, from across the North Sea, and the snow fell in intermittent showers. It was with relief that I came over a ridge to view the Kingshouse Inn in the valley below.
The WHW has its traditional watering-holes. There is, for instance, the Glengoyne Distillery, its whitewashed walls standing out against the green lowland backdrop, where a ‘wee dram’ refreshes many a walker. Or there is the lonely Kingshouse Inn (in peeling letters: ‘Hot food served all day 12-8.30 est. around 1754), where the guests all walk as if blistered and talk as if shouting against the Highland wind. When I made it to Kingshouse, I’d come 72 miles in 2½ days, and the Inn was a welcome respite. Twice I’d slept under the stars: once on bed of dry moss in a pine grove, once cocooned in the straw of a lamb dugout. So, for two hours I napped and warmed myself by the pot-bellied stove in the lounge before dining and retiring for the night with a cup of tea in hand.
Unfortunately, fatigue and work left undone in Cambridge forced me to leave off walking the WHW. I caught a bus to Glasgow, and thence onward travelled by rail through Edinburgh back to the University. When I boarded that bus the clouds were low and the Glen obscured. To my mind, nothing increases the majesty and allure of a mountain as being not-quite-able to see it. But on this occasion it seemed rather more melancholy; I would not see the Devil’s Staircase, nor would I see Loch Leven or reach Ben Nevis. More than these, there were the Highlands themselves which I was sorry to leave. I shall recall them long hence, and shall ‘raise a cup o’ kindness yet’ for the beauty of the land and the warmth of its people.
There is no question: the western Highlands are a magnificent stretch of country. When the sun rises over the lochs and turns the clouds into pink hanging lanterns at an empyrean festival, or when it sets on the bleak, treeless moor, or even in the midday when the snow glimmers in the crags, the land exudes that soul-stirring power we recognize in the energy of a Burns’ poem, or in the melancholy strength of the bagpipes.
Who knows? – I may yet see Loch Leven. And Ben Nevis isn’t going anywere. Happy walking, indeed!