Somewhere in Scotland-2
Into the Highlands, and arriving at the end
After spending an extra day at Crianlarich exploring some local trails, I walk to Inveroran, a tiny settlement along the West Highland Way. There are no shops here, only a 300-year-old hotel where Charles Darwin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Dickens once stayed.
Crianlarich-Inveroran: 22.03 km
Onwards from Crianlarich, it will become obvious to any walker that she is entering the Scottish Highlands. Peaks and valleys become more common from then on, and the West Highland Way comes right beside two beautiful munros, (Scottish peaks measuring 3,000 feet (914m) and above), called Beinn Dorain and Beinn an Dothaidh.
From Tyndrum, the trail is the complete opposite of the muddy path from the day before- here, the West Highland Way makes use of old military roads. The good thing about military roads is that they are proper tracks and not forest trails flattened from the decades, or in some cases, centuries, of use. The downside of these tracks is that they are stony and painful for the feet, especially flat feet such as mine. It is also here that I see my first non-white person, a tall ebony-skinned woman in a bright green jacket who catches up and overtakes me in minutes. My walk from Crianlarich leads to me to Inveroran, a tiny hamlet whose existence is marked only by a few houses and one hotel.
Inveroran-Glencoe: 10.3 km
From Inveroran, I decide to take a detour off the Way and head for Glencoe valley to explore its trails. Glencoe has some of the most stunning scenery in Scotland, but its local history is just as fascinating. In the early hours of February 13, 1692, after 12 days of enjoying the generosity and hospitality of their hosts the MacDonalds of Glencoe, army officers led by Captain Robert Campbell turned on their hosts and began killing them one by one. The remaining MacDonalds who escaped into the nearby hills, including women and children, died from exposure. If you think this sounds familiar, you’re not wrong. The Massacre of Glencoe became the inspiration behind ‘Game of Thrones’ author George RR Martin’s ‘Red Wedding’ episode.
Glencoe-Kinlochleven: 6.6 km
This is my second last day on the West Highland Way, and I’m beginning to dread arriving at the end tomorrow. I call my parents and tell my mother how I’m not looking forward to arriving at Fort William, to no longer sticking to a routine I had grown to love: waking up early, grabbing breakfast, tying on my boots and stepping out. I would miss that terribly.
Before turning in for the night, I go out to look at the sun setting over Loch Leven. I had grown attached to my surroundings- the land, the mountains and the trees- over the past week, but this is what long walks do. With every step your feet become your link to the rocks and the mud beneath your feet. You lose your way, your knees ache, you get blisters, you create new swear words, but you feel a closeness to the very earth you walk on in a way that is not possible in a car or on a plane.
Kinlochleven-Fort William: 27 km
I decide to have a slap-up breakfast on my last day: fresh fruit, porridge with honey, croissants with butter, and smoked kippers. How tragic, I tell myself, that there is no nasi lemak in this part of the world.
The trail climbs soon after entering the woods at Kinlochleven. The path is stony and climbs high above the village, crossing a few streams along the way. As I try my best not to slip on the wet stones, a group of Canadian walkers in their sixties catch up with me. I offer to take their photo for them, and they take one of me.
“We saw you the other day near Loch Lomond. How’s it going for you?” one of the women asks. It’s going well, I tell her, surprised that she remembers me. “I’m happy to be here but sad that it’ll be over in a few hours,” I say, and they nod in agreement. We chat a bit more then they say goodbye – “See you in Fort William!” – and push off. I watch them go up the hill. Remember to never underestimate old people.
The trail soon enters a barren, desolate mountain pass called the Lairigmor. This part is completely exposed- there are no trees here to block my view, so I can see the Way snaking ahead in front of me, flanked by grass-covered peaks. Beautiful in its bleakness, but not somewhere you would want to be caught in bad weather. An hour later, my ears catch the sound of something I haven’t heard in a long time. It is raining yet again and I can’t see through the clouds, but I know that a helicopter is somewhere up there, going around in circles judging by the loud-faint-loud again whirr of its engine. In the highlands in weather like this, helicopters usually mean that someone is in a spot of trouble and has called emergency rescue services.
About two hours later I arrive at a junction, presenting me with two options: to continue on the West Highland Way, or to take a shortcut to Fort William. I actually find shortcuts annoying. On walking trails, shortcuts help you arrive earlier but are almost always less scenic and anti-climactic, so I decide to ignore this one. As I turn into the official path, I pass two Spanish guys boiling water in their portable stove.
Dense conifer plantations line the last few kilometres towards Fort William. At times I hear –or imagine I hear- footsteps and rustling behind me, but when I turn around, there’s nothing there.
When I finally exit the forest about an hour later, I am greeted by a view of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain. The peak is completely covered by cloud, though, so I can’t see very much. This point marks the beginning of the end of the West Highland Way- the sad trudge into Fort William back to civilisation, back to humanity and a different kind of routine. This is the part I am dreading.
And then I hear actual footfalls and voices behind me. I turn to see the two Spaniards I saw earlier, stumbling out of a nearby hedge, looking dishevelled and confused. I know instantly that they took the short cut because I didn’t bump into them at all after I left them at the junction. If they had taken the official route, being younger and fitter than I, they would’ve easily overtaken me.
I begin walking very quickly. My wool socks (I’m wearing two pairs) are the only things cushioning my sore feet from the hard ground, but I am practically skimming the pavement, forcing myself to break into a sprint.
“You guys are not overtaking me now, not at the end. Especially when you took the bloody shortcut,” I mutter under my breath. For the first time this week, I am walking as quickly as I can, in spite of the excruciating pain I am feeling in my feet and knees.
I lose them five minutes later after turning a corner into Fort William. The town is regarded as the capital of the Scottish Highlands and attracts those who love the outdoors- long-distance walkers, hikers and mountain climbers. I arrive, limping, at the end of the West Highland Way- an official plaque and a statue of a weary walker- in the pouring rain, and with no-one around to take my photo. I remind myself to go again in the morning when more people are likely to be out and about.
After a much-needed foot soak and bath at my hotel, I celebrate with a plate of rice and extra-hot prawn curry at a local Thai restaurant. This part of civilisation I don’t mind, I tell myself. As I hobble out of the restaurant, a man sitting with two others calls to me. “Hey, you made it,” he said, the way friends do, and I recognise him as one of the walkers on the trail. “Yes, I guess I did,” and we both laugh.
The next morning, I head over to the statue again and whom should I bump into but the Spanish walkers from yesterday.
This time I say hello. They recognise me as the evil witch who sprinted away from them.
“Shall I take a photo of both of you?” I ask.
“That would be nice, thank you,” one of them says.
I take four photos, two of them together and one of each of them alone with the statue.
We say goodbye, and wish each other good luck and safe travels. As I wave to them and walk away from the statue, the sky opens and I feel the familiar wetness of fresh raindrops on my face.
*This story originally appeared in GO on April 13, 2017.
© 2017, Anis. All rights reserved.