The West Highland Way
It’s Country Walkers’ dream project – and now’s the perfect time to take it on. Here’s everything you didn’t know about a magnificent walk.
SOME 30 YEARS ago or thereabouts, a man stood on a hillside above Loch Lomond. He was looking down at a hydro-electric plant being built at the top of the loch. Suddenly he was worried. Technology was on the march. In his mind’s eye, he saw the great landscapes of the Highlands being chewed up by roads, turbines, pylons and factories.
“I know,” he said to his wife, who stood beside him.
“What we need is a walk. Something that brings people here and makes them interested in the landscape. Something that stops the diggers before they get here.”
The man was Tom Hunter. And his idea succeeded in ways he could never have imagined that afternoon on Ben Lomond. It became Scotland’s most popular walk. The dream date of Country Walking readers. The West Highland Way.
In 95 never-forget miles, this highest of high roads takes you from Milngavie on the doorstep of Glasgow, past the banks of Loch Lomond and up through the Highlands to the foot of Ben Nevis, weaving together ancient drove roads, blood-soaked battle sites and military highways as it goes.
And although it passes among some of the most perfectly sculpted mountains in the nation, it doesn’t require you to climb them. It’s a way to see Scotland’s bigness without being terrorised by it.
That may have been one of the reasons it thrashed the competition in a recent survey of CW readers’ ultimate aspirations.
Or maybe it was the landmarks: Loch Lomond, the largest lake in Britain; the great mountainfringed emptiness of Rannoch Moor; the sublime fastness of Glen Coe; the Mordorian wend of the Devil’s Staircase.
Or maybe it was the experience of walking it: the friendships, the welcomes, the fine hotels and the cheery campsites. The distilleries and the chippies. The tangled roots of the shoreline path up Lomond and the triumphal reveal of Buachaille Etive Mòr.
Or maybe it’s because the West Highland Way is the perfect late summer project: busy enough that you don’t feel alone in big country, but tranquil enough to find your own space. The midges are minimised, the temperatures are mostly tolerable, and rainfall is at its lowest.
So here’s the Country Walking guide to the West Highland Way. We’ve rounded up the people who know it, love it and in some cases walk bits of it every day. We’ve also spoken to CW readers who’ve walked it, and who know all the things you want to know about it. The good, the bad, the quirky, the unmissable. The big wins and the hard lessons.
So if the West Highland Way has ever been on your wish-list, read on. With a bit of luck we can push you just over the edge, to that lovely point where you reach for your boots. To see what that man on the hillside created. The back story Tom Hunter worked tirelessly for a dozen years to bring the West Highland Way to life. Together with his wife Margaret and their friends from the HF Outdoor Club in Glasgow, they conceived a route that would stitch together the lattice of old drove roads and military roads leading from the Central Belt to the Great Glen.
Initially their plans were smaller; Tom called it The Highland Way and it was to run from Glasgow to Loch Falloch, at the top end of Loch Lomond. Over time the plan became more ambitious, extending ever further north, eventually reaching right up to Fort William.
Throughout the process of dealing with politicians and government agencies, Tom was unfailingly polite – but absolutely tenacious. It was a passion born of desperation.
“There’s just enough walking country for our lifetime,” Tom warned.
“But if we don’t do something now there will be none for future generations.”
The Way was finally approved for development in
1974 and offifficially opened on October 6th 1980, becoming the fifirst ever Scottish long-distance path. Tom himself wrote the fifirst guidebook to the Way, noting in the foreword: “I wish to thank my wife for assistance in the fifield, for checking the manuscript, and for her constant criticism which, although annoying, was very necessary.”
Tom remained a keen walker through his life; together he and Margaret climbed 287 Scottish mountains – not to ‘ bag Munros’, but simply because they liked doing it.
He made only a few public appearances, including cutting the ribbon on a new visitor centre at Milngavie (the start of the Way) in 2010. He passed away last year at the age of 90, after saying he felt “bewildered but delighted” at the success of the path he helped to forge.
From all of us, Tom: thank you.
LOCH LOMOND Looking down the loch from Inveruglas. The Way follows the far shoreline, passing beneath distant Ben Lomond.
GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY Left to right: the remote Blackrock Cottage is a fine place to stay on Rannoch Moor; the view down Gleann Achadh Innis Chailein near Bridge of Orchy; and the
late Tom Hunter, originator of the West Highland Way.