West Highland Way

hardback: 275 x 260mm
112 pages: 150 colour pictures
Frances Lincoln 2010: 17: ISBN 978-0-7112-3033-0

The 95-mile West Highland Way was devised in the 1960s and opened in 1980. But in a sense it has always been here. Clansmen and cattle thieves, redcoats and Sir Walter Scott in quest of a fictional character he called Rob Roy -- as well as Rob Roy himself, an honourable cattle thief -- all of them have travelled this route between the Lowlands and Lochaber.

This book traces the journey of glens and low passes, under the crags and high grassy sides of seven of Scotland's hill ranges: from the Arrochar Alps of Loch Lomond to the Black Mount of Argyll, the Mamores and Ben Nevis. Along the way we see wild goats, the red deer of Rannoch, the golden eagle, and the meadow pipit. We enjoy purple orchids, wild heather and golden birches, and walk through fields of yellow asphodel.

Geologically, the West Highland Way is an outing from the Old Red Sandstone of the Lowland Valley, through the grey schists of the Southern Highlands, to the great volcanic cauldron of Glen Coe. As it unfolds underfoot, it is an ever-changing vista of heather and oakwood, of lochside and riverside -- but also a journey through the whole life and history of Celtic Scotland.
       The first 50 pages, with all their pics, can be seen on
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It's just after sunrise, on a warm March morning on Cnap Mor. The heather is dry to lie back on; the view is all the way along Loch Lomond. Sunlight glitters along twelve miles of shaggy promontories and islands. Far down at the end, Ben Lomond itself rises from cloud like a tousled head among the morning bed-sheets. On my right, at the loch head, the low sunbeams wash the chalet shanty-town of Ardlui. The same early light glows golden on the slopes of Beinn a' Choin, making them look slightly like Charlize Theron with no clothes on as she was that month, while advertising Dior's perfume range.

After two days on the trail, it's luxury just to lie here in the heather, with the memory of last autumn's heather-blossom even more subtle than Dior's perfumes. As an excuse for being stationary, a half-hour might bring sunlight onto the slopes of Ben Vorlich for a further photo. At half past seven comes the first stirring of the new day: a creaking noise, and soft honking up in the sky. I open my eyes to a skein of eight swans, outlined against the snows of Ben Vorlich. A ninth swan is calling to them from the loch, 500 feet below. But the eight fliers spiral higher; they're heading northwards up Glen Falloch. It's time I was heading that way myself. On the back of the hill I disturb some wild goats, chocolate brown amidst the beige and ochre of the sunlit, but still winter-coloured, moorland. The tall rushes around the Dubh Lochan are palest yellow, with not a hint of green; and Beinglas campsite is tentless and empty.

Two days north of Loch Lomond, there comes something quite different.

At the back of Tyndrum, the way rises to a U-shaped gap between the hills. The Way rises and so alongside it does the West Highland Railway, the main A82 road, and a set of electricity pylons. Up in the hill gap the cloud is low. It's low enough to almost conceal the slopes of grassy peat above on the right, the grim grey spruce trees on the opposite side. However it is not low enough to conceal the electricity pylons; or the main A82, where lorries head north in a swish of rainwater, and the snarl of motorbikes echoes off the hills. Throughout the night, it has been raining. Two miles back, the stream at the back of Tyndrum was an ankle-deep splashy paddle; now, a gentle squelch is the sound of every footfall. Worse, there's a blister forming down there. Stopping and sorting it out will involve new movements, bringing new bits of the body in contact with wet clothing. Best just to plod on over the stones. It's quite gradual, the way the rain penetrates first the sleeves, then the supposedly waterproof trousers, and finally the chest and back.

At twenty minutes past nine comes a sudden clatter along the track. The morning train is heading south from Fort William. The dry people behind its windows are just 20 yards below. Even so, they are a world away. They are wearing clean shirts, and perhaps a light woolly cardigan more for decorative effect than warmth. Their bodies are clean, their feet are clean, they do not have any greasy itching in their hair. They are wearing clean socks. They are listening to music, or maybe they are reading a magazine inside which the golden body of Charlize Theron is advertising some scent. In a few minutes, someone's going to come down the train with some hot coffee. The windows are steamed up, luckily, so the train passengers can't see us out here standing on our sore feet, in the rain.

There are seven miles of this stony track: plenty of time for the rain to penetrate the chest and trickle in at the elbows.

Walkers on the Way

The West Highland Way was thought out in the 1960s, and opened in 1980 by William Mungo Murray, 8th Earl of Mansfield and Mansfield (then Minister of State in the Scottish Office). But in a sense it has always been here. Between the Lowlands and Lochaber have travelled clansmen and cattle thieves; redcoats, drovers, saints and Sir Walter Scott.

It's a journey of glens and low passes, under the crags and high grassy sides of seven of Scotland's hill ranges: from the Arrochar Alps of Loch Lomond to the Black Mount of Argyll, the Mamores and big Ben Nevis. Geologically, it's an outing from the Old Red Sandstone hills of the so-called Lowland Valley, through the immeasurably older grey schists of the Southern Highlands, to the great volcanic cauldron of Glen Coe. And as it unfolds under the foot, it's 95 miles of heather and oakwood, of lochside and riverside and old railway line -- but also the whole life and history of Celtic Scotland.

First inhabitants of the land were the mythic Fingalians, led by Fingal himself. Larger than life in the literal as well as the metaphorical sense they hunted the deer with their equally oversized dogs, and used their spear-shafts to pole-vault across the narrow sea lochs of Argyll. They fought great battles among themselves and against invading human beings out of Norway, and had commerce with the fairy folk. Along the West Highland Way no trace of them remains; but Deirdre (of the Sorrows) and her first lover Naisi spent happy months with deer hounds around Buachaille Etive Mor, before her tragic fate started to fall upon her. And a short diversion into Glen Coe will show the cave, high among the crags of Bidean nam Bian, named in legend as the home of the Fingalian bard Ossian.

The starting point for the merely human history of the Highlands is almost as mythical: the pre-feudal clan society remembered in songs and stories, but only recorded in writing as it came to its end, and then mostly by the pens of its enemies.

In each glen, the clan lived under its chieftain as an extended family. The traditional 'black house' was of unmortared stone, thatched with heather, and with an earth floor. Peat smoke filled the house before trickling out of the doorways and unglazed windows. Thus it was an effective deterrent against midges, while scenting the rooms with a wild bog smell, with golden sunbeams cutting through the brown gloom. Their music was the clan piper, and entertainment was the bard at the fireside, with tales of past warfare, the fairies, and the Fingalians.

Oats and kale were raised in the more fertile corners of the valley floor, and there would be fish out of the lochs and rivers. But the mainstay of the clan was its cattle: the small, nimble black beasts of the glens. Every summer, to protect the crops, the cattle would be moved up into the high corries. There the young people would live alongside them in temporary huts or shielings, making cheese, and also presumably music and love, in the shelter of the great crags.

And if cattle were the mainstay of clan life, the thieving of cattle was their main economic activity. Bill Murray in his biography of Rob Roy describes cattle-reiving as 'a robust form of social security', redressing the balance when famine struck one part of the Highlands while another was in relative plenty.

In the course of cattle raids in particular, the clansmen made journeys from one side of Scotland to the other, in all weathers, with no shelter apart from their close-woven woollen plaids. For the returning raiders of Lochaber or Argyll, Rannoch Moor was a place of safety; no pursuit would follow into the secret pathways amongst its bogs and lochans. In 1686, the Glencoe MacDonalds came home from the battle of Killiecrankie by way of Glen Lyon. There they raided and stole from the Campbells to the value of 8000 Scots, before heading north by Loch Tulla and the Moor of Rannoch.

Six years later, that same Campbell of Glenlyon came north to Glen Coe with orders for the massacre in his saddlebag. The MacDonalds of Glen Coe, the most successful reivers of them all, had been raiding their neighbours right into the century of the coffee-house and the powdered wig; and were to pay a deadly price for their outmoded traditional lifestyle. There are, traditionally, three plagues of Argyll: the bracken, the midges and the Campbells. Clan Campbell, under its chieftain the Duke of Argyll, caught on to the possibilities in the new feudal system and started a 200 year campaign to take over the whole of the southern Highlands. Among their principle victims were MacDonalds of Glencoe and the Hebrides, and the Macgregors of Lomondside and the Trossachs.

Their takeover techniques were not genteel. In 1499 they kidnapped the four-year old heiress of Cawdor, kept her captive until she reached 15, then forcibly married her to a Campbell younger son. An heiress widow was seized and raped, while bagpipes played to cover her screams.

Later technique was more sophisticated, but just as effective. A feud between Clan Gregor and the Colquhouns of Loch Lomondside started with the unauthorised slaughter of a black-tailed sheep. Campbell of Argyll offered support to the Macgregors, encouraging them to kill two or three hundred of the Colquhouns. At this point the Campbell rode over to Edinburgh and offered to sort out the problem. Thus in 1603 the whole of Clan Gregor was declared outlaw and the use even of its surname was banned. This stayed on the statute book for almost 200 years, being reactivated as convenient to the Campbells.

And so we see Rob Roy Macgregor, heroically applying the claymore and the cattle raid against the forward-looking Campbells with their mortgage foreclosure and their writ from the Privy Council. Rob Roy lived at Craigrostan, on Loch Lomondside, near the present-day Rowchoish bothy. His Lowland neighbour and enemy the Duke of Montrose had his headquarters at Mugdock Castle, at the southern end of the West Highland Way. So walkers on this footpath know exactly how troublesome it was for Montrose's reprisal raid, in September of 1716, as it passed up Loch Lomond side to a dawn rendezvous at Inversnaid and an attack on Craigrostan. The party of 250 soldiers set out at 8pm from Buchanan House (now the clubhouse of one of Drymen's two golf courses). They had sixteen miles to cover, most of them in the dark. Soon after they started, the skies opened; it rained all night, as they struggled along Loch Lomond. Leafmould on the rocks is slippery at the best of times, and now every burn was in spate. They arrived long after daybreak and with Rob Roy well aware of their presence. However, their force was too large to be attacked, and Rob could only watch from the crags as the soldiers, for the second time in six months, burnt down his house.

As what we today call 'civilisation' penetrated the Highlands, the chieftains started to take their rents not in military service but in kind, or even in cash. The source of cash was the clansmen's black cattle: beef to feed the growing cities of the industrial revolution, as well as England's army adventuring into France and Holland in various wars.

And so the reiver or cattle thief became a drover gathering black cattle every autumn and driving them southwards, 12 miles a day, to the Lowland markets of Falkirk and Crieff. It was a trade that combined banditry and banking. During the drove itself, the drover must defend the herd with sword and musket, living wild and reading the country. At the same time he was holding much of the wealth of his township or clan. At drove's end he had to negotiate the sale, and remit to the owners at home whatever purchase price had been agreed. It was a trade where trust and reputation were as important as hillcraft and skill with the sword. The old thieves' roads by Rannoch and southwards to Loch Lomond formed a natural line for the cattle drovers on their way towards Falkirk, and sometimes onwards across the hills to the south of England. Imagine them asleep in the heather at Inveroran with their plaids lapped over their heads; both Inveroran (established 1708) and Inverarnan (1705) were overnight stances for the herds heading south.

After the failure of the 1715 rebellion, General Wade advised King George that nobody would control the Highlands who couldn't move freely across them, and suggested the building of a road system. And King George said "okay, you do it then", and made him Commander in Chief of His Majesty's forces, castles, forts and barracks in North Britain. The first road was over in the east, along the line of today's A9. It was built by 300 men (who earned sixpence a day extra) at a rate of about 10 miles a month. It was Wade's even more efficient successor, Major William Caulfeild, who from 1740 built the stony roads from Loch Lomond across Rannoch Moor, over the Devil's Staircase to Kinlochleven, and onwards to the new fort at Fort William. Caulfeild's roads remain as the tracks used by almost half of the West Highland Way -- although the stretch across Rannoch Moor uses the more recent road built by Thomas Telford in the 1820s.

And as England's Lake District became just too pretty, along General Caulfeild's new military road the bravest of the landscape appreciators headed to the Trossachs, Loch Lomond and beyond.

Poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in ill health and ill temper, came up Loch Lomond towards Fort William in August of 1803. The two great poets rode facing sideways at the scenery, their backs to one another, in an uncomfortable Irish jaunting carriage. Like some of the walkers of today, STC abandoned the journey half way along Loch Lomond. Unlike them, he went and walked the Great Glen Way instead. This poet is also one of the finest writers there has been on British hillwalking; so I make no apology for inviting him to caption several of the photos in this book. A few years later, Sir Walter Scott 'invented' the Trossachs, along with a fictional character he called Rob Roy.

During the two and a half centuries to today, the genuine Highlanders have been gradually displaced. The reprisals and repression after the battle of Culloden were followed by the Highland Clearances as people made way for sheep. Later came deer-stalking estates, and finally the plantations of Sitka spruce. But the scenery-seeking travellers up Loch Lomondside have only increased; in carriages and lake steamers, on the West Highland Railway, on Glen Coe's new road of the 1920s, and finally as we started, on foot up the old raiding route, the drovers' trod, the stony road of General Caulfeild.

Beinn Dorain and Beinn a' Chaisteal



Strath Blane

Conic Hill

Loch Lomond

Glen Falloch

Strath Fillan

Rannoch Moor

The Devil's Staircase

Lairig Mor

Glen Nevis

The End of the Way

further reading and bibliography