I came up to Edinburgh last week chiefly for the Catherine the Great exhibition being held in the National Museum of Scotland but I also arranged with some friends to walk the West Highland Way, a long distance footpath that links Glasgow in the south with Fort William in the north. And walk it we did, not the whole thing, which can take several days, but from Bridge of Orchy to Fort William and then back south by train. It’s by far the most interesting part of the route.
I’ve walked the Way before, in whole and in part. When the weather is good the walking is very, very good and when it is bad it is horrid! I once crossed Rannoch Moor in the wind and the rain, not a pleasant experience, I assure you. But Rannoch Moor itself, when one can see and appreciate it properly, is really lovely, a wilderness but a beautiful one, the colours changing all the time as the clouds speed across the heather. I managed to see some red deer, though quite a distance away.
Out of Rannoch and on to the King’s House Hotel for a welcome supper and even more welcome drinks. We stayed here overnight, as I have on several occasions in the past. I love the place. It’s by no means luxurious but the inn, one of the oldest in Scotland, is bags full of atmosphere. Our fellow guests were walkers and climbers, people who really know how to have a good time!
I did have a good time, unlike poor Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of the poet, who came this way in 1803, later recording her disapproval in her Journal;
Never did I see such a miserable, such wretched place, – long rooms with ranges of beds, no other furniture except benches, or perhaps one or two crazy chairs, the floors far dirtier than an ordinary house could be if it were never washed. With length of time the fire was kindled and after another hour of waiting, supper came, a shoulder of mutton so hard that it was impossible to chew the little flesh that might have been scraped off the bone.
The only thing that could have made her stay any worse would have been a visit from the Wicked Witch of the West! All I can say is that a lot has changed since Dorothy’s day. The food was good with – thank goodness – not a trace of mutton on the varied menu.
So, up we got reasonably early on Saturday morning for the onward trek to Kinlochleven. The first stage took us to the eastern entrance to Glencoe, one of the most beautiful and sombre settings in the whole of the Highlands, a dark and brooding nature looking into a dark and brooding history. We didn’t go in to the Glen itself, there wasn’t enough time. Instead it was straight up the Devil’s Staircase, a zigzag path cutting its way up the hillside. Given that name by British soldiers, it forms part of an old military road network created by General Wade in the early eighteenth century in the aftermath of the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion.
Incidentally, if you ever stay in Glencoe I would recommend the old Clachaig Inn, just as bags full of atmosphere as the King's House. There is a sign on the door saying No Hawkers or Campbells, a nod in the direction of the infamous Massacre of February, 1692, when part of the local branch of Clan Donald was murdered in the night by soldiers from the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot. This was actually a formation in the British Army acting under orders, but the event has traditionally been placed in the context of more ancient clan rivalries. For all the sad history it really is a lovely spot. I can assure you that the interdict on Campbells is not taken seriously. I should know; my boyfriend is one!
What a remarkable view there is from the top of the Devil’s Staircase, making the climb so worthwhile, with open vistas across mountains, valleys and hills in all directions. Here, sitting on the heather, we had our picnic lunch. I lunched and was lunched upon, with clouds of midges descending to feast. How on earth do they manage when I’m not here?! The midge, if you don’t know, is a Scottish cousin of the mosquito, all the more ferocious because they are pack hunters and a lot less diffident in their relentless attacks.
The climb to the top of the Devil’s Staircase was enjoyable; the descent to Kinlochleven the very devil. The path is mostly loose scree, lots of broken rock fragments, which becomes really wearing on the legs after a bit. Kinlochleven is a pleasant village right at the head of Loch Leven, a salt water lake which cuts well in from the coast. Here we stayed overnight in the old Mamore Hunting Lodge, with me too bushed to do much more than eat and sleep.
The road goes ever onwards. After breakfast we ascended above Kinlochleven, then directly along the path all the way to Fort William. I refreshed my water bottle once above the line of habitation, pure, cold water from a stream flowing down from the hill above, the drink of the gods, water like you’ve never tasted in your life, cold and sweet, not at all like the kind of thing sold in supermarkets.
Fort William is a charming little town with one of the best fish restaurants in Scotland but, alas, we had no time to stand and stare and eat out; it was on to the train and back to a wet Edinburgh afternoon. I arrived refreshed, tired and exhilarated. Oh, and in a much better mood than Dorothy Wordsworth. Yesterday morning I left for London, the place from whence I came, down from Olympus into the Olympics. My mood is set to change for the worse!
As a postscript I let me add that I went to see Brave this afternoon, the animation movie set in a mythical Scottish past. I loved it; I loved the brave, self-willed and independent princess, so much like me. My mood continues to be good, despite the city crowds!