Day 7: Kingshouse–Kinlochleven
The second last morning of our hike dawned on us sunny and warm. Since we hadn’t slept all that well nor much, there was no question as to whether we should nibble at a piece of dry bread in our tent or enjoy a good breakfast in the pub, so the pub it was. We went for the full Scottish, which included a hefty plate of all kinds of artery-clogging goodness, as well as drinks. And also haggis. Never in a million years would I have thought I’d someday find myself having haggis for breakfast, but Chef and I both wolfed down our portions in no time at all. There’s definitely something magical about a hungry hiker’s bottomless belly.
After breakfast, it was once again time to pack up camp and leave one of our backpacks behind for pick-up. Meanwhile, the hung over American louts had also managed to crawl up from their hidey holes, their bloodshot eyes squinting in the bright light of dawn. Everyone else was squinting, too, only not for the sunlight but to give the spring breakers the evil eye while passing them by on the way back to the trail. Not the friendliest audience for them that morning. Anyway, the most important thing was to get a decent head start on that shrieking group of brutes so our ears wouldn’t have to bleed again that day.
The day’s walk started out flat and easy but soon turned into another sweat-inducing climb. Fortunately, we were able to soak our swollen feet in cold streams on our breaks on the way up. Based on a quick glance at the guide book, I was aware that the notorious Devil’s Staircase was awaiting us that day, but we actually didn’t even realise we had climbed it until we were almost at the top, already. Much less painful than the name suggests – in good weather and with minimal gear to carry, at least.
What goes up must come down, so after the staircase/ladder much of the way was a gentle descend to our next pit stop in Kinlochleven. According to our guide book, the old industrial town of Kinlochleven is nothing but an eyesore, a mere stain on the trail, “the ugliest on two thousand miles of Highland coast”. Not the most enticing description, for sure.
However, once we made it to town, we couldn’t help but think that the description was quite unfair – I was expecting something much uglier. I mean, yeah, the first thing that greets you on your way to town is a bunch of nasty water pipes ruining the natural views, and sure, the houses originally built for the now-closed aluminium smelter workers are carbon copies of each other, but at least the village is tidy, well-kept and surrounded by mountains – and split up by a river just like my much beloved hometown of Turku. It felt cosy.
In Kinlochleven, we stayed at the MacDonald Hotel Campsite, where they offered a nice and secluded grassy area for tents. We made it to the hotel about one and a half hours before our backpack arrived, which wasn’t a problem since we could wait in the hotel’s lovely bar with a view – I’m pretty sure I’ve seen something uglier, somewhere.
When the backpack arrived, we got to chat a bit with the Baggage Freedom owner Gregg. A lovely man in a kilt, there aren’t many things better than that. Gregg is a British army veteran who is now running his own company mostly by himself, although every now and then his mates help him out so he can have a day off. For once, I picked the right service provider. Strongly recommended!
After putting up our tent, we went for a quick swim behind the campsite where the River Leven meets Loch Leven. We couldn’t go further than a few metres from the shore, since the current seemed strong, but it felt amazing to soak in the chilly water after a full day of sweating it up under the scorching sun. We returned to our tent to find a new neighbour in a brave 19-year-old German girl, who was on her first solo hike far from home. I remember my first solo trip, which was well into my twenties and only for a weekend in Copenhagen. Hats off to you, lass! We did our grocery shopping and cooked dinner together with her.
At the end of the day, we went to the bar for a cold one, which turned into a few more until it was accidentally already closing time. We were chatting with two lovely Scottish cousins, and as we all know, time flies when you’re having fun. We had already seen the blokes a few times on the trail, but only started a conversation when they showed up at the same campsite. Our conversations covered all sorts of topics from Brexit to old viking rituals, but for me, the most memorable bit was realising that in Scotland, even these rugged and tattooed dudes use the word wee in their everyday speech when they mean something is little. A wee beastie, a wee holiday – too cute!
(The Final) Day 8: Kinlochleven–Fort William
The last day, how did that happen so soon?! We slept in, perhaps a bit too late, and after a sluggish breakfast got back on the trail to yet again sweat our arses off in the heat of Scotland. Sounds ridiculous, but it was truly, seriously hot. The last leg wasn’t very challenging, but it sure was hilly. A few extra water bottles really came in handy.
As we were approaching Fort William, we began to notice felling areas and other signs of human habitation. We also had to go through a few sheep enclosures – one of them was so muddy around the gate that I almost lost one of my shoes in there. However, it was really interesting to spot a sheep herder and his dog at work high up the mountainside. The dog appeared to take its orders in the form of different whistles and brief shouts and expertly herded the little balls of wool in good order down towards the closure.
We had our last proper snack break in a wide open spot with the most fantastic, panoramic views on the entire hike that day. We even had a little bench there, and many of the passers-by were visibly jealous of our private lunch spot. Right as we were digging into our backpacks for the instant soup, a spandex-clad mountain biker stopped next to us, and we proceeded to have this very brief exchange with him:
Spandex Man: “Excuse me, do you know if that’s Ben Nevis right over there?”
Us: “Probably, but we’re not 100% sure.”
Spandex Man: “No matter, I’ll just take a pic and tell my mates it is!”
And it was, which we were able to confirm once I got my hands on the map. But hey, doesn’t matter as long as your mates believe it! Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to summit Ben Nevis this time around, as it would have required another full day which we simply didn’t have, but at least now we’ve got an excellent excuse to one day return to the Highlands.
As is often the case with long hikes, the last miles were once again quite anticlimactic. After the breathtaking views of Ben Nevis and its surroundings, the rest of the hike was a seemingly never-ending log trail winding down towards Fort William which then turned to pavement and long lines of cars speeding by.
The original end of the West Highland Way is in the outskirts of Fort William, but they’ve later moved it downtown. I’m not even sure where, because we had zero interest to go chasing after another sign in the concrete jungle. Instead, we headed straight for the pub for some burgers and cokes. Gregg was already waiting for us at the station with our second backpack, and he would have driven us back to Glasgow for around 20 quid if we hadn’t already bought ourselves tickets for the Caledonian Sleeper train straight to Edinburgh.
It didn’t seem like there is much else to do in Fort William besides bewaring of elderly people and giggling at teenagers sitting in circles and singing along to Ed Sheeran songs outside the supermarket. We walked around, fruitlessly, trying to find a place for wild swimming. Couldn’t find any, so we just went to the swimming hall. Their abomination of a sauna was but a lukewarm room without even the most primitive sauna stove, yet they had deemed it necessary to post a sign on the door warning people about the heat. Oh you poor, misguided souls. In any case, I (and probably everyone on the same train with us) surely appreciated the chance to wash my hair thoroughly before our train trip.
And what a train trip it was! Some of the best bits of the WHW through the windows. No sweat, no midges. The train did not depart on schedule, though, and my assigned seat just happened to be the only broken one. A friendly member of staff told me that “Mark” would take care of it as soon as he wasn’t too busy, just ask Mark. That’s nice, but was I supposed to know which one of the many men buzzing around the cars was Mark? Perhaps he’s some local railroad celebrity. I did eventually get a functional seat and the train caught up to schedule along the way, too. I wouldn’t mind taking that train trip again.
Such an amazing eight days on the trail! Assuming that tourism is one day again an option, I warmly recommend the West Highland Way to anyone interested in longer hikes.
P.S. Learn from my mistakes, pack decent rain gear.
P.P.S. Absolutely do take advantage of the baggage transfer services! For a modest fee, walking will be a bajillion times more enjoyable.
Prices (July 2019):
- Kingshouse Hotel/Way Inn: breakfast £15 pp
- MacDonald Campsite, Kinlochleven: £20 per night for two people in one tent
- Caledonian Sleeper train ticket Fort William–Edinburgh: £15 pp (early bird online discount)