Fog City Boy on the West Highland Way
Glasgow, Scotland – August 29, 2017
The transit from San Francisco to Aberdeen was quite comfortable – Aer Lingus provided wonderful service and the best airline food in memory.
We enjoyed elegant and cordial hospitality at the Royal Northern and University Club in Aberdeen, and had a good cruise around the Aberdeen harbor and its approach. The bottle nosed dolphins were playful and entertaining.
No maritime pilots to be seen, though we did see two pilot boats moored in the harbor. These pilots, skilled I am sure, have a transit of but minutes from boarding on before docking their vessels in the harbor. Not quite the same challenge as those faced by San Francisco Bar Pilots! The vessels tied up in the harbor did not resemble the ones I know from my time on the waterfront in San Francisco. But then, those ships in the Bay don’t service drilling rigs in the North Sea.
We were fortunate to have great stalls at His Majesty’s Theatre for a performance of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.” The theatre itself is worth the price of admission – wonderful design and how wonderful that it has been preserved. The show was great and we recommend it to all!
We did a quick hop from Aberdeen to Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands. We spent a day and a half with local guides – a half-day city tour, followed by an out-trip to archeological sites of merit. Among them the spectacular Ring of Brogdar, a neolithic stone circle and henge monument, with the Loch of Harray in the background.
And the excavated village at Scara Brae.
Helen Woodsford-Dean and Mark Dean (reachable at http://www.spiritualorkney.co.uk) were our guides for both days. They are archeologists, formally trained as guides (required for licensing there), knowledgable, cordial, and accommodating. They went out of their way to search a windswept field to locate the very rare Orkney Primrose for us to see! We recommend them highly when you visit Orkney.
However, the Fog City Boy’s most memorable experience in Orkney was renting a right-hand drive Ford which the Fog City Boy managed to navigate around the island under Helen’s watchful eye. Somehow, I managed not to collide with anything or run off the narrow two-lane roads with no shoulder. I think the experience took 10 years off the lives of all aboard. And Helen has a new job description to add to her portfolio – coaching an experienced albeit orientationally-confused wrong way driver.
The Cullen Skink (a fish stew of potatoes, onion, and smoked haddock) we had for lunch was delicious. I tried haggis and found it palatable. After all, haggis is simply sausage without a casing.
And our visit to the Highland Park distillery was quite worthwhile. Learned a lot, and enjoyed a wee dram at the conclusion of the tour. I stand by my approval of their 12-year-old single malt offering. (The others are good, too!)
There are many takeaways from our Orkney visit: Orkney is quite a ways North. There is a lot of flat and a lot of wind. Hey, get used to it!
And, as the Orkney folk are proud of pointing out – the nearest major railroad station is in Oslo, Norway! I think many yearn to be Vikings again!
From Orkney we hopped to Edinburgh. We arrived as The Fringe was well underway. The Fringe is an annual festival in Edinburgh each August that increases the population from 800,000 to 1.2 to 2.0 million, depending on the day. There are perhaps 400 entertainment venues. Comedy seems to dominate but all genres are to be found. The most celebrated event is the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo performed most evenings adjacent to the Edinburgh castle – itself worth a visit. Alas, we were too late to book seats for the Tattoo. I suggest booking in April or May if you want to enjoy the stellar event.
Arthur’s Seat – Prequel to the West Highland Way.
Whilst in Edinburgh (the Brits do like their “st’s”) I decided to walk to the top of a local mountain styled “Arthur’s Seat.” The name derives from a Victorian assessment that the majestic peak would have been an appropriate location for King Arthur’s castle and seat of power, had he made it that far north. He did not, but the name stuck.
The hike is within a large public park – Holyrood Park – a rare example of unimproved grassland, effectively unchanged since its enclosure as a Royal Park in the 16th century. From the starting point – the grounds of building housing the Scottish Legislature, one of the most architecturally ill-conceived buildings in Christendom – the 2.75 mile trail climbs 823 feet to the summit.
Some have scoffed that Arthur’s Seat is a hill, not a mountain. However, (Bohemian) Robert Louis Stevenson described it as “a hill for magnitude [but] a mountain in virtue of its bold design.”
But no matter, the Way up, though steep and occasionally rocky, boasts dramatic and rewarding views of Edinburgh, the harbor, and the surrounding countryside. I spent a couple of hours on the climb.
The way down was much shorter than the way up – or so it seemed. The climber finds waving grasses and a profusion of lovely Rosebay Willowherb as the trail unites with the road circling the mount.
The Willowherb accompanied me throughout my travel in Scotland.
A view of the mountain as dusk approaches.
We took ScotRail to Glasgow the next day. The West Highland Way followed soon thereafter.
The West Highland Way.
The West Highland Way was the first official long-distance footpath in Scotland. The idea was conceived in the 1960s but it took until 1980 for the Way finally to be declared open. The delay was necessitated by planning, gaining permissions from landowners through which the Way would pass, engineering and construction. The Way is well waymarked and getting lost would be difficult. However, though most of the Way passes through enjoyable, moderately challenging but not difficult territory, a number of segments are quite demanding indeed!
Fording streams with swift currents, ascending and descending steep inclines and staircases, persevering in the rain (did you know that it rains in Scotland? Frequently?) – all are part of the West Highland Way experience. Much of the Way is laid out on gravel paths, sometimes doubling as drainage troughs.
The thistle is the national flower of Scotland. It is stylistically emblazoned on the waymarks along the West Highland Way. This one is adorns the official start point in Milngavie.
Here’s one I found along the Way. Someone annotated the waymark at its base!
And real thistles accompany the walker along the Way.
In the spirit of full disclosure, the Fog City Boy cannot claim to have walked the entire West Highland Way. On a single day, I combined two extremely strenuous stages (Rowardennan to Inversnaid, and Inversnaid to Inverarnan) which amounted to a mere 13 1/2 miles in total, but which were far more demanding than anything I had encountered on any of the Caminos I have walked. The challenge was mile after mile of unending ups and downs (politely called an “undulating” path) that required steep climbs up rocky outcroppings, back down and across streams with nothing but gravel and large stones offered as footfalls.
And, unlike most Camino paths, there are few opportunities to “set a spell,” enjoy a bar, grab a cafe con leche, with a place to rest one’s weary feet, or bail out if it is just too much for this day. (Peregrinos reading – recall the many taxi phone numbers tacked to trees and posts along the Way! You won’t find them on the West Highland Way!)
The next day was necessarily a recovery day. I would urge any future trekkers on the West Highland Way not to combine the available stages. Take it slow, don’t fall, have a pint when you get in, and get a good night’s rest before heading out again.
And then there was the night that the fire alarm went off at 2:45 am at Bridge of Orchy Hotel. It was nice getting to know all the other residents for 45 minutes while we were standing around in our sleeping costumes and waited for the false alarm to be shut off. Hiking the next day was not in the cards.
So, all in, all done, I walked about 2/3 of the 96 miles, including several sidetrips. But for the prepaid, non-refundable hotel reservations, the full distance was certainly achievable. Ahhh, the tyranny of the prepaid reservation. No opportunity to chill, recover, and go again. You just have to keep going.
That said, here are some images my walks along the West Highland Way.
Rivulets and waterfalls are ubiquitous along the Way. I crossed literally hundreds of them. So are wildflowers. Here are a few.
Orchids growing wild along the roadside.
Steep hikes are rewarded with beautiful vistas. This one is just outside Balmaha.
The Devils Staircase is about 800 feet of switchbacks. There was a light rain that day. Tiring but manageable. Here and elsewhere, entrepreneurs seize the moment!
Walkers have constructed a cairn at the top of the Staircase.
And the vista is worth the climb.
We overnighted at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, a charming four-star inn. The stone bridge was constructed as part of a military road constructed in the 18th century.
The final day was challenging and rainy. But the vistas, albeit under cloudy skies, were wonderful.
The Way passes the ruins of a farmhouse built long ago.
A thoughtful lady from England offered to take my picture along The Way. Earlier, a walker from Canada asked my name. I told her it was “Michael” and she thanked me. “We wanted to know your name. We have been calling you ‘the man in the hat’ for several days.”
Walkers on the West Highland Way, as with peregrinos on the Camino, are a friendly and supportive lot.
Recurring companions on the Way were swarms of tiny insects known locally as “midges.” They are barely visible but they swarm and they bite. The bite itself is not painful, but it will raise a welt and remain for several days.
A good insect repellant might not keep the midges off of the walker, but it will dispatch most of the midges before they have you for lunch.
That said, the midges ought not be a deterant if you are considering walking the West Highland Way. Take an insect repellant with you, and an itch cream to deal with the midges that get through your perimeter defense!
A final suggestion to prospective walkers of the Way – or any other trek – walk with two (not one) walking sticks. They will save you from many nasty falls, especially over rough terrain.
The official end of the Way is in the center of Fort William. I spent the night in Fort William, a pleasant town with a small harbor.
The official end of the West Highland Way in Fort William. Note the sculpture on the bench – a walker examining his feet at the end of the trail!
ScotRail the next morning brought me back to Glasgow and preparation for the Camino walks. I’ll post again from Pamplona.
With that, I’m off.
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