The West Highland Way is a 96 mile route that leads from the edge of Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish highlands. It’s a novice-friendly walk with stunning scenery ranging from lush woodlands on the east bank of Loch Lomond to eerily, beautifully bleak Rannoch Moor to the awe-inspiring heights of the Devil’s Staircase with its views of mountains stretching as far as you can see in all directions.
I had done most of it before, but this time would be more of a challenge: I had been sick in bed for most of the preceeding month, and was still weak. My friend, Anete, was coming from Latvia just for the walk – time off booked, flights booked, so it was now or never. Fortunately, we had never planned on trying to do the whole thing in a week, and she was happy to take it slow and do what we could. I wasn’t sure how it would go (and was reliably informed that I was mad for doing it) but I was looking forward to getting outdoors after so long inside!
We set off in the aftenoon, as soon as Anete arrived in Glasgow, and got to Balmaha (via train and bus) by 5:30pm – giving us two and a half hours to walk five miles to the campsite in time to check in (wild camping is not permitted on this stretch of Lomondside due to people from the city making a mess of the woods). Should be no problem. We found the trail, but it was not obvious which way to go. I have to admit, no one has ever accused me of having a good sense of direction, and we had arrived at a bend in the trail. The bus driver had said we’d be walking over Conic Hill – which I didn’t remember doing before, but I put that down to my seive-like memory, and, having asked some dog-walkers which way it was, we set off.
We soon emerged from woodland onto the slope of the hill, and had been making steady progress for some time when we met some walkers coming down… and discovered that we were going the wrong way! And the World’s Worst Trail Guide award goes to… Thank God for forgiving friends! A quick about-face and decent, and we were on the right track, if somewhat behind schedule. Taking the road north (this time) from Balmaha, we passed fields of new lambs – one of natures cutest creatures! A couple of miles on, it was clear that we wouldn’t make it in time to check in, but I figured we could pay in the morning, and there was still a good chance we’d make it before full dark. Then a couple of rangers in a van spotted us and gave us a lift, and there we were, bang on eight!
Feeling pleased with ourselves (we figured we had done five miles, even if it wasn’t the right five miles), we pitched the tent and heated up the veg curry and rice I had brought. By then it was dark and cold, so we burrowed into our sleeping bags and crashed.
One advantage of taking it slow is the luxury of having a lie in, and we did – not emerging from our downy coccoons until the sun was well up and the day starting to feel warm. I had been worried about how I would feel after my first day of excercise in so long, but I felt fine! In fact, I felt fantastic. Waking up to a sunny day (in Scotland, in early April – what were the chances?!) on the shore of Loch Lomond and being well… I was a very happy camper indeed.
From Sallochy campsite the trail rises through the woods for some distance. Uphill with packs was slow going, but the air was fresh and cool, the birds were singing, and I was rewarded with intermittant exclamations of ‘whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa!’ Scotland in springtime really is incredibly beautiful, and I love to see it fresh through someone elses eyes. Even better, I knew this was just the beginning.
The trail soon levels out and continues at an elevation through the woods. April is a fantasic time for the WHW – the trees are just budding, everything else is green and you can still see through the trees. The trail frequently passes miniature waterfalls – burns ranging in size from a tiny trickle to a fordable stream – all tumbling musically out of the hillside.
We couldn’t resist stopping by, erm, a number of these for a drink, a rest, some lembas and other refreshments, and just to soak up the beauty.
Late in the afternoon we came across these beautiful creatures:
Sadly out of focus, but I think you can just about see that they’re deer.
Not long after that, we reached our destination for the night: Rowchoish Bothy. Despite its inaccessible location (reached only by foot or boat), Rowchoish was a settlement of nine families until 1759, and the the remaining ruined cottage was occupied until the thirties. Now the old byre is a bothy, a shelter maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association for the free use of walkers. It’s sparse but comfortable, with a fireplace and wooden sleeping platform. Of course, we could have camped outside (and probably would have been warmer in the tent), but it was nice to be able to spread out a little and sit in front of the fire.
But first, we had foraging to do. Ramsons, or wild garlic, grow rampant along sections of the WHW, and they are delicious. I was counting on them for our soup, and had also hoped to find nettles, which are rare along the trail but often grow near human habitation. We found both growing around the bothy. Wood Sorrel is a plant that I often nibble, but never thought to cook with – until Anete suggested it.
The plan was to do a soup with rice noodles (a wheat/gluten free alternative to my usual instant ramen noodles) and miso (probiotics for my dodgy plumbing). I had intended to add an egg to Anete’s and not mine, as I wasn’t sure how I was with eggs, but in the end I was too hungry to be sensible.
N.B. I imagine it goes without saying, but please don’t eat anything if you aren’t sure what it is! Nettles and wood sorrel are pretty obvious but there are some ramson look-alikes which can make you ill- fortunately none of them smell like garlic.
Here’s the recipe for my super-easy gut-friendly camping soup:
- 2 nests of rice noodles (quick cooking)
- 2tbsp miso paste
- 1tbsp Swiss Vegetable Bullion (vegan/lactose free)
- 1 bowlful of nettle tops
- 2 handfuls of ramsons
- as much wood sorrel as you can be bothered picking
- 1 handful of dried seaweed
- 2 eggs, beaten
- Bring a pot of water to the boil and add noodles
- When noodles start to loosen up (about 2 minutes) add nettles, seaweed and bullion
- Add eggs slowly, stirring to create a feathery texture
- Remove from heat and add ramsons and wood sorrel
- Allow to cool slightly before adding miso*
*This (I hope) keeps the probiotic bacteria alive. I find the easiest way to add it is to tip a little of the cooking liquid into a bowl and dissolve the paste in it, then add to soup.
Ramsons are also best added at the end, otherwise they lose their garlic flavour.
While I was cooking, Anete kept me entertained by doing a bit of housekeeping:
Sadly, it turned out not to be a magic broomstick. Worth a try!
After tea we did some more foraging – this time for firewood. Everything was damp, but we managed to get it lit. I have to admit that it filled the bothy with a lot more smoke than heat, but it was still nice and cosy, and a welcome, if scant, source of light after nightfall.
Feeling replete and relaxed, I went out to answer a call of nature. I walked away from the bothy a little ways to enjoy the view. The clearing was flooded with the light of the full moon, the woods at the edge just visible as a shadowy silhouette and the effect was magical. I was lingering to enjoy it (and drip dry) when suddenly a very loud and very strange barking noise came out of the woods! In a flash I was scrambling for the door of the bothy – heart pounding, pants at half mast… halfway there I realised I was running for my life… from a deer! Still full of adrenaline but now laughing hysterically at my idiocy, I fumbled the door open and fell in, to the amusement of one erstwhile witch-wannabe. Fortunately, she had heard it too, and didn’t just think I’d gone mad!
More to come from the WHW…
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