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Hiking the Highlands: Welcome to all things Scottish

The West Highland Way hiking trail offers a path to the heart of Scotland's history and natural beauty

“Welcome to all things Scottish, where if it’s not Scottish it’s crap!”

Fans of the show Saturday Night Live might recall that line delivered by Mike Myers, in an exaggerated Scottish accent, bellowing this sentiment at customers visiting the shop All Things Scotland. This skit ran in the early 1990s, but the saying ‘If it’s not Scottish it’s crap’ became part of my regular repertoire even if Scotland had nothing to do with the conversation.

I was 15 when the skit debuted, and inside me a thistle seed was planted. Was everything in the world in fact crap if it wasn’t Scottish?!

The answer was revealed in October when my partner Derek and I departed for a month-long trip to the wee country to celebrate my 50th birthday.

We planned our trip around a point-to-point 155-kilometre (96-mile) hike established in 1980, the West Highland Way (WHW), to commence Oct. 15 in relation to my birthday and the latest Macs Adventure offers a bag transfer service. The trail can be tackled several different ways, however we planned to complete it over seven days.

Macs offers several different packages that includes accommodations and breakfasts with the transfer. There are campsites along the way, hotels, few hostels, and there is an option to bothy camp in the ruins alongside the trail in uglier weather. Year round, Scotland weather can be unpredictable so we were adverse to camping, also travelling four weeks made it logistically difficult to tent camp. Most importantly, it was my 50th, so I had no objection to a level of comfort at the end of a long day’s hike.

Seasonally the weather in Scotland is much like ours. What we realized early into our hike was the bullet we dodged by not tackling this in the spring or summer: midges. We were warned of adverse fall weather, but never cautioned about the midges. Midges are a biting fly, and by all reports a massive mood wrecker. Midges was a dirty word seemingly by all who experienced them.

Upon our U.K. arrival, we took a few days to acclimatize in the walkable city of Glasgow, visiting galleries, botanical gardens, pubs and museums, and on Oct. 14 caught an Uber to where our hike commenced, Milngavie (pronounced Mull-guy). We had less than 24 hours in the tiny village and luckily stumbled across Gavin’s Mill – a 17th century corn mill run primarily by volunteers that contains a fair trade shop, café and event space. The Mill employees love to talk about their work and have impressive knowledge of everything in the shop. While Derek hungrily shopped the organic nuts, chocolates, berries and cookies, I toodled around letting the staff tell me what was what and share anecdotes of the WHW.

One employee was eager to share that her Canadian cousin took a shot at the WHW a few years back. In her cousin’s words, the trail was “exceptionally hard! Aye, near impossible!” Did we have toques, mittens, rain gear!?

I assured her we were well prepared, after all we were from the wild West Coast of Canada where inclement weather was the norm, as were radical shifts in terrain. Her cousin, as it turned out, was from Portage La Prairie (so perhaps less used to radical terrain and torrential rain that affronts from nowhere?).

The morning of Sunday Oct. 15, we dropped our rucksacks at the transport van, went to the breakfast room and surveyed the diverse group of hikers we would spend the next week leap frogging on the trail. After a meal of eggs, blood sausage and beans, and our daypacks packed, we set off on an unseasonably sunny and warm day.

Traversing an easy trail through rolling farmer’s fields and livestock gates, we ended Day 1 in the village of Drymen, 20 km from Milngavie. We dropped our daypacks at the pre-booked Braeside Inn and went directly across the street to The Clachan Inn, est. 1734, for pints and dinner. The Clachan claims to be Scotland’s oldest pub with the first licensee said to be Mistress Gow, Rob Roy’s sister. Certainly one of the coolest things about Scotland is its age. The country is steeped in historical events and notable battles, and we couldn’t get enough of it.

Though this trip was self-guided, we commenced with several other hikers – a mix of singles, couples and families – all of us at our own pace. Mostly we wound up at the same location at day’s end, however there were a handful of campers even this late in the season. By Day 3, however, several campers packed in the romantic idea of camping and checked in to hotels. And we didn’t judge.

Day 2 consisted of 24 km of hiking and 765 metres of ascent and landed us in Rowardennan, an inn established in 1696. The inn sits alone for miles around and is nestled on the south end of Loch Lomond. Importantly to note it is seasonally run. The staff were preparing to shut down for the winter and we were the last guests until they reopen in spring.

So here is one of about 96 reasons we didn’t judge the campers for choosing a warm hotel, hot shower and cozy bed over a cold hard ground and site set up at the end of some long arse days: upon checking into our room and dropping out of our hiking gear, all we had the energy for was lying on our backs on the bed with our legs up the wall to ease our penetratingly pained gams, and then a cold dip into the loch to loosen the limbs. Though the days were mostly warm, it turned icy at sundown which was roughly 4 p.m.

Now, Derek and I aren’t made of cottonballs and are willing to sacrifice certain amenities for a hearty challenge. That said, we have gotten wise to choosing the option of being dry and comfortable.

We both found the miles of old military roads were hard on our feet and legs. Footwear was a spicy topic and I decided on travelling with my heavy-duty boots that are rainproof, have solid ankle support and weigh in at 1.6 kilograms (3.5 pounds). I knew this because we hiked Nootka Sound in the summer and all baggage is weighed for the float plane transfer, otherwise I would have said they weighed 97 pounds.

Footwear is acutely important on every hike and can make or break the journey, whether due to blisters, weight, wetness, or terrain changes. Really a moderate day hiker would have sufficed, and with a bag transfer service I should have brought the heavier boot and a day hiker, like my side kick did.

A Scottish couple we met on Day 2 (I gave them the trail name J-Lo) was on their third attempt at completing the trail. Both in their 40s and clearly fit, Lo was taken down twice by ravaging blisters, bad enough she was forced to withdraw. J wore waterproof trail runners everyday and reported no foot issues. They used Travel-Lite bag service and booked their own accommodations and roughly priced out similar to us.

Day 3 was 22.5 km and 751 m of ascent, and we agreed it was the most enjoyable as far as terrain goes. The route is a fun forest track juxtaposed between Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond (the lake and the mountain), mottled with waterfalls and ruins, and elevation changes which afforded a welcome change from the roads. This was what us west coasters are used to, and not surprising our Scottish chums liked this day the least – another family we kept up with over the week weren’t all fans of this leg. Mom Julie, Dad Mark, and 15-year-old Grace previously completed portions of the trail, this week being the first from beginning to end.

Julie describes herself as a bit on the wee side, and found scrambling up and over the boulders challenging, where as Grace with legs of a gazelle managed that portion with the ease of one as well.

The next few days we were deep into the Highlands where we were lucky to experience miles and miles of total solitude. The sprawling landscape teemed with puffy sheep, and as fall glazed in dandelion yellow and Olympic gold, it was easy to visualize what might have been hundreds of years ago: the Battles of Culloden, the Glencoe massacre between the infamous Campbells and MacDonalds, in their clan’s tartans. Oh for the love of Scotland, these days were magic!

Our longest day was 32 km, from the town of Tyndrum to stand-alone hotel Kingshouse. All groups operated on their own schedules, but as days passed we linked up at pubs for pints, laughs, moans, trail tales and blister comparisons. Julie’s family left in the early morning dark with head torches in order to make the hotel before sunset. I will confess I approach challenges naively and I will consider this characteristic a gift. Pre-trip I blew off friend and family comments at the length of a 32-km day. I renounced all rumblings with a PFFFFFT.

That day I realized Derek and I hadn’t uttered a word to one another in hours. In fact, I forgot I even had companionship. Likely around kilometre 20 I realized I had adopted the Finding Nemo mantra of “just keep swimming,” and Derek admitted he had Mary had a Little Lamb on his brain’s repeat. It became a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of day.

From Kingshouse, the day’s hurdle was to tackle the infamous Devil’s Staircase – a daunting name, but an easy-to-navigate 548 m ascent. We climbed and hiked against 80 km/h winds into the village of Kinglochleven. And though that was the shortest distance day, it was gruelling with the wind factor. The evening conflabs were conclusive on the aggressive winds, and poor young Grace was by all reports nearly swept off the top of the staircase, if not for her parents tethering her to the ground.

Our last day from Kinglochlevan to Fort William, we lucked out with an expansive blue sky and bothies all to ourselves to have our usual tea and snacks in. By Ben Nevis, with 150 km behind us, I was too shattered to consider our accomplishment. We limped into the town square, hiking poles dragging behind us, snapped the token photograph, slapped a weak high five and hauled ourselves into the closest pub.

We rented a car in Fort William so the following weeks afforded us a drive and train trip back to Glasgow through the highlands, but we agreed hiking it was a meaningful way to savour and consider the history and country, and climate (less midges), and exceptional Scottish hospitality. We felt at home, and an instant kinship to our fellow trailgoers.

As the weather is unpredictable, it is advisable to be prepared for monumental rain and wind, and also sun. Be armed with blister packs as there isn’t always a town to stock up, or a mom named Julie with plenty of extras. We had thermoses and prepared tea in the morning for the day. The hotel rooms were equipped with tea, coffee and shortbread, however we stocked up in Milngavie. Hotels offer a bagged lunch which includes a roll (sandwich), fruit, crisps, and granola bars at roughly 10 pounds (approximately C$16). Don’t rely on restaurant lunches, as the restaurants aren’t always open, slow down the day, and restarting the trail after sitting for lunch was said to be a challenge.

Visit for more information on self-guided hikes. For information on bothy camping visit For fun facts and stats, refer to

Catherine Boyd is a North Shore freelance writer working on her first novel and looking for her next epic hike to be humbled by.