25th May 2008 – Kinlochleven to Fort William – 16 miles
Synopsis: The path climbs steeply at first, out of Kinlochleven through old birch woodland, then more gently to the broad pass of the Lairigmor before returning to the more familiar dense pine forests for much of the final section into Fort William. Views of Ben Nevis abound in the later section of the walk before finally a short trudge along the road and the finish at the outskirts of the town
The alarm was required to wake me today, from the best sleep I’ve had on the trip so far. The Tailrace is very comfortable in general and the bed in my room was wide and comfortable, providing the perfect repose for weary bones. Today was not a long day by any means, with only about 15 miles of walking, but it was going to be quite up and down and I was glad of the good night’s rest.
The view from the bedroom window was promising; no fantastic vistas today, unlike the Kingshouse Hotel yesterday morning, not unless you count the local chip shop that is, but the weather was bright and clear, the sun was out and the sky was cloudless and blue. It looked like I had a good day’s walking ahead of me. I had hoped for clear weather, so I had views of Ben Nevis later in the day, but more than anything I wanted clear weather tomorrow, for when I actually planned to climb Ben Nevis.
According to the guide book, Ben Nevis has a clear summit on only about 3 to 5 days each month, on average. Those aren’t good odds. I planned to climb the Ben whatever the weather, but it would be nice to be rewarded with a view from the top rather than climbing into cotton wool. Time would tell.
I had all my kit packed, my luggage at the collection point and my napkin tucked into my shirt, waiting for breakfast, by 07:30. I didn’t want to waste a moment of the glorious weather and if the truth be told, I was looking forward to getting into Fort William early and watching the League 1 play-off final in a pub.
I was the only person in the dining room when I arrived, but was joined shortly afterwards by a couple of guys who were staying locally but had booked a breakfast with the Tailrace for some reason. For once the cooked breakfast was actually laid in front of me at the time I requested, rather than having to wait the additional 20 minutes for it to be prepared. It was all very efficient and a perfectly adequate meal.
If you’re staying in Kinlochleven I would definitely recommend the Tailrace, it’s everything that the Drover’s is not.
I walked through the town, past the footpath to the Grey Mare’s Tail and left the road opposite the school, picking up a small track through the woods. The old metal fingerpost points you in the direction of Fort William “by the Lairig”, which means pass. Before long the path is rougher and steeper and shaded by silver birches on either side.
Anyone who stays at the Mamore Lodge Hotel will make this steep little climb at the end of their day, arriving sweaty and puffing at reception, much to the mirth of the staff there, I’m sure. I was much happier to be making the climb in the morning, with the sun filtering through the leaves and views back to the town below.
Before long I reached the hotel access road, but the Way cuts across it and into the woods on the other side. The path at points seems to be cut from the rock itself and lovely little waterfalls and streams tinkle beside the route. Views opened up considerably once the tree line was reached and I could see far down the loch towards Loch Linnhe. The wonderful pointy eminence of Sgorr na Ciche (The Pap of Glencoe) and beyond that the snow sprinkled Munro of Sgorr Dhearg lined the loch. Behind me, into the morning sun I could see yesterday’s route as it wound its way up the hillside towards the pumping station for the reservoir.
I turned my attention to this morning’s route though as I had a decision point ahead. I had a high level alternative today, up into the Mamores, over Am Bodach and Stob Ban and then down the Allt Coire a Mhusgain into Glen Nevis on the other side. The only reasonable excuse I could use for not following this route today was the weather; I thought it looked like it would turn out to be too hot to be climbing all day. I stuck the traditional route through the pass and promised myself a return to these hills in the not too distant future.
Once the initial steep climb out of Kinlochleven is done, which takes about a mile and a quarter, the incline reduces somewhat and you’re left with a gradual climb between the hills flanking the Way. I soon joined the old military road that takes the Way through the lairig. It’s a wide, well maintained road, suitable for a Land Rover. At points you can see it winding through the valley ahead of you for miles.
I’d left Kinlochleven early enough to avoid the crowds and until I met the two foreign girls taking a break by the path I’d not met or indeed seen a soul all morning. They were sitting slightly above the track on a large rock and chatting away to each other as I approached. I rather gallantly, I thought, collected one of their water bottles which had dropped onto the track and which they were obviously going to collect from the base of the rock when they left. They seemed quite surprised at my small gesture and wished me a pleasant morning.
The further I walked through the lairig, the better the views to the left of me became. Initially a small sliver of the Aonach Eagach was visible, but this aspect soon widened, giving me a clear view of almost its whole length. The jagged, knife-edged ridge was clear of cloud today and a splendid sight it was too. Another hill walk on my increasingly long tick list.
As I progressed, the distant views to the left were obscured by Beinn na Caillich and Mam na Gualainn; the hills immediately to the south of the path. At the same time, however, the views to the right became more dominant; the rocky summit of Stob Ban with its scree covered slopes and the brilliant blue backdrop of the sky kept my eyes from the path. It’s just as well then that the road is flat and well laid.
The weather was perfect for walking; warm but not too hot, clear blue skies with just a little haze in the distance and only a breath of wind. The only blot on this landscape was the line of telegraph poles marching beside the path all the way down the length of the valley, a constant companion since leaving Kinlochleven.
I passed a couple of guys wild camping by the burn that runs through the lairig, but they didn’t acknowledge my presence. I was surprised to see their tents still pitched and clothes drying on nearby bushes, it was well after 10:00 now, but then perhaps they were taking it easy today. A little further on were two more tents, much further down in the valley, close to a large loop in the river. Unsurprisingly this is a popular place for a wild camp.
The lairig contains the remains of two old buildings. The first one, Tigh-na-sleubhaich, still resembles a farmhouse, it’s roof has gone but the walls are still standing and the remains of old farm machinery lie scattered close by. The fences and sheep pens next to the building still appear to be used and the building could offer some crumb of comfort in a particularly bad storm. The second one, a further fifteen minutes walk down the track; Lairigmor is nothing but a foot or two of standing wall surrounded by the stones that once formed it’s frame.
The track continues for another mile or two through the valley, swinging a wide loop around the southern and western slopes of Meall a Chaorainn, descending slowly towards the factory forests above Glen Nevis. There had been a lot of recent felling activity and the result was a wasteland of stumps and discarded branches, punctuated by the occasional standing tree. I couldn’t understand this and I saw it wherever I saw felling activity. A huge area of felled trees always had at least one or two thin, lonely trunks rising from the ruins below, almost as if they’d been forgotten. The final warrior, spared to tell the tale of the massacre and relay dire warnings to the enemy commanders.
I said a silent, fond farewell to the lairig, one of my favourite sections of the walk, but just one glorious section amongst many others on this path. The surface underfoot changed little, although the surroundings were very different and I soon met the first people walking towards me from Fort William, heading for Kinlochleven. Three lads busy talking amongst themselves and young enough to ignore me completely. There seems to be age below which walkers do not say “hello” or “good morning” and an age below that where they don’t even look at you or acknowledge you. Perhaps it’s an age difference thing? I would say about 90% of the people my age and older will utter some sort of greeting as we pass. Many of the late “twenty-somethings” will only nod or make eye contact and the vast majority of the group below that will look at the ground or the sky or a space over my right shoulder as we pass. I wouldn’t like to read anything sociological into this “survey”, but I’m sure the interpersonal skills of young people today are way below those of my generation.
The path began to climb again now and it soon crossed a small section of open moorland between the areas of felled trees and I got my first view of Ben Nevis.
It’s certainly not your typical mountain, at least not from this viewpoint and its size is deceptive. There was less snow visible on it than I had seen on many distant mountains over the last few days, but at least the summit was clear and there wasn’t too much haze in the air, so I got a good view of the challenge that awaited me in the morning. I took a short break on the top of a high stile in the deer fence and surveyed the huge lump ahead of me. Even from this distance I thought I could see the path that zig-zags its way up the higher reaches of the mountain, probably full of people on this glorious Sunday. But that was for tomorrow. I pulled my mind back to the task in hand – completing the West Highland Way.
After the felled sections of trees, the standing forest was a pleasure to walk through. A mix of factory pines and native deciduous trees provided a wonderful shady walk. The path was much narrower and rugged and twisted and turned through the trees. It was covered in a bed of pine needles and a pleasure to walk on after the harsh but functional surface of the old military road. Unfortunately they also served to dampen the sound of several oncoming mountain bikes and I was forced to skip quickly out of the way as they hurtled past. Not one of them acknowledged my giving way, not so much as a “kiss my arse” from any of them. I checked to make sure my magic ring of invisibility was in my pocket where it should be and hadn’t accidentally slipped onto my finger! I must add that this is not the typical treatment I get from mountain bikers, the majority are as courteous as most walkers are.
I’d selected a spot for lunch, while checking the map a little earlier. Just to the right of the path and three hundred feet or so above it was the site of an ancient hill fort; Dun Deardail. Or Dun Raiding as I had been calling it for the last hour. I imagined it as the retirement home of a local chieftain, the site acquired on one of his previous pillages and set aside for quieter times ahead. He would have had a fort built on it and a suitably comfortable roundhouse or log cabin or whatever, with a huge picture window overlooking the Ben. When he was too old to heft a sword anymore he returned here with a few trusty clansmen, hung his battle gear above the fireplace and closed the gates in the wall.
The reality was, of course, rather disappointing. The sketchy remains of a wall, atop a steep green hill mostly free of litter thanks mainly to the distance from any car parking spaces. The views of Ben Nevis on the other hand were anything but disappointing. I was close enough that the camera couldn’t pan out sufficiently to get the whole of the Ben into a single frame and I could now certainly see the path ascending the hillside. The little blue, yellow and white specks were obviously people on the path. The wind was blowing strongly up here, so I sheltered below the grassy embankment that used to be the walls of the fort and ate my banana and flapjacks. I’m sure our barbarian friend would have had a summer holiday home as well, much further south, as I could only guess at how cold and inhospitable this place must be in the depths of winter.
After leaving Dun Raiding I rejoined the Way as it wound a route down the steep hillside towards Fort William. The forestry road is wide and uninspiring, albeit with occasional grand views down to Fort William and across to Ben Nevis. I met more and more people either coming up the track towards me, or walking slowly down the incline in my direction. It was a glorious Bank Holiday weekend, most un-British and people were out taking advantage of it.
The dull forestry track terminated, none too soon, at “Braveheart” car park (sigh), but was immediately replaced by a pavement beside a busy minor road that supports a number of caravan parks, camp sites and pubs in Glen Nevis. This ran for about a mile into the outskirts of Fort William and what appears to be the official end of the West Highland Way at the Ben Nevis Highland Centre, a restaurant, gift shop and tourist centre, almost a mile from the centre of the town. I can’t help but think that some marketing genius at what was originally called the Ben Nevis Woollen Mill erected an unofficial “End of the WHW” sign outside his shop, stuck on the outskirts of town, in order to pull in the walkers heading for the centre. Why there is no obelisk, like the one in Milngavie, to mark the end of the Way is a mystery.
However it happened, this is the sign that people stand in front of and have a photograph taken to signify that they have completed the 95 miles from Milngavie. The fact that they still have almost a mile to go before they reach Fort William seems to be immaterial. I was on my own and there was no suitable place to use the self-timer on my camera, so I settled on a photo of the sign, without me standing in front of it.
I was a bit pissed off if the truth be told. The West Highland Way is a magnificent series of landscapes; from the banks of Loch Lomond through the wilderness of Rannoch Moor to the mountain splendour of Glen Coe and the LairigMor. It takes you on a journey of sensual pleasures through the sights and the sounds of Scotland; the moors, the heather, the lochs, the wildlife and then it dumps you four miles from your destination on a dull and tedious series of roads and pavements. And that was after I’d managed to avoid 3/4 of a mile of road walking by following a tip from the guide book and continuing past Glen Nevis House instead of turning right there. The last four miles of my walk was such a huge let down I wanted to find someone to complain to. I wanted to sit them down with a map and show them how it should have ended.
I completed the trudge into Fort William, which was packed with Sunday holiday-makers, the sheer numbers of whom made me feel quite uncomfortable. I just wasn’t used to so many people jostling and bumping me. The sun was shining brightly and although it was quite windy, the day was warm and pleasant. I ducked into the first pub I found (The Crofter) and settled down into an empty corner beneath the TV with a pint of ice cold Diet Coke. I congratulated myself on half a job well done and looked forward to the remaining five days with relish.
My reverie didn’t last long though. Within ten minutes of arriving in the quiet pub and selecting my corner, with a view of the TV showing the football game I was surrounded, quite literally, by about 30 English lads, obviously a stag party, all settling down to watch the game as well. My comfortable spot was soon cramped and noisy with beer and food flowing freely from the bar to the boys. I managed to watch the first half of the game (Leeds v Doncaster, 0-0 at half time), but soon the noise and crowding became too much for me and I slunk out into the street.
I made my way to the B&B, the Guisachan (Goo-skan) Guest House, about a half mile back the way I’d come. My room was ready, but my bag hadn’t arrived again. It was such a glorious afternoon though that I decided to sit out on the terrace at the front of the house. The table set up out there already had four guys sitting round it, chatting amiably and drinking their pints from the bar. I asked them if I could join them and they agreed as a chorus. They had just arrived themselves, in preparation for starting their walk of the Great Glen Way in the morning.
The four guys; Jim, Jim, John and Bill, all retired, were part of the same walking club from Arbroath. It seemed these were an unofficial splinter group, capable of and willing to walk for five long days consecutively. I told them my itinerary; Ben Nevis and then the GGW in four days and teased them by saying I would give them a day’s head start before I caught them up at South Laggan. They asked me how my feet were holding up after the WHW and I immediately made a fool of myself by taking off my shoes and socks and proudly displaying “Lefty and his mate”, totally lacking any blisters or hot-spots.
Before I could make any more of a show of myself, my bag arrived and I left them drinking and headed for a shower. An hour later I was in back in town looking for somewhere to eat. I decided against the white soggy chips I’d seen being served in the Crofter earlier and headed further into town. I found a quiet little real-ale pub called the “Grog and Gruel” with an adequate menu and a good selection of beers. This was about the first place I’d found with proper hand-pulled ales and joy of joys, they had “Fraoch” on tap. For the last three or four years I have treated myself to a case of Fraoch ale for Christmas, ever since my good friend and neighbour Steve brought me a bottle back from a trip to Skye. It’s a wonderful, light amber beer with a distinct taste.
I returned to the B&B with a little buzz from the two pints of Fraoch and tracked down the elusive owner. The B&B is a big place, with something like 15 rooms and it’s not always easy to know where to look for the owners. I needed to check he was alright with me leaving the house early in the morning. As it was a Bank Holiday Monday and as the weather was so good, I expected quite a few people to be climbing the Ben and I wanted to be up and down before the crowds. He had no issue with me leaving early and even offered to leave a tray outside my room before he went to bed with some cereal and orange juice and milk in flasks. What a star!
I had an early night and slept well.