Of mice and midge
I never pitched my tent that night. A large driftwood branch set across some large boulders proved an excellent way of turning my humble abode into a makeshift tarp shelter. The night looked to be a warm and clear one, my campfire was crackling and up until now the infamous highland midge hadn’t been bothering me that much. All in all, my little camping spot along the shores of Loch Lomond on this second night on the West Highland Way promised to fulfill all my romantic notions on outdoor camping in Scotland…
And then night fell. The small amount of midge repellant I put on proved to be utterly inadequate as a swarm of the wee devils started to gather under the tarp and around my exposed head. Rubbing more repellant on also proved futile as the swarm was only deterred for a few minutes before resuming the bloody excavation of my face. The constant pestering and biting my face must have tired them out as much as it did me, because later that night they stopped bothering me. By then a pair of mice had taken over though, keeping me awake for the next few hours as they kept trying to frolick around near my head, ignoring the many pebbles I was flicking their way.
Unrested, a bit wiser and eager to continue on my way I packed up camp the next morning and set off towards the northern shores of Loch Lomond. At this point the West Highland Way briefly splits up into two trails; one continuing along the main path coming from Rowardennan and another smaller trail splitting off from the main path just above Ptarmigan Lodge. As I was already camped along the latter I continued to follow it, closely hugging the shoreline.
Legends of Rob Roy McGregor
This section of the West Highland Way has long held a reputation for being poorly kept and rather difficult to walk. Recent years have seen efforts to improve this section of the trail however, making it a very enjoyable if not slightly challenging walk along narrow footpaths with the occasional bit of scrambling over boulders every now and then. The narrow path sometimes leads through small clusters of trees and overhanging branches which forced me to get a little creative from time to time while navigating the trail with my backpack!
Another feature of this section is its connection to one of the highland’s more colourful legendary figures, one Rob Roy McGregor. This 18th century outlaw is both a hero and villain in local folklore (depending on which clan is telling the story) and even had the honour of being portrayed by Liam Neeson in the 1995 movie Rob Roy. There are two sites connected to his legend along this part of the West Highland Way: a small hidden crag where he allegedly stored his prisoners and a cave where he supposedly hid himself from time to time. Not being able to find his prison, I did take a short stop at his cave, which was easy to find due to the obvious signs pointing the way. I hope for Robbie’s sake those signs were placed after he was done with the place…
The trail continued on for a few kilometers before meeting a beach where I camped for the night, this time setting up my tent like a sane person. After another well-deserved swim I ate my dinner looking out over Loch Lomond, illuminated by the last rays of the day’s sun.
In ancient footsteps
Clouds hung overhead as I packed up my tent the following morning. I set off on what would be a set of colder, rainy days. Which was completely fine, as the late summer heat of the past few days wasn’t exactly prime hiking weather.
By now I had reached the northern shores of Loch Lomond. After a last farewell to my watery companion from the last few days I climbed the hills ahead and started following the trail towards Crianlarich. From here on the West Highland Way mostly follows the old drover routes, used centuries past to drive cattle from the upper highlands to markets down south. I mused on what an ordeal that must’ve been for those ancient drovers, herding cattle along on distances often exceeding hundreds of kilometers, without the luxury of proper hiking shoes, lightweight shelters or even protein bars!
The trail runs mostly parallel to the river Falloch here, through the glen of the same name. It had started to rain at this point, no doubt the first of many showers to grace my head these coming days. I pressed on and reached a fork in the road somewhere above Crianlarich later that afternoon. Instead of calling it a day and turn right toward the town proper, I decided to turn left and make for the town of Tyndrum instead.
Robert the Bruce, bacon rolls and international relations
After some literal ups and downs through densely pine-clad hills the trail went down into the glen once more, eventually reaching the site of the Battle of Dalrigh. It was here that Robert the Bruce, most famous of Scottish kings, fought and lost against the foul English-loving MacDougalls in 1306. After his defeat he escaped and according to local tales he threw his sword into a nearby lake (there’s actually two puddles claiming the honour), received some form of spiritual comfort at a local monastic site (which received priory status from him some time thereafter) before going into hiding. Busy man, that Robert.
Other local legends apparently include the bacon rolls at Auchtertyre, because I could’ve sworn to seeing mention of them on signs almost as much as Robert’s exploits… Later that evening I found myself camped on a proper campsite near Tyndrum. I sat down in the local pub with Ivan, an Italian architect of Bosnian origins and a prodigious pipe-wielder, whom I had passed a couple of times on the trail that day.
“It’s so surreal,” he said. I was watching a travelling musician perform an acoustic cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, along with the rest of the somewhat crowded pub. The room couldn’t have been more overtly Scottish with its brown wooden furnishings, tiny whisky bottle collection along the bar’s top shelf and a deer grazing in some glen in a picture frame above our heads. The surreality my fellow hiker was pointing out lay in the fact that even though the room was as Scottish as William Wallace’s moustache it was filled with people from all nationalities; local Scots mingled with another Dutchman who was having a conversation with two Swiss, a table of Italians in the middle of the room, two Frenchies and ourselves, a Dutch guy reflecting on a comment made by a Bosnian-Italian on the surreality of having a small-town pub in the middle of rural Scotland be one of the most international places we’ve both seen so far on this trip.
So we lifted our glasses to international relations and peace and all that before heading back to our tents. Another stretch of hiking awaited us, and we left the drunken Brexit discussions for another day.
This story is continued in part three!