West Highland Way

The North American’s Guide to the West Highland Way, Scotland

From the Top of The Devil's Staircase

From the Top of The Devil’s Staircase

My friend Michelle and I just returned from walking the West Highland Way (WHW) in Scotland.  Both of us researched this trip quite a bit before we left, and we felt more than prepared to hike the 96 miles.  In some cases we were, but we definitely lacked some necessary knowledge in other areas.  Most of it down to being a Canadian in a strange land (ok, Scotland isn’t that strange, but there are some differences you should be aware of).  This blog post will focus on those little bits of information that will make the WHW easier for a North American.

2 Innocent Canadians Ready to Begin the Walk

2 Innocent Canadians Ready to Begin the Walk

Day 2 - Still Innocent - Having No Idea How That Afternoon Was Going to Unfold

Day 2 – Still Innocent – Having No Idea How That Afternoon Was Going to Unfold 

Lesson 1: Learn the Language

The United Kingdom in general has some colloquialisms you should become familiar with, but Scotland has a very strange way of spelling things FAR different from how it is pronounced.  To save yourself from embarrassment, I’ve listed the more common WHWisms you may want to learn.

Places:

Milngavie – pronounced Mull-GUY.  This is the town where the WHW begins,  When in Glasgow (GLAZ-go), you’ll need to purchase a train ticket to Milngavie, so you really can’t avoid this word.

Drymen – pronounced DRIMM-in.  Your first stop.

Tyndrum – pronounced TIN-drum.  Half way point.

Things:

Kissing Gate – found throughout the WHW.  A wooden gate that requires you to open the gate, step in, close the gate, and walk through.  Only one person at a time can enter a kissing gate.

Kissing Gate

Kissing Gate

Midges – small, flying insects that become a serious nuisance because they travel in swarms and love to annoy you.  Seems we have these in Toronto as well, but they are far more abundant in Scotland.  To avoid midges, you can either walk the WHW when they are not in season (avoid June – August), or bring a head net.

Midges

Midges

Trousers – Yes, we all know what trousers are, but Canadians more often refer to them as “pants”.  This will raise some eyebrows in Scotland.  For example, if you say you might need to wear your “waterproof pants”, what you are really saying is that you need to wear waterproof undies.

Elevensies – a morning snack.  A must-have while walking the WHW.

Lesson 2:  Look After Your Feet

Compeed is a brand name blister remedy in the UK, and is almost synonymous with walking the WHW.  I’m not sure if there is some sort of magic ingredient that makes Compeed better than the Band-aid brand we have in Canada, but I suggest waiting until you are in Scotland, and buy Compeed instead.  The Brits have far more knowledge about long distance walks than we North Americans, so why take chances – just do what they do.

Buy the Compeed stick, and use it BEFORE any signs of a blister.  I rubbed it on my heels and on the balls of my feet (places where blisters normally appear for me), and not a single blister appeared there.  It’s like a sports glide and prevents chafing.

As soon as you feel a “hot spot”, place a Compeed plaster on your foot.  They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, so it’s best to buy a multi-pack.

Compeed Stick to Prevent Blisters

Compeed Stick to Prevent Blisters

Compeed Plasters

Compeed Plasters

Toe Cots are like little rubber sleeves for your toe.  I used one when I noticed a callous on one toe was irritating the toe next door and threatening to cause a blister.  The toe cot also alleviated toe-banging.  I was in quite a bit of pain due to toe-banging, and the toe cot gave me instant relief.  You can buy these at Rexall in the foot care aisle.

Learn to Tie Your Boot.  We all learned to tie our laces when we were very young.  Who knew this can be an art form for long distance hikers?  I have wide feet to begin with, so when my feet began to swell half way through the WHW, tying my boots differently made the world of difference.  Backcountry Edge has a great tutorial on YouTube.

Bring Lots of Wool Socks.  Blisters are caused by dampness and friction.  Avoid the dampness by wearing good quality wool hiking socks that wick away the sweat.  Half way through the day, check your feet.  If they are sweating, put on a clean dry pair of socks to finish the day.  This is also a good idea if you are hiking in the rain and water gets in your boot.  I purchased my hiking socks at MEC and they did a great job. 

Lesson 3:  Get in with the Right People

(Don’t be too shy or too proud to ask for help)

We booked our trip with Mac’s Adventure.  Although our walk was self guided, Mac’s arranged all of our accommodations and our luggage transfer.  They provided us with detailed maps and information, and were available to help us if an emergency happened.  I was very impressed with how absolutely smooth everything went, and I would highly recommend Mac’s.   Our accommodations were varied, some nicer than others, but all were perfectly acceptable – clean and comfortable.

Although everyone at Mac’s were very efficient and friendly, I want to give a special thank you to Dan Greenwood.     Prior to leaving for our trip, I sent Dan an email asking for lunch suggestions/advice for each day.  He emailed back within 24 hours with a daily recommendation including links.  Some days there are no stops along the way, so you would need to order a packed lunch from your B&B ahead of time.  We had no idea, but Dan set us straight and we followed his advice to great success.

On the last day of the WHW, I emailed Dan again asking for dinner suggestions in Fort William.  Within a few short hours he emailed back with several recommendations including links and maps to each restaurant.  If you look up “customer service” in the dictionary, there should be a picture of Dan Greenwood 🙂

And then there are the wonderful people you meet along the route.  I’ll start by introducing you to Steve and Mark.  Experienced hikers, and our beloved mentors, we met Steve and Mark after our day one hike. Mark, very curious about the mud-soaked trousers outside of our room, quickly assessed our inexperience and took us under his wing from that point forward.  They introduced us to “elevensies”, and encouraged our confidence to walk without poles (ok, so they don’t have ALL the answers, but they tried).  Mark and Steve didn’t walk with us every day, but they seemed to appear at the most difficult times – like they were meant to be there just for us.  Their knowledge and their humour was a big part of what made walking the WHW so much fun.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our Mentors – Mark and Steve

Another couple of walkers we met were Mark and Ruth.  A married couple from Yorkshire.  Mark and Ruth didn’t walk with us much, but they were usually there at the end of the day to sit with us while we “rebalanced our fluids”.  Mark writes a blog, and I give him big kudos for taking the time to post about their walk daily.  The WHW is their second big walk – their first was England’s Coast to Coast walk (approx. 200 miles!).  Ruth is just about the sweetest, funniest person I’ve met in a long time.  They are an adorable couple.

Mark and Ruth finished the WHW with the rest of us, but instead of going home, they kept walking, and are STILL (as of the date of this post) walking north on the Great Glen Way.  If you’re interested in the WHW, GGW or the C2C walks, then you’ll enjoy reading Mark’s daily posts.

Our last night with new friends, Mark & Ruth, and Mark & Steve

Our last night with new friends, Mark & Ruth, and Mark & Steve

I’d also like to mention “Team London” – Kate and Ann, two friends from London.  We ended up at the same B&Bs on occasion and enjoyed their company.  I don’t have a picture of Kate and Ann, but here they are teaching us how to improvise.

Team London having lunch in the rain

Team London having lunch in the rain

In conclusion, I wanted to share some lesser known facts about the West Highland Way – there’s enough written about the walk itself, so this perspective is unique.  It was hard going, and times when we wondered what the heck we got ourselves into, but I’m so glad I did it.

This walk was a real learning experience, and it made me feel very accomplished when we reached our final destination in Fort William.  Looking at our last day pictures, it’s a big contrast from our “Innocent Canadians” picture on day one!

Michelle, Day 8

Michelle, Day 8

Whew! We're Done! Me on Day 8

Whew! We’re Done! Me on Day 8 

Random Lessons

Every day of the walk, I posted 5 lessons I learned on the West Highland Way.  They didn’t all make my blog post, but in the interest of sharing some other important ideas, I present the rest of them below:

Day 1:

– Practice walking on rocky terrain – a good portion of the WHW is rocky, and your feet will hurt.

– Bring a sense of humour so boggy boots won’t get the best of you.

– Bring doggie bags – you never know when you have to pack out your t.p.

– Wear sunscreen – the sun actually does shine in Scotland.

– Book early.  Otherwise you’ll have to walk a few extra miles to your B&B

Day 2:

– Mile markers are merely a suggestion

– Elevensies is a thing.

– Towel warmers are the nicest thing at the end of the day.

– No matter how sore and tired you get, a shower and dinner makes it all better again.

– Bring some music.  It can motivate you when you just want to die.

Day 3:

– Hike with new friends you meet along the way, chances are you can learn from them.

– Jacuzzi tubs make an awesome washing machine for muddy clothes.

– If you slip, try to land on your bum.

– Remember to close the blinds at night.  The sun rises at 4:30 a.m.

– “Soldiers march on their stomachs”.  Eat a good breakfast.

Day 4:

– When a hill gets tough, look down, dig in, and count 100 steps before you look up again.  Chances are you’ll have completed a good portion.

– If there’s no latch or step by a gate, and the only way to get around is to climb over it, you probably went the wrong way.

– Learn to lock your heel in your boot – toe banging hurts like hell.

– It’s just mud.  Get used to it.

– Bring a spare pair of merino wool socks and switch them out after 4 hours.  Sweaty feet = blisters.

Day 5:

– Always pack your waterproofs.

– Sometimes the walk is nicer if you put your poles away.

– Toe cots.

– Cow patties can be absolutely humungous.  Watch your step.

– Learn to pronounce the towns along the way.  They don’t always sound the way you’d think.

Day 6:

– You know you’re getting into your rhythm when the hotel appears well before you expect it.

– Don’t get complacent.  You can slip and tear up your knee on the gentlest gravel road.

– Give fellow travellers cute nick names.  It’s a fun and friendly way to get to know people.

– Forget your diet or healthy regime and have a coke with your fish & chips.

– When life offers you a ski lift, jump on!

Day 7:

– Compeed.

– Prepare for the wind.  Bring a hat and gloves.

– Your spare camera battery belongs with you, not with your luggage.

– If you haven’t learned to lock your heel in your boot yet, then day 7 is not your friend.

– Chocolate.

Day 8:

– Bring waterproof gloves.

– Don’t be complacent over days 4-7, day 8 is the “sting in the tail”.

– Rainy miles are different than sunny miles.

– You’ll come to a fork in the road about half way through Day 8 – stay right, it’s longer and tougher, but it’s the right thing to do.

– Make the effort to go out with the friends you met along the way, for a big celebratory dinner in Fort William.  You deserve it!

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