The East Highland Way: hiking Scotland’s newest trail

I’m in Ft. William on the west coast of Scotland, the starting point for many popular long-distance hikes, including Scotland’s newest trail–the East Highland Way. Over the next six days I’ll be walking 76 miles past lochs, mountains, historic sites, and remote countryside. The hike is so new there isn’t even a guidebook yet, but Kevin Langan, who established the route and is writing a guidebook, kindly sent me some maps. The trail is unmarked, so these maps and a compass will be vital to be making it to Aviemore in the Central Highlands.

I wake up to a beautiful view of Loch Linnhe outside my window. The view is all that’s beautiful. It’s pouring rain, my legs hurt from climbing Ben Nevis yesterday, and I have a persistent cough courtesy of my four-year-old son that makes me hack up great gobbets of phlegm every time I say “loch”. A perfect morning to start trekking across Scotland!

Because of the scarcity of accommodation in this part of Scotland, the days aren’t of even distance. My first stop, the village of Spean Bridge, is only nine miles from Ft. William. Make that eleven since I’m staying west of town, but even so it’s an easy first day. This gives me a chance to walk out my fatigue from climbing the UK’s tallest mountain and gives me time to explore historic Ft. William.

There’s always been settlement along the shores of this loch that opens into the North Atlantic, but the city owes its prominence to the fort that gives it its name. Fort William was an English base to keep the Scots in line. There’s now a movement by some nationalists in town to change the name to something more Scottish! Not much of the original fort survives, and for more information I head to the West Highland Museum. What strikes me about this museum is the focus on the rebellions against the English. While these are a major part of Scottish history and still affect today’s politics, the coverage seems almost obsessive. Weapons and paintings of Bonnie Prince Charlie are everywhere. My own clan, Clan MacLachlan, took part in the rebellions, and what I know of Scottish history is centered around the various Lost Causes my ancestors supported. Not talking about the Scottish rebellions while in the Highlands would be like not talking about the Civil War while traveling through the American South. As I continue on my hike I’ll see places where my ancestors marched and fought, and learn more about their role in Scottish history.

I dawdle in the museum talking to the curator and hoping the rain will ease up, but it only gets worse, so I stop delaying and head on out. The town is unremarkable beyond the beautiful views of the loch. The main street has been given over to tourism and the rest of the town looks a bit run down. At the edge of town is Inverlochy Castle, pictured above. This imposing castle was built in the 13th century to guard the River Lochy and the western edge of the Great Glen, the easiest transit route to the northeast. It’s built in a basic, solid manner with a moat, a square plan, and giant towers at each corner. This isn’t some elegant Renaissance chateau castle, but a practical fortification meant to take plenty of abuse. It was the base of power for the Comyn family as they asserted their influence over much of medieval Scotland. Two battles were fought at this site and almost 800 years later much of the stonework still looks solid.

%Gallery-99692%The route east from the castle is an easy but not particularly attractive one. Like the first day of the Hadrian’s Wall Path and other popular paths, much time is spent getting out of populated areas. The route follows just south of a railway and highway on a dirt trail through managed forest. Logging is big business up here and orderly rows of trees are grown to be cut down and replaced with the next generation. Not exactly primeval woodland, but it does keep the sight of cars from my eyes.

The weather clears, then clouds up and rains, then clears again. This is typical Scottish weather–“four seasons in one day” as the saying goes. Before long I’m in Spean Bridge, a village on the River Spean. I decide the weather and my legs are in good enough shape to take a popular three-mile scenic loop trail near town. It’s the prettiest land I’ve seen all day, mostly unfarmed with wild trees and a real feel of untamed nature. It leads to the mossy ruins of High Bridge, scene of the first battle of the Jacobite uprising of 1745.

Bonnie Prince Charlie had recently landed in Scotland and was gathering the Highlanders to march on England to overthrow the Hanoverian monarchy in favor of his own Stuart line. Clan MacLachlan was quick to join up. If I had been alive at that time I doubt I’d have been enthusiastic about overthrowing one monarch only to be ruled by another, but nobody went against the wishes of their clan chief. While we were still sharpening our swords up north, a dozen men from Clan MacDonald hid at one end of this bridge awaiting a force of 85 English soldiers sent to reinforce Ft. William. On August 16th (my birthday) 1745, the redcoats tried to cross. The MacDonalds shouted at the tops of their lungs, leaping from bush to bush on the steep slope of the opposite bank and firing their muskets. The redcoats thought they were outnumbered and ran.

My ancestors did get to help out in the next battle, at Prestonpans on September 21 (my son’s birthday). On that misty morning, an English army of 2,300 men was virtually wiped out by a fierce Highland charge. This was my ancestors’ sole tactic. A mass of men would charge at the enemy. Once in musket range they’d fire their muskets (if they had them), then charge again into pistol range, fire their pistols (if they had them) and throw them at the enemy. Then they charged into the enemy lines with a shield and dirk in one hand and a sword in the other. The sheer momentum of the howling, slashing, hacking Highlanders was enough to break the English lines. It was a good start to an ill-fated campaign.

The trail continues up a steep bare hill that provides me with a grand view of the rough Highland terrain I will tackle tomorrow. At the summit is a memorial to the British commandos of World War Two. They trained here, not to overthrow one king in favor of another, but to overthrow a mad dictator bent on world domination. Never in history has the line between right and wrong been so clear cut. Nearby is a sobering garden where people leave photos of loved ones who fought and died in that war and in Iraq and Afghanistan. All my achievements pale in comparison.

Tomorrow: The East Highland Way Day Two: Into the Highlands!

Climbing Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain

I just turned 41, so it’s time for my annual long-distance hike in order to prove I’m not as old as the numbers say. Last year I spent six days walking the 84-mile Hadrian’s Wall Path. This year I’m in Scotland to tackle the region’s newest trail, the East Highland Way, stretching from Ft. William on the west coast 76 miles inland past lochs, mountains, and castles to Aviemore.

Before heading out into the countryside I want to defeat Ft. William’s greatest challenge–a grueling climb up Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain at 4,409 ft. (1,344 meters). While there’s a trail all the way up, it’s faint in places and there are sheer drops that have claimed more than a few lives. With the summit usually shrouded in mist and the trail fading to near invisibility at the top, I’ve come prepared with a map and compass as well as wet-weather clothing, a sweater, food, plenty of water, and all the usual emergency gear.

I walk the three miles from my B&B to the trailhead, where a youth hostel and information center are covered in posters warning hikers to be prepared. Ben Nevis and other peaks loom over the valley. It’s sunny at the moment, but I can’t see the summit of Ben Nevis because it’s blocked by its lower slopes. The start of the Pony Trail, the most popular way up, is almost at sea level, so we’re going to earn every one of those 4,409 feet. The first thing I see is a search and rescue helicopter coming down off the summit. Propitious!

The trail is hard right from the beginning. Uneven stone steps lead up a steep slope on long, winding switchbacks. The sun is strong and my t-shirt is soaked in sweat. The whole of western Scotland seems to be at my feet. Ft. William is visible in the distance, on the shores of Loch Linnhe. Several other lochs and rivers makes deep cuts into the surrounding hills. Water and land are a patchwork of blue, green, and gray smudged by shadows from the scattered clouds. Further up I come across a small mountain loch nestled in a little valley and fed by the numerous little streams that trickle down the slopes. I’m tempted to take a drink–I do this all the time in the Sierra de Guadarrama near Madrid–but the piles of sheep dung make me think twice.

There are plenty of others on this trail, either huffing and puffing their way up like me, or staggering their way down with wasted expressions on their faces. As I continue upwards, the short grass gives way to bare rock splotched with green and yellow lichen. The sky darkens and thin wisps of cloud descend over the slope. Soon visibility is down to fifty yards. The crowd thins out too, and at times I am alone in a weird, colorless landscape of pale broken rock and thickening mist. Cairns positioned at regular intervals mark the trail. I can faintly see other cairns on either side. Some of these mark where search and rescue found dead climbers. Others have been built for seemingly no reason, although they could easily mislead the unwary, leading to the creation of more memorials. It’s cold now and I’ve put on my sweater and raincoat. Freezing rain needles my face.

%Gallery-99558%The summit appears as a surprise. One moment I’m walking alone up a gentle grade, the next moment the land flattens out and I see a summit marker and emergency hut with several silhouettes cavorting around it. I’ve made it!

The ruins of a weather observatory built in 1883 sit to one side. Even back then Ben Nevis was a popular climb, and the scientists were often bothered by exhausted hikers begging for food. The observatory posted suggestions about climbing the mountain, advising healthy men to neither rest nor drink water while climbing, but to bring a lemon and some biscuits or sandwiches. They also advised that, “The fair sex, the broken-winded, and the rheumatic must do their own sweet will on Ben Nevis.” While I’m not a woman, broken-winded, or rheumatic, I have to admit that I drank water and rested on my way up, and you should too. I wonder what other bad exercise advice was popular in Victorian times.

While I’ve made it up, coming down is where most climbers get lost, hurt, or killed. I’ve taken compass bearings and the line of cairns is visible enough to confirm my reading. It’s vital not to stray off the path as this surreal terrain all looks the same. In several places funnels of slick grass and rock lead to sheer drops.

A part of me wishes some of my fellow hikers would fall down them. Litter is scattered everywhere. Why would someone take the trouble to slog up the tallest mountain in the British Isles only to leave behind a plastic bottle? I pick some of them up, but I’d need a thirty-man crew with garbage bags to get it all. Ben Nevis is the perfect example of a scenic location that’s become too popular for its own good. I head back down with mixed feelings.

I navigate through the mist with no trouble and as I get on the clearer part of the trail the diaphanous curtain of clouds lifts to reveal the surrounding countryside. It’s only a trick, however, and soon a bitterly cold rain pelts down. More people are struggling up, including one bedraggled guy wearing only a long-sleeved shirt and carrying only a small bottle of water. I’m tempted to tell him to turn back but he’s already proven he won’t listen to reason. The descent is a long. slow slog down innumerable switchbacks that seem to last forever, but eventually I make it to the bottom and spot what should be at the end of every difficult hike–a pub. I go get a pint. I’ve earned it.

Next time: Starting on the East Highland Way!