Hillwalk Stories: Quality time with myself while solo hiking the West Highland Way

April 23, 2020 by
POSTED BY April 23, 2020

This week, our Hillwalk Stories series features a dream come true for Niina Pöllänen, a Finnish woman from the famous region of Lapland, who finally got to solo hike the West Highland Way back in 2015.

For many years, I had dreamed of a hiking holiday in Scotland. Finally, with the help of Hillwalk Tours, in October 2015 my dream came true. I had done several hikes already and I was used to hiking in my home country, in the Lapland area of Finland. Normally, all of my hiking trips involved several days staying in the wilderness, sleeping in a tent and carrying everything needed in my backpack.

However, this time I decided to try something different: hiking with just with a light day bag, while my bigger luggage was delivered ahead to my next destination. When the day of hiking was over, instead of crawling into a tent and my sleeping bag, I would take a hot bath at nice and cosy B&B or in a nice little hotel, and enjoy a warm dinner with a pint of Scottish beer. This was definitely a welcome change from my normal hiking trips.

Day 1: Milngavie – Drymen

After my first breakfast of the trip, I headed straight to the official starting point of the West Highland Way. The starting point is in the middle of the town of Milngavie but within a few minutes of leaving the town, I found myself hiking in a nice landscape of Scottish countryside. During the first kilometres of the hike, there were lots of locals doing their morning jog and walking dogs and I was really amazed at the locals cheerful “Good morning” wishes (since that does not usually happen in my own country, where people most often would rather look away than smile for a stranger). Accompanied by the wishes of good morning, I continued my journey.

The first day’s hike to Drymen was 21 kilometres and was quite easy-going in gentle terrain and mainly, the weather was surprisingly (since – you know – it was Scotland and it was October) good and perfect for hiking; cloudy but without any rain. On my way to Drymen I stopped to visit Glengoyne Whisky Distillery. Although I`m not a big fan of whisky, it was a really interesting visit and I did get to buy my first souvenirs for family and friends. As I continued my walk from the whisky distillery to Drymen, the weather started to change into light wind and a little bit of rain – some signs that typical Scottish weather was on the way.

Day 2: Drymen – (Balmaha) – Rowardennan

As I opened my eyes in the morning, I heard it immediately – yes…. heavy rain beating against the window. But the good thing was that there was no wind and the visibility was still quite good. I had 24 kilometres to go today and the terrain was a little more challenging than yesterday, so instead of staying in and waiting to see if the weather got better (the forecast was promising rain only for the morning), I took out my rain jacket and hit the trail right after breakfast.

The rain stopped after one hour, just in time for when I was leaving the woods where the scenery began to change. It was still a bit cloudy and unlike yesterday, the clouds were hanging down and covered the scenery every now and then. When I was heading up to Conic Hill, visibility got worse. I could see only a few meters of the path ahead.

There I was in complete silence, immersed in my thoughts walking up the hill with the only thing I could see; the path right in front of me. I think my heart skipped a beat when I realized there was something moving just a few meters ahead. Sheep. I couldn’t help but laugh – what kind of scary beast would I be faced with next? In fact, the next daredevil I met also defying the bad visibility was a Highland cow. Those tranquil animals minding their own business, chewing hay and not minding that the human passing by wanted to take a photo.

When I reached the top shoulder of Conic Hill, all of a sudden visibility got better. The clouds were still hanging so low that you could touch them, but they were now moving really fast. For a short moment,  I got my first sight of Loch Lomond and then it was gone again somewhere behind the clouds. As soon as it disappeared, it came back again and this time I saw the village of Balmaha also. For a while, the clouds continued their own weird game with me, just showing rapid flashes of what was about to come. I had to play along and use these short moments to enjoy the scenery. It was kind of a fun game, I must admit.

At the village of Balmaha, I took a short break in a little cafeteria, ordering a nice cappuccino and cheesecake. During my break, Scotland surprised me again because the weather got really nice, so before continuing, I dared to put my rain jacket back into my backpack. The trail now continued following the shoreline of Loch Lomond. When I arrived at Rowardennan, the sun was shining and the lake was completely calm. It was a perfect evening. I ate my dinner on the balcony admiring the stunning views over Loch Lomond and the countless mountains rising around it.

Day 3: Rowardennan – (Inversnaid) – (Inverarnan) – Crianlarich

Today was going to be the longest walk of my hike with 32 kilometres to walk in total. And it would also be a much more challenging terrain than the previous two days. So, I got up very early, had breakfast and was on my way right after sunrise. The trail continued following the shoreline of Loch Lomond all the way to the north end of the lake. The path along the lake was mainly woodland. At the beginning, it was an easy-going narrow asphalt road. Soon it changed to a still easy-going narrow sandy road and then to a rocky path.

At Inversnaid, I stopped for a quick coffee break and continued on to the rocky path. There wasn’t any rain this morning but the rocky path remained slippery due to yesterday’s rain so I really had to watch my steps. Soon after leaving Inversnaid, I made a small deviation from the path to look for Rob Roy’s cave, one of the hiding spots of Scotland’s most famous outlaw. I found a cave, but I’m not sure if it was the right one. Oh well.

When the path reached the north end of Loch Lomond, it ascended gently and turning back to look at the scene behind me, I could see the entire lake as the sun’s rays hit its surface. Ahead, there were stunning mountains, one after another revealing themselves as I walked on. I passed Inverarnan village without stopping even though it might have been fun to stop for a half pint in The Drovers Inn which is known to be one of Scotland’s most haunted pubs.

However, I had to keep going if I wanted to get to Crianlarich before sunset. A few kilometres before the junction with Crianlarich, my hike became interesting due to a number of large water puddles in the middle of the path and a few even larger puddles next to the path. This gave me a chance to practice the Olympic sport of the Long Jump. I survived with dry feet and finally got to to the trail that descended into the village of Crianlarich.

Day 4: Oban

Today was a rest day. In the morning, in no hurry, I had my breakfast with a few extra cups of coffee. Then I walked to the railway station and took a train to Oban. When I was sitting on the train I felt like I was watching a tennis tournament, turning my head from side to side and trying to catch all the beautiful views without missing anything as we passed by rapidly. The one hour and ten minutes journey time passed quickly due to the stunning views from the train.

I spent the day wandering around the small town of Oban and once again enjoyed the perfect sunny weather with almost no wind at all. I visited a number of shops selling all kinds of clothes and equipment for outdoor activities and I struggled with the fact that I couldn’t buy everything I saw in the shops.

In the late afternoon, I went for lunch in a waterfront restaurant and ended up sitting, eating and relaxing there for almost two hours. With a full stomach,  I went for a short walk along the seaside before I took the train back to Crianlarich.

Day 5: Crianlarich – (Tyndrum) – (Bridge of Orchy) – Inveroran

When I left Crianlarich, first I had to ascend back to the junction where the official West Highland Way trail continued. It was a cloudy morning, and I had a feeling clouds would be playing games with me today too.

As I re-joined the West Highland Way track, I felt like my feet began to rush. It seemed like the day of rest had made my feet restless. Throughout the day I had to remind myself (or my legs) to calm down and take it easy. I was not here to beat any record times for walking the West Highland Way! After ascending to the official trail, the track was quite an easy-going forest path to Tyndrum.

From Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy, the trail continued to be easy-going and followed the railway line. While walking through a beautiful valley, the clouds started to really enjoy their weird game again. Lots of mountains around the valley were occasionally showing their majestic profile and then hiding behind the clouds again. At Bridge of Orchy, I stopped in a little shop to supplement my stock of snacks before leaving civilization for a couple of days again.

My feet were longer rushing ahead when I started the steep ascent away from Bridge of Orchy. The views from Mam Carraig were incredible, and even though clouds were still covering lots of scenery, there were some breathtaking moments! From Mam Carraig the trail started to descend and I could already see my next night’s accommodation. There it was, The Inveroran Hotel, literally in the middle of nowhere. Having walked a total of 26 kilometres today, I felt that I fully deserved the hotel’s end-of-day luxuries: a hot shower, dinner and a couple of well-earned pints in the hotel’s tiny and cosy Walker’s bar chatting with some friendly locals.

Day 6: Inveroran – (Kingshouse) – Kinlochleven

Once again, I started my hike early in the morning as I had a 30km hike ahead on quite challenging terrain. The weather was similar to yesterday’s hike, cloudy but no rain and I was eager to see more stunning views during my hike to Kinlochleven.

Leaving The Inveroran Hotel behind, the track started to ascend gently. Walking across Rannoch Moor was easy-going and very enjoyable with the most gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains! As I was walking today I started to understand the saying: hunger grows while eating. I felt endless hunger to see even more amazing views. While descending to Kingshouse, I was walking with my camera ready to take a photo of the famous pyramid-shaped mountain called Buachaille Etive Mór. Once again, the clouds were putting up a challenge to get a decent photo of this majestic mountain. Finally, I managed to get one with clouds covering just a little corner of the top of the mountain.

Soon after passing by the Kingshouse Hotel, I was facing probably the most challenging part of the West Highland Way. When I looked up and realized the path was indeed going to ascend shockingly steep, my muscles began to heat up from the mere thought of going there. Well, one step at a time, I did eventually get to the top and with my muscles burning, I finally understood where the name “The Devil’s Staircase” came from. Well, some of the best views always come after the hardest climb and there was stunning views over the Grampian mountain range. WOW!

Just before sunset, I arrived at Kinlochleven, tired but happy. I must say, today was definitely the best day of the hike. My recommendation to anyone who is planning to do West Highland Way hike is not to miss this part, even if you don’t have time to walk the full trail.

Day 7: Kinlochleven – Fort William

The last day of my hike saw me needing to hike 25 kilometres to Fort William. Immediately leaving the village of Kinlochleven, the path started to ascend again. It was probably the longest continuous ascent of the whole hike. It wasn’t particularly steep but probably because of yesterday’s efforts, my muscles were burning and I had to stop occasionally to let the muscles recover. The extra stops didn’t bother me since the views and the weather continued to be beautiful during the whole climb.

On my way to Fort William, I was beginning to become a little sad as my journey would soon be over and I would have to go back home. I just wanted to stay and fall in love even deeper wuth these stunning mountains and the friendly Scottish culture and people. Well, at least I have around a thousand photos to remember all of the amazing moments I experienced during this hike! With the smile on my face, I kept going…taking a few more photos along the way of course.

A few kilometres before arriving in Fort William, I deviated from the path and climbed up to the ruins of Dun Deardail fort. I sat there and took in the scenery around Ben Nevis for a good while before returning to the main path towards Fort William. I took my last photo of the hike at the official ending point of the West Highland Way and then set off to the city centre to find my accommodation.

Day 8 Fort William – Glasgow

While I was having my breakfast on my last morning in Scotland, I was already reflecting on my experience. Hiking the West Highland Way was definitely one of the best holidays I ever had. I was already in love with Scotland and my love got even deeper during my hike.

My best memories are without doubt the stunning views and the lovely people – locals and fellow hikers – I got to meet and chat with during this week. And hey, weather-wise, I couldn’t really believe that I was in Scotland and that it was actually October. Scotland is supposed to be a country of rain and fog but during this week the weather was wonderful. Clouds were the worst thing I had to deal with and that’s a great complaint to have.

On the train journey back to Glasgow, I admired the same views that I had passed by during my hike. This time, I looked at the views through the window, and still, they were so beautiful. Scotland has stolen a piece of my heart.

We hope that you enjoyed Niina’s story of her solo hike on the West Highland Way.

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