This pocket guide has been written for anyone walking The West Highland Way. Over the years I have gathered a lot of local knowledge while walking through the area and visited numerous museums to help increase my knowledge of the trail and the region in order to give the people I am guiding a real insight to the history and culture of the beautiful landscape we are trekking through. During my search for this information I have never been able to find a simple resource, crammed full of information on things you can actually see along the route, which is free for all to read and use, so I have written one and hope it is used and enjoyed by many people.
Introduction to The West Highland Way
The West Highland Way is 96 miles in length, you may see other sources saying it is 95 but the route has been extended (a number of times) and it is currently closer to 96 miles. It begins in Milngavie (near Glasgow, Scotland) and finishes in Fort William and it was first officially opened on 6th October 1980 by Lord Mansfield, the Minister of State at the time. The actual idea of creating The West Highland Way really started forming in the 1960s, with the opening of the Pennine Way, a long distance trail in England, and the Countryside (Scotland) Act 1967 being passed, this was the legislation to create long distance trails in Scotland.
- Section 1 – Milngavie to Drymen: The first day of the West Highland Way; discover the fire-sitters of Craigallian Loch, learn about the hutter community in Carbeth, the formation of The Campsie Fells and more…
- Section 2 – Drymen to Rowardennan: During the second day of the trek you will use the famous old military roads, created during the Jacobite rising. Understand the history of these risings and discover Loch Lomond and The Arrochar Alps.
- Section 3 – Rowardennan to Inverarnan: On the third day you will pass Bill Lobban’s Memorial, cross The Cailness Burn, visit the impressive Arklet Falls and discover an area infamous for being the home of Rob Roy MacGregor.
- Section 4 – Inverarnan to Tyndrum: On the forth day of the trail you can see The Falls of Falloch, walk through Bogle Glen, learn all about St. Fillian, an Irish monk who lived in the area, and see The Field of the Battle of Dalrigh.
- Section 5 – Tyndrum to Kingshouse: On the 5th day you will have 20 miles to enjoy views of Beinn Dorain, Beinn Odhar and Loch Tulla. Cross Rannoch Moor using Thomas Telford’s Parliamentary Road and see Peter Fleming’s memorial.
- Section 6 – Kingshouse to Kinlochleven: Day six will give you an understanding of the formation of Glencoe and the atrocity known as the Massacre of Glencoe, climb The Devil’s Staircase and discover The Blackwater Reservoir.
- Section 7 – Kinlochleven to Fort William: On the last day you can see the ruins of Tigh-Na-Sleubhaich and Lairigmor, pass the Dun Deardail iron age Fort, learn the myth of Clach Comhairle and reach the end of The West Highland Way!
Section 1 – Milngavie to Drymen – 12 miles and 420m of ascent
The start of The West Highland Way is marked by a granite obelisk, unveiled in 1992, on the main high street in Milngavie. Milngavie is pronounced (Mull-guy) and the town dates back to at least the 1600s. It was originally called Millguy, because there was a mill in the village. Its success and growth was largely owed to the textile industry and to James Watt who built a chlorine bleaching works in the village. Now it is very much a commuter town with much of its population, of around 13,000, travelling into Glasgow for work or study.
Once you leave the start you will soon come to Allander Park, and will spend a short section walking along the side of Allander Water. After some junctions and a small hill you will soon turn left into The Mugdock Country Park, and be walking along the edge of your first loch, Craigallian Loch. This area is famous for Craigallian Fire and you may see the memorial on the site of the fire by the side of the loch. Craigallian Fire was known as the fire that never went out, it began in the 1920s and was a gathering point for some of the most influential climbers and walkers of the time. These “fire-sitters” as they were known, were pioneers in the movement to open up Scotland’s wild places to all.
Shortly after leaving the loch, your will see the Carbeth Huts. This small hutter community begun in the 1920s and 1930s. After World War I, the landowner allowed ex-servicemen to build holiday huts in return for a nominal rent, others soon followed and this led to the little village of huts. During World War II more people arrived, escaping the horrors of the Blitz and the bombers. In 2013 the land was brought by Carbeth Hutters Community Company, and there are now around 140 huts.
The Campsie Fells
After a very short section along the road you will be greeted with fantastic views of The Campsie Fells, which were formed 350 million years ago in the Lower Carboniferous Period. The most prominent hill you can see is Dumgoyne which is 427 metres (1402 feet). You will soon take a left and will now be on the old Blane Valley Railway, which you will be following for the next 4 miles, almost all the way to Gartness. This railway was opened in 1867 and eventually extended as far north as Aberfoyle. However, the line closed completely in 1959, one of the early victims of the post-war rationalisation of the railways. As you follow this first section of the railway you may notice a raised embankment to your left, this is in fact a water pipeline, carrying Glasgow’s water supply from Loch Lomond.
You will soon pass signs for the local whiskey distillery, Glengoyne, and reach The Beach Tree Inn, a great lunch stop. After lunch you will still be following the Blane Valley Railway almost to Gartness, The first thing that will strike you on enter the village is the River Endrick, which is stunning all times of year but in the Autumn you sometimes have the added bonus of seeing the salmon leaping up the rapids. You may also notice the cottages are built from a beautiful Old Red Sandstone, the same type of stone you can see in the riverbed.
From Gartness you will walk along the road for much of the way to Drymen, this hilly road does provide some great viewpoints. You may be able to see the bumpy ridge of Conic Hill in the distance, which you will be walking over later on in the trail. You will also get your first glimpses of Loch Lomond, which you will be following for the next two days. You will leave the road to cross a field and then cross the main road, at this point you have entered The Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, and will soon reach the village of Drymen.
Section 2 – Drymen to Rowardennan – 14 miles and 660m of ascent
Drymen is pronounced Drim-en and comes from the Gaelic word Drumyn meaning “a little ridge”. It has a population of about 1000 and is home to the Clachan Inn, which claims to be the oldest pub in Scotland, licenced in 1734 and the village dates back to at least the early 1700s.
Old Military Roads
From Drymen you will follow the main road for a short time, this road follows the route of an old military road, built soon after the Jacobite Rising of 1745. Military roads will be mentioned throughout the West Highland Way, as much of the route follows old military roads, and most of these were built around the times of the Jacobite Rising, so it is worth a having a brief understanding of what The Jacobite Rising actually is.
The 1st Jacobite Rising
The Jacobites were supporters of King James VII of Scotland (who is also King James II of England). The very name Jacobite comes from “Jacobus” the Latin word for James. King James was Catholic and so the Protestants of the time, who despised the idea of having to face a Catholic dynasty, a faith they loathed, turned to James’s son-in-law, Prince William of Orange. Prince William of Orange was Dutch, protestant and married to Jame’s daughter Mary. In 1688 he invaded Britain and James was exiled. 1689 saw the 1st Jacobite Rising, which was led by ‘Bonnie Dundee’ – John Graham of Claverhouse, an enthusiastic supporter of James, however it was not a popular idea and when Bonnie Dundee died at the battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, the 1st rising soon fizzled out.
The 2nd Jacobite Rising
The 2nd rising was sparked by three main events; The Act of Settlement 1701, The Act of Union 1707 and the death of Queen Anne in 1714. William and Mary ruled until William’s death in 1702, Mary had died earlier in 1694. They were succeeded by Mary’s sister Anne, until Queen Anne died in 1714. The Act of Settlement 1701 was the agreed succession of the English throne to the Protestant House of Hanover. Since William and Mary (and Mary’s sister Queen Anne) had no surviving children, The Act of Settlement ensured the throne would be held by the Protestant House of Hanover instead of any Roman Catholic when Queen Anne died, even though over 50 Roman Catholics had a closer blood relationship to Anne. The Act of Union 1707 led to the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, in very simple terms it joined The Kingdom of England and The Kingdom of Scotland into Great Britain. This, in effect, applied The Act of Settlement 1701 (The ruling of The Protestant House of Hanover after Queen Anne’s death) to Scotland as the two previously separate states of England and Scotland were now joined. Therefore, when Queen Anne died, she was succeeded by the Elector of Hanover, King George I. George started the rise of the Whig supremacy, this was a political party opposed to the Tory Party. The Whig regime begun prosecuting the Tories and imprisoned some in the Tower of London. Others, including Lord Bolingbroke escape to France to avoid arrest. In March 1715 the exiled James appealed to the Pope for help for the Jacobite Rising. Lord Bolingbroke wrote to James stating “that either you, Sir, at the head of the Tories, must save the Church and Constitution of England or both must be irretrievably lost for ever” and so the 2nd rising begun later in September 1715. Initially in Northern Scotland, the Jacobites had much success, however the English Jacobites, who had joined with a force of Scottish Border Jacobites, were defeated in The Battle of Preston. By December James had arrived back in Scotland, but soon left again in February 1716 after the Jacobites suffered heavy defeats. Many Jacobites were imprisoned and sentenced to death for treason.
The 3rd Jacobite Rising
The 3rd Jacobite rising was in 1745 but this time it was an attempt by James’s son, Charles Edward Stuart or Bonnie Prince Charlie as he was often known, to become the British King. Once again, initially there was much success for the Jacobites in the Highlands, and then Edinburgh. The Jacobite army continued into England where they had more victory in Carlisle, however by the time they reached Derby they were forced to retreat back to Scotland due to the rallying of three large English armies. A number of battles broke out, with mixed success, the Jacobites were defeated in Cumbria and soon lost Carlisle, however won the Battle of Falkirk. On 16th April 1746 they suffered their final defeat at the Battle of Culloden.
You will soon turn off this military road and head up into Garadhban Forest, a forestry commission plantation of over 1300 acres. After crossing a small road you will soon use a small bridge to cross over the Kilandan Blandan Burn and then the Burn of Mar before heading up Conic Hill. Conic Hill, which is 361m / 1184ft high is on the Highland Boundary Fault line, a feature that you can clearly see from the summit made obvious by the alignment of the islands of Loch Lomond. As you descend down the hill into Balmaha you can get great views of Ben Lomond in the distance, this is also an excellent marker as Rowardennan is at the bottom of this 974 metre (3,196 ft) peak. Across Loch Lomond you can also get views of The Arrochar Alps, the highest of which is Beinn Ìme, at 1011m (3,317 ft).
Once you arrive in Balmaha you may well notice the Tom Weir statue. This statue is new, only unveiled on 29th December 2014, the centenary of Tom’s birth, after The Tom Weir Statue Campaign successfully raised around £50,000 to fund it. Tom Weir was a climber, writer and broadcaster from Glasgow. He was a member of great Himalayan expedition teams and was one of the first to explore mountain ranges in Nepal. He is also well known for his long-running television series, Weir’s Way. Tom sadly died in 2006 at the grand age of 91.
From Balmaha you will spend the rest of the day following Loch Lomond, the biggest loch in Scotland by surface area, it is 39 kilometres/24 miles long and has a maximum depth of about 190 metres (620 ft). Loch Ness is the largest in Scotland (and Britain), by volume of water and Loch Awe is the longest. Loch Lomond’s biggest and most famous island is Inchmurrin, at the south west end of the loch. It was the site of a 7th-century monastery, a former deer park, has the ruins of a castle built in 1393 by Duncan the Eighth Earl of Lennox and in 1715 the Island was raided by Rob Roy. You will continue to follow the shores of Loch Lomond all the way to Rowardennan.
Section 3 – Rowardennan to Inverarnan – 14 mile and 931m of ascent
Cailness and Bill Lobban’s Memorial
Rowardennan is a tiny settlement, right on the shores of Loch Lomond. It is best known for being the starting point for trekking up Ben Lomond and contains a hotel and a youth hostel but very little else. From Rowardennan you will follow a good track and soon pass Ptarmigan Lodge, a luxury holiday home, which is named after The Ptarmigan Ridge, a popular route up Ben Lomond and the Ptarmigan bird can occasionally be seen on the nearby slopes. As you follow the good track you may see a memorial to Mr Bill Lobban just before you cross the Cailness Burn. The memorial states how he made the supreme sacrifice in saving the life of a friend. Mr Lobban was a teacher at a local college, in 1975, while on a hill walk in the area for the college, a student and two fellow teachers tried to cross the Cailness burn, when in spate (flooded), and the 3 were carried into the loch by the strong currents of the burn. Mr Lobban went in to try and help save the student, but subsequently drowned himself, the student was later saved by a local. Cailness, the area where the memorial is located, only contains the one cottage you can clearly see from the trail and nothing else at all.
You will soon reach Inversnaid, and cross the Inversnaid Burn by the large and impressive Arklet Falls. The large hotel here was built in 1790 as a hunting lodge and has had many well-known guests including Queen Victoria. From the front of the hotel you can get a great view of the Arrochar Alps on the other side of the loch. You may have also had glimpses of the large pipes of Loch Sloy Hydro-Electric Scheme, built in 1945 by local workers as well as 200 German Prisoners of War, and during the construction of which 21 people lost their lives. Interestingly, Loch Sloy also holds the record for the largest amount of rainfall in Scotland in 24 hours, which was 238mm on 17th January 1974.
Rob Roy MacGregor
Once you leave the hotel you will soon see the sign for Rob Roy’s cave, originally this was known as King Robert’s cave as it was thought to be Robert the Bruce’s hiding place. However, this entire area is well-known for its affiliation with the infamous Rob Roy MacGregor. Rob Roy was born in 1671, and was a Scottish outlaw who later became more of a folk hero. At 18 he joined the 1st Jacobite Rising, and fought along with his father, the chief of the MacGregor Clan, Donald Glas MacGregor. After the failure of this rising Rob Roy’s father was jailed for two years during which time Rob Roy’s mother died. Rob Roy later fought in another battle for the Jacobites in 1719 in which he was badly wounded. He later became a respected cattleman, however his bad luck continued and his chief cattle herder ran off with a large amount of Rob Roy’s money instead of using it to buy cattle. As a result he defaulted on a loan to the Duke of Montrose, and so was branded an outlaw, was evicted from his house at Inversnaid along with his wife and children, which was then burned down. Rob Roy raided the lands of the Duke of Montrose and was captured by the Duke twice and imprisoned in Dunkeld, but soon escaped and was actually granted a Royal Pardon in 1727. His later life was more peaceful and he died at home in his own bed in Balquhidder, on 28 December 1734.
Not long after leaving the more tricky sections of the lochside path you will come to Dourne Bothy. Maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association, Dourne Bothy was originally an outbuilding of Dourne Farm, just 40 metres to the West. Soon after here you will ascend a small hill with a memorial at the top to Dario Melaragni. Dario was the organiser of the annual race that goes over the entire West Highland Way! He very sadly died of a heart attack at the age of 46 while out on a training run with a group of friends in 2009.
In the distance to the north you may get views of three large mountains, these are Beinn Oss, Beinn Dubhchraig (pronounced Doo-Kray) and Beinn Lui and the occasional view of The Drovers Inn, one of the most haunted pubs in Scotland, by the main road. From here it won’t be long until you cross the Ben Glas Burn into the Ben Glas Farm and campsite in Inverarnan.
Section 4 – Inverarnan to Tyndrum – 12 miles and 490m ascent
Inverarnan is perhaps best known as the home of the Drover’s Inn, established in 1705 it claims to be one of the most haunted pubs in Scotland. It is a very small village and located right by the side of the River Falloch, which you will be following for part of the day. As well as The Drovers Inn, Inverarnan has a few small houses and Ben Glas Farm and campsite, and that is just about it.
The River Falloch
As you leave Ben Glas, following the river you may soon catch sight of the Falls of Falloch, a 30 ft waterfall popular with kayakers and wild swimmers, recently naming the deep pool at the bottom “Rob Roy’s bathtub”. Although, worth noting both kayaking the falls and swimming the pool are both technically challenging and really quite dangerous activities. The rocky rapids, gorges, waterfalls and pools of the river are thought to have been caused by drainage diversions after the Pleistocene Ice Age. Previously the river drained north-east into Loch Tay, however of course now flows instead towards Loch Lomond.
Major William Caulfeild and General Wade
You will cross the river, pass under the road, and head up hill to join an old military road. These roads were built around the time of the Jacobite risings, 1715 and 1745, and were largely credited to Major General George Wade. General Wade felt a strong road network was needed to help pacify the Jacobites in the highlands. He built 400 km of military roads but much of this was further north and linked Fort William along The Great Glen to Inverness. Therefore, it was really General Wade’s less famous successor, Major William Caulfeild who built over 1300 km of road between 1746-1767, including all the sections used on The West Highland Way, who should be thanked for the network you will encounter on this trail. The roads were not only used for military purposes, they were also largely built by the military with just a few civilians used when their skills were essential.
You will soon pass Keilator farm, which actually pre-dates the road and is mentioned as far back as the 1600s. You will then reach Bogle Glen, not to be confused with Glenbogle from the popular BBC TV series Monarch of the Glen. The origin of the name is unknown but it is an old British word for ghost or mythical creature. As you ascend out of Bogle Glen you will quickly come to a bench with a fantastic view of the local mountains, including Ben More, Stob Binnein and Ben Challum. Following a further ascent you will then begin to gradually drop back down to the main road, which you will cross and follow the trail into Kirkton Farm. Kirkton farm is no ordinary farm, it is actually owned by Scotland’s Rural College and is a major research farm in the West Highlands.
As you walk through the farm you may notice the ruins of St. Fillian’s Chapel and soon after walk past the sign to the “Holy Pool”, a natural deep, pool in the River Fillan. St. Fillian was born in Ireland and came over to Scotland around 717 with his mother St. Kentigerna. He travelled around Scotland, initially establishing a church on the west coast, on Loch Duich, before heading to the Strathfillan area to the site were the ruins of the priory still stand. There are many legends surrounding St. Fillian, one of which happened in the area while ploughing a field. His ox was killed by a wolf and so St. Fillian miraculously persuaded the wolf to take the place of the ox and pull the plough. The Holy Pool was used for healing people with mental illness. The afflicted were first expected to swim to the bottom of the pool to collect stones. These stones were then placed on top of stone cairns in the area (which are now gone) and the person was taken to the nearby church where they were tied to the altar and left for the night with a bell suspended over their head for the night. If, by morning, they had broken free, they would be cured, if not the process was started again. Along with the bell, which is now kept in The Scottish National Museum, St. Fillian had two other powerful relics. One was a staff, the head of which is in the Museum of Scotland, the other an arm bone enclosed in a silver casket which has been lost.
The Battle of Dalrigh
Once you leave this area, you will soon see a marker for the Field of the Battle of Dalrigh, known as the King’s Field, and not much later pass a large stone engraved with a sword next to a small loch, these two markers are connected. The Battle of Dalrigh took place in 1306, it was where Robert the Bruce lost against The Clan MacDougall and the English. The “Loch Of The Legend Of The Lost Sword” is the lochan whereby Robert the Bruce and some of his men threw their weapons, including Robert the Bruce’s huge sword, to lighten their load and make for a faster retreat, according to the legend the sword is still there.
Glen Garry Smelter
Just before you reach the village of Tyndrum you will walk past the remains of an old lead smelting plant which was erected by the Scots Mining Company around 1768. Although difficult to see from the West Highland Way path, the remains are still there of the “Glen Garry” smelter, located next to Crom Allt, the river you have been following in to Tyndrum.
Section 5 – Tyndrum to Kingshouse – 20 mile and 690m of ascent
Mining in Tyndrum
Tyndrum comes from the Gaelic Tigh an Druim, which means “the house on the ridge”. It is a small village with a population of around 200, and is probably best known for The Green Welly Stop, a popular tourist shop selling a variety of local products and produce as well as an outdoor clothing store. Tyndrum has a fascinating history and was a former lead mining centre, the remains of the lead mine can still be seen in the hills above Tyndrum. The first record of mining in the area was in 1424, however this was for precious metals instead of lead. Lead was mainly mined in the 18th century with The Scots Mining Company, who built the smelting works, being the key operator in the area. However, it is in fact gold that is now the real interest of mining companies and in October 2011 Scotgold Resources had a planning application approved to begin mining in the area with reports of up to Ł200 million worth of gold in Tyndrum ready to be mined, so it isn’t surprising many locals and tourist can be seen in the Crom Allt panning for gold!
You will leave Tyndrum and head towards The Bridge of Orchy using one of Major Caulfeild’s military roads, first built in the 1750s. As you progress you will see fine views of Beinn Odhar (901m/2956ft) pronounced Ben Oar followed by views of Beinn Dorain (1,076 m 3,530 ft), one of the most recognisable mountains on the trail. You will also see the horseshoe shaped section of the West Highland Railway Line, not to be confused with The Hogwarts Express railway line of the Harry Potter movies. This was actually filmed at the Glenfinnan Viaduct, between Fort William and Mallaig. You will soon reach The Bridge of Orchy, a small village containing a hotel, a church and a handful of houses. The actual bridge over the River Orchy, a fine and well renowned river for kayaking, was also built by Major Caulfeild in 1751.
After leaving The Bridge of Orchy you will head to Inveroran, still using the military road. The path goes directly to Inveroran over the ridge of Ben Inverveigh, with the highest point being marked by a cairn at 320 metres and a great view of Loch Tulla. As you head up this ridge you will actually be tackling your first stage over Rannoch Moor and will have more of the Moor to cover after you have dropped down to Inveroran. Rannoch Moor is around 50 square miles of boggy moorland dotted with lochans, peat bogs and streams and surrounded by mountains. The actual area is roughly triangular in shape and was thought to be created by the last large glacier in the UK, at the end of the last ice age. As a result the area is actually still rising, at a rate of about 3mm per year.
You will soon reach Inveroran and the Inveroran Hotel and will have the fantastic scenery of the Blackmount, made up of the mountains of Stob Gabhar, Stob a Choire Odhair, Beinn Toaig to name just a few! Following the road you will be walking past Forest Lodge and from here you will leave the military road and instead be walking along Thomas Telford’s Parliamentary Road almost all the way to Kingshouse. Thomas Telford (1757–1834) was a famous Scottish civil engineer, and was a renowned road, bridge and canal builder. His father died while Thomas was a baby and he was raised in great poverty in Eskdale, Dumfriesshire. However, after starting as an apprentice he later worked in Edinburgh, then moved to London and was responsible for building bridges, roads and canals throughout England and later Scotland.
As you work your way over Rannoch More you will cross Ba Bridge, one of the remotest points on the West Highland Way, and continue up to a height of 450 metres, giving you your first glimpse of The Kingshouse Hotel below. From this high point you may notice a small cairn on the left, this is a memorial to Peter Fleming, who died of a heart attack while shooting in the area in 1971. Peter Fleming was the brother of Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels, however Peter was a very interesting man himself. He was a special correspondent for The Times newspaper who travelled all over the world and published “Brazilian Adventure” a novel about his expedition in Brazil whereby he was investigating the fate of Colonel Percy Fawcett for The Times.
Heading down to Kingshouse
As you head down to Kingshouse you may spot the chairlift of the White Corries ski centre, built by Scotland’s skiing company White Corries LTD it is now known as Glencoe Mountain Resort and offers excellent skiing during the winter months as well as brilliant mountain biking in the summer months. You may also spot Buachaille Etive Mor, one of Scotland’s most well-known, most photographed and well-loved ridges; Stob Dearg is the highest and perhaps the finest peak here. Rhyolite is the predominant rock type, it stands at a height of 1021m and it is famous for Curved Ridge a challenging rock scramble, but also hosts a number of serious rock climbs.
Section 6 – Kingshouse to Kinlochleven – 8 mile and 430m of ascent
Kingshouse is not a village, it is just the area where The King’s House Hotel is situated, and also technically where the Glencoe Mountain Resort is located, besides these two establishments there is nothing else in Kingshouse. However, the hotel has a fantastic history itself and is the third Inn on the trail which states its claim to being the oldest in Scotland. It was built in the 17th century and in 1745, after the Battle of Culloden during the third Jacobite uprising, it was used as a barracks for George III’s troops, which is when it got its name, The King’s House.
Geology of Glencoe
As you leave Kingshouse, you will get fantastic views of Glencoe, possibly Scotland’s most famous Glen. Not only is this one of the most breath-taking areas in the UK, with some of the most renowned mountain walks, scrambles and climbs, including the Aonach Eagach, this area has a dark but intriguing history. By some Glencoe is thought to mean Glen of Weeping and perhaps this is a reference to The Glencoe Massacre of 1692, which took place here. However, more logically Glencoe is named after The River Coe, which runs through it and was named long before the events of 1692.
The geology of Glencoe is complicated, around 490 million years ago the part of the Earth’s crust that was to become Scotland was actually situated south of the equator. With its hot and dry climate plants were very sparse, however fossilised remains have been found in the rock of Buachaille Etive Mor. As the crust cooled it fractured and created huge blocks, these blocks would move up and down next to each other, and so some of these down-faulted blocks created valleys, and one of these was to become known as Glencoe. Rocks below the mountains melted to form magma, and around 420 million years ago the first magma reached the surface of Glencoe. It did not erupt explosively from volcanoes, as it lacked the necessary gases, but instead it sat in between layers of sediment where it crystallized to form hard sheets called sills. These layers of sedimentary rock and sills form some of the lower slopes of the mountains in Glencoe.
Hundreds of thousands of years later gas-charged magma exploded through the surface, shattering surrounding rocks and shooting upwards for 1000s of metres where it cooled and fell to the ground, where it was moved away from the site it erupted by 600 degree centigrade pyroclastic flows, obliterating everything in its path. The deposits of these flows, called ignimbrites, formed the tops of many of the mountains of Glencoe, including The Three Sisters. By about 400 million years ago the volcanic activity stopped, however the final shaping of the highlands only occurred over the last 2 million years, during the ice age.
Parts of Scotland have been covered in glaciers for much of the last 2 million years, 20,000 years ago Rannoch Moor was covered by a large sheet of ice, over a kilometre thick. The ice flowed westwards, gouging out and steepening Glencoe, as well as Glen Nevis and Loch Leven, the mountains eroded and smoothed out by the movement of the ice. Fragments of rock, in the base of the glacier scraped marks into the mountains which can still be found, and blocks of granite frozen into the ice on Rannock Moor were dropped from the glacier on to the peaks of Buachaille Etive Mòr and the Aonach Eagach.
Massacre of Glencoe
In August 1691 William of Orange offered all the clans in the highlands a royal pardon for their part in the first Jacobite rising, as long as they swore an oath of allegiance to him before 1st January 1692. Warning that there would be serious consequences if they did not. The chiefs of the highland clans asked permission from the exiled King James, however James took a long time to come to a decision and by the time he decided the clans were allowed to swear their allegiance to William it was already mid-December.
It was a difficult winter and it wasn’t until 31st December that Alastair Maclain, Chief of Glencoe, went to Fort William to swear allegiance. He went to the governor of Fort William, Colonel Hill, to administer the required oath, but was told instead he must travel to Inveraray to make his oath to Sir Colin Campbell, sheriff of Argyll. He gave Maclain a letter of protection and a letter to Sir Colin Campbell, instructing him to hear the oath since he had come to him within the allotted time, he also assured Maclain no action would be taken against him. It took Maclain 3 days to reach Inveraray, partly due to the bad weather, and it then took a further 3 days for Sir Colin Campbell to reach Inverary as he was spending the New Year with his family. However, he did reluctantly accept Maclain’s oath. A senior member of the Campbell Clan saw this as an opportunity to take revenge on the clan for the decades of raids on the Campbell livestock and also for the fact Maclain had been late in swearing the allegiance. The Campbell’s found an accomplice, the Master of Stair, who persuaded King William to sign an order to “extirpate” the MacDonalds of Glencoe.
In early February 1692, 120 soldiers under the command of Captain Robert Campbell arrived seeking shelter, as the nearby fort was full. The MacDonald’s of Glencoe took them in and showed them great hospitality and for 12 days they lived together with neither the clan nor the common soldiers knowing the plan that was in place. On the night of 13th February the soldiers received their orders to kill the Macdonald’s of Glencoe and by morning 38 had been murdered, including Maclain. Many escaped into the mountains but due to the howling blizzard going through the Glen some, including Maclain’s wife, died on the hillside. It seem certain that many of the soldiers, disgusted with their orders alerted some of the families so they had time to prepare and run into the mountains. Also, the other two companies, who were meant to help in the slaughter arrived late, possibly on purpose as they wanted no part in the atrocity.
The Devil’s Staircase
You will leave Glencoe and head towards Kinlochleven on a path known ominously as The Devil’s Staircase. The Staircase is not a staircase at all, but a zig-zagged gravel path that will take you to the highest point on the West Highland Way at 550m (1850ft) and you may be pleased to know that the name does not relate to the difficulty of this section of the trail, it is in fact a historical name. It was originally named by the men that built the path, which of course was originally a military road built around 1750. This name was then reinforced by the stories of The Blackwater Reservoir, which can be glimpsed as you descend into Kinlochleven.
During the construction of the reservoir which began in 1904 there were many accidents. Many of the 3000 workers, who were mainly Irish navvies, had no idea what they were building. In fact they were flooding an entire glen, turning three lochs into just one with a dam that was over half a mile long, they were creating a reservoir that is 75 feet deep, 9 miles long and containing 24,000 million gallons of water and perhaps most amazingly they were doing this by hand tools only, there was no mechanical earth moving machinery and there was no health and safety. They lived in cold wooden huts, often 3 to a bed, and they worked in terrible conditions, falling in the very same holes they had dug and died in accidents with dynamite. Accidents were so common there was a graveyard at the site, with their graves marked by concrete markers by the damn. Given the circumstances of the job, it is no surprise that the occasional worker would venture down the Devil’s Staircase to the nearest Inn, the Kingshouse Hotel. After drinking at the inn they would need to make their way back up the staircase to Blackwater, but of course it could be dark, the weather could be terrible and it would be easy to come off the staircase and instead head over to the Aonach Eagach Ridge and either become lost, fall off the steep ridge or die due to exposure.
The British Aluminium Company
Once you reach the top of the staircase, on a clear day you can see Ben Nevis, the UKs highest mountain at 1,344 m (4,409 ft). As you descend towards Kinlochleven you will soon be following the pipes put in by The British Aluminium Company Ltd, along with the creation of The Blackwater Reservoir, in order to supply power to its smelters in both Kinlochleven and Fort William, it was the first major hydroelectric project in Britain. The Kinlochleven Aluminium Smelter closed in June 2000 however the hydroelectric scheme has been taken over by Rio Tinto, and is still generating electricity today.
Section 7 – Kinlochleven to Fort William – 16 miles and 735m of ascent
Kinlochleven is a small village at the head of Loch Leven, originally it was two smaller settlements; Kinlochmore and Kinlochbeg. However, the construction of the smelter and hydroelectric scheme brought about more housing and the two settlements combined into Kinlochleven. Due to the success of the hydroelectric scheme Kinlochleven was the first village in the world to have every house in the whole village connected to electricity, and also the first place in the UK to have electric street lights. Not only does the small village have a number of good pubs and shops it is also home to the Ice Factor, the biggest indoor ice climbing wall in the world. It also has a micro-brewery, which opened in 2011 and produces River Leven Ale, which is well worth a taste.
You will leave Kinlochleven on a military road, heading up to the summit of Lairigmor, which is 330m and will provide excellent views back down to Kinlochleven as you go. You will soon reach a large obvious junction and turn left, the path right goes to Mamore Lodge, which you may have spotted yesterday on the hill side. Mamore Lodge is now a derelict hotel, and was once voted the 2nd worst hotel in the UK, however, built in the 1880s it was once a hunting lodge used by renowned guests including King Edward VII and later became the home of the manager of the aluminium works. You will follow the military road for about half the day, to Lundavra but will first past the ruins of Tigh-Na-sleubhaich meaning “The house by the gullied slope”. Soon after the ruins of this old farm house, which was also a bothy until it was burnt down by irresponsible walkers not long after The West Highland Way first opened, you will pass the ruin of Lairigmor itself.
You will leave the military road around halfway through the day and soon begin to descend into Glen Nevis. This section of the trail gives you fantastic views of Ben Nevis, and as long as the cloud hasn’t completely covered the mountain it would be almost impossible not to spot it. As you walk through the plantations of Glen Nevis, you will suddenly turn a corner into an area that was only recently (in 2014) heavily felled, it is quite a striking sight. After the last proper ascent of the entire trek you will be on a col near Dun Deardail, marked with a display board and sign post. It cannot be seen from the West Highland Way but Dun Deardail was an Iron Age fort meaning “the fort on the stormy hill”. There is not much left of the fort at all, just a low, circular, grassy embankment where some of the walls used to be.
Clach Comhairle – Stone of Counsel
You will continue your descent into Glen Nevis and after a few junctions, come to the road. This road section, following the River Nevis, will take you straight to Fort William, passing first The Glen Nevis Visitors Centre, the car park where most people start their ascent up Ben Nevis. You will then pass the old cemetery of the Clan Cameron, who once lived in Glen Nevis. Further along the road look out for the boulder known as Clach Comhairle on the left. Meaning “Stone of Counsel”, it was deposited during the ice age. The legend goes that it turns around three times on one night of the year, if you are lucky enough to see this event you will get the answers to any three questions you ask!
You will soon reach “The Original End of the West Highland Way” marker on the road by the Bridge of Nevis. Do not be fooled, you have not made it to the end yet because in 2010 the route was extended, so this is no longer the finish. So instead continue down the road and you will soon reach Fort William high street, where at the end of the high street you will see the current end of The West Highland Way at Gordon Square. Once you reach this point it will become obvious you have made it. Marked with a life-sized statue of a man rubbing his feet, called “sore feet”, the statue was designed by David Annand and was unveiled in September 2010. However, this unknown walker, who you have trekked 96 miles to see, we feel deserves a name, and so we have simply named him Gordon.