Sabbatical 2022: Scotland

When I started planning my sabbatical, I knew I wanted to include a long distance walk in the United Kingdom. Walking provides a unique perspective of the landscape that you cannot gain any other way; and long distance walking is an integral part of the culture in the UK, especially in England and Scotland. The freedom to roam, or “everyman’s right”, is the right to access publicly and privately owned land, lakes, and rivers for recreation and exercise. Due to this legal right, people having been exploring the land here for hundreds of years; and there is a significant tourism industry built up around it.

A few friends recommended walking a portion of the West Highland Way with my daughter. As she is thirteen, I needed to pick something suitable for her age and ability, so I booked us a three-day trek through a local travel company, Macs Adventure. They coordinate the B&Bs and luggage transportation, as well as provide guidance and support. I love to walk, and I also prefer to end a long day with a hot meal, a warm shower, and a comfortable bed. This company specializes in coordinating the details so you can have both.

The West Highland Way was originally created by the British to move troops around the interior of Scotland in order to suppress rebellion. After the Jacobite uprisings, the British government significantly invested in building roads and bridges over the length and breadth of the Highlands: over 1200 miles of military roads and 700 bridges were built between 1725 and 1767. Until then, routes had existed to move cattle to the lowland markets, but most travel took place by boat, and settlements hugged coasts or major rivers.

On our first day, we arrived in late afternoon by train from Glasgow to the Bridge of Orchy. When we pulled into the station, I did a double take to ensure that we were in the right place, as the station consists only of a solitary gravel platform dominated by rolling tan and green hills. A handful of houses cluster around the lone business in town, the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, where we were staying. There is no where else to go. We checked in and enjoyed a quiet evening, but as the wind blew forcefully against our hotel window that night, and the rain lashed outside, I started to wonder if I had gotten us in over our heads.

The next morning we set out early to embark on the 19.5 km walk from the Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse. The travel company provided me with an interactive map for my cel phone. It estimated a walk time of six hours. Although my daughter and I regularly walk for two to three hours at home with friends, six hours suddenly started to feel very ambitious, but there was no turning back now. Thankfully the weather was decent. It was cool and overcast but there was no wind or rain. We followed a steep climb as we left the Bridge of Orchy and it provided us with stunning views over Loch Tulla and the Black Mount hills.

As we passed by the isolated Inveroran Hotel, we joined the military road as it crossed Rannoch Moor: a beautiful and lonely place. It was once covered in a giant icecap and today it is covered in a bog. It takes a few hours to traverse, and provides no shelter, so it is very exposed in bad weather. I was concerned that we would get caught out, but thankfully it remained mild throughout the day, and we were able to focus our attention on enjoying the experience.

The hours spent walking with my daughter provided me with a unique opportunity to connect more deeply with her. Our conversations ebbed and flowed and it was wonderful to learn new things about her life. My daughter linked arms with me most of the way and it brought a physical closeness to the journey. We also had time to be silly, and sing fun songs, like Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, as well as eat lots of chocolate to keep our energy levels up. We kept up a decent pace, and made good time, at 4.5 hours: arriving at the 17th century Kingshouse Hotel in Glencoe by late afternoon.

The Kingshouse Hotel is a lovely and comfortable hotel, with a decent on-site bar and restaurant. Situated in a remote valley, it provides unrivalled views of Buchaille Etive Mor, Scotland’s most photographed mountain. There are stunning vistas in every direction. Although our feet were sore, and we we tired from a full day, we were happy with its success, and we slept well that evening.

Day two started off with a celebration of my daughter’s thirteenth birthday. She opened some small gifts and ate breakfast in bed. Once she enjoyed the festivities, we set out walking. Our planned route took us from Kingshouse to Kinlochlevan. At 14.4 km, it was our shortest walk of the trip, at an estimated five hours. We began by following the old military road to Altnafeadh, which provided views of the famous ‘weeping glen’ and site of the Glencoe Massacre in 1692. This led us to the Devil’s Staircase, a highpoint of the West Highland Way at 548m. It was a challenge to climb, and it took us an hour or so to complete, but it was well worth the effort. We were rewarded with stunning views of Ben Nevis: the highest mountain in the British Isles.

Although our packed lunch was a bust, as the hotel mixed it up with another order (check out the haggis crisps), we made do with water and chocolate. To pass the time, we sang silly birthday songs, and took turns making up stories and jokes. I do not think I have laughed as much in a long while. A leisurely few hours were spent winding our way down towards the picturesque village of Kinlochleven. Situated at the eastern end of a sea loch, Loch Leven, it is surrounded by imposing mountains, and it acts as a centre for outdoor tourism and mountain sports in the region. Our walk time for the day was once again shorter than anticipated, and we checked into the lovely Allt-na-Leevan B&B by early afternoon. I cannot recommend this accommodation more highly; it was very comfortable, clean and the hosts were welcoming. Our day was topped off with a birthday dinner at a local pub, with sticky toffee pudding for dessert, a family favourite.

Our final day took us from Kinlochleven to Fort William; with 24.2 km, and an estimated walk time of seven hours, it was our longest day. The steep climb out of Kinlochlevan brought us into a remote valley and past deserted shielings historically used for tending sheep. The tenor of our day was less upbeat, as my daughter’s knee was starting to feel sore. This portion of the walk is also more desolate. We walked for a long stretch of time through flat land and grazing sheep until we eventually entered the forests of Glen Nevis with views of Ben Nevis. The Cut Wood lies around 5 km south of Fort William at the foot of the Mamore mountain range close to Lundavra. The trees were felled between 2003-2008 by a private owner and the current landscape value of the woodland is poor. It is difficult to walk through the area without feeling a deep sense of sadness due to the distressing impacts of clear-cutting.

Our final day of walking was long and we finished our descent into Fort William at close to seven hours. We were both tired and relieved to arrive into our B&B that afternoon. It felt great to successfully finish our journey. We were contented to take hot showers, order in Chinese food, and watch silly television for the rest of the evening. The next morning, we caught our train back to Glasgow, where we headed to the airport, to catch our plane to Ireland. Our Scottish adventure was filled with great memories and we will definitely be back to explore other routes.