Hiking the UK's West Highland Way: Reasons to be hyped

Haggis, whisky and wild camping: Scotland’s most iconic hiking route is a dream come true!

3 mins

Do you dream of gazing out at rugged landscapes from atop a Munro (aka a Scottish mountain higher than 3000ft) while the wind whips your hair and a golden eagle calls languorously in the distance, just like a still from Braveheart? Damn right you do – and now’s the time to make that vision a reality!

The West Highland Way is Scotland’s oldest and most iconic hiking route. The 96-mile trail begins just above the country’s biggest city (Glasgow) and stretches to its tallest mountain (Ben Nevis), passing its largest lake (Loch Lomond) along with miles of stunning forests, quaint valleys and wistful paths.

I’ve hiked this route several times now and can confidently say it’s among the most awe-inspiring places I’ve been lucky enough to get lost. Sure, the weather can be tricky, the road is often tough and the midges are a downright nightmare, but the joy of this hike is that it’s up to you how hard you want to take it.

Photo by Vishnu Prasad

Choose your own adventure

Depending on where your pain-to-fun threshold is, you can approach the West Highland Way as a leisurely stroll between picturesque hotels – catching the train at times and letting someone else carry your bags, or as a full-on wilderness marathon – drinking from waterfalls, eating hand-picked mushrooms, stomping for 10 hours each day and sleeping under the stars. It’s up to you.

Indulge in wild camping

There’s a huge sense of freedom that comes with wild camping, as there’s something so magical about setting out in the early morning and not knowing where you’ll be sleeping that night. It might be by the river or a waterfall, or deep in the mossy woods. You wake up to birdsong and open the tent to see untouched wilderness. Bliss.

Non-residents may not know this, but the United Kingdom is actually very lacking in wild spaces that are free to camp at. While there are abundance of national parks and areas of outstanding beauty to be enjoyed, pretty much every single hillside, field and patch of grass is owned by someone – usually the crown or the church. As such, camping without permission is illegal and comes with hefty fines, and more than that, is just generally frowned upon.  

There are only two places in the whole of the UK where wild camping is legal and free. The first is Dartmoor National Park, in the south of the country, close to Cornwall – but even this freedom has come under threat recently. The second, and by far the grandest in terms of size and splendour, is Scotland.

Photo by Anna Urlapova

Cool, so can I just camp anywhere?

Yes – almost. There are limits. You can’t just pitch up outside someone’s bedroom or on that nice billionaire-owned golf course (alas!). But rest assured that while on the West Highland Way, you’ll be able to enjoy the majestic surroundings as you wild camp almost the entire route. There is a section toward the beginning where you’ll either have to get a permit or plan your stays carefully, as restrictions apply during the busy months, so I recommend hopping from campsite to campsite for the first few days. But once you’re past that section, it’s freedom all the way!

Haggis has its time to shine

You might think that Scottish food is famous for all the wrong reasons (deep-fried Mars Bar, anyone?), but trust me, after a long day of hiking over mountains in the rain, it’s exactly what you need.

Haggis in particular is hearty and delicious. For those who don’t know, haggis is a traditional Scottish dish – probably the most Scottish of all – made from all the unwanted parts of a sheep, including the bladder and the brain. When made well, the flavour is a unique blend of peppery meat and rich, whiskey-infused sauce that assails the senses like a choir of bagpipes.

Where can you eat?

Along the West Highland Way route, you’ll find dozens of places where you can get a delicious traditional meal. From farm restaurants and old-world pubs to high-class hotels, there’s a fair range of choice, though I have to admit vegetarian and gluten-free options were pretty thin on the ground.

Photo by Max Hermansson

Of course, you don’t have to eat at these places, as you can shop and cook for yourself along the way. At pretty much every stop, you’ll find a small supermarket or farm shop selling camping food and supplies. Those in the know can also try foraging for their food. On one of my trips, we found and harvested ‘chicken of the woods’ – a cool-looking yellow mushroom that tasted almost exactly like smoky chicken. Obviously massive caveat here, as eating wild mushrooms when you don’t know you’re doing is... well, let’s just say it takes the fun out of fungi and puts it in funeral instead.

Whiskey

You can’t talk about Scotland without talking about whiskey. After all, they invented the stuff. In ancient Gaelic, the word for whiskey is usquebaugh, meaning ‘water of life’. There are over 140 distilleries in Scotland, and at least a few of them can be reached while on your hike, because nothing gets you over that hill quicker than the promise of a wee dram!

The first time I walked the West Highland Way, I stopped at Glengoyne Distillery for a tour and whiskey-tasting evening. This was the perfect opportunity to top up my hip flask and buy a few small bottles to carry along with me to share with fellow hikers around the campfire. It made the experience all the more merry.  

For more whiskey-tasting moments, check out the Malt Whiskey Trail, which takes you tipple-by-tipple to nine of the major distillers in Scotland and offers all sorts of cultural and educational goodness along the way.

Photo by Jaap Mol

Spot local wildlife

Ever heard the call of a golden eagle? Yeah, I know it’s a stereotype, but it’s also a 24-carat magical experience. Especially when you’re swimming in a loch surrounded by your loved ones having just hiked three hours through the forest, then out of the silence you hear that lingering screech across the valley! It’s not a moment you’re likely to forget any time soon.

As well as golden eagles, there are a rich variety of rare and interesting animals to be spotted while on the West Highland Way, many of which are native only to this part of the UK. These include the red squirrel, red deer or red grouse –interestingly, all very red. Makes you wonder if the stereotype of Scottish people being ginger is no coincidence.

Photo by Amee Fairbank-Brown

Take a ride on the Harry Potter train

The Hogwarts Express train, also known as the Jacobite train, runs along part of the West Highland Way route, specifically the last few stops if you’re going south to north. If you plan according, you can do the whole 96-mile hike all the way to Fort William, and then be rewarded by a stunning four-hour train ride in that iconic masterpiece of steam work and engineering.

Photo by Bryan Walker

The weather can be wonderful, or wild

A word of warning before you grab your shades and sun-tan lotion: this is Scotland, and the weather is notoriously unpredictable. The geography of the highlands in particular makes accurate weather forecasts pretty much impossible. Even if it says sun all week, you’ll still likely go through a few squalls and rainy patches along the way.  

On my first trip across the highlands, I was blessed with “wall-to-wall blueskies” as my hiking companions liked to say. It was so warm at night I didn’t even unpack the sleeping bag, and in the mornings, there was just enough breezeto keep the midges off. We walked like this for five days and had a blissful time.  On a recent trip, however, the sky opened on the second day and wewere battered with three days of relentless rain and wind along the hardest part of the route. Much less fun.

Hyped yet?

Right, brave traveller: I’ve told you all I can. You’re now ready to embrace your freedom and take to the highlands. Don’t forget your map and your waterproof poncho!

Photo by Gary Ellis

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