I woke up in the early half-light, and came out of my tent to see a lake of night-mist slowly ebbing back down into the river valley. I needed to put in a good stint today. I stretched and examined how my body was feeling. My back was all right; feet, hips, and shoulders – not good, but that was normal now. There wasn’t much hope of me walking particularly fast, so I would have to go for a long time. I brokefast and packed up, and set off just after sunrise.
I crossed Dumgoyach bridge over the small river of Blane Water, then followed it downstream along the side of the valley as it flowed north. The path here was once the Blane Valley railway, which skirted around the range of high hills that I had been able to see from the edge of Glasgow, the Campsie Fells. I passed the Glengoyne distillery and soon after, the Beech Tree bar, which wasn’t yet open. I like to think that I wouldn’t have stopped there even if it had been, but a rest would already have been tempting.
Old railway lines tend to be beautifully flat, so following this one made for an easy start to the day. It took me as far as the riverside hamlet of Gartness, where I sat on a wall and had a break. The West Highland Way followed a road for a few kilometres, which I wasn’t enthused about, but I couldn’t put it off. A bit further on, I ducked into a barn in a small camping farm to fill up my water, and said hi to some other backpackers who were just setting off for their second day of walking. The next section of the road rose gently until I caught a sliver of the surface of Loch Lomond in the distance. Soon, I drew level with Drymen. The official West Highland Way website lists Milngavie to Drymen as the first of the eight 16-24km legs into which it divides the route. I was out of kilter with these, having started my first day on the Way in late afternoon, but I would have to average just under two of them per day.
Happily, I soon left the road and was into the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park. I was getting lucky with the weather; it was shaping up to be a beautiful day. Looking back, if that last week in Scotland had consisted mainly of torrential downpours, as I was afraid it would and as it easily could have, it might have broken my spirits completely. The path began to climb, and I began to sweat, and sat on a stump in a shaded picnic area for a while, where walkers from the campsite I had raided passed me again with a smile. Further on, I came out onto a hillside where the trees had been felled, and I saw the path twisting ahead, dotted with groups of walkers, out enjoying the weather. I looked with some dismay to where the path climbed up the ridge of Conic Hill and out of sight round the other side. It looked like a slog, but I thought I had better get on with it.
At the top of the climb, I reluctantly admitted to myself that it probably had been worth it. The views across Loch Lomond and its many islands and surrounding mountains were superb. The Way did have the mercy not to require me to go to the summit, which I skirted round, passing many families coming up from the other direction. Several of these appeared to include people who were being forced up a (really quite small) mountain for the first time, and found the whole affair highly dubious.
I made my way gingerly down the steep path on the other side towards Balmaha and the lochside; it would have been a disaster if I had done my knees in then. With relief, I entered the shade of tall conifers for the last stretch down to the village. Balmaha invited me to linger for a while. I read information boards in its visitor centre, filled up my bottle at the pub, and listened to a hand-powered talking boulder (I will not explain this. Go there yourself).
I came across a garden called Tom Weir’s Rest, celebrating the life of the much-loved Scottish hiker, author, and TV personality. I could not turn down the opportunity to take a rest here. Although the village was buzzing with tourists, I still found peace on a bench looking over towards a little harbour. I felt that everything would be beautiful from here on. I had arrived on the shores of a loch so bonnie that people sing about it. Loch Lomond is one of the first traditional Scottish songs I learnt, and is always sure to get people singing along when launched into in a bunkhouse or out on a hike. I had glimpsed the bonnie bonnie banks before on the long drive to or from the highlands, but never had had time to admire them in all their gentle glory.
The path along the lochside was easy, pleasant, and scenic. It did occasionally see fit to climb over a low hill, but I couldn’t begrudge it this flightiness. The eastern shore of the loch is covered in mossy oak forests, and while I was there, the leaves were just beginning to turn. An information board told me that, historically, the oak woods were a hub of pre-industrial industrial activity, providing essential ingredients for leather tanning. I wistfully imagined living in such a world, where livelihoods could be provided by a land relatively unstripped of its beauty and biodiversity. I ambled contentedly along as the day began to fade.
I dropped down into a tiny bay to cook supper on my stove. I took off my boots and socks to let my feet breathe as I watched the water lap at the grey gravel under the twilit clouds. Perhaps in my moment of peacefulness, I managed to melt into the calm scene, because a robin fluttered down to join me. It hopped forward, bold but slightly uncertain, approaching me, eventually coming right up to my toes and pecking at them. I wondered if it would do the same to my finger, but apparently it was not into that. After it left me, I took out my whistle and played a few tunes. I could hear the sounds of families on a campsite nearby, and I hoped that I was enhancing their experience rather than annoying them. I’ve heard what I’m sure is an old joke that the greatest sound in music is that of bagpipes fading into the distance. There’s truth in it – up close the pipes can be brash and bulldozing, but far away they take on an echoey wistfulness. I think a similar thing applies to the tin whistle. I’ve been told off before for playing it in a small room where it can be shrill and piercing, but a misty Scottish evening lends it some magic, or so I hope.
My friend Con had got the train up and was staying at an inn, ready to meet me the next day at the north end of the loch. I think I hadn’t realised just how far the narrow arm of Loch Lomond stretches north. Inverarnan, the hamlet where we would meet, was still 28km away. I sent him a message apologising and saying that I wouldn’t arrive until the afternoon, and set off again to put some distance behind me in the dark. The trees closed around me as I climbed over a hill through Ross Wood, my headtorch only a small beam of illumination against the pressing dark. Unlike on the outskirts of Glasgow, though, the dark held no uncertainty for me. I knew this was a peaceful place.
After covering another 5km from where I had my robin encounter, I saw a sign identifying a small peninsula as a designated camping site. In the summer months, the shores of Loch Lomond are one of the few parts of Scotland where camping is restricted, but it was mid-October now, and I could camp where I liked. I could probably have walked further, but a quick investigation found a secluded beach that I could have all to myself, and that was too tempting to pass up. I pitched my tent on the white, gravelly sand, and looked forward to the view that would be revealed to me come morning. I had covered 34km that day, and was just short of Rowardennan, the end point of the second of the West Highland Way’s legs. The path along the lochside had been very easy going, and I was looking forward to more of the same tomorrow. I may still be sore, but this would be no trouble at all.