I had the romantic notion of going for a wild swim in Loch Lomond. A secluded beach backed by pinewoods and a still, clear loch with mountains all around – what could be better? Once I was thigh-deep in the water, however, I had a rapid temperature-induced change of heart and settled for a splash and a scrub followed by a hasty exit.
There had been a fair amount of rain in the night and it looked like more was on its way, so I didn’t waste too much time in packing up and setting off, as I might have otherwise done in a place like that. I wound back up through the pines to rejoin the West Highland Way. It took me onto the small road that runs up the east side of the loch, past a campsite and a few lodges before having nowhere left to go. I got to a toilet block just as rain began to come down heavily and was able to waterproof up under shelter.
Soon after, I had a choice to make. The Way split into a high road and a low road. I don’t know if this was a deliberate choice by the route’s creators to fit with the iconic chorus of Loch Lomond, but it made me smile to think about. If you don’t know the song, the chorus goes:
O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road,
And I’ll be in Scotland a’fore ye,
But me and my true love will never meet again,
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.
I’ve heard a few different interpretations of this, but the common theme is that one of the roads represents death, hence why the narrator and their love will never meet again on the banks of Loch Lomond. Some say the high road is death, and the deceased will be carried back to their homeland on angels’ wings, others say it’s the low road, the underworld through which the narrator will be spirited away. The choice lay before me: heaven or the underworld?
(Note that in the more romantic version sung by the Corries, the lovers ultimately will meet again, “far above the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond”)
The main factor in my decision was the ascent. At this point, I resented taking a single step upwards when it wasn’t absolutely necessary. There was a sign warning that the low road was rough and slippery, but I could see from my map that the high road climbed up to 130m. An old couple turned onto the high road, which appeared to be a wide, smooth track. I took the low.
Reader, it was a mistake. I was blindsided by how much tougher this way was than the gentle lochside paths of the day before. This part of the loch lay directly below Ben Lomond, whose notoriously steep, steep sides fell straight down into the water. The path was narrow, rocky, uneven, and constantly writhed up and down through the tangled woods clinging to the banks. In places slimy steps and boardwalks took me over tumbling streams and into gullies. Rain showers came down again and again. My hope to avoid ascent was dashed completely; the path went constantly up and down steeply, just never actually climbing to anywhere in particular. On a day where I had intended to hurry in order to meet up with Con, I found my progress painfully slow. I messaged him a revised estimate for my arrival at Inverarnan and forced myself on. I did pass other walkers, some of whom I felt really sorry for, because they clearly weren’t prepared for this. More groups probably overtook me, though. I couldn’t do this without rests.
I don’t actually know whether the high road would have been easier, but I certainly believed it at the time. After nearly 5km, the high road came down to merge with the low, but this didn’t seem to mean that the path got much easier. I didn’t see the old couple again, so I assumed they must have outpaced me. After struggling on for another 4km, I reached the Inversnaid Hotel, where a footbridge over Arklet Water grants a good view of a lovely waterfall. I filled up my water, sat on a bench, and ate – I was racing through my snacks today, both as much-needed fuel and as emotional pick-me-ups.
For no reason, I had thought that the hotel might mark the end of the difficult path. It was not so. It continued in the same vein for several more kilometres. Every awkward step up onto a boulder, of which there were many, elicited some kind of gasp or grunt. I was a broken horse beating itself. I messaged Con again to say to expect me even later. The loch was still beautiful when glimpsed through the trees, make no mistake, but I just wished it would end (despite the beauty, I only took one picture in the day, which is reflective of my mental state). Fortunately, the weather did get better in the afternoon.
At long last, the path pulled away from the forest and the end of the lake, and I trundled along the last section to Inverarnan, where Con was waiting with a conciliatory smile and the news that the pub was open. Unlike the other friends who joined me on the walk, Con and I were schoolboys together, and had basically lived together for five years in the same boarding house in our teens. We both took a gap year after school and signed up for the 2013 British Exploring 18-25 Oman expedition. This was an incredible experience for a couple of boys who had always loved the idea of big adventures without ever really having had the chance to go on one. We spent three weeks exploring the vast expanses of the Empty Quarter desert, learning navigation and leadership skills, and then four weeks conducting biodiversity surveys along a wadi in the coastal Dhofar Mountains. For those seven weeks, we didn’t sleep a single night under so much as a tent, and our base camp for the second half was on an inaccessible, paradise-like beach next to the Arabian Sea. I learned that there is a ridiculously huge amount of world to explore, and that I wanted desperately to spend my whole life seeing it.
I staggered into a chair and perused a menu of earthly delights. We both got a macaroni cheese and shared a side of chips, all of which Con insisted on paying for; I think he could read in my eyes what I had been though. They came in magnificent portions, and we clearly hadn’t read the menu carefully, because the pasta came with its own chips as well. I wasn’t complaining. I ate till I was almost bursting, then sat there contentedly as Con conversed with the people at the next table (the only others there) about their strikingly lovely husky-like dog, which apparently has its own Instagram account.
It was late in the day when we eventually waddled out and began to make our way north and then north-west along Glen Falloch. The path was wide enough for us to walk abreast of each other, and Con’s upbeat chatter went some way towards distracting me from my aches. The day was soon fading and we spent some time walking in the dark, but we managed to put 9km between the pub and our eventual campsite, a flattish patch of ground up on the north side of the glen, a couple of kilometres from Crianlarich.
I eyed up Con’s kit as he unpacked. Before the Oman trip, he and I had gone to an outdoor shop together to make the throat-tighteningly expensive investment of just about everything you need for an adventure, and I still use a lot of that kit now – backpack, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, walking clothes, etc. but Con seemed to have all new stuff. I asked him about it. “I hadn’t used my kit for a while and my parents found it when they were clearing up the house and threw it out.” My heart bled.
Lying in the tent, I eyed up the distances shown to me by my mapping app. I had two days left to get to the foot of Ben Nevis. That was 76km away. Two big days, or a big day and a huge day. I had to put us within striking distance tomorrow. What was striking distance? About 40km had been my biggest day so far. That had been horrible, but that was my mark. Tomorrow we would leave the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park behind, and cross the wide land that I knew only as half-lit scenery racing past the window when following the A82 to or from the mystical Glen Coe.