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Walking Scotland’s West Highland Way in winter

Walking Scotland’s West Highland Way in winter

Graeme, the duty manager at the YHA hostel in Crianlarich, raises an eyebrow as I dump my dripping pack by the door. It’s been dark for several hours already, it’s raining heavily, and he clearly wasn’t expecting any guests. “You’re the first West Highland Way walker I’ve seen for over two weeks,” he says, on learning that I’m walking the 96-mile trail from Glasgow to Fort William in early January.

I hadn’t been planning to stop in Crianlarich, which was a mile off-trail, but the rain had been falling constantly since late afternoon and, although my waterproofs were holding up, the idea of pitching my tent amid a downpour was rather unappealing.

Of course, western Scotland is infamous for its rain. Yet apart from a brief shower during the first day out of Glasgow, the conditions had been good until now. The first night I had camped wild on the approaches to Loch Lomond. The following day, winter sunshine had accompanied me to the summit of Conic Hill, blessing me with glorious views of islets scattered like jewels across the azure surface of the loch. At sundown, as I hiked north along the pebbly shore, the loch was a velvet mirror framed by crisp black silhouettes.

Lochs fall still and quiet in the depths of winter

(Alastair Gill)

The next day was overcast, the loch a colourless void. As the path twisted around boulders and across babbling burns, snow-dusted crags hovered between reams of cloud above the western shore like spectral citadels. It was only late on the third day, after leaving Loch Lomond behind, that the weather turned.

Yet friends had branded me a masochist for setting off on a six-day trek through some of Britain’s wildest and least hospitable landscapes at the coldest time of the year. Admittedly, the facts supported them. It wasn’t just the inclement weather; many of the guesthouses and hotels along the route are closed in winter, so sleeping options are limited unless you’re ready to rough it. And with temperatures that can drop below zero anywhere along the trail, you need to be both hardy and well-equipped.

So why walk the West Highland Way in winter? It wasn’t a case of making a virtue of hardship, though I welcomed the test of my physical endurance. There was another, more selfish impulse at work – I wanted the trail to myself, to enjoy a prolonged escape from all kinds of social…

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