Day 69: Devil
Glencoe Mountain Resort to Kinlochleven. 10.1 miles. Miles to date: 1027.8.
I wake at first light.
It has not been a good night’s sleep in my Hobbit hole. First I was too hot in the sleeping bag, then too cold. I kept banging the ends of the shed with either my feet or head. And at various intervals during the night there were scamperings of unseen animals somewhere outside (or in) – a squirrel perhaps, or a fox, maybe even one of my fellow Hobbits.
The Hobbit hole – with its wafer thin walls and mattress is a small step up from camping, which I’m useless at. Hard to believe I once spent a summer living under canvas on a kids camp. I must have got some sleep there, surely?
But first light is the golden hour for photography. So I dress and head outside to watch the sun hit Buachaille Etive Mòr. It's all over so fast: gold sliding down the rock parapets as, above, horse-hair cloud thickens into a crown that will not leave the mountain for two days.
It is a magical sunrise on an immense mountain that I share with no one, and one of those unplanned LeJog moments I won't forget.
But it’s cold, too. Just under three degrees. A sign not just of how high we are, and how early it is, but also that the summer I’ve been walking through has already turned. Autumn making a first tentative bite.
I return to my Hobbit hole and try to sleep.
The picture I took at dawn on my rest day (also posted in yesterday's blog post).
It’s a short day on the West Highland Way at just over ten miles. And it’s as busy as ever, the now familiar amble of walkers with their huge packs, hydration systems and walking poles snaking along murky Glencoe on their penultimate day following the trail.
It’s interesting to compare the demographic make-up of the different long distance paths I’ve walked.
The Pennine Way was almost exclusively being followed by Brits, mostly men, almost all of whom had retired. There were a few exceptions: the young couple from Belgium; and Jay from Colorado spreading the word about veganism one rambler at a time (Jay would, I think, be an exception to pretty much any rule).
The South West Coast Path was, again, generally older walkers. And generally couples. Most were from the Antipodes or America, with a handful of Germans and Austrians. There were only a handful of Brits on it.
The Cotswolds Way had too few people walking its length to make a meaningful assessment. During five days on it I only met one other person doing the distance, a 70 year old American lady. The vast majority were out for the day and were older walkers.
The West Highland Way is the odd one out in almost every respect. It is, firstly, utterly cosmopolitan. European countries are well represented, as is America. There are very few Brits walking it and those that are are mainly Scots. Pubs and cafés chatter to the sound of three dozen languages. And while there are a few older walkers around the average age is likely in the mid 20s – largely because of the significant number of overseas scout troupes. It’s also not a trail followed by many solo walkers. Almost everyone is part of a couple or group.
With the caveat that my experience may not be typical, I’d also say that the West Highland Way is the least sociable of them all. Whether it’s because the WHW's dominated by groups, or because of the many language barriers, or because there's so much accommodation on offer that walkers are rarely pushed together, there’s far less trail and after-trail banter than on either the Pennine Way or South West Coast Path. It’s not necessarily unfriendly - people nod and sometimes smile. But equally, it's not friendly. At best you could say there's a kind of professional courtesy at work. It is world's apart from the camaraderie that made a star of the Pennine Way.
What a difference a day makes. After yesterday's magical sunrise the clouds came down and have not shifted from Buachaille Etive Mòr.
The WHW starts out along Glencoe, the vast glacial valley that is considered by many to be Scotland's finest. For many on the Scottish tourist route the precipitous mountains that tower above are their first dramatic taste of the Highlands.
There's drama as I walk the steady track along the north side of the valley: the clouds have thickened overnight, gathering around The Buckle and folding over Stob Coire Raineach. The sun is close to breaking through in the west, ripping tears of white in the grey. But not enough for sunshine. Soon the rain starts and the wind picks up.
It's fitting. Glencoe holds grim secrets, bloodiest of all the highland massacre, when on February 13 1692 redcoat troops led by Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyn carried out the execution of the MacDonalds of Glencoe. As blizzards blasted the valley outside, the government soldiers – who had been given sanctuary from the bitter winter by the MacDonalds for 12 days – turned on their hosts and carried out their orders to "put all to the sword under seventy".
The massacre – 34 men, women and children murdered as they slept – remains one of the most callous in Scottish clan history; a faraway slaughter as two dynasties vied for the throne in distant London. To this day a sign hangs above the door to the old Clachaig Inn at Glen Coe that says: 'No Hawkers or Campbells'.
Rannoch Moor. Glencoe behind.
This is the Kings House Hotel – a coaching inn that has stood on this remote and exposed spot since at least the 1770s. Originally a refuge for drovers, it was forced to smarten up its act when travel became fashionable for the gentry.
At Altnafeadh the Way breaks from its westward flight and heads north up the Devil's Staircase.
The Devil’s Staircase… It’s one of those names that gets every walker's pulse quickening. Is it to be an exposed scramble demanding hands and feet? Or rock steps bigger than a man?
Nope. It's a supremely easy and – as you'd expect from the WHW – beautifully graded jaunt along General Wade's old military road. There's nothing devilish about it, and I count three steps the entire way.
But the devil's there – in the detail.
The pass was given its nickname by soldiers building Wade's road. Laying rock on this remote, exposed pass was a hated job – the devil's work.
In the early 20th century the nickname was picked up by yet more manual labourers – this time navvy builders of the mighty Blackwater Dam, whose nearest watering hole to remote Kinlochleven was the King's House in Glencoe. This meant a near-as-damnit 20 mile there-and-back hike for their payday pint. On cold, wet and windy nights those who'd drunk one too many were easy prey for the devil.
The view down Glencoe.
Clouds were folding over Stob Coire Raineach.
Probably the most sophisticated 'shop' so far on the WHW: £1.50 cans of drinks in mini shelters at the top of the Devil's Staircase.
As you cross the watershed Munros line the horizon: a dizzying line of summits on the Amores ridge that throw a defensive wall around the highest of them all: Ben Nevis.
The WHW may not be the world’s most exciting walk, but the scenery does a lot to make up for it.
And there, far below, is Kinlochleven, the night's stopping point. Dwarfed by peaks it looks more like a remote Himalayan outpost than a village a few dozen miles from Glasgow.
Approaching the Devil's Staircase. Not very devilish. And very few steps. But back in the day...
Aonach Eagach - Meall Dearg.
Once over the Devil's Staircase the WHW joins forest tracks to descend – steeply – to Kinlochleven.
Kinlochleven sits in the valley bottom dwarfed by towering peaks.
Lots of very high mountains.
Part of the fearsome Aonach Eagach ridge – one of the most famous hillwalking challenges in Scotland. It runs along the northerly side of Glencoe from Sron Gharbh/Am Bodach in the east to Sgurr nam Fiannaidh in the west.
Water pipes heading to Kinlochleven.
Kinlochleven could so easily have become one of those villages whose best days are gone. I’ve been past and through plenty of them. From the descriptions I'd read I had assumed my stay here would be like my stay in Tyndrum – best kept short.
But I was wrong.
Kinlochleven was a village that grew to make aluminium. And because aluminium requires a hell of a lot of electricity, it is dominated by the turbine halls and pipes of its hydroelectric power station.
This power made Kinlochleven 'The Electric Village' – the first village in the world where every house was connected to electricity.
But no matter how fine its metal, the aluminium reduction plant that once employed 700 people closed in 1996. Its power station was repurposed to supply the national grid.
For some villages this would have been a fatal blow. But Kinlochleven always had a trump card: location. There are few villages that boast scenery on this scale. It also had the West Highland Way, with pretty much every one of its 15,000 annual followers stopping overnight in the valley.
But B&Bs alone do not regenerate a village.
Two more enterprises have helped do that.
The first its micro-brewery – Atlas Brewery and now River Leven Ales.
The second, transforming the abandoned aluminium works, is Ice Factor, an indoor climbing complex boasting the world’s biggest indoor ice climb – the world’s biggest fridge? – and the UK's highest indoor articulated rock climbing wall. If your thing's indoor climbing, Kinlochleven is your mecca.
But Ice Factor is more than that. It offers mountain guides, an aerial adventure course, kids playgrounds, a café and – critically – a bar.
Tonight is eat-all-you-can curry night, followed by a five piece Celtic party band.
No question what I'll be doing.
Maybe the craik will loosen a few tongues of the silent masses walking the West Highland Way.
Aerial walkway at Ice Factor.
Water that has made electricity.
The power station.
Next: Day 70 – Kinlochleven to Fort William.
Previous: Day 67 – Tyndrum to Glencoe Mountain Resort.