Wildcamping the West Highland Way – Day 1May 9, 2019
The West Highland Way is probably Scotland’s most popular hiking trail. I’d wanted to do it for years, but had never quite got round to it – despite the start being almost on my doorstep.
At the end of March there was a mild spell of weather and I decided to go for it. I’d been planning it in my mind, hoping to do it before the busy season started.
I wanted to do it as a camping expedition, as I was working towards my Mountain Leader Assessment, and in order to qualify, I needed to do several wild camping nights.
Map showing the first day’s route, from Milngavie to Conic Hill. Click here for a closer look.
I wrote an introductory post for this series in April. It was my last post for a few weeks, as I needed to put my head down and start studying and planning for my week-long ML Assessment week. More on that later!
The biggest challenge was packing my backpack with enough supplies to last me three days and nights. The next morning, I got up, had breakfast, walked the five minutes to the train station – and 15 minutes later I was at the obelisk marking the start of my three-day adventure.
I set off at a brisk pace. The route is well-signposted in the early stages, and I wanted to cover as much distance as I could on the first day, hopefully getting as far as Conic HIll, as I’d heard that from that point on, the ground got quite rough with some steep terrain. But it was a case of “more haste – less speed” as I missed one signpost and walked almost 1km in the wrong direction. A friendly groundsman working on a golf course alerted me to my mistake.
The Huts of Carbeth
The route takes you past the Carbeth hutting community. This started in the years after the First World War, when a local landowner, Barns-Graham, allowed an ex-serviceman to build a holiday shack. More constructions followed, leased at nominal rents, and the area became a weekend escape for families living in the industrial centres of Clydebank and Glasgow. The “huts” are all individually designed, often with creative quirks.
From Carbeth, the volcanic plug of Dumgoyne becomes a prominent sight on the horizon. At 427m, Dumgoyne is a short but very steep climb, and its summit is a great viewpoint on a clear day.
For a reasonably fit person, a detour to climb Dumgoyne could be done in about an hour. I’ve climbed it several times, so I decided to press on with my walk. I did take a 10-minute break near a smaller hill, Dumgoyach, and I photographed some standing stones in a nearby field.
Standing stones near Dumgoyach hill.
This part of the walk passes close to Duntreath Castle, the ancestral home of the Edmonstone family, and formerly the family home of Alice Keppel, the beautiful society hostess who became the mistress of King Edward VIII in the 1890s. Duntreath Castle is still privately owned, and can be leased for weddings. The castle is not visible from the walk.
The weather looked grey and threatening at this point, but the cloud must have drifted off in another direction, as there was not one single drop of rain that day.
As you walk past Dumgoyne, the path becomes very straight and flat – this is not the most interesting section of the walk, but you can make good easy progress, and if you’re starting to feel tired or peckish, the Beech Tree Inn is on hand.
I’ve enjoyed refreshments at this establishment several times, and as the primary motive for my walk was to prepare for my Mountain Leader Assessment, and I was testing myself by carrying all the food and drink I would need for three days on my back, I decided not to stop for lunch.
Shetland ponies, or shelties, at the Beech Tree Inn. They are very cute, but there are signs everywhere imploring people not to feed them, as the wrong kind of food could damage their health.
As I reached the picturesque hamlet of Gartness, the brisk pace I’d been maintaining started to take its toll. My feet started to feel a bit achey – probably the result of the 13kg load I was carrying on my back. I slowed down to enjoy the scenery.
The River Endrick rushing through the “Pots of Gartness”.
Shortly after this point, I got my first glimpse of Conic Hill on the horizon, my goal for the day.
The West Highland Way bypasses the small town of Drymen. At about 22km along the way, it’s an ideal place to stay for the night, and there’s a lot of accommodation available (though camping is not permitted in the area). I chose to keep walking.
Just outside the western edge of Garadhban Wood there is a natural spring, reputed to have healing properties, known as St Maha’s Well. St Maha is the patron saint of the small nearby town of Balmaha. The name Balmaha is derived from “Bealach Mo-Cha” or “The pass of Saint Mo-Cha”. It was the inspiration behind the St Mocha coffee shop in the town, and its range of ice cream.
There seems to be some confusion as to who St Maha was. According to Wikipedia, St Maha, or St Mo-Cha, is the familiar name or nickname of Kentigerna or Caintigern. However, other sources say that St Mochai or Macai, also known as St Mahew, was a companion of St Patrick, and lived on the Isle of Bute.
St Kentigerna is said to have lived as a hermit on the nearby Isle of Inchailloch in Loch Lomond, so it’s possible that the identity of the original St Maha has been lost in the mists of time, and that St Kentigerna added her blessing to a well that was already held sacred.
It wasn’t difficult to find the well, given its location on the OS map. I dropped my backpack and walked across the boggy field until I spotted the standing stone that marks its position.
The standing stone near St Maha’s Well.
St Maha’s Well.
The water may well have been blessed 1200 years ago, but I wasn’t sure if it was really safe to drink. I decided to fill up my water bottle from the fast-flowing stream bubbling out from the well, and to have just a very small taste, leaving the rest to boil up later that evening for tea.
When I took that small sip, it tasted so good that I couldn’t stop myself glugging back the rest of it! I was pretty thirsty. Luckily there were no ill effects. Maybe it’s true that the water has healing properties!
Suitably refreshed, I lifted up my heavy backpack and walked the last couple of kilometres to the foot of Conic Hill, where I was planning to camp for the night.
Approaching Conic Hill.
Maybe the healing waters had invigorated me. I didn’t see any suitable flat places to pitch my tent, so I started to climb the easy though fairly steep staircase leading up Conic Hill. At an altitude of 330m, I found an ideal spot to camp.
According to Strava, I’d walked a total of 31.59km (19.62 miles) that day. It had taken me 8 hours and 5 mins.
As the sun went down, I enjoyed my dinner while watching other walkers pass by on their way to Balmaha, at the other side of the hill.
Watching the sun go down over Loch Lomond.
I slept well that night after doing some gentle foot stretches, hoping to reinvigorate my tired feet in preparation for the reportedly gruelling section ahead the next day.
To be continued…
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