Trip Journal - West Highland Way




Edinburgh -- 02 July 1998

We got up latish (9:30 or so) and ate Gordon's Alpen for breakfast. It's great stuff - like muesli but more. We went to the train station to find out about particulars for the West Highland Way, a 95-mile trek through the Highlands that I really wanted to do. We bought a train schedule for 1 pound and ascertained that we didn't need a reservation for the train. There are no reservations at all on the short train trips - and better than that, reservations are free to book - yeah! After that, we headed for High Street and the Royal Mile - all the touristy stuff - so Paul could see Edinburgh Castle. We stopped in at Deacon Brodie's Pub (on the corner of Bank and High streets) to have some lunch. I was ecstatic when I saw the choice of food, it seemed very posh. Then I found out how expensive it was. I kicked myself for not being suspicious of a pub on the Royal Mile. Still, it was good food: tomato basil soup, a sliced chicken sandwich and a nice pint. While we were there, Jerry Springer was on TV. I'd never seen it before, and was fascinated and repulsed, but I couldn't take my eyes off it. Apparently some man, who was engaged, had asked several women, whom he'd met over the Internet, to marry him. I couldn't imagine why people would come on this show and talk about themselves like that. Finally Paul made me turn and face a different direction so I couldn't see the television. Thank goodness -- it was as hypnotic as the song of the Muses or the virgins of Lorelei! No fights though. Also featured (in the pub, not on the TV) was a classic "rude American". He was sitting at the bar chatting with a Scotsman. He had grey hair and a "biker's" beard, full and long, and wore shorts, a t-shirt and baseball cap. He had a big belly and a loud voice. He was going on about a lot of things in a voice for all to hear, cutting his companion off to state his own opinions. One of his topics was the upcoming football match for the US. He was saying that he didn't really think much of football, as it was just soccer and not really anything like real football, though he really hoped that we would "beat the ragheads". Paul had to explain to me that he meant the Iranians. Of course, he had it wrong, as the Iranians had already beat us (as did everyone else we played). I never cease to be appalled at these sorts of people. I had to stop listening, or I'd have had to kill him for the sake of the country. No dogs came in while we were there, which was disappointing. I think the US needs a few good, authentic pubs that allow dogs. That and tearooms. We left Deacon Brodie's and walked further up High Street, past the Woolen Mills and plaid everything, the coats of arms, the bagpipers, and the Wytchery, a restaurant, where they apparently have "Rooms of Seduction", so that if your meal is going really well, you don't have to end the evening early, and all the rest of the touristy hodge-podge. At the castle, I was disappointed to see that the atmosphere is being marred by the construction of bleachers for the "Tattoo" in August, which is a big military spectacle, with lots of pipers and kilts. They were making quite a racket. But we paid our 6 Pounds each and went in anyway. It cost only 4 Pounds for unemployed people, and we considered for a second going in under that category, but in the end, we decided that we are "not employed at the moment." The tours guides are very quick and quite funny. I wonder if frustrated actors become tour guides at castles when they finally give up on their profession. There is no way, if you aren't Scottish, to keep up with the slew of names thrown at you during the tour. I always end up with my eyes glazed over after fifteen minutes of recitations of Earl this and Lord that. It was interesting to see the crown jewels and the recently returned "Stone of Destiny", which seems to be the popular but inaccurate named for the stone. The Stone of Scone (pronounced skoon) is the more accurate name. More on the stone when we get to Scone. For now suffice it to say that the stone has been used as the coronation stone for Kings and Queens of Scotland for centuries. It was taken away to London by the English king hundreds of years ago and was just repatriated last year. We went into the War Memorial, built in the Art Deco style to commemorate WW I & II scottish soldiers that died in the wars. The building was constructed with stone from ruined castle buildings. I had disdained it last time for being too modern, but Paul wanted to go in, so we did. They have large books laid out with then names of those who died by year, and inscriptions of respect and gratitude for service and honor. It didn't do much for me, but Paul was really moved by the whole thing. I was moved by St. Margaret's Chapel, but in a different way. I thought it was because of the monastic quality of St. Margaret's life, how she managed to have a simple life despite being Queen and mother of 8 children. After doing some research, however, I found out that Margaret is the patron saint of wives so now I'm sure that's why. The story I heard at the castle was that the chapel was built by one of Margaret's sons, probably Edgar. He built it as a memorial to her after she died of a broken heart, four days after learning her husband, Malcolm III and her eldest son, Edward, had been killed in battle. The little booklet that I got at the chapel says Margaret already lay dying when Edgar came to tell her the news of the deaths. But the Scots are nothing if not romantic. Margaret was born in Hungary in exile in 1047. She was the granddaughter of the English King, Edmund Ironside. When he died and Cnut was made King, Edmund's twin sons were sent to King Stephen's court in Hungary for safe keeping. One of them died, but Edward survived, married someone called Agatha, and fathered three children: son Edgar and daughters Christian and Margaret. Margaret came to England when she was 10, because her father was to assume the throne. But he died when they landed in England, possibly from sinister causes. Edgar was next in line, but wasn't eligible because he hadn't been born in England. The booklet says he was brought up as the heir to the throne however. I'm not sure about the story here. But Edgar was at one point chosen King, although he was never crowned. It didn't last though and finally Edgar was advised to return to Hungary. There was a storm that forced Edgar and his sisters to take shelter in the North, and when it was safe to travel again, the group went North to the Firth of Forth and finally settled in Dunfirmline. Malcolm III, King of Scotland, who had been fostered at the English court and may have known the family, met them there. He fell in love with Margaret, who had been raised to be a nun, and was at first unwilling to marry. She only did so at the urging of her family, and in 1070, Margaret became Queen of Scotland. She reformed the Scottish Church, and was very good to the poor and orphaned. She invited them into the castle to dine, and washed their feet. She made it illegal to charge pilgrims for ferry crossings and built shelters on holy islands so that even the poor could afford to go. Malcolm adored her and apparently reformed himself quite a bit in order to be worthy of her. I'm sorry that Margaret took the Celticness out of the Scottish Church, but I admire her as someone who held the ideal of merging the sacred with the everyday.

After the castle, we took a bus to Holy Rood Park, and walked up to the ruins of St. Anthony's. I don't know why I'm so affected by early Christian history. Maybe because they had to fight so hard for what they believed in. And what they were fighting for is truer to what I believe than modern Christianity. They were pilgrims and loved to travel. They were lay people trying to live sacred lives, not monks or nuns cloistered safely within stone walls.

West Highland Way -- 03 July 1998

It was finally time to start walking the West Highland Way. Of course, to American ears, the word "walk" sounds a bit tame, on flat stretches of concrete sidewalk. A walk in the highlands, however, is a bonified trek. It's a time honored tradition. Ever since the time of Wordsworth, people have been strapping food and other survival items to their backs and taking to the paths and back roads. Paul and I took the smaller blue pack, the blue day pack and the sleeping bags and mats. All along the way, people kept remarking that Paul's and my loads were vastly unequal. I carried the day pack half the day, and the backpack the rest of the first day and didn't see much difference. The backpack weighed more, but was easier to carry because most of the weight is on your hips. The day pack hurt your shoulders. Maybe I'm writing this out of guilt. I don't want to think that I wasn't carrying my fair share of the load on the trek. My goal for the trip was to "remember to breathe, live lightly, and stay in the present moment." As far as that goes, I think I really succeeded. We took the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow-Queen St. and then switched to another train to Milngavie (pronounced 'Mul-guy'). When we got off the train, there was a sign that directed us to walk under the underpass and to go into town, which seemed incongruous to the idea of hiking, but we followed the arrow. However, the good news was that we walked by a bakery and got some apple turnovers and a loaf of fresh bread, which was worth all the disappointment of the lack of a glorious beginning. We ate the turnovers on a bench in the pedestrian area of town, and tied the bread to my pack with a red bandana. Paul took my picture at the monument marking the official start of the West Highland Way, and we walked down the stairs (?!?). Such a strange way to start the thing. I had expected a wooded trail, but for a while, it was just a road. Our guide book (which was really just a few pages ripped out of our "walking in Britain" book), said to follow the stream around to the road. Which we did. Almost immediately, a man coming our way stopped dead in his tracks with a very funny look on his face, and said merely, "the West Highland Way." We said yes, and he then said, "It's over there," and pointed to another road. D'oh! Not two minutes into the walk and we were already lost. We sheepishly got back on the right course. We knew the path was marked by a thistle in a yellow hexagon. Once we realized what these looked like, we had few problems. About ten minutes later, we realized that our jeans and long-sleeved shirts weren't going to work. We were already sweating. We ducked into a path just off the Way and furtively changed into shorts and t-shirts, put our packs back on and continued. We passed quite a few people, so we figured our pace was good -- within the guidelines set by the 'Book' -- and that we'd be able to make the 95 mile journey in 7 days. I was very confident that we were tough enough and fit enough to make it.

We walked mostly roads that day and some disused railway. We walked by some little houses, possibly summer houses. Outside the last one in the row, there were four men sitting outside and drinking beer. One had a guitar and sang a song about our "hearts being light through to the end of the Way". The men all shared a hearty laugh as did we. Maybe they like to sit and watch for walkers and play the same song for all of them. They were still playing as we turned off that road and on to the next. This one led us a little way and then turned up a cow path. The cows were all looking at us from behind their fence as we came up, and I had a feeling that they were laughing at us a little for carrying so much burden around for fun. We greeted the cows and continued on the path, right up to a ... stone wall. We couldn't figure it out. Where did the path go? We had been following another pair of walkers, but there was no sign of them. I heard a cow snicker behind me. There was nothing to do but turn around and retrace our steps to the last signpost and make sure we were actually going in the right direction, which of course it turned out we were. So we turned around again and walked back up the cow path. Suddenly I looked up to find that all the cows were now on our side of the fence and blocking our WAY. I felt like Karen Blixen in "Out of Africa". I even tried "Shoo!" but it didn't work. So then I tried the patient cop routine, "Okay cows, show's over, time to go back behind your fence now... that's it." Most of them went back in through the break in the fence in an orderly fashion. But a few panicked and jumped over the fence, which of course begs the question of what the fence is really doing there. After the cows let us through, the path led us back to the same stone wall. This time we looked over the wall and saw the path continuing on the other side. Now this was really strange. Why build a stone wall right across a path? But it soon became very clear: There were steps built into the stone wall.

The steps we stones set into the wall so the protruded about a foot out from the wall. Looking straight at them, they blended right into the wall so as to be effectively invisible. It was only when viewed from the side, right up next to the wall, that they could be seen. At the top was a wooden pole to steady yourself as you climbed over. The pole was worn smooth and shiny by all the hands that had gone this route before us. On the other side of the wall it was much more obvious that the stones sticking out were steps. Humbled again. We walked through sheep pasture and around a stony hill, then along a disused railway route, where we stopped for a "call of nature" break. It hadn't occurred to me that this would be part of walking the 'Way. I guess I'd envisioned public facilities and cafes conveniently dotting the landscape. But these were few and quite far between. I vowed to steal toilet paper whenever possible. We switched packs at this point, and I took the bigger one. I had no problem with it. We walked along a field, and Paul said "Look - a bunny!" Pretty soon we saw the bunny's brothers and sisters, then further along his parents, aunts, uncles, and about 50 of his cousins, all munching away and practically invisible in the grass until they moved. You'd just see a streak of their white tails as they scampered off. We stopped a little later on on the grassy lawn of he only cafe for miles around. We had our bread, which was great, with the lingonberry jam (which we brought from Sweden) and chocolate, and sat and ate while watching a huge black standard poodle who was completely fascinated with something at the other end of the lawn, probably something dead. It was sunny, warm and wonderful. We watched other walkers leave the cafe and then, we too put our two pairs of socks and boots back on and headed onward. A little while later on the path we caught up with Angela, who was walking alone with a hugh pack. She was one of the ones we had seen leave the cafe. We said hello, and talked for a few minutes, and then headed on, agreeing that we'd probably meet at the campground later that evening. Soon after, the 'Way left the path and took to a paved road. We passed by an incredibly cute row of houses, not even a village really, just five or six connected houses at the edge of a river. It'd be great if you could buy the whole row, but it seems like row houses defeat the purpose of living out in the country. The last mile or so was the hardest - a continuous medium grade climb. I had to walk backward for a while because it hurt my quads so much. We did make it though, and came into the gate of the farm that provided camping space. Two dogs came out to meet us, a large older one and a slightly younger little one who very enthusiastically encouraged us to rub his belly. Paul wanted to check the place out a little before we committed, so we walked to the campsite, which turned out ot be a small piece of field that was fenced off and covered in grass. There was space for 8 or 10 tents and two "wigwams", which are small wooden huts which resemble modern Sámi huts. They are shaped like a rounded cone, so there is almost room to stand in the center. There are platforms on three sides and a door in the fourth. They are supposed to sleep six, but only if you all get in first, stand on the platforms on the sides, lay the boards in the slots so the platform extends across the center, then lay your beds out and go directly to sleep and don't move all night. Paul and I really wanted to have one to ourselves, but since it looked like rain, we couldn't be picky, as we has brought no tent. We went back to the farm house and negotiated places in the wigwam from the man inside. It cost £7.00 each, for a spot, and he said he wasn't expecting anyone else, so we wouldn't have to share. There were showers and WCs in one side of the little barn next to the camping field. The other side of the barn was used to store hay, and there was a big NO SMOKING sign there to discourage someone from burning the pace to the ground through a careless toss of a cigarette butt. We settled in, washed out some socks and hung up our sweaty clothes, of which there were many, and then popped back out, jackets in hand, ready to walk into town and find a pub. While we were settling in, two Belgian guys came in, one full of vim and vigor and the other like Eyeore, lamenting how long the walk was, how it would probably rain, etc., etc. There was also a poor English couple, probably in their forty's, who came in very tired and grumpy. They were carrying a tent, a cookstove, food, and lounging clothing (cardigans, extra shoes, etc.). It was amazing how much stuff they had. All the youth hostels along the Way made you take off your boots in the reception area, so you could see bringing an extra pair of shoes then, but while tenting?!? Of course, we were carrying a computer with two batteries and a lot of cables, two journals (because someone thought she would get a lot of writing done on the trip) and a digital camera, so whom are we to talk? We stopped in to see Angela, who had just finished setting up her tent, but she wasn't ready to head out yet, so we took off on our own.

It was two miles into town and the walk felt like flying now that the packs had been laid down. So by my count, we ended up walking 16 miles that day, although Paul maintains that miles walked without the packs don't count. Drymen boasts the oldest pub in Scotland, dating back to the 16th century. We decided to eat at a nice little cafe in town, which had a wonderful glassed-in conservatory and garden seating. We sat inside the conservatory and ordered tea and cheese, tomato and mushroom omelettes. As we sat eating, two older women came in; they were obviously a mother and her spinster daughter out on the town of a Friday night. They were classic Jane Austin or E.M. Forster characters. The daughter bustled about, seeking to locate the perfect place in which to dine. Meanwhile, she didn't even notice that her mother just chose a table and sat down to wait for the daughter to stop running around like a lunatic. The daughter at first wanted to sit outside, because it was so lovely, but finally came in and sat with her mother near the door in the conservatory. And in true "Poor Charlotte" ("A Room With a View" -- Forster) fashion, she then put on her sweater, then shivered visibly as one of the wait staff went by, and when that didn't work, she finally asked someone to close the door because it was too cold. For her mother, of course. The mother imperiously ignored her daughter's behaviour, probably feeling herself to be superior, because at least she had once had a husband. She seemed to both relish and loathe her daughter's devotion. Later, we went into the oldest pub in Scotland, to have a pint of Guiness, which Paul had been promising himself all day. There were no tables when we first got there, so we leaned against the mantle of the woodstove, and surveyed our cast of characters. There were the very loud regulars at the bar, all men, and families and couples at the tables. We realized that most of the people there, with the exception of the guys at the bar, were waiting just having a drink while they waited for a table in the dining room of the pub. Pretty soon we had a nice cozy window seat to ourselves. A World Cup game was on too, but I didn't really pay much attention. We left after finishing our pints. It was still light out, so it must have still been early, but we were tired, so we walked the 2 miles back. We gat back to the farm just in the gloaming (twilight) and saw that everyone was already in their tents, so we went to bed.

So ended the first day on the West Highland Way.