As we set out from Pollokshields the sun was shining, and despite the early hour, we felt good about our impending trek north through the Highlands to Fort William on the West Highland Way. But this being the west of Scotland, by the time our train pulled into the station at Milngavie, the sun had become obscured by dark clouds gathering overhead.
As we headed out of Milngavie following the Allander Water the rain started falling, but we were soon into the shelter of Mugdock Wood. Despite being so close to Glasgow, we were almost immediately in a very rural setting, following tracks and paths through open moorland, fields and forestry plantations. Up until this point we hadn’t seen any hills, save for the bulk of Dumgoyne in the distance, marking the western end of the Campsies.
The first hill we came close to was Dumgoyach, but we the path skirts around it rather than going over it. Nearby are the Dumgoyach standing stones which I had wanted to see, but the weather (and the weight of our backpacks) wasn’t exactly encouraging us to make even a small detour.
Soon after Dumgoyach the track follows the line of the abandoned Strath Blane railway, past the Glengoyne distillery and the Beech Tree Inn. Tempting as it looked, we pressed on for Drymen in the now driving rain, the open fields and exposed railway embankment offering us little protection against the elements.
Just before Gartness we got our first view of Loch Lomond in the distance, which lifted the spirits.
Passing the Roman fort of Drumquhassle on our left, by the time we left the West Highland Way for a small detour to Drymen, the rain had stopped. Although a pub lunch would have gone down a treat and the Highlander Bar at The Winnock Hotel looked inviting, we decided that the walking had been too easy so far, and half a day into the West Highland Way we didn’t deserve anything more than the filled rolls we made do with from the newsagent’s.
After our late lunch sitting on the bench in the village square, we heaved on our backpacks and rejoined the West Highland Way and almost straight away were into a section of the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park where we encountered a man doing business deals (very loudly) on his mobile ‘phone as he strolled through along the forest track.
A few kilometres later and we emerged from the dark forest to be greeted by the first properly wild scenery we’d seen on our first day, the brooding mass of Conic Hill rising in front of us, almost silhouetted in the fading light against Loch Lomond.
Approaching Conic Hill we passed a couple of German lads, but our first day’s walking started to take it’s toll, and the closer we got the steeper it looked and the heavier our bags felt. Before we could begin the climb proper though, we had to engage in some livestock manoeuvring! As we rounded a corner, with a sheer drop to the left and a vertical bank to our right, we encountered a herd of cattle that had followed the path only to find that it was blocked by a stile.
There wasn’t enough room for us to get past without running the risk of being knocked over the edge, so with a bit of cajoling we managed to get the first couple of cows turned round (cows being unable to walk backwards without being led), and the others followed suit. After that minor drama, the angle of the path increased dramatically and the surface became gravelly, taking it’s toll on our weary limbs, and slowing the pace considerably. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally reached the top in time to watch the sun going down behind the hills on the opposite side of Loch Lomond.
As we began our descent on a sodden and slippery path it was getting progressively darker and darker, and we were glad to reach the tarmac of the car park at the top of Balmaha, and walked down into the village. We were staying at the old Balmaha Bunkhouse Lodge (which is no longer operating), which we tentatively approached in the pitch black around the side of The Highland Way Hotel (now also gone).
It was a no-frills place with a slightly scary no-nonsense landlady, and after a brief rest to get used to not having heavy bags on our shoulders, we went down to The Highland Way Hotel, where the combination of good food, a few pints, a great atmosphere and some friendly banter between fishermen neds from Glasgow and fishermen Scousers from Liverpool made for an enjoyable evening.