Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
LIKE MANY DESCENDANTS of Scottish immigrants to America, I’ve traveled across the Atlantic for a glimpse of my forebears’ bloody past. But, unlike most, I’m also planning a long hike to experience Great Britain’s mythic mountain scenery. However, the start of my June trek feels anti-heroic, as I step out of the train with suitcases in hand.
On the 96-mile West Highland Way, trailside B&Bs and hostels allow hikers to forgo soggy, midge-infested tents, while an optional luggage service ferries your bags to the following night’s destination. Hence, my wife and I carry only daypacks loaded with foul-weather gear and tins of buttery McVitie’s biscuits when we head out from Bridge of Orchy to tackle the route’s last and best 36 miles on a three-day hike through the Grampian Mountains.
On our first day we cross Rannoch Moor, a 50-square-mile, mostly treeless expanse of pillowy heather and shallow lochans (ponds) fully exposed to storms off the North Atlantic, 30 miles to the west. Heavy, black-bottomed clouds rip over the nearby peaks, and some of the nearby 3,000’ers—known as Munros—still hold traces of snow. Signs warn hikers not to leave the path, lest they vanish into a peat bog.
After 12 miles, we stop for the night at Kings House, a whitewashed inn dating to the 17th century, and settle in the Climber’s Bar for fresh salmon and neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes). My wife samples haggis, and I sip whiskey distilled in a neighboring valley.
In the morning, we climb the Devil’s Staircase, a switchbacking path to the 1,800-foot high point of the West Highland Way, a rocky saddle between two bald mountains. (This route threads between the Highlands’ peaks, not over them, though many hikers conclude their trek by summiting 4,409-foot Ben Nevis.) Cliff-bound Glen Coe, a narrow valley, lies in shadows far below—it’s easy to imagine clans massing for battle to a bagpiper’s mournful call. Here, in the winter of 1692, Campbells murdered 38 of their MacDonald hosts—my ancestors.
Fortunately, the Highlands keep reminding us of their softer side: Lilac-colored rhododendrons line the trail, the unmistakable call of a cuckoo bursts from a thicket, and even the spiny thistle—emblem of the Scottish nation—brightens the fields with its lovely pink blossoms.
We spend our second night in Kinlochleven, a small mountain village where we discover fishing vessels moored at the head of a spindly loch leading to the sea.
Blue skies stretch overhead in the morning as we cross an open valley with views over fjord-like Loch Leven. In a pine forest we find a waist-high cairn that marks another massacre, this time with my clansmen slaughtering Campbells. More than three centuries later, tradition holds that passing MacDonalds should add a stone, while Campbells take one away. After heaving a big rock onto the cairn, I leave behind thoughts of barbarous feuds and continue toward the looming bulk of Ben Nevis.
DO IT Plan seven days for the 96-mile thru-hike or three for the author’s 36-mile section. Public transportation provides access to midway trailheads. Season April to October; May and June often bring good weather and fewer bugs; pink heather blooms from late August into September. Info Find guidebook, map, accommodation, luggage-transfer, and other trip-planning essentials at west-highland-way.co.uk.