Gary Sutherland vowed he would never become one of The Walkers – until he decided to tackle three of the country’s long-distance trails in one giant challenge…
I had often seen them with their ten-storey backpacks, stumbling off the train and almost toppling over on the platform. The Walkers. With their heavy burdens and distant end goals, heading for the hills to embrace the back of beyond. Risking monstrous blisters and the midge menace for the seemingly sweet achievement of completing the West Highland Way.
You’d never catch me doing that, I’d say to myself…
A keen cyclist, I have biked the length and breadth of Scotland. But walking? I could never understand the appeal. Someone once said that golf is a good walk spoiled, but I reckon they got it the wrong way round. Walking is golf minus the fun.
Besides the possibility of dying through sheer boredom, there were multiple other reasons why I never pictured myself joining the ranks of The Walkers.
For starters, I hate hills, my fear of heights being a big factor. Secondly, I’m terrified of wildlife (any kind, having once been chased by a cow). And thirdly, the thought of pulling on clumpy walking boots and having to wear actual “outdoor clothing” appals me for aesthetic reasons.
And therein lies the challenge. Or so I said to myself one morning, while gazing out the living-room window at the distant Campsie Fells, when I got to thinking what an achievement it would be were I to somehow manage to do a long-distance walk.
Yes, living on the northern edges of Glasgow on the doorstep of Scotland’s most-celebrated walking trail and regularly seeing The Walkers go wild for the West Highland Way had always made me think, “Rather them than me”.
But – and this may be down to my alarming arrival in middle age (I’m now in my forties, for flip’s sake) – I was now thinking, “Why not me?” Perhaps I could drag myself onto the West Highland Way and stick with it until the finish line in Fort William. Maybe I would like to go a-wandering along the mountain track with my knapsack on my back.
So I decided to join the ranks of The Walkers and see if I could begin to understand them. Being someone who has a tendency to bite off more than they can chew, I wasn’t content to tackle just the West Highland Way. No way, Jose. I would also walk the Great Glen Way, which conveniently kicks off where the West Highland Way finishes in Fort William and concludes in Inverness.
And that wouldn’t be the end of the road either. Rather than being satisfied with a daring double, I found myself targeting an audacious hat-trick. Why not bag the Speyside Way too while I was at it?
Upon completing the Great Glen Way in Inverness, I could hop on a train to Aviemore then traipse across Speyside to the Moray coast where I grew up.
The West Highland Way is 96 miles, the Great Glen Way is 75 miles and the Speyside Way is 66 miles, making it a grand total of 237 miles. Not being much of a walker, I had no idea whether this plan of mine was mission impossible or not.
Hills gave me the heebie-jeebies, moors made me tremble and blisters scared the bejesus out of me – but I was intent on seeing this through: my hat-trick of iconic walks. A trio of traipses through the heart of my homeland and me not much of a walker to boot. Scotland with sore feet.
But no blisters, as it turned out. I walked 20 miles daily for 12 days from Milngavie to the fishing town of Buckie and didn’t suffer a single one. The secret? Good walking shoes and proper walking socks.
Not that my epic solo trek was painless. Take Loch Lomond, for example. It’s beautiful but clambering along its eastern shore proved a nightmare due to badly situated boulders, triptastic tree roots and the wholly unexpected Ledge of Doom.
Rannoch Moor was … bleak. I basically ran across it in high winds until I caught up with a couple of Belgians. That was the most baffling thing about the West Highland Way, the amount of people I bumped into who were from Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent. I imagine that the walking trails of Belgium are full of Aberdonians and Dundonians.
The Devil’s Staircase near Glencoe turned out to be a dizzying experience. I had to be talked over the top by a fellow walker. They were Scottish, not Belgian, and showed great patience as I battled vertigo.
I felt a great sense of achievement when, five days after setting off on my big wander, I stumbled past Ben Nevis and into Fort William to complete the West Highland Way. It was just a pity that I had to wake up the next morning and walk the Great Glen Way.
The following four days saw me traipse the length of the Caledonian Canal and along the shores of three lochs: the wonderfully named Loch Lochy, the equally Scottish sounding Loch Oich and the reasonably well-known Loch Ness.
My overnight stops were a B&B in Spean Bridge, a hostel at Fort Augustus and a hotel in Drumnadrochit. I had baulked at the idea of bringing a tent on my travels, mainly due to the thought of all that extra weight and the fact I’m an incompetent camper.
Compared to the West Highland Way, the Great Glen Way is fairly flat and I met far fewer walkers (and not a single Belgian).
I could have done with some company when, trudging through misty woods above the northern shore of Loch Ness, I was stopped in my tracks by something peculiar on the path ahead me. An arrangement of pine cones spelling out in large capital letters the word HELLO. Suddenly enveloped in a Blair Witch nightmare, instinct took over and I ran for my life.
I made it safely to Inverness in one piece and the next morning embarked on the final leg of my humongous walking journey.
The Speyside Way follows the River Spey – Scotland’s fastest-flowing river – all the way to Spey Bay where it meets the Moray Firth.
Speyside is famed for its salmon fishing and of course malt whisky. Half of Scotland’s distilleries are in the region and there was a danger that all my good footwork would be undone by some untimely dramming.
I resisted the drink heroically until I reached Aberlour, where I sampled the local tipple, and then again two miles later at tiny Craigellachie, where a whole world of whisky awaited me.
My final day’s walking on the Speyside Way was conducted with a cloudy head to match the overcast sky but come the afternoon everything was clear and I could see the waters of the Moray Firth.
I had come a long way from Glasgow via Loch Lomond, Rannoch Moor, the Devil’s Staircase, the shadow of Ben Nevis, the Caledonian Canal, Loch Ness and the banks of the River Spey. I was exhausted but at the same time elated as I neared the finish line and the achievement of my ambitious goal.
And if I wasn’t mistaken, I had become one of The Walkers. Even if I was quite looking forward to putting my feet up.
Walk This Way: Hills, Thrills and Headaches on Scotland’s Trails by Gary Sutherland is published by Backpage Press at £8.99.