East Highland Way: Introduction

Published 28 January 2015

A walker on a field, going on a path alongside a forest.

“If there’s one thing I love about walking, it’s that you can just let your mind go blank. You don’t need to think about anything other than working out where you’re going next. Worries and stresses of the world just disappear. You just don’t think to think of anything.”

There was a slight pause.

“What does this say about your view on the quality of my conversation then?” replied Tal.

I tried to think of an answer. But my mind just went blank.

A walker on heather topped moorland

The Scottish Highlands. Ever since my first visit there I have been desperate to go back time and time again to see more of it. There’s something about the place that gets under your skin. Perhaps it’s the spectacular scenery or the stunning lochs. Or maybe it’s just the fact that every pub has a substantial whisky selection.

If there’s one problem with the Highlands though, it’s that it is a long way from my home in the suburbs of south west London. Although that’s a problem that is mitigated by the fact that six nights a week, you can head to Euston station, and board the sleeper train that leaves the capital and heads on its way up to the north of Scotland. You can get on the train in London, adjourn to the lounge car and have a few drinks as the train zooms through Watford and Milton Keynes. By the time you’re heading through Rugby, you’ll have a plate of haggis in front of you, and perhaps a whisky or two. As the train passes through Crewe, you head down to your small but cosy berth, and go to sleep. Then in a morning, someone knocks on your door and hands you a hot cup of coffee, which you sip as the train passes through the countryside, somewhere in the west of Scotland.

Of course, when something is so easy to do, you generally don’t do it. It’s like heading to Paris. Two hours from London by train. It would be so easy to head off there for the day, see the Eiffel Tower and be back home your own bed the same evening. Yes, I could go to the Scottish Highlands easily. But there’s always something in the way; those little things that prevent you from doing it. So you don’t.

Until you get an excuse to do so, anyway.

We were sitting in the pub beer garden on a spring Sunday, quietly talking whilst our son lay sprawled and dozing in his buggy, when out of the blue, Catherine came out with it.

“You should go away somewhere,” she said.

“Are you trying to get rid of me?”

“For a walk. You haven’t been away for ages.”

In itself this was an interesting point to be raised by someone who hadn’t had a single night away from our son in the entire of the 18 months since he’d been born. I, on the other hand, had been away several times. Although, it must be said that all but one of the nights away had been business trips to Seattle, on the west coast of America. And ten hour flights, jet-lag and sitting in an office thousands of miles away, meant they could hardly be filed under the category of “fun”.

A river surrounded by fields and mountains.

“Well no, but don’t you want to go away somewhere?”

“Yes, but…”

There was a glance, a swift look at our son, sleeping peacefully and looking sweet and angelic as he did so. The child who had a less than perfect record of getting to sleep at night without his mother around. The one who you tell tales of to other parents, who then helpfully say things like “Oh well, I put our Tabitha down and she just goes to sleep instantly!”, as if this actually helps in some way, and doesn’t make you want to punch them, at all.

“So what walk are you going to do then?” Catherine asked, turning away from the buggy.

I supped my pint slowly, and the cogs in my mind began to turn. Slowly but surely, my thoughts were turning towards the Scottish Highlands. My excuse had arrived.

The only problem was deciding which walk to actually do. The West Highland Way is the walk everyone knows when it comes to the Highlands, but I’d done it several years earlier. Indeed, it was my first ever trip to that part of Scotland, and the holiday where I’d fallen so in love with the place.

Also on the ‘possible’ list was the Great Glen Way. It connects with the West Highland Way at Fort William, and heads north to Inverness. It always looked like it went through some stunning scenery, and it even passes by Loch Ness, meaning walkers can look out for monsters too. However, the focus of the walk was ultimately in following the course of Caledonian Canal. This I had no problem with in itself, however I was already walking the Thames Path in dribs and drabs, and that was providing more than enough tow-paths for one year.

A rusty metal barn next to a track

That just left the East Highland Way.

I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d come across the East Highland Way. But I had. It’s a veritable youngster in the walking world, and not even a formal walking route. This is no National Trail – or Long Distance Route as the Scottish equivalent is rather strangely called. Well, were called until they were re-branded under the “Scotland’s Great Trails” name, which hardly trips off the tongue much better.

No, the East Highland Way is not one of those routes. In fact it’s a wholly virtual route, existing in guide book form only. This is an approach that does have its benefits for both the walker and the person designing it. With no official status, there are no committees to sit and deeply analyse each and every mile of the route, and no landowners need to be consulted, and sometimes pacified. The author just sits down, connects a string of public rights of ways together in the way that they think is best, and wham, that’s your walking trail sorted. All you need to do next, is hit publish and sell the thing. It’s an approach that led to the creation of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast, the most popular walking route in the country. And it’s also what Kevin Langan, creator of the East Highland Way, did.

The route seemed like an excellent choice. Running as a continuation of the West Highland Way, the East Highland Way would take me through small villages and towns along paths that would be distinctly quieter than its western neighbour, and would allow me to explore a new part of the Highlands. There’d be peace, tranquillity and an ample supply of malt whisky in the pubs along the route. What more could anyone ask for?

A few days later, a copy of the guide book dropped onto my doormat. Potential itineraries were considered, and plans formulated. All that was missing was the when, and that was soon selected as the first week of September.

It was all looking good. But what I hadn’t anticipated whilst getting everything sorted, was Tal.

Water crashing over rocks in the River Feshie.

Inevitably we were in the pub.

“So what have you been up to?” asked Tal as we supped a pint.

“Well I’ve been planning this walking trip,” I replied, before exclaiming the virtues of a reviving trip to the depths of Scotland. “Really looking forward to it. It’s been ages since I’ve been away.”

“Sounds great. I’ll join you then. When are we going?”

Okay, okay, it wasn’t quite like that. For starters more beer was imbibed, and the conversation drifted around a lot more in the way that conversations usually do when several pints of fine quality real ale are being drunk on a Saturday evening, whilst in a small and cosy pub. But if we were to distil the essence of that night into three sentences, the result would pretty much be those three sentences above. Tal had invited himself along on my walking trip.

I’d known Tal for at least ten years, first introduced to him by Jacko, a mutual friend that I’d gone to school with, who had himself met Tal at university. After that introduction, our paths had crossed a couple of times, but I really got to know him when Catherine and myself bought our house. We’d been looking for something that was both affordable, and which would provide reasonable commutes to our awkwardly located places of employment on the west of London. And it just happened to be that one of the areas that fitted the bill, and which we picked, was where Tal, Jacko, and several other of friends also resided.

Tal was, and remains, the social adhesive of a group. Usually the one to decide days, nay weeks, in advance that everyone should get together and do something fun. Over the course of many meet-ups in pubs, group holidays, picnics, more pub visits, the odd look round an art gallery and, of course, various trips to the pub, we became firm and close friends. Close enough friends that if I’d said “Nah mate, I want to do this walk on my own,” he would have understood, without being mortally offended. Good friends are like that.

Did I want Tal along or not? It was a tough call. I’d always conceived the trip as a solo venture; a chance to clear my mind and forget about the world’s worries whilst simultaneously taking lots of photographs and occasionally badly singing Motown classics to an audience of sheep and cows. On the other hand, if Tal was there, there would be someone to play a round of cards with over a pint in the pub after a hard day’s walking. In some respects, it was a no brainer.

An itinerary was swiftly drawn up, B&Bs booked, train tickets purchased, rucksacks packed and before we knew it, we were both standing on the platform at Euston station about to board the Friday evening Caledonian Sleeper service to Fort William.

The next morning we’d wake up, bleary eyed, and set off for six days of hiking. But before all that, there was just time to head to the sleeper train lounge car for a game of cards, and perhaps a whisky or two.

Next time: walking out of Fort William, smelters, a wee dram perhaps, lunch in a cafe, a cairn, an old bridge, ouch!

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