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West Highland Peace Walk
It's a land with a brutal past. So why is Scotland such a serene place today? It's a question best contemplated one pub at a time. By David Quammen

The author on the West Highland Trail. Photo courtesy of Steve Pyke
Scotland is a puzzling place, a sort of geographic and political oxymoron: severe but welcoming, blood-soaked but peaceable, independent yet British, hard and soft at the same time, like the heather-cloaked shoulders of its sternest, most angular mountains. Think of the national emblem, a blossoming thistle, and you have a hint of its prickly charm.

From the soggy ground protrude rocks, ancient rocks that can punish a person's feet like police truncheons. If you were to hike a long stretch of Scottish countryside—let's say, a trail called the West Highland Way, spanning 95 miles (153 kilometers) across moors and mountains—you would want to carry duct tape and iodine for repairing your blistered, banged toes. You'd also be wise to pack rain gear, sunscreen, extra socks, a fleece pullover, trail snacks, a good map, a clean shirt, a compass, and not much else, except a judicious selection of history books to explain narrative paradoxes the map doesn't address. Other necessities and felicities, such as shelter, real food, and single-malt Scotch, you would find abundantly available along the way.

So I've been told, anyway. It sounds luxuriously robust: backpacking for grownups, with no need to lug a tent or a sleeping bag or freeze-dried pilaf or instant oatmeal, because a village hotel or a roadside inn awaits at the end of each day's march. I've booked my stopovers in advance, spaced at reasonable one-day intervals. I've equipped myself with an authoritative field guide to the single malts, from Speyside to the western coast, from Glenlivet to Lagavulin. And now, on a mild morning in early September, I stride forth from the south terminus of the West Highland Way, marked by a stone obelisk amid a pedestrian mall on the outskirts of Glasgow. My destination is a similar obelisk in Fort William, just over a hundred miles (counting detours into villages) and seven days away. Life can seem blessedly simple, tra-la-lee, at the outset of an old-fashioned walking tour. Then again, Scotland has never been simple.
***
At its indecorous beginning, the West Highland Way follows a concrete bridge across a garbage-fouled creek, past construction scaffolding and parking lots, before dipping away from traffic into a mossy oak forest known as Mugdock Wood, like something out of Winnie-the-Pooh. The route is sponsored by an agency called Scottish Natural Heritage; wherever necessary at ambiguous junctions, it's blazed discreetly with posts bearing the totemic image of a thistle, and an arrow pointing onward. Farther along it will climb across mountain passes and over blustery moorlands, following old military roads and drovers trails, but for now the terrain is flat and easy, a suburban stroll.

Within a mile (1.6 kilometers) Mugdock Wood opens onto a small loch, upon the still surface of which a fisherman stands in a boat, casting a fly. The trail, sun-exposed here, is lined with bracken fern, wild rose, blackberry bramble, purple loosestrife, and other cheery weeds. The blackberries are fat and tart, abundant enough to make a lunch. Reddish-brown butterflies work among the thistle, though it's late in the season for nectar. Already the city of Glasgow seems distant, as if I've walked through some secret portal into a different milieu of space, culture, and time. The rhythmic swish of the fisherman's strokes, hauling his line back, looping it forward, punctuates the quiet morning with whispers of reassurance that this is a gentle land, except when it isn't.

My traveling companion is an English photographer named Steve Pyke, a lean, urban guy with a distinguished portfolio of portraiture—he's done Keith Richards, Noam Chomsky, the Dalai Lama, Bill Gates—and a new pair of hiking boots for this jaunt. His 15-year-old son expressed mystification, Steve says, that any sane adult would choose to walk a hundred miles. Steve himself finds it a roaring good idea, but he'll walk only portions of the route, dodging ahead in a gear-filled car to choose his moments of light and vista, while I slog along. His job is to make pictures, not miles.

My own boots are past their prime, and seldom used lately, so my feet have forgotten the calluses that should compensate for the boots' pinches and cracks—as I'll be reminded, discomfortingly, within a couple days. I've neglected to bring bug juice for Scotland's famously nasty midges, or binoculars for its birds, but I've gone heavy on books. My portable library includes a volume titled The Massacre of Glencoe, by the famous Scottish novelist and statesman John Buchan, better known for his thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps, which I'm carrying, too. Glencoe, a remote valley lying adjacent to the route on day six, is my goal as much as Fort William is. Tucked between high mountain walls, draining to Loch Leven, it's the site of a notorious slaughter—an act of genocide, in fact, the Wounded Knee of Scottish history—perpetrated by Scottish soldiers in service to an alien king in London against one recalcitrant branch of a Highland clan. Thirty-eight MacDonalds, including at least one woman and some children, were murdered with ugly efficiency on the snowy morning of February 13, 1692. An indeterminate number of others escaped through the snow or died of exposure on surrounding hillsides. The best way to approach Glencoe, I figure, is the same way those soldiers did three centuries ago: on foot. During the intervening days, maybe I'll learn something about how the wet Scottish climate and the good Scottish whiskies have rinsed away—or not?—the sense of tribal outrage at that event.

For the rest of Quammen's meandering miles in Scotland, get the May issue of Adventure.

Additional Excerpts
From the Print Edition, May 2004

National Parks 2004 Messner's Burden >>
West Highland Peace Walk >>
The Adventures of Tim Cahill >>

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Related Web Site

Grand Canyon Quest
Get photographs, audio dispatches, and more from writer David Quammen's trip down the Grand Canyon section of the Colorado River.



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May 2004



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