We’ve just polished off a plate of eggs Benedict each and are raring to go. Or we would be if the world outside our window wasn’t so dismal looking. There is no better word in any language than dreich to describe what the weather is like. The rain is bouncing off the pavement and a dense, grey shroud obscures the Highland landscape. I watch as a couple of hikers in full wet weather gear leave the Crianlarich Hotel’s warm embrace to head off, heads down against the elements, into the dreichness. It is not an inviting scene.
We ponder whether to stay or walk the section of the West Highland Way which will lead us to Inverarnan. But we’ve got all the right gear so there’s no real reason to hide away from a wee bit rain and wind.
Thirty minutes in and I’m bitchin’ like mad. The rain is horizontal and slaps me around the face, encouraged by a wind that howls with laughter at us. My eyes are streaming, my nose is running like the water cascading down hillsides that still have a golden tinge despite a grey mist which is trying to suck all of the colour out of the world. Why would anyone want to walk in this? It’s not my idea of fun.
After an hour I’m loving it. I’ve been through a natural decompression chamber. I’m wet, but not in the slightest bit cold. A jacket bought for walking on glaciers in Chile has done its job. I’m actually enjoying the weather. Two weeks previously we’d been walking in 30C temperatures in Provence, seeking out protective shade whenever we could to escape a blistering sun. I’ve realised walking in dreich weather is actually quite liberating, refreshing even. And the scenery, which must be something to see in sunny weather, is atmospherically dramatic. It is beautifully bleak with muted early autumn colours; the mist swirling about the glens giving teasing glimpses of the monumental hills it cloaks. Mountain streams rush down the hillside every hundred metres or so, roaring gregariously as they dance their way to the valley floor. It’s exhilarating.
Thirty minutes later and I’m bitchin’ again. The roaring streams have created rivers across the path. Attempting to negotiate the deepest has resulted in two wet and muddy feet. I’m now squelching my way along the path. There’s been another rather disturbing development. The jacket which might be great for looking cool and keeping warm on the piste has proved no match for Scottish weather. Bits of my torso are now damp, but that’s not the worst part. I also have sodden underpants; not a pleasant state of affairs at all.
Two hours in and I’ve finally rediscovered my Scottishness; I’m soaked from head to toe, so what? It’s only water. Everybody else on the trail is exactly the same, and all of them have beaming smiles on their faces. We exchange greetings with everybody we pass. We are a soggy band of brothers and sisters with a shared experience. Rather than detract from the walking, the weather seems to have enhanced it. “This is Scotland,” a couple of them shrug and laugh. They don’t expect great weather, so aren’t disappointed. As the waitress in our hotel pointed out the previous evening “today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky.” It’s part and parcel of the Highland experience. What you get, as Samuel Johnson moaned in 1773, is ‘uncultivated ruggedness’.
We cross rivers and climb bracken-covered hillsides before finally arriving at the hamlet of Inverarnan where there isn’t much. But there is a bus service which will take us back to our hotel and, equally important, there is an inn in which to wait for said bus. And what an inn it is. The Drovers has been providing a warm welcome to wet and weary travellers for 300 years. Kilted staff wear tee-shirts with the logo ‘Scottish Pub of the Year 1705’. The vestibule is full of stuffed animals, the bar looks as though it hasn’t changed much in three centuries – chunky wooden benches, candles on tables, broadswords, faded tartans and targes on walls which possibly haven’t been redecorated since 1705. Plus there’s a roaring fire. It is fabulous. Andy is worried about placing her soggy derrière on the Drovers’ seats. This isn’t the sort of place where the bar staff worry about punters leaving puddles on the furniture. “Nae bother, sit anywhere,” the barman reassures us with a wave of his arm when we point out our wetness.
We nestle into a booth with a couple of craft ales. Around us people tuck into mince and tatties, or haggis and neeps. It’s as cosy as a duvet on a chilly night, one of those friendly pubs you could easily settle into for a long session. The inn’s ambience reflects perfectly that of the path we have just tread. It is one of camaraderie.
It’s a rare ingredient which makes the whole package quite a special walking experience.