We started walking in Glasgow at midday on April 24 and completed in Wick in the afternoon on May 26; we were on our primary route for about 29.5 days (subtracting the time spent in the Orkneys). Statistically, Scotland generally has better weather in May than at other times of the year. The snow has usually melted out of the higher mountains and daylight hours are long allowing lots of time to walk. And very importantly, the midges do not usually hatch until early June. Every source we have ever seen advised against hiking in Scotland during midge season; they will drive anyone insane.
We had hoped that by doing the walk in May, we might have had some periods of good weather; this was mostly not to be. We experienced at least some precipitation on 25 of 32.5 walking days including 11 consecutive days with rain. We had many days with very strong winds, including several days with gale force winds: the Orkneys recorded 55 mph gusts while we were walking there. It snowed on us at altitudes below 400 meters. We had long stretches where low clouds and mist obscured all views for many hours at a time. We experienced combinations of rain, snow, fog, and strong wind. Locals kept commenting that it was a very late spring and unseasonably cold and cloudy. In fact, for nearly our entire walk, the buds on the deciduous plans had not yet opened. Daytime temperatures were often in the 40’s, even at low altitudes. Our favorite weather forecast came from a Scottish hiker who told us “the weather is expected to be mixed”.
For another account of Scottish weather in May 2013, read our friend Manfred Kopisch’s excellent trip report about his experiences completing the TGO challenge: His west-to-east route crossed our south-to-north route near a pass just west of Sgorr Ruadh, a peak east of Torridon.
Although we did have many cloudy days with reduced visibility and many hours of rain, we had no daytime heavy rain; usually the rainfall was drizzle or light, and for that we are grateful. There was only once when the wind was so strong that we were physically unable to proceed, and we were able to use a slightly lower nearby route that made it possible to continue. By Scottish standards, our weather could probably be called dreary, but certainly not as bad as it gets. According to the Met Office Scotland received 139% of average rainfall during the month of May 2013.
The wet weather made it quite difficult to find a comfortable place for lunch. We were warm while walking, but staying warm while sitting requires adding layers, which is a hassle when it’s windy and raining and there is no shelter, and we were not inclined to set up the tent mid-day in order to eat lunch. Even if we wanted to set up a tent or tarp mid-day, the ground was often so sodden that finding a dry place to sit was impossible. For these reasons we ate lunch in bothies or hotels numerous times; on rainy days we would leave the tent in the morning with a plan to hike straight through until the next known building where we would stop for lunch. With all the gusty, cool, and wet weather, just sitting back and relaxing and enjoying the scenery, as we like to do, was often impossible.
We did not often take photos during rainy weather, so sunshine is disproportionately represented in our image gallery.
For the most part, finding food was not a challenge. There are many places to eat or buy food along the WHW, and our best meal on this section was fine pizza at the Green Welly in Tyndrum. There are large grocery stores in Milngavie and Ft. William.
Resupply on the CWT requires a bit of advance planning, as there are multi-day sections on the primary route where no food can be purchased. Grocery stores are found in Ft. William, Shiel Bridge, Kinlochewe, Ullapool, and Kinlochbervie. The stores in Shiel Bridge and Kinlochewe have a very limited selection and proprietors who did not behave as if they liked their customers. The SPAR market proprietor in Kinlochbervie, on the other hand, was extremely gracious and helpful, and we gorged on hot meat pies while doing our shopping.
Buying meals along the way is possible in scattered locations from cafes, pubs, and hotels, although opening days and serving times vary a lot. We had excellent meals at the Glenfinnan Hotel, in Kinlochewe at the Whistle Stop Café, and at the Oykel Bridge Hotel. Our other meals were adequate as fuel, but not memorable.
On the NCW there were many stores, pubs, and restaurants along the way.
Food costs were much higher in Scotland than the US and with the pound worth around $1.53 during our walk, things were only worse. A typical pub meal for two would be in the £20-30 range. We spent about $23 per person per day and ate about 20% of our meals in a pub or restaurant. We acquired the rest of our food at grocery stores.
We do not cook on our trips, so we did not pay attention to what is available in terms of freeze-dried meals in the shops. Our staples of yogurt, bread, crackers, peanut butter, cheese, tuna, dried fruit, nuts, cookies, and chocolate were always available. Hummus and carrots and peppers were often available. We found pre-cooked chicken pieces in sealed packets, and these proved to be a nice addition to our larder. We also ate canned kippers, to which an older woman we were conversing with during a hotel lunch inquired in a perfect upper-class Edith Evans accent “You eat them cold?”
We camped most nights on this trip. On two occasions we set up inside of fishing huts, once in a barn, once on a bird watching platform, and once in the ruins of an ancient church. We also spent a night in a B&B in Kinloch Hourn, 2 nights in bothies, 2 nights camped just outside of bothies, and finally, in the Orkneys, inside a odd small public building at a beach, called the Waiting Room, where we had attached bathrooms with hot water and electricity.
The Right to Roam laws in Scotland pretty much allow you camp anywhere you want as long as it is not in someone’s yard. However, campsites in the mountains of Scotland can be difficult to find. Vast areas are undulating bogs with no really solid, flat, and dry surfaces. Stand on what seems to be a solid piece of ground for a few minutes and you slowly start to sink. If you find a dry place, it is often covered with tussocks or other large lumpy plants. There is rarely shelter from the wind as there are no trees outside of the forest plantations, and these are generally not usable as campsites as the ground had been bulldozed into irregular rows prior to planting. When available, sheep pastures with stone walls around them provided good campsites. Sometimes there are beaches at the edges of lochs, but don’t count on this. If you do camp next to a beach or along a river, note that the west coast of Scotland has huge tidal swings and river banks can flood miles inland from the sea. We learned that the hard way.
Usually there are a few flat places near the bothies that can be used for a tent if you prefer private sleeping quarters over sharing the bothy with other hikers.
We were always able to come up with something that was at least acceptable, but it required forward planning each day and sometimes stopping earlier or later than we might have liked.
A bothy is a small unstaffed shelter widely found in the Scottish mountains. These buildings are often old farmhouses or shepherds’ cottages and are open for free public use. There is a long tradition in Scotland of using bothies as both emergency refuges and planned places to stay on a backcountry trip. They usually have a fireplace or two, although fuel may not be always available. Most were reasonably tidy considering that they are open to the public. In practice, these buildings were incredibly useful for getting out of the bad weather.
Given that we were in Scotland during a prime hiking season, we saw surprisingly few long-distance walkers. We saw lots of day hikers and a few thru-hikers on the WHW; many of the thru-hikers use baggage transport services and stay in B&Bs, so they just carried day-packs. On the CWT, we ran into less than a dozen backpackers. We did not meet another person thru-hiking the CWT until after we finished our walk, when we met an Englishman in a pub in Durness who had completed a few hours after we did. The proprietor at the Ozone Café at the Cape Wrath lighthouse told us that about forty people had finished before us in 2013, but he wasn’t specific as to how many of those had hiked the entire route. None of the hikers we met were using light-weight backpacking techniques and many of them were carrying truly monstrous loads.
We watch birds on our walks and Scotland did not disappoint. We added four species to our life-list: Arctic Loon, Great Skua, Black Guillemot, and Common Scoter. Given that we have spent a lot of time birding in the England and Wales, we were quite pleased to see these new birds. Overall, we observed around 120 species. Pipits were by far the most numerous passerines. We saw few raptors. The bird of the trip was the Eurasian Oystercatcher; this bold, lively and strikingly marked shorebird was seen everywhere, surprisingly even deep in the mountains, in woodlands, and over the inland moors. The raucous beep beep call as pairs careened about always helped to cheer us up, even in the worst weather.
The other standout species was the Northern Fulmar, which is found in large numbers in colonies along the north coast cliffs and on the Orkneys. This dignified bird is a magnificent practitioner of the art of updraft aerobatics. Watching the birds as they maneuvered only inches from the cliff faces in high erratic winds was fascinating. It looked like a lot of this activity was done for the sheer joy of flight.
When we reached Gills Bay, we had a couple spare days, so we decided to use the extra time to take the Pentland Ferry to St. Margaret’s Hope in the Orkney Islands.
The Orkneys are a group of about 70 islands and islets (skerries). While there, we enjoyed visiting 4000 year old stone circles and the remains of a Neolithic village at Scara Brae. We also walked across some interesting upland moors which support breeding populations of a few bird species which are difficult to find in other places in Britain, including Short-eared Owl and Pomarine Jaeger. The people were very friendly, the pace of life seemed quite relaxed, and although stark, the islands were strangely beautiful. The weather was again mixed with rain the first afternoon, gale force winds all the next day, and low clouds transitioning into a gorgeous sunny afternoon on our last full day. Our early morning ferry ride back to the mainland was on glassy seas. Food is available from cafes, restaurants, and shops in most small villages and all towns. Finding campsites was not difficult.