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Jam Side Down
Traveling the West Highland Way by William Kerr
Chapter 3


Sunday morning 07.30am

I awoke to the sound of voices outside the tent. I quickly worked it out that I had been the last one to waken. I first think, good it’s dry, second, I hear the frying pan and third I smell the bacon. Time to get up. It’s seven thirty. We had went to bed at eleven thirty last night so I had considered it a good nights sleep as I had went the distance without wakening at any time. I clamber out the bag and grab my trousers, slip then on and find my gutties, watching how I handle them.

“Morning”

“Morning”

“Morning Wullie boy” Johnny recognises me by name.

“Morning campers” I reply

I look around me; the others continue their talk about Football. James is not to be seen. I go behind the fence and have a pee.

“Rolls and Bacon on the breakfast menu Willie” George informs me.

I walk back from behind the fence and George hands me a black coffee. The service is impeccable. I will use this hotel again I think.

“Right George, what have you done with James, where did you bury the body” My reference being towards James forgetting Georges carry out.

“ I felt like doing that last night. That’s hard to believe that he would go for a carry out, get the lemonade and forget the Gin, surely takes the biscuit, doesn’t it”

 I still find it funny. We both laugh.

“Never mind, I’m sure he will redeem himself today, where is he anyway”

Johnny informs me that he has gone to the loo. Breakfast looks good. There is enough bacon on the cooker to feed an army. This will set us up well for the day ahead. James returns and we all stand about, not saying much. I hope this is how my comrades are in the morning and that they are not feeling weary before a ball is kicked. Not morning people.

Johnny talks to Sherpa James giving him instruction on what he has to go today.

“We will meet you in Balmaha. What time will we be in Balmaha Kenny “Johnny asks.

“If we leave here about nine we should be there about one o’clock”

Good I thought. After Balmaha we only have four miles to walk. This means we can spend the afternoon in the pub and watch the Celtic-Hearts game on the telly, have a few beers and a bit of craic over the football, c’mon the Hoops.      

“How will I find you” James asks

Kenny says that there are only two pubs in the village and we should be in one of them.

Johnny adds” Just go into the bar and ask the barman if four guys have been in, two of them will be singing Danny Boy and the other two the Sash” 

The weather was not too bad this morning. It had rained during the night, as there were signs of this on the tent. The grass was very wet but this is expected with all the rain that has fallen recently. Now there was just dampness in the air. The sky however was heavy, not black but a heavy grey sitting low against the horizon all around us. Had we just missed the rain or was it just about to hit again. It wasn’t cold but quite mild; hopefully a dry, fair day ahead but it didn’t look that way at present.

The plan was to break camp and then we can all go and get washed and changed for the walk. I for one will be having the works this morning, the three Ss (number 2s, shower and shave) as I could not start the day or go through the day without this, not doing a fourteen mile walk anyway. This could be difficult as there is only one shower and one toilet. I hope we are not all in the same mind as it will be nearer ten o’clock before we get off. At times like this with the available facilities it is just as well there is just the four of  us.

Camp was broke, and left very tidy I may add. Akeala insisted that this be the case. Every scrap was cleared and placed in the bin. The van was well packed; by myself I may add to help ease the task of building camp at our next destination, Cashel on Loch Lomond. All the necessary things where done in the toilet block. The backpacks where filled this time with waterproofs, trail food, water and first-aid kits and camera only. We filled our hip flasks not spilling a drop. The water will be very welcome, not that the whisky last night had anything to with it.

“Here’s to sore feet” I passed the hip flask around. Everyone but the Sherpa took a slug as we toasted ourselves at the start of today’s walk. I put on my hat and started off, we were on our way. The rain was with us now, but only a drizzle, it resembled more of a heavy fog. However I looked skyward again and thought it would be best to put on the waterproofs. Johnny felt the same. Already the backpacks where open, not out the campsite yet and the waterproofs put on.

The majority of the first three miles was all on road. No great problems. My demon today was Conic Hill. It is supposed to be one of the harder parts and really the first great hurdle. My first demon. The hills at Loch Lomond were the start of the Scottish Highlands; Ben Lomond being Scotlands most southerly Munroe (a mountain over 3000 feet) and Conic Hill at 1200 feet just sits on the edge of the Highland/Lowland boundary. Kenny had told us that there would be a good chance that we would not be allowed onto the hill as we were walking in the middle of the lambing season. The map showed an alternative route to fit this scenario. I noticed that the alternative was all down hill. I hope he is right. I was not ready for it physically or mentally.

Our first marker was to reach the village of Drymen. We would not be walking through it but by it, missing it by about half a mile. The countryside is very green and arable, good farming country. The view down over Endrick Water as you walk through the village of Gartness is great. The village consists of a couple of cottages and a terrace of cottages. I would assume that they were once tied houses to a farm for its workers. But this is highly unlikely in this day as farming as a main employer in the community is unheard of.  The bridge across the river was built in 1971 and replaces the old one, which had lasted from 1715. There is still an old stone bearing the original date, which has been built into a wall attached to the new bridge. This is confirmed on a plaque placed at the opposite side of the bridge.  It gives you a feeling of real country life. The river looks mighty as it runs from the Gargunnock Hills south of Kippen in Stirlingshire to the south east of Loch Lomond, through Strathendrick or `Sweet Innerdale`.

My phone starts to beep, a message. I take it out the backpack and notice that it is a reminder. Shit, I forgot to organise flowers for Bernie before I left. It’s our anniversary on Tuesday. I set this reminder about four weeks ago. I knew then that this would happen, that I would be too tied up in the walk and I would forget to arrange for flowers to be sent on the day of our anniversary. Why didn’t I set the reminder for two days earlier? Not to worry, always have a contingency. In this case it was our Carol, Kenny’s wife. Its just after nine, I decide to phone her now. She should be up out of bed to get Alistair, my nephew to his football game.

“Carol it’s me”

“How are you doing, I’m just off the phone to Kenny, everything alright” she asks.

“Aye it’s fine, so far so good. No sign of the heart attack coming yet, but it is early after all. Listen, it’s our anniversary on Tuesday. I forgot to order flowers for Bernie on Friday, can you go into Airdrie tomorrow and do it for me?”

“Aye, sure, not a problem”

That’s the great thing about our Carol, I’m sure I could ask her for anything and she would do it. I’m sure; I’m her favourite brother.

She says she will phone me tomorrow from the florists to discuss what is on offer. I thank her and we have a short chat about how I am coping with the walk and also about who Alastair was playing against this morning and then we say our goodbyes.

 I’m walking with Johnny. Kenny and George are away ahead, about half a mile at least. I cannot see them. The road is very narrow with the occasional passing place, quite dangerous for walkers, as there are many bends and blind spots with no walking paths. You are sharing this small piece of tar-mac with what comes your way. We come across a great site between Drumquhassie and Gateside. To our left we notice for the first time Loch Lomond. From this vantage point above the village of Drymen, over green fields all the way down pass the village to the Loch shore it looks quite spectacular. Never having been in this area before, I see this view for the first time. A break in the grey sky provides a bit of sun from our backs shinning down on the Loch. We stop and take time to appreciate it. I think how lucky I am to witness this. I tell Johnny this and he is in agreement.

“I’m sure there is even better to come” Johnny replies.

I can only agree. Because I have seen better, but from inside a car. I am sure this walk will open up a whole new view of Scotland for me. Again I get excited about the thought of it, what lies ahead, I cannot imagine. But seeing the Western Highlands in the background only makes me think of the difficulties now and not the simplicities. On this high ground it is remote and rugged, where in the distance, the Highland peaks appear to us for the first time today. In the foreground lies Conic Hill, demon number one. I can also see as far as the Arrochar Alps to the northwest and due southwest the peaks of Goat Fell and the Island of Arran way off in the distance. Johnny takes out his phone with a built in camera, takes a photo and sends it home to his daughter. I also take the time to take a photo. We stand and stare for a moment longer in silence. This is a memory I want to keep.

The first hours walking into Drymen from Gartness - some 2½ miles – is along a country road, which is a welcome respite from some of the muddy messes we left behind yesterday. The road itself is the main road between the villages of Killearn and Drymen that runs through Drumore and Gartness. I use the words `main road` lightly as we pass one car in the hour we spend on this part, but it is Sunday morning after all. The road curves gradually round to the right over most of this part, climbing up away from Endrick Water resuming the West Highland Way's general northwest direction and running beside yet another abandoned railway track (Killearn Junction to Alexandria).  Along the way we pass a handful of cottages, I would call Hamlets, as they are so small. We walk through Drumquhassie on a long straight stretch where thankfully we were saved from ravaging dogs by a high mesh fence between them and us, heading now downhill towards Gateside at the foot of the hill with a slight left turn.

The WHW at this point takes us over a stile and heads off at ninety degrees to the road. If Kenny and George had not waited for us at there I know Johnny and myself would have walked straight into Drymen.

“What kept you” Kenny asked

I explained we had a photo opportunity further back with a view of Loch Lomond that couldn’t be forgot and we stopped to savour it for a few moments. I explained to them also that I had called Carol and had arranged for her to organise an anniversary present.

“You lucky get. You’ve just got out of jail” came out of George’s mouth.                 

The WHW leaving the road and running straight ahead along a field boundary for the next five hundred yards involves an energetic climb. A bit sore on the unfit legs, up a minor hill. At least, it's minor on the map but pretty substantial for my wee legs. On the far side of the hill we join the Balloch to Stirling road coming out of Drymen where we cross, turning right and walking on the pavement for about two hundred yards. Drymen lies half a mile to our left from were we joined the road. We notice the Corleone boys ahead of us, the ones who ran into us last night during our singsong under the rail bridge at Gartness. They must have stayed the night in Drymen. Obviously our banjo-playing cousins failed to capture them.

Between 1725 and 1767 the government after the union of crowns and parliaments built roads to allow quick access for troops to enter the highlands to dispel any uprisings by the Highland Clans. These roads would open up the Highlands for the first time ever giving all a level of access that had never been experienced before. The roads would now be useful for traders to send cattle and sheep to the lowland markets in the large towns of Stirling and Dumbarton. The people who brought the cattle and sheep would be known as Drovers and thus the name of Drovers Roads came about, along with Military roads, built purely for that reason and also Parliamentary Roads built by act of Parliament for economical and social reasons. We would now be traveling on all these roads for the majority of the way. 

Drymen lies 20 miles north of Glasgow on the Southwest edge of the Highland Boundary. The landscape of rolling ridges in the area gives the village its Gaelic name - which means 'little ridges'. The settlement of Drymen was created by early farming and grew because of where it was sited, being on the major route north to south used by the drovers and having the first available crossing over Endrick Water upstream from Loch Lomond.

It was an ideal stopover for cattle drovers on there way south. Industry grew up in the village supplying the needs of the drovers. The village pub - the 'Clachan Inn' - is the oldest licensed Pub in Scotland - dating from 1734, although I have also saw this claimed by other pubs in Scotland. The Town has two hotels and a small Visitor Information centre situated in the Village Square. Military roads in the area were first built about 1745, linking the castles of Stirling and Dumbarton and passing through Drymen, which had grown to become a market town with its own cattle market. During the 'Agricultural Improvements`, the Anglicised termology meaning` The Clearances ` when landowners evicted tenants from their property, Drymen lost almost half of its population sending it’s sons and daughters to all corners of the earth in the mid 1800s. 

We where now heading up into the Garadhban (pronounced gar-a-van) Forest. Our Italian friends had markedly stepped up their pace when they noticed us coming up behind. Do we look that bad, maybe they are just shy! The first part of the forest seems very easy and has a good walking surface, a purpose built path like that at Strathblane. This part is known as the High Wood. Further on we join a forest road track, used for transporting cut trees and equipment. The forest now thickens with very mature fir trees; we are now in the Garadhban Forest proper. This walk is very easy again on the feet. There is a great feeling that the trees that surround us are going to over power us. They are tall and close together, not much day light getting through, not that there is a lot going about this morning anyway. The good thing about today is the lack of wind. With the extra cover the forest provides all seems very calm and actually feels quite warm. The smiting of rain that sent us on our way this morning was now gone. I’ll need to take off a layer of clothing. I remove my hat to start with. This is not a walk at this point for someone who is out to enjoy the scenery. Nothing to see but trees at this point, and also large areas of felled trees as well cleared ground, not a pretty picture. I am sure it will get better.

“Do you know guys there is certain things I am looking forward to seeing and hope I do see while doing the walk?”

“Whits that”

“ I want to see a herd of wild reindeer and a Golden Eagle and I am really looking forward to the return train journey to Glasgow as it’s supposed to be spectacular. If I walk all the way to Fort William and do not see a reindeer I am going to be deeply disappointed, I know the eagle will be harder to spot, already we have walked about fourteen miles and all I’ve saw is a million sheep and a couple of cows”

“That’s no very nice calling them lassies at the Cherry Tree Inn that” Johnny says

“I suppose they could count as a couple of `old dears` though,” I say

“And you’ve no chance of seeing reindeer anywhere either “Kenny says

“ I’ve saw them in Chapelhall” I interject

“No you never, you saw red deer, not reindeer” Kenny informs me, smart Bastard.

“It was a big bloody thing as well. I’m glad Bernie was in the car with me as I am sure no one would ever believe me,”

“They’ve been known to write-off motors you know, when involved in head on accidents,” Johnny tells us all.

“Aye, I know, it happened to a boy that used to work with me from Hawick, and very lucky he was himself”

“Did yi hear about the reindeer that didnae like Santa”?

“No”

“He was Claus-traphobic”

“Hey Johnny they better get better than that” Kenny says

“Aye it looks like rein - deer” he nods back and winks at Kenny.

“Right pack it in enough is enough. You’ll have us slitting our wrists just shortly if they get any worse,” I say

“Right wan more.”

We all look at Johnny, “as long as its no about reindeer” George says

“Aye it is, how does Santa make the slow reindeers fast?”

“How”

“He dissnae feed them”

“Right taxi for Park”

We come to a junction, a T-junction on the logging road so I take out my map. This is the point where we will be informed as to what way to go. To the right, climb Conic Hill to Balmaha or to the left, down hill to Balmaha. The Corleone Boys are at the junction and look confused. Their Akeala is reading the sign, looking at the map and then reading the sign again. The other two await his direction keeping an eye on us as we walk down the hill towards them. Also approaching coming up the hill towards us are a family, mum, dad, son and daughter. They look as if they are out for a Sunday walk. The Corleone Boys go left down the hill.

“Ya boy yi” I say to myself, it looks as if the Hill is closed.

The sign read `Conic Hill closed to walkers`. Due to tree felling.

“ I was wanting to go all the way to the top of Conic Hill as well. I’ll just have to come back another day. Three cheers for the tree fellers” I say.

“Aye and I’ll come back with you” George supports me with just a little smirk on his face.

Conic Hill (altitude 361m, or about 1200ft) lies just within the Highland Boundary Fault, and thus counts as the first summit of the Scottish Highlands. The hill has three main tops of which the one to the  north is the highest. The centre and southwestern tops are, more accessible and lie only a couple of hundred feet higher than the path. A  side trail leads up the col between the tops. The view from the southwestern top is the most rewarding, encompassing as it does an uninterrupted view of Loch Lomond. The islands of InchailLoch, Torrinch, Creinch and Inchmurrin appear in line, stretching away across the Loch, and more or less marking the line of the Highland Boundary Fault. The hills around Glen Luss are seen beyond the islands across the Loch.

The view across the central plains of Scotland is also very rewarding. The Kilsyth hills and Campsie Fells, notably Dumgoyne, are seen from the rear, and to the right of these is the Clyde estuary. Looking back east you can see as far as the Lanarkshire plains and to the north, Ben Lomond stands out around ten miles away, while the high mountains around Glen Falloch are seen further on.

 The sun is now showing its face as well. God you are good to me this morning. I start walking on incase anyone suggests that we ignore the sign and go over the hill anyway. No way. Remember rule number one. No walking back. After a couple of minutes I realise that no one is with me. I stop and look back. I see they are talking to the Sunday morning stroll family. They walk on down the hill leaving the family behind. I wait and ask them what was the family’s patter.

“They told us that they had decided to walk up and over Conic Hill (ignoring the sign) and that they had just started the walk this morning an hour earlier and where going all the way to Fort William.” George informs me.

“Are they no the full shilling?” I ask. They will now be known as `the not the full shilling family`.

 I do feel a bit guilty and embarrassed at this point. One because the Conic Hill route is the superior route and also there are two teenage kids away to do a part of the walk that I know would give me a bit of bother, but the sign says `no` and so be it!

We walk on as a group again down hill on a walker’s path that has become very narrow allowing us to walk in Indian file only. Feeling quite pleased now I lead the way in voice as well.

“Falderee, Faldera, Falderee, Faldera-a-a-a-a-a, Falderee, Faldera, with my nap-sack on my back” Its singsong time again. Go for it boys

“I love to go a wandering around Loch Lomondside and as I has go I love to sing with my nap-sack on my back. We are all at it

Falderee, Faldera, Falderee, Faldera-a-a-a-a-a, Falderee, Faldera, with my nap-sack on my back”

We continue our song again and again four times in all not knowing any more words. The Corleone Boys are back, walking up the hill towards us, the singing stops. These boys know how to stop a party. As we approach them the speaker reaches for his inside pocket. Is it a gun, no, more likely to be an autograph book, not bad singers us Spikey Shoe Boys. No he pulls out a map and indicates he is going to say something.

“Where eis thee walk?” he asks.

“Straight ahead” I point in the direction they have come from and we are heading in.

“Why eis this”?

Just as well I am fluent in Italiano/Escocia.

“There is a detour, diversi-on-i,” I tell him.

“Ae deetoor”

“Si” as I said, I speaka da lingo.

“Ae deetoor, what eis that”

“Akeala, explain to the man”

Kenny swiftly takes over. He takes the speakers map from him and draws with his fingers the way they should go, and tries to explain why they have to take this route.

“Not that way, this way” tracing his fingers across the map. “Trees getting chopped down” pointing to Trees and showing a chopping motion, lifting his hand high and making it fall, flat to his side.

“Timber” Johnny shouts. No one ducks.

They say “ok” and walk away in the opposite direction to what we where trying to tell them. That went well I thought. Mental note, remind our Carol to get Kenny an Italian Linguaphone Course for his Christmas.

We carried onward down the hill. From the wood we exited across a park towards the high fence where we crossed the high stile. I assumed all this security was once again to keep the deer away. We decided to stop here so I could remove my waterproofs, it was turning out quite nice now for April, anyway, and spring was in the air for the first time in our walk. We had done about eight miles so far this morning so it was time to have a break and eat the trail food Sherpa James had produced for us. Our elevenses (although it was around mid-day) consisted of two pieces on cold bacon and a couple of mini mars bars. James had broken the bank with this spread and I realised what had happened now to all the bacon that was on the cooker this morning. Kenny is searching through his backpack. He produces one of the seven white pokes. I recognised them straight away.

“Oh you will be in big trouble boy, stealing today’s ration of Tunnocks Caramel Wafers.” I say.

“I’ll suffer the consequences,” he says passing the prized biscuits around for us to enjoy. I actually felt as if I was cheating on James here. Stealing the forbidden fruit, well that days ration anyway.

My phone rings, its Sherpa James, he must be psychic.

“Where are you?” he asks.

“Don’t know, in a park somewhere heading to Balmaha”

“Ah wis in Balma-da and there wisnae any shops, so I have drove all the way back to Dry-men. I was in the shop and bought the carryout and the woman would nae serve me”. I thought you don’t look under age to purchase alcohol and you are sober.

“How’s that” I ask

“They cannae sell it until half twelve” he tells me

I am a silly git. I clean forgot. Me a grocer as well since the day I left school. I had forgot to mention that good old Scots law forbid the sale of alcohol before twelve-thirty on a Sunday. This is a primitive land. I apologised to James for not bringing this to his attention. Being the sober one amongst us James is probably not aware of this.

“That’s alright, I’ll get myself a cup of tea and a read at the papers while I’m waiting. What time will you be in Balma-da at” he asks.

“We are not far away now, we should be there in under an hour. We will see you in the Pub.” I inform him.

“Whit wan? There’s two”

“I haven’t a clue, try them both.”

“Ok, see yiz soon”

“Bye”

The other guys had picked-up on the jist of the conversation.

“Ah telt him this mornin` just to try each pub as he came to it” Johnny said

“Ah, he will find us somehow, just make sure you and George are singing the Sash when going into the pub and me and Kenny will do Danny Boy.”

I packed the waterproofs and hat back into the backpack. A quick swig from the hippy and we where on our way. After three hundred yards we joined a track road used for access I would assume by local farmers and for access to the Garadhban Forest for loggers. This would take us down to the village of Milton of Buchanan and to the main road that we would walk the last mile and a half into Balmaha.

Kenny and George had once again stepped up a gear and walked away from Johnny and myself. The road was quite busy now and for parts we where walking in Indian file and stepping off the road onto the grass verge out of the way of oncoming traffic

“Look at that” Johnny says

“Rich Bastard” I answered

I had seen it all now, a house in the country with your own Pitch and Put course. Now that’s the house that I want.

“And if Carlsberg built houses” I add.

“If we win the lottery Wull, we’ll buy that for use at the weekend. Play Loch Lomond and then back here and have a wee bit of practice on our Pitch`n`Putt course because we played pish that day” Johnny dreams.

“Sounds good John boy”

Walking by the road with Conic Hill to our right. I feel as if I have cheated a bit this morning, but also feel glad that I can use the excuse of “Hill closed due to logging” to justify not doing that part. However I do feel bad. I feel I have cheated all my sponsors. I am sure I will make amends for this. Walk up Ben Nevis? Come on William behave your self. I put the thought at the back of my mind.

We arrive in Balmaha and it looks very quiet. First things first, get a pub with a telly that is showing the football. It’s a one o’clock kick-off I am sure. Kenny and George notice the first building of any great importance. Johnny and myself are about one hundred yards behind them both.  Kenny walks across the road to the Oak Tree Inn. He comes right back out, signaling that there is no telly. Don’t panic. We have now caught up with them as Kenny crosses back over to our side of the road and we all walk about thirty yards farther down. The other pub, The Highland Way is closed and looks as if it will never open, again. Now I panic. You walk ten miles and all you want to do is watch the football on the telly, have a couple of beers, a plate of soup and spend a few hours enjoying the craic discussing the game and football in general. Not today. Well the beer, soup and craic will have to do on their own and it better be good to make up for missing the game. We walk back to the Oak Tree Inn. I think of phoning James and asking him to bring in my radio to the pub. Walker’s etiquette kicks in. I think, that’s not the right thing to do. I know, text alerts on the mobile, good old Orange. Now that’s hard for me to say.

The phone rings. It’s the Sherpa. Great minds think alike, he must be psychic. I don’t think so, coincidence.

“James, how are you”

“Where are yous”?

“In Balmaha, you will get us in the Oak Tree Inn”.

“You’ll never guess what’s happened”

For a moment I cringe, fear the worse,

“What’s happened?” I ask turning to look at the others.

This alerts them, they all stare at me.

“I don’t believe it,” I say. “I don’t bloody believe it”

“You’re ripping the pish now ” I continue “I don’t believe you,”

I listen; the others are desperate to know what is going on. They are showing concern. Kenny is probably thinking life and limb. Johnny is probably thinking, the bastards crashed my van and George is probably thinking, he’s forgot the Gin again.

“Ok, we will get you in the Oak Tree Inn, Cheeri” I switch off the phone.

“What’s up” they all say.

“What’s up, what the fucks up. You’ll never guess what the daft bastard done”

“What”

“Ah cannae tell you, you will all do him in,” I say showing concern for the Sherpas life.

“Whit is it” anxiety is now showing.

“Well the good news is he got the Gin and also another bottle of whisky and vodka just in case he cannot find another shop for a couple of days, the bad news is … he dropped the lot, smashed into hundred pieces.”

George once again looks totally demoralised.

“That’s fuckin hard to believe”

”The daft bastard.” They are all cringing.

“Not to worry lads,” I start to smile. ”Our faithful Sherpa has once again saved the day. He happened to drop them while leaving the store, still on the premises and told the woman at the checkouts, the story of us walking for charity and all that, and she replaced the lot.”

“Good man” they all agree.” Great Sherpa”

“ It is hard to believe right enough,” I add, “Imagine phoning us and telling us as well. If that was me our you, you wouldn’t tell anyone, you would keep it to yourself, wouldn’t you” We have a laugh. I know James is an honest man.

We walk into the Oak Tree Inn, remembering the walker’s protocol; first we look for a walker’s entrance. There’s none, so we march into the bar. There is no one else in the place except for the young lady behind the bar. The first thing I notice is the stone floor, good, suits us walkers and our muddy boots. We all say hello and she returns the greeting. We walk over to the log fire and take a table for four as near to it as we can. The log fire looks great, not quite as good as ours last night at Gartness, but it will do for now. We all take a seat removing our jackets and boots. It’s great to stretch those toes.

“What’s the round?” Kenny asks

“Guinness” that’s me

“Lager” adds Johnny

“And I`m the same” George says, wanting lager.

“Any halves” Kenny asks

“No, not the now” George answers and Johnny reneges as well, as do I.

Kenny returns with the drinks as ordered except with two extra Bunnahabhain`s.

“Here, that’ll warm you up”

“Looks good,” I say

Standing in the shade of a magnificent 500-year-old oak tree, this is what you would call a good-looking pub. It is constructed from locally quarried slate and reclaimed materials throughout. The boards on the wall inform us that bar food is served as well as having an extensive restaurant menu. I see quite a good selection of malts and I am sure Kenny and I will try one or two more before leaving, just in case the Sherpa loses the carry out and after all we are only an hour’s walk up the road to tonight’s digs and on our holidays after all.

Balmaha is situated at the southeast end of Loch Lomond, four miles west of Drymen, with Stirling located thirty miles to the east, and Glasgow thirty-five miles to the South. It has a good sheltered harbour very popular with pleasure boat owners. On summer weekends there may be over 500 boats on the Loch at any one time.

Balmaha would have been an irrelevant staging post on a road to nowhere. This all changed with the popularising of Loch Lomond in the 1800s and today the village remains a focal point for those visiting Loch Lomond's more attractive eastern shore. This is the first time that I have ever been in Balmaha and it is a lot smaller than I had anticipated.The name Balmaha comes from the Gaelic for St Maha's Place which in the 1800s, became a frequent stopping-off point for the steamers which used to sail up and down the Loch for the benefit of day trippers from the nearby towns such as Glasgow. These sadly ceased in the latter part of the 1900s, and Balmaha's steamer pier disappeared in 1971, but pleassure boats can still be found to take the tourists up and down the Loch.

We are all now seated and feeling quite relaxed and still no sign of the Sherpa. Having walked ten miles this morning gave me a feeling of well being, I now felt good about the whole thing, better than I had a mile and half down the road earlier. I did realise however that what we have done so far is by far the easiest part of the way and really is a bit of a country stroll, not taxing at all. I think of Conic Hill again and wonder how I would be feeling now if that was the route that we would have taken. I have yet to feel any sense of great achievement. The only thing I could go home and brag about just now is putting up with Johnny Parks jokes. That’s worth a medal in its self.

“Cheers everybody, that’s the first twenty miles done, just another eighty to go” I say. We all clink our glasses. I do the math in my head. 4/5th still to go, 20% now complete. To hell with Conic Hill.

“Ah that’s good” The Guiness tastes really good. Not being a beer drinker I take a mental note to have no more than two pints. Three pints of Guiness and I`ll be sleeping with the sheep tonight.

The bar quickly fills up, by one o`clock the place is jumping and still no sign of the Sherpa.

“Where do you think the Sherpa is” I ask

“I bet you he will be somewhere having a fish supper or something” says Johnny” Did you notice that he never ate anything in the Cherry Tree Inn or at the campsite last night”

“No I never did” I said

“Aye that’s right “ said Kenny

“Well thats, because he had a fish tea before he met us”

“Och, he`s nothing else to do anyway” George says

“He could get us a fish tea too” I say

At that James walks in the door.

“You’ve had your tea then, havent you” Johnny sounds like an aunty from Edinburgh

“No” James replies, but the smirk gives it away

“ I had a free breakfast at the campsite, this morning” he tells us

“How did you get that” Kenny asks

“ Because Wullie Kerr made such a bloody mess of the shower, I telt the lassie that I would clean it out”

I WAS DEEPLY OFFENDED, cut to the bone.

“What do you mean” I protested

“I cleaned the shower once you had finished with it” James told me, and everyone else within ten feet. As I was the only one who showered this morning, I was the culprit, but of what crime.

“ Ah paid that lassie three pound yesterday, so she would clean the shower after me. You would think we where a shower of clatty Bs the way he is going on”

James is smirkin, that we grin he has, he is taking the piss.

“No I got my breakfast for nothin`, I offered to give the lassie a hand as I had nothing else to do anyway”

Bastard. I thought. I asked him what he wanted to drink and the rest of the crew as well.

“By the way, there is no scoring in the fit`ba. I was listening to it on the wireless in the car” That explains where he has been.

I go to the bar and get the same again plus a Gin for George, his first this weekend, a Vodka and coke for Johnny and a coke for James. But this time I get Kenny and myself a Highland Park, one of my favourites.

“James are you sure you don`t want a fish tea with this coke” I ask

“No I`m fine the now” he says.

The afternoon went on a lot longer in the Oak Tree Inn than what we all had anticipated. This was probably our enviromnment. It`s not out there in `them thar hills`, Its more here, five guys having a laugh, a bit of craic, a few beers and a plate of soup. I did stick to two pints of Guiness though, but had a few halfs. Usquebaugh

Celtic won 2-1, Sutton and Bellamy where the scorers . C`mon the hoops, we will have a bit of fun later on with George and Johnny. Celtic are in the final of the Scottish Cup.

“George, Johnny, do you no fancy doing part of the walk again on the May bank holiday weekend. Oh no, I forgot. Myself, James and Kenny cannot do it that weekend we have the cup final to go to on the Saturday, the week after we win the league” C`mon the hoops.

 We left the pub. Again as at the Cheery Tree Inn the day before we went to the van, parked in the car park at the village tourist information centre and left with the Sherpa anything we didn`t want to carry for the last four miles. Myself George and Johnny left everything and Kenny filled his bag with water for us all and my camera. Life seemed really good. I`ll give Bernie a phone.  Kenny walked towards the shop while Johnny and George fiddled about with bags at the van as I talked to Bernie following Kenny, nothing exciting happening at home but I do like to clock in every day when I `m not there. Bernie had nothing to report, and I told her the story of James and the carry-out. That sounds a bit too much like the title of a book or a film.

`James and the Carry-ott` a Dis-nae classic.

I walk over to the village shop and notice the `Not the full shilling family` coming up the hill towards me. I enter the shop in a hurry, not wanting to see their gaze. I could feel them gloating at us. 

Kenny is in the shop already. A range of facilities are on offer in Balmaha, some specifically catering for the needs of WHW walkers. The village shop carries signs showing it has stocks of blister plasters, socks, knee and ankle supports, waterproofs, midge repellent, sun cream, maps, guide books and much more, your last chance for about thirty miles. I was quite glad that I didn`t need anything for the feet so far. I was told by Michael Mc Laughlan, a good friend that I should have two pairs of socks on when walking. Michael obviously knows more about walking than Politics. An inner pair, very thin and cotton, and an outer pair, thick and warm, made of wool. This prevents friction between sock and foot, therefore no build up of heat and therefore no blisters. So far so good.

“What are you looking for” I ask Kenny

“A Saltire for the tent” he answears. I do believe that Kenny Morgan is a man after my own heart. Alba-gu-Brath.

The others now join us.

“What are you after” They ask

“We are looking for a Saltire to place above the tent” I answear.

I ask the lady serving behind the counter, but all she could give us was a tea towel, with the words of Scotland the Brave.

“No I already know that wan” I tell her

“There was a Karate team in `ear err`li-errr who are doing the West Highland walk and they bought everrrry Scottish flag I `ad” she answered in what seemed to be a south east English accent.

No disrespect to our English neighbours, I have lots of friends and colleagues, good friends too that are English, but it just dosen`t look right, you know. It`s a fat git selling diet sheets.

I wanted to tell her that we have many different types of Scottish flags. But I thought better of it.

“Right James, that’s your next task” Kenny says,” Get us a Saltire to hang from the tent.”

We leave the shop. James heads to the van after he tells us where the campsite is and that he would once again walk out to meet us. It was now late afternoon and what turned out to be a spring afternoon was fast becoming a summers evening. It felt very warm. It was either too much whisky, or the male menapause. I`ll put it down to the male menapause, it certainly wasn`t the Scottish summer.

We headed off once again the four of us together. Four Amigos, comrades, buddies or pals. I thought of one of my poems, it`s the whisky that does it honest;

A friend they will find me
And know what I need
I shouldn’t have a worry because they will allay my fear
I say to myself, will they be there when it gets tough
I hope so

We all felt good at this point. I could tell. Life felt good. We walked along the road past the marina bearing off to our left to climb Craigie Fort. Our task now was to complete the remaining four miles to Cashel. This would take us over Cragie Fort towards Arrochymore Point, through Millarochy and Strathcashel to Cashel. Not bad for an early evening stroll.

 This was it. The walk now started in earnest. What we had done so far was good in the manner that it had broke us in. Twenty miles is more than enough to stiffen up any weak or failing muscles. I thought that if I ever do this again I would walk from Milngavie to Balmaha in one day. I now realised that this was possible. When planning the walk my idea was to break us in gently. But pounding the streets of Calderbank and Chapelhall had played its part, it served me well anyway. I hope the last two days had also played its part and prepared me for the remaining 4/5th of the walk that has still to be done. I may say, this is where the gloves come off. Welcome To Loch Lomond.

From Balmaha the Way strikes north for a short distance along the Rowardennan road before turning left alongside the headland of Craigie Fort. The route ascends the wooded hillock at the centre of the headland. This was it my first real climb, although it only lasts for about five minutes the climb to the top of Craigie Fort is steep, basically straight up for about thirty metres. My legs felt this climb. There is any number of side paths on the hilltop and it matters little which one you take. I realised this on the way down and give Kenny a hard time for taking us to the top, as this was not necessary to complete the walk. However this was in jest, the views from the top of Craigie Fort are quite spectacular and having seen them I would have been disappointed to miss it out.

From here I get a view of what really lies ahead of us over the rest of today and for tomorrow. One that is very noticeable is the tree line ends at the shoreline for all of what I can see. According to the map we will be walking mostly along the shoreline although we are given a choice for part of the way between Rowardennan and Inversnaid. As I cannot see any visible path this makes me wonder, what lies ahead. I keep this moment to myself; I look ahead on my own standing away from the others. I was toiling to climb this small hillock and had held my rosaries in my hand all the way up asking God to get me to the top. I say to myself, what are you all about; there will be harder climbs than this. I hadn’t even noticed this climb on the map when I was marking out my demons. I will do this. I think my reward is what I see in front of me and if I get a view like this at the end of every climb I can say the heart attack was worth it. I have never seen Loch Lomond from its eastern shores and I had realised now what I had been missing. No wonder you never hear of anyone talking about this side of the Loch, they all obviously want to keep it a secret.

Kenny shouts at me to turn around, I do and he snaps the camera. As Kenny was the only one again to bring his backpack I ask him for my camera. It was all I wanted to carry for the remainder of the day and Kenny put it in his bag for me. I notice my Olympus Trip is not looking too healthy all of a sudden. The lens is shaking loose from the camera body. This is the first time I have used this camera in about six years. I hope the pictures I take and the ones I took earlier work out. This is something else I better take care of just in case. Get another camera at the first opportunity. I notice from this point that the land around the lower reaches is gentle and fertile. The Loch itself is wide, and I am told that it is fairly shallow at most places. I notice some of its Islands one being a reputed Nudist Colony. I see it all from here marsh, shingle, woodland, arable land, mountain and moor. A place full of wonder.

We all head down the hill back on to the shore. My phone beeps, a message.

“It’s todays song guys, from Tam” I tell them. They wait to see what it is;

“Take a walk on the wild side” the Lou Reed classic.

“Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side” Kenny automatically sings the first line of the chorus.

“Dorup, do, dorup, do dorup da, do dorup do dorup dorup da” I am on the chorus. Only Kenny and myself singing this one, George and Johnny probably don’t know it.

“Ah the Rangers end don’t know this one” Kenny says.

“If you played a walking tune on a flute I’d bet the two of them would know it alright and march all the way to Fort William,” I said.

 I started humming the Sash. Johnny and George were with me in no time and Kenny in front started to swing his imaginary stick

“Deedle, didle, deedle, didle dum, deedle, didle deedle di, dum” We marched together playing our imaginary flutes, no stopping us now. Instead of walking through the Western Highlands we are heading down the Garvaghy Road. Is this the first ever-Orange Walk on the WHW?

  It’s not soon before Kenny and George are marching on in front of Johnny and myself. The band has petered out.

“Do we smell Johnny”? He looks at me

“They two, they’ve hardly stood beside us all day, always wanting to be away in front. I am sure Morgan’s got a half bottle he doesn’t want to share”.

I take out my hippy and take a swig and pass it onto Johnny. He gratefully accepts and finishes what little is left.

“I’m a bit worried about James, “ I say to Johnny

“In what way?”

“Well I know tonight it want be an issue building the tent and getting it up as we will all be able to help once again, and there is no sign of rain (I count my blessings) but what happens if it is pouring rain. We wouldn’t be able to get the tent up. However if James had someone else with him he could always have the tent pitched at the earliest opportunity to avoid any rain and also have the dinner cooked for us arriving.” I say

“ Och, you don’t really know that” Johnny says,” It could rain all day just the same and you could have ten Sherpas and they still wouldn’t get the tent up.”

“I ah suppose your right, but I do think it would be best for James if he did have someone with him.”

“Aye, ah suppose so”

“I think we will call El Presidente and get him up here. You know we will get a bit of a laugh as well if he’s about”

“Aye you’re right, is he no working”

“Well I know he is working this weekend night shift as that’s how he couldn’t come in the first place, but I am sure he has four days off from Tuesday so he can come up and join us and at least James will have someone to give him a hand or stop him from dropping carry-outs from Tuesday or Wednesday onwards. We only need to pray that it doesn’t piss down with rain when we are building the tent on Monday or Tuesday.”

“ Aye yir right, we’ll gie him a phone when we get to the campsite. James can go back down the road and pick him up,” Johnny agrees.

Heading north from Craigie Fort we start walking on a rocky footpath around the Loch shore. It moves from shore to woods. As we make our way around Milarrochy Bay, this part is by road and again can be quite dangerous as people travel to and from the various campsites on this part of the Loch by car. The Way descends northwards to reach the Loch side once more. We are now within the locality of Arrochy, consisting of Arrochymore (Great Arrochy), Arrochybeag (Little Arrochy) and at Milarrochy we come across a private campsite and take this opportunity to use their loos and get rid of the rest of that beer we had earlier.   I think that this is very posh for a campsite in Scotland and compared it to the high standard that we had found in earlier trips to holiday campsites in France. Further along we once again have a small climb, not to taxing as we cut straight across Strathcashell point and climb the sizeable hillock of Cnoc Buidhe and then down onto the road at Cashell Farm. Standing beside the dry stane dyke at the roads edge James is waiting. `Cashel` is engraved in the dyke. Its good to be home for the day. We walk along the road for the remaining one hundred yards to the campsite. James informs us he has booked us in as well as ordered us breakfast in the campsite café in the morning. There is no mention of dinner.

The campsite is owned by the Forestry Commission and for what I can see looks in good nick and is well looked after. This is the sort of place I would come back to with Bernie and a few friends. It is not busy, a few caravans and no tents. The campsite is on the Lochs edge and is quite heavily wooded. With the surrounding hills you get the feeling of wilderness. I do believe however that later on in the year at the height of summer it may not be as pretty as it fills up with caravans, campers and tents and as the temperatures rise it looks like a great breeding ground for the dreaded midges. Certainly a lot better than the cow’s park we had stayed in at Gartness the previous night.  The van is parked at our designated pitch. It was decided that we all batter into getting the tent up and George informs us he has tonight’s menu all taken care of. Tinned tatties and corned beef it sounds good. In no time at all we were all sitting down and enjoying a hearty meal.

The bar was open.

“What kind of lemonade is that?” George asks. Obviously being a Gordon’s Gin drinker George was also very fussy as to what he would add to it. James had managed to get the cheapest variety of lemonade he could possibly find. The kind that we use in the shop to take stubborn marks off the tiled floors. Again George was not too happy but I sensed he would slum it for one night only.

“No coke” Johnny shouts” “Ah don’t believe it” another unhappy customer.

“Where’s the nearest shop Kenny” Johnny asks Kenny as if he is the font of local knowledge. The campsite shop was now closed, so other than chapping the doors of neighbouring caravaners Johnny would have to find a shop that sells coke or go dry tonight.

“You have two choices, go back to Balmaha or go forward to the Rowerdennan Hotel, they are both about the same distance from here.” Kenny informs him.

“Right Jamesie boy, are you driving”

My guess is they will go to the hotel. Johnny and James head off in pursuit of coke and decent lemonade for tonight’s aperitifs. I take the opportunity of some peace and quiet and climb into the sleeping quarters and have `a wee half hour in the shawl`. An hour later I am wakened with my phone ringing. As I answer it all I hear is;

”Another pint barman”. I knew it. He went to the hotel and is now phoning to gloat.

“Myself and James are just staying here tonight”

“You’re kidding me on”

“Aye, ah thought ah wid just phone and let you know that we are sitting here, on my third pint and, as warm as toast in front of this big log fire and watching the football on the telly.” 

“Is it the highlights on Setanta you’re watching?” referring to todays match.

“No it’s Brazilian `fitba` on satellite. I’ve got you a surprise”

“What is it”?

“You’ll see soon enough. We will see you shortly” Why do I think of plastic blow-up sheep at this point.

“Good man, cheeri”.

 I switch the phone off and climb out the tent. George and Kenny are supping a Miller and George asks me if I want one. I accept and he pulls one from what seems to be out of fresh air and hands me it open. I tell them about Johnny’s phone call.

“As long as I get decent lemonade”

“You’re just not getting a Gin at all,” Kenny replies to George.

We again have a laugh about James earlier call regarding his mishap with the carry out and I tell them both that I am going to phone Peter and ask him to come up and join us to help out Sherpa James. I am sure Peter will be more than happy to do this. If he says no we will threaten to vote him off as President of the Spikey Shoe Golf Society.

In no time Johnny and James return. Johnny is a man bearing gifts. George is handed six cans of Barr’s lemonade, none better. I have been given two surprises not one. The first is a bag of ice, “Good man“ I say. I do like my whisky on the rocks. The second surprise is a post card. It’s a picture of a lone walker standing with his arms by his side looking forward, away from the camera wearing shorts, a tee shirt and a bonnet.

“Ah saw that and a thought of you, look at it, it’s your spit”

“No its no” I answer. This now causes a stir the others are curious as to what the guy in the picture looks like. Considering you cannot see his face you wander where the resemblance is.

Kenny laughs as he looks at it “Willie no pals right enough”

“The only thing that boy hasn’t got Wullie is your daft looking hat” Johnny points out.

I am cut to the bone.

The rain starts, it’s only drizzle, but we decide not to sit about in it and move our chairs inside. We do manage to get the five chairs as well as ourselves into what we now call the lounge, the central section of the tent that separates the two rooms or inner tents. I realise its seven thirty and Peter will be leaving soon to go out to his night shift, I decide to phone him now. He answers.

“Hello, El Presidente, how are you doing” Peter recognises my voice and asks us how we are all doing. I tell him briefly that so far so good, that we haven’t managed to get lost and there is no damage been done. I ask him if he would care to come and join us on Tuesday after his night shift. He said he might not make Tuesday but will certainly be there by Wednesday. He sounded really excited about getting the chance to come along and join us. It was Peter’s intention to do the walk with us but he couldn’t get the holidays from work. I didn’t explain to him the problems we were faced with at this point with regards to getting the tent built. I will do that again before he comes up or when he arrives. All sounds good now. We will have another Sherpa on board by Wednesday at the latest.

We now got down to some serious craic. The patter was good and Johnny’s jokes where fast, furious and occasionally good. It had been a long day, but very enjoyable. The weather was very kind to us and the extended stop in Balmaha was now beginning to tell on us, as the beers we started on at twelve thirty had suddenly caught up with the halves from seven thirty onwards. Gibbering was the state of play, with the exception of the Sherpa. We do need someone to look after us after all. There is really something great about sitting in a tent and the rain pouring down outside.

“When is the next outing” George asks James.

“Right I must put my foot down now” Kenny says. “I will listen to all your crap jokes your moans about sore feet, even the rubbish you spout about Rangers, but I am not going to sit and listen to you all ranting on about Golf. I hate Golf”

“Aye, I am glad you managed to get that off your chest Kenny” I say

“No, I agreed on one condition that I would do this only if no one would talk about golf”

“But Wullie can only talk about it as he canny play it” Johnny says. Bastard.

“Right, fairs, fair” George acts as the referee. “The man hates golf, so don’t let us bore the arse off him”

“ Ah hate Golf too,” I confess to the world, mea culpa, mea culpa, me a maxima culpa.

The chat then returns to `fitba`. Now there is only so much you can talk about when it comes to football when there is three Celtic supporters and two Rangers supporters. In fact some people would say Rangers supporters aren’t capable of talking about football, as they never see any at Ibrox. It always ends in an argument, with this crowd anyway.

“What’s your favourite biscuit?” I ask them all. They look at me as if I `m half daft.

“What`s your favourite biscuit?” I ask again.

George,” Tunnocks caramel wafers”

Kenny,” Tunnocks caramel wafers”

Johnny,” Tunnocks caramel wafers”

Me,” Tunnocks caramel wafers”

“Has anybody ate a Tunnocks Caramel Wafer the day?”

“No me”, No me”, “No me”, “No me” myself, George, Kenny and Johnny.

“Have you James,” I ask.

The look of guilt and shame he cannot hide

“Aye, I had one earlier” James informs us all.

“Oh, you had wan earlier, and where you planning on offering any us wan”

“You just cannot get good Sherpas in this day and age,” I say

“Well that’s it James, you’ve had half of your ration for today. Where are the rest of them”? George points out to us all.

“Can you no just say, gie me a biscuit James” James asks.

“James give us a biscuit,” Kenny asks

“I’ll get you a biscuit Kenny” James says moving out the tent in the pissin rain.

“Can you get me two” George says.

“And me”

“And me”

“And me”.

We tuck into our daily ration of Tunnocks caramel wafers. James hasn’t yet noticed that there is one white poke less. Kenny’s got away with it. I am sure he will go for two on the trot tomorrow.

We carry on until ten o’clock. Even with my half hour in the shawl earlier I am very tired. George calls for bed first and again Johnny shouts ditcher. Tonight we have two. I climb into the sleeping bag once again, and thank God for getting us past day two. The rain is now pounding off the tent. I am asleep in no time.


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