By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes
Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond
Where we two have passed so many blithesome days
On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.
– Frank Ticheli (1841)
After packing everything heavy we had into our holdall for APS to schlep to Rowardennan Youth Hostel, we picked up steak and haggis pies from the butcher, stuck them in our now cavernously empty rucksacks and set off de bon heure into the cool air, birdsong and peace of the Stirlingshire morning. There was a shortcut that one might choose first thing, a road walk, but we both felt that what we need in our lives right now is more hill and less road. We set off, sneaking leftward glances to the hills where we were headed.
I say hills, but really it was one: Conic Hill, a conical lump (although not the reason for the hill’s name, which comes from the Gaelic word for moss, coinneach).
It starts off as a weathered sandstone slope through which runs a mountain stream,
and then becomes a rugged lump of much harder conglomerate, a very visible change underfoot on the path.
There is a respectable climb up around the shoulders of the hill giving fabulous forward views out over Loch Lomond – at 39km long, the largest body of water in the UK. It is situated on the Highland Boundary Fault which separates the Lowlands from the Highlands. The geological sandstone/conglomerate split of Conic Hill lies exactly on this Fault.
Before we reached Conic Hill, though, we had to walk in to it through the Garadhban Forest, where the Trail passes through cleared low hillside with a good degree of natural regen. At this time in the morning many of the groups of walkers were bunched up, and we overtook the couple with their little spaniel, and a number of German families, couples and friends. Throughout the day we encountered very many overseas visitors, all hugely appreciative of the Scottish landscape.
As we climbed we temporarily lost the views but gained some (to me) interesting local wildflowers, some little orchids and the first ragged robin we have seen.
It felt fabulous getting our muscles back working again walking uphill. We stopped to watch a harrier hovering absolutely still high above the marshy land below Conic Hill. It stooped twice, the second time precipitously, all the way down to land on something in the heather. The views now opened up fully to the north away beyond the top of Loch Lomond to Ben More and its associated hills, which lie between us and Crianlarich, tomorrow’s destination. For today we would break our journey at the youth hostel halfway up the Loch.
We had most of the walk up and the top to ourselves, but as we came down we met masses of day-trip walkers coming up the other side from the Balmaha visitor centre. Their ascent was much harder than ours: we had had a gentle slope relatively speaking, whereas they had had a real pull-up, much of it very rocky, over conglomerate boulders. The hillside in places has taken a real beating and the path has become meters wide.
A party of young teenagers on a school trip was accompanied by some very patient teachers. They were not very far up the hill and the party was quite strung out, the positive ones at the front, up for it, some manicured ones in the middle with immaculate white fashion trainers, and the stragglers and calculating martyrs near the back, very unhappy to be forced to climb this enormous mountain (361m).
In front of the visitor centre with its coach park was a terrific coffee emporium: St Mocha. The barista fixed us a couple of jolts of caffeine to supplement the porridge pot we had had in the breakfastless Clachan Inn this morning.
The door handles were repurposed from countertop espresso machines, and the doors were papier mâchéd with original correspondence pertaining to the Balmaha marina.
The significant climb out of the way, the West Highland Way now took us on a winding journey along the shores of the bonnie bonnie banks. Although the rest of the day was entirely along the lake shore, it felt very varied, with remote beaches, mostly deserted but sometimes with fishing boats, or groups of students learning to canoe,
picturesque meanders around rocky sections of the shoreline,
or inland through varied woodland in which the bluebells of the Scotland spring mixed with the honeysuckle of its summer.
On its Loch Lomond page, Plantlife comments on the important variety of mosses and lichens in the local area, with evocative names such as ‘lungwort lichens, flaky freckle-pelt, sea-storm lichen, Norwegian specklebelly, Hutchins’ hollywort, juniper prongwort and MacKay’s pouncewort’ – I am absolutely no expert on mosses and lichens but it was good to know they were out there.
It was a dense, sunlit world of oak and silver birch, the saplings festooned with honeysuckle, and everything on the floor of the wood covered in thick mounds of damp moss.
Over and between everything lay a permanent chorus of liquid birdsong. A young thrush hopped along the path in front of us with a huge worm in its beak.
Other parts of the woodland felt more architectural, with huge displays of ferns, one growing on every moss-covered rotting stump.
Yew trees wrapped around the contours of the ground
sometimes losing the battle.
Oaks down by the water seemed more successful in adapting to the shoreline washing away beneath them, becoming testimony to a ground level now just a memory in air.
The loch mostly reflected the overcast sky in shades of beautiful pale grey, throwing attention onto the shapes of trees
and on tree-framed views through to the water.
Around 1 o’clock, patches of sun transformed the surface, and we dropped down to eat our pies, perched on rocks on the pebbly foreshore. A troop of ducks were resting there, beaks buried in the feathers on their backs, and with the water lapping and the warmth of the sun, it felt incredibly restful and restorative.
Finally, the end of this 24km day took us in to the YHA hostel at Rowardennan through classically beautiful Caledonian woodland, with ferns, heather and bilberry growing above the moss and wood sorrel on the woodland floor. Birch saplings colonised the mid layer above the ferns, and Scots pines rose over everything, reaching up towards the patches of blue in the sky.
As my brother said this morning when I sent him a photograph, “this is the raspberry sauce on the Mr Whippy of your walk. Only the flake to go!” This is the penultimate section of our long journey, and around the corner, in just a few days now, is the Highland Finale: Rannoch Moor, Glen Coe, Torridon, Loch Maree and Flow Country. The chocolate flake indeed.
Today’s mystery plants